29 September 2014

On Professing Someone who does not Desire it

[[Hi Sister Laurel. Did your Bishop desire you to become a diocesan hermit? Is it possible that a Bishop would ASK someone to petition to be accepted as a diocesan hermit? I have read that a Bishop might desire this for the diocese and could do so even if the individual is not interested in becoming a diocesan hermit. Does this happen? A lot?]]

I think that I have been asked something similar before. If so this answer may repeat some of my earlier answer. Please check through the labels (below and to the right) so see if other posts also speak to these questions. (Actually I am now fairly certain I have done so some time last year or so; I would suggest looking under the labels authentic and inauthentic eremitism and/or abuses of canon 603 to find related posts.)

The idea of someone becoming a diocesan hermit simply because a bishop personally desires it is VERY unlikely! Moreover, the notion that a bishop would desire someone to do this even if they do NOT feel called to it themselves is even more completely unlikely --- not least because it is a silly and at least potentially, a seriously destructive way to proceed with regard to this specific vocation. (Actually, it's not a particularly desirable or edifying way to proceed with any vocation (consider marriage undertaken in this way for a great sense of SOME of the problems involved), but I would argue it is especially undesirable and disedifying with eremitical life!) Bishops, while they might say to someone, "Have you ever considered becoming a priest or religious (including a diocesan hermit), etc?" do not tend to ask someone out of the blue to consider becoming a diocesan hermit; it is altogether too rare, too significant, and too different from the way most folks are brought to wholeness and holiness --- which really means too different from the way human beings ordinarily learn to love and achieve genuine integration and individuation.

A candidate for profession and consecration really MUST have the sense that God is calling them to this and they must be able to make a convincing case of that for the diocese and bishop before being admitted to profession. More, I think the individual MUST take the initiative in this. It cannot be the decision of a director, et al to discern or seek this on behalf of another, nor can a person legitimately or validly approach profession while saying, "I am doing this because my Bishop desires it!" Thus I would have to say the most a Bishop can do (if he even has the opportunity, which is hard to imagine) is to say, "Your life strikes me as implicitly eremitical; why don't you pray and do some studying about the matter of vocation as a diocesan hermit? I will do the same."

I am not sure I understand the part of the question about desiring this for the diocese, or at least, it seems a little "off" to me. I suppose it reminds me of the practice once common in old English gardens; on large estates, no estate garden was complete without its ornamental "hermit". Of course I believe that a diocesan hermit is a gift to her parish and diocese and that that indicates that God has graced the life of these with an eremitical vocation, but it is not as though one can say, "Hmmm, I want some of THESE graces for the diocese so I will ask so-and-so to become a diocesan hermit!" Graces are shared manifestations of God's very self, not bits of "stuff" that can be separated off from the living God and stored up or parceled out or anything similar. The Holy Spirit works in individual lives in all kinds of ways and it is this active presence we call grace; when a diocese recognizes and affirms an eremitical vocation of course I think that is wonderful, but one cannot simply make someone a hermit (or ask them to become one!) because one would like "the graces associated with this" or something. That smacks more of the shopping network than (attention to) the work of the Holy Spirit.

Having said that though, let me also say I wish dioceses were more knowledgeable about and more open to the eremitical vocations in their midst. For instance, where I live there are any number of elderly people who live physically solitary and intensely prayerful lives who might well have eremitical vocations that could serve both the parish and the diocese as a whole as lives of real marginality, chronic illness, poverty, etc are radically transformed, consecrated in a public way, and set before the faith community as paradigms of the truth that God alone suffices. While such lives are (and would remain) marginal in the ways the world measures things they would assume a public place and role right in the very heart of the Church and be a resource even these individuals themselves never imagined. Their illnesses don't need to be healed, their poverty relieved, or their marginality eased as part of this radical transformation. Instead these things would be redeemed by God's consecration of them and made infinitely meaningful pointers to (sacramentals of) a joy and significance which goes beyond anything our world ordinarily imagines them to be or mediate. But, let me be clear, I do not mean that every elderly or chronically ill person should do this as a hermit much less as a diocesan hermit; still, I believe that dioceses have greater numbers of potential hermits living within them than they might realize --- genuine eremitical vocations which are already an unrecognized grace to parishes and dioceses but whose potential meaningfulness and fruitfulness is yet unknown to the local (or the universal) Church.

You ask if a Bishop can profess (and eventually consecrate) someone who does not wish this. The answer is simply NO --- at least not if he is acting responsibly and in a truly pastoral way (I am assuming he is!). As noted above, I wonder if such a profession is even canonically valid in such a case. As I have written many times here, ecclesial vocations are mutually discerned. One cannot proclaim oneself a religious or a consecrated person via a private dedication (that way lies self-delusion and pretense) nor can the Church profess and consecrate someone either against their will nor unless that person is also genuinely convinced this is the will and call of God for them. To attempt to do so is to sin against conscience and possibly involves one in a kind of sacrilege as one demeans not only a particular vocation but the entire rite of profession/consecration.

There is a strain in hagiographical writing which focuses on the unwillingness of individuals to embrace vocations to religious life and/or priesthood. It has sometimes tended to validate discernment of vocations --- a kind of psychologically and spiritually naive, "Well I know I didn't want this so it must be God's will" kind of thing. (It can sometimes be used to underscore a skewed notion of obedience and quasi-humility in a kind of martyred, "Well, the idea really is unpleasant for me but if my Bishop desires it, then I'll do it!" But in point of fact, we know that this is really not the way vocations generally work; radical conversion, perhaps to an extent --- at least in the beginning --- but vocations? Not really. The deeper and more compelling dynamic in vocations is always a deep attraction or yearning.  (By the way, I understand it is a bit false and impossible to tease vocation and conversion apart from one another in this way, but it is necessary in this context.) With the eremitical vocation, if one does not truly have the sense it is the way to human wholeness and holiness for them, if, that is, one does not really believe God is calling one to this as an amazing grace which redeems their lives and is a way of being there for others, and especially if one says, "No! This is NOT for me; I don't want this, it is even a bit repugnant to me!" then it is NOT their vocation!

Vocations are not a way we simply come to terms with God's will, especially with a grudging, foot-dragging, half-hearted,"Oh-all-right-I'll-go-along-with-this" acquiescence. Vocations are the deeply joy-filled ways we cooperate with God's life within us and our world. They make us profoundly happy and fulfilled in a way which sustains us in even the most painful situations which still befall us. This profound happiness or joy shines through even in the darkness; more it (and the call it stems from) is the ground which sustains one at these times. There is a great difference between someone who bitches and moans about how awful their life is, how difficult or arduous their vocation, how much pain they are in, how routinely rejected they are, or how endlessly God tests them --- who then ends this grim disquisition with the postscript, "God is love; how I love to do God's will!" and the person whose main life-theme is a deep joy while very real pain, difficulty, or rejection experienced are merely subtexts! Vocations are demanding realities, but they are not difficult in themselves. What I mean is that they present us with difficulties and may trouble us at times in heart and mind, but of themselves, they are a joy and gift which makes all the rest shine with the radiance of God.

The notion that a vocation (meaning here a vocational path like religious life) can be used to hide profound human unhappiness and dysfunction is something we are all the more sensitive to today. We know more clearly than we have ever known that this must NEVER be the case. After all, every vocation is a call to authentic, exhaustively loving and generous humanity. A vocational path must surely be a means to this. In referring to hiding profound unhappiness or dysfunction then, I am not speaking about dealing appropriately (and privately) with the more normal times of depression, mental illness, etc which can afflict every human life. I am speaking about covering profound unhappiness and personal dysfunction with the trappings of a vocation. That strain of hagiographical writing I spoke of earlier has provided some with the grounds for this misguided approach. So has the notion of higher vocations and a tendency to absolutely separate the supernatural from the natural, the eternal from the temporal, or the divine from the human. In eremitical life this tendency becomes even more acutely dangerous because for most people living in solitude is itself dysfunctional and can be used to escape or run from the demons which inhabit every human heart. It can be used to make of the hermitage an escape from the whole of God's good creation and the requirements of a heart which is only purified in loving and being loved by God and others. To profess and consecrate someone who is really profoundly unhappy and may be even MORE profoundly unhappy (and increasingly dysfunctional) in solitude is a serious failure in charity.

Postscript: (I forgot to answer this part of your question)

About whether or not my Bishop desired me to become a diocesan hermit I have to say I don't really know. Certainly I believe he had discerned this was what God was calling me to. Similarly I believe he discerned it was a gift to my parish, the diocese, and even to the wider Church. Finally I don't think he did something he did not desire to do in this, but at the same time, I don't usually think in terms of what Archbishop Vigneron desired or did not desire. This is important because if my eremitical life is a matter of discernment then many niggling questions and problems melt away with profession and consecration. If it had merely been something my Bishop (and I!) desired, then it actually raises questions, creates difficulties, and certainly it would heighten the niggling questions that would have remained on the day of profession. Let me know if you want me to say more about this.

26 September 2014

Third Day of Retreat: Question On Matters of Focus

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, If you are on retreat how can your attention be focused outward to "the wider world" as you recently wrote? That's not my idea of retreating!]]

 Well,  you are entirely correct that some of my attention has been so focused and that is mainly because of two things: 1) my heart is profoundly engaged here and that naturally includes people who enrich my life by loving me and allowing me to love them, and 2) this is a natural rhythm for me at this time. I can certainly focus inward and there are times that I have done and in fact must do that to the exclusion of really thinking much about people outside the hermitage (or my room here at the mission), but going on retreat is a sort of paradoxical reality for me. It is a time when I leave the hermitage, meet and interact on  a limited basis with others, worship with those I don't really know (yet), and to a very limited degree when I am out of my room and somewhere else in the mission, answer occasional questions about this vocation, my own ties to Franciscanism and my journey from there to Diocesan Eremitical life and Camaldolese Benedictinism. While my time here is no different from the annual retreat taken by any religious, whether ministerial or not, it is the case that it is a bit more relaxed in some ways (not least that I can check email at noon time if I choose to and read questions like yours!) and that it frees me from some everyday concerns which are part and parcel of my life at Stillsong. Still, it is very much retreat time and I will do my best to simply allow it to be what God wills and thus, what I need it to be (and vice versa!).

Perhaps the first reading from today's liturgy captures this sense of rhythm and the appropriateness of flexibility best (it was because of this that I actually chose to answer your question today rather than next week some time): [[To everything there is a Season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. . . .a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces. . . .A time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away. . . .a time to be silent, and a time to speak. . . .He has made everything appropriate to its time, and has put the timeless into [our] hearts]]

You see, I understand retreat as a privileged time to honor what is in my heart because the heart is that place within me where God bears witness to Godself. I do that by allowing myself to be taken hold of by what dwells therein in ways which may differ from when I am home. The different context assures that I perceive things from a different perspective because different things trigger meaningful associations for me and because it is all differently illuminated. I hear texts and prayers proclaimed or recited with new voices and so, in new ways. Similarly, I am vulnerable in different ways, that is, all of this and more serves to open my heart in fresh and surprising ways to our living God who is always new. 

You must admit that superficially at least there is a bit of irony or something just a little "mind-bending" in the idea of a hermit "going on retreat". In any case it hardly makes sense to go from "sitting in one's 'cell'" to sitting in another one and paying for the privilege of doing so --- unless, of course, there is something meaningfully new or different about the situation. You see, most people take retreats to break from their usual surroundings. It's important to do this and I do the same. What may be a bit different is that where "retreat" in the mind of most folks implies a move from busyness or routine that militates against prayer, from the world of noise that prevents silence, from relative superficiality, and so forth, in order to turn or return to God at a greater depth, for me it does not mean these things, at least not generally. (I can certainly relate to the need to move from a routine that can become stultifying or at least less than helpful sometimes in terms of prayer, and also to becoming caught up in some forms of busyness! I can also relate to the need to respond to God more deeply at almost any time or place so retreat does mean an opportunity for that for me.)

But for me retreat generally means an opportunity to take a step back and look at my everyday life from a new vantage point. (It is amazing the way daily struggles and the battles with the demons of our own hearts become less huge and intransigent when one can do this.) Of course it does mean taking time apart from directees and some limited parish commitments, but above all it means providing a new space  in which my heart can breath according to a different time signature and be stretched and sing itself in a new key. In that way I gain more perspective on living my life and hear more clearly the song I am called to be --- free of the muddle and  facile embellishments which sometimes accrue to and detract from it.. When I return home from retreat, I tend to see everything there with fresh eyes and a more truly grateful heart as well. In any case, retreat provides me with the opportunity to better honor all the ways God bears witness to Himself within my own heart.

25 September 2014

On Belonging vs Fitting In

One of the questions I get asked in various ways has to do with "fitting in". Some wonder if a hermit could really fit in with other parishioners, and, if the hermit is a consecrated hermit with public vows, if they can fit in with lay people. Recently the question came up in a rather humorous way when one blogger opined that perhaps it is harder for a hermit to "fit in" if no one knows she is a hermit; if, the blogger suggested, one is known to others as a hermit then folks can accommodate her a little better; one wondered if this meant making allowances for the hermit's  eccentricities (it sounded that way to me); it certainly meant, as was explicitly suggested, that folks could consider the hermit's "differences" to be part and parcel of belonging to a different vocational category within the Church. In any case what was at least implicit in all of the comments I read, including these, was the fact that this blogger believed hermits are really kind of strange folks who are different from ordinary people and really do not "fit in" unless helped along in some significant way! So, last Friday as I was having coffee with some of the folks who attend daily Mass and get together on Fridays after the service, I asked if they had been accommodating me (cutting me some slack was the way I put it) for the past seven or eight years because they know I am a diocesan hermit! This got a great and gratifying round of laughter. One person pointed out she thought it was often the other way around! And of course the mutuality of all this is exactly the point (more about that later!).

The question of "fitting in" is a serious one and though I am speaking mainly about hermits here this is true for everyone. In this blogger's piece (and others written in the same vein), being a hermit is also linked to the idea that stands on the other end of the "fitting in "pendulum, namely, the idea not that a hermit is eccentric and needs to be accommodated for her various personal quirks and deficiencies, but that they are spiritually superior in some way. (Of course the two could -- and in this same blogger's view --- do coincide if the hermit is given to unusual "spiritual" experiences AND thought she was somehow superior because of this.)

A corollary for those holding this side of the question (the hermit is spiritually superior)  is the suggestion that a parish is no fit place for religious or even lay hermits whose primary community would ordinarily be the parish. This is supposedly so because of the (mistaken) notion that a parish is tailored to the lowest spiritual denominator or is a place where folks don't want "more" or are not particularly hungry for the nourishment of the Gospel and a serious spirituality. While it IS true that not everyone attending necessarily wants what is offered and some are definitely only nominal Christians, I don't think we can draw such simplistic conclusions, especially when they are given a kind of Gnostic or elitist cast. In that case, the question can be an even more seriously misguided one than the notion of parishes accommodating the supposed weirdnesses of individual hermits! Both conclusions build on stereotypes and both mistake the place and the challenge of any Christian in a faith community. After all, life in community of ANY sort but especially that of Christian community is not primarily about "fitting in" but BELONGING and making others aware that they too belong or are welcome to belong. Again, this is, of course, true for anyone --- not just hermits.

My own sense is that truly "fitting in" is a function of and always follows belonging, not (at least in an authentically Christian community!) the other way around!  It occurs to me that when we think about the ways of the Kingdom vs the ways of " the world" we really are talking about which of these terms has priority, fitting in or belonging. In the Kingdom one belongs because God has freely invited, initiated, and welcomed one into the Kingdom; God has, in the process, changed the way we think, feel, perceive and relate to reality --- especially to others we might otherwise consider different, "alien," or strangers -- but we ALL belong because God has welcomed us.

The change that occurs in us then, it seems to me, has occurred through our belonging -- belonging to God, to one another, and no longer exclusively to ourselves. A Kingdom identity is familial; it is rooted in a love which embraces all differences and diversity. How often does Paul speak about this to his troublesome Corinthian community? But putting the accent on "fitting in," making that a precondition for belonging is a matter of what ancient writer would call "worldly thinking." It is other things too: elitist, self-aggrandizing or arrogant (one's own nature, attributes, preferences, etc are made the criterion for approval of others; if they are not like you, then woe in the form of a blackball unto them), and of course it is selfish, exclusionary, uncharitable, unjust (remember that love does justice!)  and simply contrary to the Gospel Jesus proclaimed with his life, sinful death, resurrection and ascension.

In some ways, although belonging is a gift we give to and receive from others, belonging is more challenging than fitting in. Belonging is deeply and personally costly, fitting in is less so. The expense of fitting in is altogether more superficial and less personally demanding (costly) --- unless of course we are speaking of the costliness of losing our true selves and embracing our false selves. When we belong it is our whole selves that are implicated, not a single set of interests or values, for instance. When we affirm another as belonging we open ourselves to the whole of that person and, at least potentially, must deal with, accept and love the whole of them --- even if they don't "fit" or even believe they can! At the same time, if we choose to belong, we will be obligated to love others in the same way! We can't be elitist ourselves, we can't judge others on the basis of characteristics, attributes, and preferences we find attractive or unattractive. If we belong, belonging is a gift we will give others as well, a quality we will empower in them rooted in our openness to them and our commitment to love them as fully as we are able.

While we invite people to belong, we cannot make it happen. To accept the invitation to belong means to accept the invitation to love and be loved. Many would rather fit in (or insist they never can!) when the real problem, the true issue is these persons refusal to love or be loved. They wrap themselves in their differences and eccentricities like a cloak or a shield marking either their supposed "superiority" (including "spiritual superiority") or their fear of vulnerability and lack of generosity. Belonging requires a real humility which cannot be faked (cf. Abba Motius on Humility); it is this fundamentally honest sense of self in relation to God and others which grounds and allows both vulnerability and generosity. At the same time then belonging --- or encouraging another to allow themselves to belong is not the same as saying, "Anything goes," or "The sky's the limit!" It is not the same as saying, "You need do nothing at all!" To belong and invite another to belong is to say, "Whatever ways you 'fit in' in "worldly" terms, and whatever ways you don't, what is critical here is to love and to allow yourself to be loved by others. Nothing else works in a Christian community."

In my parish I think there is no doubt that folks accommodate me in some ways and I them in others (not least re the length of the reflections I occasionally do for them -- they are very patient --- and (sometimes) the degree of conversation and noise that can occur before Mass! --- I am not always so patient with them in this matter). But this has nothing to do with the fact they know I am a hermit. It has to do with the fact that we love one another and accept each other as equally significant members of the community. (By the way, I would personally argue it is charitable for a hermit, no matter whether lay or consecrated, to let others in her faith community know this because the eremitical vocation involves limitations that all in a community need to be aware of lest misunderstandings occur. In the case of a publicly professed hermit, she has embraced an ecclesial vocation with public rights, obligations, and necessary expectations on the part of those who know her and her public commitment. In short it is God's gift to this community and the Church as a whole. It would be irresponsible and more than a little uncharitable to keep her status hidden even if, in the main, her life is essentially so.) 

The bottom line in the discussion at hand however is that we accommodate one another because we are family; we belong to this community and, in a certain sense, to one another. Because of this, any "accommodation" that occurs is not simply a superficial toleration of the person's differences or eccentricities nor is acceptance based on superficial likenesses. Instead accommodation will represent a mutual process involving more profound change on behalf of the other. This kind of accommodation involves changing ourselves so the other CAN belong just as it involves the other in the same conversion and transformation of heart and mind out of love for us. So long as we love one another our differences will be transcended and every diversity can contribute to the sense of the richness and giftedness of this community.

24 September 2014

First day of Retreat: Traveling Light, Being Who I am.

One of the pieces of my life, one of the most important dynamics at play and one of the virtues I try to cultivate is transparency. Perhaps that is a contemporary way of speaking about the radical honesty we call humility. In any case, the habit, the cowl or other prayer garment requires that I be aware of any pretense that creeps into things. I am here at the Old Mission Santa Barbara for a week's retreat and that means that when I move from my room to the chapel (or elsewhere) to pray I wear my cowl over my habit. Now, there is nothing unusual in this really, monks and nuns and hermits have been doing it for centuries and centuries in the exact same way day in and day out. But, though I wear the cowl every day at the hermitage and always at liturgical prayer, moving from place to place in it is unusual for me! Add to that the public character of the mission setting and the effect is a little unsettling. And amazing. I am aware every day that I am part of a living tradition, that I do not need to pretend to anything; I simply need to be who I am. Today, I woke (late for me!) with the mission bells and walked in cowl and sandals through the mission on stones that were worn over centuries by all manner of persons. It was hard not to feel a little moved by the whole experience.

And concerned. At least a little at first --- about pretense and fantasy. Imagining the history of this place and the uniqueness of my own garb (though the Friars wear robes over their street clothes too, mine is clearly NOT Franciscan) it was easy to hear in my mind the slap of many friars' sandals and the quiet swish of monastic robes as I walked to chapel for Morning Prayer and Mass. It took a moment before I could actually realize afresh that I am a living part of this tradition, both the Franciscan, the monastic (which Franciscanism itself is not), and the eremitical. And at that point I let go of any remaining concern or self-consciousness. At that moment I prayed in gratitude to God who has allowed me in my own brokenness and littleness to be a graced part of this living stream. I was myself in this new place (it is only the second time I have made retreat here) and was at home.

That sense of being at home, of simply being oneself in Christ and the complete sufficiency of that, was echoed in the Gospel where the disciples are sent forth and told to take nothing extra with them. Our homilist, Fr Charles, drew a lesson from it for us: travel light. Heartache? Troublesome memories? Incomplete plans or unresolved problems? Leave them here (in the chapel and with the others here) today and travel light! (Charles told another great story about a passionate if na├»ve postulant too which I will save for another time!) So, I have come here, been warmly welcomed by old theology professors (we will make some time to get together for a while this week), old friends (ditto!), and new ones as well; God has welcomed me too with his little nudges about authenticity, transparency, and the wonderful reminder of how graced is my existence as a part of this vital confluence of traditions. How strange (well, wonderfully surprising -- yet again) to think that I never really ceased being Franciscan even as I took on Camaldolese Benedictinism, and how strange to find I really am at home. That sense of belonging wherever we go seems to me to be part of the heart of contemplative prayer and especially of Jesus' injunction to "pray always". In this silence I will be and become more and more the word --- indeed, the song --- I am called to be. What a gift to be able to BE here -- in every sense of that verb!

I will blog when I can and as the Spirit moves me. Writing helps me pray (not least by opening my mind and heart occasionally to the wider world I carry in my heart) so I will play/pray it by ear. I ask that you remember me in your prayers as well.

20 September 2014

The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Reprise)

Tomorrow's Gospel is one of my all-time favorite parables, that of the laborers in the vineyard. The story is simple --- deceptively so in fact: workers come to work in the vineyard at various parts of the day all having contracted with the master of the vineyard to work for a day's wages. Some therefore work the whole day, some are brought in to work only half a day, and some are hired only when the master comes for them at the end of the day. When time comes to pay everyone what they are owed those who came in to work last are paid first and receive a full day's wages. Those who came in to work first expect to be paid more than these, but are disappointed and begin complaining when they are given the same wage as those paid first. The response of the master reminds them that he has paid them what they contracted for, nothing less, and then asks if they are envious that he is generous with his own money. A saying is added: [in the Kingdom of God] the first shall be last and the last first.

Now, it is important to remember what the word parable means in appreciating what Jesus is actually doing with this story and seeing how it challenges us today. The word parable, as I have written before, comes from two Greek words, para meaning alongside of and balein, meaning to throw down. What Jesus does is to throw down first one set of values -- one well-understood or common-perspective --- and allow people to get comfortable with that. (It is one they understand best so often Jesus merely needs to suggest it while his hearers fill in the rest. For instance he mentions a sower, or a vineyard and people fill in the details. Today he might well speak of a a CEO in an office, or a mother on a run to pick up kids from a swim meet or soccer practice.) Then, he throws down a second set of values or a second way of seeing reality which disorients and gets his hearers off-balance. This second set of values or new perspective is that of the Kingdom of God. Those who listen have to make a decision. (The purpose of the parable is not only to present the choice, but to engage the reader/hearer and shake them up or disorient them a bit so that a choice for something new can (and hopefully will) be made.) Either Jesus' hearers will reaffirm the common values or perspective or they will choose the values and perspective of the Kingdom of God. The second perspective, that of the Kingdom is often counterintuitive, ostensibly foolish or offensive, and never a matter of "common sense". To choose it --- and therefore to choose Jesus and the God he reveals --- ordinarily puts one in a place which is countercultural and often apparently ridiculous.

So what happens in today's Gospel? Again, Jesus tells a story about a vineyard and a master hiring workers. His readers know this world well and despite Jesus stating specifically that each man hired contracts for the same wage, common sense says that is unfair and the master MUST pay the later workers less than he pays those who came early to the fields and worked through the heat of the noonday sun. And of course, this is precisely what the early workers complain about to the master. It is precisely what most of US would complain about in our own workplaces if someone hired after us got more money, for instance, or if someone with a high school diploma got the same pay and benefit package as someone with a doctorate --- never mind that we agreed to this package! The same is true in terms of religion: "I spent my WHOLE life serving the Lord. I was baptized as an infant and went to Catholic schools from grade school through college and this upstart convert who has never done anything at all at the parish gets the Pastoral Associate job? No Way!! No FAIR!!" From our everyday perspective this would be a cogent objection and Jesus' insistence that all receive the same wage, not to mention that he seems to rub it in by calling the last hired to be paid first (i.e., the normal order of the Kingdom), is simply shocking.

And yet the master brings up two points which turn everything around: 1) he has paid everyone exactly what they contracted for --- a point which stops the complaints for the time being, and 2) he asks if they are envious that he is generous with his own gifts or money. He then reminds his hearers that the first shall be last, and the last first in the Kingdom of God. If someone was making these remarks to you in response to cries of "unfair" it would bring you up short, wouldn't it? If you were already a bit disoriented by a pay master who changed the rules of commonsense this would no doubt underscore the situation. It might also cause you to take a long look at yourself and the values by which you live your life. You might ask yourself if the values and standards of the Kingdom are really SO different than those you operate by everyday of your life, not to mention, do you really want to "buy into" this Kingdom if the rewards are really parcelled out in this way, even for people less "gifted" and less "committed" than you consider yourself! Of course, you might not phrase things so bluntly. If you are honest, you will begin to see more than your own brilliance, giftedness, or commitedness; You might begin to see these along with a deep neediness, a persistent and genuine fear at the cost involved in accepting this "Kingdom" instead of the world you know and have accommodated yourself to so well.

You might consider too, and carefully, that the Kingdom is not an otherwordly heaven, but that it is the realm of God's sovereignty which, especially in Christ, interpenetrates this world, and is actually the goal and perfection of this world; when you do, the dilemma before you gets even sharper. There is no real room for opting for this world's values now in the hope that those "other Kingdomly values" only kick in after death! All that render to Caesar stuff is actually a bit of a joke if we think we can divvy things up neatly and comfortably (I am sure Jesus was asking for the gift of one's whole self and nothing less when he made this statement!), because after all, what REALLY belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? No, no compromises are really allowed with today's parable, no easy blending of the vast discrepancy between the realm of God's sovereignty and the world which is ordered to greed, competition, self-aggrandizement and hypocrisy, nor therefore, to the choice Jesus puts before us.

So, what side will we come down on after all this disorientation and shaking up? I know that every time I hear this parable it touches a place in me (yet another one!!) that resents the values and standards of the Kingdom and that desires I measure things VERY differently indeed. It may be a part of me that resists the idea that everything I have and am is God's gift, even if I worked hard in cooperating with that (my very capacity and willingness to cooperate are ALSO gifts of God!). It may be a part of me that looks down my nose at this person or that and considers myself better in some way (smarter, more gifted, a harder worker, stronger, more faithful, born to a better class of parents, etc, etc). It may be part of me that resents another's wage or benefits despite the fact that I am not really in need of more myself. It may even be a part of me that resents my own weakness and inabilities, my own illness and incapacities which lead me to despise the preciousness and value of my life and his own way of valuing it which is God's gift to me and to the world. I am socialized in this first-world-culture and there is no doubt that it resides deeply and pervasively within me contending always for the Kingdom of God's sovereignty in my heart and living. I suspect this is true for most of us, and that today's Gospel challenges us to make a renewed choice for the Kingdom in yet another way or to another more profound or extensive degree.

For Christians every day is gift and we are given precisely what we need to live fully and with real integrity if only we will choose to accept it. We are precious to God, and this is often hard to really accept, but neither more nor less precious than the person standing in the grocery store line ahead of us or folded dirty and disheveled behind a begging sign on the street corner near our bank or outside our favorite coffee shop. The wage we have agreed to (or been offered) is the gift of God's very self along with his judgment that we are indeed precious, and so, the free and abundant but cruciform life of a shared history and destiny with that same God whose characteristic way of being is kenotic. He pours himself out with equal abandon for each of us whether we have served him our whole lives or only just met him this afternoon. He does so whether we are well and whole, or broken and feeble. And he asks us to do the same, to pour ourselves out similarly both for his own sake and for the sake of his creation-made-to-be God's Kingdom.

To do so means to decide for his reign now and tomorrow and the day after that; it means to accept his gift of Self as fully as he wills to give it, and it therefore means to listen to him and his Word so that we MAY be able to decide and order our lives appropriately in his gratuitous love and mercy. The parable in today's Gospel is a gift which makes this possible --- if only we would allow it to work as Jesus empowers and wills it!

19 September 2014

A Contemplative Moment: Finding the Face of God in Others

"St Teresa of Avila used to say that to pray is to treat God like a friend. The essence of prayer is to hear not only the voice of Christ, but the voice of each person I meet, in whom Christ also addresses me. His voice comes to me in every human voice, and his face is infinitely varied It is present in the face of the wayfarer on the road to Emmaus, in the gardener speaking to Mary Magdalen; and it is present in my next door neighbor. God became incarnate so that man might contemplate God's face in every face. Perfect prayer seeks this presence of Christ and recognizes it in every human face. The unique image of Christ is the icon, but every human face is an icon of Christ, discovered by a prayerful person."

by  Evdokimov cited by Catherine de Hueck Doherty in Poustinia

17 September 2014

Letting go of Childish Things

Today's reading from Paul is one of the most beautiful passages about love in all of the Old and New Testa-ments. But the point of the reading is especially important for hermits who seek to live in solitude or others who find themselves otherwise isolated and alienated from the faith community of their local Church. The very first line of 1 Cor 12:31-13:13 sets the lesson: [[Brothers and Sisters: Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts. But I shall show you a still more excellent way!]] Paul then goes on to list a number of recognizable spiritual gifts including speaking in tongues, knowledge (including mystical knowledge), and faith (including the faith to move mountains!) but reminds the Corinthians that without love these gifts and indeed, the person herself, are nothing at all. (Despite medieval attempts to aggrandize being "nothing." Paul is clearly disapproving of being nothing here.) Paul's argument through the rest of the passage is clear, if one truly loves then one has every other thing as well; in truly loving, all the spiritual gifts, which are partial and finite, find their completion and eternity. Moreover without love these gifts are empty, void, possibly illusory (or worse), and disedifying.

One of the most salient criticisms of eremitical life is the observation that the hermit has no one around to love or be loved by in the truly demanding and concrete ways human beings require to grow in Gospel love and authentic humanity. This observation has caused some Church Fathers to deny the validity of the eremitical life. It is true that I, for instance, can write moving blog posts, articles, and chapters about eremitical life as essentially loving and about eremitical solitude as essentially dialogical or covenantal, but, as Paul clearly says, [[If I speak in human tongues or angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.]] I might get some attention with and even praise for what I write, but unless it is clearly informed by genuine love, it will be empty and ultimately meaningless. Moreover, the validity or at least the quality of my vocation itself, including the mystical dimensions of my prayer, would need to be seriously questioned in such an instance. As Paul says, [[if there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing, if tongues, they will cease, and if knowledge [referring to mystical knowledge], it too will be brought to nothing for each and all of these will pass away.]]

We hermits may err in our vocations in many ways but it seems to me that given today's reading and the criticism of some Church Fathers (and the affirmations of all genuine hermits!), our focus, even in maintaining appropriate degrees of physical solitude and silence, must be on our growth in our capacity to love others in Christ both effectively and concretely --- even should we sometimes err against solitude in doing so. This tension between physical solitude and the commandment to truly love one another is always present in the hermit's life. It is certainly not acceptable to speak about loving humanity while one fails to love the individual persons sitting in the pews next to or around us --- much less claiming such a love while eschewing their company. "I love humanity, it's people I can't stand," may be darkly humorous in a Peanuts cartoon strip, but in the life of a hermit it is a blasphemy.

The emphasis on loving others in concrete ways and circumstances is one reason every hermit maintains the importance of hospitality --- whether that means opening one's hermitage to others in specific ways or participating in the local parish community in limited ways; it is also the reason hermits form lauras or are associated with parishes and communities; these are not optional but, even when necessarily limited, are essential to the eremitical life itself and certainly to the lives of those who are privileged via their professions and explicit commission by the Church to call themselves Catholic Hermits. In other words, community and the commitment to concrete forms of loving are critical dimensions of ANY authentic eremitical vocation, even those to complete reclusion; loving effectively and fully is, according to Paul, the truest sign of human wholeness and holiness, the truest sign of genuinely spiritual gifts. (The would-be recluse who is incapable of loving others effectively will be unlikely to be allowed to embrace reclusion.This is one of the reasons the Church requires serious vetting and supervision of eremitical recluses).

Part of the reason for this emphasis on concrete human loving is the especial ease with which a hermit (or other solitary person) can fool themselves about their own degree of spiritual growth or the nature of the spiritual gifts they have been given.  In today's first reading Paul has chosen not to take the Corinthians to task over the authenticity or inauthenticity of their spiritual gifts despite their tendency to self-delusion. Instead of calling them frauds he reminds them they are children. To motivate them to change and grow he speaks to and captures their attention by focusing on the thing which seems to  capture their imagination, namely, their drive and desire for more and more excellent spiritual gifts. He wants them to understand that love is the greatest divine gift, but also that it is the criterion by which all other gifts are truly measured and then brought to completion. Prophecy without love is not of God. The ability to speak in tongues without love is empty and essentially godless; mystical experiences or knowledge without the ability to love others in concrete ways is not authentic. One may have all kinds of moving and extraordinary experiences in solitary prayer, but  in terms of the spiritual life these are, at best, often "childish things" if they remain fruitless. At other times they are simply delusional:  they may simply be ordinary dreams (which can be be insightful, no doubt) treated simplistically as visions, empty visions which, tragically, lead to nothing more than self-satisfaction and navel-gazing, and the psychological projection of one's own problems, conflicts, and struggles. Spiritual maturity implies the ability to love those persons who are precious to God and to do so as they truly need! Divine gifts, whatever the type, are meant to allow us to do this.

These mystical and other prayer experiences and psycho-logical manifes-tations, like everything else in our spiritual lives, must be tested or proved --- words which mean several things including measuring, fostering maturation, and helping to make stronger and truer. They must be integrated into one's everyday life and growth; they must be transformed into personal maturity and wisdom. They must lead to or be associated with the ability to love in concrete situations and relationships. Therefore they must, to the degree they are authentic, lead to patience and kindness. They must not lead to or be associated with arrogance or rudeness nor to a sense that one's spiritual life is somehow "superior" to that of "ordinary" parishes and people! They must be associated with other-centeredness and to genuine humility and they must not allow one to brood over injuries done to one nor to rejoice when evil befalls others. Any authentic hermit, indeed any person who finds that their prayer lives (and especially what they call mystical experiences) do not lead to these manifestations of genuine love must surrender them for (or at the very least complement them with) the demands of community which do lead more surely to these manifestations. One must let go of the manifestations of spiritual childhood for the spiritual wisdom of adulthood. (cf, On Discernment With Regard to Prayer.)

Paul's letter to the (perhaps) spiritually precocious community in Corinth reminds us especially then that spirituality, even and perhaps especially eremitical spirituality, is not a "me and God" only enterprise. That is NOT what God alone is enough means! Canon 603 is very clear that hermits in the Catholic Church, particularly those that live the life in the name of the Church embrace eremitical solitude for the salvation of others. The love a hermit cultivates in the hermitage and in her relatively limited encounters with those in her parish, diocese, monastery, etc is not a facile abstraction, an exercise in empty piety, much less a matter of meaningless if superficially impressive verbal expressions, (e.g., "Not everyone who says 'Lord, Lord' shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven!" or,"in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do"). It is not enough to proclaim one's love for God or humanity while judging and despising people. What makes her vocation divine is the authentic love which motivates and empowers it. The moment a hermit forgets this or chooses isolation over eremitical solitude, she has embraced something which is not truly of God no matter how frequent or vivid the supposed mystical experiences that accompany it. Real union with God involves communion with others. It is the very nature of being a member of the Body of Christ and stands at the heart of Paul's concerns with adult faith and the community in Corinth.

14 September 2014

Exaltation of the Cross (reprise)

Recently I listened to a sedevacantist priest teaching about the Cross. In that presentation this cleric said that the only reason for the resurrection from the dead was to prove that Jesus was God. In fact, he asserted that Jesus proved himself to be God by raising himself from the dead! I admit I have heard the notion that Jesus raised himself from the dead before (though not for about 40 years or so) but I have never heard the meaning of the cross or the way it "saves" turned into such a complete bunch of Docetist twaddle or so thoroughly eviscerated and robbed of meaning.

Let me say this very clearly: Had Jesus stayed good and dead, had there been no resurrection, sin and death would have had the last word and resulted in an ultimate and absurd silence. While Jesus' death could have been considered noble and generous (like that of Socrates and many others, for instance), Jesus' death would and could not have been SALVIFIC had there been no resurrection. Similarly, had Jesus raised himself he would not have truly surrendered to the powers of sin and godless death in an exhaustive way as he actually did on Good Friday nor would he have been totally vindicated by God in a victory over these. He would not have shown us that the way to life in God is to open ourselves completely to his love so that it may prove itself stronger than even sin and godless death. The cross might have made good theatre but the only lesson it could have provided apart from resurrection is that genuine love and goodness will inevitably be crushed by the powers of evil, corruption, ambition, and cruelty and even God is powerless to prevent or change this state of things.

As we [celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and also look ahead to Friday's reading from Paul to the Church in Corinth] I wanted to post this question from a friend once again; it deals with how the cross works and why it is appropriate to exalt what was really an instrument of oppression and torture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Church has never asserted a single interpretation of the cross nor a normative theology of the Cross. Unfortunately what we hear too often is Anselm's interpretation. Anselm's world was a feudal one where notions of shame and honor were driving forces. Thus he saw God as infinitely offended by human sin and wrote that an infinite price had to be paid for God's honor to be regained. Further, that price had to be paid by a human being since human beings had caused the infinite offense while only someone divine COULD do so. The biggest problem though was that he saw God as needing to be reconciled. This is exactly the opposite of what Paul says in 2 Cor 5:19: [[God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.]] In other words, it is the world which needs to be reconciled to God.

The Good News according to Paul and Mark, for instance, is that in Christ God brings everything home to itself and to himself. He sets all things right. This is the nature of divine justice. He asserts his rights or sovereignty over a broken creation by letting nothing stand between us and his creative love (himself). It is not God's honor that needs to be appeased but a broken and estranged world that needs to be healed and made one with God (the ground of existence and meaning). That is what happens through Jesus' crucifixion, death, and resurrection. In Christ God takes the worst human beings can do and brings divine wholeness and life out of it.

Exaltation of the Cross (Reprise)

[[Could you write something about Sunday's feast of the Exaltation of the Cross? What is a truly healthy and yet deeply spiritual way to exalt the Cross in our personal lives, and in the world at large (that is, supporting those bearing their crosses while not supporting the evil that often causes the destruction and pain that our brothers and sisters are called to endure due to sinful social structures?]]

The above question which arrived by email was the result of reading some of my posts, mainly those on victim soul theology, the Pauline theology of the Cross, and some earlier ones having to do with the permissive will of God. For that reason my answer presupposes much of what I wrote in those and I will try not to be too repetitive. First of all, in answering the question, I think it is helpful to remember the alternative name of this feast, namely, the Triumph of the Cross. For me personally this is a "better" name, and yet, it is a deeply paradoxical one, just like its alternative.

Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland
How many times have we heard it suggested that Christians ought not wear crosses around their necks as jewelry any more than they should wear tiny images of electric chairs, medieval racks or other symbols of torture and death? Similarly, how many times has it been said that making jewelry of the cross trivializes what happened there? There is a great deal of truth in these objections, and in similar ones! On the one hand the cross points to the slaughter by torture of hundreds of thousands of people by an oppressive state. More individually it points to the slaughter by torture of an innocent man in order to appease a rowdy religious crowd by an individual of troubled but dishonest conscience, one who put "the supposed greater good" before the innocence of this single victim.

And of course there were collaborators in this slaughter: the religious establishment, disciples who were either too cowardly to stand up for their beliefs, or those who actively betrayed this man who had loved them and called them to a life of greater abundance (and personal risk) than they had ever known before. If we are going to appreciate the triumph of the cross, if we are going to exalt it as Christians do and should, then we cannot forget this aspect of it. Especially we cannot forget that much that happened here was NOT THE WILL OF GOD, nor that generally the perpetrators were not cooperating with that will! The cross was the triumph of God over sin and sinful godless death, but it was ALSO a sinful and godless human (and societal!) act of murder by torture. (In fact one could argue it was a true divine triumph ONLY because it was also these all-too-human things.) Both aspects exist in tension with each other, as they do in ALL of God's victories in our world. It is this tension our jewelry and other crucifixes embody: they are miniature instruments of torture, yes, but also symbols of God's ultimate triumph over the powers of sin and death with which humans are so intimately entangled and complicit.

In our own lives there are crosses, burdens which are the result of societal and personal sin which we must bear responsibly and creatively. That means not only that we cannot shirk them, but also that we bear them with all the asistance that God puts into our hands. Especially it means allowing God to assist us in the carrying of this cross. To really exalt the cross of Christ is to honor all that God did with and made of the very worst that human beings could do to another human being. To exult in our own personal crosses means, at the very least, to allow God to transform them with his presence. That is the way we truly exalt the Cross: we allow it to become the way in which God enters our lives, the passion that breaks us open, makes us completely vulnerable, and urges us to embrace or let God embrace us in a way which comforts, sustains, and even transfigures the whole face of our lives.

If we are able to do this, then the Cross does indeed triumph. Suffering does not. Pain does not. Neither will our lives be defined in terms of these things despite their very real presence. What I think needs to be especially clear is that the exaltation of the cross has to do with what was made possible in light of the combination of awful and humanly engineered torment, and the grace of God. Sin abounded but grace abounded all the more. Does this mean we invite suffering so that "grace may abound all the more?" Well, Paul's clear answer to that question was, "By no means!" How about tolerating suffering when we can do something about it? What about remaining in an abusive relationship, or refusing medical treatment which would ease mental and physical pain, for instance? Do we treat these as crosses we MUST bear? Do we allow ourselves to become complicit in the abuse or the destructive effects of pain and physical or mental illness? I think the general answer is no, of course not.

That means we must look for ways to allow God's grace to triumph, while the triumph of grace ALWAYS results in greater human freedom and authentic functioning. Discerning what is necessary and what will REALLY be an exaltation of the cross in our own lives means determining and acting on the ways freedom from bondage and more authentic humanity can be achieved. Ordinarily this will mean medical treatment; or it will mean moving out of the abusive situation. In ALL cases it means remaining open to and dependent upon God and to what he desires for our lives IN SPITE of the limitations and suffering inherent in them. This is what Jesus did, and what made his cross salvific. This openness and responsiveness to God and what he will do with our lives is, as I have said many times before, what the Scriptures called obedience. Let me be clear: the will of God in ANY situation is that we remain open to him and that authentic humanity be achieved. We MUST do whatever it is that allows us to not close off to God, and to remain open to growth AS HUMAN. If our pain dehumanizes, then we must act in ways which changes that. If our lives cease to reflect the grace of God (and this means fails to be a joyfilled, free, fruitful, loving, genuinely human life) then we must act in ways which change that.

The same is true in society more generally. We must act in ways which open others TO THE GRACE OF GOD. Yes, suffering does this, but this hardly means we simply tell people to pray, grin, and bear it ---- much less allow the oppressive structures to stay in place! As the gospels tell us, "the poor you will always have with you" but this hardly means doing nothing to relieve poverty! Similarly we will always have suffering with us on this side of death, and especially the suffering that comes when human beings institutionalize their own sinful drives and actions. What is essential is that the Cross of Christ is exalted, that the Cross of Christ triumphs in our lives and society, not simply that individual crosses remain or that we exalt them (especially when they are the result of human engineering and sin)! And, as I have written before, to allow Christ's Cross to triumph is to allow the grace of God to transform all the dark and meaningless places with his presence, light and love. It is ONLY in this way that we truly "make up for what is lacking in the passion of Christ."

The paradox in Sunday's Feast is that the exaltation of the Cross implies suffering, and stresses that the cross empowers the ability to suffer well, but at the same time points to a freedom the world cannot grant --- a freedom in which we both transcend and transform suffering because of a victory Christ has won over the powers of sin and death which are built right into our lives and in the structures of this world. Thus, we cannot ever collude with the powers of this world; we must always be sure we are acting in complicity with the grace of God instead. Sometimes this means accepting the suffering that comes our way (or encouraging and supporting others in doing so of course), but never for its own sake. If our (or their) suffering does not result in greater human authenticity, greater freedom from bondage, greater joy and true peace, then it is not suffering which exalts the Cross of Christ. If it does not in some way transform and subvert the structures of this world which oppress and destroy, then it does not express the triumph of Jesus' Cross, nor are we really participating in THAT Cross in embracing our own.

I am certain I have not completely answered your question, but for now this will need to suffice. My thanks for your patience. If you have other questions which can assist me to do a better job, I would very much appreciate them. Again, thanks for your emails.

10 September 2014

Death, New Life, and Continued Displacement for the Dominican Sisters in Iraq

Iraqi Dominican sisters in a happier time (2013)
Dominican Sisters, Iraq, in Better days -- 2013
September 9th, 2014
“ A Time to give birth and time to die”
Ecc 3:2
We often hear the powerful words of Ecclesiastes that remind us of the inevitability of birth and death, that these realities come upon us regardless of whether we are prepared for them or not.  No doubt we must accept and embrace them, but rarely, however, do we experience them both on the same day. Yesterday at Mass, though, we did just that.

We celebrated the birth of our Lady and committed one of our elderly sisters into the hands of God. The sister, whom we buried yesterday, is among the elderly sisters whom we had promised to take to Karakosh after the construction of our general house. Unfortunately, our unforeseen displacement and journey to Ankawa/Erbil was a shock for them, for they were eager to return back to Karakosh. Although they were not able to help out in the camps and centres with the young sisters at Erbil, they were diligently following the news on TV. This doubled their heartache and worry over people’s suffering. So heavy was their burden that three of them passed away within ten days.

 Despite the loss and pain our community is experiencing, we rejoice in the reality that our sisters have decisively chosen to live life, never letting despair extinguish the light within them, and in the midst of overwhelming hardship, two sisters renewed their vows yesterday evening and two postulants received the habit, becoming novices.

It was a day where the contradictions of life and death converged; we witnessed simultaneously death and resurrection. This was a sign of hope and God’s presence among us, and it gave us courage to continue our journey with our people who are still displaced, weakened, and impoverished.

We have entered the fifth week of displacement, and people are still living the same misery, which is only worsening, it seems, as our cries are ignored, and the world turns a blind eye to our sufferings. The challenges that threaten our people are now even greater as we face homelessness.  The refugees taking shelter in schools are told to leave, as the school year starts soon.  They do not know where to go, and there is a shortage of medicine, food, mattresses, blankets, and clothing. The dignity of the people has been utterly stripped away. Most painful of all is that we do not know when this ordeal will end. So far, neither the central government nor by the Kurdish forces have made serious actions to reclaim all the Christian towns from the IS.

Also, we would like to inform you that we have started setting up temporary housing for our sisters in the back yard of our convent, but the needs are great. We hope that the work will be completed within two weeks.

Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers. Your help can make huge difference.

Dominican Sisters of Catherine of Siena –Iraq.

N.B., I have highlighted (italicized and emboldened) one portion of this letter. I ask that you especially remember these Sisters in your prayers, those who have died and are truly home, those who begin new lives as Dominicans at such a time of testing, and all of those professed who continue to choose life in Christ, no matter what.

All my best,
Sister Laurel, Er Dio
(Stillsong Hermitage, Diocese of Oakland.)

07 September 2014

Treat them as Your Would Gentiles and Tax Collectors

In today's Gospel pericope we hear Jesus telling folks to speak to those who have offended against God one on one and then, if that is ineffective, bring in two more brothers or sisters to talk with the person, and then, if that too is ineffective, to bring matters to the whole community --- again so the offended can be brought back into what we might call "full communion". If even that is ineffective then we are told to treat the person(s) as we treat Gentiles and tax collectors. In every homily I have ever heard about this passage this final dramatic command has been treated as justification for excommunication. Even today our homilist referred to excommunication --- though, significantly, he stressed the medicinal and loving motive for such a dire step. The entire passage is read as a logical, common-sense escalation and intervention: start one on one, try all you can, bring others in as needed, and if that doesn't work (that is, if the person remains recalcitrant) then wash your hands of him or, if stressing the medicinal nature of the act, separate yourselves from him until he comes to his senses and repents! In this reading of the text Matthew is giving us the Scriptural warrant for "tough love."

But I was struck by a very different reading during my hearing of the Gospel this morning. We think of Jesus turning things on their heads so very often in what he says; more we think about how often he turns things on their head by what he does. With this in mind the question which first occurred to me was, "But what would this have meant in Jesus' day for disciples of this man from Nazareth, not what would it have meant for hundreds of years of Catholic Christianity!? Is the logic of this reading different, even antithetical to the logical, commonsense escalation outlined above?" And the answer I "heard" was, "Of course it is different! I am asking you to escalate your attempts to bring this person home, not to wash your hands of her. To do that I am suggesting you treat her as you might someone for whom the Gospel is a foreign word now -- someone who needs to hear it as much or more than you ever did yourself." Later I thought in a kind of jumble, "That means to treat her with even greater gentleness and care, even greater love and a different kind of intimacy. Her offense has effectively put her outside the faith community. Jesus is asking that we let ourselves be the "outsider" who stands with her where she is. He is saying we must try to speak in a language she will truly hear. Make of her a neighbor again; meet her in the far place, learn her truth before we try to teach her "ours". After all, what I and others have said thus far has either not been understood or it was not compelling for her."

While I should not have been surprised, I admit I was startled by my initial thoughts! Of course I knew that Jesus associated with tax collectors and with Gentiles. The reading with the Canaanite women last week or the week before makes it clear that Jesus even changed his mind about his own mission in light of the faith he found among Gentiles. Meanwhile, today's reading is taken from a Gospel attributed to Matthew, an Apostle who is identified as a tax collector! Shouldn't we be holding onto our seats in some anticipation while listening for Jesus – as he always does -- to say something that turns conventional wisdom and our entire ecclesiastical and spiritual world on its head?  Maybe my thoughts were not really so crazy after all and maybe those homilies I have heard for years have NOT had it right! So I looked again at the Gospel lection from today in its Matthean context. It is sandwiched between passages about humbling ourselves as children (those with no status), not being a source of stumbling and estrangement to others, searching for the one sheep that has gone astray even if it means leaving behind the 99 who have not strayed, and Peter asking how often he should forgive his brother to which Jesus says seven times seventy!

I think Jesus is reminding us of the difference between a community which is united in and motivated by Christ's own love (a very messy business sometimes) and one which is united in and mainly concerned with discipline (not so messy, but not so fruitful or inspired either). I think too he is reminding us of a Church which is always a missionary Church, always going out to others, always seeking to reconcile the entire world in the power of the Gospel. It is not a fortress which protects its precious patrimony by shutting itself off from those who do not believe, letting them fend for themselves or simply find their own ways to the baptistry or confessional doors; instead it achieves its mission by extending its love, its Word, and even its Sacraments to those who most need them --- the alien and alienated. It is a Church that really believes we hold things as sacred best when we give them away (which is NOT the same thing as giving them up!). Meanwhile Jesus may also be saying, "If your brother or sister has not and will not hear you, perhaps you have not loved them well or effectively enough; find a new way, even a more costly way. After all, my way (the Way I am!) is not the way of conventional wisdom, it is the scandalous, foolish, and sacrificial way of the Kingdom of God!

I had always thought today's reading a "hard one" because it seemed to sanction the excommunication of brothers and sisters in Christ. But now I think it is a hard one for an entirely different reason. It gives us a Church where no one can truly be at home so long as we are not reaching out to those who have not heard the Gospel we have been entrusted with proclaiming. It is a Church of open doors and open table fellowship (open commensality) because it is a church of open and missionary hearts -- just as God's own heart, God's own essential nature, is missionary. Above all it is a church where those who truly belong are the ones who really do not belong anywhere else! We proclaim a Gospel in which we who belong to Christ through baptism are the last and those outside our communion are first and, at least potentially, the Apostles on which the Church is built.

When we treat people like Gentiles and tax collectors we treat them in exactly this way, namely, as those whose truest home is around the table with us, listening to and celebrating the Word with us, ministering to and with us as at least potential brothers and sisters in Christ! We treat them as Gentiles and tax collectors when we take the time to enter their world so that we can speak to them in a way they can truly hear, when we love them (are brothers and sisters to them) as they truly need, not only as we are comfortable doing in our own cultures and families. Paul, after all, spoke of becoming and being all things to all persons --- just as God became man for us. He was not speaking of indifferentism or saying with our lives that Christ doesn't really matter;  just the opposite in fact. He was telling us we must be Christians in this truly startling way --- persons who can and do proclaim the Gospel of a crucified and risen Christ wherever we go because we let ourselves be at home and among (potential) brothers and sisters wherever we go. We do as God did for us in Christ; we let go of the prerogatives which are ours and travel to the far place in any and all the ways we need to in order to fulfill the mission of our God to truly be all in all.

When the logic, drama, and tension of today's Gospel lection escalate it is to this conclusion, I think, not to a facile justification of excommunication. In this pericope Jesus does not ask us to progressively enlist more people to increase the force with which we strong arm those who have become alienated, much less to support us as we cut them loose if they are unconvinced and unconverted, but to offer them richer, more diverse and extensive chances to be heard and to hear --- increasing opportunities, that is, to be empowered to change their minds and hearts when we, acting alone, have failed them in this way. This is what it means to forgive; it is what it means to be commissioned as an Apostle of Christ. And if that sounds naive, imprudent, impractical, and even impossible, I suspect Jesus' original hearers felt the same about the pericopes which form this lection's immediate context: becoming as children with no status except that given them by God, leaving the 99 to seek the single lost sheep or forgiving what is effectively a countless number of times. Certainly that's how someone writing under the name of a tax collector-turned-Apostle presents the matter.

06 September 2014

On Anniversaries of Birthday and Profession and the Movie, "Calvary"

This last week I celebrated the anniversaries of both my perpetual eremitical profession and my birthday. For the past 7 years these days have been made incredibly special by what God has done in and with my life. I am immensely grateful for that but also so very grateful to members of my parish and other friends who have made these anniversaries so special during that time. One of the ways I celebrate with friends is to go to movies at this time. That was true this year and I wanted to recommend both of the films I saw (the first was When the Team Stands Tall, what is called around here, "The De La Salle Movie" --- it is both entertaining and inspiring), but especially I want to say something about Calvary.

Let me begin by noting that it is a brilliant movie --- difficult, horrifying in some ways, inspiring, challenging, provocative, and often beautiful both in its simplicity and its complexity. The structure is both spare and profound. The characters are complex and are sometimes easy to both dislike and to empathize with. At the center of the story is a good priest. The antagonist is a man who is the victim or long term sexual abuse by clergy. This man enters the confessional where the priest is waiting and begins by saying (essentially), "I first tasted semen at the age of seven." After a series of exchanges the priest, who has not harmed the man (or anyone else in his role as priest), is told that at the end of a week, Sunday next, the man will kill him on the beach. Like Jesus who knows if he goes to Jerusalem he will be killed, the priest has no doubts about the man's sincerity or intention. Like Jesus the priest continues his public ministry right up until the last minute and like Jesus he has a choice to flee or to "go to Jerusalem". In the end he goes, but not without his own Gethsemane crisis and related decision.

I should also say that the parallels with Jesus' story are not drawn in an "in your face" way. They are present because the man is a priest and a good one who lives his life in Christ with integrity. The parallels are there because they are there in the life of any priest, or any religious, for instance who lives his or her Christian vocation in this way. Still, this is not an easy vocation to live in an integral way and the degree of harm that can be done by those who do not do so is absolutely incalculable; Calvary does a very effective job of expressing both aspects of this truth. When the Church, and that means those individuals who live and act in the name of the Church, betray their commission to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed lives are ruined. Faith, though it may be vital and strong, is ALSO a fragile thing and it and the capacity for it can be murdered by ecclesiastical hypocrisy and sin. Calvary is also the story of such hypocrisy and the resultant death of faith in Ireland.

There is no way I can do justice to this movie but I do want to say what struck me most about it. First, we live in a world where even priests and religious who have NOT done terrible things and have lived their vows with integrity are sometimes treated with contempt or otherwise tarred with the same brush reserved for perpetrators. Last month, for instance, I had a conversation over lunch with a priest who was visiting from Ireland. He asked me about the response I got from wearing a habit and wondered if I received much negative attention or denigration because of it.

While I have had some ugly encounters (including one where someone I had never seen before almost succeeded in pushing me down a train platform escalator while snarling, "F___ing nun!") generally people are positive in their reception and many see me as someone they can talk to because of the habit (I like to think they approach because I personally signal an openness and capacity for pastoral ministry but certainly the habit invites them to consider speaking to me). In any case, this priest noted that in Ireland it is very different for a priest wearing a collar in public. Similarly, I know of a case where a priest here in the US was tried and convicted, falsely, and according to "evidence" that was flimsy at best and simply incredible. He was convicted on this basis merely because he was a priest, not because he had actually hurt anyone.

Calvary brings out what it is like to be true to one's calling in a world where who one is as well as what one stands for is often despised, denigrated, or ridiculed. It also makes very clear how a public life of ministry to others means that quite often one cannot share things with another person who truly understands but instead must bear them alone.  (This can be especially true when there are no other priests or religious around!) The loneliness which is a counterpoint to the consolation and communion of faith was striking and something many priests and religious know well.

Similarly,  the role of clergy and religious is a critical one in our church and world. While I do not mean to suggest that the laity do not serve similarly in their witness to the Gospel, a public ecclesial vocation can invite genuine faith or make it seem hypocritical and the Gospel a farce in a very profound way. In Calvary we spend a week with a faithful priest (Fr James LaVelle) who ministers the Word of God to those who both love and hate him and are often cynical at best about "the faith" they either cling to in some desperate but still-superficial way, or outright despise and reject. The relative dearth or even absence of priests, religious, and others who minister the Gospel with their whole lives is a terrible tragedy in our world and the results are particularly sad to see.

At the end of the movie, for instance, we revisit a series of scenes from the preceding week. Where once this priest walked with his daughter, was a hearing and healing presence, etc, now there are voids: an empty road, a deserted field, the ruins of a church, etc. I often had the sense during the movie that the Gospel of God is suffering for lack of priests (et al) while the world is suffering from a lack of a credible proclamation of the Gospel. The image I saw in my mind's eye was of a single priest (and often a single religious woman or man) holding darkness at bay like a small child with his  or her finger in the dike trying to keep it from disintegrating altogether and holding back flood waters which will destroy everything in their wake. I was struck forcibly by the weighty responsibility ministers of the Gospel hold today. For me this was a point of emotional "gravitas" and a lasting challenge.

When the film ends it seems at first that perhaps the assassin's bullets have allowed darkness to swallow up goodness or, perhaps worse, that Fr James LaVelle's life made no difference at all. But the priest's words have been heard by others; his observation that the lesson that needs to be heard more often and emphatically is that of forgiveness is picked up by his daughter (James became a priest only after the death of his wife). She in turn goes to visit his killer in prison. The killer's choice of a "good priest" was made so that people could be shocked --- just as Romans often killed people to shock and frighten the populace and deter revolution, etc. He was not looking for justice. Nothing, from his perspective, could be set right for him. He was angry and in pain and needed to scream as loudly as possible while exacting vengeance in some more-than-usually-inadequate way.

And yet, his murder of this good, though imperfect, man of God does more than simply shock. It begins a call for forgiveness and a dynamic of reconciliation which the whole of Ireland (and anyone else dealing with the scandals of the church in our world) really needs in order to move forward. This obedient priest has taken on the darkness and the sins of his confreres in religion and the priesthood and at the very least has demonstrated a nobility grounded in his firm belief in God and his vocation. While I did not personally have the sense this priest went to his death in expiation for the sins of others, in fact he does suffer innocently for those who are guilty and slowly the integrity of his life and death appear to allow light to shine in and through the darkness.

Of course there is SO much more to this movie: layers upon layers of structure and meaning and significant pieces and characters I have not even mentioned. It is a movie I am sure I could see at least a couple more times without "getting it all". More accurately perhaps, it is one of those movies which could be used for lectio over an extended period just as it is like one of Jesus' parables where we enter and reenter the story at different points with every hearing not in order to "get it" exactly, but to be challenged and changed by it so that we can see things in a new way. I recommend folks see it as soon as they can, especially since it is unlikely to be in theaters much longer --- it was slated for a limited engagement and was released on August 1.