30 November 2014

A New Heaven and a New Earth: God With Us

In Friday's reading from Revelation we heard John's vision for the future, a vision that might be really different than that which many of us have entertained over the years of our faith, and yet it is a profoundly Christian vision and one which is meant to carry us into and through Advent.

Now, there is no doubt that Revelation is a difficult book, and not one most Catholics (nor many mainline Protestants for that matter) have sat down to read. It is filled with imagery that needs to be decoded for us; the theology has been connected to cultic movements, some of them quite destructive, books about rapture and the antiChrist (despite the fact that neither word appears in Revelation), and generally associated with something very far from that of the other canonical books of the Bible. Critics have referred to its author as a drug addict, characterized its theology as that of a slaughtering Christ, spoken of its inclusion in the canon as an evil, and in less critical moments pointed out that at the very least it requires a revelation to decode it.

But if we think of the Bible as a library of books we might be surprised to find that Genesis and Revelation begin and end a great deal of history with very similar visions. Genesis begins with a view of God and human beings dwelling together in a garden. They walk together and it is only human sin that alienates human beings from this state. Today we read this text in two ways: 1) synchronically as a narrative about the original nature of the human/divine relationship and vision of the nature of earthly existence, and 2) diachronically as a vision of what human beings are therefore made for and what a renewed heaven and earth will one day look like. In Revelation, difficult and confusing details aside, John (et al) gives us a vision of an ultimate new creation, a "new heaven and a new earth" where "God is all in all" and death and sin are destroyed. God and human beings exist in communion with one another and God is revealed as God with us in the fullest sense.

The theme of "God with us" and the idea that this is truly the will of God occurs again and again throughout the Old and New Testament Scriptures. In Exodus God writes his law on the hearts of his people and gives them the Law -- a sign of the covenant between them, the covenant where God's faithfulness always means God is with his People in ways limited only by human sinfulness. God gives them explicit and detailed instructions on constructing the Tabernacle ("mishkan") a symbol of his dwelling (tabernacle or mishkan means dwelling) with his people in a way which allows his Shekinah or glory be revealed.

Similar instructions are given for the construction of the Temple in which heaven and earth meet and heaven (wherever God's sovereign presence is shared with and by others) interpenetrates our world. In his definitive revelation in Christ, Jesus, the new Temple of God, the One who penetrates the realms of sin and death and breaks down  the boundaries between sacred and profane, is explicitly named Emmanuel or God With Us. In the sending of the Spirit we are given a consoler so that God may be with us in a new and pervasive way while in the Church, her Eucharist and other Sacraments God reveals himself again and again as the One who would be God-With-Us. The Incarnation is not God's bandaid solution to the problem of human sin (though it does effectively deal with sin) but the definitive act in which God is revealed (made known and made real) in space and time as Emmanuel.

John's vision of a new heaven and a new earth in which God and human beings dwell in union with one another, where God is all in all, is not a vision we are used to imagining. We are more used to thinking in terms of dying, going to heaven and eventually being re-embodied in a resurrection there in heaven. But throughout our Scriptures the theme of creation and recreation, the remaking of heaven and earth into a single reality and a God whose will is to dwell with us, "walking side by side" with us (as is celebrated in Genesis' poetic imagery) recurs again and again.

Our own move into Advent invites us to open ourselves and our imaginations to God doing something new (kaine or qualitatively new!!) --- something beyond the historical Jesus we look back to, or even the risen Christ we know now. It is an invitation to share John's vision in Revelation and imagine the complete destruction of sin and death that was begun in Nazareth so long ago as well as our world's ultimate fulfillment in God's final act of new creation in Christ. Imagine a Kingdom in which human beings have a dwelling place in God's own heart while God as Love-in-Act is entirely at home in our own transfigured and glorified world. This, after all is John's great vision in Revelation and the image the Church gives us the day before we begin our Advent period of waiting and preparation. It is the vision Israel placed at the beginning of the OT as they characterized God as present and walking hand in hand with Adam and Even in the Garden. With this in mind, I would encourage folks to open themselves throughout Advent more and more to a new way of seeing reality, a new vision that is not only genuinely sacramental and sees reality as it is now, but, because God reveals his very nature and will as Emmanuel, also imagines reality's promised future which culminates in a new heaven and a new earth, a future in which God will be God-with-us in an exhaustive way.

Recommendations for Advent reading:

Elizabeth Johnson CSJ's Ask the Beasts, Darwin and the God of Love (The second part of the book is especially recommended but the whole is wonderful)

Ilia Delio, OSF, From Teilhard to Omega, Co-creating an Unfinished Universe

29 November 2014

Advent 1: In What Story Will we Stand? (Reprise)

A Poignant Conversation

Last week I spoke to a friend I haven't seen in a number of years. She has Alzheimer's and now lives in a different state. We have known each other since the early 80's  when we were both working with the same spiritual director and sometimes stayed at the Center for dinner or made retreat together. Today Denise remembers that time clearly as a watershed period of her life and it is a complete joy for her to talk about it. Doing so is part of what allows her to remain a hopeful and faithful person. It is a major part of her ability to remain herself. But her capacity for story has been crippled and to some extent reduced by her illness.

We are Made for Story

For me this conversation helped underscore a deep truth of our existence. Human beings are made for story. Story is an inescapable part of being truly human and we are diminished without it. It is not only a profound need within us but a drive which affects everything we are and do. Nothing happens without story. Nothing significant that happens in our life is unmediated by story.  When scientists reflect on and research this truth, they conclude we are hardwired for story. Neuroscientists have even located a portion of the brain which is dedicated to spinning stories. This portion of our brain sometimes functions to "console" and compensate one for the loss of story in brain disorders (amnesia, for instance) and I sometimes hear it at work in my friend Denise as she fills in the holes in her own memory for herself; but it is implicated in our quest for connection, context, and meaning in all its forms.

Thus scientists explain that story is actually the way we think, the way we relate to and process reality, the way we make sense of things and get our own hearts and minds around them. Whenever we run into something we don't understand or cannot control --- something we need to hold together in a meaningful way we invariably weave a story around it. Children do it with their dolls and crayons; Abused children do it and often have to be helped in later life to let go of these so they may embrace their place in a better, truer story. Physicians do it when they determine diagnoses and prognoses. Historians do it in explaining the significance of events. Scientists spin stories to explain the nature of reality. The complex stories they author are called theories. Like the myths of religious traditions, these narratives often possess a profound explanatory power and truth. They work to allow the development of technology, medicine, and the whole of the sciences, but they are stories nonetheless. And of course, gossips, know-it-alls and scam artists of all sorts routinely spin stories to draw us in and exploit our capacity and hunger for story.

We all know that stories are essential to our humanity.  At their best they help create a context, a sacred space and healing dynamic where we can be ourselves and stand authentically with others: Thus, when someone we love dies it is natural (human!) and even essential that we gather together to tell stories which help reknit the broken threads of our story into something new and hopeful, something which carries us into a future with promise. In a way which is similarly healing and lifegiving we offer strangers places in our own stories and make neighbors of them. We do the same with friends. Ideally, there is no greater gift we can give another than a place in our own stories, no greater compassion than our empathy for and appreciation of another's entire story. For good and ill our humanity is integrally linked to the fact that we are made for story. We reside and find rest within stories; they connect us to others. They are vehicles of transcendence which make sense of the past and draw us into the future. They link us to our culture, our families, our communities, our faith, and our church; without them we are left bereft of identity or place and our lives are empty and meaningless. 

We have only to look at the place story holds in our life in the Church to appreciate this. The creed we profess is not a series of disparate beliefs or dogmas but a coherent story we embrace more fully every time we repeat it and affirm "I believe" this. Our liturgy of the Word is centered on stories of all sorts --- challenging, inspiring, consoling us as only stories can do. Even the act of consecration is accomplished by telling a story we recount and embrace in our "Amen" of faith: "On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it saying. . . then he took the cup, blessed it saying. . .]] Stories like these, we know, provide the context and overarching narrative in which all things ultimately hold together and are meaningful.They make whole and holy. For this reason we yearn for them and honor them as sacred.

Our Capacity for Story is Both Blessing and Curse 

Augustine summarized all of this when he said, "O God, we are made for thee, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." He might well have said."O God your story is our own and our hearts are restless until they finally reside securely in that story". Just like physicists who are searching for that one theory of everything, we are each made for and in search of the story which makes complete and ultimate sense of our lives, the story which allows us to develop our own personal stories fully, the narrative framework which lets us be completely and exhaustively human. Christians recognize this blessed story as the Kingdom of God, God's own story.The challenge for each of us, I think, is to make this story our own. The problem? We already reside rather securely in other stories, other controlling narratives and myths. Because of our capacity and even our hunger for story our lives are full of scripts and tapes which conflict with the story we are offered in Christ. Some seem lifegiving but many do not serve us very well at all.

 For instance, when young persons opt to join a gang, they are choosing a particular story of status, community, belonging, power as opposed to powerlessness, and a place in a world which seems larger and more adult than the one they occupy already. Unless these things are distorted into badges of courage and achievement the narrative omits prison, death, the sundering of family relationships, loss of education, future, and so forth. Another example: when adults choose to have affairs they are buying into a story they tell themselves (and our culture colludes with this at every point) about freedom and love, youth, immediate gratification, sexuality and attractiveness. The part of the narrative they leave out or downplay is the part of the story we are each called to tell with our lives about personal integrity, commitment,  faithfulness, patience, and all the other things that constitute real love and humanity. 

What we are seeing here is the very essence of sin. It is no coincidence that the Genesis account of humanity's fall from "grace" (which is really a place in God's own life or "story") centers around the fact that at evil's urging Adam and Eve swap the story God tells them about themselves, their world, and their place in it for another one they prefer to believe. In THIS story eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil will not bring death; in THIS story God is a liar; in this story humanity grasps at godhead and lives forever anyway. So many of the scripts and tapes we have adopted are as distorted and destructive and they touch every part of our lives. Two of the most recent I heard are, "The poor are takers" and "Selfishness is a moral imperative and the key to the common good." But there are many others! Scripts about what real men and women do or don't do --- both in society and in our church --- about what freedom is, divine justice, what is required to gain God's love (despite the fact God gives it freely to anyone who will simply accept it), etc. As sinful human beings we are an ambiguous mixture of stories which make us true and those which stunt or distort us. Our capacity for story is both blessing and curse.

Story is also the way Home

If our capacity for story is both blessing and curse then it is also the way home. In particular the stories Jesus tells us are a primary way home. Jesus' parables are, in fact, one of the ways he works miracles. (If anyone --- even Webster's Dictionary --- ever tells you these parables are "simple religious stories with a moral" don't believe them! They are far more dynamic and dangerous than that!) Like every story, Jesus' parables draw us in completely, allow us to suspend disbelief, check our overly critical voices at the door, and listen with our hearts as well as our intellects. They create a sacred space in which we are alone with God and can meet ourselves and God face to face. No one can enter this space with us even if there are hundreds standing shoulder to shoulder listening to the same story. But Jesus' stories do more. As I have written here before: [[ When Jesus told parables, for instance, he did so for two related reasons: first, to identify and subvert some of the less than authentic controlling myths people had adopted as their own, and second to offer the opportunity to make a choice for an alternative story by which one could live an authentically human and holy life.

Parables, Jesus' parables that is, typically throw down two sets of values; two perspectives [or stories] are cast down beside one another (para = alongside, and balein = to throw down). One set represents the Kingdom of God; one the kingdom where God is not sovereign --- the realm the Church has sometimes called "the world". Because our feet are firmly planted in the first set of values, [the first set of stories or scripts], the resulting clash disorients us and throws us off balance; it is unexpected and while first freeing us to some extent from our embeddedness (or enmeshment) in other narratives, it creates a moment of "KRISIS" or decision and summons us to choose where we will finally put our feet down again, which reality we will stand firmly in and inhabit, which story will define us, which sovereign will author and rule us. ]] 

Will we affirm the status quo, the normal cultural, societal, personal, or even some of the inadequate religious narratives we cling to, or will we instead allow our minds and hearts to be remade and adopt God's own story as our own? Who will author us? Will it be the dominant culture, or the God who relativizes and redeems it? Where indeed will we put our feet down? In which story will we choose to walk and with whom? These are clearly the questions that face us during this season of Advent as we prepare our hearts for Christmas and a God who tells us his story in a most unexpected way.The fresh cycle of readings are an invitation to approach God's story with fresh ears and a willingness to have our lives reshaped accordingly. It is the story we are made and hunger for, the story in which we are made true and whole, the story in which nothing authentic of our lives is ever lost or forgotten. What greater gift can we imagine or be given?

26 November 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes. . .

e.e. cummings

This is one of those really special days for Americans, where we pause and give thanks for all that we have and can aspire to as the result of our liberty as citizens of the United States. For me it is a joy filled day because God has been so very good to me in so many ways. My life is rich with friends, love, meaning, fruitful ministry and work, and genuine freedom. In particular though, it is rich in the presence of God in an eremitical solitude which is full, empowering, and challenging. I am grateful beyond telling for this vocation and the freedom to respond to it. So many people have brought me to this place. . . ! I wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving Day. May we celebrate well the gifts and callings we have been given by God and may we remember and help empower to celebration those who might otherwise have reason to doubt or be grieved by the meaning of this day.

Update, Dominican Sisters of Iraq

Iraqi Dominican sisters in a happier time (2013)
Sisters in Happier Days, 2013

Dear all,
After four months of exile there are no signs of hope that the situation here in Iraq will be resolved peacefully.  Unable to think or make decisions, everything is vague and we feel as if we have been living a nightmare.  Christianity in Iraq is bleeding; so many families have left, and many are leaving to Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, preparing themselves for second immigration and an uncertain future.  We know not how long these families will be able to tolerate the burden and survive financially. 

The conditions remain the same for those of us in Iraq.  Many still are forced to stay in unfinished buildings on construction sites. In one place, a mall has been remodeled to accommodate families, with the hall divided merely with partitions. Although they are better than tents, they resemble dark, damp cages with no ventilation.   Most difficult of all is the lack of privacy.
There have been some attempts to provide containers and rent houses and flats, but this is not enough as the number of displaced people increases each day.  Many come from cold mountainous places. Psychologically, people are tired, worried, confused, and irritated –who would blame them? They are jobless, their children do not attend school, and young people are still waiting to start their academic year at the university –some tried to register at Kurdish Universities, but they were not accepted. All this is causing tremendous strain on the families, and the result is abuse and relationships that are unhealthy.  The problems are totally overwhelming, and it seems as if our efforts are amounting to nothing.

People have been stripped of their dignity and unjustly deprived of all their money and possessions. What money people do have cannot be withdrawn from banks as the central government has frozen their accounts. Moreover, some people desperately look for work, ready to labour for minimum wage.

Despite this, things would be much worse if it were not for the aide we have received from you and the many benefactors who have contributed what they can.

Thank you. Indeed, we are so grateful to you, and we have tried to help as many people as we can with these donations. Our focus has not been on the refugee centers and camps, as refugees at these centers are supported by the organization and the church. Rather we are trying to help those families who rent houses, but cannot support themselves. So we help them by providing bedding and clothing.

As for our community, we are extremely exhausted with concern for the family and friends we have who are unjustly forced to leave us.  Everyday we hope that tomorrow will be better, but our tomorrows seem to bring only more tears and hardship. Out of the depths we cry to Thee, Oh Lord!  When will you rescue us!

We desperately count on your prayers, and we need you carry us to Jesus like the men who brought the paralytic to Jesus.

God bless you,
Of St. Catherine of Siena –Iraq. 

Followup, The Sisterhood

 Well, I have to say that so far and much to my own surprise I am relatively impressed with the program. The Sisters are doing just what one would expect of contemporary women religious and we are seeing the clash of worlds that is so much a part of the vocation crisis today. Yet while the drama is, to some extent contrived and stereotypical, and while so much of the hype betrays a woeful lack of understanding of the nature of becoming a Sister (these young women are emphatically NOT Sisters (or nuns)-in-training, nor are they discerning a call to religious life; they are discerning WHETHER to discern a vocation WITH a congregation!!) some of it is quite compelling and important.

The "makeup meltdown" was one of those moments, I thought, because it underscored so much about what religious life seeks to witness to in contrast to "the world" of masks, lack of transparency, insecurity, and the struggle to love self as well as others, etc. In what consists real confidence? How do we let go of our fear of others' judgments, etc. How do we minister to others as those with our own sometimes visible defects, etc? I also thought the way Sister Mark handled the matter was good; she set the standard in a straightforward unequivocal way and pointed out that subsequently they would deal with matters as they came. (I thought her explanation of why the rule re makeup was imposed could have been a lot better and more substantive, but it seemed the pressures of the situation with cameras, Francesca's surprising and emotional response, and the need to keep things simple (as in sound bite accessible) caused her to struggle a bit to find the words.) Meanwhile, Francesca is a physically beautiful young woman; her acne doesn't change that and it certainly doesn't touch her inner beauty. If, in place of a deep insecurity regarding her appearance and the judgment of others, she can take away a sense of a much deeper security rooted in the love of a God who delights in us and calls us "imago dei" just as we are, that alone could make the series worth it.

After a night's sleep (I went to bed immediately after seeing the show which was on late here on the West Coast), what has stayed with me re the Sisterhood are the more positive aspects, and especially the overall dynamic of Sisters' authenticity vs the inauthenticity of so much of the culture which is resistant to or at least relatively naïve of Christ and integral faith in God. (That, by the way, includes inauthenticity framed in terms of certain forms of piety as well.) In this regard I especially liked Marie Therese's comment about traditionalism and concerns with whether or not such persons can pray with and otherwise minister effectively to those who are different than they. In that I think she had her finger on the most neuralgic problem of traditionalism, namely the relative inability of those holding this form of faith to evangelize rather than to proselytize.

I very much disliked the stereotypical approach to entering the convent because one has "trust issues with men". This is such a cliché! But I am also quite sure that many young persons will mistakenly perceive the world of religious life as the undemanding safe haven Eleni did. Certainly versions of this are operative in young adults who, before they have had time to explore anything else, occasionally seek to become hermits! It must be far more prevalent in those seeking to enter life in community. The character (Claire?) pronouncing on the prayer experiences of others or pretending to a theological and experiential sophistication in these matters made me both wince and smile. Hopefully she will outgrow this tendency. Meanwhile, I think Stacey most impressed me as having the potential to become a religious one day because of her (apparent) honesty and maturity. It may have been Sister Maria Therese (turns out it was Sister Cyril) who characterized her as comfortable in her own skin. While the process of this initial "come and see" experience will stretch her, she seems to me to be the only one truly comfortable in her own skin and that is a good place to start in approaching religious life! (If, of course, I can believe anything of what Lifetime is showing me here.)

Of all the characters, I found Christie to be the most obnoxious --- despite (or maybe because of) the fact that I resonate personally with the nuptial or 'Bride of Christ' imagery. Her references to Jesus as some sort of super lover or flirting boyfriend ("Whoa, Jesus, whoa! or, "Jesus is the best boyfriend/lover ever!"), etc,  really grated. (The same is only somewhat less true of Stacey's Surfer Dude Jesus.) Unfortunately, I think these images reflect an insufficiently eschatological, overly romanticized and even eroticized image of spousality in consecrated life which many CV's have naively embraced and witness to today. It is one which most religious have rejected, not because they necessarily reject the entire idea of being spouse of Christ but because the language, imagery, and other trappings which accompanied that iconic identity for so long actually distorted it. But Christie is young and spiritually naïve too; she can and hopefully will outgrow this as her relationship with Christ and her own sexuality (which involves a healthy and mature celibate expression for religious) and capacity for love matures --- unless of course, she is really just an actress  playing a stereotypical part --- who knows? It is unlikely to happen in six weeks though -- even if she is not simply playing a part in a TV show.

So, my overall evaluation of the show? A definite, if restrained, thumbs up and a commitment to watch other episodes to see how this really goes. It has genuine potential --- not least in its capacity to start conversations as folks seek to ask real Sisters and Nuns questions about religious life and the more usual and realistic process of discerning a religious call along with discussions re the difference between 'come and see' periods like this and actual formation. I also think the show thus has the potential to bring Sisters together in bridge-building ways that might not have occurred otherwise! Sisters are watching the show and are open to the conversations it can open up. I hope young people in particular take advantage of the opportunities this creates!

Followup on Hermit Formation

[[Dear Sister, Thank you so very much for your thoughtful and detailed response to my question.(cf., Questions on Formation) I suppose the one thing I fret about the most is my prayer life. I believe I have found a rich but simple way to pray that incorporates lectio and the psalter. It's modelled on the Liturgy of the Hours but is very simple. I find it very life giving. Part of what I like about it is its simplicity, ease of use and flexibility: For example here is what Morning Prayer looks like.... O God, come to my assistance etc. , Psalm 95 (Invitatory) Hymn (Usually the Eastern Orthodox "O Heavenly King" prayer to the Holy Spirit). Three Psalms (I pray 3 psalms, in order, at each office). 1 chapter from the OT and one from the NT. Contemplative/Intercessory Prayer, Our Father, Hail Mary, Benedictus, Closing collect (usually collect of the day from the Missal).  Evening prayer is similar except it has the Examination of conscience, Magnificat etc. I do keep track of feast days and the liturgical seasons as well.  [A reference to Compline was excerpted here]

On "hermit days" (days I can live in total solitude, like Saturdays and Sundays, because I still work in the world) I also pray the Angelus, Rosary and do other spiritual reading and journaling (in addition to exercise and some physical labour). Morning, Evening and night prayer are my foundations no matter what. I also spend long periods of the holidays and summers in solitude (I'm a teacher). As you can see, slowly but surely a rhythm of life is emerging as I experiment with this life and grow in it. I'm sorry if this email is long winded but I was hoping you could answer a few questions for me...

1) Do you think what I've described is an effective way to pray as a hermit (at least formally as your really praying all day)? This has become a very small point of disagreement between me and my director. He keeps saying I should pray the official LOTH. I tell him that I respect it but the mechanics of it drives me nuts. I like praying the full Psalms uninterrupted, I like that my prayer isn't constantly interrupted by flipping and rubrics etc. I like that when I pray I come before The Lord with just my Bible and before an icon of Him and Our Lady I pray in simplicity. I wonder that if God calls me to this life that I'll have to abandon this form of prayer for the LOTH. I know obedience is essential, but do you think that hermits are allowed to pray more freely than diocesan priests and religious? I know many monastic communities have crafted their own version of the office. Thoughts, advice and insights on this are greatly appreciated. ]]

First, I am glad my last post (cf., Questions on Formation) was of assistance to you. Many thanks as well for permission to post your response with its set of questions and especially some of the description of how you are proceeding in embracing the eremitical life more and more. I think they can be helpful to others who are looking for ways to do something similar.

On the Phrase "Still work in the world":

Before I move on to your questions though, allow me one quibble with your use of the term "the world" as in "I still work in the world." There are some "hermitages" (or putative hermitages!) that are every bit as much or more "the world" than the region you are describing. Remember that "the world" in the pejorative sense, the sense that canon law primarily refers to with c 603's,"stricter separation from the world" or the sense monastic mainly mean when they refer to fuga mundi (flight from the world), as well as the meaning of the term in the early Greek and/or Desert Fathers, was not the world as a whole (which they saw as God's good creation), nor even the populated world (which was ambiguous though essentially good), but rather, "that which is resistant to Christ."

I have written about this before, but let me quote from a commentary on John Climacus' Ladder. Climacus is quite strict in his approach to solitude but he can also be misunderstood when read literally and unhistorically. Thus, Vassilios Papavassiliou writes: "In this sense, 'the world' means all those things that are opposed to Christ and to our salvation. The world in the sense of God's creation is good, and we are all (even those living monastic life) a part of it. However remote monasteries or hermitages may be, all monastics lie beneath the same sun and moon, breathe the same air, and share the soil and the fruits of the earth with all humanity . . . There can be no ascetic life, no true spirituality of we are not willing to break with the world in terms of what we hold dear and what constitutes the focus of our lives. .  ." (Thirty Steps to Heaven, The Ladder of Divine Ascent for all Walks of Life, Ancient Faith Publishing, 2013) Canonists reflecting on the canons on religious life say something very similar in the Handbook on Canons 573-746: "'The world' is that which is unredeemed and resistant to Christ."

If you get in the habit of referring to everything outside your own home as "the world" you will be buying into a false dichotomy which idealizes your own physical space and demonizes that which is other while you also neglect the fact that "the world" in the pejorative sense is more primarily a matter of the heart and who has a claim on that than it is a reference to a geographical region. Moreover you will be setting yourself up for a spiritual elitism which is incapable of perceiving the inbreaking of the Kingdom in the unexpected or unacceptable place --- the very thing that happened to the Pharisees and led to Jesus' crucifixion --- or of standing in solidarity with others outside your home.

Similarly you will be viewing a world which is essentially and always potentially sacramental through a lens which prevents us from seeing that clearly. Finally, you will be at least subtly encouraging yourself to refrain from or avoid the conversion necessary to allow God's love to overcome the resistances within your own heart --- the most persistent and dangerous instances of "the world" any of us ever know. While I don't think you are guilty of this (I really can't know this) to shut the door of one's cell and to believe that one has thus effectively shut out "the world" is often merely a pernicious and arrogant deceit --- something that is one of the surest signs of a dangerously destructive worldliness. What is ordinarily much truer is that at best, we shut the door on the world out there so that, through the grace of God, we can do battle with the demons and world within us! Moreover, we do so in order to love our world and all that is precious to God into the wholeness for which it is made.

On the Way you are Praying, Strengths and Weaknesses:

Now, regarding the way you are praying, I think it has significant strengths and some weaknesses as well. At this point I think the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, but you should be aware that could change in time, especially as your life in solitude matures, and you will need to be open to that. One primary rule in prayer is always to pray as you can, not as you can't and you are doing that. You are creating and living a rhythm which will structure your entire life in time, and you are integrating lectio (or at least you have allowed for the opportunity to integrate lectio) into your prayer. Within your praxis of LOH you are combining psalmody, intercession and contemplative prayer in what will become an effective invitation to transition from one to another in the whole of your life. Finally, you are finding practical ways to center your prayer life on Scripture. My evaluation of all of this is very favorable. You show you have spent time thinking about this and the fact that you are attending to your feelings as well is significant and positive.

The weaknesses I mentioned are the result of the lack of variation in your office. You see, the official LOH re-enacts the rhythm from creation to death to resurrection and recreation. It does this again and again every day, every week, and over the space of the liturgical year. The hymns change, the antiphons do the same so that they can serve to highlight the main themes of the hours and tie them together with the readings and the season as well. The psalms are chosen for their themes and their relation to the time of day, season, etc. Ordinarily the entire psalm is not used at a given hour because the entire psalm tends to reflect different moods, tones, and themes. (There is similar point to the way readings are chosen, not only to highlight a particular theme but to choose a pericope which is conducive to lectio --- something whole chapters may not do or be.)

The purpose of the LOH is not simply to get us through all 150 psalms each day or week as early approaches to the Work of God did in their effort to pray without ceasing and sanctify the day, but to sanctify and celebrate (make prayer of) all of the moments and moods of human life in light of the rhythm of God's history among us as we mark that each day and over longer periods via the liturgical calendar. The emphasis differs. If you continue to pray the stripped down Office you have described without eventually participating more and more in the official LOH (or in a version of that adopted by the Camaldolese, Franciscans, Dominicans, etc which also use several week cycles, varying hymns and antiphons, and include Night prayer which can be sung and memorized easily) you miss many opportunities for making the whole of your life a prayer which resonates with the Church's official prayer. While this is not apt to be a matter of obedience in the narrow sense of someone in authority telling you to do this or refusing to profess you, it is likely to be a matter of obedience in the broader and more profound sense of hearkening to God's voice as it comes to us in the Church's liturgical life.

It is true the LOH is not easy to learn, especially on one's own. A large part of learning to pray it has to do with aural memory and an inculcation of its various rhythms (sound, gesture, etc) all of which are best experienced in choir and in community. Though I regularly sing Office I miss praying it in community and am still reminded of that every time I pray it. Even so its complexities are indicative of its richness and its ability to speak to, console, challenge, and convert us in every moment and mood of our life. I suspect your director knows this and may be coming from this POV rather than another more superficial one.

At this point in time you do not necessarily need to change the way you are praying, but I would seriously suggest you find a 1 volume copy of the Office (a book called Christian Prayer which has very little flipping back and forth) to supplement your current praxis. (If and when you decide to do this your director can assist you in doing so in a way which respects both your preferences and the important diversity and richness of the LOH. In learning the use of the LOH you may find it challenges temperamental tendencies or strengths within you so be aware that your preferences may be rooted both in your response to God as well as in your personal insecurities and resistance to the movement of the Holy Spirit.) Remember that the diocesan hermit's prayer is not only personal but ecclesial and a participation in the Church's own prayer. The LOH is a formative reality, that is, it is one of the major ways the Church forms herself as a People at prayer by forming individuals in the rhythms and themes of her liturgical and Christocentric life.

That said though, let me point out that only priests are canonically required to pray the LOH. Religious (who are not clerics) are canonically obliged to pray the LOH according to proper law, that is according to the constitutions of their congregation (or in the hermit's case, the Rule approved by her Bishop). Some hermits I know (I know one presently) do not pray the Office at all (though I admit I do not personally understand how this can be the case). Others, myself included, use the Office book of a specific congregation. I use the Camaldolese office book (consisting mainly of Lauds and Vespers, though it also has Compline); I do so because it is entirely geared to singing the hours and the psalm tones used are both simple and musically interesting (unlike something like the Mundelein office book which I tried a few years ago and found musically tedious). For Vigils, however, I use the four volume LOH, as I do for Scripture readings. Others use Franciscan office books or those of some other tradition. They may supplement their Office book with collections of readings for Vigils like those books (Augustinian Press I think) used by the Camaldolese, etc.

Becoming a Hermit, some Nuts and Bolts:

[[(2) Is this how a rule is crafted and the embrace of this life takes place? I think that it would be very hard to go cold turkey and become a hermit overnight. I'm finding that my immersion into this life and the crafting of a rule is gradual process. Slowly I'm spending more days alone in prayer. I'm not being weird about it. I still have life giving friendships and I'm involved with my family and my parish but the putting on of this life is happening slowly. I'm 38 years old and I imagine as I discern more and more and live this life that there will come a time where I naturally embrace this life full time. I already see it happening by ensuring my weekends and holidays are "hermit days".

From this I see a rhythm emerging. I like to keep my prayer life/devotional life very simple (hence my simple prayer office). I think it was St. Benedict who lauded short and simple prayer. Is this how a rule is developed? And is this how the call to eremitic life discerned? More insights, thoughts and advice are greatly appreciated. Thank you so very much for your help. Your insights are gold as I try to figure out this thing the Lord may be calling me to. ]]

Yes, I think generally this is how a Rule comes to be crafted. Over time we pay attention to the things which are lifegiving for us, the ways in which God comes to us, the ways in which we truly give ourselves and allow our hearts to be opened and formed in the love of Christ, etc as well as to those things which are traditionally part of the eremitical life; we build those into our life or otherwise make provision for them in ways which are most advantageous for our growth and an integral obedience to God. As you probably already know, a Rule is not merely a list of do's and don'ts, nor a system of abstract principles or values. It is, in the language of canon 603, a Plan of Life, a plan for the way we can best live our God-given, God-willed lives in the fullest and most integral way possible. You seem to me to be approaching this in just the right way no matter what form of life it leads you to or eventually best expresses (the more definitive Rule or plan of life you eventually write --- for you will probably write several in the next years --- may or may not be an eremitical one).

At this point I would not say you are discerning an eremitical vocation so much as you are discerning the place of prayer and some (perhaps a significant amount of) solitude and silence in your life. Your "hermit" days are what are usually called "desert days" or "days of recollection" and active religious will also take such days. However, at  some point you may well make a relatively complete break with the life you live now and embrace one of the silence of solitude. But whether this is as a hermit or a contemplative religious or monastic, a dedicated lay person who enjoys the kind of non-eremitical solitude so many older and retired adults live today, etc, is still unclear, undecided, and untried. While it may be hard to go "cold turkey" and while one can and will certainly grow into this vocation, until one is living fulltime silence and solitude and has undertaken the renunciations and, to some extent, the obligations associated with an eremitical life, until, that is, one has spent time testing the true extent to which solitude has opened the door to one as a way to be one's truest and best self, I don't think one can speak of discerning an eremitical vocation per se.

You may have noticed the post on the new Lifetime series, "The Sisterhood". It has been billed as being about women discerning religious life. In actual fact they are discerning WHETHER to enter a congregation and mutually discern such a vocation with them. While one can see to what extent one feels immediately drawn to or repulsed by such a life by such experiences, until one actually enters the life, one is discerning something other than the life itself.  Until one risks losing oneself in a radical way on this solitary (or any other vocational) path neither will one be able to discover if it is what God is calling one to and thus, to 'find oneself' there. As you well know yourself, one can take education courses, work as a classroom aide and even substitute teach from time to time but unless and until one takes a fulltime job teaching for both discernment and critical formation, one does not know if one is truly called to it. Eventually one has to put it all on the line and take that job to see. Still,  I do think you are preparing and preparing well for eventually embracing the more radical break and risk required to enter into that particular discernment process at some point in time.

Overall then, I believe you are proceeding in just the right way and in the way you need to do for now. I am impressed with the way you are working on your prayer and penitential life and coming to know yourself (prayer, journaling, creation of a simple version of the LOH, commitment to spiritual direction, etc). More, I am very grateful that you would share this part of your journey here and allow me to comment on it. Thank you again.

25 November 2014

The Sisterhood

Tonight on Lifetime TV a new series begins which purports to be the story of five young women discerning religious life. A number of Sisters and other friends who support Sisters and Nuns from all over the country began a conversation about the program more than a week ago and are now looking forward to seeing the first episode. I think that everyone who has participated in this conversation is at least concerned about the "unreality" of the show and a number are downright cynical. After all, the women "discerning" are really actresses.

But most also see this as a real opportunity to open the world of religious life up to those to whom it is entirely mysterious and allow comments and questions to be fielded by real religious; especially it will be an opportunity to gain more insight into the whole process of discerning a religious vocation --- a process most of us consider lifelong, sacred, and immensely more demanding and complex than most realize. (Sister Marie Therese says in the clip below that she has been trying to be a Carmelite for thirty-four years and has found nothing better so she will keep on trying! Discernment is a matter of listening and prayerfully coming to the best response possible to the humanity to which we are each called. We never cease discerning.) To that end a number of Sisters from various congregations will be participating in chats, tweeting during and after the show, and so forth.

Others of us will be posting blog pieces reviewing the show and contributing to the discussion in that way. If you are interested in some of these possibilities please check out A Nun's Life Ministry for a number of links and opportunities including to #TheSisterhood. An ongoing discussion can be found on Facebook in the I Support Catholic Sisters and Nuns group. A few clips from the show are included below. From my limited experience of Sisters Mark, Marie Therese, and Cyril in these clips, it looks like the show will be reflective of religious life to the limited extent they can make that clear in this format. That is encouraging when other things (e.g., the use of actresses as candidates and the bizarre unreality of "reality" TV) might not be.

The Faces of Gratitude

Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:9-11) 

I have written here recently about gratitude and also spoken about it in my parish in connection with recent daily readings. Sometimes it is hard to remember that, as Br David Steindl-Rast teaches so well, gratitude is the heart of prayer but I will bet that the images of gratitude in the following video will be hard to forget!

The story is this: A young boy desires a tablet for his birthday. His mom decides to prank him and wraps a cutting board up to make him think he got the tablet. Despite his disappointment (which he tries to hide), he shows gratitude for the present. Next he is given a shoebox and while shoes might be cool, they are not a tablet.

Or are they?  In line with David Steindl-Rast's comments, Abraham Heschel once wrote that "prayer is our humble response to the inconceivable surprise of living". The boy's response (I wish I knew his name!) is a wonderful picture of gratitude and a terrific image of the attitude of prayer we are to have for (and express with) the gift of our lives.

21 November 2014

Pro Orantibus Day (Reprise from 2013)

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Mary and also "pro orantibus" (i.e., "for those who pray") day --- the occasion on which the Church especially recognizes and honors the vocations of contemplative and cloistered religious. In light of that I am putting up the video of last year's visit by Pope Francis to the Camaldolese nuns on the Aventine in Rome where they sang Vespers and spent some time in silent prayer. Francis also toured the monastery and the cell of Sister Nazarena (cf, Pope to visit Camaldolese Nuns).

The Camaldolese chant (the music is Camaldolese as is that of the psalms) sung at the beginning of Evening Prayer is well-known to all Camaldolese in the US (though we sing it in English); typically it is sung at the beginning of Sunday or Festal Vespers. We pray that our prayer may rise to God like incense. The cantor appropriately raises her arms to God in the Traditional symbol of prayer within the Church as she sings, "Like incense, let my prayer come before you O God, the lifting of my arms like an evening oblation."

The above feed includes a period of silent adoration following Vespers accompanied by Benediction. I invite you to take the time to truly enter into the silence (the organ music will signal the end of this period so you will hear when it is time to bring this part of your prayer to an end); allow yourself to be accompanied into that silence by the prayers of contemplatives everywhere. This is, after all, the essence of our lives and the gift we bring to the Church and world.



Monastery of St Anthony the Abbot - Rome
Thursday, 21 November 2013 

Let us contemplate the one who knew and loved Jesus like no other creature. The Gospel that we heard reveals the fundamental way Mary expressed her love for Jesus: by doing the will of God. “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mt 12:50). With these words Jesus leaves us an important message: the will of God is the supreme law which establishes true belonging to him. That is how Mary established a bond of kinship with Jesus even before giving birth to him. She becomes both disciple and mother to the Son at the moment she receives the words of the Angel and says: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). This “let it be” is not only acceptance, but also a trustful openness to the future. This “let it be” is hope!

Mary is the mother of hope, the icon that most fully expresses Christian hope. The whole of her life is a series of episodes of hope, beginning with her “yes” at the moment of the Annunciation. Mary did not know how she could become a mother, but she entrusted herself totally to the mystery that was about to be fulfilled, and she became the woman of expectation and of hope. Then we see her in Bethlehem, where the One proclaimed to her as the Saviour of Israel and as the Messiah is born into poverty. Later, while she was in Jerusalem to present him in the Temple amid the joy of the elderly Simeon and Anna, a promise is also made that a sword will pierce her heart and a prophecy foretells that he will be a sign of contradiction. She realizes that the mission and the very identity of this Son surpasses her own motherhood. We then come to the episode of Jesus who is lost in Jerusalem and is then called back: “Son, why have you treated us so?” (Lk 2:48), and to Jesus’ reply that takes away her motherly anxiety and turns to the things of the Heavenly Father.

Yet in the face of all these difficulties and surprises in God’s plan, the Virgin’s hope is never shaken! The woman of hope. This tells us that hope is nourished by listening, contemplation and patience until the time of the Lord is ripe. Again at the wedding in Cana, Mary is the mother of hope, which makes her attentive and solicitous to human affairs. With the start of his public ministry, Jesus becomes the Teacher and the Messiah: Our Lady looks upon the mission of the Son with exultation but also with apprehension, because Jesus becomes ever more that sign of contradiction foretold by the elderly Simeon. At the foot of the Cross, she is at once the woman of sorrow and of watchful expectation of a mystery far greater than sorrow which is about to be fulfilled. It seemed that everything had come to an end; every hope could be said to have been extinguished. She too, at that moment, remembering the promises of the Annunciation could have said: they did not come true, I was deceived. But she did not say this. And so she who was blessed because she believed, sees blossom from her faith a new future and awaits God’s tomorrow with expectation.

At times I think: do we know how to wait for God’s tomorrow? Or do we want it today? For her the tomorrow of God is the dawn of Easter morning, the dawn of the first day of the week. It would do us good to think, in contemplation, of the embrace of mother and son. The single lamp lit at the tomb of Jesus is the hope of the mother, which in that moment is the hope of all humanity. I ask myself and I ask you: is this lamp still alight in monasteries? In your monasteries are you waiting for God’s tomorrow?

We owe so much to this Mother! She is present at every moment in the history of salvation, and in her we see a firm witness to hope. She, the mother of hope, sustains us in times of darkness, difficulty, discouragement, of seeming defeat or true human defeat. May Mary, our hope, help us to make of our lives a pleasing offering to the Heavenly Father, and a joyful gift for our brothers and sisters, in an attitude that always looks forward to tomorrow.

Questions on Formation of the Hermit

[[Apart from having a good spiritual director, study and of course prayer; how else can one learn the eremitic way? Do you suggest that someone discerning such a vocation put themselves under the tutelage of a professed hermit (this seemed to be the norm in the early Church and  Middle Ages. There are many stories of young anchorites being guided by holy women in their vocation) or perhaps spend time with a solid hermit community, like the Monastic Family of Bethlehem or the Carmelite Hermits in Texas, to learn this vocation?

As you've noted, Vatican 2 and the new Code of Canon Law revived this  vocation. While the hermit life is ancient, those reviving it are also pioneers in that they are at the forefront of reviving this call. My concern is that without being properly formed one could run into m[an]y (sic?) mental and spiritual difficulties. How do I learn to live this life? I'm trying to discern this and apart from reading, study and most of all prayer, frequenting the sacraments and solitude I have no idea if I'm doing any of this right. Are there support groups or something for those in discernment? What do you advise?]]

Hi there and thanks for writing again. First, the idea of being guided in this vocation by a perpetually professed hermit (largely today's equivalent of the elders and mentors of old) is a good one. It is traditionally the way most folks came to eremitical life and is ideal. However, opportunities for going to live with an eremitical community apart from seriously discerning a vocation with such a group do not really exist today. What I mean is that today a person cannot generally determine they are called to life under canon 603 (life as a solitary hermit) and also go off to live with a community like those you have mentioned. One can ordinarily do one or the other but not both (though one might, with one's diocese's help, arrange to stay occasionally for a number of weeks at a monastery or hermitage to experience certain values and realities which are a daily reality there -- not least the rhythm and balance of the life and the pervasive silence and attitudes of attentiveness that accompany everything one does; this differs from what you have described I think).

To ease this difficulty a little at least, members of the Network of Diocesan Hermits (perpetually professed diocesan hermits) will consider working with an individual if their diocese requests it. (While we may work informally with others, the fact is there are relatively few of us and none of us has the time to mentor every person who writes or contacts us about becoming a hermit; some initial discerning needs to be done by dioceses!) Ordinarily this means that someone who has lived solitude for a time, who is considered by a diocese to be, potentially at least, a candidate for canon 603 profession, and who is working with a spiritual director and meeting with diocesan personnel regularly, can also talk regularly with someone from the Network to be sure they understand what it means to be living an eremitical life (as opposed to an individualistic life of physical isolation), are able to discern whether or not they are well suited to it, and are growing in this without getting stuck on relative trivialities or superficialities, etc. The Network also has a group/website set up for aspirants which gives them a chance to share with one another -- though at the present time no one is part of that group.

Remain in your Cell and Your Cell Will teach you Everything:

Even so,  these possible pieces of assistance aside, it is important to remember that the main teacher of any hermit is going to be God in and through the silence of solitude itself. The desert Fathers' and Mothers' wisdom about dwelling or remaining in your cell and your cell teaching you everything remains essentially as true today as it was in the 4-6th centuries. Add to this the main elements of canon 603, which define a life of assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, the evangelical counsels all lived for the praise of God and the salvation of the world, and you will find set before you a way of living a profoundly Christian life in solitude which you and God together will live out in your own way. As you move more and more deeply into this life with the help of your director (who, it seems to me, functions as the desert mentors of old once did), you will find either it truly resonates with you or does not; you will also find that it is a means to abundant and mature life in Christ for you or is not. If this way of living leads you to abundant life in Christ, if in fact it makes you more loving, patient, longsuffering, compassionate, honest (humble), etc, then it itself is right for you and your response to God is, at least generally, also as it should be.

The question about "doing it right" for the hermit is at its heart, always really a question about what God is calling us to in solitude and how integral and generous our response to this call has been or is coming more and more to be. For instance, as part of praying my life I pray in several different ways each day; these forms of prayer allow me to respond to God with all parts of myself (heart, mind, body, etc). Over the years I have dropped certain ways of praying or adopted others, always in response to God's own call to be fully alive and fully myself in and as a response to God's summons and love. No one says I must pray in this way or that. Assiduous prayer and penance is the goal and means to living this life but no one spells out what this means in detail. Over a period of several years you will try all the forms of prayer which are central to a life of prayer and determine which of these are best for you at this time. Over a period of more years you will discern which ones are important for you during times of illness, which ones are especially helpful in getting you through periods of stress or tedium, which ones almost invariably speak to your heart or kindle the fires of your mind, or are most difficult for you or console you in loss and grief. Even more importantly you will come to know the ways God calls you to wholeness and in responding you will become God's own prayer in the world.

The same is true of penance and the other central elements of the canon. There are certain building blocks for a life of assiduous prayer and penance. One explores these and, in response to God's call to, life, truth, beauty, integrity, wholeness, holiness, justice, love, compassion, etc, discerns which of these building blocks lead one more and more to become an expression of these dimensions of God's own life. Of course, it is not merely a matter of learning to be a hermit but rather of discerning whether or not one is CALLED to be one. If one is, then the central elements of canon 603 will lead to greater and greater personal wholeness and holiness with all these entail. If not, then no amount of teaching can help a person embrace this life or move from external silence and physical solitude to the silence of solitude which is a matter of the heart. As I have written before while citing Thomas Merton, Solitude herself must open the door to the hermit. If she does not, then no degree of teaching, tutoring, direction, or supervision, etc, will help.

On the other hand, if one is truly called to this life (whether as a lay hermit or a consecrated hermit), then provided one has a good spiritual director with whom one meets regularly and is assiduous in keeping her vows and other commitments (including to the personal work which stems from direction), the chance of making serious mistakes is truly minimal. There WILL be difficulties to negotiate; that is part and parcel of any vocation leading to true growth in authenticity. Formation is an ongoing reality and for the hermit, unless she enters a community of hermits, even "initial" formation takes a period of many years (and certainly more than canon law calls for for those in formation with a community). The point is, however, the heart of this vocation is a solitary relationship with God in which one responds to God's love and mercy in all that one is and does. There is no cookie cutter pattern of what this looks like nor of what formation entails but to the extent it is authentic it all goes by the name "the silence of solitude" and one knows it when one sees it. (What I mean here is that the fruits of such growth in authenticity will be plain for all to see.) Neither does one reach a point at which one can say "I'm done with formation!" Instead the fundamental Rule, again, is to remain in one's cell and one's cell will teach one everything. (By the way, among other things, this can mean for one called to solitude that the cell will become a place in which new life is fostered and incredible growth nurtured; for one not called to solitude, life in cell will torment the unfortunate aspirant and leave them in misery, personal disintegration, and pain. God is not absent in such circumstances but he calls the aspirant to fullness of life elsewhere.)

Committing to a Spirituality of Discernment:

Because this is true all one can really do is commit to a spirituality of discernment which requires spiritual direction and regular frank discussion with others who accompany one in one way and another. (One's pastor, confessor, Vicar or Bishop --- if one is working with a diocese --- good friends who are honest with us, etc.) At every point one attends to the way life in solitude affects one and acts accordingly. Is one growing? Is one profoundly happy in Christ? Is suffering --- to whatever degree it is real, a subtext of one's life, not the main theme? Is one able to use the gifts God gives them and does one love better and more deeply in real concrete situations with real persons? Is the call of solitude herself something one experiences or does it seem that one has embraced an ascetical discipline which is merely external to oneself? I should note here, one's goal must not be to become a diocesan hermit but rather to be a hermit (a desert dweller) living the silence of solitude day in and day out. I cannot stress this enough. Over time one MAY find that one is called to be a diocesan hermit professed and consecrated under canon 603, but even if one does not find this to be the case, one has lived each day well as God called one to do. That is and always will be the measure of "success" for any hermit, whether lay or consecrated; for that matter it is similarly the measure of success of any Christian and any human being. In approaching questions of success and failure, or fears regarding serious mistakes, this is far and away the most important thing.

It occurs to me that perhaps you have questions about specific mistakes which I might address more particularly. If that is the case, please let me know what kinds of things you are thinking of; that would be helpful to me as well. In the meantime, all good wishes.

17 November 2014

Pope Francis Will Visit the United States in 2015

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Monday officially announced that he will visit the U.S. in September 2015, including a visit to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and New York City.

“I wish to confirm, if God wills it, that in September of 2015 I will go to Philadelphia for the Eighth World Meeting of Families.” he announced at Vatican City’s Synod Hall Nov. 17 during his remarks at an international colloquium on the complementarity of man and woman.

The Philadelphia World Meeting of Families will take place from Sept. 22-27. Even before the Pope’s announcement, the meeting was expected to draw tens of thousands of people. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia had told a gathering of Catholic bishops last week that a papal visit would likely result in crowds of about 1 million.

A global Catholic event, the world meeting seeks to support and strengthen families. St. John Paul II founded the event in 1994, and it takes place every three years.

Archbishop Chaput had previously hinted that Pope Francis would attend the 2015 meeting, although he cautioned that the visit had not been officially confirmed. In March 2014, a Pennsylvania delegation including Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter visited the Vatican to help encourage the Pope to visit the U.S.

On Thursday, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the head of the Holy See’s permanent observer mission to the United Nations, told the Associated Press “if he comes to Philadelphia, he will come to New York.” The 70th anniversary of the U.N.’s founding would be “the ideal time” for a papal visit, the archbishop said Nov. 13. Next year also marks the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s 1965 visit to the U.N., the first such visit from a Pope.

In August, on his return flight from South Korea, Pope Francis said he wanted to visit the U.S. in 2015 for the Philadelphia gathering. He also noted that he had received invitations from President Barack Obama, Congress and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, as well as from Mexico.

However, despite the anticipation of the Pope’s possible visit to New York and Washington while in the U.S., Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi told journalists shortly after the announcement that as of now nothing else is confirmed.

The Pope, he explained, “didn’t say anything about any other steps or moments in his trip to America. He guaranteed his presence to the organizers of the World Day for Families, but as for the rest, I have no concrete information.”

Pope Francis has visited the Holy Land and Albania as well as South Korea. He will visit France and Turkey in November, and Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January 2015. He will return to France for a longer visit in 2015. In June, the Pope accepted an invitation to visit Mexico, though a date for the visit was not announced. 

The World Meeting of Families will take place shortly before the October 2015 meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, which will discuss the mission of the family in the Church and in the world. At the last World Meeting of Families in Milan, Italy, in 2012, more than 1 million people representing 153 nations attended a papal Mass with Pope Benedict XVI.

The 2015 meeting’s theme is “Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive.” The meeting will include many speakers and breakout sessions. Keynote speakers include Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, Cardinal Robert Sarah, Professor Helen Alvaré, and Dr. Juan Francisco de la Guardia Brin and Gabriela N. de la Guardia.

The Philadelphia meeting will mark the first time that the event will be held in the United States. Registration for the 2015 World Meeting of Families began on Nov. 10.

15 November 2014

On the Commonality of Eremitical Experiences

[[Sister Laurel, I was reading about online hermits and I came upon the following comment. [[I yearn to read about the experiences of other hermits; but so much of what is written is about hermits not by hermits, or is so coated in Christian mythology that the experience itself is inaccessible to a non-believer (though i believe the experiences, as hermits, of hermits of all beliefs is approximately the same. ]] You have posted about anchorites from other traditions before so I know you consider them real hermits and see some commonality between yourself and them. Do you think the experience of hermits of all religions (or no religion) is about the same?]]

Well, this is a really interesting comment! Also your's is an interesting question and I am torn regarding the answer to it. On the one hand, it seems to me that while the external characteristics of hermits' lives tend to be similar, I don't believe the experience of a Christian Hermit can be divided up (compartmentalized) in terms of external and interior so easily as all that.

You see, they are Christian hermits and their experience is of Christ and Christianity --- though mediated by and within eremitical solitude and silence. It is true that the experience of the Christian hermit is probably somewhat inaccessible to someone who does not believe at all, but it is not true that this is because their experience is "coated" in Christian Mythology. (Never mind for the moment that if the author is using the term "Mythology" in the common rather than technical (theological) sense the characterization is rather offensive.) It is because the experience of Christian eremitical solitude is an integral one which is empowered by and focused on God in Christ. As I have said so many times here, eremitical solitude for the diocesan hermit (that is, the solitary Catholic hermit) is not simply a matter of being alone, but rather it is a matter of being alone with God (in Christ) for the sake of others. One cannot take away any of these elements and have the same reality nor be speaking of the same experience. They are not so much a bit of icing on the cake as they are like the egg or the oil in the batter. They cannot be teased apart.

People go off into solitude for many different reasons. When they do so their lives may look similar to one another, especially to the degree they embrace silence and stricter separation from the world (meaning here the world of activity, commerce, media, family, society, etc). There is physical isolation and silence, physical or manual labor, intellectual labor, recreation, other chores, etc. But these are not the heart of the eremitical vocation for the diocesan (that is, the solitary Catholic) hermit. The heart of the life for the diocesan hermit is "the silence of solitude" which is essentially an inner experience of communion with God sought in service of God and all those precious to God; it is largely the fruit of prayer (the conscious act of letting God be actively and effectively present within us) in all of its forms. A misanthrope might well do many of the things I do all day, but the motivation for her life would differ radically and so would the nature of her eremitical experience. So too the person who is agoraphobic, the introvert merely desiring time for herself apart from others, or the artist seeking a space and time to do her painting, composing, or writing, for instance. We might all be hermits but the eremitical experience is radically different (that is, it differs at the roots and so too at the "branches" and "tips") for each of us.

For me the "clothes" or "coating" of my life, at least to some extent, are the externals. The heart is precisely the Christianity I live through and within those. While I don't mean to suggest these externals are unimportant or peripheral (they are not!), it is the heart of my life which conditions and transforms the externals making them prayer and transforming them into mediators of the Good News. When I do chores it is with a mindfulness attentive to the gift of these things; it is intended to glorify God (that is to allow God to reveal Godself in and through my entire life), to express both the gift of my life and to celebrate the giver.

When I study, the same dynamic is at play -- though in a way dependent on my own curiosity, intellectual excitement, patience, and profound searching. At prayer I am aware of being at God's service, of waiting on and for him, allowing him to love me as he desires to, of delighting him, of being a part of the completion of God's will to be all in all and to love his world into wholeness. At meals I celebrate a God who nourishes us in unceasing, ordinary, everyday ways which are also, by their very nature, extraordinary. When I am ill or otherwise struggling and unable to do chores or sing psalms or concentrate on a page of theology or a bit of exegesis, I trust (and feel) that my weakness is transformed by the powerful Love of God into something of ineffable and inestimable worth. In sleep I celebrate a God who "gives to his beloved (in) sleep", who saves me from annihilation in death and pierces the darknesses of my life with his light. These experiences which each and all proclaim that God alone is sufficient for us are the very essence of my eremitical life, not trappings in which the life is "coated" or clothed. Again, I can no more tease the Christian apart from the eremitical than I can separate my body from my soul and remain a person.

On the Commonalities of all Hermit Lives:

On the other hand it must be clearly stated that God who is the ground, source, and goal of all meaningful existence goes by many names and that there are more partial experiences of God which are universally accessible, especially in solitude. We are all more and less human and yearn for that which fulfills, perfects, and completes us. We seek authenticity. We are in touch with our own weakness and smallness even as we sense the dignity we each possess or else, I suspect, we could not dwell in solitude without the supports and distractions of ordinary life. Discovering one's true self and personal integrity are high values for each of us, I think --- at least for hermits who are not using solitude as an escape.  Getting in touch with a higher or deeper reality which grounds us and the meaning of our existences I think is a common experience and even goal for hermits of all stripes  (this would include the artist, author, or composer, of course whose quest is also similar to the religious hermit's) --- with the exception, again, of those for whom solitude is escapist.  And yet, even when this is not a hermit's goal, I suspect that the horizon of life in solitude raises the question in a particularly acute way for each of us. (cf Anchoritism is not only Christian for an example of a Buddhist solitary whose quest and heart are similar to a Christian hermit's.) Similarly, I think most hermits find solitude healing; it is a way to let go of the various impersonations and insanities that we have assumed in our lives apart from solitude.

I speak of all of these things in Christian terms because Christianity reflects the  most acute form of these questions and their answers that I know. It allows me to plumb the depths of the question I am and the answer God is in the rarefied environment of solitude, and to do so with an ultimate assurance I think is necessary for such a radical exploration and quest. However I can, to some extent, also speak of these things in philosophical or non-religious terms, and perhaps this is what the person you cited was yearning for; perhaps it is the lack of this that she was bemoaning. For me it is a less adequate way to deal with my own eremitical experience; it is incomplete and to some extent, too abstract. Even so, while I assert that my Christian experience is the heart of my eremitical experience I believe that all authentic hermits who are not merely seeking to escape life and its questions and challenges experience a similar searching and finding as noted in the paragraph above.

By the way, I do agree with the person you quoted about so much stuff about hermits being written by non-hermits. Today it is often a word used to describe anyone who maintains an essential privacy or who is alienated in some significant way. It is also adopted by folks as a kind of "cool" description despite the fact that they know nothing of silence, solitude and most certainly "the silence of solitude." I regularly search the internet for blogs by and about hermits. Very few are written by real hermits -- of whatever stripe. Most are associated with wannabe's or those who think the reference is a kind of good joke on their readers. Many of the rest are by hermits of various religious and non-religious stripes who are still trying to validate isolation and a failure to love neighbor or even self and God. Only a handful are written by hermits for whom the silence of solitude is a divine call -- whether that issues in an explicitly religious eremitism or not.

Thanks again for the quote and for your question. They are things I will be thinking about for some time to come and this means they will be a source of life and nourishment for me in approaching this vocation of mine. I am very grateful.