28 February 2014

The Silence of Solitude: Goal and Charism of the Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sr Laurel, I am trying to build more silence and solitude into my life so that I can become a hermit. You and canon 603 speak of the silence OF solitude though. What is the difference? Does this have to do with what you mean when you refer to having become a hermit in some essential way before contacting my diocese?]]

Relatively speaking I have written a lot in this blog about the silence of solitude as context, means and goal of the eremitical life. I have tried to convey how and why the phrase "the silence of solitude" an originally Carthusian term means so much more than silence AND solitude, especially merely external silence and solitude. Your question helps me build on the blog article I wrote a little while back on why my vocation is not the personification of selfishness. (cf, Notes From Stillsong, A Vocation to Selfishness?) Especially it lets me add  to what I have already said about this defining element of canon 603 and the charism of the vocation. Thank you for that. As your question notes, the silence of solitude is indeed a key to understanding what I mean when I say that someone must become a hermit in some essential way before approaching their diocese with a request to be admitted to a process of discernment, much less to public profession of eremitical vows.

I have cited the following paragraph a couple of times here:  [[As a hermit I am not silent (or solitary) for instance, because woundedness and pain have rendered me mute and cut off from others, but because silence and solitude are the accompaniment and context for profound speech and articulateness. Silence is part of the music of being loved completely by God; it is a piece of allowing the separate notes of one's life to sound fully, but also to be connected to one another so that noise is transformed into a composition worthy of being heard and powerful and true enough to be inspiring to others. It is an empowered silence and solitude, the silence of solitude, which finds its source in God's love and reflects relatedness to God and others at its very core. Something similar could be said of all of the elements which comprise the life described in Canon 603. The eremitical life, especially in its freedom, is one of relatedness and love in all of its dimensions.]]

The silence of solitude is what results when we are loved profoundly by God and are healed sufficiently to love ourselves, God, and all who are precious to God as well. When this is the case an individual stands silently alone with God, at peace, herself, free of  bondage or destructive enmeshment. She is herself but that self is a covenantal or dialogical Event with God as ground and counterpart because that is the very nature of the human self.

To understand this I think we might start by reflecting on the fact that eremitical solitude is a torment for the person who cannot love herself and therefore cannot trust or must continually contend with the inescapable love of God. Unfortunately, this is such a prevalent affliction, that the early Desert Fathers and Mothers battled demons --- usually the demons of their own hearts --- in a way which made doing so emblematic of desert spirituality. Every hermit I have ever read or spoken to knows that the torment of the hermitage stems from our own inability to love ourselves or exorcise the resultant demons of our own hearts. Whether we are speaking of the need for distractions, the inability to pray, actual violations of our vows, deviations from our Rule or excesses in penitential practices, bitterness and misanthropy, or even narcissism, the source is some form of discomfort with ourselves which, often, is a form of self-hatred. In such instances we are isolated or solitary, but the silence of solitude is far far from us.

On the other hand, every hermit I know, have read, or have spoken to, every hermit who is "the real deal" also knows in the depths of their souls that to the extent these battles have been won and their demons exorcised by the grace of God (that is, by the powerful presence of God in their lives), the silence of solitude is the result. One image of this reality comes back to me again and again. It was a picture I cut out during initial formation of two young girls sitting side by side on a curb. They were quiet, sitting in the sun, simply enjoying the brilliant day and each other and there was an aura of quiet joy about the picture; they were also sharing a Popsicle and one was handing it over to the other for her turn. For me this typifies "the silence of solitude" as well as does an image, say, of a person reading quietly or sitting silently and gratefully at a hermitage window while taking their noontime meal. In the hermit's case, however, the second young girl is God and more occasionally anyone who is precious to God.

When I speak of being a hermit in some essential sense then, I mean that one is a person who has, to some real extent, come to this quies or peace of heart marked by compassion, generosity, and relative selflessness. Further, they have been brought there by living a life of physical silence and solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, poverty and chastity, all geared to hearkening to the Word of God and they feel called to continue living in this way for the glory (revelation) of God and the salvation of others. Silence and solitude are elements contributing to a person's coming to and living out the silence OF solitude but it is the silence OF solitude which is especially characteristic of the eremitical life; it is the charism or gift hermits in particular bring to the Church and world. One may build  all kinds of silence and solitude in the physical and external senses into one's life, but it is the silence of solitude rooted in communion with God for the sake of others which is the goal and defining characteristic of the genuine hermit.

Is Pastoral just a code word for "feel-good theology"?

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, isn't it really the case that pastoral theology has more to do with making people feel good than it does with being faithful to doctrine and moral theology? Bishop D. Sanborn has remarked, accurately in my estimation, that when the supposed Pope Francis speaks of concerns being pastoral he really means that the Church will be more concerned with a feel-good "theology" than the truth of the faith. I know you won't admit this but isn't it the case that putting pastoral concerns first means putting truth second?]] (cf, The Revolution Speeds Up for the context in which these comments were made. Link supplied and added after this post was written.)

Thanks for your questions. When you speak of Bishop Sanborn I take it you are referring to the sedevacantist bishop, is that correct? I am not going to write a lengthy response here, not least because I don't think Bp Sanborn's conclusions (assuming you have quoted him accurately) merit them (if accurate, they are a caricature and are disingenuous and lack nuance and subtlety), but also because you have indicated ("I know you won't admit this. . .") your own question is somewhat less than an honest one. More importantly though, there is plenty of material available on Vatican II and what it meant in terms of pastoral theology or its demands that all theology be pastoral at its heart. If you really are interested you can read up. Similarly, Pope Francis' positions on the pastoral needs of the Church (and that the Church BE pastoral in the whole of its existence) are significantly more nuanced and demanding than the caricature Bp Sanborn proposed and you cited; these are available to anyone really interested in what is a more demanding and complex truth than the version referenced. Still, the question of the pastoral nature of all theology is one I raised very recently and it is an important one; it is for that reason I am responding briefly here.

I think a better notion of "pastoral" is something like, "putting the truth Christ embodied at the service of people, " or "making the Good News of the Gospel of God in Christ available to our world in both word and deed." In such notions truth is not sacrificed for some sort of merely feel-good theology; instead it is recognized that people need the truth and the power of making true which lives at the heart of the Church and her Gospel if they are to be truly human and live in the peace of God. This truth is not an abstract reality or end in itself but a servant of authentic humanity and the glory of God. It is truth embodied and expressed in the form of love -- love for God, for ourselves in Christ, and for all that are/is precious to God. Remember that God is truth and love; God is the source and ground of both of these. Pastoral theology is a theology which allows that God to address,  accompany, and empower those who need this God to be complete and, in fact, holy.

The greatest symbol of theology as essentially pastoral is the Incarnation. There the Word of God is enfleshed in a way which allows human beings to meet God with a human face and to be forever identified as "God-with (and for)-us." This messianic and salvific EVENT is the very definition and paradigm of pastoral theology --- a theology (speech about God) which also actually allows God to dwell with us in real and powerful ways. I don't see how we can speak of this as putting the truth second or being more concerned with a "feel-good theology". And yet, in the Christ Event God reveals himself exhaustively to people who need this event to really meet a God that heals, reconciles, and empowers.  This Christ Event is the model and climax of God's self emptying  --- a kenosis which is meant to meet human need (and in fact, the need of all creation) in the way all truly pastoral theology does. Note well that the truth is not sacrificed in such a theology; it is allowed instead to speak fully, to challenge, and to console persons in concrete historical circumstances. Further, one needs to ask if a theology is not pastoral at its very heart, then really, what good is it? Is God glorified by a theology which does not serve pastorally? Is he glorifed by a theology which fails to allow him to be "God-with (and for)-us"? Hardly.


Remember then, that Dogmas do not exist for their own sake. They are explicit summaries of divine truth in limited human language which allow us to come to a fuller faith, a more profound and complete trust in the God revealed in the Christ Event. Neither does the Church exist merely to enshrine some eternal principles or an abstract truth ABOUT God. Instead God's own life is a "for others" reality and Christians serve THAT truth, that way, and that life. Doing so, that is, making this God real and known in space and time is ALWAYS a pastoral project or it is an abject failure. The Scriptures remind us that, "They will know we are Christians by our love." Genuine love, the very heart of being Christian and itself always the result of God's grace, is itself quintessentially true and pastoral; it verifies or makes true that within us which is untrue and distorted and at the same time it makes us capable of loving. Can you imagine a love which is not essentially pastoral, which is not also aimed at others and at their increased well-being? Can you imagine a love which is like that of Jesus that is not also as challenging as it is consoling? I cannot and, from what I can tell,  neither can nor does Pope Francis.

25 February 2014

Followup on God as Master Story Teller

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I wanted to thank you for your post on God as Master storyteller. Thank you also for linking it to other posts that refer to God as absolute future and to the idea that not everything that happens is the will of God but nothing is left outside his will. All these ideas are new to me but they make sense of events in my own life in a way other ideas have not. Have they done the same for you? I understand if that question is too personal but I felt I had to ask it. It seems to me that doing theology has to be driven by the effects it has in a theologian's life. If it is not then what good is it?]]

Thanks so much for your note. That particular piece God as Master Storyteller was important for me both profes-sionally (theolo-gically) and personally. While the ideas are not entirely new to me, and especially are not new in theology generally, as a result of the game the parish staff played at Halloween they came together with a clarity and power I had not appreciated as even possible before. Especially I think they help us to make an even clearer sense of the ways in which suffering and death (including both "big" and "little" deaths!) are real in our lives while maintaining hope that these will never have the last word or constitute a final silence. Similarly they help us to come to terms with an evolving universe which is still unfinished, which includes elements of randomness, and which, at the same time is the creation of a God who will one day be all in all. Despite this being contrary to the way NT writers and the Fathers of the Church conceived of things it is also consonant with the central dogmas of Christian faith while respecting the findings of contemporary science.

Let me say that this perspective did not make sense of aspects of my life precisely, but it did strengthen and deepen the sense I have come to know in light of God and my faith in the Christ Event.  Over the past 40 plus years I have had to let go of many dreams, hopes, interests, relationships,  and so forth because of chronic illness. And yet, at the same time I have always (eventually!) found God there redeeming the situation so that it had a very real future and continued to have genuine promise --- especially the promise that I would and could serve both God and his Church in significant ways in spite of and even IN and through chronic illness. As I have written here before that led me to embrace Paul's statement that, "God's grace is sufficient for us; God's power is perfected in weakness," as my profession motto; it is also the key to my really understanding Paul's position more generally that weakness is not only transformed into strength by some shift in perspective we ourselves accomplish, but that to the extent we can humbly embrace it as our own truth it IS strength because it is a true counterpart to the grace and power of God. However, it still left me grieving the things I had lost, believing that they were irretrievable. The perspective in the post you mentioned demanded I go far beyond that.

Events in my life this last year and the several preceding it have prepared for my own appreciation of the perspective presented in the post on God as Master Story teller. Not only have I been reading (or thinking) a lot in the areas of narrative theology, the nature and power of parables, and the relation of faith and science but, for instance, while on retreat in August I found all kinds of threads from my past being brought together in ways which assured me that nothing had been or would be lost.

Because I had expected never to have these threads returned to me in a way which allowed their promise to be fulfilled (or new promise realized), it was an incredible gift from God --- full of serendipity, awe, and consolation. This was a bit different than what I had experienced in the past, namely, that God could and would bring good out of evil, life out of death, meaning out of senselessness, and so forth. It included that insight but was a broader or more comprehensive vision of things as well. It reminded me of a prayer I have sometimes used during communion services that we can come to see the way God's providence encompasses even the worst that happens to us (poor paraphrase). Because of the reading I mentioned earlier it also reminded me of the perspective recounted in the work of John Haught, Ted Peters, et al., that treats God as absolute futurity working from "in front of" the story or drama of creation as well the way Jesus effects the coming of the Kingdom by cooperating with God and drawing us into the story which is God's own and which is God's own life.

So, these things and many others have prepared me for seeing God as the weaver of an immense narrative where the future comes to be at every second while no threads of the past are ever ultimately lost or dropped. The new piece of things was the game the St P's staff played at Halloween and my own abject failure at it. I was intrigued and frustrated as the game proceeded. I started many different narrative lines in my own head (being ninth in line allows and calls for that!) and had to abandon  most of them. At the same time I and everyone else had to create new narrative lines which allowed as many of the clues as possible to make an ultimate kind of sense; we had to continue to build on the work of those who preceded us and even (something which was much, much harder!) anticipate places for the clues (Halloween terms) others might also be seeking to use as they continued the narrative. My eventual solution was pretty awful and really desperate but it served to cement in my own mind the dynamics of the game and the immense demands of this way of telling a story. It stayed with me and focused my reflections --- even though I was mainly unaware that was the case.

But for instance, I could imagine God deciding to scrap the whole project and starting over (as he is said to have done with the story of Noah and the Flood) just as I could imagine him "taking a deep breath" and continuing his persistent storytelling/weaving until one day the finished "product" would be a creation where he was all in all. I could see clearly the immense risk God takes in loving and seeking to allow us to love or reject him freely (that is to weave our own narratives). I could begin to appreciate how constant and persistent his love must be for creation to continue, how patient and forgiving he must be to continually call us back to our places in the real story (GOD'S own story!), how immense his creativity and comprehensive his authority as well as how really important it is for each of us to commit to THIS same story and cooperate with God as love-in-act at every possible moment.

Many people commit to building an empire of sorts whether that be political, economic, academic, intellectual, domestic, or ecclesiastical. But each of us is really called to cooperate in the process of creation itself and in its completion or fulfillment in that reality we call the Kingdom of God; unfortunately, relatively few of us really do that. We are concerned with our own salvation and may certainly see an obligation to assist others, but participating with God in the fulfillment and completion of the drama of creation? Imagine coming from a position of chronic illness where weakness and incapacity are defining terms every day and discovering that embracing this truth meant being suited for Empire-building on an immensely, even inconceivably larger scale than I had ever thought about before! That is part of the fresh realization I came to because of the Halloween game and the work of contemporary theologians taking seriously what it means to be covenant partners with God and part of bringing an unfinished universe to fulfillment.

Theologians are passionate about their faith, of course; they are entrusted with this as a respon-sibility, but they are passionate because the theology they do mediates a message and presence to others which is ultimately healing and hope-filled. My major professor taught us right from the beginning that any theology worthy of the name is profoundly pastoral and he was completely correct in this. Similarly, in the Eastern Church theologians are recognized first of all as those who pray --- that is, they are not merely folks who are about some intellectual pursuit but are committed to the Life of God --- and committed to making this Life present and accessible to others both for their sake and for God's own. Just as physicians are concerned with science applied to lives in ways which heal, theologians are concerned with ultimate truth and mediating that in ways which heal and make sense of things more immediately. Of course the intellectual part of the theological enterprise is intriguing and even exhilarating (I can't describe the excitement I feel when reading some "hard-core" theology!), but  ultimately we do this for the Glory of God (that is, for making God known and personally present in every part of creation) and for the well-being of his creation (which is, at best, incomplete and distorted without God).

Again, thanks for your note. I am glad you found the post helpful. A number of other people found a related piece similarly helpful so that was all very gratifying to me.

21 February 2014

Followup on Reserved and Preferential Seating at Mass

[[Dear Sister, thank you for answering my question on reserved seating for religious and other conse-crated persons. My interest came from reading a post which suggested Consecrated Virgins attending the renewal of ministers commitments as EEM's should either not attend or be seated with religious. The author was emphatic that they should not be seated with the laity who were renewing their commitments.  She also made the point that Religious and CV's did not need to make or renew such commitments since they were serving the Church and acting as an EEM was a part of this already. The link to this post is: Real Life Scenarios.]]

Ah, thanks for the link. I know this blog and have some fundamental disagreements with its author about the vocation she writes about.  Even bearing that in mind (for it and cultural differences in particular make me more cautious with my opinions), I'm afraid the entire story still makes me think of the presumption and squabbling that went on between some of the disciples regarding who would be seated at Christ's right hand and who at his left. (You recall the story. The Mother of James and John, Sons of Zebedee, asked if her Sons could occupy these privileged places and Jesus said it was not up to him to pronounce on this; that was God's purview alone.) It is precisely this kind of ambition and resultant squabbling that is encouraged by preferential seating: "If religious get preferential seating then CV's who are also consecrated should also have preferential seating, etc". (And of course there WILL be an etc in this as preferences within preferences establish themselves.)

Though I appreciate that it is entirely appropriate to be recognized within the church for the place one has in her life and ministry (something which is true for everyone, by the way), it also makes me wonder if those who argue for (or accept) preferential seating as a matter of course, etc, can really drink of the cup of kenosis, suffering, and humility that Jesus himself has offered all disciples. Jesus seemed especially to question whether his own disciples knew what was being asked for; the cup of privilege for the Christian is the cup of self-emptying. The idea, for instance, that a CV should simply not attend such a Mass rather than accept seating with the laity seems particularly wrongheaded to me. In the referenced blog piece the liturgy being described is a commissioning to ministry by the local Church, not merely a renewal of commitments; everyone has a part in such commissioning and in the reception of a minister's recommitment to this ministry. Surely a consecrated person with a public ecclesial vocation --- especially if they share in this ministry themselves --- is called to support and participate in such an action no matter where they are seated!

The author of the blog you are referring to raises some difficult and important questions then --- not least about the wisdom of routine preferential seating per se. Another of these, however, is the best way to gain recognition of the nature or essence of the vocation to consecrated virginity lived in the world in the given circumstances. Some might cogently argue that the CV's should be seated with the religious both because they are consecrated women and because they are not actually making a recommitment either. I don't agree. In part that is because I see elitism as counter productive to really being known and understood and in part it is because I understand a central piece of the vocation of the CV living in the world to be a prophetic call to all those living secular vocations to understand and accept that they are called to an exhaustive and eschatological holiness as well as to being a missionary presence in the midst of the world.

After all, this is the vocation of the Church herself and consecrated virgins living in the world exemplify it in a vivid way. Similarly, and this is my third reason, if religious misguidedly insist on (or accept) the anachronism of preferential seating, then someone has to begin to break down this barrier to unity; Consecrated virgins, it seems to me, might well be the ones to do so. It would be a particular service to the local and the universal Church in and for which they serve as icons. During special liturgies they might well wear the veil (and perhaps the garb) they wore at their consecration along with the wedding band they wear every day to mark their state of life, and they should probably request and continue to request that local clergy appropriately recognize their presence and service; but these things said, they should sit in the assembly with everyone else --- just as religious should. I don't see this as a betrayal of the public nature of the vocation, but an expression of it. It does, however, refuse to confuse notoriety or elitism with the vocation's public rights and obligations. It seems to me that this is also one of the things Pope Francis has been modeling for us so clearly.


While it will take time for the Church to fully recognize and appreciate canon 604 vocations a veiled (or not-so veiled) elitism will not help in this. Instead it can only encourage resistance to yet another vocation which suggests (or seems to suggest) that lay life is an "entry level" or second class vocation which is somehow inferior to vocations to the consecrated state. This would be a serious disservice to the Church and is what I referred to above as counterproductive. From my perspective what is needed, besides continued efforts to instruct clergy (and all they minister to) regarding the nature and charism of this vocation,  are consecrated women who live this vocation out by humbly bringing the special graces attached to their consecration to the very situation in which they live and are also  called to embrace --- namely, the everyday world.

It is true that vocationally speaking consecrated women and men are not lay persons, but hierarchically speaking unless they are clergy they ARE lay persons. Religious are not a third level of vocation standing between the laity and the priesthood. One of the graces I suspect CV's are called to bring to the Church is the grace which levels distinctions signifying differences in SOCIAL status. (N.B., This is NOT the same thing as differences in legal standing or "canonical status.") It is part of witnessing to a universal call to holiness, and, again from my perspective, is part of the mission and charism of CV's living in the world and committed to God in both the things of the spirit and the things of the world.

20 February 2014

Preferential or Reserved Seating at Mass?

[[Dear Sister, does your parish or your diocese use reserved seating for religious? How about for visiting priests or other consecrated persons? If there was the renewal of a commitment to serve as an EEM, would your parish ask all those renewing their commitment to sit apart from the rest of the assembly? Do you have an opinion about this kind of practice?]]

What a surprising series of questions. I am curious about what prompts them for you! In any case, neither my parish nor others I know of in my diocese generally use reserved seating for religious, priests (i.e., for those who are not concelebrating), or other consecrated persons except of course in  special Masses (Ordinations, installations of Bishops) where all ordained are expected to be present, or in funeral, profession, or jubilee Masses for religious; in these cases members of the persons' congregations or the Presbyterate sit together and their seating is reserved. It is true that in our parish the first 2-3 pews are reserved for families and friends when a child is being baptized, for instance. For First Communions each child sits on the aisle of one pew and the rest of the pew is filled with immediate family and friends. (Each pew is marked with a banner with the child's name.) The rest of the assembly sits behind the section with the children and their families. However, in daily, Sunday, or otherwise normal Masses everyone including visiting priests (who are not concelebrating), deacons, and religious or other consecrated persons sit dispersed throughout the assembly as equally significant members of the Church by virtue of their baptism.


Renewal of commit-ments to serve as EEMs (or other ministries for that matter) are handled in my parish by calling all EEMs to come forward and stand together facing the altar. Every person who serves in this way, lay, consecrated, or religious, does this and renews their commitment in front of the entire assembly while the assembly prays for them as well. They then return to their original seats with friends, family, Sisters or Brothers, etc. Generally this means they are scattered throughout the assembly. I am unaware of any parishes in my area that reserve seating for religious or other consecrated persons as a matter of course though there tends to be an informal similarity with seating as folks take the same seats week after week and folks accede to this. This is not the same thing of course.

Past Practices:

In the late sixties (when I came into the Church) it was true that religious tended to sit together in groups and pews were reserved for them --- not least because they were seen to be separated from "the world" and did not mix with "seculars". It is also the case that in Masses using the extraordinary form religious are given preferential seating even today. Personally I despise the practice and believe it is unChristian. It treats those in the consecrated state as though they are more favored by God than the rest of the assembly and it makes the goal of true unity -- even within a single assembly -- impossible to achieve. Vatican II was very clear: the laity are NOT second or third class citizens in the Kingdom or in the Church and we should not be routinely giving preferential seating to those who are in the consecrated state of life because doing so is a betrayal of the truth of the Kingdom.  ALL are called to an exhaustive holiness and all are called to be disciples of Christ in a whole-hearted way. ALL have an equal place at the table of the Lord. In our parish ministers, who are there to serve and who are required at only one point in the service (EEMs, Lectors, etc) come forth from the assembly as a whole and return to it when their service is finished. (Some participate in the entrance procession and those serving throughout remain near at hand throughout.)

 Scriptural Lessons:

You may recall that in today's first reading James speaks compellingly of God showing no preference or partiality for persons and noted that if we do this we are guilty of sin. This position is emphasized in Romans as well. In these texts the immediate reference is to giving the wealthy priority over the poor, but remember that wealth was seen as a sign of God's favor in the society in general so it can be extended to imply we cannot treat persons as though one vocation is more favored over another. In the Church in Corinth this destructive, disedifying, and entirely worldly approach to persons and status led to the wealthy receiving Eucharist (or eating) before the poor. Paul denounced the entire practice as contrary to the will of God and the example of Jesus.

Meanwhile, throughout the Gospels we are told  that the Kingdom Jesus proclaims turns on its head our tendency to measure reality in terms of status and social distinctions. In a world where it was entirely inconceivable that the last should be first, or the poor should be privileged in any way, the Kingdom represents the inconceivable. It does not substitute a new social hierarchy for an old one but instead does away with social organizing on the basis of status. When Scriptural texts use paradoxical statements like the first will be last or blessed are the poor, we are speaking of something inconceivable, not setting up another hierarchy. In its place is a new equality based on love and unity which is rooted in the chosenness of Baptism.  Eucharist is the place where we celebrate this in a paradigmatic way; it simply does not allow for preferential seating of the kind you are asking about.

16 February 2014

Reprises, Posts on Hell: Preparation for a New Post

As  a result of the piece I put up on God as Master Story teller weaving together all the disparate threads of the story of the Kingdom out of the myriad threads of our own individual stories, and indeed, the story of the entire cosmos, I received a question about how hell fits into this schema. I said I would write something about that in a few days and I want to try to do that. This post reprises what else I have written on the topic, especially on the descent of Jesus into hell and should serve as preparation for what else needs to be said in light of a Master storyteller that leaves no threads unimportant, forgotten or dropped. My next post on this will try to answer the question a lay hermit in Seattle asked.

Post #1 The Nature of Hell

The post I put up on whether religious vows are binding beyond death spoke of purgation as a way of bringing in the harvest of a life, and as a cleansing, or claiming --- where God's love summons all that is true and real and good in us and says "no" to or strips away whatever is distorted, unreal (merely potential), untrue or false. I also referred to a final or definitive choice we make at the moment of death when we says yes or no to God's own Self/Love. Ordinarily we have prepared for this final moment by every choice in our lives and so we affirm ourselves, our relationship with God and with the whole of creation, or we deny and reject these things --- this time finally and irrevocably. During our lives we have a chance to become truly human. To whatever extent we achieve this through the grace of God, that Self is welcomed into eternity. Purgation is a combination of the final choice we make for this, and the love of God which welcomes all that is real and true into his own heart while letting go of all that is unreal or merely potential, etc.

Because of this post I wanted to say something about hell. It is not a topic I usually write about or that fits in well here (I find the appearance of the article on this page absolutely jarring!) but a reader asked me to say something about it a while back and this is really the first sense I have had that it would link with other posts. So, what is hell in this whole understanding? First, many people consider that souls are immortal and that hell is simply the separation of the soul from God for all of eternity. This would make sense except that souls are only immortal insofar as God continues to breathe them forth. Souls (and of course we ourselves) are immortal because God's love for us is immortal and he will not forget us or leave us to decay! Because of this whether we are speaking about heaven or hell, so long as we are speaking of a form of existence, we must be speaking of the active and effective presence of God because God is the ground and source of all that is to whatever extent it is.

My own sense of hell then (and this is absolutely my own provisional sense, nothing more) is that it is a form of radically alienated existence where one is faced with a love one was but no longer is meant for and can never be human without, but which one has also rejected definitively. What is hellish then is the presence of God, the presence of love in conjunction with a fundamental untruth, emptiness, and even radical inhumanity of one's existence. Untruth and emptiness call for truth (or verification and making true) and fullness. Hell, I think is the state of existence of eternal and unfulfillable yearning (which now assumes the form of nagging regret and disappointment) coupled with the inchoate knowledge (guilt) that one has irrevocably rejected these things and the God who, even now loves and sustains one --- though wholly from without and in a way which says "No" to all the nothing one has chosen. The fire of God's love can be many things to us: consoling, awesome and even terrifying, empowering, painful, purifying, illuminating, blinding, warming, creative, destructive, and so on. We are made for this love and we experience it in all these ways as part of its power to unlock the potential of our lives, a bit like a forest fire unlocks the seed cones of a redwood and enables new life to spring forth. But what kind of experience is this fire when we have been emptied of true (realizable) potential and the fire cannot inspire awe, or console, or illuminate, or purify, or create??? This I think is the experience of hell.

Post #2 Jesus' Descent into Hell

The following piece was written for my parish bulletin for Palm Sunday. It is, therefore, necessarily brief but I hope it captures the heart of the credal article re Jesus' descent into Hell.


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

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

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

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

03 February 2014

Dating While Discerning a Religious Vocation?

[[Dear Sister, I am discerning a religious vocation and thinking about entering in a couple of years. I also think I am in love with someone. I was told I should not date him though because I am in the process of discernment. But it is so hard just to cut off contact with him. I saw your post about discernment recently and wondered if you had an opinion? Thank you.]]

Thanks for your question. I think it is important to be clear about language so let me get a bit picky about some of what you have said. You say that you are discerning a vocation to religious life, but really, you are deciding at this time whether you will try a religious vocation and enter into a formal process of mutual discernment with a community or congre-gation. While discernment of course comes into play for you right now, you are not "discerning a religious vocation"; instead you are deciding whether or not TO DISCERN a religious vocation. Until you actually enter a community you may  (and should) be discerning many things, but you are not (yet) discerning a religious vocation.

Too often today I have read people speaking on Catholic bulletin boards of this pre-discernment period as though they have already entered. Often they have not even been accepted for entrance while others have been rejected several times. Nevertheless, they tend to put the rest of their lives on hold in the process. Some advise them not to date, not to get involved in social situations, begin living as informal candidates or postulants, dress the part, etc --- and unfortunately they do this --- all under the rubric of being in the process of "discerning a religious vocation". For many, this pre-discernment process stretches on, is transformed into a kind of limbo which is supposedly dignified with the title "discernment" and life simply stutters to a stop as these folks neither enter nor discern anything else which demands a life commitment. They are not religious and may never be religious but somehow being in this "process of discernment" gives them a kind of cachet and status which they seem loathe to leave --- fictitious as it has actually become.

I don't want you falling into this trap. Once you enter a congre-gation, if in fact you ever do, there will be plenty of opportunity to discern a religious vocation. The period from entrance to reception to first vows to final vows extends for up to nine years and all of these are specifically regarded as years of mutual discernment. But at this point you need to discern where God is (or rather, might well be) calling you more generally and that may be marriage just as well as it might religious life. It may be you are called to the life of a consecrated virgin, for instance. It may be as a lay associate with a religious congregation --- which means you could well be married or single and serve God in many many significant ways. Since I don't know your age or education level let me point out that education (college and graduate school) is also something you need to consider pursuing as part of ANY vocation to which God might be calling you.

 Regarding dating, you say you believe you are in love with this person. Date him! You are still called to chastity and to developing an affective maturity which a vow of celibate love also demands. Love him as a good friend. Share this time with him. Be honest with him and be open to where God is truly calling you --- including to marriage should that be the direction things develop. I would suggest you find someone near you with whom you can talk occasionally about all of this to help you maintain perspective. It could be a counselor, a campus minister, an actual spiritual director, your parish priest or a religious there, a parent, etc. (With some religious congregations their vocation personnel would be a good choice for this.) Continue to develop your spirituality and maintain your active religious praxis at the same time (prayer, lectio, or whatever you usually do), get the education you require, and above all pay attention to your heart and the voice there that calls you to maturity, integrity, responsibility, real joy,  and a fullness of life you might hardly be able to imagine.

Let me know occasionally how things are going for you! I hope this has been helpful.