28 June 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 June 2014

Feast of the Most Sacred Heart (Reprise)

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 June 2014

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

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

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

Dear Sisters, Brothers and Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Sisters and Associates,

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

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

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

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


25 June 2014

What "Kind of Hermit" Does Canon 603 Envision?

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the God Who IS Surprise

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

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

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

On Mystical States Occurring Routinely During Mass

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, if someone has a mystical experience will God force this on them? What I mean is is if they want to "get out" of the experience will God refuse to allow this? How about someone who has mystical experiences every day at Mass and wants to get out of the "state" because there is something offensive happening in the Mass? (I mean something dissenting or an abuse of rubrics or something.) Will God force the person to stay in the "state" or trance? Is it common to have such experiences every time one goes to Mass and at a specific part of the Mass?. . .

(. . .[The person I am asking about] writes and says the states begin when the readings begin and continue through the period after Communion. [This has been happening] for more than five years. She has begged the Lord to stop them because it separates her from others and makes going to Mass difficult. She was even injured when she stood during Mass in an attempt to stave off the state; her spiritual director asked her to try this and she fell and hurt her shoulder when "the state" struck anyway! Could she reserve Eucharist at her own home? She is a Catholic hermit so wouldn't this be a solution to her difficulties?]]

Compulsion is not the way of the God of Jesus Christ:

Your description of this phenom-enon is troubling for several reasons. Let me therefore speak to a handful of the theological, spiritual, and pastoral reasons grounding those concerns.  My comments have to do with the reasons the states described seem not to be of God --- what they actually are I do not know. Further, let me be very clear: I make and can make no judgment on the person experiencing these states. Nor should anyone else.

First, except for heresies condemned by the Council of Trent**, I have never read or heard that God compels a person against his or her will -- whether in states of prayer or anywhere else. In my own prayer experiences (including some which might be called mystical) coercion or force was and is NEVER a part of them. In fact they are marked by increasing, even limitless freedom to be oneself. While my own experience is certainly not extensive, much less exhaustive, it does correspond to simple, fundamental theology and the experience of other contemplatives. There is nothing surprising in this. God does not force his presence/love/will on any of us. To do so is a violation of our free will and Divine Love.

Of course God knocks again and again (both from without and from within our own hearts), he desires unqualified admittance to and intimacy with us and within our lives, but one of his greatest and most risky gifts is free will and those who answer his knock will find that transformed into authentic Freedom. Even experiences of infused contemplation are not coercive; the person may not wish to leave these states, but should they desire to --- or should someone call to them in the midst of such a state --- they can leave them. Further, such states do not occur without at least implicit permission. I think too we must consider that God is delighted when we give such permission and meet him in prayer; how can we speak of God being delighted in being coercive, depriving us of both the free will and the freedom that is God's greatest gift apart from life itself, while making us profoundly unhappy and unsuited for participation in community? To speak of God as one who forces his will upon us is to speak of a monster, not the God of Jesus Christ.

Personally I would thus have to say that if a person is seriously (much less wholeheartedly) asking God to "let them out" of such "states" or situations and claims that God is refusing to do so, then the states, etc are not of God in the first place. There is nothing edifying about being forced into some sort of altered state from which one cannot be released and claiming this is done by God's will. How is God glorified by such a claim? What kind of God would this reveal to us? (N.B., though Jesus desires to have the cup of suffering pass him by in his struggles in the Garden of Gethsemane, he NEVER gives us the sense that God is forcing this on him. He comes to affirm that he desires to do the will of God and sees clearly what this will entail. but it is also entirely clear that there is no coercion involved. (By the way, if a person was ambivalent about such experiences and was not wholeheartedly asking to be relieved of them it would be hard for me to understand how God would come upon them in such a way and in so doing add even greater confusion to the already difficult ambivalence.)

The God of Surprises: God is Faithful in Prayer but never Predictable!

As for the frequency of what I would, again, call pseudo-mystical states during Mass, I find both the invariability and the frequency you refer to makes the experiences at least dubious. There are several reasons: 1) mystical experiences when genuine tend not to be so frequent. There is simply no need for them to be so. Some find that one single experience is enough to nourish them for the rest of their lives and that the rest of their prayer, reflection, study, etc is an unfolding of the richness of that seminal experience. Juliann of Norwich reminds us of this. 2) More importantly however, they are not predictable. Mystical experiences are gratuitous experiences of the sovereign presence of God; they are also extraordinary (which does not necessarily mean bizarre). They are meant for the upbuilding of the Kingdom through the radical transformation of the person's heart and mind --- something that can only happen when it is God's own hand at work.

Our God, however, insofar as he is eternal and transcendent, is a God of newness and surprises. Because God transcends our own conceptions and imagination, whenever he  comes to us or is experienced in some way in prayer, it is a matter of incredible surprise. Yes God is entirely faithful but is God predictable? No. Not the God of Jesus Christ and not the God of true mystics! Thus, the experience of God showing up "on the spot" at the same time every Mass in what is supposed to be a "mystical experience" the person reportedly does not desire simply sounds to me to be more human than divine in origin.

In particular what you are describing has more the sound of a self-induced psychological state which has become habitual. (It reminds me most of a form of self-induced hypnosis or similar state of trance which can be helpful for the control of pain, etc. Pain patients and others are often taught methods of self-induction to help them to deal with difficult life circumstances.) On a more mundane level our everyday absorption in a piece of music, a good book, a riveting drama, or even our quieting of ourselves in the beginning of a prayer period are understood by therapists to be akin to these helpful states. Still, similar as these are,  it is important that one who has been trained in such methods of auto-hypnotic induction not mistake the resulting states for a genuine prayer experience or even confuse them with the simple quiet disposition of self one practices in entering into prayer. Even if  this pattern of experiences was once preceded or even occasioned by a true mystical experience it now sounds like something that has become habitual and self-induced, not a prayer experience per se that is a gratuitous gift of the sovereign God who is predictable only in his essential faithfulness and love.

Mystical States are about Oneness and Belonging, Not Isolation and Elitism

It also seems very strange to me that these trance states actually cut the person off from central parts of the Mass and participation in that --- especially "unless there is supposedly something "dissenting" or abusive with regard to rubrics," etc. This is a very strangely selective "consciousness" which puts the person in this "state" in the role of a judge of orthodoxy for which they may not be qualified; this is especially so if the person speaking is not a competent theologian or liturgist. Such states, as you yourself observe, do not foster community; instead they call attention to the individual (or leave others concerned about them and their well-being) rather than to what is occurring at Mass itself; further, since they may even include an element of judgment (criticism) which pretends to be supernatural, they may be divisive of the parish community and detrimental to the legitimate authority of the pastor or other priests and church leaders.

Certainly it is hard to see anything edifying about such a situation. For that reason alone the states are dubious in their origin. In this case the situation reminds me of what happened in the Church of Corinth with what were supposed to be charisma of the Spirit in the earliest years of primitive Christianity. Were these states to occur unobtrusively after reception of Communion and  simply last through the rest of Mass --- during a significant portion of which everyone else is silently communing with the God who has drawn so near to them, and were the critical 'orthodoxy judging' element missing (not to mention a background in self-hypnotic induction), I might see them rather differently. Instead, however, they begin as soon as someone starts to proclaim the Word in the Scriptures when we are called to listen attentively together and they continue through all of those parts of the Mass which accomplish and enhance our unity and equality in Christ. Remember that the Mass is supposed to be the most egalitarian of celebrations our world knows; while that does not mean we all experience the same things, it definitely means we listen to the same Word, stand together to proclaim the same Creed, offer one another a sign of Christ's peace, pray the Lord's Prayer as adopted daughters and sons of One family in Christ, and share the same cup and loaf so that we may truly be ONE body.

Remember too that the very essence of authentic mystical experiences is a sense of oneness and of belonging to all --- not only to God but to everyone and everything whose existence is grounded in God. In mystical experiences we know ourselves as part of a great and transcendent unity. How can it be that as a matter of routine a supposed mystical experience cuts someone off from participation in the central events of the Mass, from the assembly, from the entire community? How can it be that such supposedly mystical states cast the one experiencing them in the state of judge of orthodoxy or the state of others' souls? How is God using this person in these states? Has anyone had a sense that they are edifying to the communities involved? In these cases as in any supposedly spiritual experience the basic rule of discernment is, "By their fruits you shall know them."

God Holds Us in the Hollow of (his) Hand Where we are Completely Safe

Finally, bearing this essential rule in mind, there is the problem of the injury --- the fall that occurred while the person you mention was standing. It is, I think, problematical enough to speak of God as one who coerces us and imposes his presence on us despite our not wanting this; it is even more problematical to couple this with the notion of a God who would actually act in a way which allows one to be injured or injures one in the process. (I am not speaking about God preventing others from stepping in and injuring one. People can and have acted in this way. I am speaking of God himself acting in a way which makes the person unsafe or directly subject to injury.) Again, I have never read of a genuine mystical or ecstatic state where God shows such disregard for the well-being of the person involved or, for that matter, for the sensibilities of those also present at this Mass.

Prayer is an act of trust where we give ourselves to the God of love who will cherish us in this giving. Nothing of what you describe witnesses to this God at all.  I personally suspect this person's spiritual director knew this full well when he asked her to stand during Mass. I would guess he trusted that if this continuing state was of God either the state would not happen (God would not cause something which in this case would lead to injury) or the person would be completely safe nonetheless (God would also maintain one's safety). Similarly since he was a director with a doctorate in the field he could well have known that anything untoward happening would serve in a kind of "diagnostic" way to establish clearly that what was happening --- whatever that was --- was NOT of God. (Injuries may "prove" the truth or non-malingering nature of apparent seizure states, for instance, but they do not do so with mystical states. Quite the contrary.)

Reservation of Eucharist for a Private Individual or Lay Hermit:

Regarding your last questions about Eucharist let me make a couple of points. First the person you are speaking of is a Catholic lay woman; because she is not a canonical hermit she is not therefore allowed to reserve the Eucharist in her own home. Canonical (Catholic) hermits are under the supervision of their Bishops, delegates, and pastors and this means that so too is their approach to Eucharistic reservation and Eucharistic theology. If something is "off" about this, then permission is withdrawn or suspended, at least temporarily. With this situation we begin to see the wisdom of canonical standing and the relationships canonical standing necessarily entail. Such checks and balances are not present in the situation you have referred to.

Secondly, everything I have written about reservation of the Eucharist by a Catholic (canonical) hermit requiring a strong and healthy Eucharistic theology must be borne in mind; it would apply in this or any other case where someone was seeking the right to reserve Eucharist at home. Cf Reservation of Eucharist by Hermits and Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Ecclesiality vs Individualistic Devotional Acts. Especially, permission for the reservation of the Eucharist would not be given when there is a question of this being a privatistic devotion which fosters greater isolation and remoteness from the believing community rather than genuine solitude within the very heart of the Church.

Solitude itself implies a very real communal dimension. In fact, in Christianity it is an expression of communal existence. The word often used to describe this dimension is koinonia. (Cf, "Koinonia: The Privilege of Love" by Dom Robert Hale, OSB Cam in The Privilege of Love or Peter Damian's Letter #11, Dominus Vobiscum) For this reason the Church is very careful about allowing the reservation of the Eucharist in cases of seemingly privatistic devotion and personal isolation (as opposed to eremitical solitude). To allow it for someone claiming to be a hermit in such circumstances can be harmful to the person herself, to the vocation of hermits, and seems moreover to be in conflict with the very nature of the Sacrament itself. What one does not want to do, of course, is foster greater isolation or encourage the exacerbation of an already difficult and apparently unhealthy situation in the name of supposedly providing access to the Sacrament of Unity and Communion.

Similarly, presuming a diocese was considering an exception to the rule requiring canonical standing as a hermit or religious, I suspect no Bishop would actually allow this if it there was even a slight chance that the desire to reserve Eucharist was an at least unconscious reason behind the continuing states, for instance. You see, if they are not of God then logically (not clinically)  speaking they are pathological (maladaptive or manipulative) in some sense --- even if that is wholly unconscious. It seems to me that the basis and nature of these states would need to be ascertained and determined to be of God before anyone would allow the reservation of the Eucharist as a solution to the problem of Mass attendance. Allowing the reservation of the Eucharist in such a case could at least implicitly indicate the Church's approval and possibly even their encouragement of states which are preventing (or affecting) attendance and full-participation at Mass. Thus the Church will be quite cautious in allowing reservation of the Eucharist in such circumstances --- even (and perhaps especially) if the person were a canonical or Catholic hermit. Instead, the Church has EEM's precisely so that those who cannot get to Mass easily may receive Eucharist regularly; it is actually a reasonably good solution for most people and good for the Church as a whole.

Use of EEM's as Important for Hermit and for the Parish Community:

You see one important dimension of this specific solution is that it provides the chance for community and for prayer together --- something which can be very healing when illness or other circumstances isolate the person and prevents active Mass participation. It is also healthy and edifying for the parish community as well for they are made more complete and whole when the isolated and/or ill are included in this and other ways. Both hermit and parish need each other to learn to love fully in Christ. This is true even in cases of greater eremitical reclusion --- perhaps especially so in such cases. In the situation you have described since this state ONLY occurs during Mass, and since the person has expressed concern that the states isolate her from others in the parish, perhaps this person could find other ways to share her life and gifts if a regular contact with EEMs and/or pastor is set up and this kind of access to Eucharist is provided.

The need for some concrete way to share can actually be especially urgent in the case of true contemplatives, mystics, and hermits while parishes need the presence and gifts of these persons in a way which is equally urgent but often less well recognized.  Though not ideal perhaps, access to Eucharist on a regular basis via the use of EEM's could be the beginning of a win-win situation for all involved. This could be especially true if this hermit's situation could serve to challenge and assist her local parish to improve their own ministry to the physically isolated and see themselves as part of an essentially missionary and evangelizing Church of those who are both called and sent; similarly she might well assist them in providing the sick, isolated, and isolated elderly a theology of genuine solitude in which their isolation is (or can be) transformed into this challenging and sustaining reality and they become an integral part of a healthy missionary community. As I noted not too long ago here, just as solitaries need community so healthy community needs those living solitude.

** In anathematizing (condemning) these views, the Council of Trent declared that the free will of man, moved and excited by God, can by its consent co-operate with God, Who excites and invites its action; and that it can thereby dispose and prepare itself to obtain the grace [of justification]. The will can also resist grace if it chooses. It is not like a lifeless thing, which remains purely passive   (cf., Session VI, canons. iv and v).

A variation on the notion of passivity which holds the will cannot resist grace is also held in certain exaggerated and heretical forms of mysticism known as quietism and its variations, or in some forms of Jansenism, etc. The Church also rejects these and holds them to be heretical. While Catholic Theology asserts the sovereignty of Divine grace (that is, the sovereignty of the powerful and dynamic presence of God) it always does so while protecting the freedom of the human will to either accept or reject the love and will of God. This is an absolute bedrock position in Catholic theology.

In particular then, the Church and her theologians eschew any language of Divine coercion or force because of course, Love, especially the Love-in-Act revealed in the self-emptying of the Christ Event is never coercive. This is another place the mystery of God's providence leads us to speak in terms of paradox or embrace theological perspectives which celebrate Divine paradox. Cf: God as Master Storyteller: Picking up the Narrative Threads of an Unfinished and Broken World.

23 June 2014

A Non-Contemplative Moment

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

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

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

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

Thomas Merton, OCSO, Seeds of Contemplation

On Blogging: How and When?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary of How and When I blog

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

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

Part of My Life as a Hermit?

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

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

21 June 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 June 2014

A Contemplative Moment: The Inner Self

The Inner Self

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

18 June 2014

Feast of St Romuald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Privilege of Love

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

Romuald's Brief Rule:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 June 2014

On Thinking About the True or Inner Self

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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