07 February 2015

On Gentleness, Penance, and the Obligation to Live my Rule in Times of Illness

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-wXGyAiaOfRg/SmkskJq3JTI/AAAAAAAABUQ/XH_s9Ub85F4/s1600/Library.jpg[[Dear Sister, you wrote, "When illness intervenes everything changes of course. Our need for rest increases and at the same time this means our ways of praying change as well --- not that we cease praying. You, for instance, may not be able to work, study, or attend liturgy, but perhaps you can read a few minutes here and there, listen to Taize or other tapes or CD's you don't always have time for, do a bit of journaling, read a book you simply enjoy, sit up for a while and work on a jigsaw puzzle, consider a line or two of a psalm every few minutes, and simply allow God to companion you in a conscious way during all of these."

This is a gentle way of approaching things and I think for most people it would be a very good way of praying when they are sick. I am wondering if it is not too gentle for a hermit vowed to live assiduous prayer and penance. If your Rule demands that you do certain things at certain times and you don't do them, then aren't you sinning? Doesn't your Rule bind you under pain of sin? I understand that illness changes things but don't you need some sort of dispensation from your Bishop or delegate to just let go of your Rule or the requirements of canon 603?]]

Thanks for your questions. There are probably several different ways of approaching this (I say that because my mind is sort of exploding in several different directions each triggered by your questions), so let me start with the notion that my approach might be too gentle. That is something I have probably not already spoken of here. The Canon governing my life speaks of "assiduous prayer and penance"; it does not define these nor does it necessarily specify that I should understand them in harsh terms. And in fact, I do not understand them as harsh realities. Challenging, demanding, intense, and disciplined? Yes. But also consoling, gently shaping and forming, and personally supportive. Especially you may be unaware of how my own Rule understands and defines penance; that is key in responding to your concerns so let me repeat that here:

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-xaXzbly1Hho/TruEKBC0lII/AAAAAAAAB-o/QjQO5lbo7_4/s1600/IMG_0620.JPG[[I think the first thing one must realize is that prayer and penance are intimately linked; they are related to one another in an integral and profound way. Penance functions to support and facilitate prayer, while prayer, and especially a life of prayer, requires penance if it is to be authentic and achieve depth or breadth in one's life. In other words, we undertake penance so that we may become people of prayer, and in fact, that we may become instances of prayer in our world. In my Rule I define penance as, "Any practice which assists in achieving, regularizing, integrating, deepening and extending our openness and responsiveness to God through the deprivation and death of the false self and attention to the genuine needs and growth of our true selves in Christ. While prayer corresponds, in part, to those deep moments of victory God achieves within me, and includes my grateful response, penance is that Christian and more extended form of disciplined "festivity" implicating that victory in the whole of life, and preparing for the fulfillment which is to be accomplished only with the coming of the Kingdom in fullness."]] cf. On Penance and Penitential Living (I think this whole article will be helpful to you in understanding the way I approach penance and the demands of my Rule more generally. In some ways all I can do here is comment on that.)

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-x1DTcNMZOyk/Tbq4B6oLuiI/AAAAAAAABzg/JZrOceJzRYE/s1600/prodigal+daughter2.jpgWhat should be clear from that is that penance does not exist for its own sake nor can it really be undertaken without an eye to what it actually acomplishes in one's life. It has a purpose. It is meant to support and lead to one becoming prayer by dealing with the false self so the true self can emerge and thrive or flourish in God. If treated as a practice one undertakes of itself -- as unrelated to a more integrated approach to spirituality -- there would be no way to distinguish penance from masochism or self-hatred and no way to discern what is appropriate or genuinely lifegiving. I believe that only insofar as penance supports and leads to life-as-prayer can we speak of it as a valid Christian practice. As noted in the article cited, the principal forms of penance in the eremitical life are silence and solitude which are integrally linked to the stricter separation from those things which serve to distract from or distort one's responsiveness to God. I tend to treat illness as a form of penance that itself is also an opportunity to learn to trust and depend upon God. It increases our sense of separation or isolation, it recalls times when we have been lonely or helpless, or faced with the seeming fruitlessness of our lives; thus it may trigger disproportionate reactions we need to work through as another part of our penitential lives. It is challenging in many ways and like all suffering, needs to be treated carefully and attentively --- but NOT harshly. That would truly be counterproductive, or even downright destructive, and it could certainly fail to lead to or support prayer.

My own preference is to accept certain dimensions of my life as penitential and therefore as opportunities for growing into my truest self in God. Additional penitential practices I might undertake are tied to the call to authenticity and geared to allowing those dimensions to mediate God's life. It is a holistic approach and my Rule reflects this. Thus, while there are a number of concrete activities I may undertake as penance, some of which are consistent realities in my life and some that are more occasional or "episodic", my Rule does not list penitential practices as though these can be separated from the dynamic context of my life. This means that when I am ill both penance and prayer look differently than they do at other times and yet there is no doubt that I am aware of and honor my call to assiduous prayer and penance as a hermit even when I am ill.

The Obligation to Live my Rule:

The obligation to live my Rule does bind under the pain of sin in the sense that I am not free to simply blow it off. However, it is also written less as specific activities and more as the values I believe God calls me to embody. As part of this my Rule provides a basic structure and space for the things which are generally essential to my prayer: Office, Communion service or Mass, quiet prayer, journaling, and lectio (Scripture). These are daily realities for me ordinarily. I also build in time for clients, study, writing, exercise, and rest. But during times of illness certain things cease or otherwise change. I don't see clients, I tend not to study much (though I still read) and writing may be limited (I do usually manage to blog or do some journaling though sometimes I cannot focus enough on these). Office is often abbreviated, especially since I may not be able to sing it, but it is not dropped entirely. I won't go to Mass, but I do receive Communion or celebrate a Communion service. The idea is to do what I can to maintain the focus and commitment of my life in spite of circumstances that may militate against that. Because the goal of my life is to BE God's own prayer, however, illness can also provide the opportunity to learn about what it means to depend on God as the source of life and meaning from a different and in some ways even more demanding perspective.

Since our God is a God of life and love I try to take care of myself and let God be that for me. I do my best in this and that means sin is rarely a major concern. Most often it involves failing to honor the limitations that exist and that is another reason I have not written the Rule as a LIST of things I MUST DO every day. My Rule is specifically written to honor the limitations I have while it also maximizes my capacity to transcend these whenever possible. The Rule, like penance itself, does not stand alone nor is it meaningful in isolation; it serves a purpose. That means it must be able to change to some extent in changed circumstances and situations even as it stands to remind me what I am obligated to return to as soon as I am able. I do not need a dispensation from my Bishop to accommodate illness or other entirely temporary situations. I do count on my delegate to sometimes help with suggestions in this kind of thing. If I have to modify my Rule in a major way because of a long term or permanent change in circumstances, then yes, I would submit the changes so the Bishop can review and discuss them. I have not discussed the elements of canon 603 here because those do not change nor do I "let go" of those.

On Gentleness:

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-sJnQO7BLlr0/UHJF-6JDG4I/AAAAAAAAC2Y/dV-hSA_z_48/s1600/inGod's+hands.jpgI think it was St Francis de Sales who said, "There in nothing as strong as gentleness and nothing as gentle as real strength." In any case, in my own life, God's love has never taken the form of "tough love"; it has always been gentle. Insistent, yes, sometimes surprising and always challenging, but never harsh. My approach to penance and to my Rule is similar. In the Bishop's declaration of approval of this Rule there is a portion that thanks God for this specific gift of consecrated life and expresses his sincere hope that the Rule will be advantageous in living eremitical life according to both the eremitical tradition and canon 603. So far it has proved so. I really think that would not have been the case had it been written or lived according to the tenor advocated in your own questions.