30 March 2015

The Cross: Revelation of a Humility that Stands in Spite of Humiliation (Reprise)

Because it is Holy Week and we are approaching the Cross, I will be reposting several pieces on the theology of the cross. This will include a couple of pieces written just recently as in the instance of the following posted only a month ago at the end of February.  Especially I want to look at the cross from the vantage point of shame or dishonor vs humility and glory, a dimension which is often absent from systematic presentations of this theology.

[[Dear Sister, when we look at the cross I don't think your distinction between humiliation and humility holds. Jesus suffers all kinds of humiliation and is humbled. He shows real humility as a result of his humiliation.]] (cf. From Humiliation to Humility: Resting in the Gaze of God)

Thanks for your comment. I get what you are saying: it is in being humiliated that Jesus shows great humility, right? At the same time you are saying, I think, that humiliation leads to humility. In this you have actually put your finger on one of the most destructive confusions and interpretations of the cross ever imagined. You see, while I would agree that Jesus shows incredible humility in the midst of great humiliation, where we seem to disagree is that his humility is a result of his humiliation. Remember that Jesus possesses great humility throughout his life. He possesses it in spite of temptation, trial, and in spite of humiliation. Humiliation leads to or results in shame; humility, on the other hand, is a form of graced dignity.

Jesus knows who he is in light of God's love, "You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased", and he holds onto that sense of identity, that dignity we know as humility even in the midst of shaming torture and crucifixion. When others are betraying him, abandoning him, and trying him for blasphemy and betrayal of the God he knows as Abba, that is when others are shaming him, Jesus counters all of this by holding onto who he knows himself to be in the light of God's love.

It is important in reflecting on the cross that we distinguish between the judgment and activities of a sinful body-and-soul-murdering mankind and what is of God. The humiliation and arena of shame is created by human beings who see Jesus' incredibly wonderful works and deem him demonic and blasphemous. When they raise a person up it is to the heights of degradation and shame. But at that same point God sees most clearly his beloved Son, loving and obedient even unto death on a cross. From THAT vantage point what is revealed to us, what empowers Jesus even in his dying, is the epitome of humility --- a transcendent dignity which is perfected in weakness.

Again then, when you look at the cross and find humiliation you can trace that to the soul-killing judgment of men and women and to their murderous "execution of judgment." As I wrote recently, God NEVER humiliates. NEVER! Human beings demean, degrade, or hold us up to shame (as they did Jesus on the cross). God raises to humility. When you look at the cross and find genuine humility you must trace that to the graced knowledge of self that comes ultimately from God. It would be an incredibly destructive reading of the events of the cross to see humiliation as the cause of humility. Humility is the incredible dignity Jesus possesses in spite of the shaming humiliation human judgment subjected him to.

I sincerely hope this is helpful.

29 March 2015

On Symbols and Ongoing Mediation of Ecclesial Vocations

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I was intrigued by something you wrote recently about the mediation of one's vocation to the consecrated state. You said that the mediation is a continuing reality and that this is linked to the reason we call such vocations "ecclesial." I couldn't cut and paste the passage but maybe you can do that for me? What I was wondering was whether you might say a little more about this? It is a new idea that my legitimate superior might play a part in the continuing mediation of my vocation and since I don't wear a habit I wonder how that applies. I believe I can see some of this now that you say it but I was hoping you would explain more fully. How are you using the term symbol? It must be in a more active sense than I am used to. Thanks for considering my questions.]]

Thanks, Sister, for your questions. Here is the passage you referred to:

[[ The bottom line in all of this is that initiation into the consecrated state is always a mediated event. Someone intentionally acting "in the name of the Church" admits a person to and mediates this consecration. Further, mediation of one's life in this state is a continuing reality with both liturgical and canonical dimensions. It extends not only to the mutual discernment of the vocation and the formal, liturgical mediation of the call itself by the Bishop at the time of definitive profession, but also to the extension of rights and obligations as well as to the legitimate relationships established to govern and supervise the vocation. All of these things participate in the continuing mediation of God's call to the person and the person's continuing response to and embodiment of this vocation.

This is precisely why such vocations are called ecclesial. At every point the individual lives the charismatic aspect of her vocation in light of the Church's own liturgical and canonical mediation and governance. Similarly, it is this dynamic covenantal relationship that constitutes the "stable state of life" one enters upon definitive profession and consecration. The hermit's Rule is the pre-eminent symbol of all of this but there are other symbols as well, legitimate superiors, religious garb and prayer garment, title and post-nomial initials. All of these point to a stable state of life which is dependent upon the Church's own continuing mediation. All of these participate in the mediation of this vocation, in differing ways and to greater and lesser degrees.]] (cf. If Vows are not Legitimate are they Illegitimate?)

My ideas here are based first on the sense that a vocation, even when we say yes to it in a definitive act (perpetual or solemn profession) is something we must say yes to every day. Secondly it is based on the ecclesial nature of the vocation to the consecrated state and the stable structures and relationships intrinsic to it. I think the bottom line is that every vocation is a living reality at whose heart is the living God and our response to that God. The relationships involved must be renewed ---offered and accepted anew every day. Even in prayer this is often an ecclesially mediated relationship.                                      

I have become more sensitive to the dynamic involved as I have dealt with several isolated lay hermits who live without any Rule, supervision, or oversight, and no real relationship to the Church beyond the fact of their baptism. (Claiming to live at the heart of the Church despite never attending Mass, having no relationship to the local Church and living an isolated life one simply calls "being a hermit" is to claim a destructive fiction which betrays one's baptismal vows and covenant; moreover it mistakes individualist isolation for eremitical solitude.) I have also become more sensitive to the reality of the continuing mediation of my vocation because of 1) my own work with my delegate and 2) the sense of responsibility (the call to respond) I have to my parish, both directly (as part of this community) and indirectly (as a hermit in their midst). I believe that a number of members of the parish perceive whether more or less obscurely, they are a part of this continuing mediation. Certainly my pastor does. In any case what has become clearer and clearer to me is that my own vocational call continues to be mediated to me via a variety of stable ecclesial structures and relationships.

While you undoubtedly know the experience of hearing God's call in a definitive way and having said a definitive yes to God's call in your perpetual or solemn profession, I am sure you also experience the need for an ongoing recommitment daily, weekly, annually at retreat, etc. But this is not a recommitment to an abstract idea of "vocation". It is the recommitment to the living God mediated to us in prayer, Liturgy, Scripture, and the stable relationships of our state of life. I did and do not commit to an abstract notion of eremitical life so much as I commit to the God who calls me to meet, remain with, love and be loved by him in the silence of solitude. Secondarily I commit to honoring and representing as honestly as I can a living tradition which is the Christian eremitical tradition. The opportunities for saying yes again and again are innumerable. But consider that there are certain privileged ways in which the invitation to say yes to God's specific call and thus, to his setting you or myself apart for service in the consecrated state of life occurs regularly in our lives.

Rule and Delegate (or Legitimate Superiors):

In my own life it is my Rule of Life that serves this function most explicitly almost every day of my life, but especially as I make decisions about variations in my horarium or whether to do x or y at my parish. It is rarely far from my mind as I write about this vocation or reflect on the terms of the canon (603), but the idea here is that it is a symbol of the life I have said yes to, a symbol of what has been life giving to me even before I wrote the Rule, and a symbol of the life the Church of Oakland commissioned me to live and the Bishop of Oakland approved with a Decree of Approval.

My Rule is a deeply personal document because it was my own work reflecting years of growth, study, and life in solitude, but it is also now an ecclesial document that marks my life as one of covenant with God as well as with and through my Diocese and the Universal Church. It is a living document which challenges, consoles, encourages, and empowers. Because it includes the episcopal (Bishop's) Decree of Approval it participates in the Church's own commission to me (and her prayer that it will assist me) to live the eremitical life well. In all of those things it mediates God's own call to me and invites my response. In all of these ways and more it mediates God's own Spirit to me.

Something similar happens with meetings with my delegate, or with my Bishop. In meetings with my delegate especially as we explore how I am living my life, problems that may occur, shifts in my understanding of the terms of the Canon or my Rule, and much more. Each meeting involves my own getting in touch with what I am called and consecrated to live; it gives me a chance to look at the overall pattern of my commitment to this life and to renew that. I genuinely feel that the vocation is extended to me in a fresh way during these meetings and that I answer that call in a significant way. Since my delegate serves both me and the diocese as my superior (or "quasi-superior") her role is an ecclesial one and it is not hard to see meetings with her as an expression and renewal of the covenant relationship between myself and the Church. These are not formal meetings, there is no liturgical element (though sometimes we have dinner together), but they do indeed continue to mediate call and response to an ecclesial vocation.

I would bet you that were I to discuss the matter with my delegate she would describe a sense of being responsible for the continuing mediation of God's call to me and my response to that call. I suspect that every person in the role of superior realizes to some extent that their governance is a piece of the mediation of ecclesial vocations. I suspect that most of the time the verb "to mediate" or the noun "mediation" are not the language used but however we speak of the active participation in the nurturing, protection, and governance of vocations to the consecrated state the idea is the same: we participate in the continuing mediation of call and response whenever we participate obediently (attentively and responsively) in the legitimate relationships which are part of life in a stable state of life.

On Habits and Other Clothes as Mediatory Symbols:

In fact, something similar happens every time I get dressed --- or when I put on my cowl (prayer garment) whether in the hermitage or in Church --- though to a much lesser extent. There is a renewal of what is very specifically an ecclesial vocation, an ecclesial identity. You may not wear a habit but I will bet you and your congregation made a conscious decision about what you do wear and that it reflects your own commitment to ministerial religious life, your own commitment to remind people of the vocational dignity of the laity, and to your own accessibility to the folks you encounter. My clothes (generally speaking!) are a symbol of what I have been called to, whether monastic or specifically eremitical. To put them on is to remind myself that what I live I live in the name of the Church. It is to accept anew my part in the covenant made with the Church at consecration --- at least when I am attentive to its potential and significance.

Yours may well also be a symbol of your ecclesial vocation, though not a symbol most people will automatically recognize or understand in this way. After all, as noted below, symbols are born, and this birthing may take time. It seems to me that they may certainly function in this way for you and for many ministerial Sisters. (I admit I have mainly thought about this with regard to the habit so accept these ideas as entirely  tentative.) Your own clothes generally reflect the values of your congregation, the values you personally affirm and live as a vowed ministerial Sister. What I am saying is that every time you consider what you are wearing and why you are doing so, your own commitment is (or at least may well be) renewed and the clothes can be the mediatory symbol which empowers this. Consecrated Virgins living in the World are specifically called to wear secular clothes rather than a habit. This is an explicit part of their ecclesial vocation and covenant: it can be a profound symbol of the very essence of their call and response to consecrated or eschatological secularity and can be a means for the continuing mediation of that call and response. Through this way of dressing, especially in its modesty and simplicity, the Church's own life and holiness further interpenetrates everyday life and the sacred transforms the profane.


When I speak of symbols I mean what Paul Tillich meant by them, namely, mediatory realities which participate in the very things which they mediate. They are much more than signs because signs only signify something by virtue of common agreement. Symbols are living realities which are born and can die. Moreover, as Tillich writes: [[ A symbol has truth: it is adequate to the revelation it expresses. [Here we might think of bread or wine being an adequate symbol to convey a nourishing reality or communion.] A symbol is true: it is the expression of a true revelation. [Here we can think of Bread and Wine being a new expression or embodiment of the Risen Christ.]] (It is important to remember that the term revelation means both "making known" and "making real" in space and time! This corresponds, I think, to the two senses of symbol Tillich speaks about.) Or again, Tillich writes, [[Religious symbols are double edged. They are directed toward the infinite which they symbolize and toward the finite through which they symbolize it. . .They open the divine for the human and the human for the divine.]] and finally, [[A religious symbol can die only if the correlation of which it is an adequate expression dies. This occurs whenever the revelatory situation changes and former symbols become obsolete.]]  (ST I:240)

Catholics often object to calling Eucharistic bread and wine "symbols" but really, in the way some first rate Protestant and Catholic theologians use the term "symbol," they mean bread and wine which participates in the Divine reality they mediate to us. These things ARE Jesus Christ himself; they are the way we meet and take him into ourselves. They are not merely a sign of Jesus' gift of self or love, they are a living reality which mediates Jesus' very self to us. We rightly respond "Amen" when presented with the affirmation, "the Body/Blood of Christ." This is one of the truly privileged ways --- even the most privileged way --- the Risen Christ is embodied in our world.  (N. B., Let me be clear, I am not attempting to convey an adequate theology of Eucharist here, nor am I saying the term symbol says everything Catholic theology says about the Real Presence --- though it is far more powerfully expressive of the heart of this theology than most Catholics actually understand; I am merely trying to speak of the proper way we ought to understand the idea of a symbol.)

28 March 2015

An Introduction to Holy Week: Madman or Messiah? We Wait in the Darkness (Reprised)

[I have rewritten this in places to use as an introduction to Holy Week instead of only the Triduum. Because of the problems in the Middle East and the terrible suffering of Christians there I wanted to do this -- though I think it (especially in the more original format) works best for the Triduum itself. Still, if I have missed changing the tenses of a few passages, I sincerely apologize!]

In trying to explain the Cross, Paul once said, "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more." During this Holy Week, the Gospel readings focus us on the first part of Paul's statement.

Tonight begins the celebration of Palm Sunday and Holy Week; it is a day of huge highs and lows, from the triumphant entrance into Jerusalem to the depths of the passion ushering in a week of the greatest holiness and the most awful unholiness we might imagine. In the Gospel for this coming Tuesday we will hear John's version of the story of Judas' betrayal of Jesus and the prediction of Peter's denials as well. For weeks we have been hearing stories of a growing darkness and threat centered on the person of Jesus. Pharisees and Scribes were irritated and angry with Jesus at the facile way he broke Sabbath rules or his easy communion with and forgiveness of sinners. That he spoke with an authority the people recognized as new and surpassing theirs was also problematical. Yesterday they picked up stones to kill Jesus. But Jesus Family and disciples too failed to understand him; they thought him crazy, urged him to go to Jerusalem to work wonders and become famous.

Even his miracles were disquieting, not only because they increased the negative reaction of the religious leadership and the fear of the Romans as the darkness and threat continued to grow alongside them, but because Jesus himself seems to give us the sense that they are insufficient  and lead to misunderstandings and distortions of who he is or what he is really about. "Be silent!" we often hear him say. "Tell no one about this!" he instructs in the face of the increasing threat to his life. Futile instructions, of course, and, as those healed proclaim the wonders of God's grace in their lives, the darkness and threat to Jesus grows; The night comes ever nearer and we know that if evil is to be defeated, it must occur on a much more profound level than even thousands of such miracles.

In the last two weeks of Lent, the readings give us the sense that the last nine months of Jesus' life and active ministry was punctuated by retreat to a variety of safe houses as the priestly aristocracy actively looked for ways to kill him. He attended festivals in secret and the threat of stoning recurred again and again. Yet, inexplicably "He slipped away" we are told or, "They were unable to find an opening." The darkness is held at bay, barely. It will be held in check by the love of the people surrounding Jesus. Barely. And in the last safe house on the eve of Passover as darkness will close in on every side Jesus will celebrate a final Eucharist with his friends and disciples. He will wash their feet as a servant to all, recline at table with them like free men did. And yet, profoundly troubled, Jesus will speak of his impending betrayal by Judas. None of the disciples, not even the beloved disciple will understand what is happening. There will be one last chance for Judas to change his mind as Jesus hands him a morsel of bread in friendship and love. God's covenant faithfulness is maintained.

But Satan will enter Judas' heart and a friend of Jesus will become his accuser --- the meaning of the term Satan here --- and the darkness will enter this last safe house of light and friendship, faith and fellowship. It was night, John says. It was night. Judas' heart is the opening needed for the threatening darkness to engulf this place and Jesus as well. The prediction of Peter's denials tells us this "night" will get darker and colder and more empty yet.  But in John's story, when everything is at its darkest and lowest, Jesus exclaims in a kind of victory cry: [[ Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in him!]] Here as darkness envelopes everything, Jesus exults that authentically human being is revealed, made known and made real in space and time; here, in the midst of  the deepening "Night" God too is revealed and made fully known and real in space and time. It is either the cry of a messiah who will overcome evil right at its heart --- or it is the cry of a madman who cannot recognize or admit the victory of evil as it swallows him up. In the midst of these days of life, death, and vigil, we do not really know which.

At the climax of Holy week we celebrate the three days we call the Triduum; our questions deepen and one way or another we will see what the answer is. On the day we paradoxically call "Good," the darkness intensifies. During the previous night Jesus was arrested and "tried" by the Sanhedrin with the help of false witnesses, desertion by his disciples, and Judas' betrayal. On this day he will be brought before the Romans, tried, found innocent, flogged in an attempt at political appeasement and then handed over anyway to those who would kill him by a fearful self-absorbed leader whose greater concern was for his own position. There is betrayal, of consciences, of friendships, of discipleship and covenantal bonds on every side but God's.

The night continues to deepen and the threat could not be greater.  Jesus will be crucified and eventually cry out his experience of abandonment even by God. He will descend into the ultimate godlessness, loneliness, and powerlessness we call hell. The darkness will become almost total. We ourselves will be able to see nothing else. That is where Good Friday and Holy Saturday leave us. And the question these events raise haunts the night and our own minds and hearts: messiah or madman? Is Jesus simply another person crushed by the cold, emptiness, and darkness of evil --- good and wondrous though his own works were or will God find a way to vindicate him even in the midst of godless death? (cf Gospel for yesterday: John 10:31-42.) We Christians will wait in the darkness during the Triduum. We will fast and pray and tell our traditional sacred stories about the surprising ways God has worked his will in the past; in doing so we try to hold onto hope that the one we called messiah, teacher, friend, beloved,  brother and Lord, was not simply deluded --- or worse --- and that we Christians are not, as Paul puts the matter, the greatest fools of all.

We have seen sin increase to immeasurable degrees. In this time of increased Christian martyrdom and the savagery of terrorists claiming the banner of religion, and though we do not begin to see how it might be possible, we trust that Paul was exactly right and that grace will abound all the more. And so, we wait. Bereft, but hopeful, we wait.

27 March 2015

Oakland Civic Orchestra Plays Again!

This last Sunday OCO played music from the Americas including some little-known and seldom heard pieces. I have included the first movement from Villa Lobos' Symphonietta #1 and a piece by Bruce Reiprich called "Lullaby" played by our own concertmaster Christina Owens. The composer attended from Arizona and you will spot Mr Reiprich at the end when the flowers are handed out!

Addendum: I received the following question regarding the legitimacy (validity) of my playing in an orchestra: I am adding it and my response here rather than starting a new post for it. Others may be wondering about this as well.

[[Dear Sister if you are obligated to live in solitude and silence, then how does playing in an orchestra fit in with this? Apparently there is someone posting that some hermits are not really hermits if they leave their hermitage too much or work fulltime outside the hermitage and I wondered what you thought of this especially since you leave your hermitage each week.]]

Thanks for the question. By way of introduction it is important to realize that Canon 603 reads that I am obligated to stricter separation from the world, assiduous prayer and penance, and the silence of solitude lived according to a Rule I write myself and which is approved and supervised by my Bishop (and other superiors he designates). It should be understood that I am not obligated to reclusion nor to absolute physical silence. The excursions outside the hermitage I choose to make are those which are necessary (shopping, doctor's visits, Mass and parish responsibilities) or, if they are a matter of recreation, something which adds to or enhances "the silence of solitude" (being alone with God for the sake of others) and other non-negotiable elements of eremitical life.

In my own life, music, but especially playing violin (usually a very solitary activity), has always been a profound mediator of God's presence to me while playing music with others has been a significant experience of community. I still remember the first time I played in orchestra; it was a revelation! I was blown away by the sense of power and holiness of what I experienced there. I was only 11 or 12 at the time and that memory is as vivid as any (other) prayer experience I have ever had. It was my first genuine experience of the essence and meaning of community and it awed me.

We practiced our parts at home alone (something that was always akin to prayer for me and a powerful experience of tapping into something greater than myself); we did that during rehearsals too of course, but as a group something entirely new came to be --- something incredibly greater than the sum of the individual parts. Moreover, we came together to play the music and in the process learned to listen to and cooperate with one another, to blend our sound with and anticipate the needs of stand mates and section members, to interpret the silent gestures of the conductor, and to be responsible to one another so the orchestra as a whole could succeed in interpreting the notes and marks on the page of a composer who spoke to us silently and mysteriously over the centuries (another and different experience of transcendence). It might surprise you to learn that during the rehearsal there is actually relatively little talk or socializing in the usual sense; while highly communal, this kind of music-making is also a matter of profound solitude in the best sense of that term. If you look at what I write about eremitical solitude as a dialogical reality and especially about the silence of solitude as the result of communion with God lived for the sake of others, you may see that playing with an orchestra reprises the very same dynamics.

In any case, this activity has been life giving to me and a source of my contem-plative spirituality for more than fifty years --- long before I knew God by name or had embraced Catholicism. It is part of my coming to faith as well as to eremitical life and it is still a source of faith as well as part of understanding the potential of eremitical life. It has helped shape my sense of obedience (hearkening --- listening and responding appropriately), enlightened me regarding the invariable link between eremitical solitude and community, underscored the relation between prayer and penance (any activity or practice that helps prepare for, extend, and regularize prayer), and it has provided many varied inspiring and sustaining experiences of transcendence.

So long as I can truly accommodate orchestral playing with an eremitical life of the silence of solitude,  or more accurately, so long as it contributes to this life rather than detracting from it, it will continue to be a significant part of my life. For this reason I have written the one evening (@3 hours) each week I play with the orchestra into my Rule. I have done something similar with time I come together with friends from the orchestra for breakfast (pancakes!) and either quartets or quintets on some Saturday mornings.

Hermits and Fulltime work or time out of Cell:

I agree that a hermit who leaves her hermitage too often or spends too much time with others is not really a hermit. I have written myself about instances of people who work everyday outside the hermitage in highly social jobs and are not living the terms of the canon. They are not hermits. Flexibility is certainly allowed in any eremitical life and can be important to living it with integrity, but one cannot allow the actual terms of the canon to be contravened in the process; the terms of the canon must truly define and describe the life one lives even when there are necessary adaptations made for the sake of living the life itself. Remember that Carthusians, for instance, take time one day each week for a long walk together which is necessary to their living the solitude of the rest of the week well. I doubt anyone would seriously argue this makes them less than true full-time hermits. In any case, neither this nor 3 hours playing with an orchestra one evening a week, are the same as leaving the hermitage for 10-12 hours five days a week for a highly social job or spending the majority of one's life outside one's cell.

Everyone living eremitical solitude has to take care to build in sufficient recreation of a kind which contributes to one's more usual schedule, prayer, and solitude. The quality of this contribution is discerned and discussed with one's director and superiors. It cannot be an excuse, pretense, or mere distraction; it must truly contribute to the vocation ---  a little like the desert Father's story about the occasional unstringing or relaxation of a bow being important in allowing one to protect the bow's ability to draw and loose arrows with real power the rest of the time (think here of a violin bow instead which must also be loosened between periods of playing if it is to retain its strength and resiliency) --- but far richer too because of the dimension of profound sharing involved. For me one evening a week spent playing orchestral music (that is, working to learn and make music with others) provides many things which are absolutely integral to contemplative life, but not least some of the recreation and community as well as the discipline eremitical life itself requires.

If Vows are not Legitimate are they Illegitimate?

[[Dear Sister, when you use the term "legitimate" in regard to public vows or canon 603, is the opposite meaning illegitimate? If public vows are legitimate does this mean private vows are somehow illegitimate?  Why can't I enter consecrated life by consecrating myself?]]

Thanks for this question (you will find your second one appended below)! It is one of those "simple" questions that can unmask the source of profound misunder-standings. Recently another blogger protested that private vows were every bit as legitimate and valid as canon 603 vows. That would be an unobjectionable statement if, as you suggest, the opposite of legitimate in this context is illegitimate in the sense of invalid. But when we are speaking of public vows, "legitimate" means "in law" and the opposite is "private" -- as in a private commitment which is not binding in law, does not lead to additional canonical rights and obligations, etc. There is absolutely no intention of suggesting that such private vows are illegitimate in the more common sense of invalid. They are entirely valid but they also have a different character than public vows which effect something very different, namely standing in law.

You see, when someone petitions to be admitted to and accepts legal standing (as occurs through public profession, ordination, etc) one enters into a covenantal identity vis-a-vis  the Church. The diocesan hermit does so under canon 603 and as part of this spiritual and legal covenant she comes to live this life in the name of the Church. The Church specifically authorizes this and, on her part, supervises and governs this vocation through legitimate superiors, canonically approved Rule of life, and Canon law. She keeps a file on the person's admission to profession and consecration, and, as mentioned before, she notifies the parish where that person's baptismal record is kept of this additional "sacramental" change in her legal standing in the Church. (Our baptismal records are amended any time we marry, are professed, ordained, consecrated, etc. They are not amended to reflect private vows, however, because these do not lead to any change in our canonical standing in the Church --- no change in our state of life, for instance).

All of this underscores two things. First,  some commitments (including canon 603) establish a person in a new state of life; the Church takes care to mark, record, and govern such commitments precisely because they are undertaken in her name and lived out in the same way. Folks to whom these persons minister are given the right to expect these vocations are lived with integrity. They have a right to expect the Church (hierarchy and formation personnel, etc) has 'vetted' these folks and discerned as well as they can the authentic character of their call. The assembly or ecclesia more generally have a right to expect these same people have ascertained the individual's preparation for profession, consecration, or ordination, and not admitted anyone to these prematurely or if the person is simply unsuitable. Second, all of these things are done to help insure ministry in the Church is done well and responsibly. If one teaches, preaches, or (as in the case of c 603 hermits for instance) lives one's life in the name of the Church, the Church necessarily participates in these to govern them canonically.

Again, in the canonical sense, private vows are entirely valid but they are not "legitimate" (so to speak) as public ones are legitimate simply because they do not establish a person in law --- in this case, as a hermit with a public vocation to consecrated eremitical life recognized as such by the Church. (N.B., definitive or perpetual profession is accompanied by a prayer of consecration which the Bishop prays with outstretched hands over the hermit. These discrete acts are part of the same overall 'setting apart' and commissioning which is called either profession or consecration. In this overall dynamic, the hermit dedicates herself in the making of vows, etc., and God consecrates her and sends her forth to live this vocation in his name and in the name of the Church through the Church's ministry.)

When a person makes private vows as a hermit they dedicate themselves to God and his service in their baptized state; they do not enter the consecrated state of life but reflect the significance of baptismal consecration and the law that binds every Catholic lay person. This is their legitimate and (if unmarried) sacramental state of life; similarly it is their hierarchical and vocational state of life. Again then, their vows are private and valid but do not change their standing in law, that is, their legitimate state.

All of this is meant as a reflection of the simple fact that God's consecration of an individual, like God's consecration of Bread and Wine, for instance, is ALWAYS mediated through the structures and channels of the institutional Church. In the case of the consecration of solitary hermits, the Bishop acting in the name of the Church serves as the mediator of  the individual's profession (dedication) and God's consecration of that person. It is through this mediated event that a kind of covenant is accomplished and new standing in law is acquired, new rights and obligations are extended to and embraced by the newly professed and/or consecrated person. All of this also indicates the reason such vocations are known as ecclesial vocations; their existence, governance, embodiment or living out, etc., are ecclesially mediated realities.  In private vows, on the other hand, the Church does not act (that is, no one acting in the name of the Church acts) as mediator of any such realities. This makes the act valid but entirely private and without a change in legal or ecclesial standing (without change from lay state to consecrated state, for instance) nor, therefore, the correlative shift in legitimate (ecclesial) rights and obligations.

[[If God consecrates the person, can someone claim this has happened [because of a private dedication of self] and then say it is by their fruits that you know they have been consecrated?]]

No. Consecrations in the Church are always mediated (and public) realities. One cannot claim one has been consecrated without such public (acting in the name of the Church!) mediation any more than one can claim they have consecrated bread and wine themselves (that is, claimed that God has done so through them) unless they have been made capable of mediating God's powerful presence in this specific way. In the Catholic Church it is the Sacrament of Orders which makes a person capable of mediating God's hallowing power and presence in this way. The person is sacramentally configured or ordered to receive the specific graces needed for such an ecclesial action. At the same time, the Sacrament of Orders is mediated to the priest by Bishops acting in the name of the Church and with the ecclesial authority to do so. Consecration works analogously with the consecrated person made capable by God of receiving and mediating the graces associated with her specific vocation. This consecration is always a mediated act accomplished by God through the agency of the Church and those acting in her name in this specific way.

The fruits of one's life may be wonderful and if one has been consecrated one certainly expects to produce such fruits in abundance, but the presence of wonderful fruit does not prove God has initiated one into the consecrated state of life independent of the Church's formal, canonical, and liturgical  mediation. (Actually, I would argue that if one has not been initiated into the consecrated state of life, then such fruit witnesses to one's baptismal consecration and challenges one to acknowledge this as the significant reality it is.) But to argue that the fruits of one's life automatically point to the fact of initiation into the consecrated state is a logical fallacy. "If A then B" does not necessarily imply, "If B then A". Think of it this way: if a sick child goes to the doctor, is diagnosed with a bacterial infection, gets an antibiotic injection, and then begins to feel better, one can reasonably conclude the injection helped cause the improvement. But if, after a trip to the doctor, a sick child starts to feel better, one cannot necessarily conclude from this that they got an injection anymore than one can necessarily conclude the doctor did brain surgery or gave a placebo or maybe assured them they were NOT going to get an injection which made the child laugh and helped them feel better.

The bottom line in all of this is that initiation into the consecrated state is always a mediated event. Someone intentionally acting "in the name of the Church" admits a person to and mediates this consecration. Further, mediation of one's life in this state is a continuing reality with both liturgical and canonical dimensions. It extends not only to the mutual discernment of the vocation and the formal, liturgical mediation of the call itself by the Bishop at the time of definitive profession, but also to the extension of rights and obligations as well as to the legitimate relationships established to govern and supervise the vocation. All of these things participate in the continuing mediation of God's call to the person and the person's continuing response to and embodiment of this vocation.

This is precisely why such vocations are called ecclesial. At every point the individual lives the charismatic aspect of her vocation in light of the Church's own liturgical and canonical mediation and governance. Similarly, it is this dynamic covenantal relationship that constitutes the "stable state of life" one enters upon definitive profession and consecration. The hermit's Rule is the pre-eminent symbol of all of this but there are other symbols as well, legitimate superiors, religious garb and prayer garment, title and post-nomial initials. All of these point to a stable state of life which is dependent upon the Church's own continuing mediation.

Should one leave this stable state of life one also leaves the specific symbols and structures which are part of the mediation of this vocation. They will leave both the rights and obligations of the state, the Rule, the identity and its markers, legitimate superiors, etc. One does not leave the Church of course, nor does one cease to have been consecrated by God, but one leaves the consecrated state of life and returns to the lay state of life vocationally speaking.  On the other hand, if the Church never admits one to the consecrated state, never liturgically nor canonically mediates God's own consecration of the person, then the person has never been consecrated and never been given the right to live eremitical life in the name of the Church as a Catholic hermit.

24 March 2015

March 25, Feast of the Annunciation (Reprise)

I wonder what the annunciation of Jesus' conception was really like factually, what the angel's message (that is, God's own mediated message) sounded like and how it came to Mary. I imagine the months that would have passed without Mary having a period and her anguish and anxiety about what might be wrong, followed by a subtle sign here, an ambiguous symptom there, and eventually the full realization of the inexplicable fact that she was pregnant! That would have been a shock, of course, but even then it would have taken some time for the bone deep fear to register: "I have not been intimate with a man! I can be killed for this!" Only over more time would come first the even deeper sense that God had overshadowed her, and then, the assurance that she need not be afraid. God was doing something completely new and would stand by Mary just as he promised when he revealed himself originally to Moses as: "I will be who I will be," --- and "I will be present to you, never leaving you bereft or barren."

In the work I do with people in spiritual direction, one of the tools I ask clients to use sometimes is dialogue. The idea is to externalize and make explicit in writing the disparate voices we carry within us: it may be a conversation between the voice of reason and the voice of fear, or the voice of stubbornness or that of impulsivity and our wiser, more flexible selves who speak to and with one another at these times so that this existence may have a future marked by wholeness, holiness, and new life. As individuals become adept at doing these dialogues, they may even discover themselves echoing or revealing at one moment the very voice of God which dwells in the deepest, most real, parts of their heart as they simultaneously bring their most profound needs and fears to the conversation. Almost invariably these kinds of dialogues bring strength and healing, integration and faith. When I hear today's Gospel story I hear it as this kind of internal dialogue between the frightened, bewildered Mary and the deepest, truest, part of herself which is God's own Word and Spirit (breath) calling her to a selfhood of wholeness and fruitfulness beyond all she has known before but in harmony with her people's covenant traditions and promise.

This is the way faith comes to most of us, the way we come to know and hear and respond to the voice of God in our lives. For most of us the Word of God dwells within us and only gradually steps out of the background in response to our fears, confusion, and needs as we ponder them in our hearts --- just as Mary did her entire life, but especially at times like this. In the midst of turmoil, of events which turn life plans on their heads and shatter dreams, there in our midst will be the God of Moses and Mary and Jesus reminding us, "I will overshadow you; depend on me, say yes to this, open yourself to my promise and perspective and we will bring life and meaning out of this; together we will make a gift of this tragedy (or whatever the event is) for you and for the whole world! We will bring to birth a Word the world needs so desperately to hear: Be not afraid for I am with you. Do not be afraid for you are precious to me."

Annunciations happen to us every day: small moments that signal the advent of a new opportunity to hear, embody Christ, and gift him to others. Perhaps many are missed and fewer are heeded as Mary heeded her own and gave her fiat to the change which would make something entirely new of her life, her tradition, and her world. But Mary's story is very much our own story as well, and the Feast of Christ's nativity is meant to refer to his being born of us as well. The world into which he will be brought will not love him really --- not if he is the Jesus our Scriptures and our creeds proclaim. (We bear this very much in mind during Lent and especially at the approach of Holy Week.) But our own fiat ("Here I am Lord, I come to do your will!") will be accompanied by the reassuring voice of God: "I will overshadow you and accompany you. Our stories are joined now, inextricably wed as I say yes to you and you say yes to me. Together we create the future. Salvation will be born from this union. Be not afraid!"

23 March 2015

What Specifically does the Church Hold you Responsible For?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, recently you wrote: [[Especially we do these persons no favors by encouraging them to embrace pretense in the name of the God of Truth. In the end to do that is to betray their deepest longings and treat them as though they are either too unimportant to God to be called to live a significant (meaningful) vocation, or simply too weak to bear the vocation God truly HAS extended to them. This is so because in the Church, standing in law ("status") is always associated with the gift and challenge of responsibility. We do not recognize a person's real dignity nor show genuine respect for them by extending  standing --- much less allowing them to pretend to standing --- which is without commensurate responsibility.]] I understand what you are saying here and I am beginning to understand why you are concerned about people who pretend to a status they don't actually have. What is hard to see clearly is what responsibility or responsibilities a hermit takes on. When you talk about [being a hermit] "in the Name of the Church" that refers to responsibility, I know that. But what specifically does the Church hold you responsible for? Is any of this based on the Bible or is it all about Canon Law?]]

Thank you for the questions.  Let me begin with the last one which I believe is critically important. I think there are very clear Scriptural precedents for the Church's insistence that standing is inevitably associated with commensurate responsibilities. One of the most vivid is the parable of the Prodigal Son/Merciful Father. Remember that when the younger Son demanded "the property that would be his at his Father's death" he very specifically does NOT ask to assume the responsibilities of inheritance. In fact he rejects these outright. Despite some English translations of the text, he asks for the "ousia", the very "substance" of the material or wealth portion of the patrimony that would come to him at his Father's death, but he does not use "kleronomia", the usual word for inheritance. This is significant because asking for the inheritance (kleronomia) necessarily includes acceptance of leadership for the family, their wealth, honor, and general well-being. In fact, it includes the pledge that one will give one's life for the family if need be.

Instead this son effectively wishes his Father was dead, separates himself from the family, sells off his portion of the property for cheap (he does not bargain as is typical in the Middle Eastern culture but liquidates things quickly for whatever he can get in the moment) thus leaving his family in reduced circumstances; he then squanders the proceeds of his impulsivity, greed, and lack of compassion in "riotous (exorbitant) living" among foreigners. He becomes rootless, a wanderer without value or responsible role, someone who has exchanged the lasting or eternal for the entirely ephemeral. (By the way, it should be noted that in Jesus' day calling someone rootless in this way was an unpardonable offense; making oneself rootless was incredibly degrading.) 

Meanwhile, skipping ahead in the story, when the younger son returns home in yet even greater disgrace he is restored to Sonship and will be honored by all the village as the Father's Son because of the robe, ring and shoes with which his Father has clothed him. In other words, he has been re-established as one with genuine standing  in the People of God and real responsibility within and for the family and the family's honor and wealth. With standing comes responsibility. To take what is due a Son and to do so while cutting all ties, betraying and sundering all relationships, and selfishly relinquishing all responsibility for one's family or the People of God is the very essence of sin in this NT parable. Despite some distorted approaches to spirituality, and the genuine limitations of life as a  hermit, I would argue one cannot do these things in the name of eremitical life either. That way lies the disedifying isolation of counterfeits and curmudgeons rather than the ecclesial solitude of the Christian hermit.

Canonical Standing and Responsibility:

 To accept canonical standing then (e.g., that which comes with public profession and//or consecration) is to accept the responsibility to act in whatever way one is commissioned by the Church to do in her name. The same is true with regard to Sacramental relationships and standing: Baptism (Sacraments of Initiation), Marriage, Ordination all come with specific responsibilities within the Church and for the very life OF the Church. In my own life the specific obligations include: 1) an ecclesial vocation lived as an integral part of the Church's own life and holiness governed by both universal and proper law, 2) an eremitical vocation whose nature is defined by canon 603 and other canons related to consecrated or religious life. It includes stricter separation from the world (those things contrary or even resistant to Christ as well as those things which promise what only God can promise), assiduous prayer and penance, the silence of solitude, the evangelical counsels and all those imply, life according to an approved Rule I write myself, and the supervision of the diocesan Bishop and those he delegates to act as legitimate superiors and/or delegates (quasi-superiors).

In all this I (and all diocesan hermits) are specifically responsible for living the eremitical life in the heart of the Church as a continuation of the prophetic life of the Desert Fathers, the pastorally significant lives of medieval anchor-ites, along with the hidden witness of so many other hermits, and for extending this rich tradition in ways which meet contemporary needs and speak to contemporary culture. 3) As a representative of these I am also part of a parish and diocese; I was called forth from their midst and professed and consecrated in their presence with them witnessing, supporting, and celebrating. As solitary as a hermit's vocation is it is ecclesial and so I live this life in my parish's midst and serve them and others as my eremitical life makes possible.

Bearing the parable of the Prodigal Son/Merciful Father in mind, as a Sister (that is, as a professed religious), I am responsible in various limited ways for dimensions of the life of this parish family. There is something similarly true with regard to the diocese as such though ordinarily this is expressed in my commitment to parish life, or, occasionally, in diocesan events and diocese-wide celebrations, funerals, etc. It always means the parish and diocese are kept in my heart and prayer, but it sometimes means speaking at other parishes in the diocese, doing an occasional presentation at Contemplative Outreach or similar groups in the area, regarding desert spirituality, eremitical life, contemplative prayer, etc. In any case I am responsible not merely to be a hermit, but to be a hermit in the heart of the Church and to appropriately allow the fruits of my own solitary contemplative life to nurture the life of the familiy I know as the local parish and diocesan Church.

In terms of the universal Church I really do feel the obligation to live a life which is truly an extension of the eremitical tradition which has been part of her life since the 4th Century and certainly was an element of Jesus' own life, that of John the Baptist, Elijah, etc. And even beyond the universal Church is the world-at-large --- also searching, hurting, and yearning. Every person comes to communion with God in an essential solitude and the hermit's life reminds them of this. At the same time some effectively marginalized persons especially need the example of the hermit's solitude to come to a sense that their own isolation, no matter the circumstances causing or exacerbating it, can be redeemed through such communion.

Canon 603 is very specific about the hermit living her life for the praise of God and the salvation of the world. Her own prayer --- intercessory and otherwise --- is very important here, but so is the entire solitary life she lives as a public person in the Church. The very hiddenness of the hermit's life is, paradoxically, actually part of her public identity and witness. After all, most of the struggle, love, work, and prayer we all do in our lives is hidden "from the eyes of men" and sometimes that can tempt us to abandon this for notoriety, etc. A hermit reminds everyone that this is unnnecessary and perhaps even illegitimate depending on what God wills in our lives. At the very least, the hermit's own life of essential hiddenness encourages patience and suggests a new way of seeing things. Especially it encourages us to see the dignity of our lives and the significance of whatever we do in and with God, no matter how ordinary or how hidden.

So I have a strong sense of responsibility in all of these ways. Moreover, as you very perceptively put the matter, the Church herself rightly holds me morally and legally responsible for living my life in these ways. Public profession and consecration establish a covenant between the individual professed and the Church more generally --- usually through an institute of consecrated life, but now with canon 603, through the hermit's diocese and local Bishop. The Church spells out some of this in the canon, but she fully (and rightly) expects the hermit who is publicly professed to concretize or make these obligations more specific in terms of her own prayer, study, reflection and response to the grace of God as it comes to her through the relationships that constitute her life. This is another reason it is very important that there be sufficient formation and mutual discernment before admitting someone to profession and (then) consecration under canon 603. Through canon 603 diocesan hermits give their lives to Christ and to those who belong to him in what is intended to be an irrevocable gift. Thus the Church that receives this gift needs to have the sense that the candidate has the necessary tools, sensibilities, maturity, and constitutive relationship with God and his Church to truly "flesh out" (or even incarnate) all of the potential which is profoundly embodied in this brief but richly pregnant canon.

Canonical or non-Canonical Hermits: Standing Comes with Responsibility, Rights with Obligations:

My own understanding of the Parable of the Merciful Father (aka Parable of the Prodigal Son) colors the way I see people who seek (or pretend to!) the status or standing of consecrated solitary hermits without accepting the responsibilities the Church associates with such standing. One's life in the Church always comes with commensurate responsibility. Standing as a publicly professed and/or consecrated person in the Church codifies such responsibilities in law. The Prodigal Son was given a robe, a ring, and sandals signifying his new standing in the family. It is not hard for the diocesan hermit to see or hear echoes of this story as the Bishop presents (or clothes her in) the prayer garment, eremitical tunic or scapular, and profession ring, or as he presents her a copy of his formal approval of her Rule which establishes it as binding on the hermit in law as well as morally.

Resonances of the Son's renewed acceptance of his place in protecting the patrimony of his family and People are not far from the hermit's heart when she makes her vows in the hands of the Bishop while resting them on the book of Gospels, or signs those same vows on the altar, or is congratulated and welcomed in her new standing by friends, family, and especially the whole parish community at the Eucharistic Feast. I would think the lay hermit who lives her eremitical life by virtue of her baptismal consecration alone might well perceive similar resonances with 1) her baptism which initiates her into the family of followers of Christ, 2) her anointing with chrism, 3) her clothing with the white baptismal garment, and 4) the giving of the baptismal candle which is accompanied with the commission to keep it burning brightly as a witness to others. In either case, and in all other instances of ecclesial commissioning, standing in the Church comes with responsibilities and rights are accompanied by obligations. The matter is both canonical and profoundly Scriptural but as I understand it, it is Scriptural long before it is canonical.

22 March 2015

What do you Like Best About Eremitical Life?

 [[Hi Sister Laurel, I wondered if you could explain what you like best about the eremitical life? Since you don't do a lot of active minis-try that would provide variety, I am assuming that is not a favorite part, so what is? Maybe this is not the best way to ask the question. I guess I am really wondering what part of your life is most enriching or what part you look forward to every day especially if every day is the same because of your schedule. I hope you can understand what I am asking here. Thank you.]]

Now that is a challenging question! It is not challenging because I don't know what I look forward to each day or really like, but because there is no one thing I like best. I guess saying that out loud gives me the key to answering your question then.  What I like best about eremitical life is the way I can relate to God and grow in, with, and through him in this vocation. This is also a way of saying I like the way this vocation allows me to serve the Church and world despite or even through the limitations I also experience. Each of the elements of my life helps in this and some days I like one thing more than another but still, that is because each one contributes to my encounter with God --- usually in the depths of my own heart --- in different ways, to different degrees, on different days.

So, on most days I love the silence and solitude and especially I love quiet prayer periods or more spontaneous times of contemplative prayer which intensify these and transform them into the silence of solitude --- where I simply rest in God's presence or, in the image I have used most recently, rest in God's gaze. It is here that I come to know myself as God knows me and thus am allowed to transcend the world's categories, questions, or judgments. Sometimes these periods are like the one prayer experience I have described here in the past. But whether or not this is true, these periods are ordinarily surprising, or at least never the same; they are transformative and re-creative even when it takes reflective time to realize that this has been happening.

Another thing that I do each day which is usually something I really love is Scripture, whether I do that as part of lectio or as a resource for study or writing. Engagement with Scripture is one of the "wildest rides" I can point to in my life. It is demanding, challenging, and often exhilarating. Sometimes it doesn't speak to me in any immediately dramatic way. But it works on my heart like water on something relatively impervious --- gradually, insistently, and inevitably. Other times, for instance when reading Jesus' parables or other's stories about Jesus, or even the theological reflection of John and Paul, I have the sense that I am being touched by a "living word" and brought into a different world or Kingdom in this way. It always draws me in more deeply and even when I have heard a story or passage thousands of times before something speaks to me on some level in a new way, leads to a new way of understanding reality, or shows me something I had never seen before.

A third piece of this life I love and look forward to is the writing I do. Some of this is specifically theological and there is no doubt that my grappling with Scripture is important for driving at least some of my writing. Whether the writing is the journaling I do for personal growth work, the blogging I do which, in its better moments is an exploration of canon 603 and its importance, a reflection on Scriptures I have been spending time with, or the pieces which can be labeled "spirituality," they tend to be articulations of what happens in prayer and in my own engagement with Christ. One topic I spend time on, of course, is reflection on the place of eremitical life under canon 603 in the life of the Church herself. Since I am especially interested in the possibility of treating chronic illness as a vocation to proclaim with one's life the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a special vividness, and since I have come to understand eremitical solitude as a communal or dialogical reality which is especially suited to the transfiguration of the isolation associated with chronic illness, etc, I write a lot about canon 603 and the solitary eremitical vocation.

A second area of theology I return to again and again is the theology of the Cross. I remember that when I first met with Archbishop (then Bishop) Allen Vigneron he asked me a conversation-starter kind of question about my favorite saint. I spoke about Saint Paul (wondering if perhaps I shouldn't have chosen someone who was not also an Apostle --- someone like St Benedict or St Romuald or St John of the Cross) and began to talk about his theology of the cross.  I explained that if I could spend the rest of my life trying to or coming to understand his theology of the cross I would be a happy camper. (I have always wondered what Archbishop Vigneron made of this unexpected answer!)

I saw incredible paradoxes and amazing beauty in the symmetries of the cross and I still discover dimensions I had not seen. Most recently one of these was the honor/shame dialectic and the paradox of the glory of God revealed in the deepest shame imaginable. I have written previously about God being found in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. This paradox is a deepening of that insight. The Cross is the Event which reveals the source even as it functions as the criterion of all the theology we have that is truly capable of redeeming people's lives. It is the ultimate source of the recent theology I did on humility as being lifted up to be seen as God sees us beyond any notions of worthiness or unworthiness. My life as a hermit allows me to stay focused on the cross in innumerable ways, not only intellectually (reading and thinking about this theology), but personally, spiritually, and emotionally. That is an incredible gift which the Church --- via the person of Archbishop Vigneron and the Diocese of Oakland --- has given me in professing and consecrating me as a diocesan hermit.

There are other things I love about eremitical life (not least the limited but still significant (meaningful) presence and ministry in my parish it makes possible or my spiritual direction ministry); these are also related in one way and another to the person I am in light of living contemplatively within the Divine dialogue I know as the silence of solitude. One of the things which is especially important to me is the freedom I have to live my life as I discern God wills.

Whether I am sick or well, able to keep strictly to a schedule or not, I have the sense that I live this life by the grace of God and that God is present with me in all of the day's moments and moods. It doesn't matter so much if writing goes well or ill, if prayer seems profound or not, if the day is tedious or exciting, all of it is inspired, all of it is what I am called to and I am not alone in it. This means that it is meaningful and even that it glorifies God. I try to live it well, of course, and I both fail and succeed in that, but I suppose what I love best is that it is indeed what I am called to live in and through Christ. It is the way of life that allows me to most be myself in spite of the things that militate against that; moreover it is the thing which allows me to speak of my life in terms of a sense of mission.  The difficulty in pointing to any one thing I most like about eremitical life is that, even if in the short term they cause difficulty, struggle, tedium, etc., all of the things that constitute it make me profoundly happy and at peace. I think God is genuinely praised and glorified when this is true.

I hope this gives you something of an answer to your question. I have kind of worked my way through to an actual answer --- from the individual pieces of the life that are most life giving to me to the reasons this life as a whole is something I love. One thing I hope I have managed to convey is that even when the schedule is the same day to day, the content is never really the same because at the heart of it is a relationship with the living and inexhaustible God. Your question focuses on the absence of variety and in some ways, the absence of novelty (neos). But really there is always newness rooted in the deeper newness (kainotes) of God.

Imagine plunging into the ocean at different points within a large circle. The surface looks the same from point to point but the world one enters in each dive is vastly different and differently compelling from place to place. So, following the same daily horarium, I sit in the same chair (or use the same prayer bench) to pray; I work at the same desk day in and day out. I open the same book of Scriptures and often read the same stories again and again or pray the same psalms, and so forth. I rise at the same hour each day, pray at the same times, eat the same meals at the same hours, wear the same habit and prayer garment, make the same gestures and generally do the same things day after day. There is variation when I am ill or need to leave the hermitage, but in the main it is a life of routine and sometimes even tedium. But the eremitical life is really about what happens below the surface as one opens oneself to God. It is the reason the classic admonition of the Desert Fathers, "Dwell (remain) in your cell and your cell will teach you everything" can be true, the only reason "custody of the cell" is such a high value in eremitical life or stability of place such a similarly high value in monasticism.

21 March 2015

Some Reflections on Why Canon Law is Important to the Diocesan Hermit

[[Hi Sister, have you always been interested in Canon Law? Do diocesan hermits have to have this kind of interest or knowledge? (Suppose I couldn't care less about this kind of stuff, could I still be a hermit?) One friend said that hermits usually don't care about laws, their freedom is contrary to that and everything I have read about hermits stress their freedom. Is there some way in which he is right or are consecrated hermits kind of "law and order types"? Are those hermits who do their own thing misrepresenting this vocation?]]

Have I always been interested in Canon Law? Nope, definitely not. My own interest is very limited and circumscribed, namely, it is confined to canon 603 and to the life defined there. In a broader sense that and my own history means being interested in the canons on religious life as well; after all a number of those apply to those professed under c 603 hermit, but I can't say canon law per se holds much interest for me apart from the life I have been commissioned to live in the name of the Church. Theology is a much more compelling and pervasive interest for me and my interest in this canon specifically often has to do with the theology it seeks to express and protect. Most often this involves ecclesiology (theology of the Church) and the way individuals are made responsible for embodying theological truth.

Thus, my interest has also grown over time. It has been spurred by several ideas which are integral to canon 603, not least, 1) the ecclesial nature of the vocation, 2) the amazingly beautiful combination of non-negotiable elements and individual flexibility c 603 codifies, 3) the responsiveness of this canon to history and its capacity to reflect and protect the solitary eremitical tradition as part of the Church's own patrimony, and 4) the lesson that canon law follows life and law serves love. I don't think we necessarily always see these things clearly in canon law (or any law for that matter) but we do see it in the case of canon 603. Especially important here and with regard to #1 above is the way the canon (and canonical standing more generally) creates stable relationships which are essential for ecclesial vocations. The idea that the canon legislates, establishes, and protects those relationships necessary to live this life well and in a prophetic way was tremendously surprising and impressive to me.

While canonical hermits do not usually need much of this kind of knowledge (we have canonists and Vicars who handle canonical details with regard to vows and other things), some, like myself, are interested to the degree that c 603 is new and codifies in universal law a new form of consecrated life. Thus, we tend to be interested in this canon, how it came to be, why it exists, and so forth, and some few of us reflect on the way the canon works in our own lives and the vocation more generally; as noted above we are interested in the relationships it establishes in law, the purpose of these, what we would be living apart from the canon and how it differs because of the canon and things like this. Because as hermits our need for legal recourse or canonical consultation is rare at best once we have been admitted to perpetual profession we are ordinarily otherwise completely free to follow our own Rule of Life without worrying about canonical matters. On the other hand, most of us do have an interest in the canon and its normative character when this is being denied or contravened publicly by folks pretending to represent consecrated eremitical life. In any case at least one diocesan hermit here in the US is a canonist working for a diocese so an interest in canon law is at least not antithetical to the eremitical life!

Am I a Law and Order Type? 

I don't think I am particularly a "law and order" type, nor are most of the hermits I know. Of course we respect law and see its importance in society and the life of the Church. We are not antinomians or anarchists. Rather, we recognize that c 603 is an historic canon and those I know do feel both honored and obligated to live our lives with a real cognizance of what is finally possible in universal law because of it. There is something really startling and humbling when one realizes one is part of a long-awaited and fought for extension of an ancient tradition into a contemporary situation, and therefore, that one is part of a relative handful of hermits now living a new ecclesial vocation in the name of the Church. Personally, I believe the eremitical vocation has the capacity to redeem (heal and give meaning to) the lives of many people who are isolated by life's circumstances and I feel proprietary about the significance of the canon for this reason as well.

Sister Ann Marie OCSO signs Solemn Vow Formula
Especially clear to me is that if the canon is to be used in this way however, it needs to be mediated by the Church and cannot simply be one more occasion of the divisive, individualist, "do your own thing" tendency of our modern world. As far as I can see, that tendency only leads to greater isolation and greater need for redemption. We all know how empty a life of merely "doing your own thing" can be. Imagine how that is exacerbated when one is already searching for meaning, or already feels isolated or as though they do not fit in! My own experience of this vocation says that whether lived canonically in the consecrated state or non-canonically as a hermit in the lay state, for instance, the eremitical life lived in the heart of the Church witnesses to a solitude which is dialogical and contrary to any individualistic isolation. Canon 603 recognizes this clearly when she defines the life as one "lived for the praise of God and the salvation of the world." If the eremitical vocation is allowed to be degraded into another instance of "do your own thing" or "don't give a damn about the Church's laws or decrees", etc, then we will have lost one of the really unique gifts of the Holy Spirit!

Misrepresenting Facts to the Vulnerable, A serious Pastoral Matter

Thus, when a person who neither understands canon 603 nor lives under it or in an institute of consecrated life, but still falsely claims to be a "professed religious" and "consecrated Catholic Hermit" while writing, [[Perhaps it is best for all of us, and maybe especially us consecrated Catholic hermits, to not get too caught up in the ins-and-outs of the temporal Catholic rules and laws and the raft of interpretations of those rules and laws]] it strikes me as particularly self-serving and pastorally insensitive. (Neither is it particularly accurate; a single  two paragraph canon is hardly a raft of laws nor is c 603 exactly a hotbed of interpretive controversy.) It especially says to me this person has not really understood the reason the Church takes care whom she consecrates and how, whom she professes in this or that vocation and why. In my experience people searching for a way to belong, a way to redeem their own isolation, a way to ensure the meaningfulness of their lives are legion in our world --- and perhaps especially in our culture. They are also more vulnerable to people offering a less difficult or at least more individualistic way to embrace religious life.

We do these persons no favors when we tell them to do whatever they wish, call themselves whatever they wish and never mind about the "temporal laws" of the Church. We do them no favors when we misrepresent facts, misread texts, or treat Canon Law as though it is an option we can ignore while arrogantly calling ourselves "consecrated Catholic hermits" and thus claiming under our own authority a designation only the Church herself can permit us to use. Especially we do these persons no favors by encouraging them to embrace pretense in the name of the God of Truth.

In the end to do that is to betray their deepest longings and treat them as though they are either too unimportant to God to be called to live a significant (meaningful) vocation, or simply too weak to bear the vocation God truly HAS extended to them. This is so because in the Church, standing in law ("status") is always associated with the gift and challenge of responsibility. We do not recognize a person's real dignity nor show genuine respect for them by extending standing (much less allowing them to pretend to standing which is) without commensurate responsibility. In any case, while the institutional Church is not perfect, generally speaking she uses canon law to order and protect her charismatic life, not to stifle it. She uses law to make certain that freedom is not degraded into an irresponsible license. The diocesan hermit does something similar with her Rule and, of course, Canon law, legitimate superiors, and the other mediatory structures and relationships of the Church. These things ordinarily help INSURE the freedom of the hermit, they do not hinder it.

Authentic Freedom:

You see, authentic freedom is the power to be the persons we are called to be in spite of limitations and constraints. In the diocesan hermit vocation, or any vocation to the consecrated state in the Church God calls the person and that call is mediated through the structures of the Church. The charismatic dimension of the Church is always mediated in this way. Catholic hermits are not folks who simply do whatever they want (your friend's more commonly held sense of what it means to be a hermit sounds like more of a stereotype to me); they are persons who do what God wills; Catholic hermits are those who live an eremitical freedom (the will of God) as that is mediated not only in solitude, but in and through the structures of the institutional Church.

In my own experience the Church's canon law here provides some of the necessary structure permitting a person to concern themselves wholeheartedly with prayer, the silence of solitude, and the rest of the eremitical life without concern for whatever the world says, believes, values, etc. Moreover, they do so within the very heart of the Church. That is true whether they do so as canonical (consecrated) or non-canonical (lay).  In fact, that is true even when they are fighting for a new way while accepting the current truth of their situation. (The monks who accepted secularization while struggling for something like Canon 603 and living under the protection of Bishop Remi De Roo are exemplars of this kind of creative and risky freedom.) Freedom involves constraints. License is a different matter.

Doing your own thing may pass for freedom, at least for a time, but such persons tend to find they are marginalizing themselves and exacerbating their own sense of unfreedom and meaninglessness. In theological terms they are opting not for the way of the Kingdom and the Life of the Spirit but instead for the way and spirit of the world. The irony is that such persons are therefore more apt than those living fully within the Church's constraints and structures (canonical, liturgical, theological, etc) to be in a destructive bondage, whether that is to insecurity, shame, their own personal failures in life, a fear of meaninglessness, loss, grief, illness, or whatever drives a need to define themselves; whatever creates and grounds this kind of arrogance is not a symptom of freedom but of slavery.

Living Eremitical life inside and Outside the Church:

But let me be clear. A person who truly lives the hermit life without doing so under canon 603 is still a hermit and can live the life in a completely authentic and exemplary way for others --- whether those folks are hermits or not. In this these hermits would be in line with the Desert Abbas and Ammas who actually lived their lives in protest to the worldliness of the Church that had allied itself with the State after Constantine's Edict of Milan. If one has not been consecrated through the mediation of the Church as part of an Institute of Consecrated Life or under c 603, one can certainly still live eremitical life as a lay hermit, a hermit in the lay state of life (or, if one is a priest, in the clerical state of life).

One could also leave the Church and pursue an eremitical life in open protest to what one might see as the Church's compromises with worldliness (and the way some folks write of Canon 603 and the Church's use of law more generally seems suggest they see these as a terrible compromise with worldliness). I personally think this is unnecessary and misguided; I would not understand it but it is a choice I would respect at the same time for its honesty. What is not okay, what I personally cannot respect, is effectively thumbing one's nose at the Church's clear understanding, law, and sacramental structures while fraudulently calling oneself a "Catholic Hermit" and thus, claiming one is living this life in the very name of the Church. I do think that is a clear misrepresentation of this vocation. Of course, if any person claiming to live eremitical life in the name of the Church is also not really living an exemplary eremitical life but instead is merely trying to validate personal isolation and failure, that, it seems to me, would also be a serious misrepresentation of what the Church understands as the eremitical vocation.