24 July 2015

On the Distinction Between Using Gifts and Being the Gift

[[Hi Sister. I've been reading what you wrote on chronic illness as vocation. I wondered why God would give a person gifts they could never really use.  And if their gifts can't be used then how do they serve or glorify God? I mean I do believe people who can't use God-given gifts still serve God but we are supposed to use our gifts and what if we can't? Since you are a hermit do you ever feel that you cannot use your gifts? Does it matter? Does canonical standing make better use of your gifts than non-canonical standing? Am I making sense?]]

These are great questions and yes, you are making lots of sense. The pain of being given gifts which we may not be able to use because of chronic illness or other life circumstances is, in my experience, one of the most difficult and bewildering things we can know. The question "WHY?!!" is one of those we are driven to ask by such situations. We ask it of God, of the universe, of the silence, of friends and family, of books and teachers and pastors and ministers; we ask it of ourselves too though we know we don't have the answer. In one way and another we ask it in many different ways of whomever will listen --- and sometimes we force people to listen to the screams of anguish our lives become as we embed this question in all we are and do. Whether we act out, withdraw, retreat into delusions, turn seriously to religion or philosophy, resort to crime, become workaholics for whom money is the measure of meaning, create great works of art, or whatever else we do, the question, WHY?! often stands at the heart of our searching, activism, depression, confusion, and pain. This is true even when our lives have not been derailed by chronic illness, but of course when that or other catastrophic events occur to us the question assumes a critical importance. And of course, we can live years and years without finding an answer. I think you will understand when I say that "WHY?!" is the question which, no matter how it is posed throughout our lives, we each are.

One thing I should be clear about is that God gives us gifts because he wills us to use them and is delighted when we can and do so. I do not believe God gives gifts to frustrate us or to be wasted. But, as Paul puts the matter, and as we know from experience, there are powers and principalities at work in our world and lives which are not of God. God does not will chronic illness, for instance. Illness is a symptom and consequence of sin --- that is, it is the result of being estranged to some extent from the source and ground of life itself. Even so, though God does not will our illness, he will absolutely work to bring good out of it to whatever degree he can. Especially, God will work so that illness is no longer the dominant reality of our lives. It may remain, but where once it was the defining reality of our lives and identity, God will work so that grace becomes the dominant theme our lives sound instead; illness, though still very real perhaps, then becomes a kind of subtext adding depth and poignancy but lacking all pretensions of ultimacy.

This is really the heart of my answer to your questions. Each of us has many gifts we would like to develop and use. I think most of us have more gifts than we can actually do that with. For instance, if I choose to play violin and thus spend time and resources on lessons, practice periods, music, time with friends who also play music, I may not be able to spend the time I could spend on writing or theology, or even certain kinds of prayer I also associate with divine giftedness. This is a normal situation and we all must make these kind of choices as we move through life. Still, while we must make decisions regarding which gifts we will develop and which we will allow to lay relatively fallow there is a deeper choice involved at every moment, namely, what kind of person will we be in any case? When chronic illness takes the question of developing and using specific gifts out of our hands, when we cannot use our education, for instance, or no longer work seriously in our chosen field, when we cannot raise a family, hold a job, or perhaps even volunteer at Church in ways we might once have done, the question that remains is that of who we are and who will we be in relation to God.

The key here is the grace of God, that is, the powerful presence of God. Illness does not deprive us of the grace of God nor of the capacity to respond to that grace. In my own process of becoming a hermit, as you know, I had had my own life derailed by chronic illness. Fortunately, I had prepared to do Theology and loved systematics so that I read Theology even as illness deprived me of the possibility of doing this as a profession. I was also "certain" that I was called to some form of religious life; these two dimensions were gifts which helped me hold onto a perspective which transcended illness and disability, and at least potentially, promised to make sense of these.

My professors (but especially John C Dwyer) had introduced me to an amazing theology of the cross (both Pauline and Markan as well) which focused on a soteriology (a theology of redemption) stressing that even the worst that befalls a human being can witness to the redemption possible with God. In Mark's version of the gospel the bottom line message is that when all the props are kicked out God will be there bringing life out of death and meaning out of senselessness. In Paul's letters I was reminded many times that the center of things is his affirmation: "My (God's) grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness." Meanwhile, at one point I began working with a spiritual director who believed unquestioningly in the power of God alive in the core of our being and provided me with tools to help allow that presence to expand and triumph in my heart and life. In the course of our work together my own prayer shifted from being something I did (or struggled to do!) to something God did within me. (This shift was especially occasioned and marked by the prayer experience I have mentioned here before.) In time I became a contemplative but at this point in time illness still meant isolation rather than the communion of solitude.

All of these pieces and others came together in a new way when I read canon 603 and began considering eremitical life.  The eremitical life is dependent upon God's call of course, but everything about it also witnesses to the truth that God's grace is enough for us and God's power is perfected in weakness. When we speak about the hiddenness of the life it is this active and powerful presence of God who graces us that is of first concern. I have many gifts, but in this life there is no doubt that they generally remain hidden and many are even entirely unused while the grace of God makes me the hermit I am called to be. Mainly this occurs in complete hiddenness. I may think and write about this life; I may do theology and a very little adult faith formation for my parish; I may do a limited amount of spiritual direction, play some violin in an orchestra, and even write on this blog and for publication to some extent --- though never to the extent I might have done these things had chronic illness not knocked my life off the rails. But the simple fact is if I were unable to do any of these things my vocation would be the same. I am called to BE a hermit, a whole and holy human being who witnesses to the deepest truth of our lives experienced in solitude: namely, God alone is sufficient for us. We are made whole and completed in the God who seeks us unceasingly and will never abandon us.

So you see, as I understand it anyway, my life is not so much about using the gifts God undoubtedly gave me at birth so much as it is about being the gift which God's love makes of me. Who I am as the result of God's grace is the essential ministry and witness of my life. Answering a call to eremitical life required that I really respond to a call I sensed from God, a call to abundant life --- not the life focused on what I could do much less on what I could not do, but the life of who God would make me to be if given the ongoing opportunity to shape my heart day by day by day. Regarding public profession and canonical standing under c 603, let me say that it took me some time to come to the place where I was really ready for these; today I experience even the long waiting required as a gift of God.

Paradoxically a huge part of my readiness for perpetual eremitical vows was coincident with coming to a place where I did not really need the Church's canonical standing except to the extent I was bringing them a unique gift. You see, I knew that the Holy Spirit had worked in my life to redeem an isolation and alienation occasioned mainly by chronic illness. THAT was the gift I was bringing the Church, the charism I was seeking to publicly witness to in the name of the Church by seeking public profession and consecration. That the Holy Spirit worked this way in my life in the prayer and lectio of significant solitude seems to me to be precisely what constitutes the gift of eremitical life.  (Of course canonical standing and especially God's consecration has also been a great gift to me but outlining that is another, though related, topic.)

Thus, when I renewed my petition to the Diocese of Oakland regarding admission to perpetual profession and consecration in the early 2000's, eremitical solitude had already transformed my life. I was already a hermit not because of any particular standing but because I lived the truth of redemption mediated to me in the silence of solitude. I sought consecration because now I clearly recognized this gift belonged to the Church and was meant for others; public standing in the consecrated state made that possible in a unique way. I was not seeking the Church's approval of this gift so I could be made a hermit "with status" so much as I was seeking a way to make a genuine expression of eremitical life and the redemption of isolation and meaninglessness it represented better known and accessible to others. That, I think, is the real importance of canonical standing, especially for the hermit; it witnesses more to the work of the Holy Spirit within the Church, more to the contemplative primacy of being over doing, and thus, less to the personal gifts of the person being professed and consecrated.

By the way, along the way I do use many of the gifts God has given me to some extent. Yesterday, for instance, I was able to play violin for a funeral Mass. I don't do this often at all because I personally prefer to participate in Mass differently than this, but it was a joy to do for friends in the parish. (A number of people who really do know me pretty well commented, "I didn't know you played the violin!") Today I did a Communion service and reflection as I do many Fridays during the year. Often times, as I have noted here before, I write reflections on weekly Scripture lections, and of course I write here and other places and do spiritual direction. This allows me to use some of my theology for others but even more fundamentally it is an expression of who I am in light of the grace of God in my life. Even so, the important truth is that the eremitical vocation (and, I would argue, any vocation to chronic illness!) is much more about being the gift God makes of us  --- no matter how hidden eremitical life or our illness makes that gift --- than it is a matter of focusing on or being anxious about using or not using the gifts God has given us.

In other words my life glorifies God and is a service to God's People even if no one has a clue what specific gifts God has given me because it reveals the power of God to redeem and transfigure a reality fraught with sin, death, and the power of the absurd. A non-eremitical vocation to chronic illness does the same thing if only one can allow God's grace to work in and transfigure them. We ourselves as covenant partner of God in all things then become the incarnate "answer" to the often-terrible question, "WHY?!!"  In Christ, in our graced and transfigured lives, this question ceases to be one of unresolved torment; it becomes instead both an instance of and an invitation to hope-filled witness and joyful proclamation.

I hope this is helpful and answered all your questions.