04 August 2015

Followup Questions on the notion of Bringing "One's Entire Availability"

[[Sister Laurel, Can it be that simple - that God just wants me to live "on friendly terms" with him? (It brings tears to my eyes to just write this sentence.) Is that what the "abyss" is all about? Just to live with him even when I don't feel him present and only know by faith he has promised to be there - "on friendly terms?" To  do all the mundane things "with him" - not even "for him" - because I can't bring anything worth having except my being entirely available to him? So where, then, does the "doing" fit in -- the seeking/seeing him in others, serving him by serving others? Since I am not a hermit, how does this translate to the active life - because I think it must. How do I "spend myself" if I bring nothing worth having to him? ]]

Thanks for your questions and the chance to reflect on all this further. My own thought is coming together in new ways in all of this so I offer this response with that in mind. Here is a place where words are really critical. First, yes, it is that simple but no one ever said simple meant easy or without substantial cost. Neither does simple mean that we get there all at once. This is simple like God is simple, like union with God is simple, like faith is simple. In other words it speaks as much of a goal we will spend our whole lives attaining as it does the simplicity of our immediate actions. That quotation is something I read first in 1984 some months after first reading canon 603. I posted it in the sidebar of this blog in 2007 as I prepared for solemn profession. And now I have returned to it yet again only from a new place, a deeper perspective. It represents one of those spiral experiences, the kind of thing T.S. Eliot writes about when he says: [[We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.]]

Secondly, the quotation referred to bringing " my entire availability" not just to "being entirely available". While these two realities are profoundly related and overlap, I hear the first as including the second but therefore as committing to something more as well. I think bringing one's entire availability means bringing one's whole self for God's own sake so that God might really be God in all the ways that is so. As you say, it implies being available to God, doing things with God, being open to awareness of God and God's will, but more, it says "I bring you all my gifts, all my neediness and deficits, myself and all the things that allow you to be God. I open myself to your love, your recreation, your healing, your sovereignty, your judgment; I bring myself in all the ways which might allow you to be God in my life and world." It means, I think, that I allow myself to be one whose entire purpose and meaning is in the mediation of God's presence and purposes. And this, I think, is a commitment to being entirely emptied and remade so that my whole life becomes transparent to God.

As I think more about this it seems to me "my entire availability" is something we can only offer God.  "My entire availability" seems to me to mean bringing myself to God in ways which would possibly be an imposition, unsafe (for them and for me), and pastorally unwise or simply unloving in the case of others. "Being entirely available," on the other hand, sounds to me like bringing myself as I am and allowing God to share in my activities and life as it is but, for instance, not necessarily giving God my entire future and past, my entire self -- body and soul, physically, mentally and spiritually. It also sounds like the focus is on gifts, but not on emptiness and need. Our world is certainly familiar with the idea of bringing one's gifts, but to bring one's "weakness," "shame", and inabilities is rarely recognized as something we are called to sign up for at church (or wherever) to offer to others. Despite the importance of vulnerability in pastoral ministry bringing one's "weakness," "shame", deficits, and inabilities is rarely recognized as something we must offer to God if we are to bring others the Gospel as something whose truth we know intimately.

Thus, I think, that "entire availability" means that I also bring my deficits and deficiencies and that I do so trusting that God can make even these bits of emptiness something infinitely valuable and even fruitful to others. To be available to God and to bring one's entire availability may indeed be the same thing but they sound different to me --- overlapping, yes, but different. Whether I am correct or not in this, the formulation in the passage quoted from The Hermitage Within pushes me to envision something much more total and dynamic than the other formulation. Other things push me to this as well, not least Paul and Mark's theologies of the cross, Jesus' kenosis even unto godless death and descent into hell, and the conviction I have that every hermit must be open to being called to greater reclusion.

Entire Availability for Jesus and for the Hermit:

In light of these, I think for the hermit "my entire availability" means bringing (and maybe relinquishing or actually being stripped of) precisely those discrete gifts which might be used for others, for ministry, for being fruitful in the world. Gifts are the very way we are available to others. Alternately, those ways we are available to others are our truest gifts (including --- when transfigured to mediate the love and mercy of God --- our emptiness and incapacity). This is why a person claiming to be a hermit as a way of refusing to use her gifts or simply failing to be available to others, a way of being selfish and misanthropic, is one of the greatest blasphemies I can think of. But to be stripped of gifts or talents in solitude so that God's redemption is all we "have" is an entirely different thing indeed --- and one which absolutely requires careful and relatively lengthy mutual discernment. In any case, the eremitical life means bringing to God every gift, every potentiality and deficiency one has so that God may do whatever God wishes with them. Eremitical solitude is not about time away so one becomes a better minister (though that may also happen), nor greater degrees of prayer so one's service of others is better grounded (though it will surely do that as well). For those called to these eremitical solitude and commitment to eremitical hiddenness reflect an act of blind trust that affirms whatever God does with one --- even if every individual gift is left unused --- will be ultimately significant in the coming of the Kingdom because in this way God is allowed to be God exhaustively in these lives.

When we think of Jesus we see a man whose tremendous potential and capacity for ministry, teaching, preaching, simple availability and community, was stripped away. In part this happened through the circumstances of his birth because he was shamed in this and was seen as less capable of honorable contributions or faithfulness. In part it was because he was a carpenter's son, someone who worked with his hands and was therefore thought of as less intellectually capable. In part it was because he was more and more isolated from his own People and Religion and assumed a peripatetic life with no real roots or sources of honor --- except of course from the One he called Abba. And in part it was because even his miracles and preaching were still insufficient to achieve the transformation of the world, the reconciliation of all things with God so that God might one day truly be all in all. Gradually (or not so gradually once his public ministry began) Jesus was stripped of every individual gift or talent until, nailed to a cross and too physically weak and incapable of anything else, when he was a failure as his world variously measured success, the ONLY thing he could "do" or be was open to whatever God would do to redeem the situation. THIS abject emptiness, which was the measure of his entire availability to God and also to us(!), was the place and way he became truly and fully transparent to his Abba. It also made the effectiveness of his ministry and mission global or even cosmic in scope.

This, it seems to me is really the model of the hermit's life. I believe it is what is called for when The Hermitage Within speaks of the hermit's "entire availability."  One traditionalist theology of the cross suggests that Jesus raised himself  from godless death to show he was God. The priest I heard arguing this actually claimed there was no other reason for the resurrection! But Paul's and Mark's theologies of the cross say something very different; namely, when all the props are kicked out, when we have nothing left but abject emptiness, when life strips us of every strength and talent and potential, God can and will use this very emptiness as the source of the redemption of all of reality --- if only we give that too to God. Hermits, but especially recluses, are called by God to embrace a similar commitment to kenosis and faith in God. We witness to the power of God at work when perhaps all we can bring is emptiness and "non-accomplishment".

Questions on Active Ministry:

Nothing in this means the non-hermit is not called to use her gifts as best she can. Of course she is called to minister with God, through God, and in God. Her availability to others is meant to be an availability to God and all that is precious to God. We all must spend ourselves in all the ways God calls us to. But old age, illness and other circumstances make some forms of this impossible. When that is true we are called to a greater and different kind of self-emptying, a different kind of availability. We are called to allow God to make of us whatever he wills to do in our incapacity. We are called to witness to the profoundest truth of the Gospel, namely, that not only does our God bring more abundant life out of life and move us from faith to faith but he will bring life out of death, meaning out of absurdity and senselessness, and hope out of the desperate and hopeless situations we each know.

All we can bring to these situations is our entire availability whether measured in talents or incapacity. For Christians our human emptiness is really the greatest form of potential precisely because our God is not only the one who creates out of chaos, but out of nothing at all. Our gifts are wonderful and are to be esteemed and used to serve God and his creation, but what is also true is that our emptiness can actually give God greater scope to be God --- if only we make a gift of it to God for God's own sake. (Remember that whenever we act so that God might be God, which is what I mean by "for God's own sake," there is no limit to who ultimately benefits.) The chronically ill and disabled have an opportunity to witness to this foundational truth with the gift of their lives to God. Hermits, who freely choose the hiddenness of the silence of solitude, I think, witness even more radically to this truth by accepting being freely stripped of every gift --- something they do especially on behalf of all those who are touched by weakness, incapacity, and emptiness --- whenever and for whatever reason these occur.

The Abyss:

You and I have spoken about the "leap into the abyss" in the past and you ask about it specifically so let me add this. For those not part of that conversation let me remind you that I noted that while leaping into the abyss is a fearful thing (i.e., while, for instance, it is an awesome, frightening, exhilarating thing), we don't have to hope God will eventually come to find us there; God is already there. God is the very One who maintains and sustains us in our emptiness and transforms that emptiness into fullness. That is the lesson of Jesus' death, descent, resurrection and ascension. There is no absolutely godless place as a result of Jesus' own exhaustive obedience (openness and responsiveness) to God.

Yes, I believe the emptiness I have spoken of through this and earlier posts is precisely the abyss which Merton and others speak of. Kenosis is the way we make the leap. The notion of "entire availability" involves a leap (a commitment to self-emptying and stripping) into the depths of that abyss we know as both void (even a relatively godless void) and divine pleroma. (In Jesus' case his consent to enter the abyss of sinful death was consent to enter an absolutely godless void). It is first of all the abyss of our own hearts and then (eventually) the abyss of death itself. We ordinarily prepare for the latter to the degree we commit to the former. Whether we experience mainly profound darkness or the glorious light of Tabor, we leap securely into God's hands and take up our abode in God's own heart.