29 September 2015

On Anonymity and Accountability for Hermits

v[[Dear Sister. What are your views on anonymity for hermits? I read an article today by a Catholic Hermit who has decided to remain anonymous since that helps her prevent pride. You choose not to remain anonymous so I am wondering about your thinking is on this.]]

It's a timely question and an important one not least because it points to the responsible nature of ecclesial vocations. The first thing to remember is that if one claims to be a Catholic hermit, that is one who lives eremitical life in the name of the Church via profession (always a public act) and consecration, then one has been commissioned to live a public ecclesial  vocation. If one claims the title "Catholic Hermit" or "consecrated hermit", etc., in creating a blog or other website, for instance, then one really doesn't have the right to remain entirely anonymous any longer. This is because people who read the blog have commensurate rights to know who you are, who supervises your vocation, who professed and consecrated you and commissioned you to live this life in the name of the Church. If they have concerns with what you write then they must be able to contact you and, if really necessary, your legitimate superiors.

Ways of Maintaining Appropriate Accountability:

One thing that is possible, of course, is to say that this blog (etc) is the blog of a "Diocesan Hermit of the Diocese of Oakland," for instance, without providing one's given name. In doing so I would still be maintaining accountability to the Church for this vocation and what comes from it.  If there is ever a serious concern, then the Diocese of Oakland (for instance) will know whose blog is being referenced. (In this case, they may not ordinarily concern themselves with my everyday writing because they do not micromanage my activities --- my delegate would tend to know more about my blogging, I think --- but they will know whose blog this is and deal appropriately with serious complaints or concerns that might arise.) However, it seems to me one still needs to provide a way for folks to contact one so the chancery isn't turned into the recipient of relatively trivial communications which are an actual imposition. (I, for instance, do not usually provide my hermitage address, but people who prefer not to email may write me at my parish. This would work even if I did not give my name but used "Diocesan Hermit" instead because the parish knows precisely who I am and provides a mailbox for me.)

A second solution is to blog or whatever the activity without claiming in any way to be a Catholic hermit, Diocesan hermit, consecrated person, professed religious, etc. As soon as one says I am a Catholic Hermit (or any version of this) one has claimed to be living a vocation in the name of the Church and the public writing one does, especially if it is about eremitical life, spirituality, etc, is something one is publicly accountable for as a piece of that living. So, the choice is clear, either write as a private person and remain anonymous (if that is your choice) or write as a representative of a public vocation and reveal who you are --- or at least to whom you are legitimately accountable. Nothing else is really charitable or genuinely responsible.

Some may point to books published by an anonymous nun or monk, books published with the author "a Carthusian monk"  (for instance), as justification for anonymity without clear accountability, but it is important to remember that the Carthusian Order, for instance, has its own censors (theologians and editors) and other authorities who approve the publication of texts which represent the Order. The Carthusians are very sensitive about the use of the name Carthusian or the related post-nomial initials, O Cart., and they use these as a sign of authenticity and an act of ecclesial responsibility. (The same is true of the Carthusian habit because these represent a long history which every member shares and is responsible for.) The Order is in turn answerable to the larger Church and hierarchy who approve their constitutions, etc. Thus, while the average reader may never know the name of the individual monk or nun who wrote the book of "Novices Conferences" for instance, nor even know the specific Charterhouse from whence they wrote, concerns with the contents can be brought to the Church and the Carthusian Order through appropriate channels. This ensures a good blend of accountability and privacy. It also allows one to write without worrying about what readers think or say while still doing so responsibly and in charity. Once again this is an example of the importance of stable canonical relationships which are established with public profession and consecration --- something the next section will underscore.

The Question of Pride:

It is true that one has to take care not to become too taken with the project, whatever it is, or with oneself as the author or creator. With blogs people read, ask questions, comment, praise, criticize, etc, and like anything else, all of this can tempt one to forget what a truly tiny project the blog or website is in the grand scheme of things. But, anonymity online has some significant drawbacks and a lack of honesty and genuine accountability --- which are essential to real humility I think --- are two of these. How many of us have run into blogs or message boards which lack charity and prudence precisely because the persons writing there are (or believe they are) anonymous? Some of the cruelest and most destructive pieces of writing I have ever seen were written by those who used screen names to hide behind.

Unfortunately this can be true of those writing as "Catholic Hermits" too. I have read such persons denigrating their pastors (for having no vocations, caring little for the spiritual growth of their parishioners, doing literally "hellish" things during Mass, etc), or denigrating their bishops and former bishops (for whining, lying and betraying the hermit to the new bishop) --- all while remaining relatively anonymous except for the designation "Catholic Hermit" and the name of her cathedral. How is this responsible or charitable? How does it not reflect negatively on the vocation of legitimate Catholic hermits or the eremitical vocation more generally? Meanwhile these same bloggers criticize Diocesan hermits who post under their own names accusing them of "pride" because they are supposedly not sufficiently "hidden from the eyes of" others.

Likewise, over the past several years I have been asked about another hermit's posts which have left readers seriously concerned regarding her welfare. This person writes (blogs) about the interminable suffering (chronic pain) she experiences, the lack of heat and serious cold she lives in in Winter months which causes her to spend entire days in bed and under blankets and left her with pneumonia last Winter; she writes of the terrible living conditions involving the ever present excrement of vermin --- now dried and aerosolized, holes in walls (or complete lack of drywall and insulation), continuing lack of plumbing (no toilet) or hot water despite her marked physical incapacities, the fact that she cannot afford doctors or medicines or appropriate tests and may need eventually to live in a shelter when her dwindling money runs out. Unfortunately, because all of this is written anonymously by a "consecrated Catholic Hermit" presumably living eremitical life in the name of the Church, it raises unaddressable questions not only about her welfare but about the accountability of her diocese and the soundness and witness of the contemporary eremitical vocation itself.

This poster's anonymity means that those who are concerned can neither assist her nor contact her diocese to raise concerns with them. Here anonymity conflicts with accountability. While it is true diocesan hermits are self-supporting and have vows of poverty readers have, quite legitimately I think, asked if this really the way the Church's own professed and consecrated hermits live. Does the Church profess and consecrate its solitary hermits (or facilely allow them to transfer to another diocese) and then leave them to struggle in such circumstances without oversight or assistance? Is this the kind of resource-less candidate the Church commissions to represent consecrated eremitical life? Would this be prudent? Charitable? Is it typical of the way consecrated life in the church works? Does a hermit's diocese and bishop really have nor exercise no responsibility in such cases? How are such hermits to be helped?? Unfortunately, the combination of this poster's relative anonymity and her lack of accountability, prudence, and discretion can be a serious matter on a number of levels.

In other words while pride may be a problem (or at least a temptation!) for those of us who blog openly, it may well be that anonymity itself may lead to an even greater arrogance whose symptoms include writing irresponsibly and without prudence, discretion, or real accountability. Thus I would argue that anonymity can be helpful so long as one still exercises real accountability. Importantly, one needs to determine the real motives behind either posting publicly or choosing anonymity. Simply choosing anonymity does not mean one is exercising the charity required of a hermit. It may even be a piece of a fabric of deception --- including self deception.  For instance, if one chooses anonymity to prevent others from learning they are not publicly professed, especially while criticizing the "pride" of diocesan hermits who choose to post openly, then this is seriously problematical on a number of levels.

At the same time some authentic Catholic hermits choose to let go of their public vocational identities for a particular limited project (like participation in an online discussion group or the authoring of a blog) and write as private persons. This is a valid solution --- though not one I have felt justified in choosing myself --- because one does not claim to be a Catholic hermit in these limited instances. And of course some of us decide simply to be up front with our names, not because we are prideful, but because for us it is an act of honesty, responsibility, and charity for those reading our work or who might be interested in the eremitical vocation. The bottom line in all of this is that anonymity may or may not be a necessary piece of the life of the hermit. For that matter it may be either edifying or disedifying  depending on how it protects an absolutely non-negotiable solitude or privacy and allows for true accountability or is instead used to excuse irresponsibility, disingenuousness,  or even outright deception.


The hiddenness of the eremitical life is only partly that of externals. More it has to do with the inner life of submission to the powerful presence of God within one's heart. Sometimes that inner life calls for actual anonymity and sometimes it will not allow for it. Since the vocation of the Catholic hermit is a public one any person posting or otherwise acting publicly as a Catholic hermit has surrendered any right to absolute anonymity; they are accountable for what they say and do because they are supposedly acting in the name of the Church.  The need for and value of anonymity must be measured against the requirements of accountability and charity.

25 September 2015

Vespers Comments: Francis and US Women Religious

The following comments were made by Pope Francis during Vespers at St Patrick's Cathedral last night. They are like those made during the virtual meetings of US cities and Francis a couple of weeks ago, but they are stronger. One sentence I remember at the end of this passage said something like "Move forward!!"  Deo Gratias!

[[In a special way I would like to express my esteem and my gratitude to the religious women of the United States. What would the Church be without you? Women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel. To you, religious women, sisters and mothers of this people, I wish to say “thank you”, a big thank you… and to tell you that I love you very much. (Pope Francis Sept 24, 2015)]]

18 September 2015

On Contemplation, Regard for Contemplatives, and Science and Contemplation

[[Dear Sister, thanks for the post on the theological points which have been central to your life. I was able to see a little more clearly how these things are linked together. Well anyhow I was able to see THAT they are closely related and interrelated. One thing that was interesting was the [centrality] of paradox. I liked what Henri de Lubac said about only being able to contemplate paradox and that we can't resolve it. Oh, by the way, thank you for your explanation of docetism and arianism. I had never heard anyone explain these as a loss of the [paradoxical] nature of truth. That was pretty cool.

But anyway, my questions are about contemplative life and prayer. I know the Church regards contemplative life highly in some ways, but I wonder if you think they REALLY regard it highly? I read somewhere about a hermit not feeling contemplatives had a real place in the Church and that no one understood contemplative prayer or mystical prayer and experiences. She wanted to write for her diocesan paper but I think they had no space for something on these topics. Do you feel like your life is really regarded?

If what you say about paradox and contemplation is true then shouldn't everyone become a contemplative? But most people don't. Are scientists contemplatives or are they anti-contemplatives? I mean sometimes they seem to be contemplating the paradox of nature or reality and other times they are tearing things apart and seem to be incapable of contemplating things. How do you define contemplation anyway? Is it gazing at God and if it is, then how do we do that? I can't see God and I don't think you can either.  .  .]]

Definitions of Contemplation:

LOL!! No, I can't see God and yet I do consider myself a contemplative! Let me start with your last questions, not because they necessarily lead to the others, but because they have me laughing and because they are based on an important truth, namely, we can't talk about anything unless we are all on the same page regarding definitions. There is a sense in which contemplation has always meant gazing on the face of God. It involves a profound look at reality and especially at the depth dimension of reality. I think that when we talk about the contemplative stance of artists, writers, scientists (more about that later!), composers, etc, we are speaking about people who do look reverently on reality and let it grasp and shake them to the core with its beauty, order, relationships, structure, power, fragility, meaning or value, and so forth. I believe that those who are known in the Church as "proper" contemplatives "possess" such an attitude towards reality, but especially towards nature and towards other persons. These people, in one way and another, are concerned with gazing on the face of God.

But I think that there is a second and more fundamental sense to the term contemplation which has less to do with looking on the face of God than it does with allowing God to gaze at us. When contemplatives sit in prayer they often see and feel nothing at all --- except the deep quiet that comes from surrender to the silence of solitude. If you ask what they saw the only answer is often, "darkness" or "nothing", and there can be the sense that the darkness, as the silence and solitude, are living realities which, though too great to be seen or comprehended by us, somehow grasp or take hold of us instead. In these moments we are known in the biblical sense of that term, that is, with an intimacy which is almost sexual in its comprehensiveness. We know ourselves as known and loved by God and one of the better metaphors for this prayer speaks in terms of being gazed at and delighted in by God. In such a view contemplation is less something we do than it is our submission to the dynamism of God being God. Occasionally these experiences might be translated into visual imagery or other sensible experiences --- wonderful when it happens --- but also not really necessary for the profound sense of being seen, touched, and known.

On Science, Scientists and Contemplation

Both dimensions are present in the properly contemplative life, that is, in the lives of those who are, properly speaking, contemplatives. At the same time though, probably every person knows something of these two dimensions of the contemplative life and of contemplative prayer. This leads me to your great question about scientists. My sense is that generally scientists are contemplative without being contemplatives. They are capable of being grasped by reality in a way which compels them to do science, to explore, analyze, experiment with, hypothesize, test, and then repeat the process or parts of the process again and again. They are passionate and "ultimately concerned" in the way any person of faith is concerned in an ultimate way. They submit to the truth that grasps them and thus too to order, depth, beauty, structure, and so forth. They are, to a certain degree, reverent about the reality which is the focus of their work --- and often about the greater reality we all know. And some are contemplative in the theological sense of that word; they are aware of the necessity and reality of something transcendent which grounds and is the source of even their own science; more, they reverence and submit to that reality in the way of any person of faith.

But there are some scientists who insist on divorcing the world around them from depth, meaning, and so forth. For these scientists what Tillich called "technical" reason is enough. So long as they can dissect, analyze, explore, hypothesize, test, and in general "know" and exploit or use something which is finite and no greater than the human mind, they believe this is enough. In fact, they believe this is all that is possible. Some of these scientists are called scientific naturalists. I honestly don't know if these folks never feel as though they have been grasped by something bigger than they are, much less by something which is living, but those I have read seem to rule out any ultimate or truly transcendent dimension to things. My point is simply that there is more than one kind of scientist and we can't lump them together too easily.

One of the really great things about contemporary physics with its notions of entanglement and the sense that some things only really exist the moment they are observed, for instance, is that scientists are coming to see more clearly that paradox and relationality lie at the heart of reality. This means that though they are free (and perhaps called) to explore science even more deeply and rigorously, they are coming to suspect that, by its very nature, reality cannot be pried apart and "objectively known" as was once thought. Instead, one must give oneself over to it, let oneself be taken hold of by it, apprehend it with oneself as an integral part of the equation. Really objective knowledge is also profoundly subjective.

Meanwhile, for instance, the discovery of fractals lets us imagine an infinite depth to reality, a depth which is clearly reflected and imaged again and again and again in all being. In some ways fractals are the face of the infinite. These discoveries, and others as well, open the door to contemplation to the scientist precisely as scientist. It's an exciting time for them but also for theologians and contemplatives (in the proper sense of the term) because in significant senses we know this depth dimension of all reality and have known and been known by "him" right along. This means that while science cannot replace religion and while religion cannot replace science, they can and are called to approach reality with the same reverent sense of awe;  the knowledge we each possess has never been more clearly complementary or capable of enlivening and illuminating one another.

Are Contemplatives regarded in the Church?

I think I read the same piece you did by the hermit bemoaning the state of the contemplative in the Church and world. I both agree (and sympathize) and disagree with her. First, are contemplatives regarded in the Church? Yes, there is no doubt in my mind that they are. What is not properly regarded is the universality of the contemplative experience in not just the life of faith, but the life of the arts, sciences, music, and so forth. We are still suffering under the notion that contemplation is a rarefied form of prayer to which very few are called. Several years ago a diocese stopped all Centering prayer meetings and one of the diocesan officials (a priest and possibly a Monsignor) explained that "contemplative prayer takes years to develop and is really for a relative few religious." (I don't think he realized how serious the criticism was he was leveling at his own prayer life with this judgment!) In any case while we (the Church per se) esteem contemplatives I am not sure folks generally regard contemplative prayer or contemplative living sufficiently. Of course it is hard to really regard what you do not understand or see the value in and the thing about contemplation is that it is hard to point to its value.

I have to say that it also doesn't help any when those who call themselves "mystics" define contemplative prayer in terms of experiences few will ever have, ecstasies, locutions, visions, etc, or in terms of a spirituality which is so "world-hating" and incapable of seeing the sacramental character of ALL reality that no honest or healthy person would WANT to be associated with it. It is important to remember that the truly miraculous, like the truly contemplative, is rooted in something both transcendent and immanent. (It is not "supernatural" in the way we ordinarily think of that word so much as it also transcends the natural.) To associate contemplative prayer with the "paranormal", for instance, is to make it elitist, and for most of us (including most genuine contemplatives), weird and irrelevant as well. So, my answer is that among those who really know what it is, contemplation is esteemed. Among those who do not know what it means or those who mistakenly believe it is elitist and meant for the favored few it is not really esteemed either.

I do feel my own life is regarded despite the fact that I suspect it is not generally understood. That I and the life I live are regarded is true on the parish level especially, but also on the diocesan and then too on the level of the universal Church. My pastor, for instance, always invites me to special staff occasions and does not expect me to attend the more routine meetings (to which I would have little to add anyway since I am far less involved in the day to day staff concerns). At these and many other times he often suggests a way I can contribute which is reflective of my contemplative life. I am able to lead services three times a month and there is no doubt people appreciate what I bring to them. If I suggest trying a period of silence people enter into that and the kids at our school (the few times I have done some of this for them) certainly are open to learning quiet prayer. One of the things I really appreciate is that I am invited to everything at the parish even when I am unable to say yes. It is rather special to have folks continue to make sure I am specifically invited though they know my life as a hermit may not really allow me to accept the invitation. In any case, all of these people respect my own need for silence and solitude so my sense is they do indeed regard contemplative life (or those living it).

Why is Contemplative Prayer NOT regarded?

Part of the problem which your questions and the comments made by the hermit you mentioned circle around is that we do not teach contemplative prayer or even introduce people to the environment in which it can flower. We teach prayers and have a few moments of quiet, but we simply do not allow for the silence needed for prayer itself. Some of this comes from folks being insecure with "teaching" (mentoring) others in this way. Part of our resistance to doing this, I think, comes from the sense that we are wasting time doing this; we really should be teaching a more "practical religion" some would say, or we should be teaching about social justice, or generally doing something more constructive with clear goals and ends, but sitting in silence to learn contemplative prayer? C'mon! (Both are actually necessary!) Adults know this to some extent, but this points up the third part of the problem, namely, it takes time and commitment with no tangible results for contemplative praxis to deepen and bloom in a person's life. Today folks tend to make (and desire their children to make) commitments to things that give more immediate returns  (including the capacity to get a good job and earn money!) --- and those which the Church has encouraged is a more "proper" part of "their" vocations!

On Contemplation and Contemporary Society:

I wonder if diocesan papers get offers from contemplatives to write about the importance of contemplative prayer in the lives of families, children, and people struggling in all the ways contemporary culture brings on. It would not be enough to write about contemplation using examples from past centuries, for instance. There would need to be some compelling stories about the way contemplation affects people, the way they live, see, hear, appreciate life, etc. For instance, several years ago I did a class in prayer for one of our grade school's classes. We practiced silent prayer at the end and I asked the kids to practice this once or twice each day. (Before bed was one of the times I suggested.) The class wrote me letters to thank me for coming and also to tell me what the visit meant. Several spoke of praying silently each night before sleep. A couple of the students wrote unintentionally humorous comments, to wit: "I really like praying before bed this way. It really works; I go right to sleep!!" but one young man wrote the following really perceptive comment (a budding contemplative in the making, perhaps): "I have been praying silently each night before going to bed. It really helps. When I wake up the next morning I feel different!"

Of course the purpose of prayer is to let God be God; we don't want to turn it into the latest anti-anxiety treatment, or the newest alternative therapy for ADHD, but the simple fact is, when we allow God to be God for us and in us, we really are different. We are completed as persons and as a result we approach life with more patience and perseverance, greater empathy and compassion, and a greater capacity to risk ourselves for others when we don't see any immediate return for ourselves.  There is a generosity and a wider perspective that comes with contemplation. Certainly silence and the simple practice of waiting on God and learning to listen to one's own heart have their effects as well, but even so, quiet prayer is about letting God be God and becoming the persons we are in relation to the sovereignty of Love-in-Act. What we are seeing with a new freshness today is that in a sacramental world increasingly understood as fundamentally paradoxical and relational, the capacity for contemplation is important and often the only adequate approach to truly human forms of knowing whether these are associated with faith and theology or with the sciences.

Postscript: I realized I did not answer the question about everyone becoming contemplatives. I answered a similar question once before but from the "other direction". That one asked why we needed contemplative nuns if everyone was meant or called to pray contemplatively. For that post, please see, Why do we need Contemplative Convents?  Though from a different direction I think it answers your question as well. If not, please get back to me.

17 September 2015

More Questions on Terminology: Lay vs Secular Hermits, etc.

[[Hi Sister, I haven't heard before of a secular hermit but what was really confusing in the following was the distinction between secular and lay hermits. Can you help me here? [[There are two spiritual states involved in an authentic hermit life. One is the Secular state which is anyone walking down the street doing their thing, and the other is the Consecrated state, in which the Church officially recognizes with an individual that he or she is definitely sacred by God's action. These hermits enter into an official relationship with God and the Church by a dedicatory ceremony after lengthy examination of their life and spirituality according to the Law of Canon 603 in the Church's Canon Law. I will not go into what that entails as there is ample material and readily available to read.. . .I should draw a further distinction between the Secular spiritual state and the Lay spiritual state. The difference is in the expression of Vows or promises by a Secular person for the dedication and direction of their lives, by God. Such persons may even decide it is beneficial to draw up a Rule which is a written declaration by the individual of how he or she will live their lives and direct them toward their spiritual goal and ideals.]]  Lay Hermit Intercessor. (Emphasis added)

Let me first say that, whether I wholly agree with some of the points (or posts) on this blog or not, I generally recommend it as an example of an important urban lay eremitical vocation. The author is living a simple, and it seems to me, truly eremitical life as a lay person and we need more folks following Mr. Miller's example. Not least this is because the Church is likely to have a number of genuine eremitical vocations among the retired, chronically ill, and elderly. Pastors need to be open to encouraging such vocations. If you have a chance, please take a look at the photography Michael does. Some, especially some of birds and waterfowl, is truly stunning.

I would argue that, in the post you cited, the distinction between lay hermits and secular hermits is not valid (and is not used) for at least two reasons. First, if a hermit is not consecrated or ordained they are in the lay state and this is true whether they make private vows and/or write a Rule or not.  Secular is not one of the three states of life recognized in the Church. It is a context in relation to which one lives in either the consecrated, ordained, or lay states. Secondly then, today we use secular less in contrast with religious as we do to refer to the context or locus of ministry in one's life and the way in which that life is conditioned by the evangelical counsels. Saeculum refers to the everyday space -time world of relationships and labor. The conditioning reality that modifies or defines one's relationship to this everyday world is the (public) profession of the evangelical counsels.

Most lay persons are called to secular vocations, meaning they are called to work in the various structures of this world, participate in building the economy, create and nurture families, and exercise real influence and power in this world in all the legitimate ways that happens. Especially they are called to live the evangelical counsels but not in the way a religious defines these. When used in this way every hermit, whether in the lay, ordained, or consecrated states, and whether they have a Rule and vows or not, are called to something other than a secular life. This is what makes their vocations "desert" vocations.  If one is trying to distinguish themselves from being a lay hermit by calling themselves a secular hermit because they have private vows and a Rule, the attempt is equally invalid. There is, in this sense, no such thing as a secular hermit.

Remember that the original distinction between religious and secular or lay stemmed from the fact that religious, are, to some extent formally distanced from or live a modified or qualified relation to this world, this saeculum; this is so because their vows change the way they relate in terms of economics (poverty), family and relationships (celibate chastity), and power (obedience). While everyone is called to live the evangelical counsels, not everyone is called to live religious poverty, celibate chastity, or religious obedience (with legitimate superiors, etc). Moreover, one form of consecrated life is radically and paradoxically secular and that is Consecrated Virgins living in the World. These women are given to God in the things of the spirit and the things of the world in a particularly challenging and contemporary vocation. These women are in the consecrated state but are called to live that consecration in a radical form of eschatological secularity. This is certainly a place where contrasting "secular state" with "consecrated state" simply doesn't work. Today then, we mainly speak of three states of life: lay, consecrated, or ordained and then qualify them in terms of their relation to the saeculum.

By the way, I am not convinced it is accurate to speak of the consecrated "spiritual" state of life either (though of course it is the result of the action of the Holy Spirit on these persons and their lives). The consecrated state of life (just as is true in the lay or ordained states) encompasses the whole of a person's self and life and is a legal state as well. In any case, I have never seen the Church refer to the consecrated or lay "spiritual" states and don't expect to see this usage adopted by theologians, etc precisely because these states involve the whole person, body, soul, and spirit. Recalling the comments  just made regarding consecrated virgins living in the world, here is another place using the phrase "spiritual" state, as in "secular spiritual state" is particularly misleading.  Again, it is not merely a "spiritual state" but involves the whole of the person and her life.

Personally, though I understand what Mr. Miller means, I would also be careful of using the term "official", as in "these persons enter into an official relationship with the Church". Every baptized person has an "official relationship" with the Church. That is, no one is an "unofficial Catholic!" Every baptized person is a consecrated and commissioned member of the Body of Christ we call Church. The person in the consecrated state of life, on the other hand, accepts a new set of legitimate relationships and legal rights and obligations which bind them beyond their baptismal relationships, rights, obligations, and expectations. They exist in a differently graced state of life with new covenants and commissioning, canonical vows, legitimate superiors, and so forth. It would probably be better to say that, generally speaking, those in the consecrated state of life have a canonical relationship with the Church which differs from those in the lay state. This difference is enough to justify speaking of canonical and non-canonical hermits, for instance, just as we speak of lay and consecrated hermits.

Finally, I would be very cautious in speaking of the Church recognizing the consecrated person or individuals as sacred. It is true that strictly speaking the Church sees individuals called to the consecrated state of life as "sacred persons" and their vocations as divine or sacred vocations, but this does not necessarily imply personal sanctity. (This is why Thomas Aquinas took such care in his discussion of the distinction between objective and subjective superiority.) Especially, this usage can seem to or actually denigrate the profound and foundational consecration and re-creation associated with baptism.  After all, with the Sacraments of Initiation every baptized person becomes a new creation, a person made holy (authentically human) by virtue of the work of the Holy Spirit in their life. Generally speaking, many religious today, eschew the phrase "sacred person" because if they are sacred persons, then this seems to mean that those who are not in the consecrated state of life are not sacred. I tend to speak instead of "differently graced" or of being "differently bound in law and differently commissioned" or something similar. Certainly, none of this is without problems, overlaps, obscurities, and potential conflicts between VII and older ways of thinking and speaking. The Church is still finding her way here precisely because what was done at Vatican II attempted to do justice to the nature and dignity of lay life, but in some ways Vatican II created loose ends and these remain more or less unresolved theologically.


The bottom line here is the Church recognizes three states of life: lay, consecrated, and ordained. In each of these we can find those who live their lives in the midst of the saeculum with no public vows to qualify their relationship to the realms of relationships, power, and money. There are secular (diocesan) and religious priests, consecrated virgins who are religious (nuns in solemn vows) and those who are called to live an eschatological secularity under c 604. Religious men and women have public vows which qualify their relationships to the realms of money, power, and relationships even if their ministry has them immersed in the saeculum. Hermits, by their very nature, are the exception here. Whether lay or consecrated and thus either privately vowed (or not) or publicly professed, hermits are, by definition, withdrawn from the world and cannot be considered "secular". We especially do not use the term secular hermit to distinguish between a lay hermit (a hermit in the lay state) with private vows and Rule and one without. As noted, in some ways this supposed distinction sounds like a way to argue one is no longer a lay person because one has made private vows. Private vows or no vows at all, such hermits are lay hermits. Again, the Church recognizes three states of life and secular is not one of these.

Related Question:

[[Sister Laurel, would you agree or disagree that the important distinction in hermits is between those who are privately professed and those who are publicly professed?]]

I agree that this can be seen as the most basic distinction, but it is also the case that one needs to be using the words "private" and "public" in the way the Church herself uses these. Similarly, one needs to be using the term "professed" as the Church does.

Namely, public vows are those which, 1) are associated with public rights and obligations beyond those that come with baptism, 2) with the exceptions ** mentioned below, are the necessary way one is established in a new and stable state of life, namely, the consecrated and/or religious state, 3) are necessarily associated with religious life and are essential for one claiming to be a professed religious, 4) are associated with vocations lived in the name of the Church (one becomes a Catholic Religious, Catholic hermit, etc.), and 5) involve canonical relationships (legitimate superiors, an approved Rule and the legal and moral obligation to live one's Rule, etc.) which are meant to ensure the integrity of the vocation itself and one's vocational response. If one speaks of public vows ALL of these things are necessarily implied.

(**The exceptions referred to above are consecrated virginity and c 603: CV's make no vows but do make a significant commitment; c 603 hermits may use a form of commitment using "other sacred bonds". Both involve God's consecration of the person mediated through the ministry of the Church. It is in this way these persons enter the consecrated state.)

Meanwhile, private vows are those which 1) are not associated with public or canonical rights and obligations beyond baptism or whatever state the person is already in, 2) do not initiate or establish one in a new and stable state of life, 3) are not religious vows which, by definition, are public, 4) are not associated with public vocations lived in the name of the Church (one does not become a Catholic Hermit with private vows), and 5) are not associated with the establishment of canonical relationships meant to ensure the integrity of one's vocational response. (That is, they do not involve legitimate superiors, or legal obligations to live one's Rule, but they do involve the moral obligation to live one's Rule or Plan of Life.) If one identifies oneself as privately vowed ALL of these limitations or exclusions are necessarily implied.

So, in summary, yes, one can certainly assert that the one distinction that "matters" for a hermit is that between public and private vows so long as one is not trying to reduce or even trivialize the meaning of these terms to their more common senses of known and unknown to others or informal and formalized. In other words, if one asserts this is the only distinction that matters then one needs to explain why they are such significant terms in the life of the Church. Most of my efforts in speaking about this in the past has involved  "unpacking" the way the Church uses these terms to speak of non-canonical and canonical eremitical vocations and the significant but differing commitments and obligations associated with these.

Finally, it is important to note again that the term profession is used only with public vows and consecration, that is with vows which initiate one into a new canonical state of life with new rights and obligations. Otherwise one speaks of (making) private vows, or private dedication, but not private profession. That is a distinction your own question obscures --- though it is also, understandably, a very common error in usage.

16 September 2015

Central Theological Insights around Which My Life Spirals Ever Deeper

[[Dear Sister Laurel, since you have studied Theology I wondered what are the most important lessons you have learned over the years. It may be these are theological or spiritual but are there certain lessons you keep coming back to, you know, points around which you circle and go ever deeper? Are any of these specific to your life as a hermit?]]

 What a terrific set of questions! I especially like the image of circling and going deeper because both my director and other friends and I sometimes speak of the spiral pattern to growth. We return to the same pieces of growth, the same insights, the same bits of clarity but each time from a different and deeper perspective. Each time the center is closer or I exist closer to the center. That happened once recently as I wrote about the gift of emptiness and the linkage between the hiddenness of the eremitical vocation and the work of God within us. At the time I noted that all the pieces had been there and I had written and spoken of each of them before --- often many times --- but I had never placed these two together in exactly this way before. They glowed for me with a kind of new incandescence  -- as though a blue piece of the theological puzzle and a red piece, once joined together, glowed with a purple light. A handful of the more significant lessons I have learned --- usually both theologically and spiritually --- are as follows:

The  human heart is a theological reality:

One of the most personally and professionally important pieces I can point to is the notion that the term "heart" is a theological term, and the human heart is, by definition, the place where God bears witness to Godself. The corollary is also important, namely, it is not so much that we have a heart and God comes to dwell there but that where God dwells we have a (human) heart! It was from this bit of theology taken from a footnote in an article on kardia (Kαρδία) in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament that a number of other emphases in my life and writing come. The notion that human beings ARE a covenant reality, a dialogue with God, a language event called to be Divine Word incarnate, comes from this insight (though they are related to other things as well). When coupled with the notion that God is ever new because God is eternal and eternal because God is ever new, this all led me to a notion of my own life which never allowed the sense that I was wounded beyond the capacity for new life, or the sense that there was nothing more to hope for.

The notion of heart as the place where God bears witness to Godself allowed me to see myself as having a deep place or reality within me where not even human woundedness and sinfulness can touch. There are darknesses in me, of course, but deeper than those is the light of God. There are distortions and untruths, but deeper than these is the God who is truth and who continually summons to truth, the One who creates new life with this Word and redeems the whole of reality. That God, whether I speak of him as Ground and Source of Being (cf. below) or as the center and depth dimension of my own heart, is the One who brings life out of death and makes hope rather than despair the pedal tone of my life.

God is Verb More than God is Noun:

As part of this theology is the notion that God is verb as much or more than God is noun. The dynamism of this idea, that God is not just Love but even more is Love-in-Act has been central for me. In thinking of the human being as a covenant or dialogical reality with Love-in-Act dwelling in the core of her being I also saw clearly that there was a dynamic and inalienable part of me that was constantly moving (or summoning) the whole of me towards abundant life and holiness. Speaking of God as a living God, thinking of the human soul as the constantly renewed breath of God, realizing that God was never summoned into action but was already moving, acting, healing, touching, etc, was important in the same way the idea that the word heart is a fundamentally theological term was important. Among other things, I realized I could never think of myself as wounded beyond the capacity to respond or beyond hope. There was always an unquenchable source of life living in my heart transcending the capacity of sin or death (in all its forms and variations) to stop or paralyze it. Moreover, this way of conceiving of God is both profoundly Scriptural while at the same time comporting with the "event nature" of the "true self" and the whole of reality we are dealing with more and more because of contemporary physics. It invites further theological reflection while taking quantum mechanics, etc, seriously. The same is true of the next bit of theology.

God is Ground and Source of Being; God is not A Being:

It is hardly possible to say all the ways this bit of theology has been crucial for me. Recently in explaining about the fact that miracles are not the result of a God who intervenes in and contravenes the laws of nature but is rather the revelation of the deepest "law" of reality I had occasion to refer to this famous bit of Paul Tillich's systematic theology. My understanding of and insistence that the whole of reality is at least potentially sacramental is rooted in this piece of theology. My work and reading regarding the relationship of science and faith --- the fact that these two are different ways of knowing the same reality, both with their own strengths and deficiencies, is built on this notion of God as Transcendent ground and source of being and meaning. The notion that God is the ground and source of all that is truly personal is another side of this foundational theological datum. Above all, perhaps, my sense that God is omnipresent but also summoning us each to enflesh "him" and bring him to a unique articulation in the ways only human beings seem able to do that is related to the notion of God as Ground and Source.

With regard to eremitical life it is the fact that union with God implies and in fact establishes our communion with others that is the primary key to my understanding eremitical solitude in terms not of aloneness so much as in terms of communion with God and all that is precious to God. Worldly solitude (and external or physical solitude) have more to do with being isolated from others than with communion and relatedness, but in Christian eremitical life solitude moves from and through this external solitude to a deep relatedness with God and others. Anyone can leave people behind and embrace a self-centered 'spirituality' marked by a selfish piety --- at least for a time --- but the paradox of authentic eremitical solitude is that when one embraces external or physical solitude in order to pray and be made God's own prayer, one also becomes more compassionate.

This is why canon 603 specifies a life "lived for others" --- not first of all because one's life is that of an intercessor (though one will surely pray for others) but because external solitude is the means to a literal compassion, a literal feeling with and for others involving the desire to alleviate suffering and mediate God and the hope God brings the isolated and marginalized to others. All of this is rooted in the fact that God is the ground of being and meaning; to move more deeply into union with God means to become more truly related to all else that is similarly related to and grounded in God.

Divine Sovereignty is the Counterpart of Human Freedom:

So often we pose our own freedom as something in conflict with the sovereignty of another but with God the opposite is true. The last three pieces of theology combine to reveal that human beings are truly themselves when God is allowed to truly be God. Because God is not A Being he never comes into competition with human beings --- as would inevitably and invariably happen if God were a being among other beings --- maybe especially as A supreme being. Instead though, God is the power underlying and within reality, the power driving and summoning to abundant life, to authenticity and to the reality of future and completion. This means (especially if the other insights are true) that if freedom is really the power to be the ones we are called to be, it must be seen as the counterpart to the sovereignty of God and God's call to be. So often it has been critically important that I understand that the will of God is the deepest law of my own true Self. Discerning the will of God means discerning where I am truly free, giving myself over to that will means giving myself over to my own deepest truth, giving myself over to the One who grounds my being and dwells as the core of my Self.  I am free when God is Lord. God is Lord to the extent I am truly free to be myself. So too for each and all of us.

Gospel Truth is ALWAYS Paradoxical:

When I began studying Theology my professor gave a lecture on two ways of thinking, the Greek way and the Biblical way, the way of compromise (thesis + antithesis ---> synthesis) and the way of radical relatedness where two apparently opposing realities are held together in tension and identity (thesis + antithesis does not equal conflict but = paradox). The most radical formulation of paradox living at the heart of Christianity is the Incarnation where Jesus is the exhaustive revelation of God to the extent he is exhaustively human, and where he is exhaustively human to the extent he reveals God. Jesus is strongest where he is weak, fullest where he is empty, richest where he has nothing at all to recommend him in worldly terms. The Trinity is also paradoxical rather than being some weird kind of new (or very ancient) math: where God is One, God is a Trinitarian Community of Love and where God is a Trinitarian community of Love God is truly One. Christianity is rooted in paradox and is always expressed in paradox: we have ourselves only to the extent we give ourselves away, insofar as we are mourners we will also know a deeper and more extensive joy, where we are rich in worldly terms we are poor in divine terms, etc, etc.

I always look for the paradox involved when I am doing theology --- so much so that I know if there is no paradox I have very likely transgressed into some form of heresy or other. Docetism, for instance, which takes its name from the Greek verb δοκεῖν (dokein) "to seem," takes the divinity of Jesus seriously at the expense of his humanity (he only seems human). Arianism, for instance, takes his humanity seriously at the expense of his divinity. The Christological task which confronts the systematic theologian, but also the ordinary believer in faith, is to hold the two things together in both tension and identity --- so that where Jesus is exhaustively human, there he is also the exhaustive revelation of God (despite the fact that humanity and divinity are not the same things).

Henri de Lubac once noted that one does not resolve or answer a paradox (to do so would compromise one or, more likely, both of the truths involved); rather, the only appropriate approach to paradox is contemplation. Pope Francis recently reminded us of the same thing. It is paradox which eventually allowed me to think of chronic illness as divine vocation (though I don't accept God wills illness), or to understand that in eremitical life the inability to minister to or love others in all the usual ways was, when lived with integrity, itself the ultimate ministry and love of others --- not in some bloodless and abstract way (not that that would be love anyway) but in the sense of living the deepest truth of human existence for the sake of others --- especially those who are without hope and those who, on the other end of the spectrum, believe they are their own best hope!

I am the Same as Everyone Else:

There were (and I guess still are) many things in my life which made (and make) me different from the people around me: family, interests, gifts, illness, desires and dreams and eventually even vocation. Though I always got on well with others, was well-liked, and did well in school, in athletics, music, work, etc, so I also stood out or apart. When I developed a seizure disorder it turned out not to be a kind of run-of-the-mill epilepsy (sorry, but some epilepsies really are kind of "run-of-the-mill" to my mind) but a medically and surgically intractable epilepsy whose seizures were rare and often initially unrecognized. Everything in my life seemed to point to my "difference". But at one point, perhaps 35 or so years ago I came to see myself clearly as the same as everyone else --- even in my differences most fundamentally I was the same.

As a result, I came to experience a profound empathy with others and a sense that the things which seemed to set me apart were, in one way and another, little different from the things which seemed to set others apart. I suppose I discovered paradox here too. I suspect when people write of Thomas Merton's experience on that street corner in Louisville, they are describing something similar to what happened to me. I can't point to a single event  as the focus of this shift, nor can I say I realized I loved everyone at that moment as happened to Merton, but the compassion and empathy Merton experienced sounds similar to what I experienced. Moreover, I believe Merton, especially as monk and (potential) hermit schooled in a "fuga mundi" way of approaching the world outside the monastery and wounded by his Mother's death and other circumstances from childhood and young adulthood, was coming from a place where he felt profoundly alien or different in many of the ways I had myself done. (N.B. Some Cistercians eschew the fuga mundi approach to monastic life on the basis of Trappist and Trappistine authors; Merton too seemed to eschew this approach when he wrote about "the problem" of the World, but my sense is he was still schooled in it in his early years at Gethsemani.)

In any case, the source of my worst suffering --- not least because it is self-reinforcing and self-isolating --- turned out to be seeing myself as different from everyone else, and the source of greatest joy came to be seeing myself in terms of my commonality with others. This is not an abstract truth (that would never have touched me) but is at least partly due to being profoundly understood by others who did not share the same differences (though no doubt they had their own). In any case, as a result (and to the extent I truly know this), I am not threatened by others' gifts, frightened by their differences, nor driven to despair by my own differences and deficiencies. Neither do I have a need to use my own gifts as weapons to humiliate others or prove my own superiority (or even my own competence). All of these are are part of our more profound "sameness" or commonality. This was a central piece of coming to truly love myself and others as myself.  It is the sine qua non without which no one can truly minister to others. Again, I am not entirely certain how I came by it, but I recognize it as a great gift and something that makes living Christianity and religious (and especially eremitical) life really possible.

Our God Reveals Godself in the Unexpected and Unacceptable Place:

I won't write a lot about this here except to say please check out posts on the theology of the Cross. There is no part of my life that is untouched by Paul's Theology of the Cross. Every part of my own theology is informed by the Cross. Recently I wrote about kenosis and the possibilities which still exist when one has been entirely emptied of every discrete gift and potential for ministry --- if only one can remain open to God. It is from such a position of emptiness, incapacity, and even certain kinds of failure, that Jesus' obedience (openness and responsiveness) to God opens our broken and sinful World most fully to God's redemption.

It is Mark's similar theology that gives me a sense that when all the props are kicked out God's faithfulness is the single thing we can count on, the thing that brings life out of death, communion with God out of godlessness, meaning out of absurdity and so forth. The notion that God becomes incarnate, that God does not hesitate to do what no other merely putative god would do, that the God of Jesus Christ accepts dishonor and shows a power which is truly perfected in weakness --- and that this God can be found in the unexpected and entirely "unacceptable" place --- is the source of all my hope and strength. It is an immeasurable mystery I am happy to reflect on, walk into and explore for the whole of my life. Such a God is paradoxical and so is such a gospel. In truth it is this theology of the cross and the paradoxical God it reveals that is the real source and ground of all of the other things I have already spoken about here.

There are probably a few other pieces of theology that are pivotal in my own life. One I haven't mentioned here is the notion that humility is a name we give the the dignity we possess as those accepting the God of Jesus Christ and ourselves in light of that God; humility is something God raises us to and the appropriate verb is to humble, not to humiliate. The second truth I have always clung to is that anyone seeking to do serious theology must come to terms with the Holocaust. It is here that the Theologies of the Cross of Paul and Mark and so many of the other pieces or insights I have mentioned find their ultimate test of theological validity --- far more, of course, than they do in the much smaller struggles of my own life. In any case, I will leave this here for now and  come back to finish later --- I need to think about which of these are specific to eremitical life. In the meantime I hope what I have written so far is helpful.

10 September 2015

"Stay Quiet All Day, Say a Couple Prayers . . ."

[[[[ Otherwise, I think it could become a very self-indulgent life style (i.e. Stay quiet all day, say a couple prayers, meditate, do a little gardening or something...sounds nice...nothing wrong with it...but certainly not that big of a deal)]]]]


I cut this from an earlier post for special attention because it so irritated me. That was because it was the description of an eremitical life by a person who is seeking to become a hermit and one day, even a consecrated hermit. It was a bit surprising to hear the description of the externals of a life in cell as "nice,. . .nothing wrong with it. . .but certainly not that big of a deal" unless one were to add certain "heroic elements" or mortifications! Though I wrote recently about folks not understanding and sometimes misunderstanding the eremitical life I did not mention this prevalent source of misunderstanding, namely that the hermit life is merely one of leisure, saying a few prayers, doing a little work around the place, some gardening, etc. unless one adds in extra mortifications and prayers to make the vocation more "heroic" and to distinguish it from the life of the devout lay person.

I suppose it is easy for outsiders to see monastic or eremitical life in these terms. It is also easy to find would-be hermits who are about this kind of thing but are not fully committed to allowing God to be God in all of their life's moments and moods. (I suspect this distortion of the life may have been part of the reason the poster described the life in these terms.) Once we forget the deeper God-centered commitment involved in eremitical life our days DO become self-indulgent. And of course it is not only hermits who might do such forgetting; it is those who look on the life from the outside sometimes including Bishops and their curia. The solution, I believe, has often been the piling on of prayers or forms of mortification so the hermit has something to point to, something which can be seen or imitated, something which transforms the vocation from one of being prayer to one of an incessant saying of prayers. Unfortunately, the heart of the vocation is also missed by  insiders as well as outsiders.

The Silence of Solitude:

Because this is so, the way the sentence was phrased and contextualized really rankled. For instance, to reduce "the silence of solitude" to staying quiet all day" was especially difficult for me personally. A couple of Friday's ago I did a Communion service for about 24 people. Before we began I asked if we could sit in silence for a few minutes. The chapel got very quiet, then silent, then (more or less) reached a point of truly shared silence followed by a moment where silence itself was inviting us to allow it to take over the hearts and minds of the group even more fully. There was a weight to the silence as we moved through quiet to silence to shared silence. It pressed against us, and there was a pretty universal sense that everyone had joined in this and had let go of their anxiety.  I stopped to begin the service at that point. It is a rare experience, I think, to find people experiencing shared silence in a parish setting not dedicated to centering prayer or something similar, for instance. In any case, this deeper silence where Silence itself surrounds and penetrates one's heart and mind, where it takes hold of us from some deep place, where God and oneself meet in this hesychasm or quies is the characteristic depth dimension of the silence of solitude spoken of by canon 603. It is as far removed from simply "staying quiet all day" as grape Koolade is to fine wine.

Now, not every moment in a hermitage evidences this intensity of silence (or more intense ones!), but neither are these merely occasional experiences for the hermit. They are common in and characteristic of the first few hours of the day (hours of vigil), common in night watches and quiet prayer, common (though less profound) even in meals taken slowly as one watches the birds or squirrels or deer, and they carry over into and empower the other daily activities. The point is, however, that this Silence requires a submission of self, a giving over of oneself to the God who is the silent ground of reality and desires to grasp us completely and take us into "himself". There was a point during Friday's brief silence that could easily have been broken by someone's anxiety, coughing, shifting in their place, sighing, or other signs that this intensity of silence is unsettling, unfamiliar, or even frightening and is being resisted.That is because people are unfamiliar with this degree of silence, yes, but I think it is also because they sense it is something huge and alive, and far beyond their control, something (or someone!) living that they must give themselves over to or move away from. On this morning in our chapel everyone surrendered to this Silence for a brief time and the result was a shared silence whose first step only was "keeping quiet".

What folks began to experience as they gave themselves over to the silence was what Father Cornelius Wencel, Er Cam, refers to as the meeting of two freedoms, that of the human person and that of God. The deeper the silence the greater the degree of or capacity for freedom. It is what I have often referred to as the charism of canon 603 life: the silence of solitude. This is not only the general environment of the hermitage, it is the goal of the eremitical life and the gift hermits bring to a world of noise, isolation, chaos and estrangement from self, from God, and from others. This communion of two freedoms is the very essence of authentic humanity but opening ourselves to it takes a lot of work as well as self-emptying and the trust we know as faith. The silence it requires from us is not simply the silence of external or physical quiet but the stilling of the voices within us which cry out in insecurity, fear, or self-assertion and even in a hungry grasping for power, prestige, success, and so forth. It is the silence of submission to the sovereignty, mercy, and love of God when we simply rest in "him"; similarly it is the silence of humility we come to know when the gaze of God reveals and communicates a dignity we scarcely imagined we possessed or were called to.

Say a Couple Prayers, Meditate, do a little gardening or something:

The difference between a life of prayer and a series of days where we, "say a couple of prayers" is as great as the difference between "staying quiet all day" and the silence of solitude. No true hermit understands her life as being merely about the saying of prayers. No authentic canon 603 hermit thinks of the requirement of "assiduous prayer and penance" as meaning "merely saying some (or a lot of!) prayers and doing forms of penance". Instead the combination of these two terms signifies a profoundly ordered life focused at every point on allowing God to work in her and take her into himself. As already noted this means doing penance and saying prayers, but even more it means ordering our activities, our choices, our relationships in the ways necessary so that we might become God's own prayer in our world. The difference between a life of prayer, a life where we are made prayer, and a life where each day we "say a couple of prayers" is immense. It might be compared to the difference between a five year old molding clay and a Michelangelo freeing David from the marble.

The primary forms of penance for the hermit are silence, solitude,  and custody of the cell. Custody of the cell includes sitting and waiting on/for God as well as all of the disciplines associated with living well in this place. That means physical and intellectual work, rest, recreation, meals, and so forth all given over to God and lived in a way which allows God to pervade them with his life and love. It is an intense life but, yes, as I said a couple of times in my earlier post, that absolutely also means leisure, namely that which monks and nuns refer to as "holy leisure."  What a life that is lived for the service of God in prayer, silence, solitude --- and the penance associated with these --- actually looks like may well appear to outsiders as one of a few prayer periods, a little meditation, and a bit of gardening or other manual labor. This is especially true given the frantic busyness and unbalanced workaholism which characterizes so much of life in the world outside the hermitage or monastery. But to mistake the nature of the life and to characterize it this way is a serious misreading. It forgets that the heart of the eremitical life is truly "hidden from the eyes of men", that it occurs in the hiddenness of the individual's heart, in the hiddenness of the cell, in the hiddenness of a life wrapped in the Silent heart of God.

It is a bit like describing the work of healing an injured heart as something the surgeon does with his active intervention while the patient's own body does nothing at all. The interventions of the surgeon may repair valves and injuries, but they also wound and tear down as they produce the necessary conditions needed for healing to take over. Real healing happens in  times of leisure. It happens when one rests, eats well (and simply), and generally takes good care of oneself.  Similarly, seeds grow in the night and darkness while the farmer sleeps. Orderly, regular work and attention is necessary for the planting of the seeds, but leisure is also necessary; otherwise the seeds will never germinate or the plants grow to maturity. Again, eremitical life is more fundamentally about being and becoming than it is about doing. And this, in turn, is about allowing God the space and time to love us into wholeness when we can do relatively little to achieve such wholeness on our own. To some extent we provide the conditions necessary for receiving this love, for entertaining it and being nourished and transfigured by it. If the relative leisure and balance of such a life looks little like the muscular and sadly aggressive asceticism of some past times or the similarly driven lives of those who can simply never be still, silent, or marked by a patient receptiveness and waiting, then so be it!

Nothing Wrong With That:

But of course, if an eremitical life does look like this poster described in the sentence provided, then either it is what God calls one to or it is not. If it is what God calls one to then why would we want to add "heroic" mortifications and entirely change the character of the life? If it is not what God calls one to, then how can we say, "Nothing wrong with that"? The point of the original sentence was a comparison: "That's okay for a devout lay person but not for a hermit!"  I am convinced such comparisons are specious. More importantly, they are measuring reality in the wrong terms, namely, in terms of what can be seen and quantified. But in terms of a life lived in communion with God often the only thing we might see as meaningful here is the person's growth in wholeness and holiness: are they more truly human, more compassionate, more generous and loving, more joyful and at peace or are they not?  While these things are recognizable they are not really measurable or quantifiable.

Again, there are fraudulent hermits out there. If we look at the externals of their lives they may look very like those of authentic hermits. (In fact, despite outward appearances, they may simply be laying about all day or they may even be all about harsh penances, overburdening physical labor, a focus on nonstop suffering, and endless prayers where God is never given a moment's time or space to break into or expand his presence in the person's heart and life; thus these latter persons might end up looking like they are some kind of Über-hermit or something!) Such lives, both those of  layabouts and those of  Über-hermits  are indeed self-indulgent and the original poster is rightly concerned! This is one of the reasons discernment is sometimes difficult and takes time.

Assuming we are not speaking about someone who is simply not praying, not working at all, not maintaining silence or living in solitude, the fruit of the life is measured, not merely or even mainly in terms of externals (of course fidelity to one's Rule is essential), but in terms of personal growth, growth in compassion, in the capacity to love others, as well as growth in patience and openness to the presence of God who comes to us in the most ordinary things. Again, assuming one's Rule is built around c 603's central elements and one is faithful to that Rule, only in the presence of these latter "fruit" can the person living as a hermit claim to be doing as God wills --- and that, of course, is the bottom line in gauging the quality of any eremitical life.

P.S., I wanted to thank the author of the post cited here. He asks great questions and I count on him adding something to this blog on a pretty regular basis. He wrote to apologize for irritating me and hoped he had not really offended me. I reassured him in response and do so here as well that the irritation is/was my problem not his. Also if I did not respect and trust him and his questions I would have needed to pull more punches than I did with this answer. Meanwhile this questioner uncovered a really significant misunderstanding of monastic and eremitical life I had not mentioned earlier. Again, he has my thanks!

07 September 2015

Miracles and Revelation

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I am struggling a little with the idea of miracles and you said something recently which caught my attention. It was a reference to miracles and love-in-act and "the deepest law of nature." I don't know whether to believe in them or not. I especially wonder how to reconcile the possibility of miracles with a scientific world view that closes off such possibilities with increasing knowledge of medicine and so on. I don't want to believe in a "God of the gaps" but so much of what we have learned in the past few centuries makes it seem like that is all God really is. Do you believe in miracles? Does God intervene in our world in ways that just say "to heck with" the natural laws and dynamics we know exist? Is this idea of love being "the deepest law of nature" an answer to my questions?]]

Great questions. I may have also written about this earlier this year sometime because I know I gave a reflection at my parish on some pieces of this related to one of the Scripture readings one day. If I can find the post associated with that I will add a link to it here. As I noted in the post you referred to the NT does not use the term miracles so much as it uses the word δύναμις (dunamis)  which means "act(s) of power." Also, though, let me remind you that this is one of the places thinking of God as A Being rather than as the ground of being or being itself is particularly destructive. Our God is the ground and source of all that is, the ground and source of all meaning and value, and of course the ground and source of all life. God is Love but more, we sometimes say that God does not just love us, God IS love-in-act. So yes, all of these pieces come together to provide answer to your questions about miracles.

When we think of God as the dynamic, loving source and power of everything that is rather than as A being (even the biggest and most supreme being) it begins to be much easier to understand the possibility of miracles or what the NT calls δύναμις or acts of power. It also becomes much easier to dispense forever with a God of the gaps which is constantly diminished by increases in human knowledge. (Just the opposite would turn out to be true with the One who is ground and source! Such a God is transcendent and can never be understood via science, but precisely because this infinite God is transcendent and also the deepest ground of all that is (which means "he" is the depth dimension of being, meaning, beauty, truth, personhood, and all relatedness), his existence ensures that doing science and the possibility of making amazing scientific discoveries will never end.) Similarly then, we no longer need to think of God as someone breaking into our natural realm from outside, an interventionist God who overturns the usual laws of nature. And all of this is so precisely because if God is as theologians today describe God, if God really is the ground and source of existence, then the acts we ordinarily call miracles really represent the in-breaking of the deepest law of nature itself, namely love. What I am saying is that the miraculous is not the overturning of the laws of nature but the shocking and shaking revelation of the deepest law, principle, reality, or dynamic of the whole of creation.

Here in California we have earthquakes and when there is a quake what sometimes happens is things break apart to reveal a deeper and constitutive reality which is always present, always moving and changing, but whose presence we hardly suspect much less think about. Another even more vivid example might be volcanoes. For centuries they lie dormant --- or seem to be so --- and then, with hardly any warning at all a huge explosion can reveal the deeper reality at the heart of the volcano. As a result we never see that quiet mountain in quite the same way again and although over time we see the mountain re-clothe itself with grass and trees and fauna of all sorts, we know that there is a creative and destructive power deep within whose symbol is fire and bids we never forget it. What is really astounding is that power --- that ground and source of all life and creativity we call God --- dwells within each of us in a privileged way. When we love another it is that power at work, that God acting through us --- and at the same time we are most truly ourselves at these moments. (This is the greatest paradox of being human, namely, we are most ourselves when it is God acting in and through us and least ourselves when we act of our own accord.)

In any case so much of understanding the potential for the miraculous has to do with developing (or accepting) the new theology associated with our renewed sense of cosmology. We live in an unfinished universe moving towards a fullness we cannot imagine. Theologians today are turning out work in a new cosmological key and though the dogmas of our faith do not change they are alive with a new life and freshness which can resolve the seeming insoluble questions which resulted from seeing science and theology or science and faith (reason and faith) as adversarial. For instance, the work of John Haught has gone a long way in giving us a God and universe in which science and theology represent different ways of knowing the same reality or at least dimensions of the same reality. Ilia Delio, a Franciscan Sister and systematic theologian, has written books like The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, or The Emergent Christ, and Christ in Evolution, which put love seeking and achieving incarnation at the center of an evolving and unfinished universe. Elizabeth Johnson has done Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love.

There is so much now available which would assist you with your questions and invite new ways of under-standing which are both profoundly faithful to Catholic dogma and respectful of science's challenging and exciting knowledge. I would encourage you to take a look at what is out there. I do not suggest you start with Ilia Delio's work mentioned above, though I hope you get to it eventually. It is both intellectually and aesthetically beautiful and challenging --- and it is not to be missed, but I would suggest you start with something like John Haught's What is God? or something like Is Nature Enough? and then maybe move to Science and Religion or one of his other really fine books on God and Evolution, Science and Theology. These works are no less challenging than Ilia Delio's, but I found them a bit easier going and perhaps a bit more directly pertinent to your questions.

The bottom line here in terms of your own questions is the idea that what we call miracles are not the result of an interventionist God so much as they are the very deepest "law" (source and ground) of reality breaking through our more ordinary and sometimes sinful reality in ways we find utterly shaking and transcendent. Again, miracles (acts of power) are not an abrogation or overturning of the laws of nature so much as they are the profoundly powerful revelation of the deepest "law" or dynamic of the whole of creation.

The Chronicles of Francis: All are Welcome!


Cartoon from The Chronicles of Francis
by Pat Marrin and the National Catholic Reporter

 This week my mind is still on my profession anniversary and especially the gift my own parish has been over the past nine years or so. The parish motto is "All are Welcome!" and that was the entrance hymn for my perpetual profession liturgy 8 years ago. I remember being so proud of this as my friends and family (most of whom are not Catholics, some of whom are gay, and more of whom do not know or understand the Catholic Church except through these kinds of rare experiences.) We sang the same hymn today (Sunday) as well.

One of the birthday presents I got was from my Dominican friend. It is a collection of cartoon strips from The Chronicles of Francis by Pat Marrin. Sue has been telling me about these for awhile now but I have only seen a handful.Today after I got this BD present I was looking at an online site where past cartoons, many of which are not in the printed collection, can be viewed at gocomics.com/francis. One of the first strips I saw was this one. It struck a chord, pun intended!

Pope Francis has shown us the possibility of miracles (the NT uses the term "acts of power" or δύναμις, dunamis, rather than miracles) as he, like his Lord Jesus Christ, reveals love-in-act, the deepest "law of nature" to many who have never seen this or had forgotten what it looked like. In Francis this deep reality breaks through (explodes!) human fear, rigidity, self-preoccupation, and selfishness and we begin to see with new eyes, hear with fresh minds, and speak the Gospel with a new simplicity and clarity. It should not surprise us that we get the words dynamite and dynamism from this Greek word. (The name Francis may be a new cognate!)

I wanted to do a couple of things with this post: 1) introduce new readers to Pat Marrin's wonderful comic strip, 2) remind us all that we really are meant to be Christ's own Church, a church where truly, ALL ARE WELCOME!, and 3) remind us to pray and work for the general synod on the family as well as for Francis' visit to the United States of America at the end of this month. We saw a little of what Francis' visit might mean a couple of nights ago on 20/20 as Francis did a virtual visit with people from three US cities the Pope will not be visiting in person.

As I read through the Chronicles of Francis it was hard not to be clearly reminded (often with biting humor or touching images) that the Holy Spirit is alive and well in this Church and is seeking to live as love-in-act through each of us. Let us commit to that commission just as Francis has, and let us proceed as Valerie Herrera did recently. You will remember that Valerie is the Chicago teen who was surprised by a direct request from Francis that she sing him a song --- and, when she hesitated out of anxiety and fear, was personally urged by Francis to move forward with courage! She did. Beautifully. And as a result Valerie will never again be defined as a person merely or even mainly in terms of her skin condition. Instead she will be known (and know herself!) in terms of gospel courage and generosity.

Love-in-act was mediated by Francis that day in Chicago. He listened deeply to Valerie and her story and then asked her to do something for him. She had been truly heard and invited to speak herself clearly as a gift. And so she sang the deeper truth of herself in front of the entire world --- a world which will now see her with new eyes.  Something similar happened to the deaf man in today's (Sunday's)  Gospel lection. Jesus truly heard him and he was healed and made articulate. Miracles, δύναμις, are possible and waiting to be worked through each of us so that we might truly be a Church in whom all are welcome.

06 September 2015

Healing of the Deaf Man (reprised)

Today's Gospel brought us face to face with who we are called to be, and with the results of the idolatry that occurs whenever we refuse that vocation. Both issues, vocation and true worship are rooted in the Scriptural notion of obedience, that is in the obligation which is our very nature, to hearken --- to listen and respond to God appropriately with our whole selves. When we are empowered to and respond with such obedience our very lives proclaim the Kingdom of God, not as some distant reality we are still merely waiting for, but as something at work in us here and now. In fact, when our lives are marked by this profound dynamic of obedience, today's readings remind us the reign of God cannot be hidden from others --- though its presence will be seen only with the eyes of faith.

In the Gospel, (Mark 7:31-37) A man who is deaf and also has a resultant speech impediment is brought by friends to Jesus; Jesus is begged to heal him. In what is an unusual process for Mark in its crude physicality (or for any of the Gospel writers), Jesus puts his fingers in the man's ears, and then, spitting on his fingers, touches the man's tongue. He looks up to heaven, groans, and says in Aramaic, "ephphatha!" (that is, "Be opened!"). Immediately the man is healed and "speaks plainly." Those who brought him to Jesus are astonished, joyful, and could not contain their need to proclaim Jesus and what he had done: "He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak."

I am convinced that the deaf and "mute" man (for he is not really mute, but impeded from clear speech by his inability to hear) is a type of each of us, a symbol for the persons we are and for the vocation we are each called to. Theologians speak of human beings as "language events." We are called to be by God, conceived from and an expression of the love of two people for one another, named so that we have the capacity for personal presence in the world and may be personally addressed by others, and we are shaped for good or ill, for wholeness or woundedness, by every word which is addressed to us. Language is the means and symbol of our capacity for relationship and transcendence.

Consider how it is that vocabulary of all sorts opens various worlds to us and makes the whole of the cosmos our own to understand, wonder at, and render more or less articulate; consider how a lack of vocabulary whether affective, theological, scientific, mathematical, musical, psychological, etc, can cripple us and distance us from effectively relating to various dimensions of human life including our own heart. Note, for instance that physicians have found that in any form of mental illness there is a corresponding dimension of difficulty with or dysfunction of language. Consider the very young child's wonderful (and often really annoying!) incessant questioning. There, with every single question and answer, language mediates transcendence (a veritable explosion of transcendence in fact!) and initiates the child further and further into the world of human community, knowledge, understanding, reflection, celebration, and commitment. Language marks us as essentially communal, fundamentally dependent upon others to call us beyond ourselves, essentially temporal AND transcendent, and, by virtue of our being imago dei, responsive and responsible (obedient) at the core of our existence.

One theologian (Gerhard Ebeling), in fact, notes that the most truly human thing about us is our addressiblity and our ability to address others. Addressibility includes and empowers responsiveness; that is, it has both receptive and expressive dimensions. It is the characteristically human form of language which creates community. It marks us as those whose coming to be is dependent upon the dynamic of obedience --- but also on the generosity of those who would address us and give us a place to stand as persons we cannot assume on our own. We spend our lives responsively -- coming (and often struggling) to attend to and embody or express more fully the deepest potentials within us in myriad ways and means.

But a lot can hinder this most foundational vocational accomplishment. Sometimes our own woundedness prevents the achievement of this goal to greater degrees. Sometimes we are not given the tools or education we need to develop this capacity. Sometimes, we are badly or ineffectually loved and rendered relatively deaf and "mute" in the process. Oftentimes we muddle the clarity of that expression through cowardice, ignorance, or even willful disregard. Our hearts, as I have noted here before, are dialogical realities. That is, they are the place where God bears witness to himself, the event marked in a defining way by God's continuing and creative address and our own embodied response. In every way our lives are either an expression of the Word or logos of God which glorifies (him), or they are, to whatever extent, a dishonoring lie and an evasion.

And so, faced with a man who is crippled in so many fundamental ways --- one, that is, for whom the world of community, knowledge, and celebration is largely closed by disability, Jesus prays to God, touches, and addresses the man directly, "Ephphatha!" ---Be thou opened!" It is the essence of what Christians refer to as salvation, the event in which a word of command and power heals the brokennesses which cripple and isolate, and which, by empowering obedience reconciles the man to himself, his God, his people and world. As a result of Jesus' Word, and in response, the man speaks plainly --- for the first time (potentially) transparent to himself and to those who know him; he is more truly a revelatory or language event, authentically human and capable through the grace of God of bringing others to the same humanity through direct response and address.

Our own coming to wholeness, to a full and clear articulation of our truest selves is a communal achievement. Even (or even especially) in the lives of hermits this has always been true insofar as solitude is NOT isolation, but is instead a form of communion marked by profound dependence on the Word of God and lived specifically for the salvation of others. In today's gospel friends bring the man to Jesus, Jesus prays to God before acting to heal him. The presence of friends is another sign not only of the man's nature as made-for-communion and the fact that none of us come to language (or, that is, to the essentially human capacity for responsiveness or obedience) alone, but similarly, of the deaf man's total inability to approach Jesus on his own. At the same time, Jesus takes the man aside and what happens to him in this encounter is thus signaled to be profoundly personal, intimate, and beyond the merely evident. Friends are necessary, but at bottom, the ultimate healing and humanizing encounter can only happen between the deaf man and Christ.

In each of our lives there is deafness and "muteness" or inarticulateness. So many things are unheard by us, fail to touch or resonate in our hearts. So many things call forth embittered and cynical reactions which wound and isolate when what is needed is a response of genuine compassion and welcoming. Similarly, so many things render us speechless: bereavement, illness, ignorance, personal woundedness, etc. As a result we live our commitments half-heartedly, our loves guardedly, our joys tentatively, our pains self-consciously and noisily --- but helplessly and without meaning in ways which do not edify --- and in all these ways therefore, we are less human, less articulate, less the obedient or responsive language event we are called to be.  To each of us, then, and in whatever way or degree we need, Jesus says, "EPHPHATHA!" "Be thou opened!" He sighs in compassion and desire, unites himself with his Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, and touches us with his own hands and spittle.

May we each allow ourselves to be brought to Jesus for healing. May we be broken open and rendered responsive and transparent by his powerful Word of command and authority. Especially, may we each become the clear gospel-founded words of joy and hope in a world marked extensively and profoundly by deafness and the helplessness and the despair of noisy inarticulateness.