[[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:
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. 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 (cf cartoon below). 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.