28 November 2015

God's Story: In What Story Will We Stand? (Reprise)

A Poignant Conversation

Last week I spoke to a friend I haven't seen in a number of years. She has Alzheimer's and now lives in a different state. We have known each other since the early 80's  when we were both working with the same spiritual director and sometimes stayed at the Center for dinner or made retreat together. Today Denise remembers that time clearly as a watershed period of her life and it is a complete joy for her to talk about it. Doing so is part of what allows her to remain a hopeful and faithful person. It is a major part of her ability to remain herself. But her capacity for story has been crippled and to some extent reduced by her illness.

We are Made for Story

For me this conversation helped underscore a deep truth of our existence. Human beings are made for story. Story is an inescapable part of being truly human and we are diminished without it. It is not only a profound need within us but a drive which affects everything we are and do. Nothing happens without story. Nothing significant that happens in our life is unmediated by story.  When scientists reflect on and research this truth, they conclude we are hardwired for story. Neuroscientists have even located a portion of the brain which is dedicated to spinning stories. This portion of our brain sometimes functions to "console" and compensate one for the loss of story in brain disorders (amnesia, for instance) and I sometimes hear it at work in my friend Denise as she fills in the holes in her own memory for herself; but it is implicated in our quest for connection, context, and meaning in all its forms.

Thus scientists explain that story is actually the way we think, the way we relate to and process reality, the way we make sense of things and get our own hearts and minds around them. Whenever we run into something we don't understand or cannot control --- something we need to hold together in a meaningful way we invariably weave a story around it. Children do it with their dolls and crayons; Abused children do it and often have to be helped in later life to let go of these so they may embrace their place in a better, truer story. Physicians do it when they determine diagnoses and prognoses. Historians do it in explaining the significance of events. Scientists spin stories to explain the nature of reality. The complex stories they author are called theories. Like the myths of religious traditions, these narratives often possess a profound explanatory power and truth. They work to allow the development of technology, medicine, and the whole of the sciences, but they are stories nonetheless. And of course, gossips, know-it-alls and scam artists of all sorts routinely spin stories to draw us in and exploit our capacity and hunger for story.

We all know that stories are essential to our humanity.  At their best they help create a context, a sacred space and healing dynamic where we can be ourselves and stand authentically with others: Thus, when someone we love dies it is natural (human!) and even essential that we gather together to tell stories which help reknit the broken threads of our story into something new and hopeful, something which carries us into a future with promise. In a way which is similarly healing and life giving we offer strangers places in our own stories and make neighbors of them. We do the same with friends. Ideally, there is no greater gift we can give another than a place in our own stories, no greater compassion than our empathy for and appreciation of another's entire story. For good and ill our humanity is integrally linked to the fact that we are made for story. We reside and find rest within stories; they connect us to others. They are vehicles of transcendence which make sense of the past and draw us into the future. They link us to our culture, our families, our communities, our faith, and our church; without them we are left bereft of identity or place and our lives are empty and meaningless. 

We have only to look at the place story holds in our life in the Church to appreciate this. The creed we profess is not a series of disparate beliefs or dogmas but a coherent story we embrace more fully every time we repeat it and affirm "I believe" this. Our liturgy of the Word is centered on stories of all sorts --- challenging, inspiring, consoling us as only stories can do. Even the act of consecration is accomplished by telling a story we recount and embrace in our "Amen" of faith: "On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it saying. . . then he took the cup, blessed it saying. . .]] Stories like these, we know, provide the context and overarching narrative in which all things ultimately hold together and are meaningful.They make whole and holy. For this reason we yearn for them and honor them as sacred.

Our Capacity for Story is Both Blessing and Curse 

Augustine summarized all of this when he said, "O God, we are made for thee, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." He might well have said."O God your story is our own and our hearts are restless until they finally reside securely in that story". Just like physicists who are searching for that one theory of everything, we are each made for and in search of the story which makes complete and ultimate sense of our lives, the story which allows us to develop our own personal stories fully, the narrative framework which lets us be completely and exhaustively human. Christians recognize this blessed story as the Kingdom of God, God's own story.The challenge for each of us, I think, is to make this story our own. The problem? We already reside rather securely in other stories, other controlling narratives and myths. Because of our capacity and even our hunger for story our lives are full of scripts and tapes which conflict with the story we are offered in Christ. Some seem lifegiving but many do not serve us very well at all.

 For instance, when young persons opt to join a gang, they are choosing a particular story of status, community, belonging, power as opposed to powerlessness, and a place in a world which seems larger and more adult than the one they occupy already. Unless these things are distorted into badges of courage and achievement the narrative omits prison, death, the sundering of family relationships, loss of education, future, and so forth. Another example: when adults choose to have affairs they are buying into a story they tell themselves (and our culture colludes with this at every point) about freedom and love, youth, immediate gratification, sexuality and attractiveness. The part of the narrative they leave out or downplay is the part of the story we are each called to tell with our lives about personal integrity, commitment,  faithfulness, patience, and all the other things that constitute real love and humanity. 

What we are seeing here is the very essence of sin. It is no coincidence that the Genesis account of humanity's fall from "grace" (which is really a place in God's own life or "story") centers around the fact that at evil's urging Adam and Eve swap the story God tells them about themselves, their world, and their place in it for another one they prefer to believe. In THIS story eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil will not bring death; in THIS story God is a liar; in this story humanity grasps at godhead and lives forever anyway. So many of the scripts and tapes we have adopted are as distorted and destructive and they touch every part of our lives. Two of the most recent I heard are, "The poor are takers" and "Selfishness is a moral imperative and the key to the common good." But there are many others! Scripts about what real men and women do or don't do --- both in society and in our church --- about what freedom is, divine justice, what is required to gain God's love (despite the fact God gives it freely to anyone who will simply accept it), etc. As sinful human beings we are an ambiguous mixture of stories which make us true and those which stunt or distort us. Our capacity for story is both blessing and curse.

Story is also the way Home

If our capacity for story is both blessing and curse then it is also the way home. In particular the stories Jesus tells us are a primary way home. Jesus' parables are, in fact, one of the ways he works miracles. (If anyone --- even Webster's Dictionary --- ever tells you these parables are "simple religious stories with a moral" don't believe them! They are far more dynamic and dangerous than that!) Like every story, Jesus' parables draw us in completely, allow us to suspend disbelief, check our overly critical voices at the door, and listen with our hearts as well as our intellects. They create a sacred space in which we are alone with God and can meet ourselves and God face to face. No one can enter this space with us even if there are hundreds standing shoulder to shoulder listening to the same story. But Jesus' stories do more. As I have written here before: [[ When Jesus told parables, for instance, he did so for two related reasons: first, to identify and subvert some of the less than authentic controlling myths people had adopted as their own, and second to offer the opportunity to make a choice for an alternative story by which one could live an authentically human and holy life.

Parables, Jesus' parables that is, typically throw down two sets of values; two perspectives [or stories] are cast down beside one another (para = alongside, and balein = to throw down). One set represents the Kingdom of God; one the kingdom where God is not sovereign --- the realm the Church has sometimes called "the world". Because our feet are firmly planted in the first set of values, [the first set of stories or scripts], the resulting clash disorients us and throws us off balance; it is unexpected and while first freeing us to some extent from our embeddedness (or enmeshment) in other narratives, it creates a moment of "KRISIS" or decision and summons us to choose where we will finally put our feet down again, which reality we will stand firmly in and inhabit, which story will define us, which sovereign will author and rule us. ]] 

Will we affirm the status quo, the normal cultural, societal, personal, or even some of the inadequate religious narratives we cling to, or will we instead allow our minds and hearts to be remade and adopt God's own story as our own? Who will author us? Will it be the dominant culture, or the God who relativizes and redeems it? Where indeed will we put our feet down? In which story will we choose to walk and with whom? These are clearly the questions that face us during this season of Advent as we prepare our hearts for Christmas and a God who tells us his story in a most unexpected way.The fresh cycle of readings are an invitation to approach God's story with fresh ears and a willingness to have our lives reshaped accordingly. It is the story we are made and hunger for, the story in which we are made true and whole, the story in which nothing authentic of our lives is ever lost or forgotten. What greater gift can we imagine or be given?

27 November 2015

Entering Advent: Embracing the Already and Not Yet of Mid-Air Living in Christ

Almost two weeks ago (Saturday evening) my pastor and I had an email conversation about the situation in Paris and Sunday's readings which were so dramatically apocalyptic in tone and content. The underlying Theology we were both challenged by was the Johannine perspective which is sometimes called "realized eschatology" --- a term which captures the "already and the not yet" character of the world in which we live and of the Kingdom of God for which we and all of creation yearn. We recognize clearly that our world is one where Jesus' passion has "defeated death" and thus, everything has changed but at the same time we recognize that death is still with us and our world is not yet all it is meant to be; it is not yet the world in which God is "all in all."

Monks of Tibhirine
Father John shared a quote with me that Saturday evening from John Shea --- the theologian and poet whose poem on the resurrection I shared here around last Easter, (cf., After the End) John Shea speaks of "mid-air living" which is something like when a trapeze artist lets go of one bar and then --- after what seems like a long moment ---  grabs the wrists of the person catching him/her. "This life is/always will be a time of transition./ Change can be quick,/ in the “blink of an eye,”/ but transition is slow."

Thus, John began his homily with a reference to the Cirque de Soleil and drew out this image of a change that happens quickly "in the blink of an eye" but a transition that can (seemingly at least) take forever." I thought the image and Father John's use of it were truly brilliant as an illustration of the situation in which we Christians find ourselves today. In the face of the apocalyptic tone of so many of the readings over the past two weeks John Shea's reference to mid-air living and Father John's images from the Cirque de Soleil have stayed with me these last couple of weeks. That was especially true as we celebrated the Feast of Christ the King. Once again the contrast between the world of everyday reality and the world where God is sovereign in Christ, worlds which interpenetrate one another but are not yet one spoke of "mid-air living".

Today's readings underscore the same imagery and dynamic. Daniel is actually recognized as the "already but not-yet" book of the Old Testament. It speaks of two very different Kingdoms, both present in this same world of ours. One is all-too-recognizable. Originating from the four winds and drawn from the sea (a symbol of primordial chaos and too, sinful reality) are four monsters, four rulers which are "like men" or become "like men" but are characterized as less than and other than that at the same time. One has a human-like brain and is seriously smart, one is "like a bear" and characterized by his cruelty, He is a devourer of much flesh. A third is drawn as a leopard with four heads; to him all dominion is given. A fourth is very like a man but again, is not human; he is incredibly strong and arrogant.

And finally, in Daniel's picture of the world he knows, there is another truly sovereign Ruler called the Ancient One or the Ancient of Days. When thrones are set up this ruler's trappings are marked by flames and incredible whiteness --- symbols of power, judgment, mystery, life, and purity. The throne itself has "wheels of fire" --- a symbol whose meaning is now uncertain. Some say it symbolizes the notion that the throne is moveable and will no longer be in Jerusalem --- an idea supporting the notion that God will be Lord over all nations, not just Israel; others suggest that this Ruler, God's very self, has taken the throne of heaven and moved it to earth. In any case, this Ruler and his Kingdom are present alongside the "monsters" described in the first part of the lection and their Kingdoms. Daniel thus describes an ambiguous world in which there are two kinds of kingdoms, two kinds of sovereignty and even two kinds of time existing alongside one another. As Daniel puts it, the kingdoms standing in opposition to the Kingdom of the Ancient One have already been judged and the great beast (Death itself?) has been slain but, [[The other beasts, which also lost their dominion,were granted a prolongation of life for a time and a season.]]

The significant lesson in this is twofold: 1) our God is and will always be with us in the midst of this world's trials, and 2) one day God's kingdom will be established in a way which transforms us and our world completely. Judgment, the making right of all reality has begun, and we ourselves will be made truly human only in light of the sovereignty of God. In Daniel it is from the Sovereignty of the Ancient One that the Son of Man comes. Originally the term "son of man" meant one who is truly human and it had messianic connotations. Eventually, in light of the Christ Event, it came to be seen to refer to Jesus, God's anointed One. This Son of Man is seen as the  destroyer of death and the redeemer of our world, the one in whom reality is set to rights.

Today's Gospel underscores the sense that in Christ God's Kingdom has come upon us in a truly unexpected way. Jesus has been healing and preaching the Kingdom. The blind see, the deaf hear and crippled people walk because of him. But many remain blind and in bondage; many refuse to see. All the signs are that the Ancient One has "moved his throne" and Jesus iterates that people must learn to see these signs right in front of them. And of course, in a world filled with terrorism and death it is not always easy today either to see the signs that the Kingdom of God has come amongst us. It is not always easy to hold onto the hope Daniel wanted to inculcate in his own people and which Luke and John with his Gospel of "mid-air living" (realized eschatology) proclaims. It is not easy to claim the humanity which is ours in Christ who is the Son of Man so long hoped for when that contrasts so wildly with the other sovereignties of our world. The change we were looking for came quickly and definitively in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It came in wholly unexpected ways, in incarnation, powerlessness and self-emptying; in relative obscurity, poverty and shameful death. In Christ eternal death has been destroyed. Transition though takes a long time.

This weekend we begin the new liturgical year as we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent. Once again the Church offers us the chance to "begin at the beginning" and allow ourselves and our world to be further transformed by the God who has set up his throne amongst us. Today's readings remind us what Daniel and Israel hoped for, what they saw all of creation moving towards in a long moment of trial and transformation. Let us enter into this season with joy and hope as those who see reality with new eyes, the eyes of the dreamer and prophet Daniel, the eyes of Jesus whose vision is filled with the love of his Father, the eyes of those who have been made a new creation in Christ. Let us commit to working toward that day when God will be all in all.  Let us commit to being People who live fully in that long and difficult, but also joyful moment of already and not yet.

25 November 2015

A Contemplative Moment: Renunciation


". . .neither the way to contemplation nor contemplation itself should be thought of as either dramatic or strange. In fact, if we enter the contemplative life with our minds too full of the language and poetry of a St John of the Cross we are apt to get side-tracked by our own imagination and wander for the rest of our days in an austere and misguided dream. If instead of translating the language of St John of the Cross into practice we become attached to its figures for the poetic pleasure our own minds absorb from them, we shall be no further advanced than we were before. 

It is easy to stand St John of the Cross on his own head by becoming attached to his doctrine of detachment. . . . In practice the way to contemplation is an obscurity that is so obscure it is no longer even dramatic. There is nothing left in it that can be grasped and cherished as heroic or even unusual. And so, for a contemplative, there is supreme value in the ordinary routine of work and poverty and hardship and monotony that characterize the lives of all poor and uninteresting and forgotten people in the world.

Father (Louis) Thomas Merton, OCSO, Seeds of Contemplation

21 November 2015

Pro Orantibus Day: For Those Who Pray

Today the Church celebrates "pro orantibus" day, namely the day when we celebrate those who spend their lives in prayer. Cloistered and eremitical vocations certainly are the main ones we call to mind but I am especially reminded of all those are elderly and others who may be isolated or unable to do active ministry who spend their days and nights praying for our world, for our parishes, and so forth.

In prayer we allow God to love and accompany us, to work within and transform our hearts and make us into his own prayers in our world. We give ourselves to God so God might give himself to us and to those to whom we witness. We give ourselves to God so that the face we turn to the world is the very image of God-made-flesh. And of course, we pray and give our lives to prayer so that the deepest law of creation, Love-in-Act, is even more clearly revealed and made more pervasive within and through those same lives. In other words, we do so to glorify God and sanctify our world.

Contemplatives, whether hermits or not, remind us all that God completes us, that we are not truly human unless we are covenant partners with God. The positive side of this, of course,  is that this relationship is the foundation of ALL of our lives and we are each and all of us called to embrace it more fully day by day --- lack of cloister notwithstanding. While "pro orantibus" day celebrates in a special way those who live cloistered and eremitical lives, it also celebrates every person who lives his or her life for God and all that is precious to God by committing to be persons who truly allow God to work within us,

15 November 2015

Can a Hermit Live Eremitical Life Without Law?

[[Sister Laurel, is it possible to live as a hermit without law? One of the things you seem very keen on is the importance or the positive place of law in your life and in the lives of all diocesan hermits. You are probably aware that one hermit writes regularly about legalism and just recently wrote a piece called "Beware of the Scribes". (cf., Beware the Scribes!) It isn't always easy to know what or who she is referring to but she does seem to have problems with canon 603 and I think she has some real problems with what you write. I am guessing and say that mainly because I don't know anyone else writing about the things you do.). Do you get charged with being a legalist very often? Anyway my basic question is, is it possible to live without law?]]

Thanks for the question. Yes, I am aware of both the blog you referenced (I have linked to it previously) and the specific (now-redacted) post you noted. It is true that Ms McClure (aka "joyful hermit"--- please see her Google and public LinkedIN profiles) and I do not see eye to eye on the place of law in the life of consecrated hermits or even on the nature of consecrated eremitical life. It is also the case that both of us have written against positions held by the other which, to some extent, only makes sense since she is a non-canonical (in this case, a lay) hermit and I am writing as a canon 603 (that is, a consecrated) hermit.

The charge that I am a legalist (even when not using the word itself) has been made a handful times over the years (sometimes by Ms McClure). In most instances  it was a charge made by someone styling themselves as a religious or consecrated hermit when they were neither. In some instances the person had sought canonical standing and been rejected by their diocese. (Note well, the reasons for rejection need not have been and were not always personal.) A somewhat similar occasion involved a person who thought the term hermit should apply to anyone going off for the weekend on a period of quiet or retreat. If they wanted to call themselves hermits, then fine. He proposed the word could mean whatever the individual wanted it to mean and called this "pushing the boundaries" of meaning. I disagreed and argued not only that the Church has clearly defined the nature of what she recognizes as eremitical life --- and done so in a way which allows for significant flexibility and variation as well, but that eremitical solitude was neither a part time  avocation nor was it a form of individualism.

On Individualism and Reflecting on Canon 603:

As you can tell from this and from many other posts here, I have come to have a significant suspicion of the individualism and alienation which drives so much in our contemporary world and I am especially concerned that it not be validated with the name "hermit". A tendency to individualism at the expense of ecclesial accountability is very real and something I am personally tempted to. It goes hand in hand with the tendency to mediocrity (which does not necessarily mean one should be driven instead by perfectionism!). I personally suspect these specific temptations (especially individualism at the expense of compassion and ecclesiality) are endemic to the eremitical vocation. Finding individualism to be a kind of epidemic in our culture does not surprise me, but it does make me pretty keen (as you rightly put it) on the positive place of "law", or maybe more accurately, of structures and relationships assuring accountability and sound discernment in the hermit's life.

A second element in some of my writing since perpetual (eremitical) profession in 2007 is the proprietary sense I have for this vocation. I believe I've written about this once before (see, On Encouraging or Discouraging Eremitical Vocations) but it was quite a while ago. Essentially I mean in this that I was surprised to discover after perpetual profession and consecration not only a sense of personal accountability for my own vocation, but a sense of responsibility for the eremitical tradition itself and in particular, concern for the vocation of the diocesan hermit professed under c 603. In a sense I felt a kind of proprietariness regarding the call, not as though I "owned it" exactly, but certainly as one who understood it from the inside out while being commissioned to live it canonically (in the name of the Church). The result of that has been a lot of thinking and writing about c 603, the structures and relationships it assures to help maintain accountability, the ecclesial nature of the vocation itself, and the hermit's taking on a place in the living (and recently renewed!) tradition of eremitical life.

None of these concerns are driven by legalism but they are certainly prompted by reflection on the place of the canon in nurturing, protecting, and governing solitary eremitical vocations. You see, I mainly live my life within the world created by public profession under canon 603. I can understand where some looking on from outside see my concerns as driven by legalism but the truth is that they are the result of taking the obligations and nature of my vocation seriously. This, in turn, has to do with taking seriously what the Holy Spirit is doing in the Church in this vocation; it is about honoring God and acting in a way which is truly accountable to God's own Church and to all those with whom I come into contact --- those, that is, for whom I live this vocation. In my understanding acting responsibly is an act of love so again, none of this is driven by legalism (and, in light of Ms McClure's charges and those of two or three others, I have thought and prayed about this a lot!); neither then is it about "desiring to diminish or elevate Catholic hermits one over another" or "to lord it over others," as Ms McClure suggested (some are) doing. (By the way, I don't know anyone who writes about what I write about either, but if you should find someone please let me know; I would love to read their stuff!)

Why I Reject the Charge that I am a Legalist:

Life under canon 603 is eremitical life lived within a certain environment and context. That context is ecclesial; the canon itself helps establish that context while it also specifies the conditions one would find in any desert and defines the goals of living there. The vows outline a condition of religious poverty, attentive listening and the progressive relinquishing of self-will, and chaste love in celibacy --- in other words a God-centered life of generosity and selflessness. The elements of the canon apart from these specify a life which is given to providing space and time to God alone. The goal of the life is union with God and communion with all that is precious to God. The space is both external and a matter of one's heart, mind, and body. The elements of assiduous prayer and penance and the silence of solitude provide for the realization of this goal. And yet, the canon also is very clear that the vocation it defines is one of generosity to and love for more than God alone. It carefully states that it is a life lived "for the praise of God and the salvation of the world." My Rule is the more personal translation of the way I live these elements and specifies the ways the various relationships (including those of director, delegate, Bishop, parish, pastor and Oblate contacts or prioresses are honored and serve the vocation.).

It would be very simple to neglect or ignore elements of this canonically defined life and make it about myself --- my introversion or love of solitude, my chronic illness, my interests in theology and spirituality (especially my struggles or "successes" there), my love for music, study, and writing. But the canon and my public dedication (profession) and consecration means that my life is lived in a different environment, context, and with a much different focus than would be the case without it. For me the canon opened  (and demanded I embrace in every way!) a world which is fundamentally other-centered. That is it defined a vision of eremitical life which is focused first of all on God (Union with God and concern therefore with God's will, God's plan, God's vision, etc)  and then on those whom God loves with an everlasting love --- namely, the Church and the world the hermit is called to serve in Christ. Profession and consecration served as a specifically ecclesial doorway to this world. In other words the canon defines this as a vocation of both profound and extensive relatedness, first with God and then with the whole of God's creation; because of this it creates the necessary context (structure, relationships, and commitments) to be sure this definition is realized (embodied) in the hermit's life.

Were this other-centered focus to fall away, either because I begin to live an individualistic life or because I simply cease to be faithful to the canon that defines and governs that life in all the ways that governance occurs, I could well be left with nothing but my false self, a few pious nods daily (or weekly!) to God --- and perhaps a few mildly creative hobbies! In my mind's eye this is similar to what happens when the hermit's external desert is exchanged for a comfortable, even luxurious environment or what happens when the desert prevents the ecclesial relatedness which is part of any calling in the Church or is embraced in an act of misanthropy. Living authentically as a hermit becomes much harder and certainly so as a life commitment without the appropriate environment or context. I truly admire those who can live as hermits apart from such a context. Lay hermits, for instance, live a vocation which shares membership in the Body of Christ due to baptism, but they often do so without a specific commitment or supportive relationships so many say are needed as a part of the environment and context of genuinely eremitical lives. The ones I know who are successful have integrated at least some of these elements into their lives (regular contact with a spiritual director, a personal prayer Rule, and parish Sacramental life, for instance)

Can One Live as a Hermit Apart From Law?

The brief answer to the question of whether one can live as a hermit without law is yes if one is using the term law in the narrow sense of Canon Law. But the real answer is not so simple. Law may also mean a Rule or Plan of Life however, and I think it is less possible to live as a hermit without such a guide and guardrail --- even if one only has an internalized Rule or Plan. If one were to live in a rural or more isolated area without contact with others, computer or media access, no phone, and perhaps biweekly access to the Eucharist and other Sacraments, then a Rule would still be necessary, but less so. The external environment itself will serve to dictate the rhythms and focuses of the life. Hermits always try to recreate this physical environment to whatever extent they can. They are up early, go to bed early, often spend some time in vigil, and measure the periods of their day by alternating prayer, lectio, labor, rest, work, more prayer, and study. One's Rule creates an environment of sorts which may fly in the face of the natural environment in which one finds oneself and this is especially true for the urban hermit who must separate herself from so much in order to embrace and be embraced by God in the silence of solitude.

But one still needs to live this life for God and for others and that, it seems to me, to require some kind of structured and defined commitment. Just as canon 603 provides hermits in the Catholic Church with a vision of this vocation, its structure and significance, the isolated hermit especially needs something which specifies a similar vision and significance. If we can call this element "law" in a broad sense then I think it would argue law is always necessary for the hermit. Similarly, (and I am assuming through all of this you mean a hermit living this vocation within the Church)  a hermit must participate in the relationships which assure not only one's ecclesial fidelity but also one's growth in this vocation. The call is a gift of God to the Church and if one does not really thrive as a human being or in one's witness to the redemption which is ours in Christ and the continuing sanctification which comes from the Spirit, then this is not the eremitical life envisioned by the Church. We simply need the relationship with spiritual director or other "elders" of some sort to help us in assuring the growth, integral relatedness, and witness which should be ours as hermits.

So, I guess I have come to the conclusion that a hermit life within the Church is not really possible without law in some sense.  One can always live alone, but eremitical life is different than simply living alone.  One can always make it up as one goes, but that is not the same thing as being truly open and responsive to the Spirit who comes to us in surprising, but also profoundly "ordering" and "sense-making" ways. (see also. Formation, Flexibility, and Making Space for the Holy Spirit.) The "law" I am speaking of does not need to be Canon 603 in a formal sense but the eremitical life lived within the Church still needs to involve the vision and central elements of canon 603 even when these are not codified in Law or embodied in a written Rule or Plan. This is because Divine Law is reflected and mediated in various forms of church and personal law. Because the Church itself is a community and community does not exist without some sort of law (ordering principle), structure, and especially the kinds of bonds which constitute real relatedness (which implies rights and obligations given and assumed for the sake of others and the glorification of God). I think all of this means "law" in some form or another.

Excursus on Canon Law as Ministerial:

Of course, at the same time, I don't believe that the Divine Law is merely above Canon Law any more than I believe Canon Law is somehow autonomous, or a law unto itself. Neither do I hold that Canon Law is a genus or subset of the species Law. Instead I believe it is merely analogous to civil law, and must be approached differently in relation (namely, in both subordination and service) to Theological truth and life. James Coriden describes this perspective on Canon Law in his work on the Ministry of Canon Law. I am entirely convinced that canon law especially should always serve love and the Law of Love --- or, as Thomas Aquinas said, it should be "an ordination of reason for the common good promulgated [by those who have] care of the community." (ST I-II, 90, 4) While I am not personally convinced Canon Law per se always functions in this way, I am certain that c 603 does.

11 November 2015

Can Dioceses Add Conditions to Canon 603 in Ways Which are Onerous?

[[Hi Sister Laurel, What happened in Spain in those earlier centuries with people who were living as hermits in good faith? Were they imprisoned? It hardly seems fair if they were! Maybe canon 603 is more positive in its origins and reason for being but can't dioceses begin adding their own conditions and qualifications to it? What prevents a diocese from making the conditions so burdensome that they infringe on the freedom of hermits in this place? Do hermits find c 603 sufficient to govern a real eremitical life?]]

Canon 603 as an Improvement on Diocesan Canons

Your questions are well taken and similar questions have been raised in the past. (cf, On the Growing Institutionalization of the Eremitical Vocation as well as Followup on the Institutionalization of Eremitism, et al). It is entirely true that individual dioceses can compose guidelines for admission to c 603 life and make these necessary for those living the life in this local Church. Occasionally we see nods in this direction (and which actually go further than this) when, for instance, a Bishop writes a hermit's Rule for her. (cf., Should a Bishop Write a Hermit's Rule?) Guidelines, however are a good idea so long as they truly remain guidelines and the diocese itself --- along with the candidate herself --- remains open to a genuine process of discernment which respects the differences between hermits and the hermit's own experience and wisdom. On the whole I would say that dioceses have not chosen to go in the direction of writing out specific guidelines, but it is the case that all the dioceses I know of (not a lot in other words!) do have at least a list of unwritten guidelines and even requirements for admission to profession.

One of the real improvements, it seems to me, is the contemporary Church's openness to hermits in the lay, clerical or consecrated states. Today the Church allows people to respond to whatever call they feel they have without inordinate restrictions and requirements. A lay person, for instance, can decide in good faith that they are called to eremitical life and live it as they feel compelled to do. Canon 603 does not bind these persons either morally or in law but it still provides a good norm by which one can measure one's efforts. Gone are the days when folks could be locked up by the Church for transgressing diocesan norms in this matter! It is true that there are requirements for admission to public or ecclesial vocations but there is no doubt in my mind that these generally serve love.

Another real improve-ment is that Canon 603 is universal in scope. Though, as noted, guidelines are not only allowed but are prudent. Eremitical Life's inclusion in the Universal Code of Canon Law via c 603 does not allow for competing canons on the diocesan level. This leads not only to significant consistency, but demands the cultivation of a shared wisdom which positively affects the entire Church and all hermit vocations. A third real bit of brilliance codified in canon 603 is the remarkable way it articulates non-negotiable elements and allows for their flexible expression within the hermit's own Rule and life. I believe that c 603 is entirely sufficient so long as enough care is taken in the writing of the Rule with all that entails in terms of time for formation and discernment. Likewise, dioceses must not treat the Rule as a simple document anyone can write at any time, but as one rooted in lived experience which requires and also demonstrates the adequacy of the hermit's formation and of the mutual process of discernment she and the diocese have engaged in. This means, I think, that over the period of initial formation and discernment the candidate for c 603 profession will write several different Rules and may compose a definitive one just prior to perpetual profession. (cf Writing a Rule for the Various Stages in Formation and Discernment and Why Several Rules Over Time?)

On the other hand  we also still have dioceses which, for one reason and another, have refused to implement canon 603. Some of the reasons are good ones; others are not. For instance, some of these dioceses still need to get up to speed on eremitical life itself (a problem which carried more weight (that is, it was far more understandable) 15 to 20 years ago than now, 32 years into the life of Canon 603); others have had bad experiences with candidates or actual professed hermits and have not found ways to ensure adequate formation of candidates or discernment of solitary eremitical vocations, while some simply do not believe there is such a thing as a valid vocation to the solitary eremitical life. There has always been an understandable tendency to distrust singular vocations in the Church. Mark Miles' work makes that clear enough in his brief history of this vocation (cf., Chapter 1, Canon 603: Diocesan Hermits in the Light of Eremitical Tradition, Rome 2003). Canons 603 and 604 (Consecrated Virgins living in the World) have certainly not put an end to this entirely --- nor, perhaps should they! Still, canon 603 and the increased number of sound vocations it produces will (eventually) influence these dioceses to do whatever it takes to implement the canon when suitable candidates appear at the chancery door.

At the same time, unfortunate as this is, we do still have people calling themselves Catholic Hermits and soliciting contributions despite having no right to do so. Generally the Church does not take action against such folks unless complaints are brought to the diocesan bishop. Then a diocese may well require the person to cease calling themselves a Catholic Hermit --- though they are unlikely to do or need to do much more than this. Still, civil laws may apply --- those against fraud, for instance --- so people pretending to be living eremitical life in the name of the Church do need to be aware of this. We may also have diocesan hermits who are living less than true eremitical lives. Beyond the everyday struggle to live this vocation with integrity --- a struggle we all experience, I think --- some perhaps are too involved in active ministry, some might give their "hermitage" over to all kinds of activities but not to God alone! Some are lone pious individuals who perhaps aspire to eremitical life but, for whatever reason, have not embraced it fully or consistently. And some never wanted to live eremitical life at all; they merely wanted the perks that come with canonical standing. Canon 603 stands as a firm and universal norm in all of these cases and will challenge both hermits and dioceses to embrace the desert existence it codifies more fully and authentically --- or deal appropriately with those who cannot or will not.

The Situation in Early Spain and the Responsibility to "Count the Cost":

In the centuries Mark Miles, JCD, was writing about, he gives no details about the variety of penalties or the way these were levelled against people and I don't know anything more about those myself. It seems to me, however, that the very fact of a range of penalties all the way up to imprisonment and excommunication indicates false hermits were a clear problem in at least two major senses.  I suspect everyone was aware of this situation --- whether they were the victims or the perpetrators of fraud! Thus, historically naive as this may actually be, I don't think many folks were unceremoniously snatched up and thrown into prison without being aware of the danger. If they were aware of the penalties and chose to continue to dress in religious garb, beg alms as a Catholic hermit, preach, etc., despite having no authorization to do so, then one can argue they also chose to suffer the consequences. You may remember that Aquinas wrote famously about primacy of conscience when he said that if one should be penalized unjustly (in this case he was speaking about excommunication) one had to to act in good conscience and this would also mean one would need to bear the punishment which was the consequence of that, and do so with humility.

This lesson, I think, is brought home by recent Scripture readings. Yesterday we heard the story of the man who builds his house on sand and a week or two ago we heard a similar story about starting to build a house without counting the cost. If one chooses to live (or at least to style oneself) as a hermit, then one should probably look seriously at what the Church actually says about such matters before doing so. Otherwise it is like setting out to build a house without counting the cost. It is foolish and shortsighted at best. Ignorance is not always an excuse! More importantly, ignorance can be hurtful and even disastrous for everyone involved. One really must ascertain and count the cost of whatever it is one proposes to do. (By the way, I think this also means the dioceses or regions which are refusing to implement c 603 under any circumstances need to do their own assessment of the cost of their own policy here. Ignorance and a failure to count the cost or honor the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit does not only occur on the hermit's side of the equation!)

On External and Internal Controls for Dioceses:

What prevents a diocese from establishing conditions or quali-fications so burdensome that they infringe on the freedom of hermits (or hermit candidates) in this place? On the one hand I think the answer must be nothing at all --- if, that is, we are asking what external constraints are in place to prevent this. Besides c 603 itself, the one canon which might apply a little here is c 605 which requires bishops to be open to new forms of consecrated life. But of course what constitutes openness cannot be legislated.

On the other hand though, I believe our dioceses generally are staffed by people of good will, genuine faith, and professional competence; because of that there are any number of inner constraints and drives which will prevent them from enacting burdensome and essentially punitive requirements and restrictions. Not least, most of the diocesan personnel I know are committed to truly discerning the will of God in a given situation; they spend time in prayer and reflection while evaluating a person's petition or Rule, for instance. They meet with the person, both at the chancery and (sometimes) in the hermit's own place in order to really gauge the nature and quality of the vocation in front of them. They are generally committed to seeing where the Holy Spirit is working and where that can be honored and celebrated using canon 603 itself.

Hermits who are already professed and therefore already have an approved Rule and have entered into what amounts to a legitimate and covenant relationship with their bishop cannot, it seems to me, have arbitrary conditions or requirements imposed on them unilaterally.  However, if a bishop requires something in obedience and the hermit cannot go along with this in good faith, then the situation will require resolution --- something which may not always be a happy one for everyone involved. I have written about this before in When the Discernment of Bishops and Hermits Conflict. I do think we have to trust in the good will and charity of dioceses in general in these matters --- just as dioceses have to trust the good will and discernment of the hermit working regularly with a competent director. In any case, except for dioceses or regions determining they will not use canon 603 at all (which I personally believe is an indefensible position), I have heard of no situations which rise to the level of increased constraints and requirements which are actually onerous to the hermits in these dioceses. Granted, some requirements simply cannot be met by everyone --- nor should they be. Just as dioceses must take care in applying canon 603 (and any guidelines they develop!) wisely and prudently, the rest of us have to be careful not to identify valid requirements as "too onerous" simply because some will be excluded from profession because of them.

09 November 2015

Fraudulent Hermits a Problem Through History?

[[Dear Sister, I appreciate there are not a lot of fraudulent hermits out there. I also understand the reasons you claim that canon 603 was not made law because of abuses but have fraudulent hermits been a problem in the history of the Church? You wrote about a canonist being wrong if he said c 603 was developed because of abuses but I would bet there have been problems with this in the past.]]

Thanks for writing again. Yes, as I recall the canonist was reported to have said c 603 itself was a revision of something in the 1917 Code and also that it was developed in order to prevent abuses as well as to accommodate those who desired an "official stamp of approval". While the 1983 Code of Canon Law is a revision of the 1917 Code (which may have been what this canonist actually said) there was NO provision for hermits in the 1917 Code so c 603 per se is not a revision of anything in universal law. Neither was canon 603 itself developed to deal with abuses. Solitary eremitical life had pretty much died out in the Western Church --- at least in the contemporary Church. If there were lay hermits around they were neither a major problem nor instance of abuse of the eremitical life. Meanwhile the hermits that existed in semi-eremitical institutes like the Camaldolese or Carthusians were sufficiently governed by Canon Law and the institutes' own proper law (constitutions and statutes). A new canon would have been unnecessary for these reasons.

However in the history of eremitical life there have been various attempts to deal with both authentic and false or fraudulent hermits. Mark Miles documents some of this history in his Dissertation, Canon  603 Diocesan Hermits in the Light of Eremitical Tradition. He notes that until the Council of Trent (16th C) there were uneven attempts to deal with this form of life at diocesan synods -- though with the Gregorian reforms there were some papal attempts to tighten controls over this form of life. After the Council of Trent bishops were "encouraged to use whatever means necessary to reform the life of clergy and religious" and the result was that many countries "adopted the medium of the diocesan synod to regulate the relationship between hermit and priest, and hermit and bishop." Spain and France in particular adopted such means of regulating individual hermits including a pledge of obedience to the diocesan bishop. In the case of authentic hermits this was done "to offer security and protection" to these persons.

But fraudulent hermits (or those who were false in the sense of being inauthentic) were indeed a problem and a number of steps were taken to control this. In the sixth century hermits were seen as a kind of monk and were required to spend a period of time in a monastery in order to prove his vocation. Hermits who spent "strict training in a monastery" would then be allowed to leave to live as a "full solitary". Miles notes that only then would their "aversion to common life [be] seen as legitimate." (Though technically correct perhaps, I find the historical use of the term aversion here strikingly infelicitous!) After the Council of Trent Pope Benedict XIV proposed a set of norms for the hermits in the diocese of Rome and encouraged other dioceses to do something similar. This work by Benedict XIV recognized "four kinds of hermits that had existed up to that point: [those] linked to a religious order, [those] that lived as a group or congregation under the rule and direction of the diocesan bishop, those that lived completely alone and also under the direction of the bishop and finally, the false hermits." Miles DHET, 85 (Emphasis added.)

With regard to the last group, Spain (including its colonies and territories), for instance, generally required hermits "to be received and instituted in a legitimate way by the diocesan Bishop and remain obedient to him." Miles writes, "Those unwilling to follow this practice were outlawed in most parts of the territory (Mexico)." A number of punishments were associated with infringements of the established legal practice including excommunication (some dioceses in Spain) and in some "false hermits might even find themselves in jail." (Miles, 86) In most countries bishops were similarly directly responsible for the hermits living in his diocese. Minimum ages (40 years) were set by synods as were the permissions or prohibitions of single women pursuing this vocation, candidates were vetted, conditions for moving from one hermitage to another were established as were conditions re wearing a habit and the nature of the habit (e.g., it could not be the same as those worn by established and recognized congregations of monks), etc. Other conditions that were legislated included conditions of life in cell: women were prohibited entry, solitaries could not leave their cells and loiter outside, other situations leading to scandal were regulated and so were the norms for begging for alms. (Especially hermits were not allowed to range far and wide or beg at all hours. The vocation was solitary and sedentary rather than one of peripatetic mendicancy and this had to be respected.)

It seems clear from all of this that the term "false hermits" had two overlapping senses. The first was folks who were under no ecclesiastical authority or direction but who wandered the diocese calling themselves hermits, begging for alms, dressing in habits sometimes mimicking those of clerics and monks, and generally living a life of pretense in this way. The purpose of these varied diocesan norms was indeed to prevent false hermits of this type from operating with impunity. Additionally the norms helped protect the marriage bond and Sacrament of matrimony by preventing married persons from becoming hermits (all Spanish dioceses legislated this) and some excluded single women from living an eremitical life. (Thank God some other countries did not adopt this norm!) The second type of false hermit was as important, namely legitimate hermits who were giving scandal or substituting individualism for an eremitism the Church recognized as authentic. These too were living lives of pretense though it was the more serious pretense of hypocrisy and actual infidelity to an ecclesial commitment and commission.

The distinction between these norms and canon 603 comes from the fact that the contem-porary Latin Church had not had solitary hermits for at least a century and a half. Dioceses were not plagued with false hermits in at least the first sense. Moreover, as I have explained before monks in solemn vows were discovering eremitical vocations but had to be secularized in order to pursue their call to be hermits. Bishop de Roo wrote an intervention for the Second Vatican Council listing five positive reasons (cf On Betraying the Eremitical  Vocation) for recognizing eremitical life as a state of perfection. He was not proposing the Church deal with abuses. My objections to what the canonist was supposed to have said dealt with the application of general historical conditions to the development of canon 603 per se. In no way would I try to suggest diocesan canons were not formulated to fight abuses nor that c 603 could be used in this way if necessary, but the fact is that was not the situation leading to canon 603 itself. This is not why canon 603 was created and promulgated.

By the way, it is also important to note that contrary to the arguments of those who say c 603 is a needless and even destructive instance of increased institutionalization of eremitical life, when viewed against this background c 603 actually represents a less onerous and more flexible instance of canonical institutionalization than has often been the case in Church history. I would argue this is precisely because its roots are positive and an attempt to codify in some protective and nurturing way a precious and prophetic charisma of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the argument that canon 603 is a deviation from and even a distortion of the traditional practice of just going off on one's own to live as a hermit is even more clearly specious than I have demonstrated in the past. Far from being the norm for hermits in the Roman Catholic Church, the examples mentioned above point to a widespread ecclesiastical practice of discouraging or even prohibiting this form of eremitical life as "false". The Church has always acted (though perhaps not always carefully or consistently enough) in a variety of ways to protect a fragile but vital vocation from multiple kinds of "falseness." In this, and in other things, law is used in an attempt to serve love.

References in this article are mainly taken from the doctoral dissertation mentioned. I am not sure how available it is generally but again, the work is entitled, Canon  603 Diocesan Hermits in the Light of Eremitical Tradition by Mark Gerard Miles. Gregorian Pontifical University, Rome 2003.

Embracing C 603 Life: Is Formation Possible Apart from Religious Life?

[[Dear Sister, I was wondering about something you said [recently]. If a person wants to become a diocesan hermit and needs to learn about the vows how do they do that? Also, if c 603 hermits are religious like all religious do other canons apply to their life besides c 603? Which ones? Will my diocese expect me to know all these things before I petition them for admission to profession? It seems to me that unless a person has been a religious in the past there is a lot to learn. I wonder if it is really possible though I know you say it is!]]

Good questions. I think your diocese will require that you have lived the silence of solitude as a hermit for some time before allowing you to petition for admission to profession. Certain things will be part and parcel of that including living a simple, God-centered life, of assiduous prayer and penance which is withdrawn from that which is resistant to Christ as well as from some of those things which are good but not really meant for hermits. That period will also be expected to be under supervision and receive regular spiritual direction. I think they will also expect you to understand and have lived the vows in an essential way before admitting you to temporary profession. They will expect you to have lived and studied the vows with all that means both theologically and canonically before admitting you to perpetual profession. (As you surmise, those who have been members of a religious institute will be ahead of the game, though applying what they know to canon 603 life will still need to be done.)

Remember that all of this will take some years and you will generally approach things in the stages I outlined. It needn't be as overwhelming as it seems to you at this point in time. One of the ways you will demonstrate your understanding of the vows (and also gauge your own understanding of these) is by writing your Rule. (Your Rule will provide a brief theology of the vows as you understand and live them and will include your vow formula.) But how do you get the understanding you need to do that? I think there are two main ways.

The first is by reading, reflecting on and living what you read --- and then reflecting on that as well. There are a number of good works on religious life and the vows, usually therefore on the vows in a communal context. Still, except for the vow of poverty which needs to be justified and conceived somewhat differently for someone living a solitary life, they work well for the hermit. The best I know of is that of Sister Sandra Schneiders, IHM. A good introductory and summary volume is New Wineskins. Sandra also has a trilogy after that with each volume named after the parable of the buried treasure and the field. Volume 1 is called Finding the Treasure, Vol 2 is Selling All, and Volume 3 is Buying the Field. You might start with New Wineskins. Another work on the nature and content of monastic profession is Centered on Christ, A Guide to Monastic Profession, by Augustine Roberts OCSO. This is one of those books I read and reread periodically. It is especially apt for any canon 603 hermit despite its coenobitical (and Benedictine) context. A final suggestion is the work, Christian Totality, Theology of the Consecrated Life by Basil Cole OP and Paul Conner OP.

The second way (and one which would need to be complementary to the reading you will do) is meeting regularly with a vowed religious for discussions on the vows and their content. Some of this may be possible with your director but more likely it will require your arranging something -- possibly with the assistance of your diocese -- with someone doing formation for a religious or monastic community in your  area. This is a good place to become informed of and acquainted with the other canons which apply to consecrated eremitical life --- especially in terms of the vows. Further, and more importantly I think, it is a real gift to be able to see how others live the vows and an especial joy to hear them reflect on their meaning in their own lives and the lives of their institutes. Not only does every religious reflect on these vows (thus their minds, hearts, and lives will have moved in directions and to depths you too are invited to go in time) but it is important to understand that what you are being called to live is something you do in a kind of solidarity with all these others.  I think any solitary hermit will find this consoling and empowering.

While there is a kind of threshold level of knowledge and maturity one needs to be professed and certainly to be perpetually professed, the fact is the vows represent a world one explores more and more deeply every day of one's life. There is a lot to learn but part of the commitment of vows is the commitment to continue that very process. This is one reason monastic vows usually include conversatio morum --- a commitment to continue to grow in grace and thus, to metanoia. You might remember I once wrote here that profession was not a form of graduation but more analogous to a terminal degree which says the person is ready to continue learning on their own and also in collaboration with others with a similar "formation" and commitment. It is critically important that one commits to conversatio --- more critical than the knowledge one has at the time of profession. Thus, I would say your diocese will expect you to have the threshold level of knowledge mentioned above but even more they will expect you to have demonstrated initiative in gaining that knowledge and a disciplined commitment to growing in it in both mind and heart every day of your life.

P.S., as noted briefly above, other canons do indeed apply to Canon 603 life. I will say more about that either as an addendum to this post or in another post. Sorry for having skipped over that part before publishing this! Check back in a day or so for additional information.

07 November 2015

On Discerning a C 603 Vocation and Thinking About the Graces Attached

[[Hi Sister, you recently said that if a person is called to be a hermit their life will be more about the journey than the destination. What you said was: [[If you believe you have a vocation then give yourself over wholeheartedly to a genuine discernment and formation process and be patient with however long it takes. If you are called to be a hermit your life will be more about the journey than a particular destination (e.g., consecration) anyway. Trust God; trust the process or journey; trust the Church, and look to what is most loving and edifying for everyone involved.]] I am trying to discern a vocation to hermit life and I feel that I am called to be consecrated under canon 603. If this is God's will for me won't it be a mistake to wait for a long process of discernment? If there are certain graces attached to consecration and this is God's will, then wouldn't waiting deprive me of the graces necessary to live my vocation? I don't mean to be nasty but since you are consecrated isn't it easier for you to argue someone looking to be consecrated shouldn't be too focused on the "destination" where that is consecration?]]

Where I am Coming From:

I can understand why you might think the way I am arguing is easier because I am consecrated. I guess it can sound a little like someone who has already crossed some putative "finish line" to say to other racers that the real task is to take care to look at the countryside as they run along. But profession and even consecration, as critical these are, do not represent a finish line nor are they the goal of any hermit's life (cf., Profession is Not Graduation). Let me remind you a little of my own background with canon 603. From the time I first approached my diocese with a request to be professed under canon 603 to the day I was perpetually professed took about 23 years. During the majority of those years the diocese had decided not to profess anyone under canon 603 due to some unidentified problem with their use of the canon once before. The Vicar who had worked with me for five years in discernment and preparation for profession was unaware of the decision and both of us had to come to terms with it. (She also had the unenviable job of informing me of the diocesan (Bishop's) position.)

My own seemingly inevitable decision at this point was to continue living as a hermit and though I wanted to be consecrated one of the things I had to come to terms with was the fact that that might not be possible in this particular diocese -- at least not in the foreseeable future. I mainly did that in two ways: 1) I came in time to realize that I might well be living eremitical life as a lay hermit and if that was God's will then well and good; my life was a gift of God in whatever state of life eremitism was lived. I needed to really internalize this. 2) I came to realize that my focus on definitive profession and consecration (either as goal or as disappointment) was leading me away from living my life in the way God was truly calling me to no matter what lay in the future, namely, eremitical life's contemplative focus on the present moment while resting securely in Him. Should a decision to seek consecration again be made down the line it could only be as a fresh discernment rooted in a new sense of the present work of the Holy Spirit in my life.

Why do We Seek Consecration?

In time my life as a hermit came to a kind of fruitfulness which compelled me to seek admission to profession and consecration once again (this was about 15 years after my diocese decided not to profess anyone under c 603). What was different, vastly different in fact, were the reasons I was pursuing this. I had become a hermit with something significant (i.e., meaningful) to offer the Church. I was now looking for a way to do that rather than looking for the Church to make me into something I had not yet become. While admission to perpetual profession and consecration was certainly a gift to me, I sought this in order to share the way the Holy Spirit was working in my life and, I sincerely believed, might be seeking to work or actually be working in the lives of many others as well.

As I look back on all those years I cannot regret the time spent in the journey itself. These years taught me the fundamental lesson that the journey with God IS the essence of the vocation. Moreover these years had definite discrete graces which are still important as part of my eremitical identity. One of these was the lesson that with God nothing is lost or wasted. To be able to say that with my life was and is as tremendous a gift as are any number of other things I do the same with. For instance, that chronic illness can serve as a vocation to proclaim the Gospel with incredible vividness, that God's power is perfected in weakness and kenosis (self-emptying), both human and divine, that lay eremitical life is a significant instance of the eremitical vocation and that consecrated eremitical life is not a "higher" form of vocation, or again, that simply living a relatively pious life alone does not necessarily constitute eremitical life, etc --- all of these are gifts of the eremitical journey with God.

Graces are attached to living an eremitical life with fidelity and attentiveness no matter the state of life involved. Had I continued to focus on either my hope for consecration or my disappointment over the diocese's decision regarding c 603 generally, I would not have been able to embrace the grace being offered to me each and every day. Moreover, had I not done that to the degree I did (which is imperfectly but really!), I would have been in no position to petition my diocese once again for admission to profession and consecration. Again, I would not have become either a contemplative or a hermit during those intervening years. I would not have learned the essential rhythm and perspective of the eremitical life. I would not have grown in necessary detachment nor in the kind of selflessness that is needed by any hermit, consecrated or not, to live even a single day faithfully. I would not have grown sufficiently in faith or my capacity for obedience because I would have failed to trust God's daily sufficiency or his  ability to bring all things to a meaningful conclusion for those who do trust in him. Similarly, my own capacity for stability in the monastic sense, for patience with and trust in superiors (in a general sense), and for reliance on my own initiative would not have developed in the way they did during the long intervening period.

  One thing implied here that was really important is that these years prepared me for life AFTER consecration. They prepared me for the relative obscurity of eremitical life, even (and maybe especially) when it is lived in the name of the Church. You see, after the profession ceremony, after consecration, after the articles in the diocesan and local papers, one mainly retires back into the obscurity of the hermitage. These years demanded I live this life in the way it would need to be lived no matter the state involved. It is true that I am aware of being commissioned to live this life in the Church's name and that I am grateful every day (and sometimes a little awed) that this is the case, but the bottom line is that in those years I learned to trust the Holy Spirit and the gift God makes of my life whether I am ecclesially commissioned in this specific way or not. It was and is a critical lesson.

On the Notion of Missing Graces:

If you are called to be consecrated under canon 603 I truly believe your diocese will eventually discern this. If they are not open to professing anyone under c 603 for reasons that have nothing to do with you, then you may one day decide to leave your diocese. However, I would argue that if you stay and live as a hermit in an exemplary way you will be able to help your diocese to move forward in their own approach to the canon. You will also be demonstrating precisely the kind of hermit you have become. In any case, the fact is you are missing no graces except those you do not embrace because your head and heart are too full of your own determinations. We sometimes think of graces as discrete realities which are other than Godself. But this is not so. God does not have some kind of storage locker with large packages of graces labelled, "for those consecrated by the Church" or smaller ones labelled "for those who live eremitical life in the lay state". Instead grace is the powerful and living presence of God in whatever way God shares Godself.

You see, God gives us himself in the very ways we need him to give himself to us day by day and in fact, in ways that are always marked with a prodigality which is wondrous. We have to trust that. It is the essence of faith. If one day you are called forth from the assembly in the presence of the entire Communion of Saints to be professed and consecrated under canon 603 then you will embrace the rights and obligations of that state of life and God will continue not only to call you but to give himself to you in the ways you need in order to honor and fulfill this call. This is another of the lessons I learned during those years my diocese was professing no one. The question is really what do you want? Do you want some kind of "package" filled with abstract, hypostatized "graces" --- a "package" which is supposedly bigger and glitzier because you are consecrated --- or do you want God in the ways God chooses to give himself to you because he is intimately familiar with what you need but also what his People need?

A Contemplative Moment: on Contemplation and Detachment

True contemplation is the work of a love that transcends all satisfaction and all experience to rest in the night of pure and naked faith. This faith brings us close to God that it may be said to touch and grasp Him as He is, though in darkness. And the effect of that contact is often a deep peace that overflows into the lower faculties of the soul and thus constitutes an "experience." Yet that experience or feeling of peace always remains an accident of contemplation, so that the absence of this "sense" does not mean that our contact with God has ceased.

To become attached to the "experience" of peace is to threaten the true and essential and vital union of our soul with God above sense and experience in the darkness of a pure and perfect love.

And so, although this sense of peace may be a sign that we are united to God it is still only a sign --- an accident. The substance of the union may be had without any such sense, and sometimes when we have no feeling of peace or of God's presence He is more truly present to us than he has ever been before. If we attach too much importance to these acccidentals we will run the risk of losing what is essential, which is the perfect acceptance of God's will, whatever our feelings happen to be.

But if I think the most important thing in life is a feeling of interior peace I will be all the more disturbed when I notice I do not have it. And sense I cannot directly produce the feeling in myself whenever I want to, the disturbance will increase with the failure of my efforts. Finally I will lose my patience by refusing to accept this situation which I cannot control and so I will lose the one important reality, union with the will of God, without which true peace is completely impossible.

Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton

02 November 2015


 It began last night. It is continuing this morning. It is rain, real honest to goodness rain. Not a smattering of rain, not a mist. Not just enough to make the roadways dangerously slick or to make one wonder if it is just a really heavy fog. Real rain. Puddles on the ground, piles of dark clouds in the sky, need to find the long unused jacket in the closet type rain!

My prayer this morning (maybe this is a bit obvious!) was about the rain. About gratitude to God for its coming, about all the stressed trees and plants around the area that will drink this up gladly. About trees that didn't make it through the last four years and empty reservoirs and sinking aquifers diminishing our capacity to hold groundwater. About concerns for mudslides and endangered property if this is the beginning of the "monsoon" season El NiƱo COULD bring us --- or even if it is not (for these are perennial problems in California even without a drought).  About clients driving here today and my concern for their safety and the safety of all on the roads today. It has been so dry for so long rain is both a blessing and a potential curse.

But mainly my prayer was of gratitude and hope. Gratitude to God for this gift and the gift of all life. Hope that folks pause to appreciate this day and our world; hope that we have learned (or do learn!) to husband its resources better. Hope for new life in all of its forms. (And on All Souls day that was especially poignant.) Hope that complacency in the face of the wonder of rain would not quickly replace the joy of and delight in its coming. Hope that, as in the reading a week ago or so, we learn to really attend to the weather but also to attend to all the ways God comes to us at any moment. Hope.