31 January 2015

Centenary of Merton's Birthday

I have certainly written here before that Thomas Merton played a big role in my becoming a hermit. It was his work Contemplation in a World of Action that first convinced me eremitical life was a living (vital) form of life and his essay, “Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude” in Disputed Questions convinced me how truly contemporary this life is. It is probably Merton’s own interest in the Camaldolese that put them on my radar screen at all; I hadn't thought much about that connection before. (It was ironic though that when my diocese's Vicar for Religious wanted to understand what was necessary for an individual to live a healthy eremitical life she and another Sister travelled hours to New Camaldoli to speak with the Prior there. I only learned of that years later --- and after I had made my oblature with the Camaldolese.)

Throughout my own life as a Catholic (I was baptized the Summer after High School graduation) I have returned again and again to Merton's writings always finding greater depth and wisdom. As a former Franciscan I am now (far too slowly!!) reading Daniel Horan's, The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton and once again Merton's life is a gift to me as it allows me to explore and to some extent reclaim my own Franciscanism within the Camaldolese charism which defines my life and diocesan eremitism in so many ways.

I am always surprised at those who say Merton was not the real deal! Was he flawed? Of course (and in ways which led to one pretty serious misstep which could be said to have harmed another)! But Thomas Merton's life is the gift that keeps on giving! Several friends in monastic and eremitical life say very similar things about his influence in their lives and vocations. I am so very glad to celebrate this anniversary of his birth. My only regret is that I was never able to meet him face to face. Happy Birthday Tom --- you are certainly celebrating the gift of life as fully as possible!

29 January 2015

Feast Day Festivities with Oakland Civic Orchestra

Just a taste of part of the way I celebrated my Feast Day this last Sunday (January 25th is ordinarily the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul). I will post more as these videos become available. The program was called A Tribute to St Petersburg and included Balakirev's Overture on Three Russian Folksongs, Prokofiev's Symphony no1, "Classical", and his Lieutenant Kije Suite.






23 January 2015

Is a Horarium Necessary?

[[Dear Sister, is it possible to live an eremitical life without a horarium? My life is complicated because of chronic illness and it is hard for me to commit to an hourly schedule. Can't I just live my day as the Spirit moves me to do?]]

Hi there and thanks for the question. As someone who deals with chronic illness myself I have to say it is not possible to live an eremitical life without a horarium. I have written about this before here. See the following:  Formation, Flexibility, and Making Room for the Holy Spirit. I don't want to repeat what I said there. Here I want to speak to the issue of chronic illness and a horarium.

What seems crucial is first of all that you not think of your horarium so much as an hour by hour schedule as something that divides your days into major chunks, and maybe the same with your week. At least liturgically your week should have a certain shape as much as possible, but a horarium can allow a week to hold all the elements your life needs week by week if you cannot manage an hourly or daily horarium. I don't know what illness you are dealing with but I am presuming you are ordinarily well enough to pray assiduously and keep the other elements of canon 603 as defining characteristics of your own life.  If that is the case generally, then there should be some regular scheduling of these things which realistically reflects your usual state of being and the commitment to the life which you have made. You are called to live your own life in Christ, not someone else's!

The second thing which is crucial is that you step back into your horarium as soon as you are truly able. I know in my own life that there are times when illness means spending time in bed or otherwise resting and sometimes I may mistakenly not step back into things as soon as I am really able. It is sometimes hard to discern the distinction between what is premature (and may contribute to relapse or injury) and what is timely in returning to a normal routine; it is also sometimes hard to not let the pattern of rest be extended unnecessarily -- either because we don't feel great (though we are still better), we don't have a job outside the hermitage to go to or children to take care of, or because once upon a time more serious illness caused us to necessarily embrace longer periods of inactivity, etc. We may thus tend to readopt that older pattern even though we don't need to do that today. A horarium serves to remind us what the shape of our days are NOW when we are feeling more or less our best (or at least are not acutely ill). Even when we are acutely ill, the horarium reminds us of our weakness and calls us to allow God to simply be with us so that all time is sanctified. It is important to allow the horarium to function in this way as well! It is a tool which is meant to serve us; we need to allow it to do that.

Remember especially that your horarium is first of all a schedule which respects your own needs for rest, work, prayer, study, liturgy, and recreation as these exist today. No one creates this horarium for us, nor do we use a horarium suited to a different time in our lives or a different degree of health or illness. For most of us horaria are not carved in stone except to the extent they really serve us in living our vocation every day. They mark the things which are ordinarily essential in each of our days and weeks.

When illness intervenes everything changes of course. Our need for rest increases and at the same time this means our ways of praying change as well --- not that we cease praying. You, for instance, may not be able to work, study, or attend liturgy, but perhaps you can read a few minutes here and there, listen to Taize or other tapes or CD's you don't always have time for, do a bit of journaling, read a book you simply enjoy (which invites you to really be present in that way), sit up for a while and work on a jigsaw puzzle (which can allow you to do a lot of gentle "inner work" as you remember, daydream, appreciate, etc.), consider a line or two of a psalm every few minutes, and simply allow God to companion you in a conscious way during all of these.

As you begin to feel better you can either step back into the horarium as it is set out or you can step back into the activity which most calls to you at that point in time. If you continue to feel better then pick up the horarium where you are in your day. For instance, if you are usually up at 4:00am but have slept in until 8:00 am today because of illness, then ---  after you have washed, had breakfast, etc.--- begin your day wherever the horarium indicates --- or if you wish to begin with Lauds or are yearning for quiet prayer do that. If this works out and you continue to feel well, then move on to whatever the schedule calls for. If after or during this you instead find yourself exhausted or feeling truly sick again, rest until you are feeling better and then repeat this step as soon as you can. Whatever you do use the horarium as a way to measure how well you actually feel and more, how truly able you are to proceed normally at this point. Again, in this way too the horarium can function as a tool that serves in more ways than merely dictating what one "should" be doing.

Personally I think a horarium is critical if other things in our lives militate against order and regularity. When I am not feeling well I can always ask myself if I am feeling well enough to pray a psalm for instance or read a chapter of theology rather than a chapter of an Anne Perry (et al) book. I can always ask myself if I can do some piece the day listed on the horarium at this point or if I simply cannot. At all times the horarium reminds me of those things which ordinarily allow me to be the person God calls me to be. In other words the horarium reminds me of the pieces of my life with God illness has demanded I set aside or modify just as it assists me to move back into my normal routine and let go of illness and the rhythms it sets up (or modifies and destroys) in my life. It is always more a companion and resource for discernment than it is a rigid or uncaring taskmaster. We need its challenge and support though because without it, we really might not accomplish as much as we can in spite of illness's deleterious effects in our lives.

I hope I have been clear that just as a horarium is not a rigid taskmaster --- especially for someone with chronic illness, neither is it something that can simply be cast aside entirely except for brief periods (like periods where  one is acutely ill, goes on a home visit, or takes a day apart for instance). I don't believe in living each day as the Spirit moves me if that also entails no schedule whatsoever.  A friend and I were talking about this yesterday and she noted that that was the surest way to get nothing done. The Spirit will move us, but the horarium is actually one of the ways this will happen, especially over a period of a day or week or month. The prompting of one's horarium is as much the voice of the Holy Spirit as any other instance of this reality. Eremitical life is a supremely free one, but as I have written again and again, it is not a libertine or individualistic way.

Neither should we tempt the Lord by adopting an attitude that "He will tell me what I should be doing from moment to moment so I don't need a horarium"  God instructs our hearts to attend to what makes us whole. A horarium is the way we build those things into each day; it indicates the shape of our lives as well as the general way we have heard the voice of God as it has spoken to us over a long period of time and formation. It indicates the concrete temporal shape of that voice and of our overall response to it as this is generally embodied in our lives today. Like other things I have written about recently it is there to serve love; it is a servant rather than a rigid or uncompassionate master. While we cannot cast our horarium aside altogether in times of illness or retreat, for instance, (we need its guidance and challenge), we should always bear in mind the Sabbath (law, Rule, horarium) is made for the person, not the other way around.

20 January 2015

Brainstorming: Sabbath Rest and Stricter Separation From the World, etc.

In the last couple of weeks I have done more thinking than I have ever done in the past on the Sabbath. Now that is embarrassing to admit. How could someone do theology and miss focusing on Sabbath? It also means though that this post is more a matter of initial  and somewhat chaotic brainstorming than finished post. There are several threads below that I am hoping to flesh out in more concrete and helpful ways.

As part of my reflection on last Friday's first reading from Hebrews I was moved by Walter Brueggemann's book, Sabbath as Resistance, and as a result have moved on to Elton Fishbane's, The Sabbath Soul: Mystical Reflections on the Transformative Power of Holy Time. What struck me most last week was how far from the real understanding and practice of Sabbath we have come. It is remarkable and tragic how easily we have transformed it into a time which has nothing to do with God, our deepest selves, or with genuine rest and even more remarkable how little we tend to understand what it even means to truly rest. I was especially struck by how similar Sabbath rest is to many dimensions of the requirement of canon 603 (or monastic and eremitical life generally) described as, "stricter separation from the world," and how truly prophetic the Sabbath actually is.

One of the most unfortunate terms that comes up in monastic literature is "contemptus mundi" (hatred of the world) or, similarly, "fuga mundi" (the imperative that we flee the world) and in canon 603 there is another form of the same demand, "arctiore a mundo secessu" (a stricter, closer, tighter, or more narrow separation from the world) in canon 603. In Scripture we know that the term "the world" has several meanings and that in its negative sense it means that which is resistant to Christ. In it's more ambiguous sense it means the world around us that is not completely as God created it to be but is still essentially good. We are generally called to be in the world but not of it and we are called to this relative separation so that we might actually help in the transformation of the "ambiguous world" into one where God is all in all. What fuga mundi and related terms NEVER mean, is the wholesale rejection of material reality. Neither is it the rejection of all reality outside the monastery or hermitage. Instead it is primarily a state of heart and mind brought about when we rest in God. That requires some physical separation, of course, but I am convinced that monastic literature would be more helpful to many if we understood that "separation from the world" is better expressed as a form or variation on "Sabbath observance" or "Sabbath rest."

It may surprise us that one of the most significant ways in which we achieve this "flight" or "live in the world without being of it" is to learn to rest. Dependence upon God means learning to rest in faith -- that is, rest in the trust we have for God and God's sovereignty. Renunciation of the driven, sometimes frantic attempts to secure ourselves whether in work, investing, overscheduled and addictive behaviors of all sorts, etc, is really a commitment to rest, to stop, to step back, make a clear break with so much of the dominant culture and adopt a different rhythm in our lives. It also means a commitment to ground our lives on the rock of God's love and mercy rather than on the shifting sands of our own unceasing and futile efforts to bring meaning to those same lives.

The attitude of one who has learned to do this efectively is identified in today's readings as being hope-filled. The certainty of hope is rooted in the certainty of God's faithfulness and in our trust in that. The restfulness of hope is similarly grounded and depends on similar renunciations. Learning to really rest, to stop and let God be God will involve all the kinds of weaning, unlearning, and "detoxification" that addictions demand. After all, we know how to do and do and do; we think we know how to BE --- if being is defined in terms of doing. Even prayer is too-often seen as something we do rather than as something we allow God to do within us while all-too-often spirituality is a matter of struggling to "climb" or "achieve", etc. Sabbath is profoundly prayerful and certainly leads to spiritual growth but it does so by resting in the God who makes all things holy.

 We find ourselves in a culture that does not know how to truly rest or celebrate Sabbath. There is nothing simple either about how we have come to this essentially "Sabbathless" place in our culture or, should we choose to make the journey, in our way from non-observance to observance. As I think about either dynamic they seem almost overwhelming in their complexity and difficulty. Especially I wonder how do we move from being persons who do not even know what Sabbath and Sabbath observance are to being persons who understand in the depths of our souls the profound light and joy of these realities? Still, Christians struggle to find effective ways to proclaim the Good News to the world and to do so with our lives. How powerful it would be, and how tremendously countercultural and authentically prophetic if we each and all of us undertook to do what we are legitimately expected to do as a sign of our baptismal consecration, our freedom in Christ --- our covenant existence with God (Exodus 30) --- and simply rested in all the ways Sabbath observance calls us to!

19 January 2015

On canon 603 and Herding cats

[[Hi Sister Laurel, in a blog with a long article about Roman Catholic Hermits one writer notes that  "defining Canon Law for Hermits is as practical as herding cats". I think the comment was meant facetiously since the article is a positive one. The author said it was a topic he would return to but I'm not sure whether he has done that. What do you think about the comment? Is canon 603 impractical?]]

Hi and thanks for the question. I am familiar with the article you mentioned, partly because the author referenced something I wrote here on the issue of supposed drawbacks of canon 603. The article you cited is a fine blog introduction to the state of hermits in the Roman Catholic Church today and can be read here: The Hermit in Roman Catholic Canon Law. I have read other articles in the blog occasionally and I definitely recommend it. Unfortunately, I don't know either whether the author followed up on the "herding cats" comment. On one hand it certainly makes me laugh in recognition. Anyone trying to achieve consensus with even a handful of other hermits can assuredly relate. Even so I think the image is flawed. Keeping that in mind, my initial response is that the truth or falsity, the accuracy or inaccuracy of the statement really depends upon at least two things.

The first is the purpose of canonical legislation; if Canon Law is meant to create an exhaustive and detailed norm or set of norms to which every hermit must be conformed without exception or flexibility then the statement is entirely true. No such law or canon could be composed, much less enforced. Such a project would be futile. However, if canon law is meant to set up a general norm by which the movement of the Holy Spirit can be discerned and responded to in significant ecclesial ways then the statement is false. That is, in such a case the project would not be nearly so futile as the comment might suggest. The second thing upon which the truth or falsity of the statement depends is whether and in what sense we consider hermits "individualists".  I am not sure how most folks regard canon law generally, but I would be VERY surprised to hear any authentic hermit living the nuts and bolts of an eremitical life who would consider canon 603 to be an attempt to impose an unnatural uniformity on genuine hermits much less on individualists who merely want to do what they want when they want to do it. I honestly believe that any authentic hermit, whether canonical or non-canonical, reflecting seriously on the nature of canon 603 will recognize the gift it is to both the Church and world in defining the essential nature of Christian eremitical life and freedom.

I have reflected on the nature of Canon 603 in a relatively focused or persistent way for the last 10-11 years and again (in my introduction to this canon) more superficially from about 1983-1989. Today, of course, I look at it from from the inside, as someone professed accordingly, and as I have written before here (cf Supposed Drawbacks of Canon 603) I find it to be an amazing blend of certain non-negotiable elements and the flexibility (also a defining element in authentic eremitical life) which comes from the experienced hermit writing her own Rule. Together these serve the eremitical tradition and the individual hermit's authentic freedom to explore and embody this vocation in contemporary circumstances. More, because the canon understands that genuine Freedom is lived within historical constraints the Canon defines and codifies those elements necessary to allow the Holy Spirit to move and guide a hermit in her exploration of the undefinable depths of solitary life with God and to do so as part of a living tradition.

Canon 603 does not attempt to define every particular of the hermit's life. Neither do bishops nor delegates responsible for supervising the lives of diocesan hermits. To do so would "cripple" the Holy Spirit and curtail human freedom necessary for and a sign of spiritual growth rather than establishing a context which helps ensure these. It DOES seek to differentiate, I think, between individuality and any exaggerated individualism however. One of the really popular conceptions of the hermit is the consummate individualist. They are, stereotypically, the persons who eschew community,  reject peer pressure, and go their own way. They are seen as persons who march to their own drummers, who live off the grid, who are often self-centered, curmudgeonly, anti-institutional, antinomian or anarchical, and anti-social. This means that quite often we have called such persons hermits. It is a common and legitimate usage for the term "hermit" but it is not what the Church means by the term. Rather than a definition that centers on individualism, the Church recognizes eremitical life as a unique expression of the covenant life which issues in true individuality. Hermits, in ecclesial terms, are individuals who live a solitude which both fosters and witnesses to the foundational relationship with God every person IS.

Canonical Hermits MAY be (or at least begin as) individualists, but their vocation calls them to allow this to be tempered and channeled by their dependence on God and their openness to God's will and purposes within the context of the faith community we call church. In time the individualist is transformed into a contemplative individual whose heart, mind, and spirit are inspired and shaped by the Holy Spirit to reflect the silence of solitude in an ecclesial context. As I am sure I have written here many times, one of the reasons canon 603 stresses the eremitical life is lived for the praise of God and the salvation of the world is to underscore the distinction between the covenantal life of the Christian hermit with its incredible individual integrity and authentic freedom and the self-centered license or the isolation of the individualist.

This conversion from autonomy to theonomy, that is from being a law unto oneself to being moved by and obedient to the sovereign will of God in a desert context, is an aspect of what I have identified here before as the necessary and essential transition from lone individual to hermit which must precede the possibility of admission to even temporary profession. The Holy Spirit has worked in this way within the Christian tradition for two millennia and given the epidemic of ego-centric individualism in today's culture I think it is important to understand eremitism as something fundamentally different than a call to individualism or even as a call which accommodates individualism. Perhaps it is one of the rare and paradoxical ways in which God combats an individualism which drives so much worldliness and its need for reconciliation. In the case of canon 603 the church has found an effective if imperfect way of codifying the elements essential to an inspired (charismatic) and consecrated eremitical life.

At bottom the truth is that while every hermit is different from every other hermit, what it means to be an eremite in terms of canon 603 is not defined by these differences but by the significant similarities recognized and forged by the constitutive elements of ecclesial eremitical life. In other words eremitical life as understood by the Church is something individuals are formed in by the love of God through stricter separation from the world, assiduous prayer and penance, the evangelical counsels, and the silence of solitude in an ecclesial context according to a Rule the Hermit writes herself. The Canon recognizes and affirms this in a normative way.

The dynamic involved in its creation is an example of the wisdom we hear in tomorrow's Gospel lection: The Sabbath (or the law) is made for man, not man for the Sabbath (or the law) . In approaching the Church's creation of canon law for hermits we must understand that the law (canon 603, etc) is made for the sake of the vocation, not the other way around. As a result we must understand that not every "hermit" in the common (individualist) sense of the term will either desire or be able to live in this way for the sake of God and others. But then, not every "hermit" in the common sense of the term will have been called by God to human wholeness and completion via this specific route. In fact, history tells us very few will. In creating canon 603 the Church is not attempting to herd cats; instead it is attempting to characterize, nurture, protect, and govern a vocation which some relative few in humanity's immense "clowder" will embrace obediently and wholeheartedly to best fulfill God's own purposes for their lives and his Kingdom.

18 January 2015

A Contemplative Moment: Sabbath


The Sabbath Soul

We live in a world dominated by speed and distraction, with demands for our attention at every turn. We are conditioned to approach time as a reality to be managed for optimal productivity; often we rush about our weeks with the frenzy of accomplishing and earning, worshiping the idols of egotism, pride, and greed. We are so consumed by that hunger for acquisition and expedition that we frequently forget the restorative blessing of stillness, our desperate need for rest. I speak not only of a rest from physical and emotional exhaustion --- a rest that aims to recharge us for greater productivity and speed --- but also a rest that brings us back to the center of existence, a calm that allows us to reconnect with the divine breath at the soul of All. It is a spirit that we feel when we are in tune with the rhythms of our own breath. It is the Sabbath, the seventh day.

On the day of rest we are liberated from our enslavement to multitasking, from all the electronic communication that pervades the six days of work. Unplugged from the world of commerce and the forms of connection that keep us at a remove from the living voice of the other, we are released into a zone of quiet and reflection --- a time in which the calm of solitude can find perfect balance with the community and relationship of Sabbath life. That is the true mystery of the Sabbath --- the sublime secret that so many religious people already know intimately.

On Shabbat, the world around us becomes still --- all the demands and the heaviness that we carry are released. They will return soon enough, but on Shabbat we are able to step back, to look at our lives from a protected distance, from the warm interior of sacred time. It is the twilight glimmer of the sun in descent --- the otherworldly texture of a time that is neither day nor night. The ancient rabbis called this moment "bein ha-shemashot" --- literally, "between the suns" --- an instant that stands both within the arc of earthly time and decidedly beyond it. . . .It is a time that whispers of mystery and redemption, a corridor within the hours that transports us to a new level of feeling and thought.

from The Sabbath Soul: Mystical Reflections on the Transformative Power of Holy Time
by Eitan Fishbane, PhD

17 January 2015

Supporting Oneself with Cottage Food Operations

[[Dear Sister,
      If I wanted to support myself as a hermit here in. . . by selling food items I make here in my hermitage could I do that? I am an excellent baker and candy maker. Have you ever considered doing this? Do you know anyone who does?]]

Thanks for the question. It got me reading and asking questions in areas which are definitely new to me!

The answer is yes, you probably could try doing that but, according to my quick research, you would definitely have to jump through some hoops in order to do so safely and legally. Here on the West Coast there are cottage food operations laws in CA, OR, and WA which are very clear about what may be sold and what may not. AK also has a similar set of regulations which is less restrictive than these first three. Further, in your own state a business license followed by a floor plan of your hermitage, an inspection of same, approval of your physical set up, sanitation, food and ingredient storage (which must be in the hermitage itself, not in a garage, shed or other outbuilding), recipes and labeling approval (including the actual address of the kitchen (no PO boxes), all ingredients by weight and a notification about use of a home kitchen) must be undertaken before one is given a cottage food operation permit.

Generally cottage operations allow one to sell 'safe' foods; across the board they prohibit certain kinds of foods to be made under their norms. These are considered unsafe because of the high risk of bacterial growth, development of toxins, etc. For instance, certain fruit butters are not safe (some are allowed but have to be checked in a laboratory for pH levels etc.) and candies made with alcohol or liqueurs are considered "adulterated" and cannot be made as a cottage product. Some baked goods using liquor (rum and bourbon, for instance) can be made in some states but actually require a license from the liquor control commission (etc.) which also requires an inspection of the maker's premises. You would need to do your homework to see what is feasible for you.

Also, in all the states I looked at one may NOT sell cottage foods online (though you may advertise them on your own website if you have one); neither may you have them delivered via USPS, UPS or any other third party. What I thought was really interesting was that all the states I looked at required you deliver your products yourself  "face to face" so a relationship between you and the customer is established and s/he has the ability to speak with you about any concerns. (S/he may come to you and pick up the food but s/he must pay you directly.) So, no third party deliveries, no mail or PayPal payments allowed! Another requirement I found across the board was that in a cottage operation no interstate sales were allowed. You must sell what you make in your own state alone. This might make the entire enterprise less than feasible for a hermit --- though you could certainly set hours when you open your hermitage in a limited way to guests coming for this specific purpose!

The whole process of getting a permit, however, is relatively inexpensive. The initial inspection, approval process, business permit and license, etc costs about $200- $250 depending on the state (some are free of licensing requirements); yearly renewals are less than this. Of course in some states one needs to be in compliance with all the laws and regulations or one is subject to fines. If you have a pet -- as many hermits do -- you will need to work out ways of keeping him/her out of the food preparation and storage area. The same is true for unlicensed persons or children (which is probably not an issue for you). You will also need to allow not just for cleaning but for sanitizing the food preparation area and all utensils used. For detailed requirements check your state's "Cottage Food Operation requirements" to see what rules apply to you. CA and WA have similar norms, for instance, though they are not identical. Of the relatively few states I compared FL seems to be the least restrictive but this was just an impression.

Since you are not (or not yet anyway!) a diocesan hermit (that is, since you are not publicly professed as a Catholic Hermit under c 603) you will also need to be careful about the way you advertise or present yourself. In CA, for instance, any fraudulent claims in advertizing can lead to legal action and fines. If you wish to sell products across state lines and/or have them delivered by third parties you will need to jump through some other hoops regarding facilities, recipes, labeling, and licensing.  In that case you would no longer fall under the cottage food operations category. (Diocesan hermits who have gone non profit (501c3) no longer fall under this category either.) To determine what is necessary in such a case you should probably contact your own state's Food and Drug Administration or equivalent governmental agency. Once you get all the facts you can determine whether this is something that will work for you.

Regarding whether I have ever thought about doing this myself, the answer is a definite no. A number of monasteries and hermitages I know do this but they have separate facilities and a bit more labor than I could supply as a solitary hermit. Some have tried doing this and found the legal requirements too onerous. (This should not surprise considering some of the specifications listed above -- though these mainly applied to cottage operations.)  I do know someone who bakes as part of a cottage operation one or two days a week and who is a wealth of information both for CA and for MI. In any case, while it is something I might enjoy helping with if I were living in one of these places, it is not something I have thought of doing myself, especially with the limitations on storage space and delivery modes. Too, it would probably be neither time nor cost effective for me.

For a list of all states covered by cottage and other similar home kitchen laws as well as pertinent links to the regulations themselves check this site. Bringing Home the Baking

15 January 2015

Sabbath: Striving to Enter into God's Rest

In tomorrow's first reading we are exhorted to try and enter into God's own rest. The basic idea is that in Christ, through his life, death and resurrection  the world has changed. Every story of Jesus' healing, exorcism, or justice-making authority witnesses to this. Heaven, which is the realm of God's sovereignty has interpenetrated this world and is accessible to us by faith.  Faith is an act of trust. It involves not only letting God grasp us but also letting go of our own grasping, controlling, and driven ways; it involves detaching ourselves from all that holds us in bondage, all that prevents us from simply being ourselves. While the Christ Event has changed reality in ways which essentially set us free from death, meaninglessness, and the fear of these which leaves us either anxious and driven or, alternately, despairing and paralyzed, we must still make choices for the new reality and for the God revealed there. In other words we must not just celebrate the victory of the past but we must let it be real in our own lives and allow God to extend God's sovereignty as we can. We focus our lives on receiving the gifts of freedom and peace which God gives us. In the paradoxical words of Hebrews we are called to strive to enter into God's rest.

One of the most powerful symbols of and means to this is an observance of Sabbath. Today we are apt to associate this practice with attending Church but we may also think of blue laws and other puritanical concerns which set unnecessary and even scrupulous constraints on the lives of many. Others will associate it with obsessive participation in professional or collegiate sports, shopping, over-scheduled playdates, etc etc. It hardly seems an important, much less a powerful symbol of freedom. But Sabbath observance grew directly out of the Hebrew's bondage to Pharaoh and the validating gods of the Egyptians. It is a central piece of the Hebrews' liberation from that and their own faith in the God who rests and gives rest.

Consider what life was like under the Pharaohs after Joseph. Fear and Greed drove the Pharaoh. The Hebrews worked under taskmasters. What they grew was stored in cities made for the purpose. The more they grew and harvested, the larger the cities had to become. The Hebrews were responsible for making the bricks out of which the cities were constructed. When Pharaoh was concerned the Hebrews might leave Egypt he required they gather the straw needed to make the bricks and he maintained the same quota of bricks. His reasoning? In this way the Hebrews would be so overwhelmed by their workload, they would not be able to consider the fundamental dishonesty or injustice (Exodus reads 'deceit') at the heart of this system.

The system fostered a demeaning mindlessness and the Hebrews were forced to define themselves mainly in terms of the dynamics of exploitation, production, etc rather than as precious individuals or even members of a family or Tribe. Especially they had neither the time nor the space to offer sacrifice to their own God nor to fully understand themselves in terms of this God. It was a life of continuous toil, not simply of the labor associated with human dignity and worth. More, it was a restless and anxious life, insecure, oppressed, subject to ever-increasing demands made not on the basis of need but on whim, pique, greed and the insecurity associated with greed. Finally, it was a life where the rich got richer on the backs of the poor who only got poorer while leisure or time to simply rest or cultivate mindfulness was associated with the oppressors, not the oppressed. It was a "Sabbathless" world.

The world created by Pharaoh should remind us of our own. Like ours it involved a market ideology of production and consumption. We live in a society where the more we have the more we want and where we are driven by peer pressure, advertising, etc to own more, use more, eat and drink more, and so forth. There are a number of symbols of this world-dynamic: workaholism, multi-tasking, mindless gaming, texting, shopping, or hoarding -- to name a few. Addiction to sport, to competition, or to always having the newest gadget are others. This dynamic even infiltrates our school system where instead of inculcating the value of wisdom or teaching to genuinely form and educate, we teach to test. Similarly we now give "advanced degrees" as a commodity. Such degrees can be bought and sold and their sole purpose in some places seems to be to make someone capable of earning more and more money and standing out from the crowd --- not being their best selves or giving back to society. In fact, this approach exacerbates the rich get richer and the poor get poorer dynamic and underscores the difference between elites and the underclass already so prominent in our contemporary culture.

Sabbath is the way members of the Judeo-Christian tradition practice standing in time as ourselves, hands and hearts open to the gift God gives. It is the way we distance ourselves from a culture that exploits, divides, and distorts us. In Judaism the Sabbath is celebrated by cultivating a host of ways of resting mind, body and spirit. No work is done, money cannot be handled without desecrating the day, families celebrate together and there is a kind of leveling in society; on the basis of Sabbath observance on the Sabbath there are no have or have nots, nor is there competition or drivenness. All stand as human beings loved by and delighted in by God. The various seductions and addictions of contemporary society are left aside as are any sources of competition, elitism, etc. Sabbath creates a society of neighbors. It is a primary way we break the chains of bondage and gain some degree of independence over the culture which pressures, defines and even alienates us from one another in every way.

Walter Brueggemann identifies it as an act of resistance to such a culture and an alternative to "the demanding, chattering, pervasive presence of advertizing, liturgy of professional sports" and other seductions "that devour all our rest time." Sabbath is the way we regain an appropriate stewardship over our world rather than exploiting it in ways which produce ever greater dysfunction and anxiety. Above all, it is a powerful way we assert our trust in the new world Jesus has made real amongst us and in the God who is its creator and Lord. By giving ourselves over in this way we participate in God's completion of the work of new creation which has yet to be brought to fulfillment. Genuine Sabbath celebration requires tremendous commitment and discipline but it is something we need to recover. After all, it is a huge piece of what it means to trust in and praise God. It is the countercultural praxis of entering into God's rest so that his will may truly be done on earth as it is in heaven.

09 January 2015

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (Reprised)

Of all the feasts we celebrate, this Sunday's feast of the baptism of Jesus is one of the most difficult for us to understand. We are used to thinking of baptism as a solution to original sin instead of the means of our initiation into the death and resurrection of Jesus, or our adoption as daughters and sons of God and heirs to his Kingdom, or again, as a consecration to God's very life and service. When viewed this way, and especially when we recall that John's baptism was one of repentance for sin, how do we make sense of a sinless Jesus submitting to it?

I think two points need to be made here. First, Jesus grew into his vocation. His Sonship was real and completely unique but not completely developed or historically embodied from the moment of his conception; rather it was something he embraced more and more fully over his lifetime. Secondly, his Sonship was the expression of solidarity with us and his fulfillment of the will of his Father to be God-with-us. Jesus will incarnate the Logos of God definitively in space and time, but this event we call the incarnation encompasses and is only realized fully in his life, death, and resurrection -- not in his nativity. Only in allowing himself to be completely transparent to this Word, only in "dying to self," and definitively setting aside all other possible destinies does Jesus come to fully embody and express the Logos of God in a way which expresses his solidarity with us as well.

It is probably the image of Baptism-as-consecration and commissioning then which is most helpful to us in understanding Jesus' submission to John's baptism. Here the man Jesus is set apart as the one in whom God will truly "hallow his name." (That is, in Jesus' weakness and self-emptying God's powerful presence (Name) will make all things Holy and a sacrament of God's presence.) Here, in an act of manifest commitment, Jesus' humanity is placed completely at the service of the living God and of those to whom God is committed. Here his experience as one set apart or consecrated by and for God establishes God as completely united with us and our human condition. This solidarity is reflected in his statement to John that together they must fulfill the will of God. And here too Jesus anticipates the death and resurrection he will suffer for the sake of both human and Divine destinies which, in him, will be reconciled and inextricably wed to one another. His baptism establishes the pattern not only of HIS humanity, but that of all authentic humanity. So too does it reveal the nature of true Divinity, for our's is a God who becomes completely subject to our sinful reality in order to free us for his own entirely holy one.

I suspect that even at the end of the Christmas season we are still scandalized by the incarnation. (Recent conversations on CV's and secularity make me even surer of this!) We still stumble over the intelligibility of this baptism, and the propriety of it especially. Our inability to fathom Jesus' own baptism, and our tendency to be shocked by it  because of Jesus' identity,  just as JohnBp was probably shocked, says we are not comfortable, even now, with a God who enters exhaustively into our reality. We remain uncomfortable with a Jesus who is tempted like us in ALL THINGS, and matures into his identity as God's only begotten Son.

We are puzzled by one who is holy as God is holy and, as the creed affirms, "true God from true God" and who, evenso, is consecrated to and by the one he calls Abba --- and commissioned to the service of this Abba's Kingdom and people. A God who wholly identifies with us, takes on our sinfulness, and comes to us in smallness, weakness, submission and self-emptying is really not a God we are comfortable with --- despite three weeks of Christmas celebrations and reflections, and a prior four weeks of preparation -- is it? In fact, none of this was comfortable for Jews or early Christians either. The Jewish leadership was upset by JnBp's baptisms generally because they took place outside the Temple precincts and structures (that is, in the realm we literally call profane). Early Christians (Jewish and otherwise) were embarrassed by Jesus' baptism by John --- as Matt's added explanation of the reasons for it in vv 14-15 indicate. They were concerned that perhaps it indicated Jesus' inferiority to John the Baptist and they wondered if maybe it meant that Jesus had sinned prior to his baptism. And perhaps this embarrassment is as it should be. Perhaps the scandal attached to this baptism signals to us we are beginning to get things right theologically.

After all, today's feast tells us that Jesus' public ministry begins with a ritual washing, consecration, and commissioning by God which is similar to our own baptismal consecration. The difference is that Jesus' freely accepts life under the sway of sin in his baptism just as he wholeheartedly embraces a public (and one could cogently argue, a thoroughly secular) vocation to proclaim God's sovereignty. The story of the desert temptation or testing that follows this underscores this acceptance. His public life begins with an event that prefigures his end as well. There is a real dying to self involved here, not because Jesus has a false self which must die -- as each of us has --- but because in these events his life is placed completely at the disposal of his God, his Abba, in solidarity with us. Loving another, affirming the being of another in a way which subordinates one's own being to theirs --- putting one's own life at their disposal and surrendering all other life-possibilities always entails a death of sorts -- and a kind of rising to new life as well. The dynamics present on the cross are present here too; here we see only somewhat less clearly a complete and obedient (that is open and responsive) submission to the will of God, and an unfathomable subjection to that which human sinfulness makes necessary precisely in order that God's love may be exhaustively present and conquer here as well.

04 January 2015

"Trust the Emptiness"



There is always a paradoxical truth when we come to those points of personal poverty which cause us to feel empty or to doubt our own capacities and gifts. Namely, God dwells within us and even more, is the ground and source of life and creativity that is both our very own and yet is the ultimate gift which transcends us and our own poverty. When we feel we have reached the limits of our own self, the task of prayer is to enter into and move through our own poverty, entrust ourselves to the apparent emptiness, and open ourselves to the God who is a constitutive part of ourselves --- deeper than any personal shallowness, any brokenness, emptiness, or woundedness --- and to let him show us what is truer, more profoundly "us" and even more "real" than any of these other things. In the transcendent God who is also the deepest core of our own hearts we are always more than we ever imagined we might be.

Video, Martin Hurkens of Holland

01 January 2015

Questions on the Relation of Committed Singleness to Diocesan Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sister, I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and that the New Year will be truly blessed. 

The other day I was having coffee with a friend of mine and I was speaking with him about the call to single life (as the Church envisions it). I know that this is my calling (whether it leads to a fully eremitic vocation has yet to be seen). In the course of our conversation he said that the single vocation is a tough one because unlike marriage, priesthood and even religious life; the call to single life is very hidden and often misunderstood. It inherently includes much solitude. 


After the conversation with my friend, I was wondering if the single life has as its base the eremitic life. Could it be that it is the eremitic ideal and its pillars that are the font of spirituality for the committed Catholic single? [After all] The single life (in a Catholic sense) involves active service but also a more contemplative life of prayer in worship of God and intercession for the Church and others. In addition, single life involves much solitude and a unique hiddenness not found in other vocations (even marriage). Even though I am busy at work; at the end of the day, when everyone goes home to their families, I'm on my own (I don't think this is a bad thing by the way).  This means that a large portion of my life is spent in solitude. This solitude is a blessing as it leaves me more time for prayer and lectio than my married counterparts (or even parish priests and active religious as many of their meetings take place in the evening).

Thus, I see a great convergence between the eremitic vocation and the Christian single vocation as many of its key pillars are plentifully present in how a committed single Catholic lives his/her life (prayer, lectio, solitude, hidenness etc.). In fact, due to the large amounts of solitude I think hermits and singles might even have more in common than even contemplative or cloistered religious as they usually live in community. I would welcome your insights on this. Do you think my thoughts are correct or do they demonstrate a misunderstanding of these two vocations? Also, what special insights do you think the eremitic life can give to committed people living the Catholic understanding of the single vocation. Should committed Catholic singles look to the hermit vocation for their sustenance and spiritual baseline or touchstone? Thank you again for your important presence on the Internet! :)
]]

Thanks for writing again. I hope your own Christmastide is going well and that this year is a blessed one for you. I will answer your questions referring to committed singleness (sometimes just "singleness") throughout.  I am assuming in the rest of what I say here that "committed singleness" is unmarried lay life with a private dedication to celibacy (that is, a private commitment to remain unmarried) for  the sake of the Kingdom. If I do not think of it this way I have a very hard time thinking of it as a true vocation at all. (I will hold my doubts about this for another time I think.) When I speak of eremitical life here I will mainly be speaking of diocesan or other consecrated (canonical) eremitism unless I specify lay eremitism.

Regarding your specific suggestions and questions I think you have the relationship between the two realities backwards and are also generalizing too readily from your own experience. First of all eremitical life builds on single life, not the other way around; it presupposes singleness and both specifies and transforms that in a nuptial relationship with Christ. Secondly though, there is nothing that says a committed single person needs to live an essentially contemplative life nor that they need to have lots of solitude, much less that solitude needs to be a defining characteristic of their lives. (All people need some degree of physical solitude for spiritual health, but ordinarily one's life is not defined in these terms.) A committed single may well be something of a loner, but this is not essential to the life. Further, committed single persons are not simply living eremitical-life-lite nor is their spirituality necessarily a desert spirituality at all. Your own spirituality may be such a spirituality and you may actually be called to be a hermit, but that form of life is not typical of the majority of persons living singleness, committed or otherwise. In any case, even if your own life evolves into an eremitical one, it will have grown out of your singleness, not the other way around.

What you may be sensing is that there is a similar underlying (natural) foundation for both vocations (and for any other). As I have written elsewhere, [[Solitude is the most catholic of vocations, and a specifically eremitic vocation to solitude serves to remind us of its basic importance in the life of every person, not only as existential predicament,  but as Christian value, challenge, and call.  All of us struggle to maintain an appropriate tension between independence and committedness to others which is characteristic of truly human solitude.]] ("Eremitism: Call to the Chronically Ill and Disabled", Review For Religious, vol 48, num 2, March/April 1989) Most fundamentally we are each and every one of us, no matter our vocational path, a covenantal or dialogical relationship with God. It is not simply that we have such a relationship but more that we, to the extent we are truly human and truly individuals, ARE this relationship and are called more and more to be this relationship. This is a profound paradox. In the NT Paul expressed it this way, "I yet not I but Christ in me." We are most truly ourselves to the extent we are an intimate relationship with God and bear witness to God's presence in us. We are most truly ourselves (and most truly free) to the extent God is sovereign (theonomous) in us. (It is Baptism that restores the "theonomy" we each are and opens us more fully to this sovereignty. It consecrates or sets us apart for God and in God and thus frees us to be more truly ourselves.)

Out of this fundamental solitude with its dialectic of aloneness and community grow both cenobitism and eremitism. Because of human solitude's very nature, singleness, marriage, consecrated celibacy, consecrated virginity, ordained life, cloistered and ministerial religious life, secular life and life withdrawn in and for the silence of solitude, all have their roots therein. I think you are trying to get to this underlying foundation which grounds both the eremitical and the single vocation (no matter what form the latter takes). I would also suggest that all vocations are only more or less understood --- though some may be rarer and more misunderstood of course. The existence of stereotypes of marriage, singleness, hermit life, priesthood, religious life, (consecrated) virginity, etc all argue for the truth of this suggestion. In any case, being misunderstood is not an essential characteristic of any vocation itself.

But hiddenness is an essential characteristic of the eremitical life. This hiddenness is specifically tied to anachoresis, a purposeful and deliberate withdrawal from that which is contrary to God and the eyes of others so that one might live in communion with God. This anachoresis is not simply the quest for privacy or discretion though it also involves these. (I suspect privacy is really a more apt term for what your friend was trying to describe than "hiddenness" per se. Hiddenness is hardly an essential characteristic of singleness itself or of the commitment to remain unmarried for the sake of the Kingdom.) Neither is the anachoresis of eremitical life simply about being alone or remaining unmarried. Instead it is about being alone WITH God for the sake of others including for God's own sake. The hermit lives her life, therefore, in a way which witnesses to the truth that God alone is enough. She withdraws from much of the world (including much that is very good and of God) in order to explore a deeper dimension of the world which is often ignored and these days frequently explicitly denied and rejected. It is this positive dynamic which constitutes the cause of both eremitism's hiddenness and its tendency to be misunderstood.

At bottom eremitical life is rooted in, dedicated to, consecrated or set apart by and for God and God's purposes; it is defined by and responsible for witnessing to the hidden foundational relationship which is the ground of creation and the source of every human life in its poverty and in its greatness. This relationship is the sufficient reason for human life, the thing we strive to embody and share with others. It is the source of all creativity and generativity and, in fact, is the aim or telos of creation. Moreover, just as God is the ground, source, and absolute future of all reality, our participation in this foundational relationship relates us to all others as well and witnesses to this often-forgotten truth. It could be argued that this participation is really the entire work of the hermit, the whole purpose and essential ministry of her life and that it MUST occur in the hiddenness of solitude. After all, this is an essential part of the witness the hermit seeks to give. She grows to human fullness and comes to love more fully and authentically because of a relationship which is both hidden yet pervasive in all of creation. In this way she reveals to everyone the hidden and living mystery which is the foundation of their own lives and the source of the hope proclaiming the ultimate future of the entire creation.

Your observation that committed singles may have more in common with hermits than even cloistered Religious do because these Religious live in community leads to a couple of thoughts on the nature of eremitical solitude. As I have already noted, eremitical solitude is not merely about being alone but being alone with God for the sake of others. External or physical solitude is only the tip of a very big iceberg. It is important but exists for the sake of the deeper solitude of one's relationship with God. Many people live alone, many either do not have familes or no longer have spouses. Only a minority dedicate themselves entirely to the deeper solitude of one's relationship with God and fewer still to a desert spirituality. Cloistered religious live in community but community itself is lived in order to foster and nurture this deeper solitude. While communities may certainly differ, if you have ever spent time in a Camaldolese house or some Trappist houses you will know what I mean. In the Trappistine monastery I am familiar with, for instance, while there is a strong and joyful community there, each person maintains an essential silence which protects the foundational solitude each Sister is called to and from which genuine community grows. Work and Meals mainly occur in silence. Recreation is regular and scheduled. Community is not merely about living together any more than eremitical (or monastic) solitude is merely about being alone. Community is established for the sake of God and members' life in God just as Eremitism is.

Given this analysis I am suggesting that contemplative Religious who live in community may well have a good deal more in common with hermits than with those who simply live alone even if they are committed Christian singles. With contemplative religious who share a desert spirituality and the silence, solitude and penance that implies, a significant prayer life structured similarly to that of a hermit (or vice versa!), vows which incarnate and express the same values or counsels, and a commitment to community based on each person becoming their truest selves in communion with God (something a diocesan hermit is certainly committed to in her parish and ministry), we are describing lives whose every aspect will resonate with those of the hermit.  This would be much less true of committed Christians choosing to remain unmarried; generally they share relatively few of these characteristics. There are many entirely valid and meaningful ways to live a Christian life as a committed single. Living alone, even with a commitment to remain unmarried, is simply not enough to establish the kind of affinity or kinship you have suggested exists between such a person and a hermit. All of this is one of the reasons I write again and again that a hermit is not simply a lone pious person but is instead a desert dweller.

Finally, you asked if committed singles should look to hermits as their spiritual baseline or touchstone. I would say that generally the answer is no except to the extent the hermit reminds them of the foundational solitude and need for community which exists for every person. While hermits can also remind committed singles that their prayer lives can be both profound and versatile without demanding a community with whom one can pray Office,  this reminder to foundational (and dialogical or covenantal) solitude is the main thing hermits image for others. Most singles will be called to far greater levels of active ministry, greater degrees of direct community and an essential and meaningful secularity. Hermits will serve as an adequate paradigm for very few committed singles and for those they do I would recommend they become lay hermits in an explicit and conscious way. What is true is that every vocation reminds us of a particular aspect of what it means to be a committed Christian. Committed singles generally need to draw on the lessons of every vocation including marriage --- not least (though not only) because there is no overarching picture of what such a vocation looks like nor single description of its essential nature.

I hope this is helpful.