31 December 2015

On Living a Non Eremitical Life of Quiet Centered on God


[[Dear Sister Laurel, I stumbled on to this website while doing research on how to live a more peaceful life that's closer to God. Most of my life I've tried to be social but to no avail, it never happened. I believe now that God knew deep down what I wanted, which was to live a quiet life involving solitude with nature and the eagerness to study. I love your blogs. Do you yourself spend a great deal of time in peaceful solitude? Do you limit your time with people? I'm just curious how is your day structured... I'm married and work so I can't live a hermit lifestyle but I want to incorporate the lifestyle as much as possible to get the most out of my days...... Thank you for your time........]]

Many thanks for your note. While hermits, myself included, live lives which are separated from what is often called "the world", a separation which precludes a lot of contact with people, it is not the case that we do so because we are unable to be social or dislike people, for instance. I suppose most hermits are introverts --- meaning we get our energy from activities and time spent by ourselves and tend to have our energy depleted by time with others. In other words we are not "party animals" and do not get our energy from lots of time with others; however, this is not necessarily the same thing as not being particularly social. I have a good friend that jokes that I am an introvert, but a social introvert while she is less social. Perhaps you are an introvert and perhaps you are alluding to something more than this.

Only you can determine whether what you are describing is normal introversion or something more than that which needs, at least to some extent, to be corrected, modified or healed. I would encourage you to pray about it and talk to someone who understands the need for solitude in any life but who also understands our need for others and loving others. Introverts or no we are all communal beings. The ability to balance these two dimensions of our lives takes some work! I think that will be especially true for you precisely because you are married and work full time outside a hermitage.

Marriage is your vocation so building in appropriate time for study, prayer, etc. will be challenging and require your wife's cooperation and your own sensitivity to the needs of your family life. That said, I think your desire for a relatively quiet life in touch with nature and with sufficient room for study sounds pretty normal to me --- especially if you do justice to your marriage in the process. If you have a genuine need for solitude and study and a sincere desire to put God first then my own sense is these will in no way conflict with your marriage but instead will assist you to live it more fully and profoundly. Again, however, your wife will need to be open to what you intend and, just as importantly, what you intend will need to open you to your wife's own needs (and those of your family) as well. Remember that the things you find you need in your life may well be the very things others in your own life also need. That is especially true of some silence, solitude (which, counterintuitive as this may seem, may be shared with another person), time in nature, and putting God at the center of our lives.

My own Schedule, etc:

My own day usually begins at 4:00 am and from then until 8:00 am is spent in prayer and then some writing. Some weekdays I then go to Mass and most days that is followed by time doing lectio (a form of prayerful or sacred reading) and Scripture. This period ends with lunch and is the heart of my day no matter what else the day holds. Following lunch I tend to see clients (Mondays and Fridays), run errands, or do other work. This is the most variable part of my day. I finish this part of my day with Vespers and some quiet prayer, then supper. The evening usually involves more writing, study and some work. My day ends with Compline.

Weekends are a bit different. Saturday mornings are the same until 9:00 am and then I often play quartets or quintets with friends until noon. (We meet together for breakfast and then play music together.) The rest of the day is the same as other days. Sundays also begin the same way other days do, though sometimes rising is at 5:00 since Mass is also later (I generally go to 9:30 Mass). After that I usually have coffee with a Sister friend and then bring Communion to folks. The rest of the day is structured around prayer, reading, rest and recreation, and necessary chores. In all of these things, whether my day includes lots of activity, other people or not, the time from 4:00 am until 8:00 am is something I try to maintain as absolutely foundational. I think many folks could build this kind of period into their day and find it not only does not conflict with the rest of their day but may even enhance it. Perhaps some version of this would work for you.

I hope this is helpful.

Are Camaldolese Oblates Consecrated?

[[Dear Sister, are Camaldolese Oblates consecrated? Do you wear a Camaldolese cowl?]]

Thanks for your questions. I am assuming you mean do persons who become Camaldolese Oblates also become consecrated persons in the act of oblature? Do these persons become members of the consecrated state through their gift of self in this way? The simple answer is no, one does not enter the consecrated state of life in this way. One does not become a religious, does not make public vows, and remains in whatever state of life into which they were already initiated. If they were already consecrated before becoming oblates then yes, they are consecrated, but not because they are oblates.

While oblature in most Benedictine congregations is limited to lay people, the Camaldolese also accept religious, priests and consecrated virgins and diocesan hermits as oblates. However, lay persons who make oblature remain lay persons and are committed to live the Camaldolese Oblate Rule in their everyday lay life --- a very significant commitment in a world challenged to see that God comes to us in the realm of the ordinary. Clerics do not become clerics in the Camaldolese Order upon oblature, nor do religious become professed Camaldolese when they become oblates. All oblates are members of the extended Camaldolese family but again,  they are oblates who remain in their original state of life upon making oblature.

Also, while the process of oblature (this is not a profession of vows) involves both a commit-ment and reception of this commit-ment by a representative of the congregation, this is a private commitment. It is not public and does not have public rights and obligations (that is, the rights and obligations are those that obtain within the Camaldolese family alone). Nor does anyone acting in the name of the Church mediate God's own consecration of the person. As I have noted here a number of times, initiation into the consecrated state is a public act of the whole Church. A legitimate superior or other authorized person receives the person's profession or other commitment and mediates divine consecration in the name of the Church. The intention to do this must be present but so must the ecclesiastical authority. Camaldolese monks and nuns admitting others to oblature have neither the intention nor the authority to admit these specific persons to the consecrated state. (For instance, under specific  circumstances the Sister that received my commitment/oblature had the authority to admit Sisters in her own monastery to the consecrated state as part of her role as Prioress but she had no authority (nor did she have the intention) to admit ME to this state. She did have the authority (and intention) to receive my oblature.)

Regarding my cowl, please be aware that oblates, insofar as they are oblates, do not wear cowls. I wear a cowl because it is a symbol of solemn monastic or eremitical profession and I am a consecrated hermit; it was canonically granted at my perpetual profession and consecration under c 603. Because I am also a Camaldolese oblate, and because Camaldolese monks and nuns wear a cowl, it was important to make sure that the hood of my own cowl not be cut in the unique elongated Camaldolese style lest I give someone the impression that I am professed as a Camaldolese nun. (Mine is cut in more of a Carthusian or a Cistercian style with visible differences from these as well.)   In any case, no, I do not wear a Camaldolese cowl nor does any oblate as oblate.

On the Seventh Day of Christmas


27 December 2015

On the Third Day of Christmas

Christmas is the gift-giving season par excellence; it only seems appropriate to share one of my favorite groups and their version of Drummer Boy. May we each give God the best gifts we can this season and always. Especially may we see the humble talents we have to offer as worthy of a God who, out of perfect love for us, became like us in all things but sin.



25 December 2015

Joy to the World! Hodie Christus Natus Est! (Reprise)

The scandal of the incarnation is one of the themes we neglect at Christmastime or, at best, allude to only indirectly. Nor is there anything wrong with that. We live through the struggles of our lives in light of the moments of hope and joy our faith provides and there is nothing wrong with focusing on the wonder and joy of the birth of our savior. There is nothing wrong with sentimentality nor with all the light and glitter and sound of our Christmas preparations and celebrations. For a brief time we allow the joy of the mystery of Christmas to predominate. We focus on the gift God has given, and the gift we ourselves are meant to become in light of this very special nativity.

Among other things we look closely in the week prior to Christmas at the series of "yeses" that were required for this birth to come to realization, the barrenness that was brought to fruitfulness in the power of the Holy Spirit. We add to this Zechariah's muteness which culminates in a word of prophecy and a canticle of praise, along with the book of Hebrews' summary of all the partial ways God has spoken himself to us; we then set all of these off against the Prologue to John's Gospel with its majestic affirmation of the Word made flesh and God revealed exhaustively to US. The humbleness of the birth is a piece of all this, of course, but the scandal, the offense of such humbleness in the creator God's revelation of self is something we neglect, not least because we see all this with eyes of faith --- eyes which suspend the disbelief of strict rationality temporarily so that we can see instead the beauty and wonder which are also there. The real challenge of course is to hold both truths, scandal and beauty, together in a sacramental paradox.

And so I have tried to do in this symbol of the season. This year my Christmas tree combines both the wonder and the scandal of the incarnation, the humbleness of Jesus' estate in human terms, and the beauty of a world transformed with the eyes of love. Through the coming week the readings are serious (Steven's martyrdom and the massacre of the holy innocents, a warning about choosing "the world," and so forth) for darkness is still very real and resents and seeks to threaten our joy. Yet, all this is contextualized within the Christmas proclamation that darkness has been unable to quench the divine light that has come into our world, and the inarticulate groaning which often marks this existence has been brought to a new and joy-filled articulateness in the incarnate Word. Everything, we believe, can become sacramental; everything a symbol of God's light and life amongst us; everything a song of joy and meaning! And so too with this fragile "Charlie Brown" tree.

All good wishes for a wonderful Christmastide for all who read here, and to all of your families. Today the heavens are not silent. Today they sing: Alleluia, Alleluia!! Hodie Christus Natus Est! Alleluia!

24 December 2015

Breath of Heaven (Reprise)

As is appropriate for Christmas, I am in the midst of reflecting on an experience I had yesterday; I anticipate  this experience perhaps leading to a post here. It centered on Amy Grant's song, Breath of the Spirit so for now, I am reprising the video I put up here last year. While the video is wonderful I do suggest folks listen to the song itself at some point without watching the video and allow the lyrics to speak to them and evoke images from their own lives. Perhaps only one or two lines will resonate powerfully, but were that to happen it would be an awesome gift of the Spirit.
  
                                              * * * * *

Christmas extends to the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Like other pivotal seasons of our faith it gives us a chance to ponder, pray with, and digest the call to enter into the mystery it represents, not only in the lives of Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon, John and Jesus, et al, but in our own as well. The dimension of reality we know as Word or Spirit, that dimension of mystery which permeates, enlivens, and grounds all of reality is ever dynamic and seeks ways to become more articulate within creation. It seeks to "overshadow" each of us so that we may each truly become God's word made flesh, a new creation, the imago dei we are made to be.

There is an immensity in this call, an incommensurability when measured against our own weakness and personal poverty and we each meet it with a variety of emotions, concerns, and attitudes as we seek to bring our whole selves to it -- just as Mary did (or so many of the other participants in the story of Christmas and Christianity). Amy Grant's "Breath of Heaven" captures all of this so very well!!


22 December 2015

Christmas Greetings from the Dominican Sisters in Iraq

Dear friends and benefactors,

Being in the Middle East and seeing what is happening around us makes it hard to believe that our world is ready to welcome the Lord. The star of Christmas shines on us in our second year of exile to tell us how similar our world is now to the time when Jesus was born.

The wandering magi who had lost their way are still there, but they are not only three - there are thousands of them. Herod who wanted to kill the innocents is still there, but he has become many. The Holy Family is still fleeing to escape with their lives, followed by many other families who are immigrating in all directions. And, Rachel is still weeping over her children who were stripped out of her arms, and she is accompanied by her neighbours whose grief just leaves us speechless.

Yet, it is still the star of Christmas that shines to show where the King of peace is born. It is in this world, and no other world where Jesus is born to be with us and for us. The Lord comes unexpectedly, challenging our mentality and our expectations. He comes in our worn out world, even when the world is not ready for Him. He comes to our aid in times of weakness, pain, violence, and darkness in order to be close to us. He is always there, guiding the wandering people, accompanying those who flee, and wiping the tears of the weeping mothers.

Having confidence in Him and in his powerful presence among us, we dare to continue our journey with those who are left in Iraq, although nothing is clear about the future. News is not encouraging at all, and people do not have the capacity to think anymore. We ask your prayers that God may strengthen our faith, enlighten us and grant us His wisdom to discern in our reality despite all the difficulties and pressures we are living. How much enlightened vision and courage we need!

On this blessed occasion, and with confidence that the word of the Lord will prevail, I extend my greetings to all sisters, brethren, friends, benefactors, and organizations who have been accompanying us in our dark night. Thank you for being a guiding star that shows us God’s loving care. We believe that His light will tear through the darkness, and He will come down.

O Come, Lord Jesus. You are our joy...our peace...and our life.

Sister Maria Hanna OP
Dec 2015


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21 December 2015

The Visitation (Reprise)

Jump for Joy  by Eisbacher

Sunday's Gospel (and today's as well!) is wonderfully joyfilled and encouraging: Mary travels in haste to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth and both women benefit from the meeting which culminates in John's leaping in his mother's womb and prophetic speech by both women. The first of these is Elizabeth's proclamation that Mary is the Mother of Elizabeth's Lord and the second is Mary's canticle, the Magnificat. Ordinarily homilists focus on Mary in this Gospel lection but I think the focus is at least as strongly on Elizabeth and also on the place the meeting of the two women has in allowing them both to negotiate the great mystery which has taken hold of their lives. Both are called on to offer God hospitality in unique ways; both are asked to participate in God's mysterious plan for his creation despite not wholly understanding this call and it is in their coming together that the trusting fiats they each made assume a greater clarity for them both.

Luke's two volumes (Luke-Acts) are actually full of instances where people come together and in their meeting or conversation with one another come to a fuller awareness of what God is doing in their lives. We see this on the road to Emmaus where disciples talk about the Scriptures in an attempt to come to terms with Jesus' scandalous death on a cross and the end of all their hopes. They are joined by another person who questions them about their conversation and grief. When they pause for a meal they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread and their entire world is turned on its head. That which was senseless is on its way to making a profound sense which will ground the existence of the church. Peter is struggling with the issue of eating with the uncircumcised; he comes together with Cornelius, a Centurion with real faith in Christ. In this meeting Peter is confirmed in his sense that in light of Christ no foods are unclean and eating with Gentiles is Eucharistic. There are a number of other such meetings where partial perception and clarity are enhanced or expanded. Even the Council of Jerusalem is a more developed instance of the same phenomenon.

On Spiritual Friendship, both formal and informal:

I personally love Eisenbacher's picture above because it reminds me of one privileged expression of such spiritual friendship, namely that of spiritual direction. I can remember many meetings with my own director where there was immense surprise and joy at the sharing involved, but one time in particular stands out --- especially in light of today's Gospel. I had experienced a shift in my experience of celibacy. Where once it mainly spoke to me of dimensions of my life that would never be fulfilled (motherhood, marriage, etc), through a particular prayer experience it had come to be associated instead with espousal to Christ and my own sense of being completed and fulfilled as a woman.

As I recall, when I met with my director to share about this experience, I spoke softly about it, carefully, a little bashfully --- especially at first; but I also gained strength and greater confidence in the sharing of it. (I was not uncertain as to the nature of what I had experienced, but sharing it certainly allowed it to claim me more completely and let me claim a new sense of myself in light of it; that was necessary and a central piece of sharing such things with a director, for instance.) My director listened carefully, and only then noted that she had always prayed for such a grace for all her novices (she had been novice director for her congregation); she then excused herself and left briefly. When she returned she had a CD and CD player with her. Together we sat quietly, but joyfully and even a bit tearfully celebrating what God had done for us both while we listened to John Michael Talbot's  Canticle of the Bride.

Elizabeth and Mary come together as women both touched in significant ways by the mystery of God. They have trusted God but are not yet completely clear regarding the greater mystery or how this experience fits into the larger story of Israel's redemption. They are both in need of one another and especially of the perception and wisdom the other can bring to the situation so that they can truly offer God and God's plan all the space and time these require. Hospitality, especially giving God hospitality, takes many forms, but one of the most important involves coming together to share how God is active in our lives in the hope of coming to a greater and more life giving perspective, faith, and commitment. It is in coming together in this way that we clarify, encourage, challenge and console one another. It is in coming together in this way that we become the prophetic presence in our world God calls us to be. Let us all be open to serving as friends to one another in this sense. It is an essential dimension of being Church and of the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Contemplative Mindlessness??? What's that?

[[Hi Sister, I was reading blogs by hermits and came across one mentioning watching a video of your profession. A few days later the blogger wrote the following. [[For a non-canonical, privately avowed . . .hermit, all else remains the same. One must provide for oneself. This may include having a job. Many receive pensions or are on disability. . .the hermit may get a part-time job that is pleasant and positive but creative yet mindless. This allows for praying on the job, and pondering. Plus, it provides some human contact. Some hermits need more than others. God allows.]] I guess I was surprised by the description of the work hermits are called to do as "creative but mindless". It gives the impression of trivial work that is not prayer but doesn't get in the way of prayer, or at least doesn't get in the way of saying prayers. So my question is since hermits need to work how do they choose work? Is it really mindless work? I wonder is this blogger's description of hermit work strikes you as it did me --- a kind of busyness for which one is paid even though it is of no value. Thanks.]]

Hi there yourself, and thanks for the questions and comments.

My perpetual eremitical profession was more than 8 years ago so that is a pretty old blog piece! While I too find the use of the term mindless offensive and, more importantly, contrary to the nature of the work of any genuine contemplative, I suspect what this person was trying to say was that the work should be consonant with prayer and not so taxing as to distract from that or debilitate one's spiritual focus in some significant way. I suspect she was thinking of something like gardening or candy making or labeling jars of honey or something similar --- occupations of whatever sort which allow one to work while relatively relaxed mentally. However, what she actually said was something else. Can you conceive of any genuinely creative work that is mindless? How about work which requires one's full attention, body, mind, and spirit? In any case I consider this an unfortunate and probably mistaken choice of words, but whether that is so or not, I disagree that it describes eremitical life or even something that is desirable in contemplative and/or eremitical life.+


Hermits work in part to support themselves and/or their congre-gations. They work too because work has inherent dignity and is one way a hermit engages constructively with the world God created and the future God is bringing to be. That is true whether we are speaking of manual labor or intellectual labor. It is true whether the work is mechanized, routinized, or is very much more individual than this. And of course they work in order to make a contribution, not only to their own brothers or sisters, but to society and the Church as a whole. While I can't say exactly how hermits choose their work beyond generalities of need, talents, and interest, I do not know any hermits who engage in "make-work" kinds of activities with no real value. Some of us are disabled and even in such circumstances we do what we can to be responsible to others and to model healthy ways of being sick in the Church, which, as I recently wrote, is a very different thing than being sick outside the faith community. That may not mean much physically demanding work, but it will mean a routine in which we care for ourselves and our hermitages, perhaps a little work in our gardens where new life is nurtured and we are enabled to get a bit of sun and light (or not so light!) exercise, and for some of us, some intellectual work which may, whether now or one day, be useful to the Church and world.

The point is that the life of faith is a whole-hearted whole-person journey. Everything the hermit undertakes is dignified by her life with God. Ideally at least, she does nothing alone and because that is the case she does nothing without value. Because God is implicated in the whole of her life, the whole of her life possesses a profound incarnational or sacramental significance. At this Advent-Christmas transition we have to be aware that whenever we open our minds and hearts to the God who would dwell fully within us we become more and more the imago dei we are made to be just as it allows God to be more fully the God he wills to be. What is not allowed, of course, is 'mindlessness'. The real work we actually do is precisely the work of mindfulness. Mindlessness closes us off to God and to the real engagement we know variously as compassion, worship, prayer, hope, love, and faith. Whether intellectual, physical, or spiritual work, it is mindfulness and especially mindfulness at the service of Love-in-Act that transforms this into the work of a contemplative. But again, under no circumstances is the "presencelessness" and personal disengagement of mindlessness an attribute of contemplative life.

Recreation and Absorbing Tasks as Medium for Prayer:

This is not to say one cannot become absorbed in some profoundly enjoyable or recreational activity. Quite the contrary. For instance, I sometimes have tried my hand at drawing. Recently I drew two black and white pencil pictures of Mary and Joseph with their new baby and manger surrounded by sheep, shepherds, and even a lion. In one (still unfinished) I have the beginnings of a camel (I have never drawn any of these animals before and they are each a bit childish and experimental). The drawings could be used for Christmas cards but that was not the point. While the work was not mindless, it was absorbing, relaxing, recreational in the best sense of that word and at the same time allowed me to think and pray about Christmas and enter Advent more fully. Some of the reflecting I did recently about Joseph was done while drawing the Mary and Joseph figures and it was done in a very unself-conscious kind of way. My attention was on the struggle with lines and shapes and proportions, with how one draws the face, mane, and then the cat-like paws of a resting lion so that one captures peace without robbing him of power, or the spindly legs and wooly coat of the sheep, and so forth.

A lot of the time I thought I was mainly being educated on the ways flowing garments can hide an artist's ineptitude in dealing with anatomical complexities --- though there was a lot in all that about humility as well. But underneath all that I was thinking in some way about Friday's readings: about the human struggle underlying and eventuating in this idyllic scene and the divine and cosmic drama it reflected. I was struggling to do justice to this nativity tableau and capture something of the future breaking in on us in a proleptic way. I suspect this activity is one of the main sources of my sense that Joseph was an icon of the struggle to do and bring justice to birth. I know it reminded me of entering those liminal spaces where God can speak to us and make Godself known. I am not sure what words fit best in all of this besides unself-conscious but certainly "mindless" does not work at all; I think the blogger you cited, despite what she actually wrote, was aware of the same thing.

Saying Prayers vs Praying:


One topic you raise which is very good indeed is the insight that the blogger seems to be speaking of doing some mindless job so that she may pray at the same time. I think your comments indicate an implicit criticism of such a notion and if so, I agree completely. It is one thing to make a prayer of one's work; while this notion can be distorted and abused by those really resisting praying it is more than possible. Indeed, it is desirable and we have to allow God to transfigure our activity into prayer. I think my description of what occurred during my drawing sessions is an example of something becoming prayer. But I wasn't busy trying to draw and say prayers. That would, or at least could well indicate a divided mind, a kind of multi-tasking in which neither task gets one's full attention. I think we have to watch out for that kind of thing. In any case, the reference you have cited says nothing about saying prayers. She refers to praying and pondering so I will say I believe she is describing the same thing I did with my images of drawing sessions and it is all made unclear by her misspeaking with the word mindless.

19 December 2015

Joseph: Icon of the Struggle to become a Mediator of Justice

Friday's readings focused on the coming of the One in whom justice will be done and creation set to rights. Jeremiah speaks of this in terms of the Davidic line of Kings --- a line which often profaned and betrayed God's sacred promise and hope. The psalmist sings wonderfully of the promise of the Lord bringing all things to rights in the love of God.

But especially poignant is the Matthean story of Joseph as the icon of one who struggles to allow God's own justice to be brought to birth as fully as possible. It is, in its own way, a companion story to Luke's account of Mary's annunciation and fiat. Both Mary (we are told explicitly) and Joseph (we are told implicitly) ponder things in their hearts, both are mystified and shaken by the great mystery which has taken hold of them and in which they have become pivotal characters. Both allow God's own power and presence to overshadow them so that God might do something absolutely new in their world. But  it is Joseph's more extended and profound struggle to truly do justice in mercy, and to be a righteous man who reveals God's own justice in love, God's salvation, that was at the heart of yesterday's Advent story.

The Situation:

I am a little ashamed to say I have never spent much time considering Joseph's predicament or the context of that predicament until this week. Instead I have always thought of him as a good man who chose the merciful legal solution rather than opting for the stricter one. I never saw him making any other choice nor did I understand the various ways he was pushed and pulled by his own faith and love. But Joseph's situation was far more demanding and frustrating than I had ever appreciated! Consider the background which weighed heavy on Joseph's heart. First, he is identified as a just or righteous man, a man faithful to God, to the Covenant, a keeper of the Law or Torah, an observant Jew who was well aware of Jeremiah's promise and the sometimes bitter history of his own Davidic line. All of this and more is implied here by the term "righteous man". In any case, this represents his most foundational and essential identity. Secondly, he was betrothed to Mary, wed (not just engaged!) to her though he had not yet taken her to his family home and would not for about a year. That marriage was a symbol of the covenant between God and his People Israel. Together he and Mary symbolized the Covenant; to betray or dishonor this relationship was to betray and profane the Covenant itself. This too was uppermost in Joseph's mind precisely because he was a righteous man.

Thirdly, he loved Mary and was entirely mystified by her pregnancy. Nothing in his tradition prepared him for a virgin birth. Mary could only have gotten pregnant through intercourse with another man so far as Joseph could have known --- and this despite Mary's protestations of innocence. (The OT passage referring to a virgin is more originally translated as "young woman". Only later as "almah" was translated into the Greek "parthenos" and even later was seen by Christians in light of Mary and Jesus' nativity did "young woman" firmly become "a virgin".) The history of Israel was fraught with all-too-human failures which betrayed the covenant and profaned Israel's high calling. While Joseph was open to God doing something new in history it is more than a little likely that he was torn between which of these possibilities was actually occurring here, just as he was torn between believing Mary and continuing the marriage and divorcing her and casting her and the child aside.

What Were Joseph's Options?

Under the Law Joseph had two options. The first involved a very public divorce. Joseph would bring the situation to the attention of the authorities, involve witnesses, repudiate the marriage and patrimony for the child and cast Mary aside. This would establish Joseph as a wronged man and allow him to continue to be seen as righteous or just. But Mary could have been stoned and the baby would also have died as a result. The second option was more private but also meant bringing his case to the authorities. In this solution Joseph would again have repudiated the marriage and patrimony but the whole matter would not have become public and Mary's life or that of the child would not have been put in immediate jeopardy. Still, in either instance Mary's shame and apparent transgressions would have become known and in either case the result would have been ostracization and eventual death. Under the law Joseph would have been called a righteous man but how would he have felt about himself in his heart of hearts? Would he have wondered if he was just under the Law but at the same time had refused to hear the message of an angel of God, refused to allow God to do something new and even greater than the Law?

Of course, Joseph might have simply done nothing at all and continued with the plans for the marriage's future. But in such a case many problems would have arisen. According to the Law he would have been falsely claiming paternity of the child --- a transgression of the Law and thus, the covenant. Had the real father shown up in the future and claimed paternity Joseph would then have been guilty of "conniving with Mary's own sin" (as Harold Buetow describes the matter). Again Law and covenant would have been transgressed and profaned. In his heart of hearts he might have believed this was the just thing to do but in terms of his People and their Covenant and Law he would have acted unjustly and offended the all-just God. Had he brought Mary to his family home he would have rendered them and their abode unclean as well. If Mary was guilty of adultery she would have been unclean --- hence the need for ostracizing her or even killing her!

Entering the Liminal Place Where God May Speak to Us:

All of this and so much more was roiling around in Joseph's heart and mind! In one of the most difficult situations we might imagine, Joseph struggled to discern what was just and what it would mean for him to do justice in our world! Every option was torturous; each was inadequate for a genuinely righteous man. Eventually he came to a conclusion which may have seemed the least problematical even if it was not wholly satisfactory, namely to put Mary away "quietly", to divorce her in a more private way and walk away from her. And at this moment, when Joseph's struggle to discern and do justice has reached it's most neuralgic point, at a place of terrible liminality symbolized in so much Scriptural literature by dreaming, God reveals to Joseph the same truth Mary has herself accepted: God is doing something unimaginably new here. He is giving the greatest gift yet. The Holy Spirit has overshadowed Mary and resulted in the conception of One who will be the very embodiment of God's justice in our world. Not only has a young woman come to be pregnant but a virgin will bear a child! The Law will be fulfilled in Him and true justice will have a human face as God comes to be Emmanuel in this new and definitive way.

Joseph's faith response to God's revelation has several parts or dimensions. He decides to consummate the marriage with Mary by bringing her to his family home but not as an act of doing nothing at all and certainly not as some kind of sentimental or cowardly evasion of real justice. Instead it is a way of embracing the whole truth and truly doing justice. He affirms the marriage and adopts the child as his own. He establishes him in the line of David even as he proclaims the child's true paternity. He does this by announcing this new Son's name to be Jesus, God saves.  Thus Joseph proclaims to the world that God has acted in this Son's birth in a new and way which transcends and relativizes the Law even as it completely respects it. He honors the Covenant with a faithfulness that leads to that covenant's perfection in the Christ Event. In all of this Joseph continues to show himself to be a just or righteous  man, a man whose humanity and honor we ourselves should regard profoundly.

Justice is the way to Genuine Future:

Besides being moved by Joseph's genuine righteousness, I am struck by a couple of things in light of all of this. First, discerning and doing justice is not easy. There are all kinds of solutions which are partial and somewhat satisfactory, but real justice takes work and, in the end, must be inspired by the love and wisdom of God. Secondly, Law per se can never really mediate justice. Instead, the doing of justice takes a human being who honors the Law, feels compassion, knows mercy, struggles in fear and trepidation with discerning what is right, and ultimately is open to allowing God to do something new and creative in the situation. Justice is never a system of laws, though it will include these. It is always a personal act of courage and even of worship, the act of one who struggles to mediate God's own plan and will for all those and that involved. Finally, I am struck by the fact that justice opens reality to a true future. Injustice closes off the future. In all of the partial and unsatisfactory solutions Joseph entertained and wrestled with, each brought some justice and some injustice. Future of some sort was assured for some and foreclosed to others; often both came together in what was merely a sad and tragic approximation of a "real future". Only God's own will and plan assures a genuine future for the whole of his creation. That too is something yesterday's Gospel witnessed to.

Another Look at Joseph:

Joseph is the star in Matt's account, the one who points to God and the justice only God can do. It is important, I think, to see all that he represents as Mary's counterpart in the nativity of Jesus (Son of David) who is Emmanuel (Son of the One who, especially in Jesus, is God With Us). Mary's fiat seems easy, graceful in more than one sense of that term. Joseph's fiat is hard-won but also graced or graceful. For Joseph, as for Mary, there is real labor involved as the categories of divinity and justice, law and covenant are burst asunder to bring the life and future of heaven to birth in our world. May we each be committed to mediating God's own justice and bringing God's future into being especially in this Advent-Christmas season. This is the time when we especially look ahead to Christ's coming and too, to his eventual coming to full stature when God will be all in all. May we never take refuge in partial and inadequate solutions to our world's problems and need for justice, especially out of shortsightedness, sentimentality, cowardice, evasion, or fear for our own reputations. And may we allow Joseph to be the model of discernment, humility, and courage in mediating the powerful presence and future of God we recognize as justice and so yearn for in this 21st Century.

18 December 2015

Apologies and Promises: Catching up With Correspondence

Well, as unusual an use of a blog as this is, I wanted to thank a couple of people who sent letters to me at my parish recently. I had not received them because I had not been to my mailbox there in a several weeks. I've decided to use a blog post for a couple reasons: 1) the first correspondent (Teresa) does not have access to a personal computer though I know she reads this blog somehow, and 2) I am probably not going to be able to contact either person before Christmas -- especially since I'll be using snail mail --- so I want to reassure them both I received their letters or package and nothing has gone missing.

There is a third reason for this blog entry though. The second correspondent  (Susan) sent a book (cf illustration) and I am grateful for that unexpected gift. I had not seen this book before and it looks fascinating. Other readers of this blog might also be interested in it. It is entitled, The Spiritual Experience of Itala Mela, a Life Incandescently Immersed in the Trinity. It is about Itala Mela, a contemporary (early 20 C) woman hermit and recluse. Also a Benedictine Oblate and now called "Servant of God" by the Church, her "ordinary life" is presented as that of "an ordinary person made extraordinary by God." That is certainly a theme that has come up here a few times and in referenced comments made by Karen Fredette in the Saturday Evening Post article! It is a very Benedictine perspective and one that came up here in its own way in the post I put up re Gaudete Sunday and the vocation to be sick within the Church.

To both Teresa and Susan, once again my apologies for the delay in replying and my very best wishes for a wonderful and fruitful Advent and Christmas Seasons. We each and all of us wait and are open to God doing something new in our lives, however unimaginable (and sometimes, however challenging) that is! Be assured of my prayers. I will be in touch. To all other readers as well, my very best wishes for this last week in Advent. May your own preparations for Christmas be marked with joy and real hope. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!

P.S., Susan just emailed to thank me for the post but more importantly, to let me know that Itala Mela was just declared "Blessed" by Pope Francis this week (December 15th). Particulars are available on the Vatican website.

14 December 2015

Third Sunday of Advent Mass: The Joy of Being Called to be Sick Within the Church

Yesterday's Mass was a special one for me in a number of ways and this is so each year at my parish. It being Gaudete Sunday, the focus is on joy, of course and this means calls to rejoice and reminders of a God who has come to dwell with us and will come again in ever greater fullness. But each year with the rest of the Church we also celebrate the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick in this communal setting; anyone in the parish who struggles with illness, is preparing for or recovering from surgery, and so forth, is welcome to come forward for the Sacrament. The presider lays hands on each person's head, anoints his or her forehead and hands with sacred oil and prays a prayer for healing and the forgiveness of sins. It is a powerful and immensely beautiful sacrament and I personally receive it at least once a year.

There is an irony in all of this for me. A paradox. On the Sunday we call Joyful I (and probably many others) regularly receive the Sacrament of the Sick because of chronic illness. For me, the difficult reality of illness is now something also marked by real joy. This shift, this move to paradox, began a number of years ago now --- around the time I was doing Masters work. About then I read Prophetic Anointing by Father James (Jake) Empereur on the Sacrament of anointing. At the time I had been struggling with this illness for a few years and it was proving medically intractable (it would soon prove to be surgically intractable as well). In that book Jake Empereur spoke of Anointing of the Sick as a "vocational sacrament" or "vocational anointing" similar to the anointings associated with baptism, confirmation, and ordination. It was an image that lit a fire in my imagination and took my own reflection on chronic illness in a direction I had never considered. In time, and buttressed first, by the Apostle Paul's theology of divine power perfected in weakness, and second, by Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action, it took my life in a direction I had never conceived.

Paul's theology led me to see my own weakness as potentially sacra-mental, potentially mediatory. Jake Empereur's work led me to consider it was possible to conceive of chronic illness as a specific and vivid way one might witness to the good news of God's redemption. Though I never believed and still do not believe God wills (much less sends!) suffering or chronic illness, I came to believe that one might have a "vocation to chronic illness", or rather, a vocation to be well in Christ in spite of illness and to proclaim the Gospel especially through the lens of one's illness. In this way illness becomes transparent to the reality of redemption. Especially I drew on Empereur's idea that the Sacrament of the Sick marks us as being called to be ill within the Church! It is a vastly different thing to be sick outside the Church and apart from the Gospel than it is to be sick within the Church as a witness to God's redemption!

Merton's work allowed me to take both of these related insights in the direction of the radical expression we know as eremitism, and eventually in the direction of consecrated eremitical life. The article I wrote for Review For Religious back then was about Chronic Illness and Disability as a [potential] Vocation to Eremitical Life. I add [potential] because didn't think many would be called to this (the eremitical call is rare in absolute terms) but relatively speaking, I did think that the chronically ill and disabled were one demographic group that might have a higher percentage of such vocations than average. Experience (and a number of diocesan hermits with chronic illness) have proven that to be the case.

Shifting Personal Perceptions of the Sacrament of Anointing

The Church is still appropriating the shift in the way this Sacrament is seen. It has moved from seeing it as extreme unction given only to the dying to seeing it as a Sacrament which strengthens and makes whole in illness so that one may live more fully. My own perceptions and use of this Sacrament have also shifted. Once upon a time I received the Sacrament of the Sick just to help get me through the next weeks or months of my life, or prepare for yet one more surgery, or to help me deal with injuries or depression. Today I receive it not only because I still, and apparently always will struggle with chronic illness, but because in my life this Sacrament is very much what Prof. James Empereur noted it might well be, namely, a sacrament of vocation. Certainly the Sacrament strengthens and heals, but in my own life it marks or symbolizes a call as well, the call to be sick within the Church and therefore, to come to know and rejoice in an essential and transcendent wellness that exists in spite of physical disease and (sometimes) psychological stress and dis-ease. The symbol of anointing has overtones of royalty and priesthood, and of course, the strengthening of those who will do battle or be injured. While I always pray for whatever physical healing might come through this Sacrament, I am more focused on the witness to wholeness and abundant life it calls me to as part of a royal and priestly People. Listen to the hymn (psalm) which focuses and explicates the promise we celebrate this day:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
    and rejoice with joy and singing.

The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
    the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
    the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    “Be strong, fear not!
Behold, your God
    will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
    He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a hart,
    and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert
This describes what God has already done in my life, and what he does every day I open that life to Him. My "real" Christmas gift is renewed every year in this way and so is my own vocation, not only as a consecrated hermit but as one whose illness is meant for the proclamation of the Gospel and thus, the healing and encouragement of others. As my profession motto says, "My (God's) grace is sufficient for you; my power is perfected in weakness." 2Cor 12:9 That is what the Sacrament of the Sick summons me to and underscores in my life.
 
As I have also noted before, we (the Church) do a fair (but not a great) job of ministering to those with serious and chronic illness but we rarely give much attention at all to what might be called a ministry OF the chronically ill and disabled! (Consider the times you have met someone in your parish who is struggling with illness and the grace associated with their struggle has allowed things to "fall into" perspective for you! Consider the times you have been encouraged, raised to gratitude for all you have been gifted with, and moved to generosity and acts of patience, perseverance, and real sacrifice because of the joy and presence of someone suffering well within your faith community! Consider how much more these folks could give if only provided some format or other within the parish community.) The Church has made a move in the direction not only of ministering to the sick but of suggesting the importance of a ministry of the sick by including the Sacrament of the Sick during Mass on Gaudete Sunday. After all, the Sacrament of Anointing is a vocational sacrament! 

For me, the Sacrament of the Sick is, in its own way, as much a part of my vocation as my profession or consecration. It marks the special character or flavor of my desert experience and call to the witness of eremitical life; had it been possible I would have wished the Sacrament could have been incorporated into some part of my consecration liturgy --- though there are many good reasons it could not have. In any case, in a special way it is the Sacrament that marks me as gift of God when discrete gifts I possess might no longer be usable or must be relinquished. It calls me to remember that illness, as real and significant as it might be in my life is never the thing I am called to witness to. Instead it commissions me to allow illness to become transparent to the grace of God that makes whole and holy while allowing weakness to be transfigured as God's power is thus more perfectly manifested in our world. The call to be sick within the Church is no small matter --- and no easy one either. Even so, despite the struggle involved it can also be a joy because what once seemed utterly meaningless has been made to be profoundly meaningful.

We often think that the Sacrament of the Sick "doesn't work unless it heals us".  But consider that the call it is associated with is described precisely in the psalm: [[then shall the lame man leap like a hart,/ and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy./ For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,/ and streams in the desert.]] It is not as necessary that our illness itself is healed in this Sacrament (or that it need be healed in order to fulfill a profound vocation to proclaim the Gospel) as it is that we ourselves are healed as persons and our this- worldly illness is transfigured with eschatological life and significance. On one level we may still be lame or dumb, and our lives seem fruitless and barren, but on another level we are called to be people who, through the grace of God, leap like a deer or sing for joy as we ourselves are made to be the fruit of grace and the wellspring of love. This is the call celebrated and mediated in the Sacrament of Anointing; how appropriate we celebrate such a powerful and paradoxical summons to be "sick within the church" on Gaudete Sunday!

Feast of St John of the Cross

I am no scholar of St john of the Cross, though I certainly love his writing and feel deep affinities with his spirituality. In any case during this third and more joyful week of Advent I remember that John writes of divine light which is so bright we are blinded by it (it is as darkness to us) and silence aflame with love. These are images I love. I also recall an article on John from America Magazine which corrects some common misconceptions. Part of it is reproduced here.


America: January 30, 2006 Issue
Lawrence S. Cunningham

[[There are so many mistaken notions about St. John of the Cross (1542-91) that we might do well to clarify some of them at the outset. He is, of course, most identified with the phrase dark night of the soul, but in fact he never uses the term. John does speak of the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the spirit in his treatise titled simply The Dark Night. But he is centrally concerned not to identify those purifying processes with what we would call clinical depression (or what he would have called melancholy, which he does discuss and carefully distinguishes from the dark night) or world-weariness or monastic acedia (spiritual torpor). Nor is it true that John was a reclusive hermit with little experience of the world. His biographers have estimated that after his ordination, he traveled nearly 18,000 miles all over Spain, mainly on foot.

We also know that John was a man of practical abilities. We have his famous painting of the crucifixion, which most know through the painting by Salvador Dali, which was inspired by John’s. Spain still has a functioning aqueduct that he designed and helped to build for a Carmelite monastery. Finally, he is not, despite the best efforts of some, to be classified with those mystics who are closer to Buddhism than to Christianity; in fact, his spiritual doctrine is both profoundly Christological and Trinitarian. It is merely a cliché to call him simply a mystic of the night, an apophatic mystic, since his final work ends in light, as is clear from its title, The Living Flame of Love.

In passing, it is also worthwhile to note that John would be unfamiliar with the term mystic or mysticism (words first used long after his death), but he does speak of mystical theology, a term that has behind it a millenium of history in the Christian tradition. When John spoke of mystical theology, as he did more than a few times in his writings, he had in mind the traditional term deriving from the writings of the sixth-century Syrian monk known to us as the Pseudo-Dionysius. It was a phrase well known to every medieval doctor. Mystical theology meant that hidden state of experiencing God without images or concepts. Mysticism, by contrast, was a term coined after John’s death to describe deep spiritual experience detached from formal practices of religion, as the late Michel de Certeau has shown in his classic work The Mystic Fable.]]

Also, let me add my best wishes to Sister Nerina Er Dio, and all Carmelites who celebrate the feast of one of their greatest Saints today.

12 December 2015

Reflecting On St Bernard and the Fourth Stage of Love

[[Dear Sister, so often we love God for what he can give us. Is loving God for his own sake the highest form of love? St Bernard says this, right?]]

Hi there,
         Thanks for the question. You are absolutely correct that according to St Bernard of Clairveaux and many others as well, love of God for God's own sake is a higher form of love than love of God for the sake of our own needs --- that is, for the sake of the gifts and blessings God gives us. However, according to St Bernard loving God for God's own sake is actually the third of four levels or stages of love, not the fourth. This will certainly seem to run counter to common sense but the highest form or "fourth level" of love according to Bernard is love of self for God's own sake! It is quite difficult though to love ourselves simply because we are loved by God, simply because we are empowered by God in this way. It is difficult and paradoxical because it is a form of self love in which we are wholly empowered by God and forgetful of self! Paul expressed the paradox in this way, "I, yet not I, but Christ in me."

The prerequisite for this is the third level of love, that's for sure. We will only be able to forget (and truly love!) ourselves in the way that is necessary if we can love God simply because it is what God is worthy of and moreover, if it is that which Love-in-act itself empowers. We have to become practiced and strong in this intimate form of love of God if we are ever able to love ourselves and others in the way God loves us! In other words we must love God in this way (the third level) before we can love ourselves and others in God (the fourth level of love)!  The importance of this fourth stage and the way it follows the third cannot be overstated. Maybe it would be helpful to recall the first two stages of love, the two more immature forms before saying more about this.

First and Second Stages of Love:

The first form is one we all recognize. It is love of self for one's own sake. Sometimes called selfish love it is all about what one needs and desires. This is the earliest form of love we know, the love of infants and children who love others for the gifts they give, the blessings they bring. This form of love is often not really a form of self-love at all; the better word is narcissism. It can and ordinarily does grow into more authentic and mature love for the sake of the other just as children ordinarily come to love their parents despite not being able or desiring to get anything from them in return. The second form of love is love of God for the gifts and blessings which come from God. This is a higher form of love than the first because it includes a real love of God despite this being offered for the sake of the kindness, correction, empowerment, etc which God gives to us. We are loving God here but at the same time we are looking for God to help us in our sinfulness and immaturity, our lack of self-discipline and frailties of all sorts. There is a little forgetfulness of self involved here (we are no longer as narcissistic as we were as infants) though of course we can and ordinarily do grow in this form of love just as we do in the first one.

Third and Fourth Stages:

The third level of love is, as mentioned above, love of God for God's own self or God's own sake. This is an intimate form of love where we recognize God's infinite worthiness of our love. Those who sit in quiet prayer despite no expectations of mystical "experiences", no sense of God's presence beyond a faith commitment to this Divine truth, these persons know this level of love. Those who attend Mass regularly not merely for what they get out of the liturgy, nor because the Church requires this of them, and not merely as an opportunity to put their petitions before God, but simply because this is an act of worship of the One who is worthy of such time, attention, and love, they also know this level of love. I think these examples could be multiplied many times over. However, this level of love is not the same as union with God --- though there is certainly communion with God which empowers this particular level of self-forgetfulness and generosity (for genuine worship always involves self-forgetfulness and generosity). This form of love, like those earlier stages also mentioned is also capable of growth and increasing degrees of maturity or perfection. Over time one's heart is purified and eventually one reaches union with God where one loves self and all else only in the power of God who is Love-in-act. When this occurs, one has entered or reached the fourth level of love. One has truly "put on the mind of Christ."

The fourth level is described by Bernard as loving oneself for God's own sake. It means loving oneself as God loves one and in the way God does but doing so as an act of worship of God alone. In short, it means letting God alone act in and through you -- which is really the highest form of worship. Here one truly loves oneself but does so with a kind or degree of self-forgetfulness one had not known earlier. One certainly does not despise oneself. Instead one embraces a humility which is absolutely honest and loving precisely because one sees and knows oneself as God does.

Even the subtlest forms of self-hatred are healed in this form of love. One takes care of oneself and one's legitimate needs but one does so precisely so that one may further spend oneself as God wills and empowers.  This means one may certainly give one's life for others in the way Jesus did in his passion and death, but it also means spending oneself for others in ALL the ways God wills in a daily (continued) dying to self --- as Jesus and his true followers do every day of their lives. Take a look at how radically different the first stage of love is from this one! Both are ways of loving self, but the first stage is self-centered and protective; it is lived at the expense of others. The fourth stage is other-centered and kenotic; it is love of self lived for the sake of others whatever the God-willed cost to oneself --- just as Jesus' life was lived.

Fourth Stage Love as Corrective to Spiritual Individualism and False Mysticism:

I don't recall if St Bernard spoke of this specifically (though from the Cistercians I know, and the relatively little I know of the Cistercian Reform, it would not surprise me that it was a motivating insight of Bernard's own life and efforts at monastic reform) but seeing this as the necessary stage of love coming after love of God for God's own sake is an important corrective to forms of monastic practice and prayer which focus on despising the world outside the monastery or a mysticism which focuses on a "Me-and-God alone" relationship which is individualistic and exclusionary or exclusivist. Union with God means we love both ourselves, others, and the whole of creation with God's own love. Union with God empowers this kind of love and the selfless giving of self our world both needs and is made for. It allows God to love in and through us as exhaustively as God desires to do. It is not so much a spillover of our love of God, but a stage of love which love of God for God's own sake makes possible. It is precisely the way Christ loved, the love God calls us each to, and thus, the very apex of what having a covenant nature (as all human beings do) is all about.

Had the stages of love stopped at "loving God for God's own sake" we might never have been able to understand why Christ ever "came down from the mountain" or left any of those solitary prayer periods with God that so characterized his identity in order to spend himself for the sake of others; neither might we understand what moves the Triune God (a community of such love) to continually create and redeem as God constantly does. But being moved so is the very nature of union with God, the very character of God's Mediator and the Trinity itself. Union with God leads naturally to a divine love which goes out of itself to and for the other.

Had St Bernard not written so wonderfully and in a way which runs counter to common sense that  loving God for God's own sake was "only" the third stage of love, we might be tempted to adopt forms of spirituality which are really thinly veiled forms of selfishness or not-so thinly veiled forms of self-hatred. We also might be tempted to denigrate representatives of active as opposed to contemplative forms of life (or eremitical vs coenobitical) for choosing a "lower" form of love. This has certainly been done in the past by even the very best theologians and I recognize it as a significant temptation today.

I should also note that the significance of the fourth stage of love fits very well into the new cosmic consciousness I have mentioned recently because it does not allow spirituality to ever be an individualistic or privatistic matter. (Need I say yet again that this is especially true for hermits?!) We must be ultimately concerned with God's own will, God's own projects and plans for reality; moreover, we must do so ONLY as God's own Life/Love in us make possible. Union with God empowers something our world needs from each and all of us so very badly, something we were each made for and are called to by God as we participate in moving the drama of an evolutionary and unfinished universe forward, namely "love of self (and others and all reality) for God's own sake"!

P.S., What should probably be emphasized, I think, is that these four stages are somewhat like Kohlberg's ego stages. It is not so much that one stage of love is completely left behind as another is entered so much as it is the case that the earlier stage is integrated into the higher stage of love and transformed or transfigured in the process. For instance, as I understand it, we do not cease to care for our everyday needs or seek assistance as required but securing our own needs (and desires!!) are not the driving force of our lives. Moreover, integration means one meets one's own needs in appropriate ways while one's desires are tempered and moderated by higher stages of love.

Similarly, when we have reached higher stages of love we do not cease to ask God to help us with our needs or to count on God's blessings and gifts, but this is no longer the defining form of love motivating our prayer or our approach to reality. And of course, as noted above, we do not consider love of self something "base" to be despised and outgrown or simply rejected. Instead, our love of self is healed and transfigured by God's own love; it becomes something we do for God's own sake and that makes all the difference! Thus, as we become more and more certain of, filled with, and moved by God's own Self (Love-in-Act) we become more and more secure, less needy,  anxious, or fearful of loss and death, and more willing and even grateful for chances to generously spend ourselves for others. The paradox here includes the fact that in the third and fourth stages of love our own profoundest needs are also met but without the self-seeking found in the first two stages. ("Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.")

11 December 2015

Chosen to Clap and Cheer: Embracing the Future With Advent Gratitude

Last week in Advent: Shaping our Lives in Light of the Future I wrote that Advent is about embracing and preparing to embrace the future, and especially the future revelation of God rather than hanging onto the past as an adequate model of what will one day be. I reminded readers that our cosmos is an unfinished reality and that we are on the way to the day when Christ will "come to full stature" and God will be all in all. I also noted that theologians and exegetes today read the Genesis creation and fall narratives very differently than they once did --- not as pointing to a completed and perfected universe which then, through human disobedience or sin, fell from perfection, but instead to a perfected universe still coming to be.

Such a new reading does not leave human sinfulness out of the picture nor does it even change our definition of it much. It is still very much about an ungratefulness we link with disobedience and "falling short" of the reality God calls us to be and embrace in our loving, our stewardship of life in all of its forms and stages, and our worship of the One Creator God. Sin is still about substituting our own versions of God for the real One based on partial and fragmentary revelations and being "satisfied" with a religion whose focus is too much on the now-dead past while we resist (fail to entrust everything in faith to) the ever-surprising God who wills to make everything definitively new. Sin is about enmeshment in this passing world and its fragmentary vision; it shows itself in resistance to the coming Kingdom (the sovereignty and realm) of God which is already in our midst in a proleptic way and seeks to pervade and transfigure all we are and know. Sin is about a resistance or lack of openness to the qualitatively new and surprising (kainotes), the reality we know as eternal or absolute future; when we embrace or otherwise become enmeshed in that lack of openness we are left only with the world of transience and death. After all, sin and death, in all of their forms and degrees are precisely about a lack of future.

Today's readings from Isaiah and Matthew fit very well in underscoring these dynamics, both those of Advent and the futurity it inaugurates and celebrates, as well as of sin and its resistance to newness and future. Isaiah's language is classic for us. He reminds us that so long as we are disobedient to the Commandments of God we have no future; we will not prosper. I think today we need to hear the term "Commandments" as referring to those imperatives of gratefully loving, stewarding life, and worshiping God which are the keys to any futurity. Obedience is a matter of hearkening to these, that is, being open and attentive to them in all of the ways and places they come to us as we embrace whatever they call us to. Obedience is the responsive behavior of those who are grateful.

The Gospel lection tells a wonderful story of prophetic and messianic gifts of God (symbolized most fully by John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth) given freely to God's People --- only to be met with narrow minded criticism and hardhearted ingratitude. God is trying to do something new, trying to bring creation to fulfillment in a "New Creation" of freedom, holiness, and eternal life and human beings representing God's chosen people are resistant. Now John the Baptist himself had come to wonder if Jesus was really the Messiah John had prepared people for; things were looking bad for both John and Jesus and Jesus did seem to be pretty different than the One John had been proclaiming.

Jesus responded to John's questions by pointing to the things God was doing through him to give the blind and crippled a new and full future --- just as Isaiah had promised. Then Jesus uses the image of children engaged in petty bickering as they play games mimicking weddings and funerals. It is important to note that these are ordinarily the most joyful and poignant celebrations of life, love and the hope of a future grounded in God we know. Similarly funerals are those moments marking the terrible sadness and grief of sin and death in separation from God --- though they too may be transformed into celebrations of an eternal hope and future. Jesus reminds the adults listening to him that --- in something that was deadly serious --- God played them a dirge (called them to serious repentance and conversion) culminating in the prophet John and a wedding hymn in Jesus his Anointed One, but they resisted and rejected both. Instead, they criticized John as a crazy person, and called Jesus a drunkard and glutton. Theological arrogance, religious complacency (lukewarmness) or superiority, outright cynicism or hardheartedness --- whatever the roots of this ingratitude it gave no room at all to a faith (trust) that allowed God to do something new in and with our world.

Because Christmas and the exhaustive incarnation of God is, in some ways, not yet complete; because we look forward to the day when Christ will finally come to full stature (Paul to the Ephesians), both Isaiah and Matthew are urging us to adopt an attitude of gratitude and joyful openness to the God of Newness and the future we know as life in God. It is an attitude that contrasts radically with that of the children playing their games in today's gospel or of those rejecting Jesus and John and the Kingdom they inaugurate. Harold Buetow tells the following story which captures the childlike humility, excitement, gratitude, and openness we are to have in relation to the awesome Christmas drama of New Creation God is authoring right now in our lives and world.

[[Little Jimmie was trying out for a part in the school [Christmas] play. He'd set his heart on being in it though his mother feared he wouldn't be chosen. On the day when the parts were awarded, with some trepidation his mother went to collect him after school. Jimmie rushed up to her, eyes shining with pride and excitement: "Guess what, Mom," he shouted, and said, "I've been chosen to clap and cheer!"]]

I am especially struck by how really involved and aware, how truly attentive to and appreciative of the work occurring right in front of one one must be to "clap and cheer" (or to be raptly silent!) in ways which support and move the drama of God's will forward. Isn't this the attitude of praise and gratitude evident in God's followers all throughout the centuries? Isn't this the attitude merited by an unfinished universe moving mysteriously but inexorably toward the day when its Creator God will be all in all?  And isn't this the attitude of obedient anticipation Advent asks each of us to cultivate?

Story of Jimmie's call is from Harold Buetow's, Walk in the Light of the Lord, A Thought a Day for Advent and Christmastide, Alba House, 2004. (Friday, 2nd Week of Advent, p 40.)

10 December 2015

John the Baptist and Jesus: Two Approaches to Forgiveness (reprise)

Gospel Reading for Friday, 2nd Week of Advent: Matthew 11:16-19



Recently I watched story of a woman (Eva Moses Kor) who survived the holocaust. She was one of a pair of twins experimented on by Dr Mengele. Both she and her sister (Miriam) survived the camp but her sister's health was ruined and years later she later died from long term complications. Mrs Kor forgave Mengele and did so as part of her own healing. She encouraged others to act similarly so they would no longer be victims in the same way they were without forgiveness and she became to some extent despised by a number of other survivors. What struck me was the fact that Eva had come implicitly to Jesus' own notion of forgiveness and justice (where her own healing is paramount and brings about changes in others and the fabric of reality more than other notions of justice) while others clung to the Jewish teaching which states that amendment and restitution (signs of true repentance but more than this as well) must be made before forgiveness is granted. What also struck me was that she was indeed freer and less a victim in subjective terms than those who refused to forgive saying they had no right, for instance. Further, her forgiveness and freedom freed others (including another doctor at the camp (Dr Hans Munch) who had, until he met Eva and heard of her own stance towards Mengele, been unable to forgive himself) --- though it also pointed up the terrible bondage of either refusal or inability to forgive which other survivors experienced, especially as this became complicated by their newfound anger with Eva.

Tomorrow's Gospel reminds me of this video (and vice versa) because of the close linkage of John Bp and Jesus, and so of two very different (though still-related) approaches to repentance and forgiveness. On the one hand, a strictly ascetic John the Baptist preaches what John Meier describes as a "fierce call to repentance, stiffened with dire warnings of fiery judgment soon to come." (A Marginal Jew, vol 2, pp 148-49) In general John's preaching is dismissed and John himself is treated contemptuously as being mad or possessed by a demon. In the language of the parable John piped a funeral dirge and people refused to mourn.

On the other hand we have Jesus of Nazareth preaching the arrival of the Kingdom of God and offering "an easy, joyous way into [that] Kingdom" by welcoming the religious outcasts and sinners to a place in table fellowship with himself. Meier characterizes the response to THIS call to repentance in terms of the parable, [[With a sudden burst of puritanism, this generation felt that no hallowed prophet sent from God would adopt such a free-wheeling, pleasure-seeking lifestyle, hobnobbing with religious lowlifes and offering assurances of God's forgiveness without demanding the proper process for reintegration into Jewish religious society. How could this Jesus be a true prophet and reformer when he was a glutton and a drunkard, a close companion at meals with people who robbed their fellow Jews . . .or who sinned willfully and heinously, yet refused to repent. . .?]] In other words, in terms of tomorrow's parable Jesus piped a joyful tune, a wedding tune, and people refused to join in the celebration and dismissed Jesus himself as a terrible sinner, worthy of death.

There is wisdom in both approaches to repentance and forgiveness. Both are part of the Judeo-Christian heritage. Both approaches are rejected by "this generation" --- as Jesus calls those who refuse to believe in him. Both lead to greater freedom. But it is Jesus' model which leads to the kind of freedom Eva Moses Kor discovered and which is supposed to mark our own approach to repentance and forgiveness. After all repentance is truly a celebration of God's love and mercy, and these we well know are inexhaustible. Still, entering the celebration is not necessarily easy for us, and we may wonder as some of the other survivors wondered about Eva's forgiveness of Mengele: do we have the right to forgive? Is it wise to act in this way towards someone who has not repented and asked for our forgiveness? Isn't this a form of "cheap grace" so ably castigated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer --- also a victim of the Nazi death machine? (cf The Cost of Discipleship) Where does forgiveness become enabling and does it demean others who have also been harmed? What about tough love: isn't John Bp's approach the better one? Am I really supposed to simply welcome serious sinners into my home? Into our sacred meal? To membership in the Church? To my circle of friends?

And the simple answer to most of these questions is yes, this is what we are called to do. The Kingdom of God is at hand and Jesus' example is the one we follow. It is this example which leads to the freedom of the Kingdom, this example that made Christians of us and will in time transform our world. In particular, it is this example which sets the tone for Advent joy and festivity and allows the future to take hold of our lives and hearts. It is not merely that we have the right to forgive in this way, but that we have been commissioned to do so. It is an expression of our own vocations to embody or incarnate the unconditional mercy of God in Christ.

Most of us will find ourselves caught between the prophetic example of John the Baptist and the Messianic example of Jesus' meal fellowship with sinners. We have great empathy both for the approach of Eva Moses Kor AND those survivors who could not forgive Mengele --- often because they felt that doing so was contrary to justice as spelled out in the Scriptures and elaborated in rabbinical tradition, as well as because it demeaned his victims. We know that "tough love" has a place in our world and that "cheap grace" is more problem than solution. Tomorrow's Gospel underscores our own position between worlds and kingdoms, and it may cause us to recognize that there was a deep suspicion of Jesus' table fellowship which was grounded in more than envy or fear. We may see clearly that the Jewish leadership of Jesus' day had serious and justified concerns about the wisdom of Jesus' actions and praxis. Even so, it is also clear regarding which model of repentance and forgiveness we are to choose, which model represents the freedom of the Kingdom of God, and which model allows us to be Christ for others. As Matthew's version of this parable also affirms, the wisdom of this approach will be found in its fruit --- if only we can be patient and trust in the wisdom of Jesus, the glutton, drunkard, and libertine who consorted with serious sinners.