31 January 2016

On the Redemptive Experience at the heart of Eremitical Life (Followup to last two posts)

[[ Thanks for answering my follow up question. What happens if a person has already had the kind of life-changing redemptive experience of God's love before they decide to become a hermit? Does your criterion for discernment still work? I am thinking of the way canon 603 came to be with the dozen or so monks you have written about who had to leave solemn vows in order to pursue eremitical life. It seems they must already have had a life-changing redemptive experience which happened prior to eremitical solitude don't you think?]]

Really great questions! In the case you mention, monks who come late to a sense of an eremitical call, it seems clear that while they had already had the central redemptive experiences which allowed them to be solemnly professed and consecrated as monks after years of formation, and then allowed them to live this life faithfully with patience and growing in union with God, they must also have experienced something truly life changing in a very striking and compelling way if it led them to seek secularization and dispensation from their solemn vows. While the growth in wholeness and holiness which led to this compelling experience was not one of eremitical solitude it was very definitely one of the silence of solitude which is characteristic of monastic life.

There is some difference in these two forms of the silence of solitude but in my experience they are more alike than different and call for and complete one another. That is why monastics take regular "desert days" in order to have time and space for eremitical silence and solitude and hermits like myself take retreat time at places like Redwoods Abbey where the experience of shared silence and solitude is so very real. Monks and Nuns need desert days as an intensification of the silence, solitude, and freedom of the eremitical life which complement life in community. Hermits need the experience of shared solitude, values, communal prayer, and general monastic sensibility which complements and even completes the solitary eremitical life in the Church. The point, however, is that these two forms of the silence of solitude, while not identical, are profoundly related; they naturally complement and call for one another.

In the history of monastic life the solitude of the early desert Fathers and Mothers often led them to create communities; later in monastic communities monks and nuns saw eremitical solitude as the summit of the monastic life which is centered on seeking God. Even so, when monks like those whose lives led to the eventual establishment of canon 603, monks who have given their entire lives to God in monastic community decide to leave everything they have known and loved for decades in order to follow a Divine call to eremitical solitude, we must see that this is part of a vocation to a redemptive transformation. I admit I have only corresponded very briefly with one of these original monk-hermits in British Columbia (he wrote me to discuss an article I had published). Your question makes me want to renew my correspondence and ask him about the character of the call he has lived as a hermit. What I am sure of is that sometimes a change in our vocational call (say from community to eremitical solitude, for instance) represents an intensification and deepening of the redemptive experiences we have already known. While I was not thinking about this in my earlier answers I was not excluding it either.

The bottom line in all of this remains that a hermit, to be authentic and credible, must demonstrate an experience of God's redemptive love experienced in the silence of solitude. If they have had such an experience they will be capable of witnessing to the gift that eremitical solitude is meant to be in the Church. If not, their eremitical life will be relatively empty, formalistic, and perhaps even fraudulent. Every vocation is a call to the redemptive love of God; every vocation is a way of sharing that same redemptive love and witnessing to it to others. Every vocation is a particular gift to the Church whose charismatic quality witnesses to the way the love of God meets concrete human potentials and needs. The way we discern a vocation is by attending to the gift of God's love and the concrete ways that love shapes our lives. If our lives are not shaped in a salvific way within a particular state of life we must, it seems to me, conclude either that God has not called us to this state or that we are somehow rejecting or avoiding God's call within this state.

When the Church must discern the nature of a vocation as rare, as counter cultural, and even as uniquely prophetic as is solitary eremitical life, she must be able to discern that this life shapes the candidate for profession, consecration, and beyond in a distinctly salvific way. While the process of discernment and formation allows for a diocese following a candidate or temporary professed hermit for a number of years in order to be sure this is the case before admitting them to perpetual profession and consecration, the history of eremitical life is also full of those who call themselves hermits as a validation of individualism and self-centeredness. It may well be the Church does not find a convincing redemptive experience at the heart of a candidate's life and will need to refuse to profess or consecrate them.

Followup Question on Being a Hermit in an Essential Sense

[[Sister Laurel, are you saying that although you wrote about being a hermit in some essential sense you didn't really know what that meant? What is the difference between being a hermit in an essential sense and being one in a proper sense? Thanks.]]

Good question. I guess it could sound kind of like that was what I was saying, but no, that is not quite it. What I was trying to say is that I have had a sense of the possibility and necessity of someone being a hermit in some essential sense but not yet actually being either that or a hermit in the proper sense for some time now --- at least 20 years. It was something I had experienced and something others I have spoken to have also experienced, but at the same time it was not an experience that was easy to define specifically. As I have had more experience of those who are counterfeit hermits and also as I have struggled from time to time with temptations to betray my own vocation, I have come to see more clearly what this somewhat indefinable reality is, namely, the experience of God's redemption of our lives in the desert silence of solitude. It is this redemption received in the context c 603 describes, and the increasing fullness of this redemptive experience the hermit comes to live out which is also both the goal and the gift or charism of her life.

If one is living a life marked by significant silence and solitude and in this silence and solitude one comes to know the redemptive power of God in a way which utterly transforms one's life to one of profound compassion, wholeness, meaningfulness, joy, etc; if one is compelled to continue to seek God in this same context and in even more radical expressions of this context --- something we find in forms of desert spirituality --- then I would argue that this person may well be a hermit in an essential sense.  If, on the other hand, silence and solitude are merely a way one recharges one's batteries, so to speak, or the way one gains a respite from the everyday world of active ministry, then I would argue they are not hermits in this or any sense.

When I was asked by my Bishop (then Allen H Vigneron) why I was seeking admission to profession as a canonical hermit rather than consecration as a virgin or some other vocation, my answer was rather cryptic. I started by saying, "Well, it is who I am." I also noted that years earlier when I first read canon 603 I had the sense that this might be a way of making sense of my entire life, strengths and weaknesses., education, contemplative life, vows, etc --- and indeed, that had been what happened --- and much more than I might ever have imagined as well.

Were I to elaborate on that first piece of my answer now I would say, "You see, it is in the silence of solitude and life as a hermit that God has transformed my life from one where chronic illness made my life meaningless, empty, relatively fruitless, etc, into one which makes a profound sense, is full and fruitful, and which can be, and in fact is, a gift of that same God to  both the Church and world." I might also have explained, "It is in the silence of solitude that God redeemed my life from one of irrelevant marginality and made it into one of prophetic liminality --- a significant and paradoxical way of standing at the very center of things. Because of this I am seeking canonical standing in order to live these realities in the heart of the Church as one ministering the Gospel in my weakness and not merely as one ministered to because I am ill."  In all of this I would have been describing the fact that apart from canonical standing God had made me into a hermit in an essential sense and that I further believed that it was God's will that this vocation be celebrated within the Church to which it truly belongs so that my life could be eremitical in the proper and public sense."

In this response the distinction between being a hermit in an essential sense and being one in the proper or even the public sense begins to be clearer I think. To be a hermit in the essential sense means to be a person whose life has been redeemed in the silence of solitude so central to eremitical life. It means to continue living in that context because one needs to do so in order to be as responsive as one can to the God who comes to one most powerfully in this way. It means to do so not merely because one is an introvert or has fulfilling hobbies, or avocations associated with time in solitude, nor because one needs to recharge one's spiritual or emotional batteries in solitude, and emphatically not because one cannot cope in society or has failed at life, but because one has experienced a meaningful and in fact, a salvific union with God precisely in this way of living. (One does not need to be chronically ill in order to experience God's redemption in a clear and convincing way, of course, but one still needs this to happen in the silence of solitude.)

To then adopt this way of living in a conscious and deliberate way, to structure one's life according to canon 603 for instance, whether or not one is ever professed and consecrated accordingly, is to then become a hermit in a "proper" sense. Here one begins to see one's abode as a hermitage, begins to think of oneself as a hermit in a conscious way, and may even begin to feel responsible for being a living part of the eremitical tradition which belongs so integrally to the Church --- whether one is a lay hermit living the life by virtue of one's baptism or is consecrated by God through the mediation of God's Church. A number of persons who have written me over the years seem to be at this point in their eremitical lives --- though they may not yet have experienced the radical redemption that is also necessary if one is to really be a hermit --- especially one called to a public vocation under canon 603.

In any case, this is why I say that one must be a hermit in some essential sense before one contacts their diocese to petition for admission to profession and (then) to consecration as a diocesan or solitary canonical hermit. Not only will there be a good deal less formation or discernment for the diocese to oversee (what they will do is significant nonetheless), but far more importantly, there is nothing the diocese or anyone overseeing the hermit's formation in solitude can do for the person if the "redemptive experience" piece of things is not present. One's eremitical life is meant to be a reflection of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ and unless it really is this, unless this saving Gospel has especially transfigured one's life --- and done so in solitude, one simply cannot live or represent the real gift of eremitical life effectively nor witness to those who are marginalized or isolated regarding the gift their lives are and can become to others in similar situations. This is also why I say the silence of solitude is not only the context of the hermit's life, but the goal and charism as well.

The silence of solitude is a description of the life transfigured by God in silence and solitude where one moves from being a noisy (estranged, restless, driven), and perhaps even an anguished scream of suffering and longing to being a joyful canticle of the grace of God at rest (and thus, thriving!) in external silence and physical solitude. It is the gift or charism the hermit especially is meant to bring to the Church and witness to others in effective ways so that those others may know the possibility and (we hope) the eventual realization of God's saving love --- even, and perhaps especially, when their life circumstances cause them to have nothing to offer otherwise but their emptiness and the apparent absurdity of their lives. In the solitary eremitical life this is precisely what God transfigures into a precious gift of infinite value; it is especially such radical marginalization and devaluation that God redeems to make the most radical witness to the truth of the Gospel of the Crucified One in the silence of solitude --- whether one does so as an "essential hermit" or eventually as a "proper hermit" of some sort!

On Being a Hermit in "Some Essential Sense"

[[Dear Sister when you have spoken of readiness for formation and even temporary profession as a solitary hermit you have said it is necessary for a person to be a hermit in some essential sense. Could you say more about what you mean by this phrase? I think maybe I know what you are talking about but I also find the phrase difficult to define. Thanks!]]


That's such a great and important question! For me personally, articulating the definition of this phrase or the description of what I mean by it has been a bit difficult. It is a positive phrase but in some ways I found my own senses of what I meant by this come to real clarity by paying attention to examples of inauthentic eremitical life, individuals who call themselves hermits, for instance, but who, while nominally Catholic, are isolated and/or subscribe to a spirituality which is essentially unhealthy while embracing a theology which has nothing really to do with the God of Jesus Christ.  To paraphrase Jesus, not everyone who says "Lord, Lord" actually  has come to know the sovereignty of the Lord intimately. In other words it was by looking at what canonical hermits were not and could or should never be that gave me a way of articulating what I meant by "being a hermit in some essential sense." Since God is the one who makes a person a hermit, it should not surprise you to hear I will be describing the "essential hermit" first of all in terms of God's activity.

Related to this then is the fact that the hermit's life is a gift to both Church and world at large. Moreover, it is a gift of a particular kind. Specifically it proclaims the Gospel of God in word and deed but does so in the silence of solitude. When speaking of being a hermit in some essential way it will be important to describe the qualities of mission and charism that are developing (or have developed) in the person's life. These are about more than having a purpose in life and reflect the simple fact that the eremitical vocation belongs to the Church. Additionally they are a reflection of the fact that the hermit precisely as hermit reflects the good news of salvation in Christ which comes to her in eremitical solitude. If it primarily came to her in another way (in community or family life for instance) it would not reflect the redemptive character of Christ in solitude and therefore her life could not witness to or reveal this to others in and through eremitical life. Such witness is the very essence of the eremitical life.

The Experience at the Heart of Authentic Eremitism:

Whenever I have written about becoming a hermit in some essential sense I have contrasted it with being a lone individual, even a lone pious person who prays each day. The point of that contrast was to indicate that each of us are called to be covenantal partners of God, dialogical realities who, to the extent we are truly human, are never really alone. The contrast was first of all meant to point to the fact that eremitical life involved something more, namely, a desert spirituality. It was also meant to indicate that something must occur in solitude which transforms the individual from simply being a lone individual. That transformation involves healing and sanctification. It changes the person from someone who may be individualistic to someone who belongs to and depends radically on God and the church which mediates God in word and sacrament. Such a person lives her life in the heart of the Church in very conscious and deliberate ways. Her solitude is a communal reality in this sense even though she is a solitary hermit. Moreover, the shift I am thinking of that occurs in the silence of solitude transforms the person into a compassionate person whose entire life is in tune with the pain and anguish of a world yearning for God and the fulfillment God brings to all creation; moreover it does so because paradoxically, it is in the silence of solitude that one comes to hear the cry of all in union with God.

If the individual is dealing with chronic illness, for instance, then they are apt to have been margin-alized by their illness. What tends to occur to such a person in the silence of solitude if they are called to this as a life vocation is the shift to a life that marginalizes by choice and simultaneously relates more profoundly or centrally. Because it is in this liminal space that one meets God and comes to union with God, a couple of things happen: 1) one comes to know one has infinite value because one is infinitely loved by God, not in terms of one's productivity, one's academic or other success, one's material wealth, and so forth, 2) one comes to understand that all people are loved and valued in the same way which allows one to see themselves as "the same" as others rather than as different and potentially inferior (or, narcissistically, superior), 3) thus one comes to know oneself as profoundly related to these others in God rather than as disconnected or unrelated and as a result, 4) chronic illness ceases to have the power it once had to isolate and alienate or to define one's entire identity in terms of separation, pain, suffering, and incapacity, and 5) one is freed to be the person God calls one to be in spite of chronic illness. The capacity to truly love others, to be compassionate, and to love oneself in God are central pieces of this.

The Critical Question in Discernment of Eremitical Vocations:

 What is critical for the question at hand is that the person finds themselves in a  transformative relationship with God in solitude and thus, eremitical solitude becomes the context for a truly a redemptive experience and a genuinely holy life. When I speak of someone being a hermit in some essential sense I am pointing to being a person who has experienced the salvific gift the hermit's life is meant to be for hermits and for those they witness to. It may be that they have begun a transformation which reshapes them from the heart of their being, a kind of transfiguration which heals and summons into being an authentic humanity which is convincing in its faith, hope, love, and essential joy. Only God can work in the person in this way and if God does so in eremitical solitude --- which means more than a transitional solitude, but an extended solitude of desert spirituality --- then one may well have thus become a hermit in an essential sense and may be on the way to becoming a hermit in the proper sense of the term as well.

If God saves in solitude (or in abject weakness and emptiness!), if authentic humanity implies being a covenant partner of God capable of mediating that same redemption to others in Christ, then a canonical hermit (or a person being seriously considered for admission to canonical standing and consecration MUST show signs of these as well as of having come to know them to a significant degree in eremitical solitude.  It is the redemptive capacity of solitude (meaning God in solitude) experienced by the hermit or candidate as  "the silence of solitude"  which is the real criterion of a vocation to eremitical solitude. (See other posts on this term but also Eremitism, the Epitome of Selfishness?) It is the redemptive capacity of God in the silence of solitude that the hermit must reflect and witness to if her eremitical life is to be credible.

Those "Hermits" not Called to Eremitical Solitude:

For some who seek to live as hermits but are unsuccessful, eremitical solitude is not redemptive. As I have written before the destructive power of solitude overtakes and overwhelms the entire process of growth and sanctification which the authentic hermit comes to know in the silence of solitude. What is most striking to me as I have considered this question of being a hermit in some essential sense is the way some persons' solitude and the label "hermit" are euphemisms for alienation, estrangement, and isolation. Of course there is nothing new in this and historically stereotypes and counterfeits have often hijacked the title "hermit".  The spiritualities involved in such cases are sometimes nothing more than validations of the brokenness of sin or celebrations of self-centeredness and social failure; the God believed in is often a tyrant or a cruel judge who is delighted by our suffering -- which he is supposed to cause directly -- and who defines justice in terms of an arbitrary "reparation for the offences" done to him even by others, a strange kind of quid pro quo which might have given even St Anselm qualms.

These "hermits" themselves seem unhappy, often bitter, depressed and sometimes despairing. They live in physical solitude but their relationship with God is apparently neither life giving nor redemptive -- whether of the so-called hermit or those they touch. Neither are their lives ecclesial in any evident sense and some are as estranged from the Church as they are from their local communities and (often) families. Because there is no clear sense that solitude is a redemptive reality for these persons, neither is there any sense that God is really calling them to eremitical life and the wholeness represented by union with God and characterized by the silence of solitude. Sometimes solitude itself seems entirely destructive, silence is a torturous muteness or fruitlessness; in such cases there is no question the person is not called to eremitical solitude.

Others who are not so extreme as these "hermits" never actually embrace the silence of solitude or put God at the center of their lives in the way desert spirituality requires and witnesses to. They may even be admitted to profession and consecration but then live a relatively isolated and mediocre life filled with distractions, failed commitments (vows, Rule), and rejected grace. Some instead replace solitude with active ministry so that they really simply cannot witness to the transformative capacity of the God who comes in silence and solitude. Their lives thus do not show evidence of the incredibly creative and dynamic love of God who redeems in this way but it is harder to recognize these counterfeits. In such cases the silence of solitude is not only not the context of their lives but it is neither their goal nor the charism they bring to church and world.

Even so, all of these lives do help us to see what is necessary for the discernment of authentic eremitical vocations and too what it means to say that someone is a hermit in some essential sense. Especially they underscore the critical importance that one experiences God's redemptive intimacy in the silence of solitude and that one's life is made profoundly meaningful, compassionate, and hope-filled in this way.

26 January 2016

On Living Under Obedience as a Consecrated Hermit

[[Hi Sister, I am wondering how a contemporary hermit lives obedience in the religious life?  Of course you are obedient to your vows, but in daily life, in choosing your occupation (or a decision not to have one), do you have a way of living under obedience.  If not, does this present problems in striving for holiness?  I don't want to bother with all the ramifications of the subject, as I am sure you are aware of them all, and we need not go into a lengthy theological discussion.  I was just wondering. Thanks,]]

Thanks for the questions. Remember that obedience means first of all hearkening to the will of God as it comes or is mediated to us in many ways. Those include not just one's vows, but also Scripture, prayer, liturgy and the Sacraments, the ordinary circumstances of life, one's Rule or Plan of Life, the discernments of one's legitimate superior (Bishop and delegate), other significant persons in our lives (pastor, spiritual director, physicians, good friends, et al) and of course, the voice of God in one's heart (which is usually involved in all of these others). It seems to me that contemporary consecrated hermits (and other religious) learn obedience and grow in their responsiveness to God by attending to God's voice as it is mediated in ALL of these ways (and some I may not have mentioned).

In other words, obedience is not limited to one or two channels, like vows and legitimate superior --- though of course these are privileged ways God can and does speak to us. Several of these many channels of God's will are not only privi-leged ways to living in obedience but they are also ways the hermit is bound in law; specifically, I am thus bound, both morally and legally by vows, Rule, and legitimate superior (the Diocesan Bishop and my delegate). (While in spiritual direction I feel called to an obedience every bit as real and life giving as with any of these others it is not a legal bond.)

I am not quite sure I understand your question about choosing an occupation or not to have one. I am a hermit and that IS my occupation. However, if you are referring to discerning a way of supporting myself as a hermit then it is certain that my state and form of life, and of course my Rule, limit significantly the kinds of occupations I may choose to engage in. Beyond this, of course, my bishop and delegate might have some significant input in certain situations, but generally the decision about forms of work I may undertake are limited to consideration of 1) the education and training I have for them, 2) whether I can continue to live my Rule with integrity and still undertake whatever form of work is being considered, and 3) whether this form of work is consistent with the life of a consecrated hermit and religious. It may be that in some special circumstances some kind of temporary dispensation or waiver may be needed in order to adopt a form of work I would not ordinarily do but in such a case it would need to clearly be temporary (I would argue a definite time frame and limits need to be specified) and I would need not only to have discerned the wisdom of such an accommodation but my Bishop and/or delegate would need to approve.

A c 603 hermit lives her entire life under obedience --- though this does not ordinarily mean under the micromanagement or detailed commands of superiors. It means under the sway of God as his Word and will come to her in Scripture and prayer, in the everyday circumstances of her life, and so forth. The hermit's Rule governs her entire life and, as already noted, she is bound morally and legally to honor and live that out with integrity. Personally, I reflect on my Rule a lot. It engages me on a number of levels; not only does it legislate but more fundamentally it inspires and reminds me who I am, to what I am called, and why I am committed in the way I am. From my perspective it is more deeply and extensively compelling in terms of obedience than even legitimate superiors. This is one of the reasons dioceses have to be sure that hermits have been given every opportunity over time to develop a mature and livable Rule before they admit a hermit to vows of any sort.

I hope this is helpful and gets to the heart of your question.

21 January 2016

Miserando atque Eligendo: A Mercy that does Justice as it Creates a Future

Quite often this blog is a way in which I work out theological positions, especially in terms of the nature and charism of eremitical life, the relation of Gospel and Law (often canon law!!), or of mercy and justice. In reflecting on Friday's readings from 1 Sam and Mark I was reminded of Pope Francis' jubilee year of Mercy and of his coat of arms and motto: Miserando atque Eligendo. In 1 Sam David shows mercy to Saul despite Saul's commitment to killing him and is deemed by Saul to be worthy of Kingship by virtue of this act. An act of mercy is presented as having the power to change Saul's heart as nothing else does. The lection from Mark deals with the calling of the twelve. Together they represent a single pastoral impulse, a single imperative, the impulse and imperative also marking the entirety of Francis' Episcopacy and Pontificate and this Jubilee year of mercy as well: Miserando atque eligendo.

Francis translates the first word of his motto as a gerund, "Mercifying". He sees his episcopacy as being about the mercification of the church and world; the motto as a whole means "To Mercify (to embrace wretchedness) and to Call". This can even be translated as, "I will mercify (that is, make the world whole by embracing its wretchedness in the power of God's love) and (or "and even further") call (or choose) others" who will be commissioned in the same way. Francis speaks of the meaning of his motto in his new book, The Name of God is Mercy . He writes, "So mercifying and choosing (calling) describes the vision of Jesus who gives the gift of mercy and chooses, and takes unto himself."  (Kindle location 226) This is simply the way Francis chose to be a Bishop in Christ's Church; it is certainly the face God turned to the world in Jesus and it is the face of the shepherd we have come to associate with the Papacy. It is the way the Church is called to address and transform our world, the way she is called to literally "embrace wretchedness" and create peace and purpose. Mercifying and calling. It is the Way into the future God wills for everyone and everything.

Paul too saw that mercy was the way God creates a future. He writes in his letter to the Romans, [[Or do you hold his priceless kindness, forbearance, and patience in low esteem, unaware that the kindness of God would lead you to repentance?]] In other words it is the kindness or mercy of God, God's forbearance and patience that will create a way forward --- if in fact we take that mercy seriously. What I saw as I read that line from Paul was that Divine mercy is always about creating a way forward when our own actions close off any way of progress at all. God's mercy draws us out of any past we have locked ourselves into and into his own life of "absolute futurity". Let me explain. Often times I have written here that God's mercy IS God's justice. Justice is always about creating and ensuring a future -- both for those wronged, for society as a whole, and for the ones who have wronged another. Justification itself means establishing a person in right relationship with God and the rest of reality; it indicates that person's freedom from enmeshment in the past and her participation in futurity, that is in God's own life. Mercy, which (as I now see clearly) always includes a call to discipleship, is the way God creates and draws us into the future. What is often called "Divine wrath" is just the opposite --- though it can open us to the mercy which will turn things around.

Divine Wrath, Letting the Consequences of our Sin Run:

Wrath, despite the anthropomorphic limitations of language involved, is not Divine anger or a failure or refusal of God to love us. Rather, it is what happens when God respects our freedom and lets the consequences of our choices and behavior run --- the consequences which cut us off from the love and community of others, the consequences which make us ill or insure our life goes off the rails, so to speak, the consequences which ripple outward and affect everyone within the ambit of our lives. Similarly, it is God's letting run the consequences of sin which  lead us to even greater acts of sin as we defend or attempt to defend ourselves against them, try futilely to control matters, and keep our hands on the reins which seem to imply we control our lives and destinies. But how can a God of Love possibly allow the consequences of sin run and still be merciful? I have one story which helps me illustrate this.

I wrote recently of the death of my major theology professor, John Dwyer. In the middle of a moral theology class focusing on the topic of human freedom and responsibility John said that if he saw one of us doing something stupid he would not prevent us. He quickly noted that if we were impaired in some way he would intervene but otherwise, no. Several of us majors were appalled. John was a friend and mentor. Now, we regularly spent time at his house dining with him and his wife Odile and talking theology into the late hours. (It was Odile who introduced me to French Roast coffee and always made sure there was some ready!) Though we students were not much into doing seriously stupid things, we recognized the possibility of falling into such a situation! So when John made this statement we looked quickly at one another with questioning, confused, looks and gestures. A couple of us whispered to each other, "But he LOVES us! How can he say that?" John took in our reaction in a single glance or two, gave a somewhat bemused smile, and explained, "I will always be here for you. I will be here if you need advice, if you need a listening ear. . . and if you should do something stupid I will always be here for you afterwards to help you recover in whatever way I can, but I will not prevent you from doing the act itself."

We didn't get it at all at the time, but now I know John was describing for us an entire complex of theological truths about human freedom, Divine mercy, Divine wrath, theodicy, and discipleship as well: Without impinging on our freedom God says no to our stupidities and even our sin, but he always says yes to us and his yes to us, his mercy, eventually will also win out over sin. John would be there for us in somewhat the same the merciful God of Jesus Christ is there for us. Part of all of this was the way the prospect or truth of being "turned over" to our own freedom and the consequences of our actions also opens us to mercy. To be threatened with being left to ourselves in this way if we misused our freedom --- even with the promise that John would be there for us before, after, and otherwise --- made us think very carefully about doing something truly stupid. John's statement struck us like a splash of astringent but it was also a merciful act which included an implicit call to a future free of serious stupidities, blessed with faithfulness, and marked by genuine freedom. It promised us the continuing and effective reality of John's love and guiding presence, but the prospect of his very definite "no!" to our "sin" was a spur to embrace more fully the love and call to adulthood he offered us.

How much more does the prospect of "Divine wrath" (or the experience of that "wrath" itself) open us to the reality of Divine mercy?! Thus, Divine wrath is subordinate to and can serve Divine mercy; it can lead to a wretchedness which opens us to something more, something other. It can open us to the Love-in-Act that summons and saves. At the same time it is mercy that has the power to redeem situations of wrath, situations of enmeshment in and entrapment by the consequences of one's sin. It is through mercy that God does justice, through mercy that God sets things to rights and opens a future to that which was once a dead end.

Miserando atque Eligendo, The Way of Divine Mercy:

What is critical, especially in light of Friday's readings and Francis' motto it seems to me, is that we understand mercy not only as the gratuitous forgiveness of sin or the graced and unconditional love of the sinner, but that we also see that mercy, by its very nature, further includes a call which leads to embracing a new life. The most striking image of this in the NT is the mercy the Risen Christ shows to Peter. Each time  Peter answers Christ's question, "Do you love me?" he is told, "Feed my Lambs" or "Feed my Sheep." Jesus does not merely say, "You are forgiven"; in fact, he never says, "You are forgiven" in so many words. Instead he conveys forgiveness with a call to a new and undeserved future.

This happens again and again in the NT. It happens in the parable of the merciful Father (prodigal son) and it happens whenever Jesus says something like, "Rise and walk" or "Go, your faith has made you whole," etc. (Go does not merely mean, "Go on away from here" or "Go on living as you were"; it is, along with other commands like "Rise", "Walk" "Come",etc., a form of commissioning which means. "Go now and mercify the world as God has done for you.") Jesus' healing and forgiving touch always involves a call opening the future to the one in need. Mercy, as a single pastoral  impulse, embraces our fruitless and pointless wretchedness even as it calls us to God's  own creative and meaningful blessedness.

The problem of balancing mercy and justice is a false problem when we are speaking of God. I have written about this before in Is it Necessary to Balance Divine Mercy With Justice? and Moving From Fear to Love: Letting Go of the God Who Punishes Evil. What was missing from "Is it necessary. . .?" was the element of call --- though I believe it was implicit since both miserando and eligendo are essential to the love of God which summons us to wholeness. Still, it took Francis' comments on his motto (something he witnesses to with tremendous vividness in every gesture, action, and homily) along with the readings from this Friday to help me see explicitly that the mercification or mercifying of our world means both forgiving and calling people into God's own future. We must not trivialize or sentimentalize mercy (or the nature of genuine forgiveness) by omitting the element of a call.

When we consider that today theologians write about God as Absolute Futurity (cf Ted Peters' works, God, the World's Future, and Anticipating Omega), the association of mercy with the call to futurity makes complete sense and it certainly distances us from the notion of Divine mercy as something weak which must be balanced by justice. Mercy, again, is the way God does justice --- the way he causes our world to be transfigured as it is shot through with eschatological Life and purpose. We may choose an authentic future in God's love or a wounded, futureless reality characterized by enmeshment and isolation in sin, but whichever we choose it is always mercy that sets things right --- if only we will accept it and the call it includes!! Of course it is similarly an authentic future we are called on to offer one another -- just as David offered to Saul and Jesus offered those he healed or those he otherwise called and sent out as his own Apostles. Miserando atque Eligendo!! May we adopt this as the motto of our own lives just as Francis has done, and may we make it our own "modus operandi" for doing justice in our world as Jesus himself did.

13 January 2016

Update: Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena --- Iraq

January 7, 2016

Dear Sisters Brethren and Friends,

With the New Year greetings, I extend my gratitude for your continuous support and prayers. Also, I would like to share with you our highlights from 2015.

Thanks to the blessed efforts of people who are accompanying us, we have had an eventful year. In addition to accompanying the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) at the camps, sisters were able to prepare 400 children for First Communion in ten groups in different cities and towns in the region of Kurdistan.

We are grateful to the Lord that our efforts to open a primary school were fruitful. Eventually, we managed to get all the licenses needed from the Iraqi and Kurdish governments. Bishop Warda (the Chaldaean Bishop of Erbil) offered us a building that Catholic organizations built on property belonging to the Archdiocese of Erbil, and the Pontifical Mission furnished it thankfully. There are about 460 pupils -girls and boys-and all are IDPs. Seven of our Dominican sisters are working at the school, with other teachers and administrators, also IDPs. Studying at our school is free. The salaries of teachers and staff (about $18,000 a month) have been granted by the Pontifical Mission for this year. People are thankful and happy for this project, as the condition of other schools is really miserable. Because of the large number of the IDPs, some schools have three shifts a day, each shift for different groups, and the number of pupils in a class could number more than 80.

Also, we managed to open another kindergarten for the IDPs as there is more demand this year. The families prefer to send their children to be educated by the Dominican Sisters. Now there are 440 children attending our kindergartens in Ankawa. Additionally, in a town called Aqra with 250 IDP families, we opened a kindergarten for 50 children. The kindergarten in Kaznazan also has 130 children in attendance. These Kindergartens are free of charge for the IDPs.

In both projects, school and kindergarten, sisters have been noticing much improvement in children's behavior. They are more willing to listen to their teachers and it is easier for teachers to discipline the children. The schools are equipped with playground and a sport field, which gave the children a suitable environment to play and direct their energy.

However, people are still facing many challenges. As for the present condition in Iraq, it is still traumatic. We were shocked last month when seven individuals (parents with their 7 year old son, and 3 year old daughter and a lady with her 7 year old son and 13 year old daughter) who drowned in the sea as they were trying to flee to Greece.

Everybody is physically and psychologically exhausted. It does not seem that there is any solution. People risk their lives. Immigration is increasing in all directions. Just before the end of the year, families of 167 persons were placed in Slovakia (at once) as part of immigration program, and there are more to go in the coming month. That, of course, shook the confidence of people about the future of Christianity in Iraq. Add to that, there are other families who are leaving the country to the neighboring like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. In a matter of three months the number of children in our school lowered down from 520 to 460; also about 15 children from the kindergarten left with their families and more are planning to leave.

Although we are sad to see people leave, people who are living in prefabricated houses are facing tremendously hard time, especially now in winter as these houses (caravans) are not healthy at all -they are not made to comprise large families, neither are they equipped to such harsh weather. They are extremely cold in winter, extremely hot in summer.

The recent news about the policy in the Middle East is not encouraging at all, nether is there anything promising. Everything is unknown and uncertain. Therefore, it is not surprising to see people leave. We pray that the doors of divine mercy may open for our brothers and sisters that they may find people who could welcome them. As for us, we remain with the remnant here, to support the people intellectually and spiritually through educational projects and liturgical meetings.

Within the community, we are thankful for all those helped us purchase a house which provided a better environment for our young sisters in formation program. We have started preparing for our general chapter that is planned to be held in July 2016.

We ask your prayers that God may enlighten us and grant us His wisdom to discern in our reality despite all the difficulties and pressures we are living.

Sr. Maria Hanna OP
Prioress of Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena -Iraq

On Hermits and the Sacrament of Reconciliation

[[Hi Sister, how do hermits receive the sacraments if they are alone in a hermitage? One hermit wrote about just confes-sing to Jesus directly in the hermitage if she sins. It sounds like a Protestant-like rejection of confession to me. Are you (Catholic hermits) dispensed from the Sacrament of Reconciliation because you are a hermit?  If not, does a priest come to you? What about Mass?]] (This question represents a combination of several questions from several posters

Hi, and thanks for the questions. In the main I receive or celebrate Sacraments the same way anyone else in the Church does, namely I go to my parish and receive them. There are some exceptions some of the time. As I have written here before, many days I receive Communion at the hermitage during a Communion service and I reserve Eucharist here. (This also allows me to act as an EEM to others living nearby when I can't get to the parish to pick up Eucharist or am asked to bring Communion on unscheduled days and times.) I ordinarily receive the Sacrament of the Sick at the parish once or twice a year as well --- though in certain circumstances I would certainly ask my pastor to come here to anoint me. There is ordinarily no real reason to ask a priest to come and say Mass here since I take Communion from frequent Masses at my parish and celebrate Communion services as extensions of these as well as in union with the Mass the parish community is celebrating on that particular day. However were I to spend longer periods in actual reclusion and thus not get to the parish for several weeks or more it would be important to have Mass said here occasionally.

Ways of Dealing with Sin in the Church:

In the Church less serious sins are taken care of in many different ways. Every day I and most other Catholics, especially those who are Religious, deal with less serious sins during Office, examen, Mass or Communion services, and personal prayer --- just as the hermit you are referring to seems to do. (There need not be an actual rejection of the Sacrament of Reconciliation involved.) Lesser sins and the process of conversion these require are also dealt with, to some extent, in spiritual direction --- though in this relationship the focus is not so much on sins per se as on patterns of behavior which are unworthy of the person God has made and is calling me to be. (Serious sin is also dealt with in a limited way during spiritual direction with the same focus; usually whatever leads to serious sin needs more work and healing than lesser sins so working with one's director here is particularly important. It does not lead to absolution, however, unless one's director is also one's confessor.)

For the Sacrament of Reconciliation I have several possibilities --- as is true of any diocesan hermit or any Catholic, for that matter. First, as already mentioned there is the parish. I can arrange for the Sacrament anytime I need to do that. Until recently I had a regular confessor  who was not from my diocese; thus, I did not ordinarily go to my pastor or priests coming to fill in at the parish but that option was always open to me nonetheless and may be something I choose to do in the future. Priests have sometimes come here but ordinarily I have gone to them for reconciliation. Neither I nor any hermit is dispensed from the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In some ways it is more important for us, not only because we are consecrated and vowed, but because of the temptation to "go it alone" in solitude or to minimize the degree of our transgressions. (It is sometimes too easy to say, "What happens here is small potatoes compared to what goes on in the world around the hermitage.")

Choosing to avail oneself of the Sacrament when sin is, relatively speaking, not particularly serious, much less grievous, is not necessarily a matter of scrupulosity; rather, receiving the Sacrament of reconciliation is one of the ways hermits recognize and proclaim most clearly, 1) that smaller transgressions are still significant and more easily grow into larger aberrations in solitude than in community, and 2), that our vocation to solitude is ecclesial as opposed to a individualistic approach to eremitism. Sin is never merely an individual matter and the Sacrament where we confess to God and receive forgiveness through the mediation of another human being representing the Church is clearly an ecclesial reality.

More on the Nature of the Sacrament of Reconciliation:

While you didn't ask about the nature of the Sacrament of reconciliation it is important to remember this social and specifically ecclesial dimension.  Forgiveness is always a matter of personal encounter with social implications. While we can meet God in the intimacy of our own hearts, as human beings we need to admit who we are to another; we need to hear the word of forgiveness spoken to us through the reading of Scriptures selected for or by us for this Sacrament or made real in the prayer of absolution. These moments in the Sacrament are moments of Proclamation, moments when the Gospel is enacted not only in our own lives, but in the life of the Church. We need for someone to ask us about the circumstances which may have contributed to our sinning so we can truly speak them and claim the entire situation. We need to speak our own transgressions, not as a simple admission (though that is critical), but because in the context of the Sacrament we see clearly that we are part of a community of faith and are called to be more than we have been. Admitting our transgressions to God through the mediation of another acting in the name of the Church is part of claiming an identity and vocation within the Church which actually allows the Church to BE Church.

Of course it is always God who forgives sins; we can always turn to God privately or in solitude. Even so, in my experience, those confessions, especially when the sin is serious, may well be lacking something which is present when one confesses to God through the mediation of another human being. It is not merely that doing so is humbling in a way private admission to God usually is not -- though certainly this is an important dimension of the Sacrament. That is something we can appreciate as we consider the difference between praying to God in our own rooms, and speaking to God through the agency of another. We can feel the difference. However, this difference also has to do with the fact that in the Sacrament of Reconciliation we entrust ourselves  in our brokenness to the One whose love and mercy was revealed fully and definitively to us in the risen Christ present in the Church. In other words, we do so because God's love and mercy comes to us through the mediation of the Church, especially through those who act in Christ's name in this specific way.

The ministry of reconciliation is given to all of us, priests and laity alike, but it is given in a paradigmatic way to the priest who celebrates the sacrament as a special gift to all of us. The faith, understanding, acceptance, challenge, and encouragement of one's confessor are a significant part of hearing the Good News of Christ within this sacrament. At the same time our reception of the Sacrament is part of the priest's own hearing the Good News of Christ. Together we are actively Church in this mutual celebration of Divine mercy and love. It is a profound and life-giving form of sharing in Christ in which each person experiences the mercy and call of God through the mediation of the Sacrament --- though in differing ways and to differing degrees. Still, this encounter with Christ through the agency of another is absolutely critical to truly receiving Divine forgiveness in the Sacrament and to the ministry of reconciliation as a whole.

Hermits and the Sacrament of Reconciliation:

Again, all of this is as true of the hermit as it is of anyone else in the Church. As already noted, hermits require the Sacrament of Reconciliation as much as any other member of the People of God. I especially like to use the Sacrament to celebrate periods where some clear growth has occurred. At those times it is also important to look at the ways I do not measure up to that growth --- because, after all, whenever we come to new senses of God's presence in our lives or new senses of who we are called to be, there will be ways in which we fall short of those realities. Sometimes that means a serious set of obstacles exist within us that should be recognized and worked through or a serious lack of virtue in this way or that. It really depends on how we measure sin and look at the Sacrament. It would be relatively easy for me, for instance, to say, I have only committed lesser sins --- because in fact I do not tend to sin grievously. However, because I am growing in my vocation and presumably in wholeness and holiness, it also makes the ways I fail or fall short of the love or grace of God stand out in significance.

Thus, I meet with my director regularly and every so often there will be a significant moment of growth or insight or integration. Direction may occasion them or allow me to recognize them clearly. At these times celebrating the Sacrament of reconciliation can allow me to celebrate all of this Sacramentally and therefore, with the larger Church through the mediation of the priest. When I do that both the growth which is a result of God's grace and the ways I still resist or fail to reflect that grace are really brought to the larger faith community both for healing and as a proclamation of hope. Thus the Sacrament allows me to celebrate the grace of God in both the way it bears fruit within me and in the ways I still need it to bear fruit. More, it allows me to recommit to my vocation and honor its ecclesial nature --- something that is important for me especially because it might otherwise be easy to fall into an attitude of individualism or outright complacency.

Like most Catholics today, I suspect I don't always make adequate use of the Sacrament, but again, that is not because I have somehow been dispensed or have less need than other members of the Church. It is certainly not because everything can be adequately dealt with by just confessing to Jesus in the solitude of the cell --- critical and healing as that is. For me, the knowledge that I can confess to Christ in the privacy of the hermitage can sometimes be as much temptation as it is consoling truth. I think that is generally true for Catholics in every state of life. Since the Sacrament is a great gift which is seriously underutilized today and since individualist approaches to faith and spirituality are a significant problem today, it seems to me that it is particularly important that hermits not encourage even greater failure to turn to this gift of God. To put that more positively, it seems important to me that Catholic hermits encourage an appreciation of the significance, gift-quality, and ecclesial nature of even such a relatively private sacrament.

04 January 2016

In Memoriam, John C Dwyer 1930-2016

John C Dwyer, my major Theology Professor for my BA and MA work, died Saturday afternoon (02.January) after a long struggle with Parkinson's. I have never had a finer teacher nor, in many ways, known a finer man. He was also probably the best homilist I have ever heard. It was in his homilies especially that theological content, personal passion (a function of his faith), and the compassion of God in Christ came together in a particularly powerful way.

It was John who first taught me Pauline Theology and especially the Theologies of the Cross of both Paul and Mark. More, John introduced me to the systematic theology of Paul Tillich and in these ways and so many others provided both the biblical and philosophical foundation for everything else I have done either theologically or in spirituality. There is simply not a day that goes by that I do not draw on something John taught, a phrase he regularly used, a question he challenged me to grapple with on my own --- or an example he set. Especially, it was John's insistence that all Theology had to be pastoral, all theology had to be apologetic or "answering" theology in the truest sense (that is, in the sense of the Cross of Christ) that is his lasting legacy to me. It was John who reminded us "budding theologians" that, "Unless your theology can adequately grapple with and address the questions raised by the holocaust [i.e., the very worst human beings can and do visit on one another along with how God in the Christ Event supplies the answers to such inhumanity] it is unworthy of the name."

John had been a Jesuit and did graduate work in Theology at Fordham and a year in Strasbourg followed by Doctoral work at Tübingen University under Hans Küng and Jürgen Moltmann. He received his PhD in 1971. Thereafter, he taught Theology at St Mary's College (CA) in both BA and MA programs, at the SAT program of the GTU's Jesuit School, and at St Bernard's Institute (Graduate School of Theology and Ministry) in the Diocese of Albany, NY. Many religious, priests, deacons and laity had their theological educations given both new life and intellectual and spiritual rigor through their work under John. All were touched by his integrity, humanity, caring, and humor --- as well as by his brilliance and the breadth and depth of both his knowledge and faith. His wife Odile (whom John adored!) was (and remains) as much a part of the life of many of John's students as John was.

I wanted to include a passage from one of John's books, one of my favorites (both the book and the passage!). I think it is the heart of the Christian truth he entrusted himself to and hoped his students would come to understand and make the center of their own faith and theological work. Here John is writing about the fact that on the cross is the one whom the eternal God has sought as his counterpart forever, one who is constituted as human precisely in his dialogue with God. At the same time he is reflecting on what we mean when we identify God as Emmanuel --- God with us. In speaking about the salvific effect of this dialogue, especially as it reaches fullness on the cross, he says,

[[Through Jesus, the broken being of the world enters the personal life of the everlasting God, and this God shares in the broken being of the world. God is eternally committed to this world, and this commitment becomes full and final in his personal presence within this weak and broken man on the cross. In him the eternal one takes our destiny upon himself --- a destiny of estrangement, separation, meaninglessness, and despair. But at this moment the emptiness and alienation that mar and mark the human situation become once and for all, in time and eternity, the ways of God. God is with this broken man in suffering and in failure, in darkness and at the edge of despair, and for this reason suffering and failure, darkness and hopelessness will never again be signs of the separation of man from God. God identifies himself with the man on the cross, and for this reason everything we think of as manifesting the absence of God will, for the rest of time, be capable of manifesting his presence --- up to and including death itself.]]

He continues,

[[Jesus is rejected and his mission fails, but God participates in this failure, so that failure itself can become a vehicle of his presence, his being here for us. Jesus is weak, but his weakness is God's own, and so weakness itself can be something to glory in. Jesus' death exposes the weakness and insecurity of our situation, but God made them his own; at the end of the road, where abandonment is total and all the props are gone, he is there. At the moment when an abyss yawns beneath the shaken foundations of the world and self, God is there in the depths, and the abyss becomes a ground. Because God was in this broken man who died on the cross, although our hold on existence is fragile, and although we walk in the shadow of death all the days of our lives, and although we live under the spell of a nameless dread against which we can do nothing, the message of the cross is good news indeed: rejoice in your fragility and weakness; rejoice even in that nameless dread because God has been there and nothing can separate you from him. It has all been conquered, not by any power in the world or in yourself, but by God. When God takes death into himself it means not the end of God but the end of death.]] Dwyer, John C., Son of Man Son of God, a New Language for Faith, p 182-183.

John Dwyer no longer walks in the shadow of death. For him death has both come and been defeated and entirely transfigured in Christ. The dialogue with God that so clearly characterized John's entire adult life is continued in a new way in the very heart of the God who has taken John into himself. Like many, I grieve his death, but even more I (we!) celebrate a life spent revealing an infinitely loving God in both strength and weakness, wholeness and brokenness, vigor and diminishment. Especially, we each and all celebrate a marvelously gracious God and John's eternal life with(in) him whom John loves and even yet serves so well. Thanks be to God!

Addendum: Mass of Resurrection and Memorial Masses in New York and California

Mass of the Resurrection will be celebrated Saturday, January 23, 2016 at 11 am at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, 125 Eagle Street, Albany, New York.

A Memorial Mass will be celebrated Saturday, January 30, 2016 at 11 am at St. Theresa’s Roman Catholic Church in Windham, New York.

A Memorial Mass will be celebrated Saturday, March 12, 2016 at 2:00 pm at the St Mary's College Chapel, Moraga, CA.

Memorial donations may be made to the Tannersville Fire and Rescue, Tannersville, New York 12485 or Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, 40 North Main Street, Albany, New York 12230.

03 January 2016

Feast of the Epiphany (Reprised)

There is something stunning about the story of the Epiphany and we often don't see or hear it, I think, because the story is so familiar to us. It is the challenge which faces us precisely because our God is one who comes to us in littleness, weakness, and obscurity, and meets us in the unexpected and even unacceptable place. It is truly stunning I think to find three magi (whoever these were and whatever they represented in terms of human power, wealth, and wisdom) recognizing in a newborn baby, not only the presence of a life with cosmic significance but, in fact, the incarnation of God and savior of the world. I have rarely been particularly struck by this image of the Magi meeting the child Jesus and presenting him with gifts, but this year I see it clearly as a snapshot of the entire Gospel story with all its hope, wonder, poignancy, challenge, and demand.

If the identities of the Magi are unclear, the dynamics of the picture are not. Here we have learned men who represent all of the known world and the power, wealth, and knowledge therein, men who spend their lives in search of (or at least watching for the coming of) something which transcends their own realms and its wisdom and knowledge, coming to kneel and lay symbols of their wealth and wisdom before a helpless, Jewish baby of common and even questionable birth. They ostensibly identify this child, lying in a feeding trough, as the King of the Jews. Yes, they followed a star to find him, but even so, their recognition of the nature and identity of this baby is surprising. Especially so is the fact that they come to worship him. The stunning nature of this epiphany is underscored by the story of the massacre of the male babies in Bethlehem by the Jewish ruler, Herod. Despite his being heralded as the messiah, and so too, the Jewish King, there is nothing apparently remarkable about the baby from  Herod's perspective, nothing, that is, which allows him to be distinguished from any other male baby of similar age --- unless of course, one can see him with eyes of humility and faith --- and so, the story goes, Herod has all such babies indiscriminately killed.

One child, two antithetical attitudes and responses: the first, an openness which leads to recognition and the humbling subordination of worship; the second, an attitude of a closed mind, of defensiveness ambition, and self-protection, an attitude of fear which leads not only to a failure of recognition but to arrogant and murderous oppression. And in between these two attitudes and responses, we must also see the far more common ones marking lives which miss this event altogether. In every case, the Christ Event marks the coming of the sovereign, creator, God among us, but in the littleness, weakness, and obscurity of ordinary human being. In this way God meets us each in the unexpected and even unacceptable place (the manger, the cross, human being, self-emptying, weakness, companionship with serious sinners, etc) --- if we only have the eyes of faith which allow us to recognize and worship him!

02 January 2016

Followup on Does a Rule Need to be Perfect: More on Writing several Rules over Time

[[Dear Sister, thanks for your reply to my question. What happens if I don't want to write more than one Rule and my diocese doesn't ask me to? What I have written so far seems fine to me and I can't see revising it. Besides I am not much of a writer.]]

Good questions and similar to others I have been asked (another person said they weren't much of a writer I think). The purpose of the suggestion of writing and using several different Rules over time is first of all to assist both the candidate and the diocese in maintaining a discernment process that is both long enough but not onerous to either relevant diocesan personnel or the candidate herself.

Sometimes it takes a while for the quality of the vocation to become clear to the diocesan staff working with the candidate. Indications of growth can be more clearly seen in the quality of the Rule being submitted --- especially since the hermit's life is lived in solitude and not in a house of formation with intense oversight and more constant evaluation. Moreover, dioceses are not responsible for the formation of a hermit; that occurs in solitude itself. Even so dioceses must evaluate the way the individual's formation in eremitical solitude is proceeding and they may be helpful in making concrete suggestions or supplying access to resources from which the candidate might benefit. Several different Rules written over a period of years will uncover areas of strength,  weakness, and even deficiency and allow the diocese to respond both knowledgeably and appropriately.

What tends to happen when a diocese does not have such a tool to use is either the relatively immediate acceptance of candidates as suitable for discernment or a more or less immediate dismissal as unsuitable. Dioceses cannot usually follow the hermit's progress sufficiently closely otherwise and without such a tool they may have neither the time, the expertise, nor the patience to extend the discernment period sufficiently. Likewise they may not have the basis for helpful conversations with the candidate that such Rules can provide. I have always felt fortunate to have had a Sister work with me over a period of five years and during those years to actually meet with me at my hermitage. She listened carefully, consulted experts in the eremitical life and its formation and discernment, and generally did what she could in my regard; still, I believe the tool being discussed here would have assisted her and the diocese more generally. It would have helped me as well.

Of course, you are free to write one Rule and trust that that is sufficient in providing insight into your vocation for your diocese. Perhaps it will be sufficient to govern your eremitical life for some time as well. If you have a background in religious life and are familiar with the way Rules are written and function that is much more likely. Similarly, of course, your diocese is free to adopt whatever approach works best for them as well. I personally suggest the use of several Rules written over several years so that dioceses have 1) sufficient resources (including time) for discernment, so 2) the process of discernment and formation will not be curtailed prematurely or stretched endlessly and fruitlessly. I also suggest it so that 3) the candidate herself has a kind of structure which allows what happens in the freedom of solitude to be made clear to her diocese while assuring sufficient time for that to mature. (It is important to remember that the process of writing is a very significantly formative experience itself and contributes to one's own discernment as well.)

Ordinary time frames (for candidacy, novitiate, juniorate, and perpetual profession) do not really work for solitary hermits because the hermit's time in solitude is not so closely observed; neither does it have the degree of social interaction which is a normal element of growth in religious life. Beyond these there is a rhythm to life in eremitical solitude which will include both "tearing down" and building up and which occurs according to God's own time, not to a more or less arbitrary or even more usual temporal schema. Something must replace or at least approximate some of the functions the more usual elements of life in community serve but do so instead in terms of the diocese's relation with the candidate. It must allow and assist both candidate and diocese to have patience with this unique and sometimes counterintuitive process of formation. Moreover, both hermit candidate and diocese must recognize that the eremitical life is about the quality of the journey with God itself and not become too focused on destination points per se (postulancy, novitiate, juniorate, etc).

To summarize then, the use of several Rules written to reflect stages or degrees of growth as the candidate herself is ready to do this helps ensure both individual flexibility from candidate to candidate as well as sufficient length of time and patience on everyone's part to assure adequate growth and discernment. It is merely a tool, though I believe it could be a very effective one in assuring authentic vocations are recognized and fostered.

01 January 2016

Does a Rule Have to be Perfect before Submission to One's Diocese?

[[Dear Sister,  I am wondering if my Rule has to be perfect before turning it into my diocese? You wrote about writing several different Rules over a period of time. Was part of the reason so the Rule could be better after several drafts? Do dioceses expect a hermit to write several Rules over time or do they expect a person to be able to write one immediately? Did your own diocese ask you to write several versions?]]

The Reasons for Writing Several Versions:

In suggesting a candidate for eremitical profession write several versions of a Rule over time I had several things in mind: 1) Dioceses use the hermit's Rule to discern the quality of the vocation standing in front of them. While I was fortunate in having a Vicar follow me and meet regularly with me over a five year period at other times chancery personnel had to depend more on what I had written and how well it reflected my own knowledge and experience of this vocation. I think this is not uncommon in dioceses. 2) besides aiding in discernment Rules written over a period of five to seven years can assist the candidate, diocese, and delegate or director in gauging the way formation is going. It is not so much that a candidate will write a better Rule as opposed to draft versions --- as though this is a literary exercise; instead it is that the candidate's understanding of the vocation will change and grow as will her prayer life and experience of living the canon and all of its elements.

With the requirement that a candidate write an experi-mental Rule that allows her to grapple with these things, and then in a couple of years that she write another one which will be considered less experimental and more truly binding the diocese should be able to discern actual unsuitability for the vocation. If the candidate is allowed to continue the process of discernment as she works on her own formation, then a couple of years later she may be ready for temporary profession. At that point I would expect the Rule she submits to need little change and be something she tweaks only as growth requires and as work with her director verifies. Finally, the hermit should write a Rule which becomes binding on the day of perpetual profession. Like the Rule submitted for temporary profession this one becomes binding in law but now perpetually. This is not to say it cannot be changed (one will continue to grow and mature in all of this) but besides discussion with one's director or delegate such changes would need to be approved by one's Bishop at this point.

3) the (proposed) "requirement" that one write several Rules over the first years of living the canon provides a kind of space where one can work out the ways each non-negotiable element of the canon is reflected in this particular life. For instance, most canon 603 hermits deal with silence and solitude in their early Rule but few that I have spoken to either did write about or were ready to write about  the silence OF solitude. As the vocation becomes more well known (though still not well-understood!) this situation will be exacerbated. Not only does one need to deal with the silence of solitude in a different way than one does external silence and physical solitude but the ability to do so is the result of eremitical experience one acquires only over a period of years. So, for instance, my original Rule wrote about the concrete practices assuring external silence and physical solitude but it took years before my Rule came to reflect my understanding of the silence of solitude as environment, goal, and finally, as unique gift or charism of solitary eremitical life lived under canon 603. It took time to come to understand the human person as a covenant reality and the silence of solitude as particularly antithetical to the individualism and isolationism which plagues contemporary society.

Similarly, when I first wrote a Rule I skipped over "stricter separation from the world." Not only did I not truly understand what was needed here but I also didn't trust the reality I thought this element of the canon demanded. I read "world" in a relatively unnuanced way and I read "separation" in terms of "turning one's back on" others. It took me several years --- in fact a number of years of prayer, reflection, and personal work before I came to understand how it is a hermit both lives FOR the world  God so loves even as she separates herself from and rejects significant dimensions of it. It took time to perceive what the vocation asked of me as a person and what that witnessed to; in other words it took me  a number of years to understand the unique generosity and hospitality of the eremitical vocation and how that contrasts with a dangerous enmeshment which is often seen as legitimate engagement. All of this impacts the way a Rule is formulated; it also will impact the way a diocese discerns this vocation and the authenticity of other vocations to solitary eremitical life.

This leads to a final reason for writing several Rules over time, namely 4) one is called to represent an ancient desert tradition present in Judaism and Christianity. (Obviously it is present in other faiths as well, but my concern here is with the specifically Judeo-Christian eremitical tradition.) This tradition is associated with the prophetic and counter cultural dimensions of both faiths and is consistently linked to the assumption of a new identity and maturity vis-a-vis God, God's People and God's future in and with regard to our world. While a Rule is meant to help one live one's own individual call it also is meant to reflect the continuity of one's life with the eremitical tradition. It takes time to appreciate this --- especially seeing the importance of modifying traditional expressions of eremitical life in the face of contemporary pastoral needs while maintaining significant continuity. Diocesan hermit Rules are approved with a Bishop's declaration of approval. This does not make them public documents but it does, I think, make them quasi public documents which can serve the Church, canonists, and other interested in canon 603 eremitical life. In other words, they have the potential to serve more than the individual hermit and her diocese.

Diocesan Expectations:

My own diocese did not expect me to write several versions of a Rule over time. They simply expected a Rule which was then submitted to canonists and the Bishop for approval. However, when I reapproached the diocese in @ 2003-2004, the first Rule I submitted was written around 1983-4 and, though approved by canonists, was no longer sufficient to reflect either the way I lived this vocation nor my growth in understanding and embracing it. A newer Rule written at this time was approved by my diocese and became my own proper law on the day of my perpetual profession. In 2010-11 I revised it and I suppose in time I may do so again as my own prayer life develops and other priorities change or shift around a bit.

I do hope that dioceses will see the potential of using the Rules individuals write to aid the processes of discernment and supervising of formation along with determining readiness for temporary or perpetual profession, but I don't know if any have adopted this approach. One diocesan Bishop gave a hermit candidate in his diocese a Rule which I am told she was then free to revise and modify under supervision. I suspect we are on the same track here --- so long as the Bishop's version really was a starting point the hermit was free to work with and revise over time. I believe that to the extent a diocese really understands what it takes to write a livable Rule which reflects a healthy and meaningful eremitical life they will not expect a candidate to be able to write one straight away nor will they dismiss a candidate simply because they are initially unable.

However, it is also the case that dioceses and curial staff do not have experience with writing Rules. Since it is the one tangible element of the canon they might well ask the candidate to write one prematurely or fail to understand the reasons it may take several attempts to write an adequate one. Both the candidate and the diocesan staff need to understand that to some extent one writes to learn and grow. The diocese that does approach the requirement that the hermit write her own Rule in this positive and dynamic way is apt to have good experiences with hermits eventually making perpetual profession and consecration. You yourself can assist a diocese in coming to see the importance of the Rule and of several different versions over time.

Rule as Law and Gospel Vision:

The hermit's Rule will be her own proper law, similar to the Constitutions and Statutes for religious living in community, and this is certainly an important function all by itself. However, historically Rules have had more than this function. They have often served to provide a vision of the life being lived and enough of a sense of the values being embodied to inspire the person to live the Rule as law. In other words a Rule can be a specific picture of Gospel living which captures one's imagination and reflects what it means to live as Christ in this specific context.

Most Rules regarding canon 603 begin with the terms of the canon and outline concrete ways in which those essential elements are to be lived out. At some point, however, hermits tend to find a list of do's and don't's, shall's and shall not's is simply insufficient to help them live eremitical life with real integrity. Either they will construct another document which serves to summarize the theology they live out and that helps inspire them to do so, or they will write their Rule or Plan of Life with this focus and include the concrete practices which are part and parcel of honoring such a vision. In either case the hermit will typically rewrite her Rule at various points along the course of her life. In the period sometimes referred to as "initial formation" this practice is a major help to the hermit and those discerning and supervising her vocation.

Your own Rule does not need to be perfect --- though to be honest,  I am not sure I even know what that means! It needs to reflect the life you are living and convey something of your vision of eremitical life and reasons for embracing it. It should include your current understanding of the central elements of the canon, the vows, and the significance of this life in the life of the Church. Eventually you will come to see, understand, and feel responsible for these things even more profoundly and extensively than you do currently and at that point you may need to rewrite your Rule. For instance, I came to understand the silence of solitude as the charism of solitary eremitical life which the hermit brings both our Church and world. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit our world in particular cries out for just as it is something the Church's own kerygma (proclamation) reflects and the eremitical life mediates in an especially vivid way. None of this was present in my first (1985) Rule but I could not live the life without it today. It gives coherence and significance to external practices in the hermit's life and anchors them deeply in both eremitical tradition and contemporary pastoral necessity. It is the central transfiguring reality which allows me to be a hermit rather than merely an isolated and relatively pious person.

Happy New Year (Reprise)

[[The Japanese have a centuries old ritual Waraiko they use to greet a new year and to celebrate birthdays. The ritual consists of giving three hearty belly laughs! The first robust laugh is of gratitude for the previous year just ended. The second hearty laugh is in gratitude for being given a new year of life to enjoy. The third is a really full-bodied belly laugh, since it is to blow the dust off your mind, heart, and soul. Dust? The dust of habit and routine that slowly accumulates like all dust, causing the soul to lose the luster of its youthful vitality.]] by Edward Hay, Chasing Joy

We believe that because he is eternal and living our God is the ground and source of genuine newness. We believe that he is a God who transfigures all of reality into something hope-filled and meaningful. We believe that in Christ we can cooperate with God in his creative and redemptive activity as he brings about a world where heaven and earth profoundly interpenetrate one another and God is all in all. On this holiday, as so many make lists of goals and resolutions for the New Year, may each of us recommit ourselves to a time in which God's own projects in us and in all we know and love may be brought to fulfillment. All good wishes for a wonderful year!