29 March 2016

Why is Silence so Important to a Hermit's Witness?

[[Dear Sister, why is silence so important for the witness of a hermit? One hermit's blog writes a lot about hearing God speak to her and getting messages from Saints so I was wondering if that was typical? My pastor has spoken of silence being necessary to hear God speak to us in the depths of our hearts but that seems pretty different to me than having God send messages and making "assignments". Is silence part of the "experience of redemption" you recently said was so central to the hermit's life?]]

Really excellent questions --- especially the last one about the experience of redemption and silence. I think that silence is central to the hermit's experience of redemption and that it is an important piece of the witness she gives for precisely this reason. One of the really difficult experiences accompanying and often intensifying people's sufferings is the apparent silence of God. Folks who leave the Church often complain that their prayers went unanswered, that God was silent and unresponsive. They conclude either that God is unloving or uncaring, or perhaps that God is simply too remote, truly impersonal, and thus too, entirely irrelevant. They may similarly conclude that God is powerless or simply non-existent and that prayer is useless and the result of juvenile or at least naive wishfulness.

Novelists write powerfully about the silence of God and the way God is indicted by this. In the work, Silence, Shusako Endo pits the incredible suffering of the people against the apparent silence of God. Survivors of the Holocaust put God on trial because their prayers were apparently met with silence; they accused God of having failed to keep the covenant God had made with his people. They had been his People but the evidence of the holocaust's millions murdered indicated God had failed to be their God. The silence of God is one of those realities which challenges us most profoundly and to which our faith is most vulnerable. It is also a reality which is central to the eremitical life both as a challenging and penitential context expressing our yearning for God, and as a consoling element reflecting our wholeness and completion in God. Silence can be an expression of isolation, meaninglessness, and the seeming unresponsiveness of God or it can be an expression of the covenantal solitude in which we are completed as persons and come to quies, or shalom.

I can't say that God speaks TO me directly very often but I can say that God is frequently, even continuously speaking me, that is, calling my name and summoning me to fullness of life and wholeness. I have learned that most profoundly in silence and in the life that comes in silence. So many times silence reflected my own emptiness and incapacity --- just as it does with all of us. At one point before I became a hermit I thought I had reached the end of my strength, the end of my ability to see any meaningfulness in my life, any potential for serving God or his People. I had nothing to say except the single question, "WHY?!" and in asking this, I expected no real answers. It was most usually the silent cry of anguish I myself was. Only rarely was I able to pose it directly, to speak it aloud or claim it as my identity which called for an Other. Silence in those times was a terrible trial; but it was also a gift which opened me to a transcendent truth and love beyond anything I could have imagined.

In my own life I needed a God who would not simply answer my facile or sometimes desperate prayers but would instead embrace me in all of my poverty, emptiness, and inarticulateness, a God who would love me enough to bring life and  wholeness out of these. That required entering into these realities in silence to plumb their depths --- depths beyond words, thoughts, images, even beyond my more usual cries of anguish, apparent yearnings, etc both to meet God there and to open these realities to God. Isn't this the very nature of prayer Paul speaks of in Romans 8:26: [[the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words;]] In time it (silence) became a necessary condition for the gift God would make of my life and the circumstances of that life. It became a piece of what my life witnesses to --- namely the importance of entering silence in all of its depths and painfulness precisely so that God can bring life out of death and an articulate and meaningful "word" even out of complete muteness. All of this is something that happens in silence.

As a result I generally distrust the notion of a spirituality which is or seems to be little more than a series of "messages" from God or "assignments" or "locutions," and "visions." I distrust this especially in one claiming to be a hermit. Not only are these seductive and potentially idolatrous, but, except in rare instances which are truly of God, they seem to me to be distractions from the silence of solitude. I don't think they are typical of eremitical spirituality at all. Hermits grapple with silence; more importantly though, they grapple with their own frailty and poverty in silence. They allow the absolute Silence and cosmic Song we know as God to embrace even their life's worst and most painful silences, and transfigure these so that they too may sing their part in what hermits call "the silence of solitude" --- the covenantal "quies" and communion with God the authentic hermit (indeed, the authentic human being) truly is.

As noted above, out of our personal and external silence and physical solitude comes EITHER what the tradition refers to as "the silence of solitude" and the achievement of quies or hesychasm which result when human emptiness and divine fullness meet one another and powerless muteness is embraced by the Love we know as God, OR our lives are and remain a searing indictment of God and God's silence. It is, I think, a terrible temptation in such circumstances to "hear" God speaking to us in locutions, to find God in visions and in the facile assurances of some fraudulent spirituality or shallow form of piety, but it is my experience that the revelation of God's presence and power generally comes in silence. (That is, it generally comes silently in a way which embraces and transfigures our own deepest silence.) Redemption itself comes in the meeting of our own profoundest silence which is deeper than, but encompasses all the joy and anguish, all the poverty and potentiality we know, and the incredibly fecund silence of the Love-in-Act which grounds and summons the cosmos into existence out of nothing.

Because the encounter of these deep silences is redemptive, then yes, silence is a central part of the redemption to which a hermit witnesses. This is so just as entering the terrible inarticulateness and even muteness of apparently meaningless suffering or the silence of senseless death while encountering the terrible silence of God is part of the redemption achieved in the Christ Event. In that event what could have been the most damning indictment of God's silence becomes instead the most profound witness to the scope and power of Divine Love's embrace.

As I have noted here before, our culture knows little of dwelling in silence. It fears it, considers it fruitless and perhaps significant of failure; knowing it is both associated with suffering and can unmask and occasion suffering, we generally fill it with sound of every kind. We deflect it and distract from it and when noise becomes too great we layer more noise on top of it rather than embracing  greater silence. We all know the truism that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God --- or to meet ourselves in the silences of our own hearts, much less to plumb these to their depths. We also know, I think, that as a result shallowness and superficiality mark our lives and relationships.

In our relationship with God we may fill our side of things with prayers and should we somehow meet the silence of God during a prayer period, we are apt to claim instead that God was absent or uncaring or simply failed to hear us. But hermits witness to the need for silence and solitude in becoming truly human --- in becoming the prayer God has made us to be. Beyond the need for external silence and physical solitude they witness to the silence of solitude that results when we allow ourselves to struggle with(in) and fall through these lesser silences deep into the hands of the Silent, Living God whose Word we are meant to enflesh and whose counterparts we are made and called to become.

27 March 2016

25 March 2016

Madman or Messiah? On this Day We Wait in the Darkness (Reprised with Tweaks)

I admit that a pet peeve of mine associated with celebrating the Triduum in a parish setting is the inadequate way folks handle what should be periods of silence after Holy Thursday's Mass and reservation of the Eucharist and the stations and celebration of Jesus' passion on Good Friday. Unneces-sary conversations, hearty and premature  wishes of "Happy Easter" in the sacristy or upon leaving the Church and parking lot immediately after the Passion drive me more than a little crazy --- not only because we have only just celebrated the death of Jesus, but because there is a significant period of grief and uncertainty that we call Holy Saturday still standing between Jesus' death and his resurrection.

Silence is appropriate during these times; Easter is still distant. Allowing ourselves to live with the terrible disappointment and critical questions Jesus' disciples experienced as their entire world collapsed is a significant piece of coming to understand why we call today "Good" and tomorrow "Holy." It is important to appreciating the meaning of this three day liturgy we call Triduum. The Church could do better with its celebration of Holy Saturday and her explanation of its theological meaning, but spending some time waiting and reflecting on who we would be (not to mention who God would be!) had Jesus stayed good and dead is something Good Friday (essentially beginning after Holy Thursday Mass) and Holy Saturday (beginning the evening after the passion) call for.

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In trying to explain the Cross, Paul once said, "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more." During Holy Week, the Gospel readings focus us on the first part of Paul's statement. Sin has increased to an extraordinary extent and the one people touted as the Son of God has been executed as a blaspheming godforsaken criminal. We watched the darkness and the threat to his life grow and cast the whole of Jesus' life into question.

In the Gospel for last Tuesday we heard John's version of the story of Judas' betrayal of Jesus and the prediction of Peter's denials as well. For weeks before this we had been hearing stories of a growing darkness and threat centered on the person of Jesus. Pharisees and Scribes were irritated and angry with Jesus at the facile way he broke Sabbath rules or his easy communion with and forgiveness of sinners. That he spoke with an authority the people recognized as new and surpassing theirs was also problematical. Family and disciples failed to understand him, thought him crazy, urged him to go to Jerusalem to work wonders and become famous.

Even his miracles were disquieting, not only because they increased the negative reaction of the religious leadership and the fear of the Romans as the darkness and threat continued to grow alongside them, but because Jesus himself seems to give us the sense that they are insufficient  and lead to misunderstandings and distortions of who he is or what he is really about. "Be silent!" we often hear him say. "Tell no one about this!" he instructs in the face of the increasing threat to his life. Futile instructions, of course, and, as those healed proclaim the wonders of God's grace in their lives, the darkness and threat to Jesus grows; The night comes ever nearer and we know that if evil is to be defeated, it must occur on a much more profound level than even thousands of such miracles.

In the last two weeks of Lent, the readings give us the sense that the last nine months of Jesus' life and active ministry was punctuated by retreat to a variety of safe houses as the priestly aristocracy actively looked for ways to kill him. He attended festivals in secret and the threat of stoning recurred again and again. Yet, inexplicably "He slipped away" we are told or, "They were unable to find an opening." The darkness is held at bay, barely. It is held in check by the love of the people surrounding Jesus. Barely. And in the last safe house on the eve of Passover as darkness closes in on every side Jesus celebrated a final Eucharist with his friends and disciples. He washed their feet, reclined at table with them like free men did. And yet, profoundly troubled, Jesus spoke of his impending betrayal by Judas. None of the disciples, not even the beloved disciple understood what was happening. There is one last chance for Judas to change his mind as Jesus hands him a morsel of bread in friendship and love. God's covenant faithfulness is maintained.

But Satan enters Judas' heart and a friend of Jesus becomes his accuser --- the meaning of the term Satan here --- and the darkness enters this last safe house of light and friendship, faith and fellowship. It was night, John says. It was night. Judas' heart is the opening needed for the threatening darkness to engulf this place and Jesus as well. The prediction of Peter's denials tells us this "night" will get darker and colder and more empty yet.  But in John's story, when everything is at its darkest and lowest, Jesus exclaims in a kind of victory cry: [[ Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in him!]] Here as darkness envelopes everything, Jesus exults that authentically human being is revealed, made known and made real in space and time; here, in the midst of  the deepening "Night" God too is revealed and made fully known and real in space and time. It is either the cry of a messiah who will overcome evil right at its heart --- or it is the cry of a madman who cannot recognize or admit the victory of evil as it swallows him up. In the midst of these days of death and vigil, we do not really know which. At the end of these three days we call Triduum we will see what the answer is.

Today, the Friday we call "Good," the darkness intensified. During the night Jesus was arrested and "tried" by the Sanhedrin with the help of false witnesses, desertion by his disciples, and Judas' betrayal. Today he was brought before the Romans, tried, found innocent, flogged in an attempt at political appeasement and then handed over anyway by a fearful self-absorbed leader whose greater concern was for his own position to those who would kill him. There was betrayal, of consciences, of friendships, of discipleship and covenantal bonds on every side but God's. The night continued to deepen and the threat could not be greater.  Jesus was crucified and eventually cried out his experience of abandonment even by God. He descended into the ultimate godlessness, loneliness, and powerlessness we call hell. The darkness became almost total. We ourselves can see nothing else. That is where Good Friday and Holy Saturday leave us.

And the question these events raises haunts the night and our own minds and hearts: namely, messiah or madman? Is Jesus simply another person crushed by the cold, emptiness, and darkness of evil --- good and wondrous though his own works were? (cf Gospel for last Friday: John 10:31-42.) Is this darkness and emptiness the whole of the reality in which we live? Is our God incapable of redeeming failure, sin and death --- even to the point of absolute lostness? Does he consign sinners to these without real hope because God's justice differs from his mercy? The questions associated with Jesus' death on the Cross multiply and we Christians wait in the darkness today and tomorrow. We fast and pray and try to hold onto hope that the one we called messiah, teacher, friend, beloved,  brother and Lord, was not simply deluded --- or worse --- and that we Christians are not, as Paul puts the matter, the greatest fools of all.

We have seen sin increase to immeasurable degrees; and though we do not see how it is possible we would like to think that Paul was right and that grace will abound all the more. But on this day we call "good" and on the Saturday we call "holy" we wait. Bereft, but hopeful, we wait.

24 March 2016

Jesus' Descent into Hell (Reprised)

The following piece was written for my parish bulletin for Palm Sunday 2012. It is, therefore, necessarily brief but I hope it captures the heart of the credal article re Jesus' descent into Hell. It also represents an explanation of the significance of Jesus' experience of abandonment by God which itself is an experience of hell or godforsakenness.

During Holy week we recall and celebrate the central events of our faith which reveal just how deep and incontrovertible is God's love for us. It is the climax of a story of "self-emptying" on God's part begun in creation and completed in the events of the cross. In Christ, and especially through his openness and responsiveness (i.e., his obedience) to the One he calls Abba, God enters exhaustively into every aspect of our human existence and in no way spares himself the cost of such solidarity. Here God is revealed as an unremitting Love which pursues us without pause or limit. Even our sinfulness cannot diminish or ultimately confound this love. Nothing, the gospel proclaims, will keep God from embracing and bringing us “home” to Himself. As the Scriptures remind us, our God loves us with a love that is “stronger than death." It is a love from which, “Neither death nor life, nor powers nor principalities, nor heights nor depths, nor anything at all” can ultimately separate us!

It is only against this Scriptural background that we make sense of the article of the Apostles’ Creed known as Jesus’ “descent into hell”. Hell is, after all, not the creation of an offended God designed to punish us; it is a state of ultimate emptiness, inhumanity, loneliness, and lovelessness which is created, sustained, and exacerbated (made worse) by every choice we make to shut God out --- to live, and therefore to die, without Love itself. Hell is the fullest expression of the alienation which exists between human beings and God. As Benedict XVI writes, it is that “abyss of absolute loneliness” which “can no longer be penetrated by the word of another” and“into which love can no longer advance.” And yet, in Christ God himself will advance into this abyss and transform it with his presence. Through the sinful death of God’s Son, Love will become present even here.

To say that Christ died what the New Testament refers to as sinful, godless, “eternal”, or “second death” is to say that through his passion Jesus entered this abyss and bore the full weight of human isolation and Divine abandonment. In this abject loneliness and hopelessness --- a hell deeper than anyone has ever known before or will ever know again --- Christ, though completely powerless to act on his own, remains open and responsive to God. This openness provides God with a way into this state or place from which he is otherwise excluded. In Christ godforsakenness becomes the good soil out of which the fullness of resurrection life springs. As a result, neither sin nor death will ever have the final word, or be a final silence! God will not and has not permitted it!

The credal article affirming Jesus’ descent into hell was born not from the church’s concern with the punishing wrath of God, but from her profound appreciation of the depth of God’s love for us and the lengths to which God would go to redeem us and to bring creation to fulfillment. What seems at first to be an unreservedly dark affirmation, meant mainly to terrify and chasten with foreboding, is instead the church's most paradoxical statement of the gospel of God’s prodigal love. It is a stark symbol of what it costs God to destroy that which separates us from Love-in-Act and bring us to abundant (eternal) Life. It says that forgiveness is not about God changing his mind about us – much less having his anger appeased or his honor restored through his Son’s suffering and death. Instead, it is God’s steadfast refusal to let the alienation of sin stand eternally. In reconciling us to himself, God asserts his Lordship precisely in refusing to allow enmity and alienation to remain as lasting realities in our lives or world.

23 March 2016

The Crucified God, Emmanuel Fully Revealed

Three months ago I did a reflection for my parish. I noted that all through Advent we sing Veni, Veni, Emmanuel and pray that God will really reveal Godself as Emmanuel, the God who is with us. I also noted that we may not always realize the depth of meaning captured in the name Emmanuel. We may not realize the degree of solidarity with us and the whole of creation it points to. There are several reasons here. First we tend to use Emmanuel only during Advent and Christmastide so we stop reflecting on the meaning or theological implications of the name. Secondly, we are used to thinking of a relatively impersonal God borrowed from Greek philosophy; he is omnipresent rather like air is present in our lives. He seems already to be "Emmanuel". And thirdly, we tend to forget that the word "reveal" does not only mean "to make known," but also "to make real in space and time." The God who is revealed in space and time as Emmanuel is the God who enters exhaustively into the circumstances and lives of his Creation and makes these part of his own life.

Thus, just as the Incarnation of the Word of God happens over the whole of Jesus' life and death and not merely with Jesus' conception or nativity, so too does God require the entire life and death of Jesus to achieve the degree of solidarity with us that makes him the Emmanuel he wills to be. There is a double "movement" involved here, the movement of descent and ascent, kenosis and theosis. Not only does God in Christ become implicated in the whole of human experience but in that same Christ God takes the whole of the human situation and experience into Godself. We talk about this by saying that through the Christ Event heaven and earth interpenetrate one another and one day will be all in all or, again, that "the Kingdom of God is at hand." John the Evangelist says it again and again with the language of mutual indwelling and union: "I am in him and he is in me," "he who sees me sees the one who sent me", "the Father and I are One." Paul affirms it in Romans 8 when he exults, "Nothing [at all in heaven or on earth] can separate us from the Love of God."

And so in Jesus' active ministry he companions us and heals us; he exorcises our demons, teaches, feeds, forgives and sanctifies us. He is mentor and brother and Lord. He bears our stupidities and fear, our misunderstandings, resistance, and even our hostility betrayals. But the revelation of God as Emmanuel means much more besides; as we move into the Triduum we begin to celebrate the exhaustive revelation, the exhaustive realization of an eternally-willed solidarity with us whose extent we can hardly imagine. In Christ and especially in his passion and death God comes to us in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. Three dimensions of the cross especially allow us to see the depth of solidarity with us our God embraces in Christ: failure, suffering unto death, and lostness or godforsakenness. Together they reveal our God as Emmanuel --- the one who is with us as the one from whom nothing can ever ultimately separate us because in Christ those things become part of God's own life.

Jesus comes to the cross having failed in his mission. Had he succeeded there would have been no betrayal, no trial, no torture and no crucifixion. But Jesus remains open to God and trusts in his capacity to redeem any failure; thus even failure can serve the Kingdom of God. Jesus suffers to the point of death and suffers more profoundly than any person in history we can name --- not because he hurt more profoundly than others but because he was more vulnerable to it and chose to embrace that vulnerability without mitigation. Suffering per se is not salvific, but Jesus' openness and responsiveness to God in the face of suffering is. Thus, suffering even unto death is transformed into a potential sacrament of God's presence. Finally, Jesus suffers the lostness of godforsakenness or abandonment by God --- the ultimate separation from God due to sin. This is the meaning of not just death but death on a cross. In this death Jesus again remains open to the God who reveals himself most exhaustively as Emmanuel and takes even the lostness of sin into himself and makes it his own. After all, as the NT reminds us, it is the sick and lost for whom God in Christ comes.

As I noted back in January, John C. Dwyer, my major Theology professor for BA and MA work back in the 1970's described God's revelation of self on the cross (God's making himself known and personally present even in those places from whence we exclude him) --- the exhaustive coming of God as Emmanuel --- in this way:

[[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.

21 March 2016

Questions on the Experience of Redemption at the Heart of Eremitical Life

 [[ Hi Sister Laurel, I began reading your blog once in a while a couple of years ago just out of curiosity about hermits. It never occurred to me that this was a meaningful vocation and I held a lot of the preconceptions and prejudices you have mentioned from time to time. But even as I let go of some of these I could not see the real difficulty or significance of the vocation. I mean I knew I was not called to it myself, but it seemed that so long as a person is an introvert then it wouldn't be all that difficult  -- especially if they didn't have something better to do! Like someone wrote you a while back, you just say some prayers, do a little gardening, stay away from people and what was such a big a deal? Okay, so now I am beginning to get it.

When you wrote about the "redemptive experience" that MUST be at the center of the life, or the activity of God which has to stand at its heart I began to see this as a real vocation. Then you said that unless that [redemptive activity of God] is there a diocese would have nothing to discern and nothing they could give to the candidate either. And then you also said that this redemptive experience could make sense of a life that was empty and absurd otherwise and something clicked for me. It's all about God and what we allow him to do with us! I was taught that in religion classes, but I just hadn't seen the hermit's life as an image of or witness to that same truth! And now I see that that is the ONE thing a hermit is called to witness to. The ONE and only thing!! That is really amazing to me! . . . How did you come to know this?  Did you learn about it in theology school? Was it because you were chronically ill? And what is the hardest thing about it, about living as a hermit I mean? Can I write you about this again when my questions become clearer?]]

Thanks for your patience in waiting for me to finally get to this. I think I can hear the excitement of discovery in what you write. The questions you asked are clear enough, I think, but more about that at the bottom! So is the insight you are so excited about (which I will tweak a little here), namely, it's all about God and what God DOES do with our lives if only we allow God to love us as radically as God wills to love us; that is the ONE thing a hermit is called to witness to, the ONE and only thing. Let me start there. There are many ways to describe the general and universal call involved. We can talk about glorifying God, being the counterpart and dialogue partner of God, being radically obedient to God, letting God be sovereign, living the love of God, allowing the mercy of God to do justice in our lives and world, letting God make us holy, "I, yet not I, but Christ in me," conversion, redemption, etc. In some ways we are each and all of us called to this vocation. It is what it means to be truly human.

How Does the Eremitical Vocation Differ?

It seems to me that what makes the call of the hermit different is that it is in becoming and being this [expression of God's redemption] and nothing else, and doing so in the silence of solitude that is the gift (or charism) she brings to the Church and world; it is the one "ministry" she is absolutely called to in the Church. Unlike with most other vocations, it necessarily occurs in eremitical silence and solitude and in some ways is completely hidden from others. She is called to be herself in God --- to be the prayer God makes of her and to do that in stricter separation from "the world" and in the silence of solitude. Everything else, including intercessory prayer, is secondary to this.  In this call she mirrors the radical solitude of Jesus who certainly lived for and ministered to others, but who first and foremost was the unique counterpart of the One he called Abba, and was most truly human only to the extent that he was profoundly and even exhaustively open and responsive to God thus revealing and implicating God in everything he said, was, and did.

Though this was true in the apparent failure of his healing and preaching ministry, it was most exhaustively true in the abject weakness, emptiness, and absurdity of his passion and sinful or godless death by crucifixion. Everything Jesus did and said was secondary to and an expression of his allowing God to be revealed (made known and made real in space and time) in and through every moment and mood of his life. Jesus revealed the extent to which the One he called Abba is "with us". He did so in what must have been a very painful solitude --- a solitude marked by misunderstanding and failure or even a refusal to understand him, by a sense of mission even his closest disciples contradicted, rejected, or betrayed, by the realities of failure, sin, shame, incredible physical and emotional pain, abandonment and godless death, but above all a solitude shaped by a remarkable life-giving intimacy with God. It is this vocation to be God's counterpart, to enter into and witness to a similar intimacy with God that stands at the root of everything else Christians live and do to which a hermit is called.

One point I should address here is the idea of paradigm or, maybe even better, that of icon. I do not mean to argue that the eremitical vocation is something special in the sense of it being elitist. Every human being is called to the same identity as God's counterpart, the same existential solitude, the same dialogue with God, the same humanity which occurs in union with God. Just as I recognize that Consecrated Virgins are icons of the Church as Bride of Christ, and just as I argue that they are equally icons of the nuptial relationship every person is called to eschatologically, so I argue that hermits are icons of the dialogical relationship constituting a humanity where Divine power is made perfect in weakness. They serve to remind people of a universal truth, a universal identity. They are paradigms of this. However, this also means that in many ways the hermit's path to this witness differs significantly from the path of others. Others are called to share God's love via different gifts and talents and to do so in a multitude of forms of active ministry. In other words the mission and charism of their lives is different from that of the hermit but the redemptive reality at the heart of their lives and identity as human is the largely same.

Here Paul's image of the single body with many members and different functions is critically important. The hermit vocation is not a higher vocation, a way in which one is elect and others are not. It is simply a path some are especially fitted for and called to by the combination of life circumstances and Divine love. The Church's proclamation of the Gospel requires priests and religious, mothers and fathers, doctors, nurses, teachers, scientists and others following innumerable paths in service of humanity, and in fact of the whole of creation. None of these are called to a "higher" vocation than any other. Each and all of us are called to know God and to reveal or witness to that "knowledge" to others. I say that genuine eremitical vocations are rare --- and they are. But their rarity is not a denial or contradiction of their universal relevance -- nor of the universal solitariness of human being.  It affirms these even as it poses with a particular vividness the question which human beings are and the answer whom God is.

Your Questions:

How did I come to know this? Was it through school, chronic illness or what? The answer is that I have come to know this in a variety of ways. Certainly college and graduate school were important for learning Paul and Mark's theologies of the cross and otherwise becoming familiar with Scripture. Though this is so much more than lectures and book learning it remains true that lectures and book learning have helped and continue to help keep me related to God, anchored in theological truth, as they provide language, categories of thought, and interlocutors who can help me reflect on my own experience and check my theologizing.

Prayer is a second source, especially contemplative prayer in solitude. There's no way to describe briefly all the ways this has been important though I have talked about some of this in the blog piece Central Formative Theological Insights. The insights described there were also profoundly linked to my experience of God in prayer --- or, maybe better said, to the experiences of reality and self supported and empowered by prayer. The notion of a God who is profoundly present within us, who is a constant source of life and meaning even when everything else seems to militate against these is as much a result of prayer as it is a theological insight. The place of prayer in my life is a source and foundation which makes the theological insights a good deal more than clever intellectual constructs. Prayer calls for theology and theology itself leads to and cannot really be done without prayer. The two are inextricable. It is possible to say that together they are a single source of my knowledge of God and the place God plays in my life.

Chronic illness is a third source because it is a significant piece of the context of everything else that happens in my life, of all that I am and do. It put an end to future plans and preparation, made a number of gifts useless, isolated me in significant ways, was often dehumanizing, and confronted me with my own weakness and complete dependence upon God for the redemption and transfiguration of my life. It was in this way I came to know that existing in isolation was dehumanizing while existing in solitude (that is, in communion with God and with others in God) made me truly human. Above all, chronic illness confronted me with the question of meaning; my life was a scream of anguish and in the infrequent times that scream became more or less articulate, the question it clamored for an answer to was, "WHY??!!" At the same time though, it made it important that I not adopt a "solution" which was merely a way of validating my isolation.

Once I became a hermit (long before becoming diocesan) I began to live, read about and reflect even more seriously on the eremitical vocation. That too was an important source of knowing that "it's all about God and what God DOES do if only we allow God to love us as radically as God wills to do" that is the ONE thing hermits MUST witness to precisely in stricter separation and the silence of solitude, the really meaningful and rare gift hermits bring to the Church and world. You see, it was eremitical solitude (not the isolation of chronic illness or the solitude of introversion) that convinced me of the vast difference between these two realities. It also, as you probably know since you have been reading here for a couple of years, taught me the difference between using gifts and talents and being made to be the gift precisely in being redeemed. My illness was not healed, many of my gifts and talents remain essentially unused and unusable but all of these and more become a larger gift which witnesses to the love and faithfulness of God that reconciles and makes whole.

Above all then it was the lesson I was taught by coming to know and be known by the love of God. That love received in faith transfigured my life in so many ways that of course I felt called to witness to this. What the other elements helped me learn was that, as you say, that was the ONE and only thing I was called to witness to with a kind of starkness eremitical life does best. I am not a hermit because, for instance and like some, I am mainly critical of the institutional Church --- though my solitude may provide the perspective from which I, like the desert Fathers and Mothers, may be critical and even prophetic. I am not a hermit because I think everyone is called to something similar --- though I would agree that solitude itself is the most universal of vocations and my life can point to the relatedness of which that solitude consists. It took me a number of years to come to the conclusion that this really was the ONLY thing I was truly called to witness to.

What is the Hardest Thing?

I am not sure how to answer this. Living as a hermit is an integrated whole and sometimes it is all easy while other times it is all hard. Perhaps the single hardest thing (sometimes) is giving myself completely to God in all things; there is such a pull to keep something "for myself" despite the fact that I understand the paradox that I only truly possess myself to the extent I: 1) give myself to God and 2) receive myself from God as complete gift. As I wrote here not too long ago, it is one thing to offer God my entire life in baptism or religious profession and to renew that offer each day, for instance; it's entirely another to actually give my Self to God as exhaustively as possible and as willed by God. But there is another paradox involved here which makes what is sometimes difficult a good deal easier and that is that to the degree I am forgetful of self, to the degree my discernment focuses on the life which summons me. That life is bigger than I am and yet it is something I can attend to and focus on without getting lost in self. Here giving my entire self to God means receiving the gift God gives --- the gift God is! --- and doing so without limit.

This distinction between giving one's life and giving one's' entire self by allowing God to love one exhaustively has always been hardest and is at the root of my writing or talking about the dangers (and temptation) of mediocrity and compromise in eremitical life. It is also at the root of moving from being justified to being made whole and truly holy or of standing in right relationship with God (being righteous) to living in union with God.  Another way of saying this is to point to the difference between praying and being made God's own prayer in our world. How much easier it is to pray at a number of set places during the day than to allow ourselves to become the word event which glorifies God at each and every moment.

Now let me be clear, or at least try to be clearer. I do not mean we are called to an obsessive kind of self-consciousness in which we become incapable of spontaneity or joy. Just the opposite is the case. I mean merely that the tendency to compartmentalize (or individualize) our lives and to see them in terms of the things we do ourselves and the things God does, or the things we do ourselves and the things we do through and with the power of God, is very easy for us. (It is also a symptom of our sinful state of estrangement and alienation.) Much harder to hold onto is an awareness that everything we do or are is meant to be done through, with, and in God. It is easy to think of ourselves as God's partners in this or that. Much harder to hold onto indeed is the truth that we are only human, we are only truly ourselves to the extent it is not us but Christ in us who is living this life.

One person (A. M. Allchin?)  puts it this way, "We are not individuals, we are persons!"  Living from this reality is a matter of mindfulness and real attentiveness, an awareness we can only acquiesce to, in, and through the grace of God. This truth and the process of realizing this truth in space and time is what the Eastern Church termed "theosis"; it is the result of redemption and the remaking of our minds and hearts by God but it also involves our conscious choice to live from and for this remaking. lt involves a trust in its truth, a continuing act of faith that this is really the way things are and are made to be by God's love. It depends on our allowing the true self (what Merton calls, "a spontaneity") to really be when it is more usual to live from the false self and its ingrained habits, resistance, and complacency.

The second single hardest thing is discerning the degree of active ministry I am truly called by God to do. My motives regarding doing active ministry are one of the more conflicted things I experience. Discerning when and where to do active ministry means moving through self-consciousness, to a much deeper consciousness of self-in-God and the ways in which I am called to live, and then finally, to a forgetfulness of self in Christ which empowers whatever choice needs to be made so it is truly for others. I try to live my Rule while staying open to patterns which may signal a need to change that occasionally or make something within it more concrete. I also try to accommodate those ways in which I am asked or may feel called to serve which are important both to those to whom I minister actively and to the enrichment and deepening of my eremitical life. All one can do is to continue choosing what is truly worthy of oneself and one's calling, to do so in God, and thus hone or purify that process with each and every choice.

You may have been expecting an answer about more concrete things that are difficult for me. If that's the case then yes, please do ask any specific questions that have been raised for you. I'll do my best to respond.

08 March 2016

What is the Real Sign Jesus Does?

[[Now there was a royal official whose son was ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, who was near death. Jesus said to him, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” The royal official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” Jesus said to him, “You may go; your son will live.” The man believed what Jesus said to him and left. While the man was on his way back, his slaves met him and told him that his boy would live. He asked them when he began to recover. They told him, “The fever left him yesterday, about one in the afternoon.” The father realized that just at that time Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live,” and he and his whole household came to believe. Now this was the second sign Jesus did when he came to Galilee from Judea.]]

There is a serious challenge present in today's (Monday's) gospel reading. It is rooted in what seems to be a sincere desire on Jesus' part that people believe him and the word of promise he embodies and speaks and that they do so without prior "signs and wonders". In Mark's Gospel Jesus is the one who speaks with a unique authority and it is the challenge to hear that and embrace it that stands at the heart of every Christian vocation. More, it is a share in this same authority we are each called to embody in our own lives --- something we tend to do without miraculous signs and wonders. That is the very nature of an obedient faith, that we hear and trust Jesus, that in response to the authoritative Word he is and speaks we entrust our lives to him and to the promise he represents and that we do so without first demanding "signs and wonders." But John's reference to the miracle at Cana along with his statement, [[Now this was the second sign Jesus did when he came to Galilee from Judea,]] seems to shift our entire attention to Jesus as a wonder worker and to the signs and wonders he did.

 Critical as it is to understand the theological perspective of the gospel writer, sometimes an author's helpful introduction as well as their interpretive summary, their theologoumenon (θεολογούμενον), can actually prevent us from grappling with and hearing the text. In this case it can cause us to assume that the point of the whole reading is that Jesus does miracles despite some initial reluctance on his part. But we must not allow it to do that. Instead it must drive us back to the text, to the task of reading it carefully. Only then might we see that John's focus on wonder working, especially in light of Jesus' objection that people will not believe unless they see signs and wonders, is more ambiguous than we might have assumed, and that his understanding of Jesus and the miracles that stem from our encounters with him are more complex than we might have suspected.

This morning when I read the text I focused only on the critical section (pericope) from [[Jesus said to him]] to [[he and his whole household came to believe.]] I was looking at the dynamics of the exchange between Jesus and the royal official who had clearly traveled some distance seeking Jesus out. I was not reading the story in light of either John's reference to the miracle at Cana or the final interpretive statement which establishes Jesus as a wonder worker. Apart from these statements the passage reads very differently; the focus is drawn away from Jesus having healed the son and instead placed on the official's act of "believing into" Jesus' authority, his word of promise, and what may be the fruits of that "faithing" --- despite being rather unfairly and offensively rebuffed by Jesus for "needing to see miracles to believe" and well before any healing takes place: [[Jesus said, "You may go. Your Son will live." The man believed what Jesus said to him and left.]]

Only the next day does the official discover the fever has left his son and he is recovering. He realizes the fever left his son about the same time he was asking Jesus to intervene. His "believing into" this man Jesus and the Word of Promise he is and speaks is a growing, maturing reality. The son's recovery confirms the truth Jesus spoke and as a result his faith in Jesus grew and in fact, his entire household also came to faith. Jesus' initial rebuff, [[Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe]] challenges the Herodian official to a more authentic faith and he meets the challenge. This entire story is sandwiched between the reference to the conversion of water to wine in Cana, Jesus 1st great "sign", and John's interpretive reminder that this was Jesus' 2nd sign. We assume that when John refers to the second sign it is the act of healing. That may be true but the statement seems ambiguous to me. It follows not only the account of the healing, but more immediately, the fact that the official comes to greater faith and his household also comes to participate in what John describes as "believing into" Jesus and the revelation of God he is.

The question John's summary does not clarify and in fact sharpens, is "What is the real "sign" Jesus did?" Was it a healing of the child or speaking the Word in a way which leads first a Herodian (and thus possibly a Gentile) official and then an entire household to belief? Or was it both together?

I believe we are supposed to see these two things as inextricably wed. Both lead us to see Jesus as the authoritative and authoring Word of God; both lead us to understand faith in Jesus as the most fundamental challenge of our lives. Jesus is both Word and Sign. When he speaks reality is changed and God is made real in an exhaustive way in human history. In Cana Mary believed and instructed others to do whatever Jesus told them. The conversion of water into wine followed this. In today's gospel lection the official may well have known something of Jesus' miracle at Cana but it is the fact that he trusts everything, especially what is most dear to him, to Jesus and what he promises that is the center of today's Lenten Gospel.

It is also, therefore, the center of the call God speaks to us. Jesus' great signs are always linked to people entrusting themselves to the Word of challenge and promise he incarnates; genuine faith involves exactly this kind of trust. Those who root their faith in extraordinary events and manifestations have missed the point. Faith for John is often spoken of as something we mature in. It can begin with an approach to the One who intrigues us and promises miracles as it does for the official. But it grows only as we learn to hear and entrust ourselves to him and his Word. Signs may accompany such faith and validate our trust in the power of the One we are learning more and more to believe in. But the critical act of faith must be a foundational trust in the word that comes to us even without "signs and wonders." In some ways this 'bringing to faith' is always the greatest wonder Jesus empowers.

04 March 2016

Roman Catholic Solitary Religious Life?

[[Dear Sister, is there a canon in the Roman Catholic Church for solitary religious life? Where can I find it and where can I go to see into pursuing it?]]

Thanks for the questions. Please check recent posts contrasting the Anglican canon 14.3 and the Roman Catholic canon 603 for more detailed coverage of this question. Briefly, no, there is no Roman Catholic canon governing solitary religious life per se. Canon 603 governs solitary eremitical life and those professed under this canon are understood by canonists to be religious (cf below), but the canon and the life it governs is very definitely eremitical. It governs hermits, not merely "solitary religious" as the Anglican canon does. The term "solitary religious life" seems to me otherwise to be an oxymoron since, with the exception of solitary hermits professed and consecrated under c 603 who still live a specifically ecclesial vocation in the heart of the Church (and who would betray their vocation if they did not), religious life is communal.

The observation by canonist Ellen O'Hara, csj regarding those individuals professed and consecrated under canon 603: [[The term "religious" now applies to individuals with no relationship to an institute. Groups could use the category association of the faithful to have ecclesiastical identity if they wish,]]** honors the entirely excep-tional nature of this designation in this specific case. Otherwise there is no canon in Roman Catholicism which would allow for "solitary religious". That is an Anglican category, and one I am told was meant to fill a gap in canon law as the Church moved toward a way of recognizing actual solitary hermits. Unfortunately, as I have written before, because it lacks any specific vision of eremitical life which would define life under this canon, it mistakes the notion (or at least contributes to the common mistake) that merely living alone is the same as being a hermit.

I can't direct you to a non-existent canon of course. Though your questions don't seem to lead in this direction, let me note that if you have any interest in eventually being professed as a solitary hermit under c 603 you should try living as a lay hermit according to the vision of eremitical life provided by c 603. If you can do this for a period of time (several years) and find that personally and spiritually you thrive in it, you might then contact your local chancery to inquire about admission to profession and eventually, consecra-tion, under c 603. (Please note, in case some readers might consider moving to the Anglican (Episcopal) Confession to seek profession under canon 14.3, it is unlikely that any bishop there would honor such a request.) My sense is that Anglican bishops are relatively cautious in admitting to profession in this way (perhaps growing more cautious over time) and would not be open to professing someone changing ecclesial affiliations in this variation of "diocese shopping".

** O'Hara, Ellen, CSJ, Handbook of Canons 573-746, "Norms common to all Institutes for Consecrated Life" p 55. Editors Jordan Hite, TOR, Sharon Holland, IHM, and Daniel Ward, OSB.