25 September 2016

Followup #2: On God Alone, Contemplative Prayer and Distractions

[[Dear Sister, Thank you for the exercise on contemplative prayer and distractions. (cf. On God Alone Once Again and In God Alone; links added to question.) I got a copy of the chant and have used it by listening to it at least four or five times in a continuous loop and then paying attention as you suggested. I had trouble listening to just one thing or the other but in time it became easier. What I liked best was that at the end of doing this several different times . . . I began to hear the lines that didn't seem to fit at first instead as part of the whole. I wanted them to be there and could hear them in my mind even when I listened to a different version of the chant. I missed them! But I wonder if this is a good thing. Could it encourage distractions in prayer?]]

Interesting question! First though, I am SO pleased you began to experience one of the things I also experience in listening in this way, namely, the improvisational strands that seemed to lose touch with the chant as they wander off seeming to do their own thing to some extent begin to be an integral part of the whole -- even in their moments of lostness -- and are missed when they are not actually there. I am especially glad you listened to another version of the chant and were able to experience this added dimension of things! It is definitely an important insight and points to some changes (growth?!!) in your own way of hearing. When I experience this kind of thing I begin to hear the whole piece in a new way; I begin to experience a unity which comes not only from the grounding chant itself but also from the improvisational line's yearning to soar freely yet remain related to and struggle (sometimes it is very clearly a struggle) to come to rest securely in that ground once again. Isn't this a pretty good picture of what our prayer is really like or our lives, for that matter? I notice too that listening in this way contributes to greater patience with allowing things to work out as they will in their own time and way. By listening in this way I practice trusting that the larger story not only in my own life but in that of all creation is that one day God will be all in all and nothing will be lost.

I think it is fine that you cannot simply hear the chant without the improvisational lines so long as you can shift your attention gently and slightly to hear the foundational theme or the improvisational lines when you need to do so. In prayer this is really what happens; we shift our attention slightly and gently to wherever we feel called. Again, you bring your whole self and sometimes those "distracting" lines may be a doorway, a musical "modulation" to awareness of a part of yourself you have withheld for some time -- from God, yes, but also, perhaps, even from yourself. What seem to be mere distractions may be or turn out to be important pieces of our life and prayer. I don't think you want to make this an exercise which, in its own way, reprises your original struggle to banish stray thoughts and empty your mind. What I was hoping for from the exercise was that it 1) demonstrate and assist in embracing a way of thinking about the relationship between contemplative prayer and distractions, and 2) provide a way to practice listening while you relaxed with regard to the "distractions". I think the "exercise" is good at helping us learn to listen or "hearken" in the way prayer demands we do. It helps one to be attentive while remaining relaxed and open to hearing/seeing everything (including distractions!) in a new way.

And here then is the answer to your question. I don't think this exercise encourages distractions, but distractions are real and usually unavoidable; they will, for most of us anyway, always be a real part of our prayer. We have to learn to hold them lightly, attend to them as they warrant (for they CAN be important), accept them as potentially sacramental as we do for everything else in our world, and shift our attention where it really needs to be at any given moment --- even as we also trust in the connectedness of the whole. We need to learn to hearken to God, to allow God's dynamic "Music" or Presence to take hold of us in the same way we do for symphonies or other music and songs we know and love --- or wish one day to truly know and love. We must be able to give ourselves over to God in the same way and let God grasp us in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. For me music is a living reality that demands the same kind of attentiveness as prayer. In fact, some of the time, I would not hesitate to call this prayer so if listening to the Taize chant "In God Alone" (or any others!) helped you or others with this I am very glad.

14 September 2016

Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross --- On Humility vs Humiliation

[[Hi Sister, would you do me a favor and repost the piece you did on humilty vs humiliation and the cross. It was the one where someone disagreed with your distinction  between these.  On a day where we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross I thought it was important as part of understanding how we can do that --- celebrate the Cross I mean.]]

Now this is a new one for me --- a request to repost something for a Feast, but sure, here it is.

[[Dear Sister, when we look at the cross I don't think your distinction between humiliation and humility holds. Jesus suffers all kind of humiliation and is humbled. He shows real humility as a result of his humiliation.]] (cp. From Humiliation to Humility: Resting in the Gaze of God)

Thanks for your comment. I get what you are saying: it is in being humiliated that Jesus shows great humility, right? At the same time you are saying, I think, that humiliation leads to humility. In this you have actually put your finger on one of the most destructive confusions and interpretations of the cross ever imagined. You see, while I would agree that Jesus shows incredible humility in the midst of great humiliation, where we seem to disagree is that his humility is a result of his humiliation. Remember that Jesus possesses great humility throughout his life. He possesses it in spite of temptation, trial, and in spite of humiliation. Humiliation leads to or results in shame; humility, on the other hand, is a form of graced dignity.

Jesus knows who he is in light of God's love, "You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased", and he holds onto that sense of identity, that dignity we know as humility even in the midst of shaming torture and crucifixion. When others are betraying him, abandoning him, and trying him for blasphemy and betrayal of the God he knows as Abba, i.e., when others are shaming him, Jesus counters all of this by holding onto who he knows himself to be in the light of God's love.

It is important in reflecting on the cross that we distinguish between the judgment and activities of a sinful body-and-soul-murdering mankind and what is of God. The humiliation and arena of shame is created by human beings who see Jesus' incredibly wonderful works and deem him demonic and blasphemous. When they raise a person up it is to the heights of degradation and shame. But at that same point God sees most clearly his beloved Son, loving and obedient even unto death on a cross. From THAT vantage point what is revealed to us, what empowers Jesus even in his dying, is the epitome of humility --- a transcendent dignity [which is rooted in human and divine truth] and perfected in weakness.

Again then, when you look at the cross and find humiliation you can trace that to the soul-killing judgment of men and women and to their murderous "execution of judgment." As I wrote recently, God NEVER humiliates. NEVER! Human beings lift or hold us up to shame. God raises to humility. When you look at the cross and find genuine humility you must trace that to the graced knowledge of self that comes ultimately from God. It would be an incredibly destructive reading of the events of the cross to see humiliation as the cause of humility. Humility is the incredible dignity Jesus possesses in spite of the shaming humiliation human judgment subjected him to.

I sincerely hope this is helpful.

Feast of the Exaltation/Triumph of the Cross (Reprise)

Today's Feast is the Exaltation (and the Triumph!) of the Cross. I will be putting up a post based on a talk I prepared for some of our school children regarding the readings used at today's Mass but until I can get that written up here, let me mark this significant feast with a piece I wrote in a response to a reader's request several years ago.

[[Could you write something about [today's] feast of the Exaltation of the Cross? What is a truly healthy and yet deeply spiritual way to exalt the Cross in our personal lives, and in the world at large (that is, supporting those bearing their crosses while not supporting the evil that often causes the destruction and pain that our brothers and sisters are called to endure due to sinful social structures?]]

 The above question which arrived by email was the result of reading some of my posts, mainly those on victim soul theology, the Pauline theology of the Cross, and some earlier ones having to do with the permissive will of God. For that reason my answer presupposes much of what I wrote in those and I will try not to be too repetitive. First of all, in answering the question, I think it is helpful to remember the alternative name of this feast, namely, the Triumph of the Cross. For me personally this is a "better" name, and yet, it is a deeply paradoxical one, just like its alternative.

(Crucifix in Ambo of Cathedral of Christ the Light; Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, or Cathedral Sunday in the Diocese of Oakland)

How many times have we heard it suggested that Christians ought not wear crosses around their necks as jewelry any more than they should wear tiny images of electric chairs, medieval racks or other symbols of torture and death? Similarly, how many times has it been said that making jewelry of the cross trivializes what happened there? There is a great deal of truth in these objections, and in similar ones! On the one hand the cross points to the slaughter by torture of hundreds of thousands of people by an oppressive state. More individually it points to the slaughter by torture of an innocent man in order to appease a rowdy religious crowd by an individual of troubled but dishonest conscience, one who put "the supposed greater good" before the innocence of this single victim.

And of course there were collaborators in this slaughter: the religious establishment, disciples who were either too cowardly to stand up for their beliefs, or those who actively betrayed this man who had loved them and called them to a life of greater abundance (and personal risk) than they had ever known before. If we are going to appreciate the triumph of the cross, if we are going to exalt it as Christians do and should, then we cannot forget this aspect of it. Especially we cannot forget that much that happened here was NOT THE WILL OF GOD, nor that generally the perpetrators were not cooperating with that will! The cross was the triumph of God over sin and sinful godless death, but it was ALSO a sinful and godless human (and societal!) act of murder by torture. (In fact one could argue it was a true divine triumph ONLY because it was also these all-too-human things.) Both aspects exist in tension with each other, as they do in ALL of God's victories in our world. It is this tension our jewelry and other crucifixes embody: they are miniature instruments of torture, yes, but also symbols of God's ultimate triumph over the powers of sin and death with which humans are so intimately entangled and complicit.

In our own lives there are crosses, burdens which are the result of societal and personal sin which we must bear responsibly and creatively. That means not only that we cannot shirk them, but also that we bear them with all the asistance that God puts into our hands. Especially it means allowing God to assist us in the carrying of this cross. To really exalt the cross of Christ is to honor all that God did with and made of the very worst that human beings could do to another human being. To exult in our own personal crosses means, at the very least, to allow God to transform them with his presence. That is the way we truly exalt the Cross: we allow it to become the way in which God enters our lives, the passion that breaks us open, makes us completely vulnerable, and urges us to embrace or let God embrace us in a way which comforts, sustains, and even transfigures the whole face of our lives.

If we are able to do this, then the Cross does indeed triumph. Suffering does not. Pain does not. Neither will our lives be defined in terms of these things despite their very real presence. What I think needs to be especially clear is that the exaltation of the cross has to do with what was made possible in light of the combination of awful and humanly engineered torment, and the grace of God. Sin abounded but grace abounded all the more. Does this mean we invite suffering so that "grace may abound all the more?" Well, Paul's clear answer to that question was, "By no means!" How about tolerating suffering when we can do something about it? What about remaining in an abusive relationship, or refusing medical treatment which would ease mental and physical pain, for instance? Do we treat these as crosses we MUST bear? Do we allow ourselves to become complicit in the abuse or the destructive effects of pain and physical or mental illness? I think the general answer is no, of course not.

That means we must look for ways to allow God's grace to triumph, while the triumph of grace ALWAYS results in greater human freedom and authentic functioning. Discerning what is necessary and what will REALLY be an exaltation of the cross in our own lives means determining and acting on the ways freedom from bondage and more authentic humanity can be achieved. Ordinarily this will mean medical treatment; or it will mean moving out of the abusive situation. In ALL cases it means remaining open to and dependent upon God and to what he desires for our lives IN SPITE of the limitations and suffering inherent in them. This is what Jesus did, and what made his cross salvific. This openness and responsiveness to God and what he will do with our lives is, as I have said many times before, what the Scriptures called obedience. Let me be clear: the will of God in ANY situation is that we remain open to him and that authentic humanity be achieved. We MUST do whatever it is that allows us to not close off to God, and to remain open to growth AS HUMAN. If our pain dehumanizes, then we must act in ways which changes that. If our lives cease to reflect the grace of God (and this means fails to be a joyfilled, free, fruitful, loving, genuinely human life) then we must act in ways which change that.

The same is true in society more generally. We must act in ways which open others TO THE GRACE OF GOD. Yes, suffering does this, but this hardly means we simply tell people to pray, grin, and bear it ---- much less allow the oppressive structures to stay in place! As the gospels tell us, "the poor you will always have with you" but this hardly means doing nothing to relieve poverty! Similarly we will always have suffering with us on this side of death, and especially the suffering that comes when human beings institutionalize their own sinful drives and actions. What is essential is that the Cross of Christ is exalted, that the Cross of Christ triumphs in our lives and society, not simply that individual crosses remain or that we exalt them (especially when they are the result of human engineering and sin)! And, as I have written before, to allow Christ's Cross to triumph is to allow the grace of God to transform all the dark and meaningless places with his presence, light and love. It is ONLY in this way that we truly "make up for what is lacking in the passion of Christ."

The paradox in Sunday's Feast is that the exaltation of the Cross implies suffering, and stresses that the cross empowers the ability to suffer well, but at the same time points to a freedom the world cannot grant --- a freedom in which we both transcend and transform suffering because of a victory Christ has won over the powers of sin and death which are built right into our lives and in the structures of this world. Thus, we cannot ever collude with the powers of this world; we must always be sure we are acting in complicity with the grace of God instead. Sometimes this means accepting the suffering that comes our way (or encouraging and supporting others in doing so of course), but never for its own sake. If our (or their) suffering does not result in greater human authenticity, greater freedom from bondage, greater joy and true peace, then it is not suffering which exalts the Cross of Christ. If it does not in some way transform and subvert the structures of this world which oppress and destroy, then it does not express the triumph of Jesus' Cross, nor are we really participating in THAT Cross in embracing our own.

I am certain I have not completely answered your question, but for now this will need to suffice. My thanks for your patience. If you have other questions which can assist me to do a better job, I would very much appreciate them. Again, thanks for your emails.

12 September 2016

A Contemplative Moment: The Silence of Solitude

The Silence of Solitude

"Solitude has nothing to do with existential neurosis, but is rather a creative search for the flame of love that burns in God's heart. . . .What occupies the center. . .is the existential solitude of God himself. This is what the human heart wants to absorb and this is where it wants to rest. The eremitic solitude is in no case a fruitless and spiritually empty isolation, a cold indifference toward people and the world, or a selfish passiveness. Just the opposite, it is a space of redemption, full of spiritual life and meant to accept and change any human distress, sorrow, or fear."

Fr Cornelius Wencel, Er Cam: The Eremitic Life

11 September 2016

Parable of the Merciful Father (reprise)

I am hoping to put up another post on today's readings from a different perspective with a focus on lostness and being found and brought home --- but in case I am unable to finish it today forgive this reprise from several years ago. (I know you will and thank you for that!!)

Commentators tend to name today's Gospel parable after the Merciful Father, because he is central to all the scenes. It is his story and in every scene both younger and elder Sons are who they are only in relation to him. Moreover the Father is foolishly prodigal in his time and love. Even when the younger Son is in a far off place, the Father waits silently, implicitly, in the wings. We should notice too that it is his foolish generosity that predominates; in this sense, he too is prodigal. Perhaps then we should call this the parable of the Prodigal Father. The younger son squanders his inheritance, but the Father is also (in common terms and in terms of Jewish Law) foolish in giving him the inheritance, the "substance" (literally, the ousias) of his own life and that of Israel. His younger Son treats him as dead (a sin against the Commandment to honor Father and Mother) and still this Father looks for every chance to receive him back.

When the younger son comes to his senses, rehearses his terms for coming home ("I will confess and be received back not as a Son, but as a servant,"), his Father, watching for his return, eagerly runs to meet him in spite of the offense represented in such an act, forestalls his confession, brings his Son into the center of the village thus rendering everything unclean according to the law, clothes him in the garb of Sonship and authority, kills the fatted calf and throws a welcome home party --- all heedless of the requirements of the law, matters of ritual impurity or repentance, etc. Meanwhile, the dutiful older son keeps the letter of the law of sonship but transgresses its essence and also treats his Father with dishonor. He is grudging, resentful, angry, blind, and petty in failing to recognize what is right before him all the time. He too is prodigal, allowing his authentic Sonship to die day by day as he assumes a more superficial role instead. And yet, the Father reassures him that what is the Father's is the Son's and what is the Son's is the Father's (which makes the Father literally an "ignorant man" in terms of the Law, an "am-haretz"). Contrary to the wisdom of the law, he continues to invite him into the celebration, a celebration of new life and meaning. He continues to treat him as a Son.

The theme of Law versus Gospel comes up strongly in this and other readings this week, though at first we may fail to recognize this. Paul recognizes the Law is a gift of God but without the power to move us to act as Sons and Daughters of God in the way Gospel does. When coupled with human sinfulness it can --- whether blatantly or insidiously --- be terribly destructive. How often as Christians do we act in ways which are allowed (or apparently commanded) by law but which are not really appropriate to Daughters and Sons of an infinitely merciful Father who is always waiting for our return, always looking for us to make the slightest responsive gesture in recognition of his presence, to "come to our senses", so that he can run to us and enfold us in the sumptuous garb of Daughterhood or Sonship? How often is our daily practice of our faith dutiful, and grudging but little more? How often do we act competitively or in resentment over others whose vocation is different than our own, whose place in the church (or the world of business, commerce, and society, for that matter) seems to witness to greater love from God? How often do we quietly despair over the seeming lack of worth of our lives in comparison to that of others? Whether we recognize it or not these attitudes are those of people motivated by law, not gospel. They are the attitudes of measurement and judgment, not of incommensurate love and generosity.

At the begining of Lent we heard the fundamental choice of our lives and present in all choices put before us, "Choose life not death." Today that choice is sharpened and the subtle forms of death we often choose are set in relief: will we be Daughters and Sons of an infinitely and foolishly Merciful Father --- those who truly see and accept a love that is beyond our wildest imaginings and love others similarly, or, will we be prodigals in the pejorative sense, servants of duty, those who only accept the limited love we believe we have coming to us and who approach others competitively, suspiciously and without generosity? Will we be those whose notions of justice constrain God and our ability to choose the life he sets before us, or will we be those who are forgiven to the awesome degree and extent God is willing and capable of forgiving? Will we allow ourselves to be welcomed into a new life --- a life of celebration and joy, but also a life of greater generosity, responsibility, and God-given identity, or will we simply make do with the original prodigality of either the life of the younger or elder son? After all, both live dissipated lives in this parable: one flagrantly so, and one in quiet resentment, slavish dutifulness, and unfulfillment.

The choice before those living the latter kind of Christian life is no less significant, no less one of conversion than the choice set before the younger son. His return may be more dramatic, but that of the elder son demands as great a conversion. He must move from a quiet exile where he bitterly identifies himself as a slave rather than a free man or (even less) a Son. His own vision of his life and worth, his true identity, are little different than those of the younger son who returns home rehearsing terms of servility rather than sonship. The parable of the merciful Father puts before us two visions of life, and two main versions of prodigality; it thus captures the two basic meanings of prodigal: wasteful and lavish. There is the prodigality of the sons who allow the substance of their lives and identities to either be cast carelessly or slip silently away, the prodigality of those who lose their truest selves even as they grasp at wealth, adventure, duty, role, or other forms of security and "fulfillment". And there is the prodigality of the Father who loves and spends himself generously without limit or condition. In other words, there is death and there is life, law and gospel. Both stand before us ready to be embraced. Which form of prodigality will we choose? For indeed, the banquet hall is ready for us and the Father stands waiting at this very moment, ring, robe, and sandals in hand.

09 September 2016

In God Alone Once Again: On Contemplative Prayer and Distractions

[[Dear Sister, When you pray contemplatively do you ever have trouble with distractions? I would like to do quiet prayer but just can't get quiet. I want to empty my mind of thoughts and worries but I just can't seem to do it. Everyone talks about centering or centering down and getting quiet but I don't have the slightest idea of how that happens. Can you help me? Give me some advice? What do I do?]]

Whew! In some ways a really difficult question --- but in other ways simple. I can't give you "how to" kinds of advice really, but maybe I can give you a way of thinking about the relationship of prayer and distractions that will be helpful. First of all though I think you have to get rid of the idea that in prayer you empty your mind of thoughts. I suppose it is possible after years of practice. Eastern thought seems to have elements of this approach but I don't think this is the same as Christian prayer, even contemplative Christian prayer. In Christian prayer we bring the whole of ourselves, all our concerns, joys, thoughts, feelings, etc., etc., and we turn all of this over to God to love into wholeness. In contemplative prayer we do this in a single (continuing) relatively wordless action. (A word or one line prayer may be used as a refrain occasionally to renew our commitment and focus throughout the prayer period or they may be mainly unnecessary.) Sometimes folks describe contemplative prayer as our wordless gazing on God. Maybe. (I rarely find myself gazing on God.) But for me the definition that works better is "silently resting in the gaze of God." We pray contemplatively when we allow ourselves to rest in the loving gaze of God. It is about allowing God to look on, "touch", and work in us in whatever way God wills.  God is the one doing the work; we "show up" and quietly commit to allowing "God's work" to occur.

Prayer is not OUR Work but God's:

But we have to let go of the notion that prayer is OUR work and that includes working to stop distractions or empty our minds. You asked if I experience distractions and the answer is yes, of course, absolutely, without doubt! I am human and I cannot turn off my mind! However, I can and do focus on the greater reality here and now while those thoughts spin around on another level. Recently I posted the Taize chant "In God Alone" and I spoke about the theme grounding the music while individual players and instruments improvised all around the theme. When I listen to that cut I am reminded of contemplative prayer. I hear and mainly focus on the chant itself, the deep and continuing theme and Presence that relates to, shapes, and causes everything else to cohere. Implicitly I give permission (so to speak) to that chant to fill me and take over my thoughts, feelings, etc so that I am taken more and more deeply into its true meaning. I give this permission, an expression of my deepest yearning, so that I am always listening to or for it, so that, in fact, I rest in it as it lives and sings in me. I desire for its truth to be MY truth as well and I am open to allowing it to be a chant that sounds deep within me at all times, prayer period or not.

At the same time however there are the improvisational lines which spin off from the theme and, for brief periods, seem to take on a life of their own. I follow them with part of my mind while I continue to hold onto the chant "In God Alone" with the rest. I watch as they veer away, come back, and eventually rest once again in the main chant. In contemplative prayer these might be similar to distractions. I hold these distractions lightly with my mind as I focus more completely on allowing God to work within me. In time the improvisational lines cease to be distracting and though our minds do not stop working in this way we will find our prayer is really about being grounded in that larger unceasing chant. We have been listening to that right along so long as we hold the distractions lightly. Even more importantly, whether we heard it or not it has continued to sound right along carrying us with it, speaking or singing (to) us in ways that affect us below the level of consciousness. So it is with God in contemplative prayer. We have to learn to trust that.

Exercise: Becoming Comfortable With Distractions

So, I have a suggestion for you -- a kind of exercise in this dimension of contemplative prayer. Listen to the chant above several times. (If you have or can find a copy of the longer version which you could loop automatically it would definitely be more helpful for several reasons.) Commit to doing this seriously in a quiet environment. Sit quietly, close your eyes and just listen. Focus on the chant itself ("in God Alone") and DON'T worry about the improvisational lines. They are there and there's nothing you can or should do about them. Let the chant take hold of you, bring more and more of yourself to it as it speaks to you more and more deeply. Then, hold onto this main focus (continue listening to the chant per se) and listen to the improvisational lines AS WELL. Let yourself be taken by them even to the extent of detaching attention from the foundational chant if that's what happens but then, quietly and calmly refocus your mind and heart on the chant. Find it and settle into listening to it once again. Try this several times and be flexible --- always listening for and trusting in the Presence of the chant which grounds, structures, and unifies everything else.

Again while this is not a "how to" lesson in praying contemplatively it might give you some greater measure of comfort with distractions which occur despite and in addition to our deeper focus and commitment, our deeper "hearkening," -- this deeper and sustaining act of entrusting ourselves to the loving gaze of God "come what may"! Obviously this example is only analogous but I have listened to this chant in a repetitive way myself and felt it functioning as I described. It reminded me not only of living our lives with God and in light of God no matter how far from God we wander at times, but also the dynamics of contemplative prayer as we allow the the dynamic, singing, Love-in-Act we call God to call to us, to silently shape and empower us even as we return to it again and again because we have wandered away.

Let me know if it is of any help to you or if I have completely confused you here!

07 September 2016

Canon 603 English Text

[[Hi Sister, you naturally speak of canon 603 all the time but I can't find it quoted anywhere here. I know you have quoted it in various posts so that makes it my bad but would you mind posting it separately? Thanks!]]

Sure, great idea. Because of your question I looked for it in some posts here myself and couldn't find it! (I was going to add the label "canon 603 -- text of" as an easy solution to the problem of locating the canon and ran into the same problem you had;  in this case MY BAD, not yours!)

Can. 603 §1. In addition to institutes of consecrated life, the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through a stricter withdrawal from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance.

§2. A hermit is recognized by law as one dedicated to God in consecrated life if he or she publicly professes in the hands of the diocesan bishop the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by vow or other sacred bond, and observes a proper program of living under his direction.

Mentally Ill Priests as Hermits? Once Again on the Illegitimacy of Stopgap Vocations

[[Dear Sister,
      Our parish has a priest who has serious mental health issues. Because he does less pastoral ministry than other priests he says he is a hermit. This raises a number of questions for some of us here: 1) is hermit life a good option for the seriously mentally ill? 2) if a priest has a busy pastoral ministry how can he live as or call himself a hermit? 3) Do dioceses use canon 603 to profess and consecrate these priests? 4) How often does this happen? A number of parishioners have begun to think that hermit life is a kind of fallback "vocation" for when someone is unable to live their real commitments. I know you have written about "stopgap" and fallback vocations but also vocations to chronic illness so I wonder what you think about this. I think it detracts from the hermit vocation.]]

Thank you. Your questions are typical of those I sometimes receive from other diocesan hermits and also from priests who would like to maintain a full pastoral ministry but also live as hermits. Some are interested in building in a more substantial contemplative dimension to their pastoral and spiritual lives and (mistakenly I think) believe that eremitical life is the way to do this. Only occasionally have I heard about situations such as the one you describe where serious mental illness is involved and eremitical life really does seem to be a potential stopgap or fallback position for those who are unable to live their canonical commitments. (I say potential because in some rare instances a priest may well transition into eremitical life and do well at it when he cannot meet other obligations. Vocational paths can change and God can certainly call us to a new way which uses our very weakness as a revelation of graced strength.)

The Temptation to Misuse Canon 603

However, the accent there is on the word rare. I'm afraid the temptation to misuse canon 603 or eremitical life more generally is more common than some of us would like to think, not only because the canon (and the eremitical life it defines) is little understood but because these are not valued; the actual charism of the vocation is not appreciated. As a result some chancery officials and many faithful believe it is a kind of empty (contentless) category into which all kinds of "failures to fit in" can be poured or situated. Before discussing the different situations you named I think it is important to recognize this temptation or tendency and to make it very clear that canon 603 specifically and eremitical life more generally are defined in the Church in a very clear and definite way: it is a LIFE of assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world, the silence OF solitude, profession of the evangelical counsels lived according to a Rule of Life the hermit writes him/herself all lived under the supervision of the local bishop (and implicitly, regular and competent spiritual direction). It is not an avocation or way of validating mediocrity or simple inability. (The redemption of inability or weakness is another matter!!)

The elements of this life are important because the entire constellation comprises a life which can witness in a special way to the unique and fundamental truth that God alone is sufficient for us. In our world this particular message is a crucial one. So many are alone and alienated even as they yearn for love and completion. So many hunger to believe their lives are meaningful or of real value and have no way to do that if forced to compete merely in "worldly" terms. And of course whole cultures are built on the misguided drives to wealth and power, domination and individualism of every stripe including narcissism. The hermit reminds us that there is one basic truth that counters the anguish and anxiety associated with all of this, one foundational relationship that is the real wealth and source of power in authentic human living: viz., God alone is sufficient for us. To use canon 603 or the term "hermit" for any lone individual, especially as a way of creating a stopgap means to validate a failed or otherwise dysfunctional vocation is an essentially careless and dishonest usage of the canon and a trivialization of the term "vocation"; it is therefore also a way of denigrating the gift of the Holy Spirit solitary eremitical life represents.

I have been writing about the tendency of individuals and even some chancery officials to misuse canon 603 out of ignorance or a failure to appreciate its gift quality here for a large part of the last nine years. While I do see a lessening in the incidence of such abuse or misuse in a general sense, the temptation to use the canon to profess non-hermits or to consecrate lone individuals who sometimes actually show no knowledge of the canon much less experience of the life it defines and codifies is still alarmingly prevalent. The situations you asked about constitute some of the thornier instances that occasionally crop up. And yet we would not accept such an approach to any other form of consecrated life!

Canon 603 and the Seriously Mentally Ill:

In general I don't support eremitical life for the seriously mentally ill. In an earlier post I wrote the following which I still hold: [[My general answer to the first part of your question is yes, some mentally ill persons COULD be hermits, but not all and not most. Regarding the second portion of the question, those that COULD be hermits are those whose illness is well-controlled with medication and whose  physical solitude definitely contributes to their vocations to wholeness and emotional/mental well-being. There should be no doubt about this, and it should be clear to all who meet them. It should assist them in loving themselves, God, and others rather than detracting from this basic responsibility. In other words, solitude should be the context for these persons becoming more authentically human and maturing in that fundamental or foundational vocation for the whole of their lives. With this in mind I am thinking too that some forms of mental illness do not lend themselves to eremitical vocations: illnesses with thought disorders, delusions, hallucinations, fanatical or distorted religious ideation, and the like are probably not amenable to life as a hermit.

On the other hand, some forms of mental illness would (or rather, could) do quite well in an eremitical setting so long as the anachoresis (that is, the healthy withdrawal) required by the vocation is clearly different from that caused by the illness and does not contribute to it but instead even serves to heal it. Certain mood disorders, for instance, cause a defensive or reactive and unhealthy withdrawal, but it is not the same as the responsive anachoresis of the hermit. The person suffering from clinical depression who also wishes to be a hermit should be able to discern the difference between these two things and this requires a lot of insight and personal work. However, if a person suffers from clinical depression (or has done in the past) I would say it should be pretty well-controlled medically, and no longer debilitating or disabling before the person is allowed to make even temporary profession as a diocesan hermit. At the same time, provisions for adequate ongoing and emergent care and treatment should be written into this hermit's Rule of Life.

In any case, I think the decision to become a hermit when mental illness is a factor is something which requires the candidate and her spiritual director, her psychiatrist or psychologist, along with the diocesan staff to work together to discern the wisdom of. Mental illness per se should not always automatically preclude this vocational option, but there is no doubt that eremitical silence, solitude, prayer and penance can exacerbate rather than help with some forms of mental illness. Even in the completely healthy person eremitical solitude can lead to mental problems. Ordinarily we are made for a more normal type of communion or social interaction with others, and this is a particularly significant area for caution when dealing with mental illness.]]  Eremitical Life and Mental Illness

Canon 603 as a Stopgap solution:

But let me be very clear here. A diocese or individual must discern a vocation to eremitical life FIRST of all; they must be aware of how it is mental illness works against this discernment and vocation, how the vocation to the silence of solitude assists in personal healing and the special care required to deal with an illness which could otherwise thwart such a genuine eremitical vocation. WHAT THEY CANNOT AND MUST NOT DO is treat this canon on eremitical life as a way of disposing of a troublesome priest or situation, a way of isolating a difficult personality, or in any other way treating eremitical life as a stopgap solution which minimizes demands on the diocese or its presbyterate to truly care for this priest and find ways to allow him to minister as normally as possible. In this situation as in any other a hermit is NOT JUST A LONE individual much less an isolated one who doesn't fit in anywhere else! If a diocese must relieve a seriously ill priest of his pastoral role and/or faculties and allow him to live on his own, then let them do that BUT they MUST NOT facilely attempt to validate this by calling the man a "hermit." He is not. Instead he is a mentally ill priest separated from active priestly ministry and made to live alone.

What is important to understand I think is that a hermit dealing with some form of mental illness is not the same thing as a mentally ill person separated off from social contact and active ministry either by their illness or by their superiors. That is true even when the mentally ill person is asked to continue a life of prayer --- though in such a case an eremitical call might eventually be revealed. Eremitical life is defined in terms of the character and quality of one's life with God in the silence of solitude. The question which must be asked is, "If someone (a non-priest or lay person) came to the chancery seeking to live as a hermit under canon 603 because they have bi-polar disorder or a form of psychosis, for instance, and cannot function well, would the diocese profess and consecrate them as a canonical hermit on these grounds?"

My sense is in the vast majority of such cases a diocese would refuse --- and rightly so. In that remaining small fraction of cases it is possible the person will discover he is really called to a desert life of the silence of solitude, but this discovery takes significant time, discernment, and formation. The Church recognizes the eremitical life as a significant gift of the Holy Spirit, one which is capable of producing profound fruit at every level of the Church and in the world. To thumb one's nose at this truth while treating eremitical life as though it were the ecclesiastical equivalent of a back ward of a psychiatric hospital into which one might shunt all manner of difficult or problematical characters is not merely an injustice or abuse on every level (not least for the individual suffering from mental illness!) but, in its dishonesty and lack of genuine charity, a blasphemous one as well.

Priests and the eremitical Life More Generally:

I do get emails relatively regularly from priests with very full pastoral lives who would like to become hermits. In general they seem to use the term hermit to describe a contemplative or at least more contemplative life than the one they are managing to live now. What they must remember is that while all hermits are contemplatives, not all contemplatives are (nor are they called to be) hermits! It is very rare for dioceses to allow diocesan priests to become consecrated hermits and generally speaking these cases require a significant degree of additional discernment before a chancery would allow them to do so. Remember that priests undergo a significant degree of training and discernment prior to ordination. Dioceses are pretty clear that someone they are admitting to Orders has a call both to priesthood and to active ministry. Psychological testing and interviews are part and parcel of the discernment process and while some kinds of disorders might be missed, serious mental illness ordinarily would not. Even for situations in which the diagnosis is missed prior to ordination medical management and appropriate trials of psychotropic meds combined with therapy would be a first line of treatment long before considering perhaps someone has a vocation as a hermit. (And notice I am speaking of discerning a VOCATION as a hermit, not to shunting someone off into an isolated residence and "calling it" a hermitage!)

Occasionally newly ordained and entirely healthy priests have difficulty adjusting to the demands of parish vs seminary life, for instance. This does not mean they are called to become hermits though any more than it means a graduate student who has difficulty  transitioning from years of more solitary research and dissertation writing to a full-time teaching position is really called to be a hermit. The newly-ordained priest certainly needs to find assistance to manage his time and provide for adequate prayer, study, and recreation; he may also need the support of other priests and perhaps even therapy or counseling to assist him make the transition, but generally the seminary personnel will have discerned carefully with the seminarian and finding he is really called to be a hermit within a few years of ordination is unlikely in the extreme. What is true for the healthy newly ordained is actually even truer for the mentally ill priest.


The bottom line in all of this is the same as I have written before and as you yourself have concluded. Eremitical life in the Church is a divine vocation with a character and value which are gifts of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, it is a radical, demanding, and dangerous vocation for those not called to it. It is not a "stopgap" or "fallback" vocation for those unfit or unsuited to vocations in which they have been ordained or professed, nor is it a label given to those MERELY living prayerful lives alone --- especially if they are also mainly active or apostolic. Eremitical vocations are desert vocations, calls to the silence OF solitude. Such vocations must be discerned and formed with all the care and dedication given to any other ecclesial vocation. A number of us with chronic physical illnesses, for instance, have discovered and embraced a vocation to eremitical life but this discovery and the discernment it required was genuine; it was not a way of validating our inability to undertake lives of active ministry (or a way of dignifying our illness-rooted isolation!) but instead a way of fully or radically revealing the truth that "God's power is perfected in weakness" as well as that "God alone is sufficient for us" and embodying these in our Church and world.

In a world which needs especially to hear the latter truth ("God Alone is Enough") and which thus needs to see that hermits live and are called to live radically full, whole, and holy lives in the power of God, it would be a disservice to all involved and an offense against the Holy Spirit to misuse eremitical life as a stopgap. Better solutions must be found for cases like the one you mentioned --- more honest solutions which do justice to the persons and to the vocations involved and which witness unequivocally to God and the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ. Either we believe in eremitical vocations or we do not (and some chancery personnel do not). If we do believe God calls people in this radical way then we do not betray the reality or our own belief by trivialization and destructive compromise. If we do not believe in eremitical vocations then we certainly must not trivialize the lives of the ill or relatively incapable by facile equivocations. To do either in the name of the Holy Spirit strikes me as immoral.

03 September 2016

When the Night Becomes Dark

When the night becomes dark,
Your love, O Lord, is as fire;
Your love, O Lord, is as fire.

02 September 2016

Anniversary Memories, Renewed Commitment

Rev John Kasper OSFS (Pastor), Archbishop Allen H Vigneron, and Sister Marietta Fahey SHF (Delegate) during my 2007 profession of perpetual eremitical vows at St Perpetua's Catholic Community, Diocese of Oakland.

Profession of the Evangelical Counsels:

 I earnestly desire to respond to the gift of vocation to the solitary eremitical life and freely follow the inspiration of grace to a hidden apostolic fruitfulness in a life of prayerful contemplation as a solitary hermit. I, Sister Laurel M O’Neal, come before you, God --- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit --- to make my profession to live out my baptismal commitment more fully.

Religious poverty:

I recognize and accept the radical poverty to which I am called in allowing God to be the sole source of strength and validation in my life. The poverty to which my brokenness, fragility, and weakness attest, reveal that precisely in my fragility I am given the gift of God’s grace, and in accepting my insignificance apart from God, my life acquires the infinite significance of one who knows she has been regarded by Him. I affirm that my entire life has been given to me as gift and that it is demanded of me in service, and I vow Poverty, to live this life reverently as one acknowledging both poverty and giftedness in all things, whether these reveal themselves in strength or weakness, in resiliency or fragility, in wholeness or in brokenness.

Religious Obedience:

I acknowledge and accept that God is the author of my life and that through his Word, spoken in Jesus Christ, I have been called by name to be. I affirm that in this Word, a singular identity has been conferred upon me, a specifically ecclesial identity which I accept and for which I am forever accountable. Under the authority of the Bishop of the Diocese of Oakland, I vow to be obedient: to be attentive and responsible to Him who is the foundation of my being, to his solitary Word of whom I am called to be an expression, and to the whole of His People to whom it is my privilege to belong and serve.

Consecrated Celibacy:

Acknowledging that I have been called to obedient service in and of the Word of God, and acknowledging that Jesus’ gift of self to me is clearly nuptial in character, I affirm as well that I am called to be receptive and responsive to this compassionate and singular redemptive intimacy as a consecrated celibate. I do therefore vow chastity, this last definitive aspect of my vocation with care and fidelity, forsaking all else for the completion that is mine in Christ, and claiming as mine to cherish all that is cherished by Him.

I ask you, Bishop Allen H Vigneron, as Bishop of the Diocese of Oakland, to accept my vows in the name of the Church, and to grant me your blessing. May the Word of God which I touch with my hand today be my life and my inspiration, this I pray.

Understanding these vows to be perpetually binding, I pronounce them in the name of Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.

Made on this 2nd day of September, 2007 at Saint Perpetua Catholic Church, Lafayette, California.