14 June 2016

Followup Questions (and Objections) on Sources and Resources for Inner Work

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, I read your article on what you call "inner work" and I have to say that I wonder what it all has to do with a hermit's vocation to union with God and the cultivation of personal holiness. Shouldn't you be praying instead of reading books by atheist psychologists and doing New Age psychobabble like PHR (sic)? Besides if you need that much help how can you claim to have a vocation anyway? Does your spiritual director push this bizarreness off on you? . . . That's why I would want a priest as a director. . .  Also, your personal notion of penance seems really strange to me. You don't mention fasting or asceticism but you mention this "inner work" and journaling. Is this part of an approved Rule of Life?]]

WOW! I hope you've said all you felt you needed to. Your first question is actually a really good one. The rest --- well, I'll take all that as I feel it is or at least might be helpful to other readers --- and as my own irritation subsides. The piece I put up on inner work was pretty clear I think. We are called to personal wholeness and holiness by and in God. Prayer is a huge part of that, of course, but spiritual direction and some forms of inner work can be incredibly important, even indispensable. They can also be forms of worship or prayer. God comes and calls to us in many ways. The yearning for wholeness, for fullness of being is the very essence of that call. Our response may require 1) assistance (as in spiritual direction), and 2) methodical inner work (as in PRH, etc.) as part of that. We use the gifts God gives us. Since we are relational or dialogical at our core those gifts will often include avenues (including significant persons) which help God foster holiness and wholeness in us. If I find a methodology or approach to living life fully, a methodology which allows me to live the silence of solitude more deeply, intensely, and extensively, then I am going to consider using that and I will do it for the greater glory of God!

Your own opinions to the contrary my vocation is not in question --- not with God, the Church, myself --- not with my superiors nor anyone at all who actually knows me, and certainly not because I am still growing and/or healing (meaning coming to wholeness and holiness in Christ). A vocational call is not issued once, answered with definitive profession and then left behind as a done deal. Such a call is issued every single day, sometimes many, many times a day and the dedicated response we call obedience is given in a similar manner --- usually with greater and greater perception and integrity as we grow in wholeness and holiness. No one with any vocation is without need for healing or growth. Holiness may be real without being exhaustive. It is true that I advise someone seeking to live a canonical eremitical life to have their healing mainly in hand before doing so. I believe that and followed that advice myself -- despite discovering continuing needs for healing later on. But my vocation IS a call to holiness and to union with God; both of those things mean reconciliation with all the parts of myself which may not have been appropriately recognized or honored throughout my life. Some of those parts may even be deeply wounded and require healing but it is because I am essentially whole and secure in my vocation that this kind of work would actually be undertaken at this point in time and, in fact, would be able to be undertaken. This kind of work, for instance, is part of my response to this vocation, something I commit to in order to live and to live it more fully.

Eremitical life (like any form of religious life) takes strength, personal integrity, and flexibility. It demands profound listening and the ability to be at home with God and with oneself --- for generally one lives with oneself with and in God alone. The inner work I described, whether that associated with spiritual direction, with Jungian analysis, or with PRH, for instance, help foster those things. They serve God, myself, and my vocation. I believe they serve my relationships in this stable state of life and the eremitical vocation more generally as well. Could I be wrong? I suppose. But given the fruits of the work I have done and am committed to continuing, fruits I will continue to attend to, I think it is extremely unlikely. And of course I would not be recommending inner work to others if I felt it conflicted with an essentially Christian and/or consecrated state of Life.

By the way, it's probably never a good idea to suggest one's spiritual director is foisting stuff off on a directee in a way which infringes on her freedom or judgment unless you truly know it to be the case.  You are, like anyone else, certainly free to go to a priest for spiritual direction but the simple fact is that most priests are not spiritual directors and are not trained to do direction. (On the other hand I suspect there are a number of priests  trained to do PRH should you ever want to try it.) In any case my director is really fine and has NEVER worked in a way which infringes my freedom or my judgment --- quite the opposite in fact. PRH is not something we use much in ordinary direction --- at least not in an explicit way --- but we do turn to it from time to time (e.g., for discernment) and we use it in an explicit and more or less intensive way for growth and healing work. (I use some PRH tools frequently in my own personal work and in preparing for direction but the dynamics of spiritual direction per se are pretty different from the dynamics of PRH accompaniment, for instance. On the other hand,  my director listens and helps me to listen deeply to the voice of God and the call to abundant Life both within and around me in the same way whether she is doing SD or PRH; at all times she works to honor (and enhance!) my own freedom and judgment in Christ. This is what direction should be and do. As I have noted several times before, if a director tries to "bind in obedience", routinely commands the directee to act in one way and another, or otherwise fails to enhance her freedom and judgment in Christ then one should probably look elsewhere for a competent director.

On Asceticism and Penance:

No, I didn't mention either fasting or asceticism --- but I might well have. The work of personal growth in wholeness and holiness, what I called inner work, is precisely what the desert Fathers would have recognized as "ascetical" and fostering the work of ascesis. Remember that ascesis is a matter of "training" --- training the heart, mind, and body to act with a single focus or "purity". The disciplines associated with the forms of inner work I mentioned are explicitly involved with this kind of training. The difference is the impulse which unites and purifies, which makes single in God, comes from within, not from without. There is external discipline involved --- for instance the discipline associated with doing the writing or paying attention as one learns and is vowed and obligated by Rule to do, etc. Still, it is from the inner yearning, need, and Divine call to be whole that everything proceeds and which everything else serves. One comes, over time to attend carefully to the mind, heart, and the body in a way which serves God's will to reconciliation and holiness; the training in this "way of responsive attentiveness"  (obedience)  is profoundly ascetical.

I know you think my notion of penance is a strange one (yes, it is part of an approved Rule of Life; Archbishop Vigneron approved it in 2007 with a formal "bishop's decree"), but, again, the inner work I am describing is ascetical in the best way possible. Meanwhile, what I describe as penance always refers to the tools and activities that serve prayer --- especially in the sense of allowing me to become the prayer God made me to be. Penance and asceticism are so closely related as to be indistinguishable to my mind. You may certainly object, but substantive questions might better help to clarify things instead.

11 June 2016

The Silence of Solitude and the redemption of Silences of Violence

Dear Sister, you wrote about silence being associated with some violence. I wondered if you could say more about that. Also, I am trying to understand what you mean by the redemption of silence and solitude and their transfiguration into the silence of solitude. Could you explain that for me? I understand they are different and that they overlap some but I am not seeing how a bigger silence redeems a smaller one (I know those are not your words exactly but I think you know what I am referring to and I am unable to cut and paste from your blog).

Thanks for the questions. I need to find the post you are referring to. I remember the reference to silence as violence and don't think it was more than a few months old, but I am not sure which specific post I included that in. Still, until then, let me give your questions a shot.

Sometimes folks use silence and maybe isolation as well as a kind of weapon. That is a form of violence which can be both painful and damaging. For instance there is a kind of shunning or exclusion that can work this way. We see this in certain religious sects and though the action is meant to serve rehabilitation it does not always work this way. We also see it, though, in society at large and even in families who punish by ostracizing and shunning. Jesus' culture had lepers and the otherwise "unclean"; India has its "untouchables," many countries and times have scapegoated Jews, etc. Dysfunctional families sometimes have the child on whom the anger and other tensions or dysfunctions  within the group devolve. How ever and whenever silence is used in this way and some version of shunning happens the person caught in such a situation must find a way of redeeming things. They must find a context which embraces and includes their own situation and transforms and revalues it in the process.

The kind of silence that does that must be a loving and inclusive silence, the kind of silence we associate with good friends who sit companionably together in mutual support; it will be the kind of silence that is necessary when words would be weak, futile, and insufficient --- and thus, intrude, distort, and betray; it will be the kind of silence that occurs when one person's love has no words or another's pain has none because these realities are simply too deep and exist in silent relation to  the ineffable. We know that Jesus' suffering during the passion was the most intense and extensive any human being could have experienced. We know that Jesus' emptiness and abandonment were as deep as they could conceivably be and that his Abba suffered a rupture or separation in his own life as well at this time. Our own experiences of abandonment and emptiness are always mitigated by God's presence and often by the presence of others who love us nevertheless. We also know that Jesus' cry of abandonment was an inarticulate cry and that otherwise he was generally reduced to muteness. And yet he remained open and responsive to his Abba; when sin and godless death swallowed him up in ultimate emptiness and final muteness, God, the very abyss of the "silence of solitude" embraced all of that and took it into his very self. This silent love transformed it all entirely and brought life and meaning out of death and absurdity.


At my parish with the daily Mass community I am hoping we will be trying an experiment in shared silence soon. We have begun to talk about cultivating a period of extended silence before Mass once a week and asking everyone who comes into the worship space (chapel) to take their places quietly and join us in this way of developing community. We are not trying to create little islands of mute isolation as once was enforced pre-Vatican II. Nor are we looking to deal with issues of noise and courtesy per se. Instead we are looking to allow each person to experience the freedom to go deep within their own selves to that Self beyond words and at the same time, to support one another in this. Because we will all be rooted deeply in the God who is the silent Ground of Being we will be joined together at the level of heart --- beyond words, beyond our individual pain, but also in a way which allows each person to pour out their hearts to God in silence.

My hope is that a dimension of the same kind of community will come to be that occurs in monastic communities which share this kind of silent prayer regularly. If we can do this my sense is people will find it a powerful medicine or balm for their souls when words cannot help --- and, over time, we will be creating ministers capable of being with others in their pain in ways we each often hunger for, but which our culture distrusts or simply is entirely ignorant of. I believe it will transform our already-very-fine community of faith into a greater image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Perhaps some will discover a call to contemplative prayer and living!

My director showed me the above picture yesterday which symbolizes one of the ways our own work together sometimes proceeds. I think it's a great way of thinking of the shared silence of solitude that can embrace and safely hold the various discrete silences, mutenesses,  emptinesses and overly-full griefs, fears, and other realities of our lives that cannot be fixed or (often!) even touched by words. Similarly it can transfigure them into a greater and silent song of love, friendship, and communion. We (my parish community) want to be that community that cares for and supports everyone without exception beyond the limitations and exclusion of words, noise, and futile activism. So we will try periods of shared quiet prayer to create a context similar to the greater and loving silence which can also bring the redemption of those often-damaging forms of silence and exclusion I mentioned in my earlier post. Our world desperately needs people who can bring this kind of silence (loving inclusion) to its pain.

Does this begin to answer your questions? If not please feel free to ask again and even to sharpen those questions I failed to answer.

07 June 2016

Sources and Resources for Inner Work

[[Hi Sister Laurel,
      You have referred a couple of times to doing "inner work" in relation to spiritual direction and recommended it for formation and discernment. I wondered what you meant. Is this something one could do if their spiritual director does not usually expect or use it or does one need to do it with someone? What you wrote about developing the heart of a hermit was very powerful for me, it resonated with some of my own experience so I was wondering if the kind of inner work you are referring to could be of any help to me. I am not sure about wanting to become a hermit but I think I might have "the heart of a hermit" as you describe it. Anything you could suggest to help with this would be appreciated.]]

Great questions and I am glad you appreciated the piece on developing the heart of a hermit. It's always special, I think, when something someone writes like that "resonates" with our own experience. Anyway, I think I have been asked about "inner work" one other time --- though it was a few years ago. The post might be of some assistance as background so I'll see if I can find it and create a link even though I am sure I will repeat a lot of it here.

When I speak of inner work I ordinarily mean the personal work that stems from and prepares for spiritual direction or from everyday situations or things that arise from prayer. In spiritual direction it often happens that I become aware of places where healing needs to happen or where significant growth is occurring which requires conscious attention not only to help things along but also to honor the way grace is present in my life. Some of this work means using the tools I learned or am learning to better understand and use from my director who is also an animator and/or facilitator in PRH (French for Personality and Human Relationships). We also call this growth work but it provides a focused approach to healing and maturation with a significant spiritual dimension. The idea behind PRH as I understand it is that it provides a fairly systematic approach (PRH would say "methodical") to the very human task of becoming fully alive --- which is exactly the reason Jesus came to us.

What I most appreciate about it (something which is an essential part of its incredible power and contribution to contemplative life) is that it always begins in the present. It is not given to random or "feverish" (to quote my director) "emotional archeology" (my term). It can certainly lead to the past and help accomplish the healing needed there but unless that need is showing itself in and affecting one's present functioning one does not spend time and energy on this. As part of this work I do journaling using a number of really effective tools including "topographies" (a kind of written illustration of the emotional journey one makes in relation to situations which trigger disproportionate recurrent reactions) and occasionally my director will give me a specific question or set of questions which allow me to explore and "live into" what is "alive" in me at a given time. I also use dialogues (a way of learning to listen to and integrate my unconscious with my conscious mind as well as to resolve inner struggles with various parts of myself).

Inner work also thus includes the kinds of things Carl Jung found so beneficial to the process of individuation and to what he sometimes referred to as the "transcendent function", namely dream work or analysis and active imagination.  In doing this I tend to use the work of Robert Johnson and others as guides. (Johnson is a Jungian and writes clearly and practically about a four step process to work with both dreams and active imagination as tools to personal integration and transcendence. Others provide ways to work with our "shadow.") The book I have mainly referred to in this is Johnson's, Inner Work. I would recommend this. Jeffrey Miller's, The Transcendent Function, Jung's Model of Psychological growth Through  Dialogue With the Unconscious is not a how-to book but it is profoundly helpful in explaining what is going on in some of this inner work. Finally, of course, inner work involves prayer in all its forms, lectio divina, and any of the creative activities I might participate in including music, writing (especially journaling and some forms of blogging), and drawing. All of these allow or facilitate one entering into a liminal space where dialogue, healing, greater integration, and transcendence can occur.

By the way, both PRH and Jungian approaches are entirely consonant with theistic approaches to inner work and with Christian thought and spirituality. PRH especially has an underlying theology which some may choose to ignore or leave entirely implicit, while Jung's psychology seems to me to call for an explicit theology supporting the dialogical and teleological dimensions of the human being Jung honors and describes so well. The point is that one need not compromise one's faith to use these or some other methodologies (various approaches to journaling, for instance) and in many ways can enhance that faith with these approaches to inner work. One final approach I should mention which can accommodate or even be used collaboratively with PRH and Jungian approaches, and which also respects one's spirituality is the IFS or Internal Family Systems approach to inner work. This approach is profoundly respectful of the whole person and does not pathologize parts of us that may be deemed "maladaptive" by some. Like Jungian approaches IFS tends to see the human being as a theatre of characters or "subpersonalities"; it recognizes a core "Self", the life of which all the "subpersonalities" protect and foster or at least seek to protect and foster. Like the other methods mentioned this approach (IFS) also allows or facilitates entering into a liminal space where dialogue, healing, greater integration, and transcendence can occur.

Working With Another:

Most of these approaches work fine as solitary enterprises. One can always journal, write, draw or paint, etc, and do so entirely on one's own. (IFS, given the caveats I will mention below, is especially recommended for working alone or with a companion; a workbook is available for this.) At the same time I have to say that spiritual direction is always helpful and too-little used today (it is not just for religious or monastics, for instance, nor only for the "super religious"). PRH works optimally when another can teach, guide you, and in particular truly hear (accompany) you in the work you do. Healing tends to be a function of being heard by another (ultimately we will rest or achieve quies in God who truly and exhaustively "hears" us but for some work one MUST have someone accompanying them); this is especially true when one has suffered alone and even carried the burden of trauma and woundedness with him/her for years and years without being able to articulate, much less share the pain and import of it all.  In such instances accompaniment is absolutely essential even though one will work on one's own between meetings. At many points PRH and  the other forms of inner work can be done alone and then the results (which involve God working within us) can always be shared and further explored with one's director or another professional (including INS therapists or peer counselors and PRH accompanists), for instance. What all competent spiritual directors are really skilled at is listening and that means they will be able to discern the working of God and, through questions, etc, shape the conversation so you can also continue the work begun in the session itself.

I have one caveat here. If you have not really worked with a therapist or in some other way done enough work to have gotten your own healing (whatever that may be) relatively well in hand, I think it is best to work with someone on a regular basis. Spiritual direction itself is a stand alone discipline which can also be a fantastic complement to therapy, for example, but generally speaking it will not and should not be used to substitute for it. For this reason most directors will assess the person they are directing to see if their needs include therapy. Spiritual directors do not make diagnoses nor do we usually have the capability to do this but we can ordinarily tell whether a person is going to be ūable to benefit from direction and do the work associated with it, or whether therapy will be necessary to achieve this --- either prior to beginning direction or in conjunction with it. (Sometimes a directee needs medication (usually for depression and/or anxiety); once they are medicated appropriately they will make normal strides in direction; in these cases therapy itself may not be necessary and a physician is needed simply to monitor the medication. The inner work  can be undertaken on one's own in conjunction with spiritual direction or with PRH or something similar.) Similarly, Jungian psychologists recognize the work can be done on one's own but that sometimes one's unconscious can "get out of control;" at these times it is important to have access to someone who can help one negotiate the situation.

Relating this to the Desert Fathers and Mothers:

This may all sound far removed from the lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers and the spirituality of hermits, for instance, but I don't believe it is. I have always been intrigued by the accounts of battles with demons in these stories and believe me, when we deal with the parts of ourselves left unhealed, distorted, or broken in childhood and throughout life, the process of healing can be as fierce, demanding, and messy as stories of Desert ancestors battling all day and night long with demons then coming out of their caves torn and bloodied but exultant in the morning! The same is true of the story of Jacob wrestling with God (God's angel) and, painfully wounded though he was, refusing to let go until God blessed him. We enter the desert both to seek God and to do battle with demons; it is a naïve person indeed who does not anticipate meeting themselves face to face there in all of their weakness, brokenness, and giftedness as well! We may well know that God is profoundly involved in what may eventuate into the fight (or struggle) of and for our lives but it can take time, faith, and perseverance before we walk away both limping and blessed beyond measure.

Sometimes the healing or inner work required by faith and grace is significant; we cannot honor or truly glorify (manifest) God with only half our hearts, half our lives, half ourselves; as we go through life however, for any number of reasons we leave (and often must leave!) parts of ourselves behind --- neglected and for all intents and purposes abandoned; reclaiming these, reuniting and reconciling with them can take incredible energy and be painful beyond believing. Similarly, healing the distortions within us which have arisen precisely because we left parts of ourselves behind -- whether in defense against trauma, or in a number of other circumstances --- requires work as well as grace, and often, the assistance of competent persons. (In such instances the impulse and power to undertake the work IS an act of grace!) Only then can a long struggle end with God truly blessing us as we have deeply desired and needed and God has profoundly willed to do --- sometimes for many, many years. This "work" is a fundamental part of growth in wholeness and holiness in the desert. It is a necessary part of forming the heart of a hermit and an essential dimension of coming to true quies as a hesychast resting in the heart of God.

Inner Work as Penance in Service to Prayer and Obedience:

I personally count this work as part of the "assiduous penance" I am committed to under canon 603. Because I understand penance as any activity which complements prayer (including the prayer I am called to be) and which helps to prepare for it, regularize it, or extend the fruits of it into my everyday life, inner work has always functioned that way for me --- or at least has done so since the mid 1980's.

When canon 603 calls for a life of assiduous prayer and penance I think it calls first of all for a LIFE, and moreover, a life which is lived as both gift and task. In prayer I am loved by God and empowered to allow God to love his whole creation through me; in penance I deal with those things which prevent that from happening with my whole heart, and soul, and body (because sometimes the stuff we need to work through deprives us of energy, the capacity for appropriate bodily expression, and even the ability to care adequately for ourselves physically). For me penance has nothing to do with arbitrarily creating abnormal corporal practices, punishments, arcane disciplines, etc. Instead it involves doing all that is necessary to allow for prayer -- and for my becoming God's own prayer in the world; it therefore involves the freeing of the spirit so the body too might be as whole and free as possible in and with the grace of God.

Romuald receives the gift of tears
Similarly, this kind of work seems to me to be called for by my vow of obedience. In professing (or dedicating ourselves to) obedience we commit ourselves to listen attentively and to respond appropriately to the voice or will of God with our whole selves. Obedience is the vow of the one committed to attending to God and therefore to Life and Love, Truth and Beauty, Meaning and Wholeness wherever these imperatives occur. It means being fully engaged both with and on behalf of these realities. Thus, the tools I use (or am still learning to use) are a necessary part of being truly obedient to God --- especially to the God who, though beyond me, dwells within me and summons me to himself. To be reconciled fully with that God, to be entirely obedient to that God, means being reconciled fully with myself as well --- something that also means healing in the ways I have already described. Inner work is an act of obedience, not because someone says "you must do this" as some arbitrary act of discipline or submission to an external norm or Rule, but because my own vocation to holiness (wholeness in and with God) summons me to hearken to the call to abundant life in this precise way.

I am aware this may have raised more questions for you, so if that's the case please get back to me. Meanwhile I hope I have given you some sense of how rich are the sources and means of an inner work that serves one's journey with and within God.

03 June 2016

Feast of the Sacred Heart (Reprise)


Today we celebrate a feast that may seem at first glance to be irrelevant to contemporary life. The Feast of the Sacred Heart developed in part as a response to pre-destinationist theologies which diminished the universality of the gratuitous love of God and consigned many to perdition. But the Church's own theology of grace and freedom point directly to the reality of the human heart -- that center of the human person where God freely speaks himself and human beings respond in ways which are salvific for them and for the rest of the world. It asks us to see all  persons as constituted in this way and called to life in and of God. Today's Feast of the Sacred Heart, then, despite the shift in context, asks us to reflect again on the nature of the human heart, to the greatest danger to spiritual or authentically human life the Scriptures identify, and too, on what a contemporary devotion to the Sacred Heart might mean for us.

As I have written here before, the heart is the symbol of the center of the human person. It is a theological term which points first of all to God and to God's activity deep within us. It is not so much that we have a heart and then God comes to dwell there; it is that where God dwells within us and bears witness to himself, we have a heart. The human heart (not the cardiac muscle but the center of our personhood the Scriptures call heart) is a dialogical event where God speaks, calls, breathes, and sings us into existence and where, in one way and degree or another, we respond to become the people we are. It is therefore important that our hearts be open and flexible, that they be obedient to the Voice and love of God, and so that they be responsive in all the ways they are summoned to be.

Bearing this in mind it is no surprise that the Scriptures speak in many places about the very worst thing which could befall a human being and her spiritual life. We hear it in the following line from Ezekiel: [[If today you hear [God's] voice, harden not your hearts.]] Many things contribute to such a reaction. We know that love is risky and that it always hurts. Sometimes this hurt is akin to the mystical experience of being pierced by God's love and is a wonderful but difficult experience. Sometimes it is the pain of compassion or empathy or grief. These are often bittersweet experiences, but they are also life giving. Other times love wounds us in less fruitful ways: we are betrayed by friends or family, we reach out to another in love and are rejected, a billion smaller losses wound us in ways from which we cannot seem to recover.

In such cases our hearts are not only wounded but become scarred, indurated, less sensitive to pain (or pleasure), stiff and relatively inflexible. They, quite literally, become "hardened" and we may be fearful and unwilling or even unable to risk further injury. When the Scriptures speak of the "hardening" of our hearts they use the very words medicine uses to speak of the result of serious and prolonged wounding: induration, sclerosis, callousedness. Such hardening is self-protective but it also locks us into a world which makes us less capable of responding to love with all of its demands and riskiness. It makes us incapable of suffering well (patiently, fruitfully), or of real selflessness, generosity, or compassion.

It is here that the symbol of the Sacred Heart of Jesus' is instructive and where contemporary devotion to the Sacred Heart can assist us. The Sacred Heart is clearly the place where human and divine are united in a unique way. While we are not called to Daughterhood or to Sonship in the exact same sense of Jesus' (he is "begotten" Son, we are adopted Sons --- and I use only Sons because of the prophetic, countercultural sense that term had for women in the early Church), we are meant to be expressions of a similar unity and heritage; we are meant to have God as the well spring of life and love at the center of our existence.

Like the Sacred Heart our own hearts are meant to be "externalized" in a sense and (made) transparent to others. They are meant to be wounded by love and deeply touched by the pain of others but not scarred or indurated in that woundedness; they are meant to be compassionate hearts on fire with love and poured out for others --- hearts which are marked by the cross in all of its kenotic (self-emptying) dimensions and therefore too by the joy of ever-new life. The truly human heart is a reparative heart which heals the woundedness of others and empowers them to love as well. Such hearts are hearts which love as God loves, and therefore which do justice. I think that allowing our own hearts to be remade in this way represents an authentic devotion to Jesus' Sacred Heart. There is nothing lacking in relevance or contemporaneity in that!