31 August 2016

The Desert is a Dangerous Place, Eremitical Life is a Perilous Reality

 Dear Sister, usually when you write about the silence of solitude it is a positive thing but your last piece was pretty dark. I wondered if you were okay and if this was a new discovery you had made about the power of the silence of solitude? Someone else wrote about the suffering you were experiencing. Have I missed something (I ask because I care)!

Please don't be concerned. About three months ago I wrote about doing some inner work with my director which was demanding and challenging. I have continued with that and sometimes it has been reflected in my posts --- though generally it has meant fewer posts or posts which were poorly written and kind of rambling --- probably the result of putting these up before allowing my thoughts to mature and gel. I suspect the person referring to suffering was referring to some part of that constellation of posts. The piece I wrote a couple of days ago on Eremitical silence as harrowing as well as hallowing was not a new insight, no, but I certainly know it more deeply and extensively than I did from previous work. Moreover it is an important dimension of eremitical silence I have needed and now need to treat more explicitly --- especially in light of questions I am receiving about eremitical life and candidates with serious mental illness (I am working on one of these right now), or about topics like formation, the need for careful discernment, the indispensability of competent and regular spiritual direction, the danger of eremitical solitude, and so forth.

I have written before that eremitical silence and solitude are not easy and that the vocation itself is demanding. I have quoted Merton and others, noted that this is not a vocation generally suited for those with mental illness (though when it seems possible for someone who functions well and whose illness is stable this should be determined carefully by chancery, directors, therapists, etc on a case by case basis); I have explained that eremitical solitude is not the normal way to achieve personal wholeness and holiness, and I've described instances of individuals who were clearly decompensating as the result of living in an isolation they called "eremitical". I've even written a few times about battling with demons --- usually those of one's own heart! What I may not have done clearly enough is describe the way desert silence and solitude can strip away defenses and break open one's mind and heart to deeper and deeper levels of woundedness (some would speak of deeper or more foundational levels of sinfulness and alienation here but woundedness seems the better choice to me). This has always been implicit in posts referring to inner work, spiritual direction, and the other topics I have mentioned above and it was more explicit in the posts on battling with demons -- a perennial topic for the desert Abbas and Ammas --- but it needed to be made even more explicit I think.

The Desert is a Dangerous Place:

As I approach this anniversary of my perpetual profession as a diocesan hermit (02. September) I have looked back on some of the topics I have felt passionately (and sometimes written extensively) about. What is clear to me is that most of them have at their core the fact that this vocation is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church (and only then to the individual) and thus requires the church to treat it with real respect for precisely the gift it is. This means (or has meant) codifying it in canon law, carefully discerning candidates for profession, demanding Rules be written only after a candidate has sufficient experience living the life under competent direction, continuing direction and regular supervision (legitimate superiors), and providing lists of or even access to resources an individual may draw from in order to get the initial formation she needs to live this life well "in the name of the Church". But the flip side to all of this, the reason the charismatic nature of the vocation must be recognized and adequate care taken in all of these ways is also precisely because solitary eremitical life in the silence of solitude is dangerous for one not truly called to it --- or for one who undertakes it without sufficient support and assistance!

After all, one vows to listen in silence and solitude to the voice of God dwelling in one's heart. Moreover, one vows to give that entire heart over to God to love into wholeness and holiness; in this way one comes to know and reflect the silence OF solitude. That is what obedience is all about. But at the same time, the journey into the depths of one's own heart, as I wrote in the last post, can be a harrowing experience, for though one's heart is meant to belong to God alone, very much more dwells and often has dominance there than God alone. Similarly, while God never abandons us, there are times when God's presence takes the form of darkness and distance precisely so we can come to know those parts of our hearts which war against (him) --- against love and life itself --- and which divide us as persons so that quite often we stand diminished, fragmented and at war with ourselves. I wrote recently that the Holy Spirit maintained (was!) the bond of communion between Father and Son, but that additionally it was the Holy Spirit that maintained distance between them as well --- especially during Jesus' descent into hell, for instance. And so it is in the hermit's sometimes dark silence of solitude. God is experienced as absence or remoteness but it is still God's presence we know in these challenging ways.

Journeying With a Competent Director:

The listening (hearkening, obedience) one does involves a breaking open of the hardened and well-defended heart or false "self", and leads to a kind of stripping away of the false and distorted as well as to a revelation of the fearful, fragile, and (thanks be to God) the rich potential living at the core of ourselves. The result is a vulnerability which is excruciatingly painful and which absolutely requires the assistance of a competent director who knows not only how to do this kind of spiritual or "inner" work, but also when it is time to do it as well as when the hermit is strong enough (in her inner covenantal life with God or Selfhood) to attempt it. At these times some parts of the hermit's Rule may be suspended and other changes made to accommodate differing needs for rest, prayer, food, recreation, direction or contact with one's delegate, etc.

Though one's director need not (and probably will not) be a hermit, it takes someone knowledgeable and personally experienced in the same kind of inner journey to assist and accompany the hermit in all of this. Otherwise one will have the equivalent of the blind leading the blind into the pit and tragedy will ensue. (It should go without saying that a "hermit" attempting to live in the desert without the assistance of a competent director with whom they meet regularly is, from my perspective, perhaps the greatest fool I could name. Unfortunately it happens.) In any case, it is also at this time that the hermit's own knowledge, experience and faith, all tested over time, prove their greatest worth.

On my Anniversary:

Despite all I have said here and in a few recent posts which may have seemed uncharacteristically "dark", let me also reiterate that I could not be happier in my vocation as a diocesan hermit. While the inner work in which I have recently been engaged has been difficult and rending (harrowing) it has simultaneously been a clear source of abundant life (hallowing) as well. There is no doubt in my mind that the temporary suffering of this work itself is a grace of God, not simply a source of grace as much suffering is and can be, but a wounding and profoundly life-giving touch of God (him)self and one that I might never have known but for this vocation and those who assist me in it.

Deep healing and growth in holiness is clearly something God is calling me to "in the silence of solitude" and apart from canonical eremitical life I would have neither the time nor the space and discipline for prayer, the access to sufficient direction or supervision, the commitment of profession which empowers and sustains the work, nor would I have the motivation or have been able to grow as sufficiently as I have needed in the commitment which make perseverance in this specific journey possible. God has truly blessed me in this and though there is pain and a sense of great fragility right now, I approach this anniversary with even more life, strength, and gratitude than I have known in the past. The promise of the future, though still being worked out "in fear and trembling" as Paul might put it, is very full indeed.

Adequately honoring this Gift of the Holy Spirit:

Dioceses that fail to pay attention to the reality and perhaps the inevitability of this experience of God in the darkness and abject suffering of the silence of solitude will be unable to assist hermits they profess. Even more problematically they are apt to profess "hermits" who can neither negotiate nor thrive (come to the abundant life Jesus promises) in the desert of eremitical life. Outright illness or a lack of integrity marked by mediocrity and "vocations" which are thus disedifying and even scandalous to all involved will be the result.

To summarize, the desert is a dangerous place. Eremitical silence and solitude are perilous realities and dioceses professing hermits need to be keenly aware of these facts. Especially they must never believe they are merely entrusting individuals to some sort of prayer-filled life of mere peace and quiet! The eremitical contemplative life of prayer in the silence of solitude is wonderful, yes, but it is also a source of real and deep anguish. Becoming God's own prayer in this world is both hallowing and harrowing, often at the very same time. When Jesus said, "I did not come to bring peace but a sword!" he might very well have been speaking, for those called to it, of the significantly growth-full moments of eremitical life! Again, this is something of which dioceses and candidates to canon 603 eremitical life must be aware if they are to truly and adequately honor this rare, valuable, and mysterious gift of the Holy Spirit.

29 August 2016

Eremitical Silence: Harrowing as well as Hallowing

[[Dear Sister, I appreciate what you say about silence as redemptive but I wonder if silence is always a comfortable reality for you? You have written that most folks find silence frightening and I am wondering if you ever do? Thanks.]]

Great questions! I have written about the silence of solitude most of the time to stress that it is not a matter of being isolated or ultimately alone and most of the time that fact is comforting and consoling. But there are certainly times when being in silence is neither comforting nor consoling. Moreover, while God is present during these times he is present more in a felt sense of absence or remoteness because during these times we are thrown back upon ourselves "alone". At these times even prayer can be anguish because during these times of focused quiet especially when we open the depths of our hearts to God, we are plunged into memories of our own deepest experiences of pain and abandonment in order to plumb them to their depths. At least that is how it seems to me at these times. In experiencing some forms of woundedness and trauma we did not have a sense of God's presence; we were (we thought and felt) wholly alone and helpless. Sometimes in order to re-experience those times we may also need to re-experience that felt sense of God's absence as well. It seems to me that silence carries and conveys these kinds of experience most fully and profoundly. At these times silence can be immensely painful and, as you say, even downright terrifying.

But, painful and terrifying or not, this is one very real dimension of eremitical silence. Anyone who has walked in the deep desert has not only heard this silence but felt it on their skin. It presses in from every direction. Our loudest yell or whistle are ineffective and merely momentary; they are small and weak things immediately swallowed up in the silence as though they had never been while the desert silence remains pristine and inviolable. The hugeness of the silence here seems to laugh at our efforts at making a mark or disrupting things and we are left with a sense of our own infinitesimal smallness as the silence humbles us with its seemingly infinite expanse and depth. There is a weight to such silence, a kind of substance or solidity we would like to hold at bay because in doing so we can sometimes temporarily hold our own deepest pain and anguish at bay as well.  But to enter the silence, especially to commit to live our lives there, is to commit not merely to the comfort and solace of the silence of solitude, but to the terrifying quiet and aloneness whose  weight breaks open our hearts and minds and reveals the unhealed woundedness and suffering we have kept repressed and submerged there for so very long.  At these times images of Jesus' saving descent into hell (which we now pray to know first hand) or the desert Fathers and Mothers' battle with demons in the depths of the desert (which we already know first hand) take on a new significance and poignancy for us.

Silence, especially the silence of solitude can be hallowing as the touch of God is holy-making and healing, but eremitical silence can also be harrowing as the fire of abject aloneness or hell is harrowing. The personal work silence makes possible and even necessary will eventually lead to the hermit's healing and holiness. Even so, there is no doubt that God is sometimes present in  what we experience as absence and a challenging remoteness; it is when this is true that eremitical solitude can become the kind of hell already described; it is occasioned by the weight of her desert's immense silence, solitude, and the hermit's own commitment to obedience. This harrowing quality of silence, especially the silence of solitude is something she assented to when the Bishop publicly and solemnly questioned her on her willingness to embrace the various elements of this vocation shortly before admitting her to perpetual profession; it is likewise something she knowingly embraced in her vows and in accepting consecration.

24 August 2016

Followup Questions on Silence as Redemptive

[[Dear Sr Laurel, referring to your article on the importance of silence to the hermit's witness, I just don't understand what it means to say that God speaks to us in silence or that silence can be redemptive. I think I also wonder if a person going into silence and solitude might not imagine God speaking to them. "Locutions" is a new word for me and I don't mean to offend but isn't it more likely that a hermit hears what they want or need to hear and it really just comes from themselves?]]

It's not always easy to understand silence, especially when we try to do so from the outside. While it may refer to the absence or relative absence of noise, Silence (with a capital S) is also and more truly the abyss and ground of all creation we refer to as God. More and more we each must learn to entrust ourselves to that silence, which, we will find embraces us and loves us without deficiency, limitation, or condition. When we do this we will find that over time (usually a lifetime) and layer by layer, we come face to face with ourselves and as we do that we will also encounter the demons and distortions of our own hearts, all of the ways life has wounded, distorted, and broken us --- and our profoundest gifts and potentials as well. As we do this a choice is always present: will we continue to be defined in this way or will we see ourselves in light of the loving embrace or gaze of God and allow ourselves to become all God calls us to be?

Silence as Redemptive:

In the article you mentioned I implied that there are many silences --- some of pain, anxiety, grief, mutenesses of all sorts (embarrassment, shame, ignorance, fear, prudence, discretion), etc. No doubt you have experienced many if not all of these. Imagine what these are like when they are met with a refusal of another to hear you during these times --- when they are met with the silence of rejection or abandonment or even of hatred. These silences are exacerbated and even transformed into an existential scream of anguish --- a silent but noisy scream that may express itself in all kinds of attitudes and behaviors. But now, imagine that a person who has been transformed in such a way meets a deeper silence, a silence capable of embracing the entire person they are and truly hearing them. What would happen?

Imagine when someone simply sits with a person in need, perhaps for hours at a time, and listens to and also gazes at them in loving silence. They provide a welcome, healing, empowering silence, a silence of safety and personal summons. Imagine a therapist doing this, or a spiritual director --- regularly over time. Imagine a similar silence when two friends choose simply to be with one another because they love and delight in one another. Imagine a person gradually entrusting herself to the silence of prayer again and again, first pouring out her heart in words and tears and then, giving even more of herself, including the parts of herself she cannot understand much less articulate, to a deeper silence which embraces the whole of herself --- and imagine that as a result of entrusting herself in this way she finds herself comprehended and loved --- that, in fact, she is returned to herself as newly coherent because she is loved beyond imagining.

We have all had experiences like this, experiences of silence in which we meet ourselves more honestly and clearly than life usually allows, experiences of silence that quiet the unceasing noise of our own pain and strivings, and softens the fear associated with them as it allows us to take a step back from these; we've all had experiences of silence that are affirming and accepting of all we bring to them, experiences of silence which re-contextualize the facts of our lives and allow them and us to make a new kind of sense, experiences of silence which somehow quiet and transform the chaos of our lives or the cacophony of our minds and hearts into songs and symphonies expressing a compassionate creativity at work both in and through us --- even while it transcends us utterly. We have each and all had very much smaller but similarly redemptive experiences of silence as well: times of play and relaxation and concentration when the silences gave birth to poetry and music, to images and insights, perceptions and inspirations of truth, beauty, and meaning in myriad degrees and forms.


Occasionally (even very infrequently) in the profound silences of prayer or of our environment we may hear a word or phrase or even a complete sentence which addresses us in the deepest parts of our being.These words and sentences tend to speak to us in our deepest needs as well --- which may mean they address us and reveal our deepest potentialities and gifts too. In my experience, limited as it is, these come from within us but also transcend what we know or can allow ourselves to imagine. One might hear the special name God calls them by or an affirmation of the value one has to God. One may hear a commissioning, a sending forth to serve, and so forth. I want to stress that these kinds of events happen "from within"; we hear them inside our own heads and while this is so there is usually a profound sense they come from God, not from ourselves.

I do not personally trust supposed or reported locutions which are either very frequent or consist of long speeches, for instance, and I can understand why you might distrust the phenomenon as a whole. But I know Sisters I trust profoundly who have had "locutions"  (they tend to be highly aural persons) and I have experienced a relatively small number of them myself of the type I described. If one prays regularly and lives in a constant dialogue with and attentiveness to God chances are pretty good there will be (very) occasional locutions. I believe these kind of "come with the territory" --- they are not necessarily signs of great holiness or spiritual advancement. Still, given the limits I mentioned, they tend to be of God, the God who bears witness to Godself in our hearts.

By the way, the locutions I have experienced or heard described have a uniquely memorable quality. They function a bit like a refrain in a song but in this case they are a refrain in our lives which punctuate and underscore the songs we are. There is no need for them to be frequent or numerous because they communicate something central which, like ecstatic experiences in prayer, can speak to us for the rest of our lives and never really be exhausted of meaning.

God Speaking in Silence

Just to be sure I have explained a little more of what I mean by God speaking in silence let me say that I do not mean locutions. Instead what I mean is that the immense or infinite Silence which is God --- a silence which contextualizes our lives, wraps us in love, and transforms our noisiness into quiet and our isolation into solitude is the very speech of God. One who dwells in silence learns to "hear" it. It is experienced as an accompanying and empowering music which allows one's life and, in fact, the whole of creation to achieve articulateness. It is the condition of possibility of the Word being made flesh and flesh being made Word. I know this can sound like nonsense --- the notion of "hearing silence" is difficult to convey. I hope you will trust me that this is real even when my explanations are completely inadequate.

21 August 2016

In God Alone

This may be a different and more challenging version of this chant than some are used to. The instruments improvising over the chant sometimes, even often, seem to miss the mark. And yet, under it all, grounding and giving coherence to every note --- if only we have the patience and trust to hear it --- is the profoundly stabilizing refrain or antiphon, [[ In God alone my soul can find rest and peace, In God my peace and joy, Only in God my soul can find its rest. Find its rest and peace.]]  As I listened this morning I found myself hanging onto the antiphon with a kind of fierceness during parts of this as I waited (and sometimes yearned intensely) for the improvising instrument to come to rest solidly again in the ground of the antiphon --- especially in the longer original recording.

So it is with us I think. We sing our lives improvising around this "theme" --- this internal antiphonal truth that sounds in our hearts; sometimes we seem to have journeyed so far as to have stopped listening and lost touch with it altogether --- though in our music-making we seek it still! And then, with patience, trust, and perseverance in our hearkening, we reconnect more clearly and come once again to that place of rest in God who alone makes sense of the whole of our lives --- even those bits which seemed to or may truly have lost touch with the Divine chant or "theme" grounding them.

For whatever else, the chant continues faithfully, unfailingly in a way which both shapes the improvisational journey and allows the player to finally come home once again despite the far and even foreign places to which they have traveled in the meantime: dissonances are resolved and the harmony of the whole is enriched with musical "stretches" and surprises that rather than troubling or disturbing us now delight and even move us with awe.

18 August 2016

On Loving God With Our Whole Heart and Mind and Soul. . .(Reprise)

I have to say that whenever I hear Jesus' statement of the Great commandment --- as we hear it in last Friday's Mass, I feel a little stunned and my heart jumps into my throat. That is my immediate reaction.  I hear Jesus say to me, [[ You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength,]] and I am completely befuddled or confounded. Oh, of course I want to be able to say I do this but at the same time I know that I am completely unable to do so. More, I often am stopped by a sense that I don't even know what is being asked of me in this. after all, I am not being asked just to love passionately or "the best I can". More, it asks that I love God in this way. GOD! This commandment goes beyond anything I can even imagine. I wonder how many of us experience something similar when we hear this text proclaimed in Church or read it in private. Either this commandment is merely a constant goad to guilt and shame and has been given to us solely to remind us of what we can never accomplish, or it is truly a gift which points us to something almost unimaginable in its wonder.

Fortunately, over time, I have come to know that this commandment is indeed a remarkable gift; like so many things in the New Testament it is a paradox and the key to understanding what it means (at least the things that have helped me to understand it) are also paradoxes. The first key to understanding  what it means and calls for, I think, is the nature of prayer. It is entirely natural to think and speak of prayer as something we do, an activity we undertake. But more fundamentally, prayer is what happens when God is at work in us; it IS God's work in us. Our part in this is to allow God the space and time to do his work in us, to love us in whatever way he desires.  We are most truly "pray-ers" when we allow God to pray in us.

 The second, and related key to understanding it, I think, is Paul's observation in Galatians 2:20, [["I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.]]  Just as we are most truly ourselves, most truly human, when it is Christ who lives and acts in us, so too do we "keep this command" when we have become people whose entire hearts, minds, souls, and strength are open to, come from, and mediate the God who is Love-in-act. This commandment is, most fundamentally, not about something we do ourselves --- and certainly not something we do ourselves alone, but rather the persons we are in and with the power of God. It is a commandment that we allow God to truly be God for us and through us in an exhaustive way, that we let him gift us with his presence and make us into truly human beings.

Remember that the first part of this quote is Paul's explanation in Gal 2:19: [[For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for (or to) God.]] In other words, the Law taught Paul about his own inadequacies so that he might allow the Grace (that is, the powerful and active presence) of God  to be the source of his life. Like Paul we live for and to God (and that means loving God) when we allow ourselves to be opened to God's presence, power, and action in our lives. After all it is God who is Love-in-act. As we think about this commandment during Lent we are apt to hear a commandment to change in our lives. We are called on to allow God to dispose us in ways which open us to God's love, to make us into people whose hearts, minds, spirits, and all of our strength are given over to God's own life and purposes.

The final key, then, has to do with our understanding of what it means to be human. As I have written here before: [[We sometimes think our humanity is a given, an accomplished fact rather than a task and call to be accomplished. We also may think that it is possible to be truly human in solitary splendor. But our humanity is our essential vocation and it is something we only achieve in relation to God, his call, his mercy and love, his companionship --- and his people!]] Scripture calls human beings Temples of the Holy Spirit and speaks of God as "dwelling in our hearts." Theologians note that heart is actually a theological term defining where God bears witness to Godself. The bottom line here, as with all the other paradoxical expressions of this truth is that we are truly ourselves only to the extent we live life within, with, and from the power and life of God.

The Great commandment is exhaustive in what it asks from us. It requires nothing less than the whole of ourselves. There are many ways to trivialize it: we can suggest it involves a bit of Semitic exaggeration (like Jesus' comments about hating our Father and Mother); we can argue that our feelings of inadequacy make us hear it as more emphatic than it really is so we just need to work through these personal issues of ours. We might read this commandment as simply asking us to do our best and nothing more. We might even collapse this commandment into the second one given in Friday's Gospel, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," and read these as a single commandment requiring only that we love others to fulfill it. While the two commandments are inextricably intertwined however, and while love of God inevitably includes love of neighbor, these two commandments are not one. Still, if we allow the first commandment to truly be as exhaustive as it sounds, it will function just as Law is supposed to do. Eventually it will lead us to call out to God to assist us in our complete inability to keep it ourselves --- and that, as Paul well knew and taught throughout his letters, is truly the first gift of a grace that saves.

13 August 2016

On the Risk, Cost, and Promise of Gospel Faith

Domesticated Christianity gets no hearing in today's Gospel! The love of God is not merely comforting and consoling but makes true in a way which can set those closest to us at odds with us. Jesus says that Father will be set against Son and vice versa; Mother will be set against daughter, daughter against Mother, family member(s) against family member(s), and so forth. Who among us have not experienced this kind of conflict and challenge? My first sense that perhaps this could be true occurred when I was preparing for baptism as a Catholic while in high school. "Not while you're living in this house!" my Mother exclaimed emphatically. It was not the last time I sensed the truth of this passage. It's quite a risk: one has to understand and be pretty trusting of the worth of what they are embracing to let go of family and friends in the process.

Sister at First Profession sings the Suscipe
And of course, that is really what Jesus himself knew intimately and lived and died to incarnate (reveal) exhaustively --- a treasure beyond all price, a Kingdom which made ultimate sense of every absurdity, a Divine Love which could bring to fullness every partial and fragmentary love, a Gospel Truth which could verify every distortion and make whole every brokenness. But, as for Jesus himself, there is no room for equivocation. Nor can we stand comfortably with a foot in each reality and be authentically Christian. One chooses the Gospel and all it entails or one does not. One entrusts oneself completely to the power and promise of God's sovereignty and makes oneself entirely vulnerable to the hope and wholeness-making (hallowing) of God's love or one does not. There is no middle ground. Either God IS our God (meaning we allow God to BE God in every way and to whatever extent God wills) or (he) is not. Today's readings emphasize both the worth and the dearness, the consolation and the costliness of discipleship and we need to hear both dimensions.

Prophecy that Brings Conflict:

The first reading from Jeremiah is certainly clear about the costliness of being a prophet who speaks God's will into the present situation with integrity. Do this and you may find yourself tossed into a cistern up to your neck in mud and in danger of starvation! How many of us today have tried to speak of the morality and urgency of peace and been accused of "demoralizing" the soldiers among us? How many, for instance, have argued the case for gun control, smart weapons, the priority of life over "the (supposed) right to bear arms" outside the context of "a well-regulated militia" and found themselves cast out of a job or political position? Examples could be multiplied of course depending on which facet of the vision of the Kingdom of God one sees most clearly --- and each will involve conflict and cost. Jeremiah's vision is greater than that of those opposing him, and greater than that of King Zedekiah as well. And he commits to this vision, proclaims it, and ultimately suffers for it. Such is the life of an authentic prophet -- both then and now.

A death that Brings Life:

The second reading from Hebrews reminds us of the struggle against sin, that is, the struggle against the brokenness, incompleteness, distortions, alienation, and untruths of our lives and world. It is clearly a difficult and costly struggle --- one, the author of Hebrews finds most clearly symbolized by the cross of Christ. But what is striking in this second reading is the emphasis on the joy and victory which comes from persevering in this struggle in the way Jesus did. Victory is always a matter of perspective and of maintaining perspective --- and maintaining perspective means courageously keeping an eye on Jesus and his life and death so that this "Christ Event" is first and last what defines us as persons. In every Catholic home, and often in every main room of every Catholic home (living room, bedrooms, dining room, study) there is usually found a crucifix. That  is certainly true in my hermitage.

And in whatever I am doing here, whether prayer or lectio, writing or study, personal work alone or with my director or delegate, resting or doing chores, struggling with illness and pain, eating alone or celebrating a rare meal with a friend, playing violin or meeting with clients, the crucifix is never more than a glance away so that I might be reminded of both the consolation and the costliness of faith while I silently reaffirm the Event and perspective that give meaning to everything I am and do. And when I believe my life is too difficult, the work too hard, the schedule too tedious, the "rewards" uncertain, etc, Hebrews reminds me as well that I have not yet resisted sin (that is, I have not yet embraced truth and life) to the point of shedding blood; in Christ I am yet stronger than I know and the victory is greater than I have yet witnessed to with my very life. I can and will maintain the truly human perspective of faith: I can and will persevere in this journey to wholeness for despite the cost, in this is my greatest joy and the victory of God's own will for the whole of his creation as well! Aren't we each called to know and commit to something similar whatever our vocational path?

A Love that Sets our Hearts and Creation Ablaze:

The Gospel lection brings all this home and sharpens it with an image of all things set ablaze. As inspiring as this image may be, for most of us it is also frightening. And so is the vocation of the Christian. Jesus' own vocation, his own humanity is defined in terms of suffering but also in terms of great joy. The baptism he speaks of is the baptism of kenosis, the baptism of a self-emptying which is exhaustive to the point of death and beyond into hell itself. But he undergoes and consents to this suffering for the sake of making known and personally real the Love of God that makes full and true and is (the source of) abundant life beyond all imagining. Jesus' empties himself and embraces abject weakness and shame so that he may be entirely transparent to the God he calls Abba and recognizes as the empowering source and ground of life. He gives and risks everything to gain everything really worth having; the Gospel we proclaim as Christians says that risk was entirely worth it for Jesus and is entirely worth it for us. At the same time then what we gain is not without cost --- for ourselves or for others! Jesus reminds us of the conflict that will inevitably occur even with those who love us as family member is turned against family member --- or even as parts of ourselves are brought into conflict with other parts and something trusted and even beloved MUST die so that something even more worthy of love CAN live!

The fire that Jesus brings and wishes were already blazing is the fire of God's love, the fire of the presence of Love-in-Act. We cannot even imagine a world/creation ablaze with the love and sovereignty of God but that is the promise of the Incarnation and of the Cross whose final word is resurrection and the place in God's own life associated with ascension. The Christianity we know and are comfortable with is an altogether tamer variety of faith, a domesticated version which allows us to stand with feet in the Kingdom and that which is antithetical to the Kingdom so that no one is very much troubled by it. It is all-too-often a compartmentalized faith which gives time to God on Sunday mornings (sometimes!) and uses the crucifix as a sign of our identity as Catholics. These may hang in every room of our homes but they do not define every space within our hearts. But what we are made for and called to is so very much more than this! And so very much more challenging! Today's readings call us to embrace the risk, the cost, and the promise of a faith like Jesus' own, a faith which asks quite literally for everything from us but also pledges everything we are made for in return.
A Prayer

My prayer is that we may each embrace and persevere in the promise of a love that will set first our own hearts and then all of creation on fire with the presence of God. May we make whatever sacrifices and give up whatever lesser securities we have to allow that to happen! May we trust that whatever price we are required to pay will be more than abundantly compensated by the love and grace of God. And may we live the truth that by "seek(ing) first the Kingdom of God all else will be added unto us" knowing and persevering in the knowledge that ultimately we cannot and will not lose anything because we are God's and God loses nothing at all!

12 August 2016

Canon 603: Escapism vs Unique Engagement, Canon Law vs the Word of God

Dear Sister, you have written that eremitical life is not escapist. I am sure I have read books or essays by spiritual writers which speak of being out of the world in escapist terms and sometimes I wasn't that bothered by the idea but the following passage makes me uncomfortable, particularly when it is supposed to equate purity of "being in Christ" with freedom from having to see things that are painful. Some of the Saints, maybe a lot of them had to see things that were painful and they were pure of heart:

[[This is pertinent right now, for am feeling very weary of the afflictions of body and mind and heart and even at times, of the soul. The soul grieves for a purity of being in Christ and free from having to see things that are painful to see and sorrowful to sense. How can a person be glad for the years of seeing ills and nastiness, of evil and wrong doing? How can one be glad for seeing with inner sight and having to live with what is seen? Perhaps the answer is in not living with what is seen, and of avoiding seeing with deep inner sense. The sure way to not see the ills of the world is to avoid being in the world, whether or not it is the secular world of society or the temporal/secular world of the Church.]]

So my first question is are you comfortable with this passage? Is this the reason hermits "flee the world" or embrace "stricter separation from the world"? What is this "inner sight" or "inner sense" this person is talking about?

Escaping the World vs Engaging the World in the Silence of Solitude:

A few years ago I wrote about the monastic truth that we do not truly see a person until and unless we see them as God sees them. This does not mean one does not see the ugliness and distortions of the world around them but it does mean that one also sees more deeply to the profound goodness and holiness which is also present in any reality grounded in and made for God. This is because one sees with the eyes of love which ALSO involves seeing the potential within the person or situation. Evil is real; falseness is real, but these are LESS REAL than the true self or the deep reality also present. Personally I would distrust any sort of "inner sight" that focused on the negative to the exclusion of the more truly real and good. I know that at the very least I would have to question whether it was of God. I would also probably want to get some professional assistance with it if it seemed to be such an affliction.

At the same time I would be cautious of any advice to refuse to see with whatever "inner sight" one has simply because that means seeing the evil in our world. We are called to learn to see "with new eyes" and I don't think that happens by avoiding seeing reality.I certainly don't mean to suggest that any of this is easy (to some extent I can sympathize with the author's sense of discomfort) nor that Christians see reality in "Pollyannaish" ways. In fact, because we also see the deeper truth and potential of reality and because we see with compassionate hearts, the distortions and betrayals we perceive may look even worse to us. We are not surprised to find evil (brokenness, untruth, distortions) in the hearts of those we meet and minister to --- after all we find these in our own (!), but we are committed to the deeper truth grounding these persons (and ourselves!) and to seeing the whole of reality as it is in light of this. To the extent we rest in God and "see with new eyes" we see with the eyes of love and faith, with the vision of those convinced of the sacramental and potential character of reality --- a reality grounded in God. So, as we look evil full in its face we do so in the only way which can ever succeed in transforming and thus destroying it, namely, with a love which sanctifies and heals, a love which transfigures and summons to transcendence and truth.

It seems to me that hermits embrace the silence of solitude to reject enmeshment in many of the values and dynamics at work in the world, but we do so precisely in order to embrace and engage with this reality in a more creative and transcendent way. We are detached so that we can truly love this other through our attachment to God and his Word --- something we mainly do by witnessing to the truth of the Gospel which consoles and challenges that other. While I dislike the image of the hermit as prayer warrior (the accent is too much on doing and not enough on being in the power of God) it makes sense to me to say that as persons of prayer we carry reality in our hearts and bring it to God or hold it before God in our prayer. In Christ we too are mediators who carry the cries of the world, the anguish of its illness and meanness of its incompleteness, yearnings, strivings,  and distortions within our own hearts and thus, before the creator and redeemer God.

The other side of mediation is also true: we allow God to heal and transfigure us so that our lives effectively witness to the redemption at work in our world in Christ. Thus, it also seems terribly important to me that we hermits allow ourselves to be profoundly aware of the disorder in our world, not that we avoid that or seek solitude in order to escape it. Again, the silence of solitude and the stricter separation from "the world" is a rejection of enmeshment in order to be creatively engaged in the name of the God who is Love in Act. What is essentially true however is that this vocation is not only about personal salvation. It is a prophetic vocation which, again, exists as a gift to the Church and world so that one day God may be all in all.

I am afraid that in the history of monastic and eremitical life this truth has sometimes been obscured or completely missed --- something which, in a single stroke, has falsified these vocations and rendered them incredible as truly Christian. It is possible that the person you are citing holds a more nuanced position than indicated in this single passage --- after all, we often tend to write about one side of a position and then another in developing or articulating what our lives are all about. The author of the comment you cited complains that s/he is suffering and tired; s/he may make the dimension of engagement with and on behalf of the world clear elsewhere or she may simply be growing towards seeing and embracing this perspective. However, as it stands I believe what s/he says there is too one-sided; it is antithetical to eremitical life as the Roman Catholic church sees and defines it in canon 603 which involves "assiduous prayer and penance", "stricter separation," and "the silence of solitude" for "the sake of the salvation" of the world.

If the incarnation teaches us anything it is that salvation comes through a profound engagement of God with the other in which the boundaries between sacred and profane are torn asunder. Jesus' 40 days of temptation in the desert was a snapshot of the dynamics of his entire life, a snapshot of a life given to the struggle to exhaustively embrace a Sonship of redemptive engagement without enmeshment. If hermits are not significant sharers in this same identity and mission, if their vocation is given over to avoidance of and escape from temporal reality rather than mediators of a heaven which interpenetrates and transfigures our world so that we are representatives of "a new heaven and a new earth," then it is not really a call from the God of Jesus Christ.

Either Canon Law or the Word of God: Is it really that Simple?

[[You don't write about canon 603 as though it is opposed to the Word of God but I think this hermit sees it that way. It seems to me the Word of God needs interpretation and so does canon 603. Why would someone treat life under canon 603, and even a life concerned with the interpretation of canon 603 (or any canons) as opposed to life under the Word of God? Here's the passage I read: [[ There is a certain freedom in being among people who are so steeped in the Living Word that they live in His Word. That certainly seems better than those who live in Canon Laws, for example, or who live in their status or position or labeled vocation. And this is not to cast aspersions on anyone in particular, but in general. There seem to be much living in Canon Laws in the temporal Catholic Church, but then also in breaking those laws in some cases, or interpreting them in various ways, not consistent. All that brings on more feeling of sickness, of weighty weariness, of soul disillusionment.]]

I'm afraid it is not at all clear to me what this passage is saying. The distinction drawn between those who live in His Word and those who "live in Canon Laws" is artificial and simplistic. It is also generally untrue. Every Catholic is called to live in and from the Word of God, but at the same time every Catholic is bound by Canon Law in a variety of ways even when they are unaware of this. That is true whether one is lay, consecrated, or ordained, and it is true whether one is married, single, dedicated, living as a hermit or any other way of serving Christ. I don't think the poster who wrote the above would suggest that every canonist is more taken with canon law than with the Word of God, much less every priest or religious who, by definition, live their lives under additional canons than lay persons and spend at least some of their time trying to understand these or the deeper realities they intend to protect or nurture.

Taking Time to Understand the Canons under which we live our lives, Canon 603:

What is unique about canon 603, for instance, is that it defines an entire lifestyle with terms that are not always immediately understood and which need to be applied to contemporary eremitical life. These terms themselves refer to profound spiritual realities which the diocesan hermit needs to live into in time. Moreover the canon defines a new form of consecrated life in response to the call for this at Vatican II and the needs of a number of monastics who suffered secularization and dispensation of solemn vows in order that they night live eremitical lives. In light of all of this it requires its terms to be brought in explicit ways under the purview of the Gospel -- to be sure that things like "stricter separation from the world" and "the silence of solitude" are not read individualistically, selfishly, or in other ways unworthy of the life of the disciple of Jesus Christ.

In other words, as a unique gift of the Holy Spirit which is only now coming to be lived in the Church, canon 603 cries out for attention and reflection both with the Gospel and with contemporary life and culture.  That is especially true since eremitical life is radical and extremely fragile precisely in being radical. It can be lived either as a radically prophetic Christian vocation or an equally radically selfish and anti-Christian lifestyle without much change at all in its externals. It takes reflection on the canon in light of the Gospel of Christ to distinguish which is which sometimes; one needs to understand the heart of the canon, the inner core of the life it defines beneath mere externals and this means bringing the Gospel to bear in one's interpretation and living of this canon. In all of this a hermit's concern with the canon, her reflection on it and insistence on it being interpreted with integrity is less a matter with 'living in canon laws" or being too taken with the "temporal Catholic Church" than is it of being concerned with exploring and living a gift from God which can transform the world and bring the Kingdom of Heaven.

At the same time canon 603 defines an entire lifestyle it says nothing about a lot of the nuts and bolts the Church must come to understand. It does not mention discernment, formation, realistic time frames leading to temporary or perpetual profession, or the kinds of relationships and structures which are necessary if the calling is to truly be an incarnational gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church and World. It says nothing about ongoing formation, limited ministry allowed (or not), financial and other support, age restrictions, etc. This is both a strength (because it allows significant flexibility and the judgment of diocesan personnel and the individual hermit on a case by case basis) and a weakness (because the eremitical vocation is not always well-enough understood by those either seeking to live or administer and supervise it). It is hardly surprising then that some hermits will reflect on these things, not only as they pursue their own vocations and attempt to live them faithfully and with integrity, but as they consider the vocation more generally and become intrigued with various aspects of it because of their beauty, their paradoxical character, or their prophetic capacity, for instance. During all of this, especially as she lives and reflects more deeply on the constitutive elements of the life, every hermit will bring her vocation and the canon which defines it under the Word of God.

Rejecting Simplistic Antitheses:

It is not helpful, I don't think, to make general criticisms about breaking the norms of canon law or their inconsistent interpretation without also providing specific examples. For instance, what canons are being broken? Are diocesan hermits doing this? And if they are does this mean canon law (like c 603) for hermits is a bad idea or does it mean inadequate discernment, formation, ongoing formation, oversight and support, etc? If something like canon 603 seems to be inconsistent with another text (like CCC par 920-21, for instance), does this indicate actual inconsistency or does it mean canon law is binding in a way different than the text from the CCC? Does it indicate actual inconsistency or some form of inadequacy on the part of the person reading the two texts? For instance, if c 603 refers to institutes of consecrated life (meaning societies of consecrated life) and as happened recently, a reader translates institutes as "other church laws or statutes" thus concluding c 603 is merely one canon among others which may but need not be used for solitary consecrated eremitical life one is left with a serious conflict. But where is the source of the problem? Is it with the text or the reader? Moreover without those who specialize in the canon how do we ascertain this?

Generalized criticisms like those cited are not only facile and simplistic, but they may be built on false antitheses that block intelligent discussion or prevent the genuine improvement of any situation calling for such. Neither do they bring real expertise to bear. If the author of the comments you have cited is a non-canonical hermit, then she has a place in the Church's ongoing conversation on eremitical life. She may not be able to discuss canon 603 from either an "academic" understanding much less from actually living it, but the various elements of the canon which are central to any eremitical life should certainly be within her purview. Moreover, the strengths of non-canonical (lay) eremitical life are likely to be things she is most familiar with and can discuss with aplomb. It would be terrific if she wanted to engage in ongoing discussions in ways her experience can illuminate, but a blanket condemnation of c 603 as being opposed to the Word of God or of c 603 hermits as being legalists opposed to those steeped in the Word of God is pretty much a non-starter in the eremitical world --- or the world of those truly knowledgeable about the relationship of Canon Law and the Word of God!

09 August 2016

Followup Questions on Obedience

[[Hi Sister, I guess I haven't really understood how obedience works, or maybe I am suffering under the influence of an older understanding of obedience. Your description of the way it works with your delegate was surprising because she seems to leave things up to you to decide. Is that really the way it is? Why then have a superior at all? Isn't obedience about dying to your own will? How can you do that if you don't have to do what you are told to do? Is what you described typical of hermits only or is it pretty much the way it is with all religious?]]

Common Misunderstandings of Religious Obedience:

I think that seeing religious obedience as a matter of "doing what one is told" is the most common misunderstanding there is in regard to this vow. It is true that, as you say, the purpose of obedience is to assist us in dying to self and embracing God's will --- not only for ourselves but for the world around us. Doing what we are told, however is not necessarily much less usually the best way to truly learn obedience. In some ways it has been part and parcel of a form of authoritarianism which has assured only that people never learn to truly discern the will of God, never allow their hearts and minds to be shaped in terms of that will, and fail to grow as individuals who can discern and implement the will of God in solitude or in those situations which are difficult, where others need their real wisdom in hearkening, and often there is no one to tell them what to do in any case. My own vow is about being truly attentive and responsive to the Word of God whenever and in whatever way that comes to me. How can I do that if obedience is merely or even mainly about "doing what I am told"?

Another common misunderstanding I think is that obedience is about the death of our own will. Obedience is certainly about its formation and transformation so that one's own will mirrors and is empowered by God's will but this is not the same thing as the death of our will. We cease to be truly human when our wills die; we can neither act to love others or ourselves in the absence of a will. What tends to be true is that the same kinds of things that harm our spirits or wound us psychologically can cripple or otherwise wound our wills. But we are called to image God in Christ and coming to do that does not occur with the abdication of the obligation to learn and be formed in Christ's likeness. Dying to my own will means learning to set myself aside for the sake of others; it means learning not only to be generous but to see others, their needs and potentials, and especially allowing the will of God to be the lens through which all of reality is perceived. To will what God wills is to want and to work towards what God wants and works towards. It is something which is divinely inspired but which requires guidance, modeling, personal healing, and concrete opportunities for discussion and discernment.

So, do I decide things myself and if so, then why have a superior at all? Yes, generally speaking I do decide things myself --- but never in a vacuum. I am responsible to God for my own life and growth in mirroring Christ. On that level of things I work with a director who keeps her finger on my spiritual pulse and assists me in discerning God's will for me personally. But I am also responsible for living an eremitical vocation in the name of the Church and this means a level of responsibility which is more than merely personal. Both my delegate and my bishop (and also my pastor even though not a legitimate superior!!) serve to remind me of the dimensions of my life beyond the narrow confines of the hermitage walls. They each in their own way serve to make me accountable 1) to other religious and for the vows and religious life itself, 2) for the desert tradition itself and canon 603 as a renewed instance of this specifically, and 3) to both the local and universal Church to whom my vocation belongs and in whose name I live it. It is common for a hermit to meet far less frequently with her bishop than with the others but even so each of these persons represent a perspective I need to see things clearly. And because I am accountable to them whether or not they ever command me to do x or y "in obedience," my awareness of the way I live my life is impacted every single day by our relationship; I think this is a good and necessary thing.

It occurs to me that perhaps it might be helpful if I posted the foundational canonical requirement for a superior, the legal norm which defines the essential nature of the superior's role: [[ Can. 618 Superiors are to exercise their power, received from God through the ministry of the Church, in a spirit of service.  Therefore, docile to the will of God in fulfilling their function, they are to govern their subjects as sons or daughters of God and, promoting the voluntary obedience of their subjects with reverence for the human person, they are to listen to them willingly and foster their common endeavor for the good of the institute and the Church, but without prejudice to the authority of superiors to decide and prescribe what must be done.]] As you can see, while the power to command in obedience is a reality, the superior's role is rooted in their own obligation to obedience, docility, and service to the Word and Will of God. They are to find ways to foster "voluntary obedience" and today most superiors have adopted this approach to the vow. Similarly there is a strong collaborative dimension here motivated by real love which remains despite the very real obligation to "decide and prescribe." That heightens my own sense of accountability all across the board.

On the Experience of Accountability:

I suspect anyone who has worked with a spiritual director knows something of what I mean here. Because we meet once every month or two with our directors we feel accountable for our prayer and the personal work we do to prepare for meetings. Spiritual directors are committed to us and we are accountable to them even when the relationship is not one of religious obedience or lived in the same way as when one lives a vow of religious obedience. Recalling Sunday's Gospel lection we can imagine those left in charge of the Master's estate acting in a way which is accountable because the Master may return at any time. What is important here is not the "threat" quality of his potential return but the sense that he remains a presence which prevents his servants from forgetting (or better, reminds them of!) who they are, who it is they serve, whose property this really is, and how they are to behave toward others. They have been entrusted with something on behalf of another; it is this which the continued reminders of potential return help keep uppermost in one's mind.

Because they are charged with responsibility for others (congregations, dioceses, etc) in ways we are not, legitimate superiors serve to call us to accountability, to remind us of perspectives which are broader than we might be tempted to remember otherwise, and of course, they are persons with whom we can and do talk so that over time our hearts and minds are truly and more deeply formed in terms of a greater love, a broader perspective than our own otherwise self-focused lives allow for. For instance, it is possible for a hermit to focus merely on her life with God and on the goal of union with God. Some justify this in credible ways. But it is also necessary for a publicly professed (i.e., consecrated) hermit to focus on these things (again) 1) for the sake of others generally, 2) for the sake of the local Church whom she serves as publicly commissioned witness, 3) for the sake of the desert tradition which the Church has also commissioned her to live as a vital and contemporary instance, 4) for the sake of the universal Church and her Gospel more generally, and 5) that she may stand as a prophetic (counter cultural) presence in a world so geared toward individualism.

All of us are accountable in our lives on a number of levels. We all have people to whom we answer in one way and another whether these are pastors, bosses, friends, directors, teachers, family, physicians, etc. When we are really fortunate these relationships are truly collaborative; they are vital and empowering relationships that challenge and inspire us to be our best selves and call us to live our commitments with ever greater maturity and integrity. Legitimate superiors serve this way for the person with public commitments to religious obedience. They allow genuine perspective and growth in that. They function to give stability to ecclesial vocations, a stability which allows for necessary change and adaptation while maintaining traditional substance. They are part of the formal and personal way in which the hermit carries on in an attentive dialogue with the larger church and world even as she lives her life in the solitude of a hermitage. Again, religious obedience is a means to a focused and very real accountability which helps protect from narrowness, selfishness, and individualism. Consider that obedience as "doing what one is told" often does precisely the opposite!!

How Typical is this Approach to Obedience?

This way of approaching obedience is common today in religious congregations and certainly among hermits (who tend to be relatively mature spiritually when they begin this life and who are not living with others in a way which requires house or congregational leadership). As I noted in an earlier post both Benedictine and Dominican spiritualities stress the NT sense of attentive listening or even hearkening (which includes the notion of appropriate response) and I am sure that is true of groups like the Trappists and Trappistines (who are Benedictine in character), the Camaldolese (similarly Benedictine), and the Franciscans (at least all those Franciscans I know). There are many other congregations for whom this approach is also true, Holy Family, Holy Names, IHM's, etc, etc. Wherever the accent is on the Gospel and on growing as mature religious who are capable of embodying the Gospel this approach is common. There is a history of infantilyzing tendencies in religious life which were mainly due to the notion of obedience as "doing what one is told" and touting the goal of the death of one's will which most everyone has now turned from as both unhealthy and counterproductive. We need mature moral agents who can be leaders in the Church and world both; it is the notion of obedience as attentive listening or hearkening which is foundational here.

I hope this helps.

08 August 2016

Questions on Living a Vow of Obedience under c 603

[[Dear Sister, I was wondering how you live the vow of obedience. Since you are under the supervision of your Bishop and also have a delegate do they both act as superiors? Because you wrote recently that if a spiritual director tries to bind one in obedience one should look for a new and competent director, I am supposing that you don't feel bound in obedience to your director. I think it would be hard to have someone telling me what to do and when to do it. That means I think obedience could be one of the harder things I might vow if I were called to be a consecrated hermit. Is it difficult for you? Thanks.]]

Great questions! Timely too since I have just started reading an essay by Donald Goergen OP on Obedience; I am hoping to discuss it with a Dominican friend I usually have Sunday coffee with. It turns out that the Dominican view of obedience and the Benedictine view are very similar so it will be fun to do that next Sunday. (That and an essay from the LCWR 2016 Occasional Papers on Change vs Transformation are on our list to read and 'discuss'.) In any case, it is a topic I am thinking and reading about right now so I appreciate your questions. Perhaps it will help if I first post my own vow of obedience so you can see what is behind everything I say about my own living out of this vow.

[[ 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.]] (Received 02. September. 2007)

My vow, as you can see, is a vow to be attentive and responsible to God in Christ through the mediation of the Church. That is first of all a vow to be attentive and responsible to the Word of God in all of the ways that Word is spoken in my life. It is especially a vow to allow God in Christ to be the subjective foundation of my life just as he is truly the objective foundation; that means "binding" or committing myself to this task and privilege in concrete ways via concrete relationships.

The two persons this involves canonically are the Bishop and my delegate.They are both legitimate superiors --- though the delegate serves in this way in a sort of derivative way on behalf of my bishop and the diocese. The term sometimes used is "quasi-superior" but I am bound in obedience to be responsive to her in a "heightened" way precisely because she is formally committed to serving me and the c 603 vocation on behalf of the local Church and our bishop. The third thing my vow  involves directly is obedience to my Rule (which is itself an expression of the shape of my commitment to c 603 and the other canons which apply to the life of a solitary consecrated hermit) --- and this means I am in a relatively constant dialogue with this and c 603, with the needs of daily life, and with my spiritual director (and delegate) regarding my own attentiveness and responsiveness here.

Please note that in none of this does anyone ordinarily simply tell me what to do. Everything involves dialogue and attentive listening on everyone's part. Should my bishop or delegate tell me I must do x or y I would certainly work to understand what is being asked and why (to the extent I can or really need to understand these things), and I would do all I could to respond as "asked". (If the issue is less serious or one I can easily understand the need for I am apt to simply do it --- whatever "it" is.) Generally there would be no reason I would not comply with what is being required of me. Still, this is not the way obedience is ordinarily shaped --- even when matters are presented to me for consideration by my delegate (whose "style" differs from, say, the Vicar for Religious). What is far more typical with her are exchanges like the following (or the approach underlying them). Laurel speaking: [[Because of (x) I am going to skip liturgy for the time being.]] (Delegate --- who understands the entire situation): I support you in this (decision). Stay close to your feelings and prayer. Rest. Contact me as you need.]] or again, (Laurel speaking): [[I am unsure what to do here. I am thinking I should either x  or y.]] (Delegate): I encourage you to x . Your decision.]]  That said, she can and does insist, demand, or "command" I do x or y in certain circumstances, for instance, but this is rare indeed.

Of course I trust my delegate, her perspective, experience, and wisdom and she also  trusts me to do what is best. Obedience cannot work as it is really meant to without this mutual trust. Again, obedience is about listening carefully and deciding to act in a way which most advances the purposes of God in my life and in the coming of the Kingdom. Sometimes I know what that means in my life better than my delegate knows and other times she sees things much more clearly than I do; together we come to a sense of the best way to move forward. It is when I do not see clearly in significant ways that a specific "directive" may be given. Similarly, a specific directive may be given to assist me and to affirm a kind of confidence in me at the same time --- ironic as all that sounds. The larger issue, of course, is that human being is a task and goal as much as it is a given reality. It is in my own discernment and action, my own obedience that I am created or come to be as an attentive and responsible human being. Even when I make mistakes the process of discerning, deciding, and acting is formative in the way described. A good superior makes sure this process is carried forward in each of our lives and is not short-circuited by authoritarianism or crippled by infantilism. 

Something similar is true (or has been true) with my bishop. After a meeting in which I fill him in on what my life looks like and answer any questions he may have I might ask him if he has any concerns. The answer has tended to be no and the day to day matters which might come under my vow fall to my delegate. What I want to stress here is that obedience is the result of honesty and discernment on everyone's part. "Commanding" or "directing" in formal obedience is rarely necessary because generally speaking we are each honest with one another and because I am honest with myself and God regarding how I live my Rule or otherwise attend to the Word of God in my life. Mostly I have found that the role of legitimate superiors is supportive and clarifying. It is, as mentioned above, also rooted in a trust which is empowering, not oppressive or infantilizing. That at least is my own experience of the superior-hermit relationship whether with delegate or bishop.

Other things which come into play in the way I live my vow include the life of my parish community and the needs my pastor might express.  (The vow demands much more than simply responding to legitimate superiors.) I attend to these as I can and I respond both as I am able and as is appropriate to my place in and love for this community and to my own more foundational commitment to God in solitude. I consider these calls to responsiveness to be really important to my life as a hermit and to a life which is meant to express a commitment to obedience in an ecclesial vocation. Again, however, no one is telling me WHAT to do. Opportunities to serve in ways the community needs or may especially benefit from that are within my competence are offered to me and I may or may not be able to take advantage of them at any given time.
Obedience here too is again about attentiveness and responsiveness to the Word of God in Christ as it is mediated to me by concrete persons, institutions, and situations, not merely about doing what I am told to do. While I haven't mentioned explicitly my obligation to read, study, and even grapple with Scripture as an instance of my vow as well as my obligation to prayer, these two are foundational practices which are the ground of any commitment to obedience. Because these are covered in my Rule when I write of "observation of my Rule" I am also thinking of or implying these. Still it is important to be clear that it is engagement with God in prayer and in the Word of God through study, lectio, and liturgical experience that stands behind all  the obedience expressed or observed in other relationships. These, while they are mediators of the Word of God, all first of all stand under the Word of God and are subject to its values and purposes.  The bottom line here is that generally obedience is not hard for me --- though it is always challenging and rewarding!! Generally it results in real freedom --- the power to truly be myself. If you are called to religious obedience, and if you were to model your own understanding of obedience on the New Testament notion and use a Dominican or Benedictine conception, for instance, I think it would be a good deal less onerous than you imagine.

06 August 2016

Monday's Gospel and the Hermit's Call to Hospitality

Last Monday's gospel lection was, I believe, one of the pivotal texts which explain and ground the hermit's esteem for and paradoxical sense of having a call to both solitude and hospitality. It also serves as an illustration of every Christian's need to ground ministry in prayer including solitary prayer and to allow prayer to overflow in active ministry which is a gift of self to all. The text was Matthew's story where Jesus, upon hearing of the death of John the Baptist, retires to the desert to be alone with God. He is pursued by hungry crowds --- hungry on so many levels; he is moved by pity for their needs and ministers to them. Eventually his disciples approach, remind him of the coming darkness and ask Jesus to "dismiss" the crowds so they may return to the village to obtain food for supper. Jesus says there is no need to dismiss them and asks his disciples to bring the scant provisions they have on hand to him. What follows is a Eucharistic meal. Christ feeds the crowds with bread and fishes he multiplies, but he also very clearly feeds them with himself --- abundantly; he pours himself out in this way and gives the gift of himself and the fruits of his relationship with God even when his own need for solitude (time with his Abba) may have been primary.

While Jesus' grief may have been a significant part of his turn to solitude (the texts don't actually indicate this) the evangelist clearly wants us to see this time as another instance in which Jesus' own call to minister --- to be emptied of self, to be broken open and to pour himself out for others as an expression of his unique relationship with his Father --- is discerned and acted out in the world without hesitation. For hermits for whom the demands of solitude and hospitality are inextricably wed, this lection is both encouraging and quite challenging; though they must both be observed and cannot easily be teased apart, in this lection hospitality (or active ministry) assumes apparent priority over solitude. What I think we must see, however, is that Jesus' solitary suffering (grief, loneliness) and relationship with his Father (prayer) together bring him to a compassion which is the basis of his entire ministry. It is the foundation of his complete gift of self to and for the world given without conditions or limits while it also defines the very character of this ministry. Matthew says Jesus is moved by pity for the needs of these others. At the heart of everything Jesus is and does is a compassionate, other-centered drive to mercy -- a mercy which is from and of God.

Solitude Empowers Our Paradoxical Gift of Self::

Authentic solitude empowers a kind of presence, an openness to others and their needs which our own needs do not impede much less dictate. In other words it empowers an other-centeredness which welcomes on their own terms those who come to us seeking "a word". Eremitical solitude is the context for listening and thus welcoming with one's heart. It empowers this and, at least for a time, allows one to set one's own needs and concerns aside in order to listen carefully to the mind and heart of the other who has sought us out. It is only when one has really heard these others that one can respond in a way which is truly inspired. More, really hearing the other IS the inspired response. In the literature of the Desert Fathers and Mothers hermits visited their elders in search of "a Word". What they were in search of though is not some abstract bit of eremitical wisdom, not necessarily what is most important to the elder, for instance, or the insight or principle s/he most treasures or is known for; instead they seek an answer to the questions or yearnings of their own hearts and the elder draws on his or her own experience to provide just the right "Word". "The Word" is a symbol of the seeker being truly heard.

But here is where is gets a little tricky too. Solitude prepares one to give oneself in an openness which is capable of embracing and holding the needs and even the very self of the other --- and quite often this embracing or holding (as noted with hearing above) IS the very thing the person seeking one out really needs. It is incredibly paradoxical that a hermit's solitude (time alone with God for the sake of others) prepares and even calls for hospitality --- especially such a radical hospitality --- but that is the truth which hermits have seen from the very first moment they sought God in the wilderness. When, for instance, we spend time in quiet prayer we open ourselves to God in a way which allows him free reign (and free rein!). In my own prayer I empty myself of discrete expectations, specific desires, wishes, and even hopes, and simply give over my heart and mind to God to dwell in (to know!) and to touch in whatever way God wills. This means he will plumb the depths of every thought, desire, wish, yearning, impulse, and hope I have, every potentiality, every fear and defense, every openness to life or obstacle to it. I pour out my mind and heart to God by emptying myself of these as things I ordinarily grasp so that God himself can explore and embrace them even more exhaustively with his love and mercy. I let go of these individual realities so that God may grasp and transform me. And so it is with hospitality.

When someone seeks me out they are rarely really looking for the "diocesan hermit" or the "theologian" or even the "spiritual director" --- though all of these dimensions of myself may be of help in one way and another and may also be the ostensible reason someone comes to me. Most fundamentally though they are looking for the person who may also BE these things. What I also mean in saying this is that they are not primarily seeking me out for MY sake --- so that I may BE a diocesan hermit or theologian or spiritual director, etc. They are seeking me out so that THEY may BE themselves. They are seeking a place, a sacred space created not only by the hermitage's silence but more especially by a heart and mind that are open to them and to all they need, yearn and hope for. They are seeking me out in the hope that I can truly set myself aside for the time being and make them "at home."  And some hermits or directors or other ministers may forget this; it is a tragic error when they do.

To the extent I can set myself aside so that those who seek me out may be at home, to the extent my time in solitude has prepared me rightly, to the extent I can become transparent to God rather than being about "being a hermit" or a "contemplative", or merely giving "spiritual advice" or instructing the person ABOUT God, to this extent they will be fed and nourished, held, healed, and freshly commissioned to transform the world with God's love far beyond anything I might be capable of empowering myself in any of my usual "roles" or "competencies". That is the hospitality hermits and contemplatives offer others: the hospitality of selflessness and an open heart and mind which are all transparent to God and are formed and nourished in eremitical solitude. Only then will our own competencies and specific gifts be really helpful and the specific "Words" we might be able to say to the person be truly helpful.

Monday's Gospel Text Again:

So Jesus went apart to spend time with his Abba and people sought him out; Jesus, moved with pity, ministered to them. These two impulses, to solitude and to hospitality are inextricably related in Jesus' life and in the life of contemporary hermits --- just as they are in the great commandment. Are there dangers to be avoided, confusions and misunderstandings which are common and must be corrected or avoided? Yes, absolutely --- and it is important for hermits to live disciplined lives while reflecting on and sometimes even writing about these. But solitude and hospitality are two sides of the same coin and we never have one without the other. Nor can one hand another person only one side of a coin. It is the whole coin or it is nothing at all.  Recently I read a blog post which said essentially: [[ If the folks who turn to me, even those who are concerned with how I myself am doing, don't want to hear a message from a hermit about Christianity or the spiritual insights I have gleaned from my mystical experiences, then let them leave me alone!]]

Additional comments gave me a sense that the blogger believed the people turning to Jesus were doing so for petty (merely "temporal") reasons and interrupting Jesus' prayer and solitude for a bit of trivial "conversation". In all of this I was reminded of some soup kitchens where people in real need and hungry on so many levels were  promised a meagre bowl of soup and sandwich only if they listened to a bad preacher with his pre-packaged spiel ABOUT (his version of) Jesus. And I wondered if those ministering to the folks in the soup kitchen realized what those folks really needed was a decent meal in which they encountered God in Christ as someone who shared their table and was truly vulnerable to them. Was there a minister present asking to eat with or have a cup of coffee with them in order to really be WITH and hear THEM? To make neighbors of them? To really love them as a revelation of God? Because of the soup kitchen's focus on pre-packaged messages ABOUT Jesus -- or the blogger's focus on her insights and spiritual "gifts"? I sincerely doubt it.

But the truth is if we are truly hermits (or contemplatives or Christians of whatever stripe or role) then, relatively rare though these encounters may be, it is in meeting us as persons healed and enlivened by a love which makes us truly open and vulnerable that another will meet and hear God in us, not in lectures, or "edifying accounts of mystical experiences" or a litany of spiritual principles and lessons gleaned in a selfish solitude. We meet God in the silence of solitude so that others may meet God in and through us. Even more, we meet God in the silence of solitude so that we may ALSO clearly recognize and reveal God in the other who needs us to do this. It is not the easy way; it is personally costly and thus it is neither bloodless nor without risk, but it is the way of Jesus, and the way of both monastic and eremitical solitude and hospitality.