30 November 2016

Sister Juliana 105 years old, 83 years a Religious Sister

Such a great story and wonderful to celebrate!

[[“Bless us, O Lord, and these your gifts, which we are about to receive from your bounty. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.” At first glance these words of the Grace Before Meals seem simple. After all, this is one of the first prayers parents teach their toddlers. Yet, in its simplicity, it expresses a profound, fundamental truth about our lives; all that we are and all that we have are gifts given to us through God’s bounty, in a manner of speaking, from God’s farm to our table. With grateful hearts we receive God’s abundant love and, in turn, offer our gifts and talents, our hopes and joys, our dreams and desires back to God to assist, in our unique way, in bringing about the Kingdom of God.

Juliana Barilla, OP has long understood the great joy it is to serve God by serving God’s people. Not many of us get to spend over eight decades living out this great joy. But Sister Juliana is privileged to say she has been doing so as a Grand Rapids Dominican for 82 years and still counting.]] (cf, Sister Juliana for access to Sister Juliana's story.)

28 November 2016

On Battling Demons and the Mediation of Peace

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, you have written about battling demons as something real in the life of the hermit. I wondered if you were aware of the hermits who say that the stories of the desert mothers and fathers battling with demons are just legends and that the vocation of the hermit is to mediate peace? Do you agree or disagree with this appraisal of the situation?]]

Thanks for the question. I can't say I am familiar with the comments you are recounting but I both agree and disagree with them --- assuming of course, the accuracy of your account.

With regard to the comment about the stories of the desert elders being just legends, I would disagree with the use of the qualifier "just". Legends are powerful stories which can convey a kernel of truth. They can work like myths actually do work. To speak of "just myth" or "just legend" is like saying it's "just a matter of semantics". Such speech  denigrates and neglects the power of language to mediate truth; it disregards the fact that words matter. That said, yes, I would agree that the stories of the desert elders battling demons are legends or rather, are stories with significant legendary features whose purpose is to describe an inner experience or event which is otherwise difficult to speak about or convey. Like myths they may be best honored when we do not take them literally. (Taking myths literally trivializes them and the truth they convey.) At the same time, their deep truth is truly heard when we allow ourselves to imagine the details in ways which fill our minds and hearts so we can really consider or meditate on them --- just as we would do with something which is literally true. We must allow ourselves to enter the stories fully so that they may address us and resonate within us --- just as we do with Scriptural stories, especially the parables of Jesus. Only in this way will we come to receive the truth they seek to mediate to us.

As I have written several times, it is traditional wisdom to understand that eremitical life involves battling with demons; in my own experience, however, those demons are mainly the ones we carry in our own hearts. The demons we battle may be those of insecurity, inferiority, arrogance, perfectionism, and so many others. They may involve memories which reside in both our minds and muscles because they have been profoundly encoded neurologically. They may be the demons of trauma or abuse or poverty and severe lack which so wound and injure our hearts as well. Almost anything that happens to human beings at the hands of others, themselves, or life's circumstances more generally can take on demonic dimensions and be triggered in the face of the love of God which seeks to heal us in the deepest and darkest places within our hearts, minds, and souls. Because hermits live religious poverty in the silence of solitude and spend their lives seeking God in this way, much of the noise and many of the distractions that attenuate or prevent most peoples' attention to their own hearts and to the darkness and demonic voices that dwell there are missing.

Being confronted by and accepting the love of God is profoundly healing, consoling, and life giving but at the same time it can be and often is a tremendously strenuous and painful process. When I wrote recently of the personal work I had been doing beginning June 1st I said the following: [[. . .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 [(fortunately), their] 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.]] (cf Sources and Resources for Inner Work)

Yes, it is true that hermits and eremitical life more generally is about the mediation of peace. The purpose of the struggle with demons is precisely to allow the hermit to dwell in peace and to extend that peace to others and to the world at large. When I write about the hermit (or any Christian) becoming the very prayer of God I am pointing to the same reality. Likewise speaking of being mediators of God's love or being the counterpart of God are ways of conveying the same truth. So, yes, I completely agree with the hermits you are referring to in this regard. However, I believe the struggles so often spoken of in the Apothegmata of the Desert Elders, Cassian's Conferences (esp Conf VII), or in the Life of Anthony, for instance, point to a necessary purgative and healing stage of our inner lives as we become the people we are called to be --- people who embody and mediate genuine peace.

Remember that in all of the readings we heard in the past couple of weeks at the liturgical year came to a conclusion judgment was most often portrayed as a kind of harvest --- and one that was not without a kind of violence or struggle. In every act of love, every act, that is, of judgment, God says an unconditional "yes" to us -- to the true self with all its gifts and potentialities, its yearnings and needs, but God also says "no" to anything which is unworthy of us --- to anything within us that cripples, distorts, or represents falseness. God embraces the wheat of our true selves as something in which God delights --- something which will nourish and bless the whole world, but the chaff of falsity and distortion is threshed away and left behind forever. In this way God creates us, summons us to be as fully and exhaustively as we can be. In this way he loves us and all those whom our lives will eventually touch. The result is a holiness occasioned by the love of God while the consequence of such healing and integration is shalom or peace --- not as the world gives, perhaps, but for which the world yearns almost immeasurably.

I sincerely hope this is helpful.

27 November 2016

First Sunday of Advent: In what Story will we Stand? (reprise)

Sometimes I will post pieces I have written in the past because they are appropriate for the season or the feast. Today I am reprising this piece for the additional reason that it marks a theme I have recently returned to in my own life, namely, the way genuine conversion transforms the story in which we participate. The question of in what (or who's) story will we stand really represents the question of who we will be as persons: Advent especially poses this question powerfully and freshly.

A Poignant Conversation

Last week I spoke to a friend I haven't seen in a number of years. She has Alzheimer's and now lives in a different state. We have known each other since the early 80's  when we were both working with the same spiritual director and sometimes stayed at the Center for dinner or made retreat together. Today Denise remembers that time clearly as a watershed period of her life and it is a complete joy for her to talk about it. Doing so is part of what allows her to remain a hopeful and faithful person. It is a major part of her ability to remain herself. But her capacity for story has been crippled and to some extent reduced by her illness.

We are Made for Story

For me this conversation helped underscore a deep truth of our existence. Human beings are made for story. Story is an inescapable part of being truly human and we are diminished without it. It is not only a profound need within us but a drive which affects everything we are and do. Nothing happens without story. Nothing significant that happens in our life is unmediated by story.  When scientists reflect on and research this truth, they conclude we are hardwired for story. Neuroscientists have even located a portion of the brain which is dedicated to spinning stories. This portion of our brain sometimes functions to "console" and compensate one for the loss of story in brain disorders (amnesia, for instance) and I sometimes hear it at work in my friend Denise as she fills in the holes in her own memory for herself; but it is implicated in our quest for connection, context, and meaning in all its forms.

Thus scientists explain that story is actually the way we think, the way we relate to and process reality, the way we make sense of things and get our own hearts and minds around them. Whenever we run into something we don't understand or cannot control --- something we need to hold together in a meaningful way we invariably weave a story around it. Children do it with their dolls and crayons; Abused children do it and often have to be helped in later life to let go of these so they may embrace their place in a better, truer story. Physicians do it when they determine diagnoses and prognoses. Historians do it in explaining the significance of events. Scientists spin stories to explain the nature of reality. The complex stories they author are called theories. Like the myths of religious traditions, these narratives often possess a profound explanatory power and truth. They work to allow the development of technology, medicine, and the whole of the sciences, but they are stories nonetheless. And of course, gossips, know-it-alls and scam artists of all sorts routinely spin stories to draw us in and exploit our capacity and hunger for story.

We all know that stories are essential to our humanity.  At their best they help create a context, a sacred space and healing dynamic where we can be ourselves and stand authentically with others: Thus, when someone we love dies it is natural (human!) and even essential that we gather together to tell stories which help reknit the broken threads of our story into something new and hopeful, something which carries us into a future with promise. In a way which is similarly healing and lifegiving we offer strangers places in our own stories and make neighbors of them. We do the same with friends. Ideally, there is no greater gift we can give another than a place in our own stories, no greater compassion than our empathy for and appreciation of another's entire story. For good and ill our humanity is integrally linked to the fact that we are made for story. We reside and find rest within stories; they connect us to others. They are vehicles of transcendence which make sense of the past and draw us into the future. They link us to our culture, our families, our communities, our faith, and our church; without them we are left bereft of identity or place and our lives are empty and meaningless. 

We have only to look at the place story holds in our life in the Church to appreciate this. The creed we profess is not a series of disparate beliefs or dogmas but a coherent story we embrace more fully every time we repeat it and affirm "I believe" this. Our liturgy of the Word is centered on stories of all sorts --- challenging, inspiring, consoling us as only stories can do. Even the act of consecration is accomplished by telling a story we recount and embrace in our "Amen" of faith: "On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it saying. . . then he took the cup, blessed it saying. . .]] Stories like these, we know, provide the context and overarching narrative in which all things ultimately hold together and are meaningful.They make whole and holy. For this reason we yearn for them and honor them as sacred.

Our Capacity for Story is Both Blessing and Curse 

Augustine summarized all of this when he said, "O God, we are made for thee, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." He might well have said."O God your story is our own and our hearts are restless until they finally reside securely in that story". Just like physicists who are searching for that one theory of everything, we are each made for and in search of the story which makes complete and ultimate sense of our lives, the story which allows us to develop our own personal stories fully, the narrative framework which lets us be completely and exhaustively human. Christians recognize this blessed story as the Kingdom of God, God's own story.The challenge for each of us, I think, is to make this story our own. The problem? We already reside rather securely in other stories, other controlling narratives and myths. Because of our capacity and even our hunger for story our lives are full of scripts and tapes which conflict with the story we are offered in Christ. Some seem lifegiving but many do not serve us very well at all.

 For instance, when young persons opt to join a gang, they are choosing a particular story of status, community, belonging, power as opposed to powerlessness, and a place in a world which seems larger and more adult than the one they occupy already. Unless these things are distorted into badges of courage and achievement the narrative omits prison, death, the sundering of family relationships, loss of education, future, and so forth. Another example: when adults choose to have affairs they are buying into a story they tell themselves (and our culture colludes with this at every point) about freedom and love, youth, immediate gratification, sexuality and attractiveness. The part of the narrative they leave out or downplay is the part of the story we are each called to tell with our lives about personal integrity, commitment,  faithfulness, patience, and all the other things that constitute real love and humanity. 

What we are seeing here is the very essence of sin. It is no coincidence that the Genesis account of humanity's fall from "grace" (which is really a place in God's own life or "story") centers around the fact that at evil's urging Adam and Eve swap the story God tells them about themselves, their world, and their place in it for another one they prefer to believe. In THIS story eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil will not bring death; in THIS story God is a liar; in this story humanity grasps at godhead and lives forever anyway. So many of the scripts and tapes we have adopted are as distorted and destructive and they touch every part of our lives. Two of the most recent I heard are, "The poor are takers" and "Selfishness is a moral imperative and the key to the common good." But there are many others! Scripts about what real men and women do or don't do --- both in society and in our church --- about what freedom is, divine justice, what is required to gain God's love (despite the fact God gives it freely to anyone who will simply accept it), etc. As sinful human beings we are an ambiguous mixture of stories which make us true and those which stunt or distort us. Our capacity for story is both blessing and curse.

Story is also the way Home

If our capacity for story is both blessing and curse then it is also the way home. In particular the stories Jesus tells us are a primary way home. Jesus' parables are, in fact, one of the ways he works miracles. (If anyone --- even Webster's Dictionary --- ever tells you these parables are "simple religious stories with a moral" don't believe them! They are far more dynamic and dangerous than that!) Like every story, Jesus' parables draw us in completely, allow us to suspend disbelief, check our overly critical voices at the door, and listen with our hearts as well as our intellects. They create a sacred space in which we are alone with God and can meet ourselves and God face to face. No one can enter this space with us even if there are hundreds standing shoulder to shoulder listening to the same story. But Jesus' stories do more. As I have written here before: [[ When Jesus told parables, for instance, he did so for two related reasons: first, to identify and subvert some of the less than authentic controlling myths people had adopted as their own, and second to offer the opportunity to make a choice for an alternative story by which one could live an authentically human and holy life.


Parables, Jesus' parables that is, typically throw down two sets of values; two perspectives [or stories] are cast down beside one another (para = alongside, and balein = to throw down). One set represents the Kingdom of God; one the kingdom where God is not sovereign --- the realm the Church has sometimes called "the world". Because our feet are firmly planted in the first set of values, [the first set of stories or scripts], the resulting clash disorients us and throws us off balance; it is unexpected and while first freeing us to some extent from our embeddedness (or enmeshment) in other narratives, it creates a moment of "KRISIS" or decision and summons us to choose where we will finally put our feet down again, which reality we will stand firmly in and inhabit, which story will define us, which sovereign will author and rule us. ]] 

Will we affirm the status quo, the normal cultural, societal, personal, or even some of the inadequate religious narratives we cling to, or will we instead allow our minds and hearts to be remade and adopt God's own story as our own? Who will author us? Will it be the dominant culture, or the God who relativizes and redeems it? Where indeed will we put our feet down? In which story will we choose to walk and with whom? These are clearly the questions that face us during this season of Advent as we prepare our hearts for Christmas and a God who tells us his story in a most unexpected way.The fresh cycle of readings are an invitation to approach God's story with fresh ears and a willingness to have our lives reshaped accordingly. It is the story we are made and hunger for, the story in which we are made true and whole, the story in which nothing authentic of our lives is ever lost or forgotten. What greater gift can we imagine or be given?

26 November 2016

Thanksgiving Greetings



Personally speaking, I have had an amazing year, especially the past almost six months. For me, the work of those months is reaching a kind of conclusion just at the end of the liturgical year and I can hardly say how grateful I am for it all. It was not pleasant much of the time; it was downright painful for weeks on end, and at the same time it was a grace of God which healed, freed, and summoned to new life at every moment. Especially I experienced the consolation and challenge of a divine and humanly mediated love which supported me at every moment as it called me to leave behind ways of thinking, feeling, and being which had defined --- and sometimes crippled --- me and made me unable to respond adequately to God's call to abundant life. I think we are each called to know and to mediate this kind of love to others; it is the essence of any Christian vocation.

This week my delegate sent me a copy of Nimo's song "Grateful". I had never heard it before (and I was a little surprised she would send me a "rap" song --- until I actually listened to it!) but it is truly wonderful and I want to share it here. Whether it is  because our liturgical year is coming to a close with thoughts of the creative act of God we know as judgment, because that same calendar is gifting us with Advent and the preparation for new beginnings, fresh commitment, and new birth or because some of us are US citizens celebrating Thanksgiving this week in the midst of national turmoil and anxiety, we have each been given today and the blessings it holds. Even in the midst of life's struggles and concerns, this day is a time to be grateful for all we have and are. Once again, as Dag Hammarskjöld wrote in Markings, "For all that has been, Thanks. For all that will be, Yes."

On the Purposes and Nature of Canon 603

Dear Sister O'Neal, was canon 603 established to regularize hermits in the Western Church? Does the church refer to or have recluses any more? I am asking because of the following passage: [[It may be interesting to note that now, the Western Church has, as recently as1983, developed a means to regularize hermits (the term recluse has dropped from Church use) by creating CL603.  Thus, hermits who wish to receive bishop approval and be publicly professed under that bishop's direction within their given diocese, may do so. At this time, the canon regulization (sic) is not at all pressure upon hermits who may still prefer private profession of vows within the Consecrated Life of the Church.  Some bishops may prefer to not have hermits in their dioceses nor to deal with the regulized (sic) aspect of CL603, either; but I know of no statistics current on this point.]] I know there are problems with referring to "private profession" "within the consecrated life" of the Church so I am not going to ask you about that. Thank you.]]

No, generally speaking canon 603 was not promulgated to "regularize" solitary hermits in the Western Church. The church from diocese to diocese rather than with universal law had done (or tried to do) that in the middle ages in a number of ways. Primary among these was establishing common Rules for hermits and funneling many of them into monastic communities and such. (Remember that regularize and Rule come from the same root, regula.) As a result solitary hermits in the Western Church pretty much died out by the 15th or 16th C. Canon 603 was established as a way of recognizing this significant but very rare vocation in universal law for the first time and allowing it to reveal itself on its own terms with ecclesial supervision. This was especially desirable because, as I have noted several times here, solemnly professed monks were discovering vocations to solitude after years in the monastery but because this was not an option for them under their institute's proper law, they had to leave their monasteries and be dispensed and secularized if they were to live as hermits at all. Bishop Remi de Roo and others argued at Vatican II that such a significant and prophetic vocation should be universally recognized as a "state of perfection." This finally occurred with canon 603 and the publication of the 1983 revised code of Canon Law.

Canon 603 serves to define eremitical life (c. 603.1) in well-accepted traditional terms and to provide for living it as an ecclesial vocation in the name of the Church under the supervision of the hermit's local bishop (c. 603.2). It is important to remember that this canon expects the hermit to write her own Rule rooted in her own experience of the way God is calling her to live this life. This is a necessary piece of the Church's discernment of the vocation and of readiness for vows. The bishop does NOT write the hermit's Rule nor is she forced to adopt an already-established Rule --- as was often the case in the Middle Ages. She lives the ecclesial definition of eremitical life in her own way according to her own rhythms, gifts, and needs, but she does so with the aid of a spiritual director and also a diocesan delegate who assists the Bishop in making sure the vocation is lived well and in a healthy, representative, and edifying way. There is nothing onerous about this arrangement for one called to this vocation precisely because eremitical life is not about simply doing as one pleases, but instead about responding to an ecclesially mediated vocation in ways which are edifying to the church even as they are life giving to the hermit.

Regarding recluses, the Church has not dropped the term. She uses it mainly for those very rare hermits who belong to certain Orders and are admitted to reclusion by their communities. The vocation to reclusion is supervised and supported by the congregation, particularly by the superior of the house where the recluse resides. Only the Camaldolese and the Carthusians are allowed to have recluses today. (This includes the Camaldolese nuns who are famous for supporting the vocation of Nazarena, a recluse who lived at the house in Rome.) A diocesan hermit who desires to become a recluse would need the permission of her bishop, recommendations by her spiritual director and her delegate along with significant support by her parish or diocesan community to make healthy reclusion possible. The urgency here is to maintain a specifically ecclesial vocation in which the hermit's vocation to authentic humanity is fostered. If solitary eremitical life is rare, vocations to genuine reclusion are rare to the nth degree but neither the vocation nor the term have been dropped by the Church. Instead, the Church is careful in allowing hermits to embrace reclusion and applies the term rarely.

Because she esteems the eremitical vocation as a gift of the Holy Spirit and understands not only how rare it is but also how easy it would be for misanthropes and other eccentrics to distort and misrepresent it the Church takes care to define it in universal law and to include it as a specific and new form of consecrated life. This means that not "anything goes". Misanthropes need not apply. Lone folks who are not actually embracing a life defined by the constitutive elements of the canon and who do not show clear signs of thriving in such a situation are not hermits despite the more common usage at large in our world. Meanwhile, those who have embraced an authentic desert vocation as canon 603 defines it cannot identify themselves as Catholic hermits unless the Church herself gives them this right in an explicit and public act of profession, consecration, and commissioning. Lay hermits (hermits who, vocationally speaking, are in the lay state, whether with or without private vows) exist and these vocations should be esteemed but they are not vocations to the consecrated state of life nor are they lived in the name of the Church.

Can we speak of canon 603 serving a regularizing purpose today? I suppose if one distinguishes the usage in history, recognizes the relative dearth of eremitical vocations in the Western Church over the past 4-5 centuries, and is clear about the extremely positive way eremitical life was spoken of in the interventions of Bp Remi de Roo at Vatican II and canon 603 subsequently came to be, it is possible to think of this canonical act of defining things carefully as an act of regularizing those who call themselves hermits. After all the canon is a norm which prevents misunderstanding, fraud, and hypocrisy and establishes a universal standard by which the whole Church can recognize and measure authentic eremitical life --- especially vocations to consecrated eremitical life. It brings such hermits under the norms of universal law and the structures associated with consecrated life in the Church. Still, we need to be clear that "regularization" was not the original or primary purpose of canon 603, especially when it is measured against the steps taken in earlier centuries to "regularize" the relative crowds of both authentic and inauthentic hermits who peopled Italy, England, Germany, etc.

Moreover, as noted above, given the canon's requirement that the hermit write her own Rule and thus its insurance of individuality, freedom, and flexibility in fidelity to a traditional and divine calling, even now "regularization" is a word we should probably use carefully. A delegate who serves the hermit and the diocese to protect in very personal ways the legitimate rights and obligations undertaken by the hermit in profession also suggests this. In particular, any suggestion that the canon is meant to shoehorn hermits into some kind of ecclesiastical or legal straitjacket which limits their freedom (or God's!) is one we should assiduously avoid. In my experience, with canon 603 we are faced with a norm which creates a kind of sacred space where an authentic vocation to solitary eremitical life may be recognized and flourish and where authentic human freedom is enabled to reach the perfection associated with holiness and communion with God. After all, one does not "regularize" a gift of the Holy Spirit; instead one defines or cooperates with the Spirit in defining sacred spaces and mediatory "structures" or channels where God's gift may be formally hallowed and recognized as hallowing the larger context of the Church and world. I think canon 603 functions in this way.

24 November 2016

Canon 603 Vocations: On the Differences between Delegates and Spiritual Directors

[[Dear Sister Laurel, what is the difference between a diocesan hermit's delegate and their spiritual director? Is there really much of a difference in these roles? Can anyone serve as delegate or does it need to be another religious?]]

Yes, there is a significant difference between the role of spiritual director and that of delegate. First of all, there's no doubt a spiritual director enters into a pretty intimate relationship with a directee, but there are distinct limits. For instance, a spiritual director works to assist a client to grow in her relationship with God, et al., but she does not assume a specific responsibility with regard to the person's vocation per se. This means that the delegate, who is also concerned with the vocation per se is, in my experience anyway, at least potentially more profoundly involved with the hermit than even the spiritual director.

For example, as a spiritual director I may work with a religious or a priest and in our work together we touch on many of the dimensions of these persons'  lives with God and by extension, on dimensions which impact and reflect on their vocations. However, as spiritual director I am not responsible in any direct way for those vocations as such. In short, I do not oversee or supervise directees' vocations in any direct way. That does not mean we don't talk about their vocations to religious life and/or priesthood insofar as these are grounded in the person's relationship with God, but it does mean I am in no way charged with making sure they live their vocations with integrity. Neither am I responsible then for serving their congregations, communities, or dioceses and bishops in a way which helps assure them this is the case. (In saying this, by the way, I do not mean that a diocesan hermit's delegate necessarily reports on the hermit to the bishop, although he may well ask for her input from time to time; likewise, while formal reports could be required, my own diocese has not done so, for instance.) Still, as delegate she serves both the hermit and the diocese in making sure this vocation is well lived and represented.

The delegate concerns herself with the nuts and bolts of the hermit's life AND vocation. She may be involved with making sure the hermit really does have sufficient silence and solitude, that her relationship with and commitments within her parish do not conflict with her essential vocation to stricter separation from the world and the silence of solitude. She may be sure the hermit has ways of assuring her living conditions, eremitical environment, and necessary forms of care as she ages. (A spiritual director may ask about these kinds of things insofar as they affect her client's prayer life or spirituality but she will not actually have a role in supervising these aspects of the client's life.) Similarly, the delegate may be sure that the hermit's life is not one of isolation rather than healthy anachoresis (eremitical withdrawal). Again, while the delegate is responsible for overseeing the well-being of the hermit and her spirituality in ways a spiritual director may share, the focus and concern of the delegate as delegate broadens some to embrace the vocation itself and all that is involved in living that well --- not in some abstract way, but as it is embodied in the concrete life of this particular hermit. (By the way, the bishop's concern is somewhat different than the delegate's because he is charged with overseeing the incidence and well-being of canon 603 vocations more generally; the delegate is not.)

Religious Obedience:

Also, because of this the hermit's delegate has the authority to direct the hermit to do x or y or "insist" on actions in ways a spiritual director simply does not have the authority to do. My own diocese recognized this by using the language of "superior or quasi-superior" in asking me to choose my delegate --- language which indicates that, because she serves both me and the diocese with a delegated authority, I owe her the same kind of obedience (i.e., religious obedience) I owe my bishop when he asks for or directs me to do something in terms of my vow. To be clear, neither my bishop nor my delegate exercise their authority in this way very often; in fact it is extremely rare. (Only one of the bishops I have lived this vocation under has ever done so --- not least, I think, because they trust my delegate to supervise my life in ways they cannot and because they know me far less well than she does. In a couple of cases, for instance,  my sense was that the bishop left the business of religious vows and values up to the religious.) Even so, the relationship between the bishop and delegate, and the publicly vowed hermit is marked not only by a general attentiveness and responsiveness every Christian is obligated to and knows as "obedience", but also by a formal and "religious obedience", 1) because the hermit is publicly vowed to this and 2) because the broader and mutual concern of all involved is not only the personal life, well-being, and spirituality of the hermit but the Church's canonical vocation of solitary eremitical life itself.

One other thing I should make very clear: none of this minimizes, much less removes the hermit's responsibility for discerning her own needs and living her own life with care and integrity; instead these relationships are helpful in maintaining the perspective necessary for assuring the hermit remains responsible for the whole of her life and vocation. Again,  these specific relationships are part and parcel of recognizing and appropriately honoring a vocation as ecclesial --- a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church which is entrusted with the task of mediating, nurturing,  and governing that vocation, and to the hermit who is called to live that life in a way which fulfills her own deepest call to humanity and to do so in the name of the Church.

Who Should Serve as a Delegate?

In my opinion it only makes sense to have another religious as one's delegate --- and one who has lived this life for some time. (S/he need NOT be a hermit but s/he does need to be essentially contemplative and appreciate the eremitical life.) This need that the delegate be an experienced religious holds because the person needs to have a background in living and directing others in the living of religious life and vows. Personally I feel very fortunate and I understand not every diocesan hermit is as blessed in their own situations --- sometimes because their diocese has not known what is appropriate for canon 603 life or seen how to implement this, and sometimes because the hermit herself has not been able to work with sufficiently experienced persons or sometimes even known what is possible. Thus I describe my own experience here because I believe it can help others (especially candidates, chanceries, and bishops) in imagining not only what relationships hermits need to live this life well, but in seeing what canon 603 in particular calls for in terms of eremitical obedience and freedom.

My own delegate has been a novice director and serves on the leadership team of her community --- both during tumultuous or critical times in the life of the Church and her congregation. Moreover she does spiritual direction and is trained in PRH --- a form of personal growth work I have written about here before. In each of these ways she brings something to her role as my delegate which has been a definite gift to me.  I believe it has been important that she have the skills associated with these roles --- not least the ability to listen and to hold authority lightly and the wisdom, compassion, and personal integrity required to exercise it in a way which is far more compelling than any merely external or more superficial exercise of authority can be. As noted above, she does not direct me to do (or not do) x or y often (I can count the times she has done so over the past almost 10 and a half years on half of one hand), but when she does there is no question it is because she knows in a profound and personal way the importance of whatever is at issue --- and because she genuinely knows me and loves me as Christ does.

In considering who should serve as delegate then, it seems to me that a non-religious (or one with little experience) might be tempted to either neglect entirely the loving exercise of authority (as though anything goes in eremitical life) or tend to exercise it in a more heavy-handed and less loving or genuinely wise and prudent way. This latter way of exercising authority does not occur because the person is naturally more heavy-handed or less loving, but because s/he has not lived or internalized the values and vows of religious life (especially in regard to living and exercising authority) in a way which sensitizes  him/her appropriately. When this is the case the one exercising authority may actually collude with the more inexperienced, immature, and even juvenile aspects of the hermit's own self and approach to authority. For instance, it is tempting for a neophyte to think of oneself as "bound in obedience to" a superior --- even when the person is not a legitimate superior and does not have this authority.

Though fairly rare I think, this happens sometimes with regard to (less competent) spiritual directors working with non-religious. Having an SD exercise authority in a heavy-handed (authoritarian) way can make one feel different and special, especially in a culture where obedience in the sense of  "giving up one's own will" is (rather romantically but tragically) misunderstood and esteemed. In such circumstances the exercise of what mistakenly passes for obedience can make one feel like one "belongs" to a special culture or even that one is "cared about" in a unique way. To have a delegate whose notion of obedience involves a heavy-handed exercise of authority can be disastrous, especially when the hermit is new to all this or has personal healing which still needs to take place. The results of such collusion are unhealthy; they can be infantilizing, elitist, and, in these and other ways, contrary to the freedom of the Christian --- much less the Christian hermit whose vocation is meant to be a model of Christian freedom.

On the other hand, a delegate who has lived under and exercised authority in ways which encouraged and helped her to hold authority lightly,  lovingly, and in a way which fosters another's growth in maturity, integrity, and freedom is a very great gift. Religious obedience in particular can help us truly listen to God and challenge us to embrace the potentialities which live within us and which we might never have imagined holding. Again, however, I think it does take someone who is experienced both in living religious obedience and in introducing others to or enhancing their living of it --- as well as to religious poverty and chastity in celibacy --- to really serve effectively as a diocesan hermit's delegate.

21 November 2016

Pro Orantibus Day: Celebrating Those Who Pray




Today the Church celebrates "pro orantibus" day, namely the day when we celebrate those who spend their lives in prayer. Cloistered and eremitical vocations certainly are the main ones we call to mind but I am especially reminded of all those are elderly and others who may be isolated or unable to do active ministry who spend their days and nights praying for our world, for our parishes, and so forth.

In prayer we allow God to love and accompany us, to work within to transform our hearts and minds and make us into his own prayers in our world. We give ourselves to God so God might give himself to us and to those to whom we witness. We give ourselves to God so that the face we turn to the world is the very image of God-made-flesh. And of course, we pray and give our lives to prayer so that the deepest law of creation, Love-in-Act, is even more clearly revealed and made more pervasive within and through those same lives. In other words, we do so to glorify God and sanctify our world.

Contemplatives, whether hermits or not, remind us all that God completes us, that we are not truly human unless we are covenant partners with God. The positive side of this, of course,  is that this relationship is the foundation of ALL of our lives and we are each and all of us called to embrace it more fully day by day --- lack of cloister notwithstanding. While "pro orantibus" day celebrates in a special way those who live cloistered and eremitical lives, it also celebrates every person who lives his or her life for God and all that is precious to God by committing to be persons who truly allow God to work within us --- and, by extension, through us.

19 November 2016

Hanging onto the Promise: A Divine Love that is Stronger than Death

  There is a single theme running through yesterday's readings. Whether it is the reading from Revelations or from the Gospel of Luke, or the powerful refrain of the responsorial psalm, the authors are clear that we are called to be people who "hold onto" God's promise; holding onto God's promise is the essence of all prophetic vocations and the essence of Jesus' messianic life and calling as well. In the presence of turmoil and chaos, in the shadow of the cross and the threat of sin and death to be persons of faith is to be persons who make their own in every situation and circumstance the promise that the God who IS Love-in-act, loves us with a love which is stronger than death. 

The picture in the Gospel is powerful. Ordinarily we focus on the fact that Jesus threw the money changers out of the Temple and that is certainly appropriate. This action embodies the promise that God will act to transform not just the Jerusalem Temple but that in Christ he will make the entire world into a "house of prayer", that is, into the privileged place where God is present, active, and sovereign, where, in fact, he is truly worshipped and all reality is really as it is meant and made to be. In other words Jesus' enacted parable embodies the promise of a love that will do justice,  and an ultimate justice at that.

In the language of the first reading from Revelations, this "enacted parable" promises that the mystery of God will be brought to completion. It is striking that in the story of the cleansing of the Temple there are really two groups of people present. The first is the Pharisees  and other members of the Jewish leadership. They understand Jesus very well and are threatened by him; they have been seeking to find ways to put him to death but until now they have been thwarted. And here is the second very significant focus of the parable we should pay attention to in the same way we pay attention to Jesus throwing out the money changers; there is a second group of people, those persons who hold or "hang onto" Jesus' every word --- those persons who in some way have been touched directly by Jesus' ministry and the promise it embodies and mediates --- by the promise, the Word Jesus incarnates more and more fully throughout his life in every moment and mood of that life. And in light of the touch of this incarnate promise these fragile but divinely empowered people are those who, for the time being anyway, hold back the tide of darkness and violence the religious leadership are set to unleash on Jesus and (through the Romans) the world at large.

These are the people who have heard him teach and preach; they have had demons of all sorts cast out, been fed and nurtured by him. They have been listened to more profoundly than has ever happened to them until their encounter with Jesus and they have "been known", profoundly known and loved by him. They have been forgiven of their sins, reconciled to God and to themselves as well. They have found their shame transformed by an unconditional acceptance and esteem which heal at a person's core as Jesus called them by name and names (and thus effectively makes) them "friends" --- and friends of God. In every situation they encountered a man who effectively spoke truth to power (and to "powers and principalities") to unbind their hearts and free them for wholeness and abundant life. In every case Jesus is the One who confronts alienation, weakness, powerlessness and brokenness with the Incarnate Word or Promise of God: God loves them and all of creation with a love that is stronger than sin and death.

This is the promise, the Word of God Jesus himself stands in and from more and more fully --- even as he stands more and more clearly under the shadow of the cross; it is the promise in and through which he has been formed by prayer and struggle, by encounter after encounter of both love and rejection as his own sacred heart was enlarged and shaped into an image of the Living God. It is the promise which is the content of his own faith and the nature of the divine heart of the One he calls Abba. It is the living Promise he incarnates in our workl.

And so Jesus moves into the lion's den, so to speak; he casts out the money changers, takes up his place as teacher and in this way promises to make of this Temple and the whole of creation a house of prayer. His actions are provocative. They are a final instance of Jesus speaking truth to power, where the Divine promise encounters the world so in need of and hungry for that promise --- and also so implacably opposed to it. Jesus' action here will bring the entire establishment, both Jewish and Roman, down on his own head. And it will inaugurate the final showdown, the definitive encounter between godless death and the promise of a God who loves us with a love that is stronger than even godless death.

And the outcome of that showdown is well known to us. In Christ, the Love that is Stronger than death was subjected to death, even godless death; it was allowed to descend to the depths of that reality, and transformed it into the sacramental place where we may meet this Promise face to face. Cross and resurrection. The love of God encounters the very worst that human beings can do to one another, the very worst that human beings fear and build more and more securely into their world and relationships. And, in the face of death the Promise we call God is proven to be true: God loves us freely, gratuitously, prodigally, with a love that indeed is stronger than sin and sinful godless death.

The call we have each been given is the call to hang onto and be People of the Promise. This is the essence of faith. It is also the essence of prophecy, for to be People of the Promise is to speak and act with a power that changes reality. It is to speak and act in ways which accomplish the will of God in our world. But to be prophets in this way is not comfortable. As Revelations tells us the Promise is sweet like honey on our tongues. Our first contact with it as we take it into ourselves is wonderful in this way, but as we really digest it, take it into ourselves more deeply, it will also sour our stomachs. It will require that more and more deeply and extensively we speak truth to power in our own lives. It will mean that we confront the powers of sin and death still at work in our world with the Promise, the Living reality, of a Love that is stronger than death, a Love that does justice wherever it is truly spoken/enacted. As Christians --- priests, prophets, and rulers who are formed in and from this Promise this is always our vocation.

As we approach the end of our liturgical year and the Feast celebrating the sovereignty  (Kingship) of Christ, the urgency with which we are called to embrace this prophetic call today cannot be underestimated I think --- not because Jesus' own mission failed but because it did not. Thus too, through the crucified, risen and ascended Christ, it must continue in us. We must be People of the Promise, prophets and priests of a love that does justice and speaks and sings the future into existence. In this way God continues to create a new heaven and a new earth where (he) is truly all in all.

13 November 2016

A Light that Shines in the Darkness: On the Play, Prayer, and Resistance of Martyrdom





“Music... will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Returning this afternoon from a rare outing to attend a concert of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra I was thinking about a drawing I am working on which is a kind of meditation on the way God was present to me in my Junior High and High School years. I too played in a youth orchestra and besides playing violin I spent hours listening to classical music and pretending to conduct the orchestra playing on my record player! (In fact, most of the classical musicians I know did something similar as kids and we almost never talk about it --- unless someone breaks the silence, and then everyone chimes in to share about their own childhood and adolescent play --- a profoundly serious form of play for most of us that prepared us for adult dreams, commitments,  discipline and passionate living!)

For me music was an awesome source of light and beauty and joy. It brought order and rationality and introduced me to a language which broke every divisive limitation and boundary; here the Transcendent broke into and pushed away the darkness that was present and which sometimes threatened to stifle the life I was also summoned to embody fully, exhaustively. It poured out of my own heart and mind (through violin) and was also present as I touched into the "music" of the universe (improvising and "conducting"). It was here I really began to learn to pray (without realizing this was the case), and it was here that a large part of the experience of redemption in solitude so crucial to the making of the heart of a hermit was centered during these relatively early years. All of this, along with conversations with a friend who is both a religious and an artist, helps remind me that today it is especially important that somehow we each get in touch with beauty and the presence of the God who IS beauty during this time of increased anxiety and concern caused by the ugliness of institutionalized hatred and bigotry --- and the prospect of these being given real legitimacy by elected leaders and their appointees.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian, pastor, and resistance movement member sought to counter and defeat the bigotry and racism of the fascist movement and agenda whose purpose was to make aliens of neighbors and "the other" of friends and colleagues that was such a central part of the Nazi's self-serving will-to-power. The National Socialists who came to power with Hitler, murdered Bonhoeffer; they hanged him at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on 09. April.1945 in an execution that may have been prolonged to six hours or more. Like Bonhoeffer we are each and all of us called to be the  martyrs of God; we are summoned and in fact made to witness to the love of God, temples who manifest God's glory in the midst of threatening crises and darkness. We are called to be prophets who speak truth to power and do so with a love that does justice.

It is here that serious play, genuine recreation, becomes as critical as the work we also engage in; after all, play can be a significant form of prayer that allows God to work in and through us to quiet, energize, and enlarge our minds and hearts with a life that is "for others", a life that is capable of truly resisting bigotry, racism, and hatred that refuses to see the Divine beauty of each person we call ""alien" or "other."

Sculpture: by Edith Breckwoldt, The ordeal. No man in the whole world can change the truth. One can only look for the truth, find it and serve it. The truth is in all places. (Bonhoeffer)

09 November 2016

The Gospel Call to Make Neighbors of "the Other": A Post-Election Reflection and Prayer

As we move into this new period with President-Elect Trump I have to say I am surprised, even stunned by the results of this election. Throughout Trump's campaign I watched people being turned on by rhetoric which appealed to and perhaps exploited the very worst impulses and motives dwelling within the very darkest recesses of our hearts and minds. They are the very worst and darkest impulses of the world we occupy as well.

One of these, and one of the most fundamental, is the impulse to reject "the other", to be frightened by those who do not think or believe or look like we do, to resent and denigrate and isolate them and ourselves. Donald Trump quite clearly and carefully tapped into that fear. He demonized folks who, for instance (just one scenario), those living in the city may meet regularly (and may or may not have genuinely accepted), but who those in the rural areas may never have met face to face, much less sat down next to in a restaurant or dined with at their own table. Trump touched into our often poorly-hidden fear, anger, insecurity and even hatred and captured the minds and hearts of those who felt entirely disenfranchised by the "other" of many different stripes. In these ways Trump capitalized on some of the motives and emotions that can and do drive us as human beings to choose that which is unworthy us --- unworthy of authentic humanity --- and it propelled him to a win in this election. And this stuns me.

And yet, the NT tells me I should not be so surprised; there is nothing particularly new or surprising in all of this. After all, the Christian mission to proclaim the Gospel to the world is also a mandate to make neighbors of "the other." That stance and charge is only meaningful in a world marked and marred by the kinds of attitudes and divisions Donald Trump expressed and exploited in his campaign. Jesus' mission was a countercultural way to approach reality in the first century and it remains a countercultural reality whose very antithesis has apparently assumed an almost institutional validity in the United States presidential election. But for Christians this task to make neighbors of the other, to call one another "Friend" in the performative , reality-making way such words of love change reality, to love as we have been loved by a God who excludes no one and who offers us citizenship in a Kingdom greater than anything we can conceive of --- this task has become a very much more critical and difficult mission. And yet, to act towards "the other" as Jesus and his Father have called us remains the mission of Jesus Christ and the heart of a ministry of reconciliation rooted in unconditional and unmerited love offered freely to and through us. "Love one another as I have loved you" is quintessentially a call to make neighbors, fellow citizens, and friends of those who were "the other" and had no legitimate place --- whether that means in God's own life or in the world we who have been made God's own inhabit.

I am frightened right now even though I know that faith casts out fear. I am concerned, even worried though the Scriptures tell me not to be anxious. I am struggling to remain hopeful for the coming of the Kingdom --- a new heaven and a new Earth where justice is realized ---- though the reasons for hoping in the goodness and generosity of many Americans has been eroded and this new President seems to promise a "scorched earth" policy and an ethics of vengeance to anyone he deems an "other" because they don't think, speak, act or believe as he does. I am chastened because I believe in radical conversion of heart and mind even as I look at our new president elect and I think, "God forgive me, but he has shown himself to be a pathetic and unprincipled human being throughout his life and this campaign; I don't believe he will change now."

But the larger truth is that my faith does not rest on the outcome of this election, nor is my hope for a new heaven and a new earth doomed or even critically threatened by it. So yes, the task to make neighbors and friends of "the other" and to support others who have given their lives to apostolic work given over to this is made a little more challenging --- and also more urgent. And in spite of my fear I accept that challenge and know MANY others who will do the same. My commitment to a Love that does justice is also made more challenging and more urgent. And in spite of my anxiety, that too is a challenge I accept and a commitment I renew today. My share in the proclamation of a Gospel that reminds us we are all outsiders, all aliens who have been brought into the very life of God through the death and resurrection of a convicted criminal (this election campaign is not the only time we have heard a crowd of fanatics shout for the execution of someone they did not actually know or were bent on vilifying!) and a baptism we neither earned nor merited --- that proclamation has become infinitely more critical I think. I sincerely hope and pray, therefore, that I will be seeing many blogs, homilies, essays, and talks from other religious and religious leaders who remind all of us who call ourselves "Christian" of the Gospel we proclaim --- the good news of a God who makes outsiders and their world his very own despite the sacrifice this entailed.

Again, "Love one another as I have loved you" is quintessentially a call to make neighbors, fellow citizens, and friends of those who are aliens, those who are the "other" and have no legitimate place or claim --- whether that means in God's own life or in the world we who have been made God's own inhabit. May our God help us to embrace this call at a time when our country and world has perhaps never needed us to do so with greater urgency.

07 November 2016

On Primacy of Conscience and Voting in Difficult Situations

In 2012 I posted the following as part of another piece occasioned by situations involving partisan political positions being taken on parish grounds of distant US local Catholic Churches. In that post I reminded folks that this kind of activity was contrary to Church teaching, contrary to the separation of Church and State, and something which actually endangered freedom of religion and the Church's tax-free status. At the same time I had been asked something about how I was voting, especially when neither party seemed particularly acceptable to Catholics and may differ from Church teaching and praxis --- for instance on the issues of abortion and contraception. It's probably a good time to restate some of this, especially the Church's teaching on the primacy of conscience.

Reprise:

The Cave of the Heart
So, since a couple of people have asked me about voting (they actually asked about how I am voting but I am not going there) let me restate 1) the pertinent part of the Church's teaching on the nature and primacy of conscience, and 2) Benedict XVI's analysis of elections which involve, for instance, the issues of abortion and contraception when neither candidate or party platform is really completely acceptable to Catholics.

First, we are to inform and form our consciences to the best of our ability. This means we are not only to learn as much as we can about  the issue at hand including church teaching, medical and scientific information, sociological data, theological data, and so forth (this is part of the way to an informed conscience), but we are to do all we can to be sure we have the capacity to make a conscience judgment and act on it. This means we must develop the capacity to discern all the values and disvalues present in a given situation, preference them appropriately, and then determine or make a conscience judgment regarding how we must act. Finally we must act on the conscience or prudential judgment that we have come to. (This latter capacity which reasons morally about all the information is what is called a well-formed conscience. A badly formed conscience is one which is incapable of reasoning morally, discerning the values and disvalues present, preferencing these, and making a judgment on how one must act in such a situation. Note well, that those who merely "do as authority tells them" may not have a well-formed conscience informed though they may be regarding what the Church teaches in a general way!)

There are No Shortcuts, No Ways to Free ourselves from the Complexity or the Risk of this Process and Responsibility:

There is no short cut to this process of informing and forming our consciences. No one can discern or decide for us, not even Bishops and Popes. They can provide information, but we must look at ALL the values and disvalues in the SPECIFIC situation and come to a conscientious judgment ourselves. The human conscience is inviolable, the inner sanctum where God speaks to each of us alone. It ALWAYS has primacy. Of course we may err in our conscience judgment, but if we 1) fail to act to adequately inform and form our consciences, or 2) act in a way which is contrary to our own conscience judgment we are more likely guilty of sin (this is  actually certain in the latter case). If we act in good faith, we are NEVER guilty of sin --- though we may act wrongly and have to bear the consequences of that action. If we err, the matter is neutral at worst and could even still involve great virtue. If we act in bad faith, we ALWAYS sin, and often quite seriously, for to act against a conscience judgment is to act against the very voice of God as heard in our heart of hearts.

And what about conscience judgments which are not in accord with Church teaching (or in this case, with what some Bishops are saying)? I have written about this before but it bears repeating. Remember that at Vatican II the minority group approached the theological commission with a proposal to edit a text on conscience. The text spoke about the nature of a well-formed conscience. The redaction the minority proposed was that the text should read, "A well-formed conscience is one formed in accord (or to accord) with Church teaching." The theological commission rejected this redaction as too rigid and reminded the Fathers that they had already clearly taught what the church had always held on conscience. And yet today we hear all the time from various places, including some Bishops, that if one's conscience judgment is not in accord with Church teaching the conscience is necessarily not well-formed. But this is not Church teaching --- not the teaching articulated by Thomas Aquinas or Innocent III, for instance, who counseled people that they MUST follow their consciences even if that meant bearing with excommunication.

Benedict XVI's Analysis:

Now then, what about Benedict XVI's analysis of voting in situations of ambiguity where, for instance, one party supports abortion but is deemed more consistently pro-life otherwise? What happens when this situation is sharpened by an opposing party who claims to be anti-abortion but has done nothing concrete to stop it? MUST a Catholic vote for the anti-abortion party or be guilty of endangering their immortal souls? Will they necessarily become complicit in intrinsic evil if they vote for the candidate or party which supports abortion? The answer is no. Here is what Benedict XVI said: If a person is trying to decide for or against a particular candidate and determines that one candidate's party is more consistently pro-life than the other party, even though that first party supports abortion or contraception, the voter may vote in good conscience for that first candidate and party SO LONG AS they do not do so BECAUSE of the candidate's position on abortion or contraception.

In other words, in such a situation abortion is not the single overarching issue which ALWAYS decides the case. One CAN act in good faith and vote for a candidate or party which seems to support life as a seamless garment better than another party, even if that candidate or party does not oppose abortion. One cannot vote FOR intrinsic evil, of course, but one can vote for all sorts of goods which are clearly Gospel imperatives and still not be considered complicit in intrinsic evil. By the way, this is NOT the same thing as doing evil in order that good may result!! Benedict XVI's analysis is less simplistic than some characterizations I have heard recently; theologically it seems to me to be far more cogent and nuanced than these, and it is [an analysis] Bishops who are supposed to be in union with him when they teach as the ordinary Magisterium should certainly strongly reconsider and learn from.

In Thanksgiving for my own Parish:

Meanwhile, I want to take this opportunity to say how very grateful I am for my parish. We stand together around one Table; we share one Word; we drink from one Cup. We are very different from one another politically, theologically, economically, and so forth --- and we are all aware of it. Yet we trust one another to vote their consciences and pray that the will of God will be done. We do NOT allow differences in politics to divide us in a literally diabolical way. We may not agree on a specific issue or candidate, but we recognize the Church's theology of conscience allows that and respect one another in our disagreements. Thus, we continue to worship together and grow together in Christ. As the USCCB's  1999 document, "Faithful Citizenship" reminds us, "Our moral framework does not easily fit the categories of right or left, Democrat or Republican. Sometimes it seems few candidates and no party fully reflect our values. We must challenge all parties and every candidate to defend human life and dignity, to pursue greater justice and peace, to uphold family life, and to advance the common good." I find that in my parish at least, we are generally Christians first and trust one another to be that to the best of their ability. In this time especially, that is a very great gift and precisely what the Universal Church should be as a sign to the world!

06 November 2016

Inner Work and the Silence of Solitude as Goal of the Hermit's Life

[[Hi Sister Laurel, thanks for writing more regularly again. I hope you will continue to do so on canon 603 and issues which are central to it. I was moved by your writing about the personal inner work you did this last Summer and early Fall.  You haven't always shared that kind of thing and personally I appreciated that a hermit might need to do this kind of work in a way which was both intense and prolonged. I was also happy to hear a little more about your own life. You said you felt it was necessary as part of your vocation. My question has to do with the link between that statement and canon 603. Does this inner work have to do with what you have written about "the silence of solitude"? It has intrigued me that you have written about "the silence of solitude" as the charism of your vocation but also that you have written about "the silence of solitude" as the goal of your life. I wondered if the inner work you were engaged in had to do with understanding "the silence of solitude" as the goal of your life?]]

WOW!! Now THAT is a wonderful and perceptive question!! So, the short answer is YES, that is exactly the case. Since the silence of solitude is not only the essential environment but also both the charism and goal of my life this inner work was absolutely essential. In fact, I found the work necessary for three reasons related to my vocation: 1) obedience (my commitment to listen deeply and to respond appropriately in faith to the voice of God) required it; 2) assiduous prayer and penance required it, and 3) the silence of solitude as charism and goal of this vocation required it. (Consecrated celibacy also required it but in a more indirect way than the others.)

When I have written about the silence of solitude I have emphasized that it is not simply about external silence or physical solitude; it is about the silence of living in communion with God. That includes the inner silence that results from communion with God, the stillness that comes from being loved with an everlasting and unconditional love, and the wholeness that allows one to stand with integrity no matter what or who this means standing without or against. Because I am committed to living this element of the canon and witnessing to the result of living the love of God in this very specific way (in and as the silence of solitude) the inner work was an integral and essential part of opening myself to that love.

 Imagine a hermit who claims the charism of her vocation is the silence of solitude but also that she need not do the inner work it takes to allow that to be realized as fully as possible in her own life. Imagine a hermit who claims that the love of God can transform the muteness of isolation into the silence of solitude but who resists the work such a transformation requires. I suspect that most hermits have to look at their motives for embracing such an unusual and apparently unnatural vocation. The question of whether one's withdrawal is unhealthy and motivated by woundedness or whether it is a healthy and valid anachoresis is not one we look at once at the beginning of our lives in eremitical solitude. Instead it is something that recurs every time our own woundedness becomes evident. At the same time a commitment to assiduous prayer and penance means that our woundedness (as well as our great potential) becomes evident again and again, day in and day out.

I wrote somewhat recently that there must be a redemptive experience at the heart of each hermit's life and that it must occur in external silence and physical solitude. Otherwise there is no way to discern that God is the source of this supposed "vocation," or that this is in fact a vocation.  The inner work I spoke of is a primary way in which God's redemption is mediated to us over time. It is made possible by time spent in silence and solitude, and for the hermit it leads back to even greater internal silence and solitude (a deeper relationship with God alone and greater wholeness and integrity as a person) lived in an even more profound commitment to God in the silent and solitary life of the hermitage. Moreover it will empower the hermit to reach out to others in love despite as well as because one is living a solitary life within the hermitage. In other words, the inner work I have written about opens one to God's redemption. The healing and energy of this experience of redemption leads to the strengthening and purifying of the hermit's silence of solitude, not only as the environment of her life, but as the charism or gift quality of her life as well as its goal. In fact it helps establish and even underscores the truth of the hermit's witness to the silence of solitude as both charism and goal.

04 November 2016

On Eremitical Life and the Security of Man-Made Laws

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, A lay hermit who has chosen to remain non-canonical (not under canon law) and has sometimes written canon 603 is a distortion of eremitical life wrote recently: [[It is the animal instinct for some to want to rise above others, to rule the roost, so to speak--to take the prey from the claws of other beasts.  So, too, is often the human instinct to find a sense of security in laws made by humans.  Somehow it brings--falsely, though--a feeling that there are boundaries and structure that will provide stability and formulaic assurance for survival and success.]]

Do you find that most hermits feel the same way about canon 603 as this hermit seems to feel? You have said that the majority of hermits are not canonical so I was wondering if that is because they don't think living eremitical life under canon law is a valid way of doing this? I can see that a basic insecurity except in God could be desirable for hermits and that law and structure could provide the illusion of security and stability apart from God. I can also see that hermits need a freedom to respond to God in whatever way he comes to them so that laws and structures could be a problem. Is this what you find?]]

I think it is really important to understand that canonical hermits have not sought canonical standing in order to "rise above others" or to "rule the roost". We do so because we recognize that eremitical life is a significant vocation which the Church has recently (1983) affirmed as a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, and through the Church to the world at large. We recognize this vocation as part of the patrimony of the Church and believe the Church has a right and obligation to nurture and govern it. The way I tend to speak of this is in terms of the rubric "ecclesial vocation". That is, the vocation belongs to the Church before it belongs to me. Similarly it belongs to me only insofar as the Church mediates it to me and insofar as I belong to the Church and live for her --- for her Lord, her life, her People and her proclamation. Canonical hermits honor the way God works to call us to consecrated life in the Church. We know that in a vocation which can be mistaken for (or tragically devolve into!) an instance of individualism, selfishness, and isolation, this ecclesial context is absolutely critical for avoiding these antitheses to authentic eremitical life.

The insecurity of Eremitical Life:

At the same time, while canonical standing supplies an essential context for eremitical life it does not do away with the insecurity the life also involves. Remember that canonical hermits are not supported by the Church in any financial or material way. Solitary canonical hermits (those under canon 603) are self-supporting and are responsible for taking care of everything the eremitical life requires: residence, insurance, education and specialized training, formation, spiritual direction, library, appropriate work, food, clothing, transportation, retreat, etc. A diocese will make sure the hermit has all of these things in place and is capable of both living the life and supplying for her material needs before professing her, but generally speaking they will not supply these things themselves. (There are accounts of occasional instances where a diocese will include a hermit on the diocesan insurance or supply temporary housing in a vacant convent, retreat house, etc, but these accounts are clear exceptions and the hermit remains generally responsible for supporting herself.)

While this does not mean most hermits lack the essentials needed to live (food, clothing, housing) they do have the same basic insecurities as any other person in the Church or world and they do so without claims to fame, material success, family, significant profession, or any of the other ways our world marks adulthood and security. Many hermits live on government assistance due to disability or associated poverty and this mistakenly marks them as failures, layabouts, moochers, and so forth by the majority of the world. The message the hermit proclaims with her life, however, is the message of a God who considers us each infinitely and uniquely precious despite our personal fragility and poverty. This God abides with us when every prop is kicked out; (he) alone loves us without condition and is capable of completing us.

There is additional though more nuanced insecurity in the prophetic quality of the vocation. Both the Church and the hermit risk a great deal in enabling this vocation to exist with canonical standing in the heart of the Church. This is because the Church recognizes the work of the Holy Spirit in the hermit's life and calls her to consecration which may also lead to a life capable of criticizing the institution, the hierarchy, etc, --- precisely as a way of being faithful to vocation, the Church, and the Church's own mission. When the Church builds eremitical lives of solitude and prayer into her very heart she opens herself to conversion as well. Sometimes this leads to apparent clashes (as it did when the faithfulness of women religious to their vocations and to the documents of Vatican II led to an investigation questioning the Sisters' faithfulness). The life of the Spirit is unsettling as well as being the source of life and peace. Generally speaking the Church will respond in ways which allow the Spirit to summon her to new life and to the remaking of her heart and mind, but any time one is called to proclaim the Gospel with one's life --- especially in the name of the Church --- one is also called to live a kind of insecurity in terms of the world of power and institutional standing.

The most basic insecurity however is that one pins the entire meaning of her life on God and life with God. It is clear that most people need and are called to lives of social connection and service. While most hermits are not called to live without relationships, while those with ecclesial vocations must build in adequate relationships to nurture, guide, and supervise her life with God, and while the eremitical life is a life of service even when this looks very different than that of apostolic religious, it remains true that hermits forego more normal society and service and risk everything, including her own growth in wholeness and holiness, on the existence and nature of the God revealed in Jesus Christ and his desert existence. It is one thing to live Christian existence in the midst of society with all that entails. That is a risk and challenge, of course, with its own very real insecurity: What if I'm wrong? What if God's existence is a delusion, a fiction? What if there was no resurrection and Jesus simply "stayed good and dead"? But to pin everything including normal relationships, one's own home and family, more usual profession and avenues for service, etc., on a God whose love sustains, nurtures, completes and makes us truly human in eremitical solitude seems to me to be a very great (though justified) risk attended by significant insecurity. (My experience is that canonical standing attenuates but does not obviate this insecurity because the Church as such discerns and validates this vocation and proclaims all it witnesses to. Any well-grounded eremitical tradition works in this way in the hermit's life.)

An Ordered and Disciplined Vocation:

While there is a necessary and desirable insecurity at the heart of every eremitical vocation which tends to "prove" the vocation and its dependence on God, there is also the undeniable fact that this remains an ordered and disciplined form of life. Remember that one of the essential elements defining the life is "stricter separation from the world" and this means boundaries are required. For that matter "the silence of solitude" requires very real limitations and boundaries which MUST be articulated clearly and written into the hermit's Rule if they are to be lived meaningfully and with integrity. The lay hermit you cited may believe man-made laws and structures have no place, create illusions of stability and so forth, but the simple fact is that without these kinds of things sinful human beings create chaos, slide into slackness and laxness and ease into a state of general deafness to the work and call of the Holy Spirit. The person who honors the presence of the Holy Spirit, for instance, and who wishes to remain open and responsive to her presence will do so through an ordered and disciplined life. I wrote about this before once when I said:

[[ I think that suggesting commitments and structure will get in the Holy Spirit's way (which, right or wrong, is what I do hear you saying) is analogous to someone saying, "Oh I don't need to practice the violin to play it, I'll just let the Holy Spirit teach me where my fingers should go (or any of the billion other things involved in playing this instrument)." "Maybe I'll play scales if the HS calls me to; maybe I'll tune the violin if the HS calls me to. You mean I can't do vibrato without practicing it slowly? Well, maybe I will just conclude it doesn't need to be part of MY playing and the HS is not calling me to it." What I am trying to say is that if someone wants to play the violin they must commit to certain fundamental praxis and the development of foundational skills; only in so far as they are accomplished at the instrument technically will they come to know how integral this discipline and these skills are to making music freely and passionately as the Holy Spirit impels. Otherwise the music will not soar. In fact there may be no music at all --- just a few notes strung together to the best of one's ability; the capacity for making music will be crippled by the lack of skill and technique. In other words, the Holy Spirit works in conjunction with and through  the discipline I am speaking of, not apart from it.]]

Why Most Hermits are Non-canonical:

I am not entirely sure why most hermits are not canonical hermits. However, it is my impression that only a very small minority percentage of non-Canonical hermits actually reject canonical standing because they believe they will not have the freedom to live authentic eremitical lives under canonical standing or because they would like to imitate the Desert Abbas and Ammas. I have only run into one hermit (and Roman Catholic) who presents canon 603 as a distortion of authentic eremitical life; she had petitioned for admission to profession under canon 603 and was refused --- twice.  This led to what appeared to be a kind of "sour grapes" attitude toward the canon and those representing it. One credible example of the kind of rejection you ask about is that which turns up in the Episcopal Church and is well-represented by a canonical hermit like Maggie Ross. While personally I don't agree precisely with Ms Ross in this matter, she cogently argues the importance of standing outside the institutional reality so that one can be a truly prophetic presence. (I agree completely with her insistence on being a prophetic presence and I emphatically agree on the marginality of the hermit but I disagree that one can stand either essentially or completely outside the institution or be free of all legal and structural bonds.)

I will tell you what I have seen in a number of non-canonical hermits, however. First, most of these are self-described "hermits" and tend not to embody or otherwise meet the requirements of canon 603 in what they live. They may not live the silence of solitude nor lives of assiduous prayer and penance. They may not have embraced a desert spirituality but may merely be lone individuals --- sometimes misanthropic, sometimes not --- but generally still, they are not really hermits as the Church understands the term.  Some are married; some treat eremitical life as a part time avocation; some live with their parents or others and have never known real solitude, much less "the silence of solitude". Many desire to be religious men or women but have not been able to be professed or consecrated in community. Today the term "hermit" is far more popular than the authentic lifestyle! This means that all kinds of things are being justified by the term hermit and many of them are actually antithetical to this vocation: individualism, narcissism, active or apostolic life live by a solitary, etc. Some non-Canonical hermits have petitioned for canonical standing and been rejected; sometimes this is a personal matter, a determination they are not called to this life or are otherwise unsuitable while other times it is because the diocese they are petitioning is still hesitant to try or unclear on how to implement the canon in an effective and successful way. For instance, appropriate discernment, formation, etc are questions they take seriously and are still unclear about.

Summary:

The bottom line in all of this is that because the eremitical life centered on the relationship of the hermit and God alone is, paradoxically, not merely about the hermit and God alone, because, that is, it is a gift to the Church which can proclaim the Gospel and speak in a special way to the isolated, the alienated, and those from whom "all the props have been kicked out", because it is lived in the heart of the Church in a way which allows the Church to nurture, govern, and mediate it, because, that is, it is an ecclesial vocation which belongs to the Church before it belongs to any hermit, the vocation requires some church laws and structures including mediatory relationships (Bishop, delegate, Vicars) to assure it is what it is meant to be. If one believes one can support the idea of a vocation without law or structure by turning to Paul's writing on Law versus Gospel one has simply not understood Paul's theology or his esteem for both law and the Gospel. At the same time the person you cited seems not to have understood the importance of discerning, embracing, or representing ecclesial vocations if s/he truly believes the Church professes those who seek to " rise above others" or to "rule the roost." This is simply not the reason canonical hermits have chosen (or are admitted to) hidden lives lived in the heart of the Church or lives of marginality and essential insecurity in worldly terms.