31 March 2017

You do not Know God; Of Course you do not Know Me! (Reprise)

Today's Gospel gives me a lot to think about. In particular it makes me recall one of the most surprising (stunning!) moments of my theological education. It came during one of the first classes I ever had with Prof John Dwyer when he asked us generally, "Who is Jesus?" We gave a number of answers but the best one we thought was, "Jesus is the Son of God!" John followed up with another question, an extremely logical question: "And who, then, is God?" We were stunned to silence. John went on to explain, "You see, you thought that calling Jesus the Son of God was the best thing you could say about him, the most meaningful, the greatest content, etc; but really it says nothing at all about Jesus because apart from Jesus, we do not know God; Jesus is the One who reveals the real God to us. It is important to say that Jesus is God's Son, but first of all, we must recognize that he is the One who reveals God to us; he is the One who makes God real in space and time." Everything in the rest of the course had to do with Jesus and the One he makes known and real to us in space and time (the two main meanings of the term "reveal").

Everything about that moment when I realized that doing theology with Jesus at the center of things would turn everything I thought and believed and understood on their head came back to me as I was praying with today's Gospel. I could well imagine how the folks in Jerusalem would have felt about Jesus' confrontation with them when he says essentially, "It is not that you know God and simply can't make up your mind about me and whether I am from him or not; it is really that you do NOT know God!!" If I were looking for reasons Jesus was crucified, that would certainly be a very large nail in his Cross! I would like to look at today's Gospel reading and see how it moves us closer to Holy Week and the way the Cross saves as well.

Brothers, Leadership, Romans, Disciples --- No one really gets Jesus

It is Autumn and time for the Feast of Booths or Taber-nacles, one of three Feasts of Pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  The booths are the place where Jews meet God and offer sacrifice. Jesus' brothers are encouraging him to come with them so that he can work more miracles and become famous and influential. "No one becomes famous if they do their work in secret!", they remind him. Of course, we all know that the REAL work will be done in secret --- in the secret darkness of the sin and death and hell Jesus takes on. But Jesus' brothers do not get what he is about yet. They may entertain the idea of his messiahship, but it is one marked by wonder working and, as appropriate to the Feast of Booths, to freeing Israel from the oppression of Rome. It is not marked by failure, ignominy, shame or a power made perfect in weakness. No, this Feast is not the One Jesus will "celebrate"; his comes later, in the Spring. He will go openly to Jerusalem for the Passover where the real sacrifice will be celebrated and the real victory over oppression will be won.

And of course Jesus' brothers aren't alone in their doubt about Jesus. The Jerusalem leaders are out to kill Jesus --- though they are very clear about the threat he poses to the Temple system with his preferential option for the poor and marginalized, his freely given forgiveness and notions of repentance which bypass the Temple sacrificial system. They don't know who he is but they do understand him better than Jesus' disciples! The disciples who are in Jerusalem waiting for more powerful works also don't ever quite get it nor do the the pilgrims to Jerusalem --- some of whom think he is a good man, some of whom think he is deluding the people, and some of whom  just don't know. All of these folks are in the City to celebrate the God they know as Creator and Law Giver and the One who brought them out of Egypt. Imagine how they must have felt when Jesus says, [[You know who I am and where I am from; but the One who sent me is true and you do NOT know him!]] In other words, [[It is not that you know God and merely cannot decide if I am from him; rather, you do NOT know God and so, naturally you do not associate me with him.]] Like some of us in that theology class, I would guess they were stunned, and angered too. I am sure they knew why the Jewish leadership (and especially the priestly aristocracy) wanted to put Jesus to death!

A Key to How the Cross Saves:

The most difficult piece of Christian Theology is the question of how the cross works. I wrote a few days ago about Christ entering into the godless depths of human existence and, through his openness and responsiveness, his dependence upon God to bring life out of death and meaning out of senselessness, he was able to implicate God into not only the unanticipated places, but the unacceptable ones as well. A related piece needed to clarify how the Cross saves is pointed to by Jesus' assertion that no one questioning or persecuting him knows God.

Jesus reveals God to us. Not only does he show us who God is but he makes God present in space and time, and we learn that he is the One Paul extols in Romans 8. The One Jesus allows to be exhaustively present is the God who allows neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depths, nor anything else in all creation to separate us from (His) love. [[No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.]] Through obedience unto death, and more, to (shameful, godless) death on a cross, Jesus opens every moment and mood of creation to the one he calls Abba, and nothing will ever be the same again.

But Jesus' death and resurrection reveals (makes known and real in history) one more thing that has been missing from the fallen creation: viz, authentic humanity. The portraits of inauthentic humanity abound during Holy Week and especially on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The arrogant, frightened, self-assertive, cowardly, betrayers and abandoners, liars, torturers, thieves, self-absorbed and merely duty-bound are ever-present. But Jesus is truly human and shows us the depths of what this means. He loves God with his whole heart and mind and soul and depends on him even when he feels abandoned. He loves himself, and acts with integrity, even when he is terrified, shamed beyond belief, tortured beyond all physical limits and is incapable of any action whatever as death leads to his descent into hell. In spite of everything he remains open and responsive to God in trust that even though he does not see how, God will bring his Reign out of even the depths of sinful death and hell. He gives his entire life for others and shows them his own love for them in the process.

We call Jesus Emmanuel, God with us, for apart from him we truly do not know God. Oh, we can reason to a Creator God, and we can do the same with a Lawgiver God. We can reason to One who is the ground of being and meaning and truth and beauty and mystery and one who hates sin and will judge us for that; but we cannot reason to a God who loves us as unreservedly as is revealed on the cross. We cannot reason to a God who allows absolutely nothing to stand between us and his love. Neither can we reason to an authentic humanity. That is something that can only be revealed and which we need to be initiated into as we are in Baptism. Thus, the cross saves by 1) making God present in even the godless places of our lives and destroying those by transforming them with his presence; 2) by making truly human existence possible for the first time in Christ and initiating us into it through our baptism into his death; 3) by reconciling the entire creation to himself in a preparation for the day when God will be all in all. In each of these ways God changes not only reality per se, but our hearts and the way we see reality as well. In each of these ways God establishes his sovereignty, his Reign over creation.

29 March 2017

Followup on the North Woods Hermit

I received a letter from someone thinking I had treated Christopher Knight too harshly and judgmentally in my post on the book about the North Woods Hermit in Maine. I cannot post the letter here because the author asked that I not do so. He believed I was unfair to Christopher Knight, judged his inner life, and failed to understand there are different types of hermits. I responded with the following letter. It occurs to me that perhaps my first post was too easy to misunderstand and I hope that this letter explains my criticisms with greater clarity. I hope their focus is sharper, especially the fact that they were mainly directed at Michael Finkel's conclusions and narrowing of the eremitical vocation rather than at Knight per se.
Dear [Reader],
       I think you  may have misread my post. I have not been at all judgmental about Christopher Knight. [Criticism is a different matter; I have been critical of his life in the woods.] What I can and did say about him is that no one knows WHY he did what he did. I also said he survived by thievery. These truths are simple and public facts; so is the fact that Knight never notified his family when he simply walked off and stayed away for almost three decades. These are problematical dimensions of his life; Knight lived a stereotypical antisocial “eremitical” life and that can be criticized. However,  I do agree Knight did not make claims about himself at all. He never really claimed the label “hermit” except in response to Maine's casual label of him.  Mr Finkel, however, did all this and that was the truly neuralgic piece  in his work.
        It is Michael Finkel who provided the biological and genetic basis and (for whatever reason) went no further than that. My more serious criticisms were [reserved for] Michael Finkel's tendency to stereotype and be too narrow in his own definition of hermits. The idea that Christopher Knight was “the last true hermit” is an absurd claim. So is the notion that “hermit” is defined merely in terms of isolation and physical solitude. The word comes from the Greek for desert-dweller, a much richer term. I don’t think Finkel ever even provided the definition. Moreover, Knight is not the last true hermit any more than I am. To call someone this is unknowable and meaningless. It is an absurd assertion. I agree with you completely that eremitical life is diverse. My point was that Finkel narrowed things with his treatment of Knight (which may have been  the only treatment possible for Finkel given Knight’s difficulties in sharing) and is open to criticism for this reason in particular. 
       On that we may disagree but there isn’t anything judgmental in my concluding that. I said in my post that it was Finkel's claims which crossed the line into apologetics and made life more difficult for those living eremitical lives in the name of the Church. Of themselves, because of Knight's burglaries and dislike of society with others, Knight’s actions do this as well. That is also simple truth; my post described this. Diocesan hermits’ vocations proclaim and protect the diversity of this ec-centric (out of the center) form of life and are inimical to stereotypes. Finkel's take on things does not protect this diversity; instead it fosters the stereotypical. For someone who claims to have spent a year reading much of the most central available literature on eremitical life, that is particularly disappointing.

all my best,
Sister Laurel

25 March 2017

Feast of the Annunciation (reprised)

I wonder what the annunciation of Jesus' conception was really like factually, what the angel's message (that is, God's own mediated message) sounded like and how it came to Mary. I imagine the months that would have passed without Mary having a period and her anguish and anxiety about what might be wrong, followed by a subtle sign here, an ambiguous symptom there, and eventually the full realization of the inexplicable fact that she was pregnant! That would have been a shock, of course, but even then it would have taken some time for the bone deep fear to register: "I have not been intimate with a man! I can be killed for this!" Only over more time would come first the even deeper sense that God had overshadowed her, and then, the assurance that she need not be afraid. God was doing something completely new and would stand by Mary just as he promised when he revealed himself originally to Moses as: "I will be who I will be," --- and "I will be present to you, never leaving you bereft or barren."

In the work I do with people in spiritual direction, one of the tools I ask clients to use sometimes is dialogue. The idea is to externalize and make explicit in writing the disparate voices we carry within us: it may be a conversation between the voice of reason and the voice of fear, or the voice of stubbornness or that of impulsivity and our wiser, more flexible selves who speak to and with one another at these times so that this existence may have a future marked by wholeness, holiness, and new life. As individuals become adept at doing these dialogues, they may even discover themselves echoing or revealing at one moment the very voice of God which dwells in the deepest, most real, parts of their heart as they simultaneously bring their most profound needs and fears to the conversation. Almost invariably these kinds of dialogues bring strength and healing, integration and faith. When I hear today's Gospel story I hear it as this kind of internal dialogue between the frightened, bewildered Mary and the deepest, truest, part of herself which is God's own Word and Spirit (breath) calling her to a selfhood of wholeness and fruitfulness beyond all she has known before but in harmony with her people's covenant traditions and promise.

This is the way faith comes to most of us, the way we come to know and hear and respond to the voice of God in our lives. For most of us the Word of God that dwells within us only gradually steps out of the background in response to our fears, confusion, and needs as we ponder them in our hearts --- just as Mary did her entire life, but especially at times like this. In the midst of turmoil, of events which turn life plans on their heads and shatter dreams, there in our midst will be the God of Moses and Mary and Jesus reminding us, "I will overshadow you; depend on me, say yes to this, open yourself to my promise and perspective and we will bring life and meaning out of this; together we will make a gift of this tragedy (or whatever the event is) for you and for the whole world! We will bring to birth a Word the world needs so desperately to hear: Be not afraid for I am with you. Do not be afraid for you are precious to me."

Annunciations happen to us every day: small moments that signal the advent of a new opportunity to hear, embody Christ, and gift him to others. Perhaps many are missed and fewer are heeded as Mary heeded her own and gave her fiat to the change which would make something entirely new of her life, her tradition, and her world. But Mary's story is very much our own story as well, and the Feast of Christ's nativity is meant to refer to his being born of us as well. The world into which he will be brought will not love him really --- not if he is the Jesus our Scriptures and our creeds proclaim. (We bear this very much in mind during Lent and especially at the approach of Holy Week.) But our own fiat ("Here I am Lord, I come to do your will!") will be accompanied by the reassuring voice of God: "I will overshadow you and accompany you. Our stories are joined now, inextricably wed as I say yes to you and you say yes to me. Together we create the future. Salvation will be born from this union. Be not afraid!"

22 March 2017

"His Closest Companion may Have Been a Mushroom"

[[His closest companion may have been a mushroom.]] No, this is not about drugs or someone who depends on 'shrooms'! Last week while in Tahoe a friend (Brother Rex Norris, another diocesan hermit but of the Diocese of Portland, ME) sent me a link to an interview with Michael Finkel, author of The Stranger in the Woods, a book about the hermit who lived in the woods in Maine for almost three decades and who survived by stealing what he needed to eat, stay warm and clad, etc. Bro Rex and I have talked  a bit about this "hermit" before (when he was arrested), but he's particularly neuralgic for Rex who is one of several solitary Catholic Hermits in Maine and who, therefore, is responsible not only for living this vocation in the name of the Church, but for countering stereotypes and misconceptions with his own life --- something Christopher Knight and Michael Finkel have made profoundly more difficult in that locale and now more broadly.

After listening to the interview I decided to download the book to my Kindle and spent whatever free time I had reading it. Finkel contends that Christopher Knight is "the last true hermit," a bit of hyperbole that sets my teeth on edge like a lot else in this book. Finkel even makes this part of the book's subtitle. Of course it is impossible not to measure my life or that defined by c 603 against that of Knight's but this morning before Sister Sue and I packed up and returned home to the Bay Area, I read the sentence which may summarize all of the vast differences between my life as a solitary Catholic Hermit and the eremitical life of Christopher Knight; it is perhaps the most pathetic sentence I have ever read, namely, [[His closest companion may have been a mushroom.]]

I had been reflecting on why Knight lived as he had. I considered what my own life would be like without the profound sense of purpose and mission the Church has bestowed or confirmed with profession and consecration, or why I struggle to understand, embody, and even write about the values codified in canon law like "stricter separation from the world" or "the silence of solitude", or in the CCC when it speaks of the hiddenness of this vocation. What would it be like to have no intimate relationship with God, no sense that God and I are engaged in a marvelous project identified with the coming of (his) Kingdom, no actual sense of the dignity of my life as a proclamation of the Gospel of God's unceasing, entirely gracious love, and no ecclesial rights or obligations which both challenge, awe, and delight me?

What would it be like to have no commitment to fullness of life and be driven merely by a need to survive, to have no director or delegate who challenged me to be and become myself or who help me work towards wholeness or holiness, no parish community to serve or to hold and to hold me in prayer even in my solitude, no Sisters (even when I rarely see them!) to share vows and values with? What would it be like if the hiddenness of my life was a matter of running and ducking and studiously avoiding contact or engagement with others rather than a matter of being motivated by love; what if it was about treating others as threats rather than about doing things in and through God and living as a Sister to all --- one who embraces eremitical solitude on behalf of others? In short, what would it be like to be completely alone, rootless, escapist, and entirely self-centered rather than living a purposeful solitude that is a unique expression of redemption and ecclesial community? To be frank, I guess it might well be like Christopher Knight's life in the woods of Maine where "his closest companion may have been a mushroom."

When Michael Finkel begins looking into Christopher Knight's move to physical solitude he looked at Knight's family and noted that they are, in Knight's own words, "obsessed with privacy". He then writes, [[One's desire to be alone, biologists have found,  is partially genetic and to some degree measurable. If you have low levels of the pituitary peptide oxytocin --- sometimes called the master chemical of sociability --- and high concentrations of the hormone vassopressin, which may suppress your need for affection, you tend to require fewer interpersonal relationships.]] Finkel follows this by citing a fairly classic contemporary work on loneliness by John Cacioppo, [[Each of us inherits from our parents a certain level of need  for social inclusion.]] Then, after citing Cacioppo's observation that everuone naturally possesses a [[genetic thermostat for connection]] Finkel notes that Christopher Knight's must be set near absolute zero. Everything about Knight's' schooling, family life, etc supports this conclusion. Because the answer to the question, "Why?" --- why did Christopher Knight leave everything and everyone behind and seek to isolate himself as completely as possible, even to the point of stealing routinely to support his isolation and never even informing those who loved him that he was alive --- this question is one Finkel never really answers (or can answer) except in these terms: a genetic and chemical basis.

I do not intend this post as a review of the book itself nor do I have time to look at it in detail right now; this is a start and I will return to it and post about it from time to time because of its subject matter. Not least I will do that because although over the period of a year or so Finkel read or read from many of the standard books on solitude, aloneness, anchoritism, the history and writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, eremitism, etc., and claims to have extensively perused "Hermitary" --- the most comprehensive online source of information on eremitical life and hermits  (though Finkel was never allowed to join the online group which is reserved for actual hermits --- something which seems to have stung a little) he continues to hang onto stereotypical notions of the hermit life and sees Knight as the paradigm of true and "fervent"  eremitical life.

More unfortunately, Finkel also characterizes what he calls the "pilgrim" category of hermit as those "living beholden to a higher power" and sees anchorites as assisting people "who see speaking with a sympathetic anchorite could be more soothing than praying to a remote and unflinching God." When these characterizations are combined with other references to religious hermits it is hard not to hear them as cynical rather than interested in the phenomenon of eremitical solitude per se. In any case I will return from time to time to post about this book because I believe it fails to appreciate solitude  even as it is presented in the books and websites Finkel cites or claims to have read while it fosters a destructive and (especially in this case!) pathological stereotype.

Above all in my estimation, Finkel fails to distinguish between isolation and solitude and judges the nature of the hermit solely on the degree of isolation, physical solitude, or seclusion evident in her/his life. In part  this is a failure to truly appreciate the call to personhood experienced in and represented by eremitical solitude and thus, the very real communal nature of  the rare call to eremitical solitude. In part it involves a naïve use of the term "the world" as meaning anything and anyone except the hermit per se along with the conflation of eremitical solitude with misanthropy (the one thing Knight seems most fervent about) ---misunderstandings which allow Finkel to regard Knight as dwelling in true eremitical solitude despite his living close enough to others that his sneezes could have been heard by them and despite his insistence on taking care of himself by thieving whatever he needed ---  instances of relatedness to others which, in either case, are hardly examples of the freedom of eremitical solitude. In some paradoxical ways, not least his consistent drive to escape others while robbing them, Knight is more pervasively related to and defined by others than most legitimate hermits. This entire vision of eremitical life can, again, be summed up with that most pathetic sentence: [[(Knight's) closest companion may have been a mushroom.]] I am sincerely thankful it is not the vocation to which I have been called by God or entrusted with by the Church and I hope the influence of this sad image of eremitical life is less than I fear!

19 March 2017

St Joseph: Icon of Those who Struggle to Mediate God's Own Justice (Reprised)

For tomorrow's Feast of St Joseph (transferred from today), I wanted to repost something I put up a couple of years ago because it reflected an important step in my own appreciation of St Joseph.

[[Friday's readings (December 2015) focused on the coming of the One in whom justice will be done and creation set to rights. Jeremiah speaks of this in terms of the Davidic line of Kings --- a line which often profaned and betrayed God's sacred promise and hope. The psalmist sings wonderfully of the promise of the Lord bringing all things to rights in the love of God.

But especially poignant is the Matthean story of Joseph as the icon of one who struggles to allow God's own justice to be brought to birth as fully as possible. It is, in its own way, a companion story to Luke's account of Mary's annunciation and fiat. Both Mary (we are told explicitly) and Joseph (we are told implicitly) ponder things in their hearts, both are mystified and shaken by the great mystery which has taken hold of them and in which they have become pivotal characters. Both allow God's own power and presence to overshadow them so that God might do something absolutely new in their world. But  it is Joseph's more extended and profound struggle to truly do justice in mercy, and to be a righteous man who reveals God's own justice in love, God's salvation, that was at the heart of yesterday's Advent story.

The Situation:

I am a little ashamed to say I have never spent much time considering Joseph's predicament or the context of that predicament until this week. Instead I have always thought of him as a good man who chose the merciful legal solution rather than opting for the stricter one. I never saw him making any other choice nor did I understand the various ways he was pushed and pulled by his own faith and love. But Joseph's situation was far more demanding and frustrating than I had ever appreciated! Consider the background which weighed heavy on Joseph's heart. First, he is identified as a just or righteous man, a man faithful to God, to the Covenant, a keeper of the Law or Torah, an observant Jew who was well aware of Jeremiah's promise and the sometimes bitter history of his own Davidic line. All of this and more is implied here by the term "righteous man". In any case, this represents his most foundational and essential identity. Secondly, he was betrothed to Mary, wed (not just engaged!) to her though he had not yet taken her to his family home and would not for about a year. That marriage was a symbol of the covenant between God and his People Israel. Together he and Mary symbolized the Covenant; to betray or dishonor this relationship was to betray and profane the Covenant itself. This too was uppermost in Joseph's mind precisely because he was a righteous man.

Thirdly, he loved Mary and was entirely mystified by her pregnancy. Nothing in his tradition prepared him for a virgin birth. Mary could only have gotten pregnant through intercourse with another man so far as Joseph could have known --- and this despite Mary's protestations of innocence. (The OT passage referring to a virgin is more originally translated as "young woman". Only later as "almah" was translated into the Greek "parthenos" and even later was seen by Christians in light of Mary and Jesus' nativity did "young woman" firmly become "a virgin".) The history of Israel was fraught with all-too-human failures which betrayed the covenant and profaned Israel's high calling. While Joseph was open to God doing something new in history it is more than a little likely that he was torn between which of these possibilities was actually occurring here, just as he was torn between believing Mary and continuing the marriage and divorcing her and casting her and the child aside.

What Were Joseph's Options?

Under the Law Joseph had two options. The first involved a very public divorce. Joseph would bring the situation to the attention of the authorities, involve witnesses, repudiate the marriage and patrimony for the child and cast Mary aside. This would establish Joseph as a wronged man and allow him to continue to be seen as righteous or just. But Mary could have been stoned and the baby would also have died as a result. The second option was more private but also meant bringing his case to the authorities. In this solution Joseph would again have repudiated the marriage and patrimony but the whole matter would not have become public and Mary's life or that of the child would not have been put in immediate jeopardy. Still, in either instance Mary's shame and apparent transgressions would have become known and in either case the result would have been ostracization and eventual death. Under the law Joseph would have been called a righteous man but how would he have felt about himself in his heart of hearts? Would he have wondered if he was just under the Law but at the same time had refused to hear the message of an angel of God, refused to allow God to do something new and even greater than the Law?

Of course, Joseph might have simply done nothing at all and continued with the plans for the marriage's future. But in such a case many problems would have arisen. According to the Law he would have been falsely claiming paternity of the child --- a transgression of the Law and thus, the covenant. Had the real father shown up in the future and claimed paternity Joseph would then have been guilty of "conniving with Mary's own sin" (as Harold Buetow describes the matter). Again Law and covenant would have been transgressed and profaned. In his heart of hearts he might have believed this was the just thing to do but in terms of his People and their Covenant and Law he would have acted unjustly and offended the all-just God. Had he brought Mary to his family home he would have rendered them and their abode unclean as well. If Mary was guilty of adultery she would have been unclean --- hence the need for ostracizing her or even killing her!

Entering the Liminal Place Where God May Speak to Us:

All of this and so much more was roiling around in Joseph's heart and mind! In one of the most difficult situations we might imagine, Joseph struggled to discern what was just and what it would mean for him to do justice in our world! Every option was torturous; each was inadequate for a genuinely righteous man. Eventually he came to a conclusion which may have seemed the least problematical even if it was not wholly satisfactory, namely to put Mary away "quietly", to divorce her in a more private way and walk away from her. And at this moment, when Joseph's struggle to discern and do justice has reached it's most neuralgic point, at a place of terrible liminality symbolized in so much Scriptural literature by dreaming, God reveals to Joseph the same truth Mary has herself accepted: God is doing something unimaginably new here. He is giving the greatest gift yet. The Holy Spirit has overshadowed Mary and resulted in the conception of One who will be the very embodiment of God's justice in our world. Not only has a young woman come to be pregnant but a virgin will bear a child! The Law will be fulfilled in Him and true justice will have a human face as God comes to be Emmanuel in this new and definitive way.

Joseph's faith response to God's revelation has several parts or dimensions. He decides to consummate the marriage with Mary by bringing her to his family home but not as an act of doing nothing at all and certainly not as some kind of sentimental or cowardly evasion of real justice. Instead it is a way of embracing the whole truth and truly doing justice. He affirms the marriage and adopts the child as his own. He establishes him in the line of David even as he proclaims the child's true paternity. He does this by announcing this new Son's name to be Jesus, God saves.  Thus Joseph proclaims to the world that God has acted in this Son's birth in a new and way which transcends and relativizes the Law even as it completely respects it. He honors the Covenant with a faithfulness that leads to that covenant's perfection in the Christ Event. In all of this Joseph continues to show himself to be a just or righteous  man, a man whose humanity and honor we ourselves should regard profoundly.

Justice is the way to Genuine Future:

Besides being moved by Joseph's genuine righteousness, I am struck by a couple of things in light of all of this. First, discerning and doing justice is not easy. There are all kinds of solutions which are partial and somewhat satisfactory, but real justice takes work and, in the end, must be inspired by the love and wisdom of God. Secondly, Law per se can never really mediate justice. Instead, the doing of justice takes a human being who honors the Law, feels compassion, knows mercy, struggles in fear and trepidation with discerning what is right, and ultimately is open to allowing God to do something new and creative in the situation. Justice is never a system of laws, though it will include these. It is always a personal act of courage and even of worship, the act of one who struggles to mediate God's own plan and will for all those and that involved. Finally, I am struck by the fact that justice opens reality to a true future. Injustice closes off the future. In all of the partial and unsatisfactory solutions Joseph entertained and wrestled with, each brought some justice and some injustice. Future of some sort was assured for some and foreclosed to others; often both came together in what was merely a sad and tragic approximation of a "real future". Only God's own will and plan assures a genuine future for the whole of his creation. That too is something yesterday's Gospel witnessed to.

Another Look at Joseph:

Joseph is the star in Matt's account, the one who points to God and the justice only God can do. It is important, I think, to see all that he represents as Mary's counterpart in the nativity of Jesus (Son of David) who is Emmanuel (Son of the One who, especially in Jesus, is God With Us). Mary's fiat seems easy, graceful in more than one sense of that term. Joseph's fiat is hard-won but also graced or graceful. For Joseph, as for Mary, there is real labor involved as the categories of divinity and justice, law and covenant are burst asunder to bring the life and future of heaven to birth in our world. May we each be committed to mediating God's own justice and bringing God's future into being especially in this Advent-Christmas season. This is the time when we especially look ahead to Christ's coming and too, to his eventual coming to full stature when God will be all in all. May we never take refuge in partial and inadequate solutions to our world's problems and need for justice, especially out of shortsightedness, sentimentality, cowardice, evasion, or fear for our own reputations. And may we allow Joseph to be the model of discernment, humility, and courage in mediating the powerful presence and future of God we recognize as justice and so yearn for in this 21st Century.]]

On Growing Towards Perfection: Journeying in the Direction we are Born For.

A number of times recently the commandment to "be ye perfect as your father in heaven is perfect" has come up for me. The first time was in an email to my director referring to the use of the term "total commitment" in something I was reading in relation to our work together. I wondered what "total" meant in the context involved; I couldn't understand it as even conceivable much less possible and that, it sounded like, could jeopardize everything. My director wrote back pointing out the similarity of the word "perfect" in the NT and the difficulty of defining it. She then defined "total" contextually, in a less absolute (but no less personally demanding) way, a way which corresponded to the needs of the work being done and which, yet again, was a matter of "trusting the process" and the changes, healing, and growth it brings about. (This of course involves trusting the grace of God in all the ways it is mediated to me over time especially in this process!)

Other instances of meeting the word "perfection" had to do with Lent itself, with the God I was somehow supposed to come to  image more perfectly and who was defined in static Greek categories: (omnipotence, omnipresence, etc). Another had to do with consecrated life and the older usage regarding being called to "a state of perfection". Again, I thought, as I always do, that being called to perfection meant being fully human because I think being authentically and fully human is at least part of this call to perfection --- but somehow the word "perfection" continued to raise obstacles within and for me. It is a problem all by itself. I would bet I am not alone in this. In fact I know I am not; one of the reasons women Religious don't often refer to "states of perfection" is because to do so seems elitist and divisive. It can also lead to needless or unwarranted anxiety over hypocrisy and failure.

So, I went back to the original text --- not something I do often enough these days --- and was reminded that the word translated as perfection is τελειος (teleios) --- from the Greek telos (τελος) which refers to the goal, end, or fulfillment of something. (Jesus is the telos or end/goal/fulfillment of the Law, for instance.) That was suggestive of being goal-directed or of having reached a goal (some have defined this call to perfection in terms of "maturity") but it still left me little further along in my thoughts and prayer. Then, while in Tahoe I was reading a book by William O'Malley on Parables and not far into the book O'Malley begins to discuss the difficult word "perfection". (God does indeed work in surprising and delightful ways!) O'Malley also notes that the Greek is teleios (τελειος) but in light of that word, he went on to define the call to perfection as the call to be "heading in the direction [we] are born for". And that made "total" (!) sense to me. It is a refreshingly dynamic way of defining perfection (a way which is appropriate to the God who is verb, who is Love-in-Act) in an unfinished and evolving universe; it also reduces anxiety or concerns about hypocrisy and elitism and is able to free folks from any unhealthy perfectionism. Perfection, in the sense Jesus and the New Testament used the word is not about having reached, much less achieved a static state without flaws or frailties, but instead is about being true to the journey; it is about being on a pilgrimage to authenticity with, in, and towards life in God.

Last Sunday we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration. We often use the term transfiguration in the sense of change or transformation, but when we think about the transfiguration of Jesus the only thing that changed was the way Jesus appeared to others. Jesus was transfigured in their eyes but he himself remained who he was right along. The disciples saw him for who he really was, namely a truly human being living with, in, and towards life in God. They saw him as the glory of God, the revelation of the love and mercy which every human being is called and born to be. Whether they were aware of this or not, what James, Peter and John saw in Jesus was also an image of their own telos, the end or fulfillment of their own journeys to authenticity and maturity in, with, and through God. They saw an image of human perfection --- a man well on his way in his journey to fully reveal the glory of God in ordinary life situations. Jesus was heading towards Jerusalem with all that implied and involved; he was on his way to the Cross and the exhaustive revelation of a Divine power which would be perfected in weakness; he was on his way toward changing the very nature of reality by reconciling reality to God, destroying (Godless) death and by effectively giving creation a place in the very life of God. In other words, He was "perfect" (teleios) because he was "heading in the direction [he] was born for".

So many times Jesus could have turned aside or away. There were so many times he could have chosen a different path, one which was good, fruitful, respectable, admirably religious and apparently "law abiding" --- but which was not about heading in the direction he was born to head. But, as he did during his time in the desert, he chose to do what he was born (or baptized) to do. He entered the desert having heard from God that he was God's beloved Son who did indeed delight God. He grappled with what that meant both in personal and pastoral terms. And finally he chose to respond to the deep call of God to be that person and live that identity in the ordinary and extraordinary things of life. This choice was one he renewed again and again throughout the course of his public life with every act of compassion and self-emptying; in the process he renewed the course of his journey with, toward, and on behalf of God's sovereignty and the extension of that "Kingdom of God" to all God holds as precious. He affirmed and reaffirmed a commitment to the same perfection we are each called to, namely an authentic and God-centered humanity lived for others. And isn't this what Lent gives each of us the space and encouragement to do?

A few folks have emailed and suggested that by focusing on the work I have already been engaged in with my director I am failing to do what Lent really calls for. That, they believe, is inexcusable in a consecrated (canonical) hermit who lives this life in the Name of the Church! Apparently, they suggest, in outlining my plans for Lent I have not made a sufficient commitment to additional prayer, penance and almsgiving. But in (thus far) this 10 month-journey I have called "inner work" what my director and I have been engaged in is a profound desert-time where I grapple with 1) my identity and 2) with God's call to be myself as fully and freely as possible. This is the call to be perfect as God (Him)self is perfect --- nothing less.

We are each involved in a journey towards authenticity and (identically) communion with God. As with Jesus, it is a journey where we may have to renounce what is usually recognized as "respectability" in order to embrace genuine holiness --- just as we may need to embrace brokenness in order to be reconciled to God, self, and others to live the joy and freedom of life in and of God. The question Lent asks and gives us space and time to answer with our lives is, "are you headed in the way you were born to be headed?" Are you headed in the way your heart has been shaped throughout your whole life by the Love-in-Act we call God? If not, if you are impelled and even compelled by something else, how will you change course? What paths do you need to leave behind? What ways of being? What obstacles to freedom, personal deficits, woundedness, etc will you need to work through and let go of?  How, after all, will you embrace the call to be "perfect", the call to be "heading in the direction you were born to be heading"?

11 March 2017

Feast of the Transfiguration: The Gorilla in Plain View (Reprised)

Transfiguration by Lewis Bowman
Have you ever been walking along a well-known road and suddenly had a bed of flowers take on a vividness which takes your breath away? Similarly, have you ever been walking along or sitting quietly outside when a breeze rustles some leaves above your head and you were struck by an image of the Spirit moving through the world? I have had both happen, and, in the face of God's constant presence, what is in some ways more striking is how infrequent such peak moments are.

Scientists tell us we see only a fraction of what goes on all around us. It depends upon our expectations. In an experiment with six volunteers divided into two teams in either white or black shirts, observers were asked to concentrate on the number of passes of a basketball that occurred as players wove in and out around one another. In the midst of this activity a woman in a gorilla suit strolls through, stands there for a moment, thumps her chest, and moves on. At the end of the experiment observers were asked two questions: 1) how many passes were there, and 2) did you see the gorilla? Fewer than 50% saw the gorilla. Expectations drive perception and can produce blindness. Even more shocking, these scientists tell us that even when we are confronted with the truth we are more likely to insist on our own "knowledge" and justify decisions we have made on the basis of blindness and ignorance. We routinely overestimate our own knowledge and fail to see how much we really do NOT know.

For the past two weeks we have been reading the central chapter of Matthew's Gospel --- the chapter that stands right smack in the middle of his version of the Good News. It is Matt's collection of Jesus' parables --- the stories Jesus tells to help break us open and free us from the common expectations, perspectives, and wisdom we hang onto so securely so that we might commit to the Kingdom of God and the vision of reality it involves. Throughout this collection of parables Jesus takes the common, too-well-known, often underestimated and unappreciated bits of reality which are right at the heart of his hearers' lives. He uses them to reveal the extraordinary God who is also right there in front of his hearers. Stories of tiny seeds, apparently completely invisible once they have been tossed about by a prodigal sower, clay made into works of great artistry and function, weeds and wheat which reveal a discerning love and judgment which involves the careful and sensitive harvesting of the true and genuine --- all of these and more have given us the space and time to suspend our usual ways of seeing and empower us to adopt the new eyes and hearts of those who dwell within the Kingdom of God.

It was the recognition of the unique authority with which Jesus taught, the power of his parables in particular which shifted the focus from the stories to the storyteller in the Gospel passage we heard last Friday. Jesus' family and neighbors did not miss the unique nature of Jesus' parables; these parables differ in kind from anything in Jewish literature and had a singular power which went beyond the usual significant power of narrative. They saw this clearly. But they also refused to believe the God who revealed himself in the commonplace reality they saw right in front of them. Despite the authority they could not deny they chose to see only the one they expected to see; they decided they saw only the son of Mary, the son of Joseph and "took offense at him." Their minds and hearts were closed to who Jesus really was and the God he revealed. Similarly, Jesus' disciples too could not really accept an anointed one who would have to suffer and die. Peter especially refuses to accept this.

It is in the face of these situations that we hear today's Gospel of the Transfiguration. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a mountain apart. He takes them away from the world they know (or believe they know) so well, away from peers, away from their ordinary perspective, and he invites them to see who he really is. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus' is at prayer --- attending to the most fundamental relationship of his life --- when the Transfiguration occurs. Matthew does not structure his account in the same way. Instead he shows Jesus as the one whose life is a profound dialogue with God's law and prophets, who is in fact the culmination and fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, the culmination of the Divine-Human dialogue we call covenant. He is God-with-us in the unexpected and even unacceptable place. This is what the disciples see --- not so much a foretelling of Jesus' future glory as the reality which stands right in front of them --- if only they had the eyes to see.

For most of us, such an event would freeze us in our tracks with awe. But not Peter! He outlines a project to reprise the Feast of Tabernacles right here and now. In this story Peter reminds me some of those folks (myself included!) who want so desperately to hang onto amazing prayer experiences --- but in doing so, fail to appreciate them fully or live from them! He is, in some ways, a kind of lovable but misguided buffoon ready to build booths for Moses, Elijah and Jesus, consistent with his tradition while neglecting the newness and personal challenge of what has been revealed. In some way Matt does not spell out explicitly, Peter has still missed the point. And in the midst of Peter's well-meaning activism comes God's voice, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!" In my reflection on this reading this last weekend, I heard something more: "Peter! Sit down! Shut up! This is my beloved Son! Listen to him!!!"

The lesson could not be clearer, I think. We must take the time to see what is right in front of us. We must listen to the One who comes to us in the Scriptures and Sacraments, the One who speaks to us through every believer and the whole of creation. We must really be the People of God, the "hearers of the Word" who know how to listen and are obedient in the way God summons us to be. This is true whether we are God's lowliest hermit or one of the Vicars of Christ who govern our dioceses and college of Bishops. Genuine authority coupled with true obedience empowers new life, new vision, new perspectives and reverence for the ordinary reality God makes Sacramental. There is a humility involved in all of this. It is the humility of the truly wise, the truly knowing person. We must be able to recognize how very little we see, how unwilling we are to be converted to the perspective of the Kingdom, how easily we justify our blindness and deafness with our supposed knowledge, and how even our well-intentioned activism can prevent us from seeing and hearing the unexpected, sometimes scandalous God standing there right in the middle of our reality.

07 March 2017

Lenten Rule: The Best Laid Plans Often "Gang aglay" --- so Hold them Lightly!!

I am sitting in the sunroom of the Dominican house, "Our Lady of the Lake" at Lake Tahoe. It took us an extra day to get here because I 80 was closed yesterday most of the day due to zero visibility. (There was lots of snow, very powdery, blowing down into the foothills!) The best laid plans. . . . Because I put foodstuffs away in the fridge yesterday after we decided we could not come up, of course I left some of it in the fridge this morning! Either we will have to go to the store or (except for dinners, of course) I will be eating peanut butter most of the week! The best laid plans. . . you know how it goes! Of course, reminders of the Donner party's tragic saga in these very mountains about 160 years ago is hard to avoid and makes peanut butter --- peanut butter and crackers, peanut butter sandwiches, peanut butter and sardines, or even peanut butter on a spoon by itself in the absence of something to drink --- sound downright sumptuous, a delight to entertain! The best laid plans. . .often gang aglay!" Sometimes disastrously so!

Lent can be a little like that. Oh, not that it ever ends in tragedy of course (at least it doesn't do so for me usually! How can it when the "end" of the Season is Easter?), but as much as we plan for it, God will always surprise us. (Again, the season culminates with that ultimate surprise and making ALL THING NEW: EASTER!) So, this is the second half of my "What do you do for Lent?" post. In the first half I wrote about the way I approach Lent and the plans I made for the 40 days. In this half the lesson is essentially that whatever we plan, God's own movement will usually take us in directions we never thought of --- and this is the really exciting part of Lent, the part that says, "We are not in this alone and the One who is in this with us is just SO much bigger and more amazing than we can even conceive! Be open to (Him). Together amazing things can and will happen!"

But it DOES take planning! I remember reading a number of years ago about a diocesan hermit whose Rule was a scant paragraph and whose daily prayer schedule was left wide open "so the Holy Spirit would have the space to work freely!" There were no planned prayer periods, no Liturgy of the Hours, no time for walks or art or lectio divina, or even for the well-deserved and needed nap! (And, I just have to ask, when did the bathroom get cleaned or the laundry get done?) But the truth is that unless we make some plans of our own, unless we have a schedule of some sort, a vision of the way the day ordinarily goes, a regular and balanced round of prayer and rest and recreation, for instance, what is more apt to have dominion during our day than the Holy Spirit is our own ennui and idleness --- our our workaholism and activism.

A similar "heresy" I think is the notion that God has everything planned out in detail, that God will knock all of our plans into a cocked hat anyway, so best not to plan at all! Just go with the flow --- or without any flow at all, I guess. God will show us what to think, or read, or what work needs doing and will even fashion our dreams for us! Sometimes this is called quietism. Paul saw it as laziness and opined that those that sat waiting for the second coming should go hungry. The Desert Fathers and Mothers have a couple of charming stories about the same problem. As one lay hermit writes: [[Already, yesterday and again today, in the Order of the Present Moment: God unfolds Lent. It is God Who chooses, Who controls, Who plans and unfolds Lent. God does so individually, uniquely, and collectively. ]] Well, yes. And no! We are taught, "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God!" This notion that God plans our lives right down to the very least detail, right down to the food we leave in our refrigerators at home --- or the faulty travel plans made by the Donners (!) --- seems to me strangely like tempting the Lord God!

On the other hand I know of congregations of hermits whose every minute outside sleep is a regimented round of prayer periods, periods of devotions, etc. etc. Personally I dislike both options --- alternately, they seem to either give the Holy Spirit too little to work with or not nearly enough space to work in without also tempting the Lord God to intervene in some pre-conceived way. In either case, but especially the latter, I always wonder where is the time to PRAY?!*** You know, not where is the time to say prayers or slide from thing to thing without real thought, decision, or purpose, but where is the time to consciously and deliberately sit down as one might with anyone who deserved one's full attention, to breathe slowly, to get quiet, center in, and just let God work within one however God desires to do that! Jesus tells us that we are to pray without ceasing. I am pretty certain that he did not mean "Say prayers and do devotions without stopping!" Instead, I think God really means for us to become the incarnations of (His) own prayer and breath. And that, it seems to me, means some planning and hard work on our own part as we remain open to the newness and surprises God always brings. The key is not to NOT PLAN, but instead, to always hold our own plans lightly --- even as we work hard at our writing or teaching or leadership tasks or work with clients, etc. Our own best laid plans often go awry but the key is to entrust them and ourselves to God's own future-making mercy.

All good wishes for your own first week of Lent. I plan (just saying!!!) to blog several more times while I am here, but if that should devolve into long disquisitions on the creative uses of peanut butter, you'll know why! It will remind you to pray for me as I do for you!

*** In light of several questions I have received, I should say, for the moment, that of the two options given above, the one without plans and the other with a rigidly filled horarium, the first one makes most sense for an authentic hermit with a mature spirituality. Presuming the hermit really knows how to listen to God, is really in tune with what she must have to live everyday in real obedience, and is rooted in the God who comes to us in the ordinary, this "planless" approach could work quite well. But it would not work for most people and generally not at all for non-hermits or those who have retired and live alone. The first option seems to me to be geared for mature hermits then (but I still bet it leaves a lot unstated and is not as "planless" as purported), the second is geared, I think, for beginners who are new to physical solitude and silence. The genuine contemplative eremitical life falls somewhere between the two and closer to the first than the second. So again, plan but hold those plans lightly as you remain open to the Holy Spirit's movement.

06 March 2017

On the Essence of Prayer: Living in the Name of the One Jesus Calls Abba (Reprise)

With Lent's focus on Prayer, tomorrow's Gospel asks us to look again at the model or paradigm of all Christian prayer, the Lord's Prayer. After all, it summarizes what Jesus' vocation was all about, how he prayed, how he lived, what had priority for him, and what, by extension, constitutes Christian existence. Learning to pray this prayer is not a one-time task, and recitation of it is not without risks and challenges. Instead, we are invited to learn to pray as Jesus did, to pour ourselves into its petitions, day by day and "layer" of self by layer of self. It calls us, and provides a concrete way, to allow our hearts and lives to be shaped as Jesus' was --- first by the Kingdom or sovereignty of God, and then (and only then) by our own. Yes, it teaches us to pray rightly, but more, it initiates us into a life of prayer; more correctly said perhaps, it molds and shapes us into the very prayers we are called to BE. (I am convinced that the admonition to "pray always" is a statement of the purpose of human life, and that prayer is not only an activity we are to undertake, but something we are to become. When we call Jesus "the Word made Flesh," we really are calling him an incarnate prayer, a Word event whose whole being glorifies (reveals and allows God to be) God in space and time.)

One of the things that comes up again and again is just how deceptively familiar the prayer is for us. We recite it daily, sometimes several times a day; and yet, almost every petition holds surprises for us. We simply don't know what the words mean or what they summon us to. (For instance, because we ourselves are "petitions" in search of the response God is, because  we ourselves are the question of meaning only God can and does answer, this prayer, except for the invocation, is composed only of petitions.) The invocation is a particularly striking example of our not knowing what we are being called to here. Luke's version of the prayer has simply, "Pater" (or "Abba"), while Matthew's has the more litugically suited and formed, "Our Father, who Art in Heaven!" ("Abba, you who are God") Some people in parishes have problems calling God "Father," because they treat the word as a metaphor, and as an instance of human patriarchy or paternalism writ-very-large. Others love that God is called "abba, pater" because it apotheosizes or raises to divine level their own patriarchal pretensions.

And yet, both groups have gotten something very basic wrong, namely, the invocation to the Lord's Prayer is not merely a metaphor describing divinity's "paternalness" --- one characteristic among others including maternalness. It is instead a NAME, and as a name it is symbol, not merely metaphor, and it FUNCTIONS as a name does. It symbolizes the whole reality of the person, not just those characteristics we know, but the profound mystery the person is. The Lord's Prayer begins with the revelation of and permission to invoke God BY NAME even if Matt's elaborate formulation obscures this for English readers. In Christ we are allowed, and in fact, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to call upon God as Abba, where Abba is a personal word of address which does far less to describe God than it does to give him a personal place to stand in our world and in our hearts.

We will miss this though, if we do not move beyond the prayer's familiarity and merely treat the invocation as a description of or metaphor for God. Remember, for instance, that the word "Abba" is in the vocative case, the case used for direct address. Remember that Jesus used the term "Abba" with a unique intimacy and familiarity, not as a description of God, but as direct address and name. Remember that his usage was unprecedented in Palestinian Judaism (Judiasm of the diaspora was somewhat different), not only because Jews tended to avoid referring to God as Abba (pagans did that all the time!), or because using Abba as a name and speaking it directly was too presumptuous (Divine names were not spoken or even written out), but also because the times they did refer to God as Father, it was in a collective sense and more metaphor or descriptor than name. Remember too that in Matt's day people LONGED to know both the REAL Name of God, and that their prayer was truly effective. So desperate were they for access to the real God that they stood on street corners reading from magic papyri which listed every known name of God. When Matthew warns us about using empty words [or babbling] in our prayers this is the practice he is referring to, a practice driven by the need to know and invoke God by name --- a need to pray with genuine authority and power, a need to allow and experience God's personal presence in all its ineffableness.

But, along comes Jesus with his unique relationship with this One he calls by name as Abba, thus addressing God with an unheard of familiarity and intimacy. He speaks, lives, and teaches with a new kind of authority. To put it plainly, Jesus is on a first name basis with God; he speaks in the NAME of God. Their relationship is unique and the exchanges between them equally so. When we attend to his prayer, we see that Jesus calls upon God BY NAME as "Abba, Father." He gives this One a personal place to stand in the world in the way only invocation can do, invocation in both narrower and broader senses: that is, addressing or calling upon another by name and living one's life in the name of that other implicating them in all one is and does. Jesus reveals (makes real in space and time) a new Name for God. God is no longer known simply the One who will be who he will be [ehyeh asher ehyeh, YHWH]; he is Abba, and the One whom he will be is revealed definitively in Christ in terms of unfathomable love and mercy. By extension, Christians are those marked by this name, who, through the adoption of baptism live within its power and presence, who "call upon" or invoke God in this way. It is the symbol or name marking our vocation in this world, just as it marked that of Jesus.

As I have written here before, the life of Christian prayer is a life of invocation. The task before us and which we reflect on anew each Lent is to learn and embrace what it means to live as those who call upon and live life in the Name of another --- and not just any other, but the One Jesus revealed as "Abba, Father." The Lord's Prayer initiates us into this life, and the first line, the only non-petition in the entire prayer, embodies or symbolizes the whole of this vocation. It is both invitation and challenge: not only to take this Name upon our lips, but to glorify the name of God with our lives, to become those who truly are adopted daughters and sons of the One we call Abba, Father.

05 March 2017

Driven into the Desert by the Spirit of Sonship (Reprise)

I really love today's Gospel, especially at the beginning of Lent. The thing that strikes me most about it is that Jesus' 40 days in the desert are days spent coming to terms with and consolidating the identity which has just been announced and brought to be in him. (When God speaks, the things he says become events, momentous things that really happen in space and time, and so too with the announcement that Jesus is his beloved Son in whom he is well-pleased.) Subsequently, Jesus is driven into the desert by the Spirit of love, the Spirit of Sonship, to explore that identity, to allow it to define him in space and time more and more exhaustively, to allow it to become the whole of who he is. One of the purposes of Lent is to provide the "space" and time  needed to  allow us to do the same.

A Sister friend I go to coffee with on Sundays remarked on the way from Mass that she had had a conversation with her spiritual director this last week where he noted that perhaps Jesus' post-baptismal time in the desert was a time for him to savor the experience he had had at his baptism. It was a wonderful comment that took my own sense of this passage in a new and deeper direction. Because of the struggle involved in the passage I had never thought to use the word savor in the same context, but as my friend rightly pointed out, the two often go together in our spiritual lives. They certainly do so in hermitages! My own director had asked me to do something similar when we met this last week by suggesting I consider going back to all those pivotal moments of my life which have brought me to the silence of solitude as the vocation and gift of my life. Essentially she was asking me not only to consider these intellectually (though she was doing that too) but to savor them anew and in this savoring to come to an even greater consolidation of my identity in God and as diocesan hermit.

Hermitages are places which reprise the same experience of consolidation and integration of our identity in God. They are deserts in which we come not only to learn who we are in terms of God alone, but to allow that to define our entire existence really and concretely -- in what we value, how we behave, in the choices we make, and those with whom we identify, etc. In the "In Good Faith" podcast I did a few years ago for
A Nun's Life, I noted that for me the choice which is fundamental to all of Lent and all of the spiritual life, "Choose Life, not death" is the choice between accepting and living my life according to the way God defines me or according to the way the "world" defines me. It means that no matter how poor, inadequate, ill, and so forth I also am, I choose to make God's announcement that in Christ  I am his beloved daughter in whom he is well-pleased the central truth of my life which colors and grounds everything else. Learning to live from that definition (and so, from the one who announces it) is the task of the hermit; the hermitage is the place to which the Spirit of love and Sonship*** drive us so that we can savor the truth of this incomprehensible mystery even as we struggle to allow it to become the whole of who we are.

But hermitages are, of course, not the only places which reprise these dynamics. Each of us has been baptized, and in each of our baptisms what was announced to us was the fact that we were now God's adopted beloved daughters and sons. Lent gives us the space and time where we can focus on the truth of this, claim that truth more whole-heartedly, and, as Thomas Merton once said, "get rid of any impersonation that has followed us" to the [desert]. We need to take time to identify and struggle with the falsenesses within us, but also to accept and appreciate the more profound truth of who we are and who we are called to become in savoring our experiences of God's love. As we fast in various ways, we must be sure to also taste and smell as completely as we can the nourishing Word of God's love for us. After all, the act of savoring is the truest counterpart of fasting for the Christian. The Word we are called to savor is the Word which defines us as valued and valuable in ways the world cannot imagine and nourishes us where the things of the world cannot. It is this Word we are called both to struggle with and to savor during these 40 days, just as Jesus himself did.

Thus, as I fast this Lent (in whatever ways that means), I am going to remember to allow myself not only to get in touch with my own deepest hungers and the hungers I share with all others (another very good reason to fast), but also to get in touch anew with the ways I have been fed and nourished throughout my life --- the experiences I need to savor as well. Perhaps then when Lent comes to an end I will be better able to claim and celebrate the one I am in God. My prayer is that each of us is able to do something similar with our own time in the desert.

Merton quotation taken from Contemplation in a World of Action, "Christian Solitude," p 244.

*** A reminder that whether we are daughters or sons of God, our adoption by God gives us a share in Jesus' Sonship. Our own daughterhood or sonship is derivative in nature; that is, it derives from  Jesus' Sonship. Thus I speak of the Spirit of Sonship, not because I am insensitive to the issues of patriarchy or inclusive language, but because my usage here is essentially and primarily Christological.

03 March 2017

On Woundedness, Healing, and the Vocation to Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sister Laurel, When you write about the inner work you have been doing and the healing it has caused it makes me wonder if you are thinking of leaving your vows as a hermit. I am not quite sure how to ask this but you have written that hermits need to be well to make vows. Do you still hold this? Were you well when you made your vows or did you become a hermit because you were not well? (Please don't get me wrong. I love your blog and I wouldn't have thought of asking about this except for your raising the issue yourself!!!) You have also said that with this inner work you have come to stand in a place where you have never been before (I think I got that right) so could this mean you might be happier doing active ministry and not living as a hermit?]]

Really important questions. Thank you for them and don't worry, I think I understand why you asked them. Thank you also for loving my blog; it has grown into something I never foresaw and most of the time am rather proud of. Let me begin my response by saying I think you may have missed a recent post I put up on "Creating the Heart of a Hermit" (that's  not the exact title). In that post I affirmed that in the work I have been doing what became clear to me was that God has been preparing me for this vocation throughout the whole of my life. By that I don't mean that God planned the events which tended to isolate me or keep me feeling profoundly alone (I could never love or serve such a God), but rather, that God was continually present, unceasingly calling me by Name to live freely and fully in communion with (Him) and loving me in a way which empowered me to realize the potential God endowed me with.

The movement of God in my life was constantly about the transformation of isolation into authentic solitude and I grew to love solitude as an expression of community even if it is rarely understood in this way by non hermits. In other words, God does not will isolation but solitude is one form of the redemption of isolation, a redemption marked by reconciliation with one's deepest self, with God and with others. It is marked by the healing of woundedness; as one grows in what I refer to in the language of canon 603 as "the silence of solitude" so too one may experience deeper healing and the call to this. Thus, I believe that my heart IS the heart of a hermit and that this heart has been formed both implicitly and explicitly over a period of almost seven decades by the love of God. In other words, I am not leaving my vows or this life. I am called to it by God through the mediation of (His) Church and I am surer of that today than I was even on the day I  made definitive profession.

But this leaves some of your thornier questions untouched, doesn't it? Let me give them a shot. First, the questions about wellness. What I have said in the past is that while the environment of the hermitage allows personal healing work to be undertaken it is better to take care of such matters before making any public commitment. I have also written that eremitical life is not the life for folks with serious mental illnesses, especially those with thought disorders or disorders with religious ideation. But the fact is that many people may function very well, have sound spiritualties, well-developed theologies, and be essentially well despite deep woundedness from this or that trauma. Their woundedness may be the basis of their turning to God long before they learn faith or the love of God. It may also be a major source of their capacity for compassion and service or ministry. I believe this describes my own journey to and within eremitical life --- I was profoundly wounded but essentially well as well as capable of and committed to a growing wholeness and holiness in the silence of solitude.*** It is important to remember that in Christianity we refer to wounded healers and a Divine power made perfect in weakness for a reason! We proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and we know that this good news can ONLY be truly heard and embraced by those who have come to know their own sinfulness and/or woundedness.

However, I am not talking about serious mental illness when I refer to woundedness and eremitical life specifically and I continue to believe those who have serious mental illnesses should ordinarily not be admitted to profession or consecration as hermits. But I do believe that some persons may be profoundly initiated by their woundedness into both the physical isolation which is central to eremitical solitude and the yearning for the love of God which can help redeem and transfigure isolation into authentic solitude. When this happens such a person may find that they are well-prepared temperamentally and perhaps  psychologically if not in other ways (intellectually and spiritually, for instance) to embrace a call to eremitical life so long as that life is well and competently directed and the person's commitment to growing in wholeness and holiness are strong. Remember that Thomas Merton rather famously is reported to have said that "Hermits are made by difficult Mothers" and his own youth and adolescence were marked by significant loss and aloneness. The result was a sense of existential emptiness  --- wonderfully chronicled and analyzed in Gunn's Journeys into Emptiness --- which, through long formation, was transfigured in his monastic and eremitical life into a solitude defined in terms of communion, love, and remarkable fruitfulness.

One of the reasons eremitical vocations must be carefully discerned over a period of time and require recommendations by longtime spiritual directors, Vicars for Religious, pastors and others, sometimes including psychologists and physicians, has to do not only with the eccentricity of the vocation and the rarity of someone being meant to live a fully human life in the silence of solitude, but with the need to be sure the person's capacity for living this vocation in a healthy and fruitful way is certain. This was one of the first questions my own diocese and Vicar had to ask when they began considering professing me or anyone else under canon 603. Sister Susan Blomstad, OSF (Vicar for Religious and Director of Vocations at the time) travelled to New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur with another Sister to question the prior about this particular question: What did the Camaldolese look for in discerning candidates who could live healthy eremitical lives? Every diocese that has proposed to profess anyone under c 603 has had to deal directly with the same question, not because eremitical life is unhealthy but because it is extremely rare and eccentric.

Personal woundedness can cut two ways: it can make a person absolutely unsuitable for this vocation and require they discern a different call which is really their personal way to wholeness and holiness, or it can actually shape a person's heart and psyche in ways which would then make this call a gift of God  that is especially tailored to the person's fulfillment in Christ and the context for a journey to genuine wholeness and holiness. Which way the person's woundedness will cut takes time to become evident; it will need ongoing work with a director, the discernment of a number of qualified people, and commitment to the life itself (prior to vows as well as thereafter) to reach clarity. Those who are dismayed that the time frame for becoming a diocesan hermit is long and individualized, or that it requires significant evidence of the candidate's capacity to make the commitment required and to thrive in light of this commitment (something evident with temporary vows in those eventually admitted to perpetual profession) probably have not adequately appreciated the various reasons for and types of solitude, or the distinction between being a hermit, especially one living eremitical life in the name of the Church, and being a lone individual who is pretty much simply "doing his/her own thing".

I think I have answered all of your questions. If I missed something, or if my responses raise more questions for you please get back to me. Your questions were really excellent and drew from several of my posts or positions written over a period of time; I enjoy responding to those kinds of queries and usually see no reason at all to take offense. For the most part they help me come to greater clarity on things I might never consider directly on my own, so again, thank you. I really want you to feel free to follow up if that is necessary.

*** when I speak of essential wellness here I am not speaking about physical health. As readers tend to know, I have struggled with chronic physical illness my entire adult life. This was a factor in my discernment of eremitical life but was not the defining element. Today it is even less influential in regard to my vocation while remaining something I struggle with. Many diocesan hermits have similar concerns with health issues and these may have played a part in discerning a vocation to solitude rather than to apostolic religious life; even so, none of those I know became hermits because of illness. Instead illness may have been a large part of creating a desert context which intensified or sharpened our search for God just as it deepened our meeting with God and our embrace of the gratuitous love offered to us in this "wilderness."

02 March 2017

Choose Life, Only That and Always (Reprise)

When I was a very young Sister, I pasted the following quotation into the front of my Bible. It was written by another Sister, and has been an important point of reference for me since then:

Choose life, only that and always,
and at whatever risk. . .
to let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere
passage of time,
to withhold giving it and spending it
is to choose
nothing. (Sister H Kelly)

The readings from the Thursday after Ash Wednesday both deal with this theme, and each reminds us in its own way just how serious human life is --- and how truly perilous!! Both of them present our situation as one of life and death choices. There is nothing in the middle, no golden mean of accomodation, no place of neutrality in which we might take refuge -- or from which we can watch dispassionately without committing ourselves, no room for mediocrity (a middle way!) of any kind. On one hand lies genuine "success", on the other true failure. Both readings ask us to commit our whole selves to God in complete dependence or die. Both are clear that it is our very Selves that are at risk at every moment, but certainly at the present moment. And especially, both of them are concerned with responsive commitment of heart, mind, and body --- the "hearkening" we are each called to, and which the Scriptures calls "obedience."

The language of the Deuteronomist's sermon (Deut 30:15-20) is dramatic and uncompromising: [[ This day I set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendents shall live,. . . for if you turn away your hearts and will not listen. . .you will surely perish. . .]] Luke (Lk 9:22-25) recounts Jesus' language as equally dramatic and uncompromising: [[If you would be my disciples, then take up your cross daily (that is, take up the task of creating yourselves in complete cooperation with and responsiveness to God at every moment). . .If you seek to preserve your life [that is, if you choose self-preservation, if you refuse to risk to listen or to choose an ongoing responsiveness] you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you will save it. For what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and then lose or forfeit the very self s/he was created to be?]]

I think these readings set out the clear agenda of Lent, but more than that they set before us the agenda of our entire lives. Our lives are both task and challenge. We do not come into this world fully formed or even fully human. The process of creating the self we are CALLED to be is what we are to be about, and it is a deadly serious business. What both readings try to convey, the OT with its emphasis on Law (God's Word) and keeping that Law, and the Gospel with its emphasis on following the obedient Christ by taking up our lives day by day in response to the will of God, is the fact that moment by moment our very selves are created ONLY in dialogue with God (and in him through others, etc). The Law of Moses is the outer symbol of the law written in our hearts, the dialogue and covenant with God that forms the very core of who we truly are as relational selves. The cross of Christ is the symbol of one who responded so exhaustively and definitively to the Word of God, that he can literally be said to have embodied or incarnated it in a unique way. It is this kind of incarnation or embodiment our very selves are meant to be. We accept this task, this challenge --- and this privilege, or we forfeit our very selves.

God is speaking us at every moment, if only we would chose to listen and accept this gift of self AS GIFT! At the same time, both readings know that the human person is what Thomas Keating calls, "A LISTENING". Our TOTAL BEING, he says, IS A LISTENING. (eyes, ears, mind, heart, and even body) Our entire self is meant to hear and respond to the Word of God as it comes to us through and in the whole of created reality. To the degree we fail in this, to the extent we avoid the choices of an attentive and committed life, an obedient life, we will fail to become the selves we are called to be.

The purpose of Lent and Lenten practices is to help us PARE DOWN all the extraneous noise that comes to us in so many ways, and become more sensitive and responsive to the Word of God spoken in our hearts, and mediated to us by the world around us through heart, mind, and body. We fast so that we might become aware of, and open to, what we truly hunger for --- and of course what genuinely nourishes us. We make prayers of lament and supplication not only so we can become aware of our own deepest pain and woundedness and the healing God's presence brings, but so we can become aware of the profound pain and woundedness of our world and those around us, and then reach out to help heal them. And we do penance so our hearts may be readied for prayer and made receptive to the selfhood God bestows there. In every case, Lenten practice is meant to help us listen carefully and deeply, to live deliberately and responsively, and to make conscious, compassionate choices for life.

It is clear that the Sister who wrote the quote I pasted into my Bible all those years ago had been meditating on today's readings (or at least the one from Deuteronomy)! I still resonate with that quote. It still belongs at the front of my Bible eventhough the ink has bled through the contact paper protecting it, and the letters are fuzzy with age. Still, in light of today's readings I would change it slightly: to let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere passage of time, to refuse to receive it anew moment by moment as God's gift, to withhold giving it and spending it is to refuse authentic selfhood and to choose DEATH instead.

Let us pray then that we each might be motivated and empowered to chose life, always and everywhere --- and at whatever risk or cost. God offers this to us and to our world at every moment --- if only we will ready ourselves in him, listen, and respond as we are called to!