20 April 2017

Thomas Called Didymus: What Was His Doubt About? (Reprised)

 [Sunday's] Gospel focuses, as readings all week have done, on the appearances of Jesus to the disciples, and one of the lessons one should draw from these stories is that we are indeed dealing with bodily resurrection, but therefore, with a kind of bodiliness which transcends the corporeality we know here and now. It is very clear that Jesus' presence among his disciples is not simply a spiritual one, in other words, and that part of Christian hope is the hope that we as embodied persons will come to perfection beyond the limits of death. It is not just our souls which are meant to be part of the new heaven and earth, but our whole selves, body and soul.

The scenario with Thomas continues this theme, but is contextualized in a way which often leads homilists to focus on the whole dynamic of faith with seeing, and faith despite not having seen. It also makes doubt the same as unbelief and plays these off against faith, as though faith cannot also be served by doubt. But doubt and unbelief are decidedly NOT the same things. We rarely see Thomas as the one whose doubt or whose demands SERVE true faith, and yet, that is what today's Gospel is about. Meanwhile, Thomas also tends to get a bad rap as the one who was separated from the community and doubted what he had not seen with his own eyes. The corollary here is that Thomas will not simply listen to his brother and sister disciples and believe that the Lord has appeared to or visited them. But I think there is something far more significant going on in Thomas' proclamation that unless he sees the wounds inflicted on Jesus in the crucifixion, and even puts his fingers in the very nail holes, he will not believe.

What Thomas, I think, wants to make very clear is that we Christians believe in a crucified Christ, and that the resurrection was God's act of validation of Jesus as scandalously and ignominiously Crucified. I think Thomas knows on some level anyway, that insofar as the resurrection really occured, it does not nullify what was achieved on the cross. Instead it renders permanently valid what was revealed (made manifest and made real) there. In other words, Thomas knows if the resurrection is really God's validation of Jesus' life and establishes him as God's Christ, the Lord he will meet is the one permanently established and marked as the crucified One. The crucifixion was not some great misunderstanding which could be wiped away by resurrection. Instead it was an integral part of the revelation of the nature of truly human and truly divine existence. Whether it is the Divine life, authentic human existence, or sinful human life --- all are marked and revealed in one way or another by the signs of Jesus' cross. For instance, ours is a God who has journeyed to the very darkest, godless places or realms human sin produces, and has become Lord of even those places. He does not disdain them even now but is marked by them and will journey with us there --- whether we are open to him doing so or not --- because Jesus has implicated God there and marked him with the wounds of an exhaustive kenosis.

Another piece of this is that Jesus is, as Paul tells us, the end of the Law and it was Law that crucified him. The nail holes and wounds in Jesus' side and head -- indeed every laceration which marked him -- are a sign of legal execution -- both in terms of Jewish and Roman law. We cannot forget this, and Thomas' insistence that he really be dealing with the Crucified One reminds us vividly of this fact as well. The Jewish and Roman leaders did not crucify Jesus because they misunderstood him, but because they understood all-too-clearly both Jesus and the immense power he wielded in his weakness and poverty. They understood that he could turn the values of this world, its notions of power, authority, justice, etc, on their heads. They knew that he could foment profound revolution (religious and otherwise) wherever he had followers. They chose to crucify him not only to put an end to his life, but to demonstrate he was a blasphemous fraud who could not possibly have come from God; they chose to crucify him to terrify those who might follow him into all the places discipleship might really lead them --- especially those places of human power and influence associated with religion and politics. The marks of the cross are a judgment (krisis) on this whole reality.

There are many gods and even manifestations of the real God available to us today, and so there were to Thomas and his brethren in those first days and weeks following the crucifixion of Jesus. When Thomas made his declaration about what he would and would not believe, none of these were crucified Gods or would be worthy of being believed in if they were associated with such shame and godlessness. Thomas knew how very easy it would be for his brother and sister disciples to latch onto one of these, or even to fall back on entirely traditional notions in reaction to the terribly devastating disappointment of Jesus' crucifixion. He knew, I think, how easy it might be to call the crucifixion and all it symbolized a terrible misunderstanding which God simply reversed or wiped away with the resurrection -- a distasteful chapter on which God has simply turned the page. Thomas knew that false prophets showed up all the time. He knew that a God who is distant and all-powerful is much easier to believe in (and follow) than one who walks with us even in our sinfulness or who empties himself to become subject to the powers of sin and death, especially in the awful scandal and ignominy of the cross --- and who expects us to do essentially the same.

In other words, Thomas' doubt may have had less to do with the FACT of a resurrection, than it had to do with his concern that the disciples, in their loss, grief, desperation, guilt, and the immense social pressure they faced to renounce Jesus and the God he revealed, had truly met and clung to the real Lord, the crucified One. In this way their own discipleship will come to be marked by the signs of the cross as they preach, suffer, and serve in the name (and so, in the paradoxical power) of THIS Lord and no other. Only he could inspire them; only he could sustain them; only he could accompany them wherever true discipleship led them.

Paul said, "I want to know Christ crucified and only Christ crucified" because only this Christ had transformed sinful, godless reality with his presence, only this Christ had redeemed even the realms of sin and death by remaining open to God even within these realities. Only this Christ would journey with us to the unexpected and unacceptable places, and in fact, only he would meet us there with the promise and presence of a God who would bring life out of them. Thomas, I believe, knew precisely what Paul would soon proclaim himself, and it is this, I think, which stands behind his insistence on seeing the wounds and put his fingers in the very nail holes. He wanted to be sure his brethren were putting their faith in the crucified One, the one who turned everything upside down and relativized every other picture of God we might believe in. He became the great doubter because of this, but I suspect that instead he was the most faithful and astute theologian among the original Apostles. He, like Paul, wanted to know Christ Crucified and ONLY Christ Crucified.

We should not trivialize Thomas' witness by transforming him into a run of the mill empiricist and doubter (though doubting is an important piece of growth in faith)!! Instead we should imitate his insistence: we are called upon to be followers of the Crucified God, and no other. Every version of God we meet should be closely examined for nail holes, and the lance wound. Every one should be checked for signs that this God is capable of and generous enough to assume such suffering on behalf of a creation he would reconcile and make whole. Only then do we know this IS the God proclaimed in the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul, the only one worthy of being followed even into the darkest reaches of human sin and death, the only One who meets us in the unexpected and even unacceptable place, the only one who loves us with an eternal love from which nothing can separate us.

Postscript, 12 April. 2015. Fr Bob O'Donnell, CSP, made a great point [today] which fits with the rest of this piece but which I had never really focused on, namely, that Jesus's disciples were still cowering in a locked room when Thomas is told the risen Christ has appeared to them. (Fr. Bob also reminded us that Thomas was an undoubted leader in faith before this. cf, Jn 11:16) How can he believe this is true when the disciples are still so very fearful and isolated? Resurrection is something which in part occurs within us as Christ assumes personal power and presence in our lives. As we begin to live and act in his name, the bodily resurrection is realized there as well as in the breaking of the bread or the breaking open of the Scriptures, for instance. A sign that Christ is risen then is our transformation from frightened disciples to those who speak the truth with boldness (parrhesia). It is, as Fr Bob said today, in the transformation of the "timid ten" (for Judas was gone too) that Thomas and we too meet convincing signs of the truth of the resurrection appearances.

16 April 2017

Defeating Godless Death: Why it could Not Happen by Divine Fiat

[[Sister, I know you might not be able to answer this until after Easter and that's okay. I can see why a lot of individual miracles would not have been enough, I think, but couldn't God have just have defeated sin and death with a word? Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead so why couldn't God not have done something similar for all of us? Thank you for your posts. I really enjoy them.]]

Thanks for your comments and questions. They are good and important ones. They arise for us especially around the Triduum. In fact, the question of what was possible for God came up in a discussion I had with a priest friend on Holy Thursday so it's pretty fresh for me. Your reference to Lazarus' being raised not only sharpens the question, but is actually also the key to answering it. You see, one of the things biblical scholars and theologians point out is that Lazarus was not resurrected in the way Jesus was. Lazarus was not raised to new or eternal life but to a mortal life in and of this world, a life which would one day end again in death. Sometimes they will point out the difference between resuscitation and resurrection in speaking of Jesus himself; the distinction works for what happened to Lazarus as well. What they are trying to point out in this is that there was something lacking in this event; the raising of Lazarus was somehow insufficient to deal definitively with death.

In Jesus' raising of Lazarus, godless death itself is not destroyed and until this happens the victory needed over sin is not accomplished in any life much less brought to completion in every life and the whole of creation. It is therefore possible to understand this particular miracle of Jesus as the climax of a history of acts of power --- healings, exorcisms, etc --- which are still insufficient to destroy godless death and death itself.  Even were Jesus to do this for every person he could have, it would simply not have been enough. Death itself must be transformed from the godless reality it is to a reality in which God is met face to face and one day, destroyed completely. This  entry into the realm of godless death (or, from another perspective, the taking up of godless death into God's own life so that it and the whole of reality is transformed and made sacramental) is the heart of what we understand as the reconciliation of the world on a cosmic level.

On a more personal but intimately related level it is important to remember that the death we die is understood theologically as a consequence of sin. There is a natural perishing which is intrinsic to the evolving, imperfect world we know. But human beings are broken and estranged by sin and this complicates the death we each will die. It is no longer a natural perishing but what I have referred to a number of times as godless death. Every time we make a choice for something other than God or for life in God, we effectively choose godless death as well. If we choose to live without God so then we choose to die without God --- and that means we choose death as emptiness without Love, without God. We not only choose it as a future reality, we build it into our lives and even into our very selves (body, etc.) so it affects every moment of our lives. Paul asks, "Who will save us from this body of death?" He is clear in his theology that the situation is more dire and intractable than a merely natural perishing. It is something from which we must  be saved.

When we are being saved from godlessness this occurs by God transforming this, and in fact the whole of historical existence with his presence. And when godlessness is a dimension of the death which dwells within us and which we ourselves loose in this world, we are speaking of a personal reality which God cannot simply destroy by fiat --- not without destroying us as well. God must be "given access" to this reality, and that access, which is achieved in a generous self-emptying motivated by love of God, must be more radical, more profound, than any sinner can manage. This is so because it can only occur through one's openness and attentiveness to God --- an openness and attentiveness which is deeper than human sinfulness, an openness to the will of God which can only be seen clearly by one whose selflessness and love are entirely uncompromised by human alienation and brokenness.

The NT word for this kind of openness is obedience; to express the radical or exhaustive quality of Jesus' own salvific obedience Paul says more;  namely, he defines it as [[obedience unto death, even death on a cross]]; Jesus' radical, exhaustive obedience, opens the way for God to enter the most godforsaken dimensions of our lives and world. But this is not a miracle he could have done "from the outside" or "without complete self-emptying" in the profoundly compassionate but still somewhat personally distanced way he healed illnesses or exorcised demons. It required he take on sinful death itself in an act of complete identification with out state and in an exhaustive helplessness and kenosis. In this way Jesus' obedience allows for "God's power [to become] perfected in weakness." In both his miracles and in his resurrection Jesus mediates the grace of God. In the miracles he has not yet relinquished the degree of agency or authority he yet possessed nor the distance from our sinful conditions or situation he entirely relinquishes on the cross.

This kind of relinquishment or self-emptying is only "learned" --- if it is ever "learned" or "achieved" in one's life --- through radical suffering. (Words are difficult at this point and in speaking about this "learning" and "achieving", "revealed" in the sense of  "being made real (realized) in space and time" may be the best word here.) The process is not automatic --- as though suffering alone produces the change; it does not. But through such suffering the person of faith gradually becomes entirely dependent on the grace of God; thus, self-emptying occurs. One moves from faith to deeper and deeper faith as human weakness is transformed and transfigured by Divine power. We have all experienced this process in our own lives in various ways and to various depths and degrees, but to remain open to God's presence and power even as one experiences God's complete absence (something I believe only Jesus has experienced) was necessary to destroy godless death. The bottom line in all of this is that God could not have destroyed godless or sinful death simply by fiat; human obedience (openness to God's power and presence) was necessary to allow God access to this essentially personal reality. In his exhaustive openness to God Jesus achieved this in and through his death by crucifixion; as a direct consequence he was raised from godless death to eternal life at the right hand of God.

And though this is a separate topic let me note that what remains is for us to be made sharers in THIS death of Jesus. Christians have had this happen through baptism where they are "baptized into (Christ's) death, and thus too, into his resurrection"; in this way we are literally made a new creation. Eternal life has broken into our temporal/historical world and transformed it utterly; we become a people of hope --- trusting God for the ultimate meaning of our lives and empowered to love God's creation into greater and greater  wholeness as we live this new creation here and now in a conscious and explicit way. This is at the heart of our vocations and (com)missioning to embody and proclaim the Good News with our lives.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen; Indeed He is Risen!! Alleluia! (Reprised)

Christ is Risen, Alleluia, Alleluia!!! All good wishes for a wonderful Easter Season!!

For the next 50 days we have time to attend to what Jesus' death and resurrection changed. In light of these events we live in a different world than existed before them, and we ourselves, by virtue of our Baptism into Christ's death, are new creations as well. While all this makes beautiful poetry, and although as John Ciardi once reminded us poetry can save us in dark alleys, we do not base our lives on poetry alone. Objective reality was transformed with Jesus' passion and death; something astounding, universal, even cosmic in scope, happened in these events which had not only to do with our own salvation but with the recreation of all of reality. One of Paul's shorthand phrases for this transformation was "the death of death," something I hope to be able to look at a bit more as these 50 days unfold. We have already begun to see what happens in our Church as Christ's own life begins to shine forth more brightly in a myriad of small but significant ways.  . . .

But, it is probably good to recall that the early Church struggled to make sense of the cross, and that faith in resurrection took some time to take hold. Surprisingly, no single theology of the cross is held as official, and variations --- many quite destructive --- exist throughout the Church. Even today a number of these affirm that in various ways God was reconciled to us rather than the other way around. Only in time did the Church come to terms with the scandalous death of Jesus and embrace him as risen, and so, as the Christ who reveals God's power in weakness. Only in time did she come to understand how different the world was for those who had been baptized into Jesus' death. The Church offers us a period of time to come to understand and embrace all of this as well; the time from Easter Sunday through Pentecost is, in part, geared to this.

But, today is a day of celebration, and a day to simply allow the shock and sadness of the cross to be completely relieved for the moment. Lent is over, the Triduum has reached a joyful climax, the season of Easter has begun and we once again sing alleluia at our liturgies. Though it will take time to fully understand and embrace all this means, through the Church's liturgies and the readings we have heard we do sense that we now live in a world where death has a different character and meaning than it did before Christ's resurrection and so does life. On this day darkness has given way to light, and senselessness to meaning -- even though we may not really be able to explain to ourselves or others exactly why or how. On this day we proclaim that Christ is risen! Sinful death could not hold him and it cannot hold us as a result. Alleluia! Alleluia!!

On Eremitical Life and Honoring Creation

[[Hello Sister,  First, I wish you an happy easter in the joy of the risen Christ ! I have questions for you. You're an urban hermit, if I understand well. I was wondering if sometimes you missed contemplating the Creation ? As a lay cistercian. . . I need the nature to pray - walk in the woods, animals, etc... (See Laudato Si : When we can see God reflected in all that exists, our hearts are moved to praise the Lord for all his creatures and to worship him in union with them" n°87) Do you pray for the Creation, if yes, how ? Also, if there's urban hermit, are they hermits who are called to live closer to nature, in a rural setting ? Do you think it can be a part of the vocation of an hermit ?]]

Hi there. A wonderful Easter to you! Yes, I am an urban hermit but in my case I live in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. It is a relatively affluent town built in the East Bay hills. While I live in the middle of town there are lots of tress, walking and bike paths, creeks, a reservoir with lots of wildlife, as well as access to nearby State and other parks. However, if I was able to do this, I would enjoy living in the deeper silence of a more rural and even remote area. One place I go for retreat is Redwoods Abbey on the Lost Coast of California; you'll recognize it as a Trappistine Abbey. On those occasions I love the profound silence not only of the surroundings, but the silence cultivated by Sisters (and guests) for one another.

One of my fantasies is to live in a Tree house built by someone like "the Treehouse Master" in our Pacific Northwest so I would live in a canopy of trees and perhaps even feel the motion of the wind to some extent, etc. It would allow for a simplicity of dwelling, sufficient space for oratory, small library, and living area, as well as being ecofriendly. However, this is not really feasible so I am happy enough using my patio with redwood and other trees nearby in order to pray, read and write during the late Spring and Summer. I especially love doing this at night and early mornings. At these times there is significant solitude and silence. Living close to nature, especially in a silence which opens one to a world of natural sounds has always been seen as an ideal for hermits. God does not merely dwell in silence and the natural world, He is the abyss and ground of silence. The hermits I know build in as much access to the beauty and silence of nature as is possible for them; it is a privileged environment for meeting God and oneself without distraction or distortion.

Do I pray for creation? I am not exactly sure what you mean by this question. I try to honor creation. I think of our world as suffering serious depredations at the hands of human beings, as being God's own, and as requiring much better stewardship by all of us. I pray, as I pray for all things which concern me/the Church. In terms of theology I read and am reading more extensively as time goes by on the intersection of science and faith, evolution and the coming to be of a "new heaven and earth."  I completely reject the simplistic dichotomous treatment of the temporal and eternal, earth and heaven, and I write consistently about the interpenetration of heaven and earth, the bodiliness of resurrection, and the God who one day will be all in all. These are theological pieces of regarding the whole of God's creation as a sacramental reality and they are a significant part of the theological underpinnings which make honoring creation imperative and part of every person's calling.

Not sure I have answered your question but I hope this is helpful. If this raises more questions for you please get back to me. In the meantime all good wishes for the season!

15 April 2017

Madman or Messiah? We Wait in the Darkness (Reprise)

I admit that a pet peeve of mine associated with celebrating the Triduum in a parish setting is the inadequate way folks handle what should be periods of silence after Holy Thursday's Mass and reservation of the Eucharist and the stations and celebration of Jesus' passion on Good Friday. Unnecessary conversations, hearty and premature  wishes of "Happy Easter" in the sacristy or upon leaving the Church and parking lot immediately after the Passion drive me more than a little crazy --- not only because we have only just celebrated the death of Jesus, but because there is a significant period of grief and uncertainty that we call Holy Saturday still standing between Jesus' death and his resurrection.

Silence is appropriate during these times; Easter is still distant. Allowing ourselves to live with something of the terrible disappointment and critical questions Jesus' disciples experienced as their entire world collapsed is a significant piece of coming to understand why we call today "Good" and tomorrow "Holy." It is important to appreciating the meaning of this three day liturgy we call Triduum and a dimension of coming to genuine and deepening hope. I have often thought the Church could do better with its celebration of Holy Saturday, but spending some time waiting and reflecting on who we would be (not to mention who God would be!) had Jesus stayed good and dead is something Good Friday (essentially beginning after Holy Thursday Mass) and Holy Saturday (beginning the evening after the passion) call for.

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In trying to explain the Cross, Paul once said, "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more." During Holy Week, the Gospel readings focus us on the first part of Paul's statement. Sin has increased to an extraordinary extent and the one people touted as the Son of God has been executed as a blaspheming godforsaken criminal. We watched the darkness and the threat to his life grow and cast the whole of Jesus' life into question.

In the Gospel for last Wednesday we heard John's version of the story of Judas' betrayal of Jesus and the prediction of Peter's denials as well. For weeks before this we had been hearing stories of a growing darkness and threat centered on the person of Jesus. Pharisees and Scribes were irritated and angry with Jesus at the facile way he broke Sabbath rules or his easy communion with and forgiveness of sinners. That he spoke with an authority the people recognized as new and surpassing theirs was also problematical. Family and disciples failed to understand him, thought him crazy, urged him to go to Jerusalem to work wonders and become famous.

Even his miracles were disquieting, not only because they increased the negative reaction of the religious leadership and the fear of the Romans as the darkness and threat continued to grow alongside them, but because Jesus himself seems to give us the sense that they are insufficient  and lead to misunderstandings and distortions of who he is or what he is really about. "Be silent!" we often hear him say. "Tell no one about this!" he instructs in the face of the increasing threat to his life. Futile instructions, of course, and, as those healed proclaim the wonders of God's grace in their lives, the darkness and threat to Jesus grows; The night comes ever nearer and we know that if evil is to be defeated, it must occur on a much more profound level than even thousands of such miracles.

In the last two weeks of Lent, the readings give us the sense that the last nine months of Jesus' life and active ministry were punctuated by retreat to a variety of safe houses as the priestly aristocracy actively looked for ways to kill him. He attended festivals in secret and the threat of stoning recurred again and again. Yet, inexplicably "He slipped away" we are told or, "They were unable to find an opening." The darkness is held at bay, barely. It is held in check by the love of the people surrounding Jesus. Barely. And in the last safe house on the eve of Passover as darkness closes in on every side Jesus celebrated a final Eucharist with his friends and disciples. He washed their feet, reclined at table with them like free men did. And yet, profoundly troubled, Jesus spoke of his impending betrayal by Judas. None of the disciples, not even the beloved disciple understood what was happening. There is one last chance for Judas to change his mind as Jesus hands him a morsel of bread in friendship and love. God's covenant faithfulness is maintained.

But Satan enters Judas' heart and a friend of Jesus becomes his accuser --- the meaning of the term Satan here --- and the darkness enters this last safe house of light and friendship, faith and fellowship. It was night, John says. It was night. Judas' heart is the opening needed for the threatening darkness to engulf this place and Jesus as well. The prediction of Peter's denials tells us this "night" will get darker and colder and more empty yet.  But in John's story, when everything is at its darkest and lowest, Jesus exclaims in a kind of victory cry: [[ Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in him!]] Here as darkness envelopes everything, Jesus exults that authentically human being is revealed, made known and made real in space and time; here, in the midst of  the deepening "Night" God too is revealed and made fully known and real in space and time. It is either the cry of a messiah who will overcome evil right at its heart --- or the cry of a madman who cannot recognize or admit the victory of evil as it swallows him up. In the midst of these days of death and vigil, we do not really know which. At the end of these three days we call Triduum we will see what the answer is.

Today, the Friday we call "Good," the darkness intensified. During the night Jesus was arrested and "tried" by the Sanhedrin with the help of false witnesses, desertion by his disciples, and Judas' betrayal. Today he was brought before the Romans, tried, found innocent, flogged in an attempt at political appeasement and then handed over anyway by a fearful self-absorbed leader whose greater concern was for his own position to those who would kill him. There was betrayal, of consciences, of friendships, of discipleship and covenantal bonds on every side but God's. The night continued to deepen and the threat could not be greater.  Jesus was crucified and eventually cried out his experience of abandonment even by God. He descended into the ultimate godlessness, loneliness, and powerlessness we call hell. The darkness became almost total. We ourselves can see nothing else. That is where Good Friday and Holy Saturday leave us.

And the question these events raises haunts the night and our own minds and hearts: namely, messiah or madman? Is Jesus simply another person crushed by the cold, emptiness, and darkness of evil --- good and wondrous though his own works were? (cf Gospel for last Friday: John 10:31-42.) Is this darkness and emptiness the whole of the reality in which we live? Was Jesus' preaching of the reality of God's reign and his trust in God in vain? Is the God he proclaimed, the God in whom we also trust incapable of redeeming failure, sin and death --- even to the point of absolute lostness? Does he consign sinners to these without real hope because God's justice differs from his mercy? The questions associated with Jesus' death on the Cross multiply and we Christians wait in the darkness today and tomorrow. We fast and pray and try to hold onto hope that the one we called messiah, teacher, friend, beloved,  brother and Lord, was not simply deluded --- or worse --- and that we Christians are not, as Paul puts the matter, the greatest fools of all.

We have seen sin increase to immeasurable degrees; and though we do not see how it is possible we would like to think that Paul was right and that grace will abound all the more. But on this day we call "good" and on the Saturday we call "holy" we wait. Bereft, but hopeful, we wait.

12 April 2017

Reflection on Approaching the Triduum

I did a reflection for my parish community this morning. It's very different from other reflections I have done because it is essentially composed of the contents of an email I sent my director when I just didn't know what to say from among all the notes I had written and the various starts I had made. She responded that the homily was right in front of me in the paragraphs she was reading. N.B.,The pronouns were shifted from "them" to "you" when I addressed the assembly.  Anyway, I sincerely hope this helps readers move into the Triduum. N.B., an emboldened section has been added to explain the distinction between what God does and does not will. I felt that was needed.

. . . I need a homily I can send folks into the Triduum with, something which allows them to see things from a new perspective, with new eyes. I want to suggest how rich these days are and why they are at the center of our faith. I want to share these things because they inspire and sustain me every day of my life. I WANT to do that for them.
For instance, I want them to know that the world that existed before the Cross no longer exists after the cross. I want them to understand that that during these three days the petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” was accomplished in principle, and that heaven and earth --- though not one reality yet, interpenetrate one another in ways they never did before the original “Triduum”. I want them (you) to know that one day we will all of us live together in what Paul calls a new heaven and a new earth, and I want you to know that “HEAVEN” means God’s own life shared with others and that WHEREVER and WHENEVER that occurs, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection made sure it occurs for us HERE AND NOW.
I want them to know that during these next three days NOT everything that happens is the will of God. Whether achieved in strength or weakness, everything that Jesus does, everything that he says yes to (or maybe better put, every yes he says), everything he embraces out of love for us and his Father IS the will of God. We celebrate these things with deepest reverence and gratitude. But I want them to know that the torture, suffering, betrayal, abandonment, and horrific death Jesus suffers are not the will of God. Rather, it is Jesus' even more exhaustive openness to and trust in God in the face of these now-inevitable, but humanly engineered atrocities that is the will of God. The cup of obedience --- the chalice of vulnerability, of openness to and exhaustive dependence upon his Father's love --- this is the cup God wills His Son drink fully. God wills his Son's compassionate and complete vulnerability so that God may transform godless reality with his presence; He does not will the rest.**** If we can see the difference we are in a position to see how it is that whenever we do our worst, as Judas did in today’s readings, as Peter will do, and as we have all done from time to time, our God ALWAYS acts to bring good out of evil and life out of death. During these three days that is revealed (made known AND made real in space and time!) more definitively and clearly than anywhere else.
I want them to hear that too often we have had things backwards when we approach these next three day’s events. Especially I want them to hear loudly and clearly that God was reconciling the world to (him)self (he was bringing it all home to himself and making it his dwelling place); God was not being reconciled to us --- as though he needed to be placated or appeased or propitiated because he was angry or his honor had been sullied or any other entirely fool idea of Divine “justice”. He was reconciling us to himself simply because he loves us and desires to dwell with us. Of course he deals with sin and death --- with all those things marked by godlessness; he does so by making them part of his own experience and life and becoming part of them so they can never again separate us from Godself.
I want them to know that these three days show us the way God does justice. Divine justice is a matter of God asserting his rights over us --- something he does by (mercifully) loving us into wholeness. There is nothing more powerful, more healing, more right-making. Divine justice is the way God creates a future, a way forward so we can live freely in joy and die in peace because whenever God says an unreserved NO to sin he says an unconditional YES to us. One more thing we’ve gotten backwards: often we have treated God’s justice as though it is the quid pro quo of retributive justice or the pale, tight-fisted distributive justice given to those who really don’t deserve much at all anyway. (We compound the problem when we suggest Divine justice must be augmented by or softened with mercy.) Mercy is the way God loves and loving is the way God does justice. As Paul says, it was while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us and revealed a Divine love from which nothing at all can separate us. Especially I  want them to know that this world is God’s --- that he chose it and us. He made it his own dwelling place and us his own Daughters and Sons and he did so [in a unique and definitive way] during the three days we are making ready to celebrate.
And finally I want them to know that despite the human cruelty, venality and violence done to an entirely innocent One, Good Friday was not simply some terrible mistake nor is Easter God’s way of correcting or righting that. Instead, on Good Friday Christ entered the far place like any prodigal; on God’s behalf he embraced the darkest most godless realities in our world and made them God’s own. He did so to be sure no one will ever again be separated from him or be left prodigals in some far place untouched by his presence and love. God has chosen to abide with us in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place, to establish his heavenly Kingdom here among us [where we have often believed it has no right to be]; Rather than undoing all this Easter establishes it as true forever (as eternally valid). This is the way God takes sin seriously; it is the way he forgives sin. All of this (and more!) is what is revealed (made known and real in space and time) during the Triduum.
I hope your Triduum is a rich one.

**** N.B. the central or defining dimension of death is the final decision one makes for or against God. It is possible to say that God willed this dimension of Jesus' death but not the circumstances that occasioned the death or the manner in which this whole event comes about. In Christian theology this decision is the very essence of death; it is a final and definitive decision for or against God. For this reason to speak of "willing one's death" is to speak of "willing one's final decision"; from this perspective the word "death" means "definitive decision". The two terms are interchangeable or synonymous. 

When we consider the question of "What did God will and what did God NOT will?" through this lens, what God willed was not Jesus' torture and crucifixion, but his exhaustive self-emptying --- his definitive decision for God and the sovereignty of God. In Jesus' death this kenotic decision was realized in ultimate openness to whatever God would be and do ---even in abject godlessness. Understanding death in this way allows us to tease apart more satisfactorily what was and what was not the will of God with regard to Jesus' passion and death. In referring to this defining dimension of death we are allowed to say, "God willed Christ's death." It is also by forgetting this very specific definition of death (i.e., death as radical or definitive decision for or against God) that we have been led to tragically and mistakenly affirm the notion that the torture Jesus experienced at human hands and as the fruit of human cruelty and injustice was the will of God.

09 April 2017

On Bearing the Crosses that Come our Way (reprised)

[[1) Are there such things as "unworthy" crosses, or "unholy" crosses? 2) Is God only able to use "holy crosses", or "worthy crosses" in our lives?? 3) Does he simply remove these ["unworthy"] crosses for us??]]

Well, it's an interesting couple of questions, but the answer to the first one is no (or potentially so), and the answer to the second question is a definite no!! The third one is a bit more nuanced, so see below. Let me start with the second question, (Can God only use Holy crosses?) which is more straightforward, and more clearly theological. It will provide the basis for answering the first and third questions as well.

Jesus' Cross as Paradigmatic:

To begin we must start with the central paradigm and symbol of our faith, the Cross of Christ. When we think of the Cross of Christ and Christ's passion it is critically important to remember that what was most significant about it was not the agonizing physical torture associated with it, horrific as this was, but rather the shame, offensiveness, and scandal of the cross as these were judged by human beings. In terms of Jesus' culture and time there was nothing holy, or worthy, or respectable about the cross Jesus assumed as his own. Quite the contrary. It was in every way the cross formed and shaped from and by human sinfulness, depravity, cruelty, inhumanity, and shamefulness --- not from human nobility, compassion, integrity, or anything similar. This cross represented the antithesis of the holy, the good, or the noble. It was understood to represent Godlessness (anti-life, anti-holiness, etc.) in as absolute a way as anything could. And of course, it is THIS shameful, unholy cross that God uses to redeem and reconcile his entire creation!

With this in mind, I think I can now approach the answer to your first question. There is no doubt that many of the crosses that afflict our lives are the result of unworthy choices, whether our own or another's. Not all the crosses we are called to bear are the result of an unchosen illness, for instance. People hurt one another, sometimes deeply and in ways which leave wounds which are difficult to work with or treat. Children are abused by parents and their capacities to love, trust, or live can be badly impaired. Adults sin seriously and impair their own and others' physical and emotional health in the process. In so many ways we carry the scars of these events, sometimes for years and years, sometimes our whole lives long. When you refer to unworthy or unholy crosses I think you are probably referring to these kinds of things, crosses that are the result of sin, inhumanity, cruelty, and the like. They are not unworthy in and of themselves, but they are the result of choices which are unworthy of both God and mankind, so let me go with that understanding for the moment.

So, what are we to do with such crosses? And further, can God use these for his own purposes even if he does not "send them"? Well, as with any cross we are to bear them patiently and courageously. HOWEVER, to bear them in this way does not mean simply to carry on without treatment, therapy, necessary personal work, healing and the like. To bear these kinds of crosses REQUIRES we work to allow the healing we need to live and love fully as human beings. This correlative work is actually a piece of bearing our cross patiently and courageously, ironic or contradictory as that may initially sound.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. A child who is abused will grow up scarred; it is a cross she will have to bear for her whole life, though not necessarily always in the same way. However, it is a cross which will need to be borne precisely by taking on therapy and the hard work of healing. Were she to refuse this work and allowed her life to be dominated or defined completely by the past, she would not be embracing her cross or bearing it patiently, but denying and rejecting it. One does not embrace one's cross by refusing to live fully. To bear a cross patiently means to take on LIFE in its shadow, and marked by its weight and imprint and to do so with the grace of God which brings life out of death, wholeness out of brokenness, joy out of sorrow, and meaning out of senselessness. It does NOT mean to forego the challenges of living fully in the name of some piously-rationalized cowardice and "victimologization". For example, the abused person would not be bearing her cross patiently if she said, "Well, God sent this cross, so I will simply accept all the consequences, dysfunction, crippled human capacities, and distortions that come with it. Don't talk to me about therapy, or moving out of this abusive relationship, or working hard to change the situation, etc. This was God's will!"

Prescinding from the idea that God sent this cross for the moment (a notion which I personally reject), what this attitude describes instead is capitulation to what Paul calls the powers of sin and death which are so active in our world. It is the refusal to allow God to redeem the situation, the refusal to be free in the Christian sense; it represents the embracing of bondage or slavery instead. Whether witting or unwitting it is an act of collusion with the destructive effects and process of the cross. Whether one is motivated by cowardice, hopelessness, masochism, or some other similar motivation, in this case the pious sounding, "God sent this cross so I will accept it, all its consequences, dysfunction,. . ." is a refusal to live fully, a failure to seek or embrace the call to genuine holiness and humanity which is one's birthright. It is a refusal of God's grace as it usually comes to us as well, for in such a situation God's grace ordinarily comes to us through things like the processes of therapy, spiritual direction, personal work, and all the relationships and changes which bring hard won healing and wholeness.

Can God Use the Crosses that Come to Us?

Can God use these "unworthy" crosses for his purposes? Of course. Why would he not be able to? To suggest otherwise is to say that God is incapable of redeeming certain aspects of his creation, or of making all things work for good in those who love him or let him love them. It is to suggest the Christ Event was a failure, and today's passage from Romans 8 (nothing in heaven or on earth can separate us from the love of God) is hyperbole at best, and a lie at worst. God may not have sent this cross, but there is no doubt that he can use it as a unique source of grace in one's life. We grow in all kinds of ways when we embrace the unavoidable difficulties life throws our way, but especially when we do so in faith and in concert with God's grace. This points up another way of refusing to carry one's cross, an unusual way I think, but a refusal nonetheless.

It is a refusal to carry one's cross to say, "God did not send it, so let's just be rid of it (or ignore it, etc). I cannot grow in this virtue or that one in light of this cross because it is unworthy, unholy, and God did not send it." In fact, God ordinarily does NOT send the crosses that come our way. They are forged instead in the workshops of human sin, illness, stupidity, cruelty, venality, and violence --- just as Jesus' cross was. And yet, God expects us to take them on with his grace so that he might redeem us and our world. I don't for an instant believe that God sent chronic illness, injury and pain for me to live with, however, with my cooperation he can use these to transform both me and my world. I don't for an instant believe that God sends the crosses that are the result of abuse, neglect, carelessness, cruelty and the like, but there is no doubt that he can use these to transform their sufferers and our world.

Could God Just Remove our Crosses?

Your last question was a bit more of a surprise than the other two and you may need to say more about it for me to answer adequately. Let me take a stab at it though. Does God simply remove these crosses for us? My first answer is no, though I am sure he COULD do. My second or related response is a question, "why should he?" I suppose in some way this question stems from your other two: if a cross is unholy and unworthy and God did not send it, then why shouldn't he simply remove it? But the simple fact is that crosses become holy and worthy in the bearing of them! They are "worthy" or "holy" crosses only when the one afflicted by them bears them worthily and in holiness. These crosses become something other than the result of human sinfulness and cruelty when they are borne with grace --- and here grace does not simply mean superficial equanimity (or something less noble like grudging resignation!); it means our "humble openness to the life-giving power of God's accompanying love with and through which we embrace healing and wholeness, holiness and fullness of life." Similarly WE become holy as we bear these crosses because in bearing them we become persons defined by the grace of God.

God has chosen to redeem this world by participating in its crosses, but as with Jesus, that means that one has to take the cross on in a conscious way and walk with it. Of course we will fall under its weight from time to time. Jesus did as well. But even though he could not see the future results he remained open to what God would bring out of it all. This is why Paul's summaries of Jesus' achievement focus not on his pain but on his obedience: "Jesus was obedient (open to God) unto death, even death on a cross." In the end, it is only in this way that God can take on sin and death, enter into them exhaustively, and transform them with his presence. He must be allowed to touch them with his compassion and Life. We take these things on, we embrace the crosses life brings our way as a part of Jesus' own redemptive work --- a share of his ministry of reconciliation; we cannot eschew such a burden and be true to our callings because at bottom our vocations always mean being the recipients, bearers, and mediators of God's transformative love in Christ.

Distinguishing Between Worthy and Unworthy Crosses?

Theologically, it makes no sense to me to try and distinguish between those crosses which are sent by God and are worthy of being borne, and those which are not. Partly that is because I don't believe God sends crosses so much as he sends the means by which they may be redeemed and become redemptive. Partly it is because it is precisely the unholy and unworthy that God takes on WITH US (and in us!)  transforming them into something of value and holiness. Did God send Jesus the cross he took on! NO, it was entirely a human construct made with our own bloody hands and twisted, frightened hearts, but absolutely he sent Jesus into our world to TAKE IT ON! Do you hear the difference? Does he send us the crosses that come our way? No, but he sends us into the world so that we might be part of its redemption and fulfillment; that means he sends us into the world to take on the various crosses that COME OUR WAY "naturally" (and by "naturally" I mean that come our way through the human sinfulness, illness,  cruelty, and violence we meet everyday.


No cross is worthy or holy until it is borne with grace and courage. God does not send crosses per se, but he sends us into a world full of them expecting to help us in their redemption, and he certainly commissions us to carry the crosses that come our way. The only other point that needs to be reiterated is that we bear crosses patiently only when we choose to live fully in spite of them and by taking them on with the grace of God accompanying and empowering us at every step, faltering or not.

That means we take on the therapy, medical care (including appropriate medications for pain, etc), personal work of healing, and so forth that are part of these crosses. If someone has hurt us, even if they have hurt us very badly, it also means taking on the work and the PROCESS of healing which leads to genuine forgiveness. This can take years and years of course; it is not simply an act of will even though it involves such acts (often innumerable acts of the will in renewed intentions to let the crippling past go and live fully in the present). It requires assistance, not only of God, but physicians, psychologists, confessors, spiritual directors, and friends. The bottom line is there are many ways to refuse to carry a cross including by labelling them unworthy or unholy and waiting for God to simply remove them;  to carry them means more than simply accepting the events that forged them initially; it means accepting --- and more, embracing everything necessary to transform and redeem them and ourselves as their bearers as well. Ultimately it means trusting that God is the one who brings good out of all things; it means trusting the One whose Love makes whole and holy as He weaves a tapestry of grace, beauty, and meaning from the awesome threads of potential we each carry along with our wounds and scars.

07 April 2017

The Crucified Christ, Emmanuel Fully Revealed (Reprised)

As I begin to prepare for Holy Week I have reread some of what I have written on the Cross. One of these pieces was from last year and reprises one of the most powerful passages my major Professor ever wrote on the Cross. I'm hoping it helps in your preparations for Holy Week as well.


Three months ago I did a reflection for my parish. I noted that all through Advent we sing Veni, Veni, Emmanuel and pray that God will really reveal Godself as Emmanuel, the God who is with us. I also noted that we may not always realize the depth of meaning captured in the name Emmanuel. We may not realize the degree of solidarity with us and the whole of creation it points to. There are several reasons here. First we tend to use Emmanuel only during Advent and Christmastide so we stop reflecting on the meaning or theological implications of the name. Secondly, we are used to thinking of a relatively impersonal God borrowed from Greek philosophy; he is omnipresent rather like air is present in our lives. He seems already to be "Emmanuel". And thirdly, we tend to forget that the word "reveal" does not only mean "to make known," but also "to make real in space and time." The God who is revealed in space and time as Emmanuel is the God who enters exhaustively into the circumstances and lives of his Creation and makes these part of his own life.

Thus, just as the Incarnation of the Word of God happens over the whole of Jesus' life and death and not merely with Jesus' conception or nativity, so too does God require the entire life and death of Jesus to achieve the degree of solidarity with us that makes him the Emmanuel he wills to be. There is a double "movement" involved here, the movement of descent and ascent, kenosis and theosis. Not only does God in Christ become implicated in the whole of human experience but in that same Christ God takes the whole of the human situation and experience into Godself. We talk about this by saying that through the Christ Event heaven and earth interpenetrate one another and one day will be all in all or, again, that "the Kingdom of God is at hand." John the Evangelist says it again and again with the language of mutual indwelling and union: "I am in him and he is in me," "he who sees me sees the one who sent me", "the Father and I are One." Paul affirms it in Romans 8 when he exults, "Nothing [at all in heaven or on earth] can separate us from the Love of God."

And so in Jesus' active ministry he companions us and heals us; he exorcises our demons, teaches, feeds, forgives and sanctifies us. He is mentor and brother and Lord. He bears our stupidities and fear, our misunderstandings, resistance, and even our hostility betrayals. But the revelation of God as Emmanuel means much more besides; as we move into the Triduum we begin to celebrate the exhaustive revelation, the exhaustive realization of an eternally-willed solidarity with us whose extent we can hardly imagine. In Christ and especially in his passion and death God comes to us in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. Three dimensions of the cross especially allow us to see the depth of solidarity with us our God embraces in Christ: failure, suffering unto death, and lostness or godforsakenness. Together they reveal our God as Emmanuel --- the one who is with us as the one from whom nothing can ever ultimately separate us because in Christ those things become part of God's own life.

Jesus comes to the cross having failed in his mission. Had he succeeded there would have been no betrayal, no trial, no torture and no crucifixion. But Jesus remains open to God and trusts in his capacity to redeem any failure; thus even failure can serve the Kingdom of God. Jesus suffers to the point of death and suffers more profoundly than any person in history we can name --- not because his punishment was worse than that suffered by others (it was not!) but because he was more vulnerable to it and chose to embrace that vulnerability without mitigation. Suffering per se is not salvific, but Jesus' openness and responsiveness to God in the face of suffering is. Thus, suffering even unto death is transformed into a potential sacrament of God's presence. Finally, Jesus suffers the lostness of godforsakenness or abandonment by God --- the ultimate separation from God due to sin. This is the meaning of not just death but death on a cross. In this death Jesus again remains open to the God who reveals himself most exhaustively as Emmanuel and takes even the lostness of sin into himself and makes it his own. After all, as the NT reminds us, it is the sick and lost for whom God in Christ comes.

As I noted back in January, John C. Dwyer, my major Theology professor for BA and MA work back in the 1970's described God's revelation of self on the cross (God's making himself known and personally present even in those places from whence we exclude him) --- the exhaustive coming of God as Emmanuel --- in this way:

[[Through Jesus, the broken being of the world enters the personal life of the everlasting God, and this God shares in the broken being of the world. God is eternally committed to this world, and this commitment becomes full and final in his personal presence within this weak and broken man on the cross. In him the eternal one takes our destiny upon himself --- a destiny of estrangement, separation, meaninglessness, and despair. But at this moment the emptiness and alienation that mar and mark the human situation become once and for all, in time and eternity, the ways of God. God is with this broken man in suffering and in failure, in darkness and at the edge of despair, and for this reason suffering and failure, darkness and hopelessness will never again be signs of the separation of man from God. God identifies himself with the man on the cross, and for this reason everything we think of as manifesting the absence of God will, for the rest of time, be capable of manifesting his presence --- up to and including death itself.]]

He continues,

[[Jesus is rejected and his mission fails, but God participates in this failure, so that failure itself can become a vehicle of his presence, his being here for us. Jesus is weak, but his weakness is God's own, and so weakness itself can be something to glory in. Jesus' death exposes the weakness and insecurity of our situation, but God made them his own; at the end of the road, where abandonment is total and all the props are gone, he is there. At the moment when an abyss yawns beneath the shaken foundations of the world and self, God is there in the depths, and the abyss becomes a ground. Because God was in this broken man who died on the cross, although our hold on existence is fragile, and although we walk in the shadow of death all the days of our lives, and although we live under the spell of a nameless dread against which we can do nothing, the message of the cross is good news indeed: rejoice in your fragility and weakness; rejoice even in that nameless dread because God has been there and nothing can separate you from him. It has all been conquered, not by any power in the world or in yourself, but by God. When God takes death into himself it means not the end of God but the end of death.]] Dwyer, John C., Son of Man Son of God, a New Language for Faith, p 182-183.

06 April 2017

Followup On Giving God "Our Entire Availability" (reprise)

[[Sister Laurel, you once posted a piece on a quotation from The Hermitage Within, kenosis and leaping into the abyss. Would you mind reposting that, especially with Holy Week coming up? I looked but couldn't locate it.]]

Sure. Here ya' go. (This is one of a couple of possible posts. If I have the wrong one please let me know.)

[[Sister Laurel, Can it be that simple - that God just wants me to live "on friendly terms" with him? (It brings tears to my eyes to just write this sentence.) Is that what the "abyss" is all about? Just to live with him even when I don't feel him present and only know by faith he has promised to be there - "on friendly terms?" To  do all the mundane things "with him" - not even "for him" - because I can't bring anything worth having except my being entirely available to him? So where, then, does the "doing" fit in -- the seeking/seeing him in others, serving him by serving others? Since I am not a hermit, how does this translate to the active life - because I think it must. How do I "spend myself" if I bring nothing worth having to him? ]]

Thanks for your questions and the chance to reflect on all this further. My own thought is coming together in new ways in all of this so I offer this response with that in mind. Here is a place where words are really critical. First, yes, it is that simple but no one ever said simple meant easy or without substantial cost. Neither does simple mean that we get there all at once. This is simple like God is simple, like union with God is simple, like faith is simple. In other words it speaks as much of a goal we will spend our whole lives attaining as it does the simplicity of our immediate actions. That quotation (from The Hermitage Within regarding bringing one's entire availability and living on friendly terms with God) is something I read first in 1984 some months after first reading canon 603. I posted it in the sidebar of this blog in 2007 as I prepared for solemn profession. And now I have returned to it yet again only from a new place, a deeper perspective. It represents one of those spiral experiences, the kind of thing T.S. Eliot writes about when he says: [[We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.]]

Secondly, the quotation referred to bringing " my entire availability" not just to "being entirely available". While these two realities are profoundly related and overlap, I hear the first as including the second but therefore as committing to something more as well. I think bringing one's entire availability means bringing one's whole self for God's own sake so that God might really be God in all the ways that is so. As you say, it implies being available to God, doing things with God, being open to awareness of God and God's will, but more, it says "I bring you all my gifts, all my neediness and deficits, myself and all the things that allow you to be God. I open myself to your love, your recreation, your healing, your sovereignty, your judgment; I bring myself in all the ways which might allow you to be God in my life and world." It means, I think, that I allow myself to be one whose entire purpose and meaning is in the mediation of God's presence and purposes. And this, I think, is a commitment to being entirely emptied and remade so that my whole life becomes transparent to God.

As I think more about this it seems to me "my entire availability" is something we can only offer God.  "My entire availability" seems to me to mean bringing myself to God in ways which would possibly be an imposition, unsafe (for them and for me), and pastorally unwise or simply unloving in the case of others. "Being entirely available," on the other hand, sounds to me like bringing myself as I am and allowing God to share in my activities and life as it is but, for instance, not necessarily giving God my entire future and past, my entire self -- body and soul, physically, mentally and spiritually. It also sounds like the focus is on gifts, but not on emptiness and need. Our world is certainly familiar with the idea of bringing one's gifts, but to bring one's "weakness," "shame", and inabilities is rarely recognized as something we are called to sign up for at church (or wherever) to offer to others. Despite the importance of vulnerability in pastoral ministry bringing one's "weakness," "shame", deficits, and inabilities is rarely recognized as something we must offer to God if we are to bring others the Gospel as something whose truth we know intimately.

Thus, I think, that "entire availability" means that I also bring my deficits and deficiencies and that I do so trusting that God can make even these bits of emptiness something infinitely valuable and even fruitful to others. To be available to God and to bring one's entire availability may indeed be the same thing but they sound different to me --- overlapping, yes, but different. Whether I am correct or not in this, the formulation in the passage quoted from The Hermitage Within pushes me to envision something much more total and dynamic than the other formulation. Other things push me to this as well, not least Paul and Mark's theologies of the cross, Jesus' kenosis even unto godless death and descent into hell, and the conviction I have that every hermit must be open to being called to greater reclusion.

Entire Availability for Jesus and for the Hermit:

In light of these, I think for the hermit "my entire availability" means bringing (and maybe relinquishing or actually being stripped of) precisely those discrete gifts which might be used for others, for ministry, for being fruitful in the world. Gifts are the very way we are available to others. Alternately, those ways we are available to others are our truest gifts (including --- when transfigured to mediate the love and mercy of God --- our emptiness and incapacity). This is why a person claiming to be a hermit as a way of refusing to use her gifts or simply failing to be available to others, a way of being selfish and misanthropic, is one of the greatest blasphemies I can think of. But to be stripped of gifts or talents in solitude so that God's redemption is all we "have" is an entirely different thing indeed --- and one which absolutely requires careful and relatively lengthy mutual discernment. In any case, the eremitical life means bringing to God every gift, every potentiality and deficiency one has so that God may do whatever God wishes with them. Eremitical solitude is not about time away so one becomes a better minister (though that may also happen), nor greater degrees of prayer so one's service of others is better grounded (though it will surely do that as well). For those called to these eremitical solitude and commitment to eremitical hiddenness reflect an act of blind trust that affirms whatever God does with one --- even if every individual gift is left unused --- will be ultimately significant in the coming of the Kingdom because in this way God is allowed to be God exhaustively in these lives.

When we think of Jesus we see a man whose tremendous potential and capacity for ministry, teaching, preaching, simple availability and community, was stripped away. In part this happened through the circumstances of his birth because he was shamed in this and was seen as less capable of honorable contributions or faithfulness. In part it was because he was a carpenter's son, someone who worked with his hands and was therefore thought of as less intellectually capable. In part it was because he was more and more isolated from his own People and Religion and assumed a peripatetic life with no real roots or sources of honor --- except of course from the One he called Abba. And in part it was because even his miracles and preaching were still insufficient to achieve the transformation of the world, the reconciliation of all things with God so that God might one day truly be all in all. Gradually (or not so gradually once his public ministry began) Jesus was stripped of every individual gift or talent until, nailed to a cross and too physically weak and incapable of anything else, when he was a failure as his world variously measured success, the ONLY thing he could "do" or be was open to whatever God would do to redeem the situation. THIS abject emptiness, which was the measure of his entire availability to God and also to us(!), was the place and way he became truly and fully transparent to his Abba. It also made the effectiveness of his ministry and mission global or even cosmic in scope.

This, it seems to me is really the model of the hermit's life. I believe it is what is called for when The Hermitage Within speaks of the hermit's "entire availability."  One traditionalist theology of the cross suggests that Jesus raised himself  from godless death to show he was God. The priest I heard arguing this actually claimed there was no other reason for the resurrection! But Paul's and Mark's theologies of the cross say something very different; namely, when all the props are kicked out, when we have nothing left but abject emptiness, when life strips us of every strength and talent and potential, God can and will use this very emptiness as the source of the redemption of all of reality --- if only we give that too to God. Hermits, but especially recluses, are called by God to embrace a similar commitment to kenosis and faith in God. We witness to the power of God at work when perhaps all we can bring is emptiness and "non-accomplishment".

Questions on Active Ministry:

Nothing in this means the non-hermit is not called to use her gifts as best she can. Of course she is called to minister with God, through God, and in God. Her availability to others is meant to be an availability to God and all that is precious to God. We all must spend ourselves in all the ways God calls us to. But old age, illness and other circumstances make some forms of this impossible. When that is true we are called to a greater and different kind of self-emptying, a different kind of availability. We are called to allow God to make of us whatever he wills to do in our incapacity. We are called to witness to the profoundest truth of the Gospel, namely, that not only does our God bring more abundant life out of life and move us from faith to faith but he will bring life out of death, meaning out of absurdity and senselessness, and hope out of the desperate and hopeless situations we each know.

All we can bring to these situations is our entire availability whether measured in talents or incapacity. For Christians our human emptiness is really the greatest form of potential precisely because our God is not only the one who creates out of chaos, but out of nothing at all. Our gifts are wonderful and are to be esteemed and used to serve God and his creation, but what is also true is that our emptiness can actually give God greater scope to be God --- if only we make a gift of it to God for God's own sake. (Remember that whenever we act so that God might be God, which is what I mean by "for God's own sake," there is no limit to who ultimately benefits.) The chronically ill and disabled have an opportunity to witness to this foundational truth with the gift of their lives to God. Hermits, who freely choose the hiddenness of the silence of solitude, I think, witness even more radically to this truth by accepting being freely stripped of every gift --- something they do especially on behalf of all those who are touched by weakness, incapacity, and emptiness --- whenever and for whatever reason these occur.

The Abyss:

You and I have spoken about the "leap into the abyss" in the past and you ask about it specifically so let me add this. For those not part of that conversation let me remind you that I noted that while leaping into the abyss is a fearful thing (i.e., while, for instance, it is an awesome, frightening, exhilarating thing), we don't have to hope God will eventually come to find us there; God is already there. God is the very One who maintains and sustains us in our emptiness and transforms that emptiness into fullness. That is the lesson of Jesus' death, descent, resurrection and ascension. There is no absolutely godless place as a result of Jesus' own exhaustive obedience (openness and responsiveness) to God.

Yes, I believe the emptiness I have spoken of through this and earlier posts is precisely the abyss which Merton and others speak of. Kenosis is the way we make the leap. The notion of "entire availability" involves a leap (a commitment to self-emptying and stripping) into the depths of that abyss we know as both void (even a relatively godless void) and divine pleroma. (In Jesus' case his consent to enter the abyss of sinful death was consent to enter an absolutely godless void which would be transformed into the fullness of life in and of God). It is first of all the abyss of our own hearts and then (eventually) the abyss of death itself. We ordinarily prepare for the abyss of death to the degree we commit to entering the abyss of our own hearts. Whether we experience mainly profound darkness or the glorious light of Tabor, through our own self-emptying in life and in death we leap securely into God's hands and take up our abode in God's own heart.

01 April 2017

More Questions on the North Woods Hermit and his Biographer

 [[Hi Sister, so do you believe Christopher Knight was a "true hermit"? Does one have to be a religious hermit to be a true hermit? As I understand your posts you do not think this is the case. Finkel's error was not in calling Knight a hermit is that correct?]]

Thanks for your questions. I believe Christopher Knight was a hermit but not a healthy or authentic hermit. I would prefer to say he was an isolate rather than a genuine solitary. One does not have to be motivated by religious motives to be a hermit. One can be a "desert dweller" for many different reasons. The search for God and completion in God is one such reason. Michael Finkel provides three main categories of hermits, the protesters, the pilgrims, and the pursuers. Protesters are often  misanthropes or those who otherwise seek to turn their backs on anything outside themselves. Pilgrims, at least as I understand this form of eremitical life, tend to be religious hermits who journey through life while living "on the margins" in order to assert and affirm a deeper unity with humanity and creation in God. Pursuers are identified by Finkel as those who seek to live solitude so they may pursue their own art, literature, music, etc. I agree that these categories each represent forms of eremitical life --- though the Church only accepts the second form as authentic in admitting individuals to profession and consecration. I believe both pilgrims and pursuers are authentic forms of eremitical life because both are meant to foster authentically human life and to contribute to human society and culture,

Finkel's error, as far as I am concerned was in calling Knight "the last true hermit" and defining the "true" hermit in terms of a strict physical solitude rising to the level of misanthropy alone. Those of us who live canon 603 life, for instance, know that solitude and the "silence of solitude" depends on significant physical solitude but at the same time have more to do with the individuation or personhood achieved with and in God within such physical solitude. It has to do with growth in one's capacity for love which is achieved in communion with God and (paradoxically) with others. This is why I speak of "the silence of solitude" as environment, goal, and also as charism. We diocesan hermits are (to use Finkel's term) "true hermits" despite the fact that our physical solitude is not so absolute as Knight's and despite the fact that we do not embrace this life because of misanthropy. Moreover, Finkel seems to ignore the fact that Knight's escapism, thievery, and constant and self-centered attempts to insulate himself from others marked him as profoundly related to others but in unhealthy and antisocial ways. As I noted, Finkel defines solitude in terms of an absolute physical isolation or seclusion, and he does this despite the major works on eremitism and eremitical solitude he perused over the space of a year. He embraces a stereotypical and misanthropic view of eremitical solitude despite naming three diverse categories of eremitical life.

Again, Christopher Knight was a hermit, In his heart of hearts he probably still is. From my perspective, however, he represents a sad, narrow, and pathological version of eremitical life, a version most people associate with "hiding" or "escaping" instead of relating to others (not to mention living with God FOR the sake of others!) in a unique, paradoxical, and valuable way. I would call this form of eremitical life unhealthy or inauthentic and so does the Church which has codified and protects authentic eremitical life in the mold of Jesus, John the Baptist, et al. This is why I found the observation that Knight's closest companion may have been a mushroom to be so profoundly sad, even pathetic and why I thanked God that the eremitical life I am publicly called to, consecrated in, and commissioned for is so much richer and more profoundly healthy and "healthily social" --- even in its physical solitude. So again, I would say Knight was truly a hermit but, from the perspective of ecclesial eremitical life, an inauthentic or unhealthy one.