08 June 2017

Cowl as Symbol: Once Again on Becoming the Hermit I Am

About three or four years ago I wrote a piece about God as the Master Weaver/ Master Storyteller God as Master Storyteller . It represented a way of coming to terms with the notion that "There is a reason for everything," without also buying into the na├»ve notion that God wills everything that occurs or happens to us. It was also a piece of integrating the fact and relatively new theological consideration that we belong to an unfinished and evolving universe; this involves the idea that God creates by summoning or drawing us into the future, into fullness of being and that God represents what theologian Ted Peters calls Absolute Future. Finally it was a way of affirming that in our lives everything can be transfigured by the love of God; no threads will be dropped, none lost or forgotten because, as we celebrate especially with the Feasts of Resurrection and Ascension, we rest securely in the hands and heart of God.

Yesterday I was reading Paulsell's Letters From a Hermit, the story of how Cistercian monk Matthew Kelty became a hermit and I came across the quote found below. It reminded me not only of that article, but also the way God has worked in my own life to create the heart of a hermit and especially during this last year of intense inner work: [[He chose to be alone, "not to nurse his wounds, not to count his victories, but rather quietly to take all the mysterious fabric of [his] life and there [in the hermitage] lay it all out and trace the hand of love that somehow ordered all things, the good and the bad, the crooked and the straight, the bitter and the sweet, the whole of it. . . and then to take the whole thing and throw it over [himself] as a garment woven in love."]] Letters From a Hermit, William Paulsell.

Eremitical life is not the only context in which we can learn to look at our lives in a truly reverent way,  with a truly human and thus, graced perspective. Any person who has worked regularly with a really competent director will be reminded of and confronted with the truth that deeper than any discrete pain or joy, any specific moments of suffering or solace, any individual moments of darkness or light, meaning or senselessness, we are participants in a Mystery which "contextualizes" and makes an ultimate sense of all of these more particular historical realities. A lot of the time what a spiritual director does for us, for instance, especially when we are in the midst of darkness and suffering is to maintain the perspective we lose or cannot adequately maintain at these times. Those of us who have someone who can and does remain in a relatively unobscured contact with the Mystery that grounds us both as we work together through more immediate difficulties, limitations, and yearnings of our life is blessed indeed. In any case, contemplatives of all stripes, hermits, religious women and men (cloistered and apostolic), laity, priests, all know this.

My own sense, however, is that eremitical life especially is ordered to give the hermit the opportunity to do as Matthew Kelty described so well; namely, it provides the very dedicated time and space to remember (and here I mean a deep and active remembering where we actually relive and reappropriate) events from a new perspective --- the perspective of one who knows the eternal and unconditional love of God which is constantly at work to bring good out of evil, life out of death, and meaning out of absurdity. This is the Love-in-Act who undergirds and accompanies us and has always done so, the God who has worked to redeem every moment and mood of our lives and bring us to fullness of existence in and through Christ. The hermit is one who has given everything in order to allow this God to be fully revealed in her life in and through the silence of solitude; she has given everything so that she might "clothe herself" in the Risen Christ without whom her life would be an absurdity and waste, but with and in whom her life is an infinitely valuable reflection of the Gospel. This is the work and witness of eremitical life, the gift the hermit gives to the Church and world in the name of Christ.

As readers here know, a year ago (June 1st) my director and I began an intense form of inner work which allowed a methodical approach to doing precisely this kind of remembering, healing, and growth work. I was clear that in professing and thus commissioning me to live eremitical life in her name, the Church had also implicitly commissioned --- as well as given me the privileged time and space in the silence of solitude --- to undertake this very work. At every point it was my director's "job" to remind me of and help me get or remain in touch with the fact that in spite of every particular period or instance of suffering, pain, darkness, and apparent senselessness we worked through (as well as those of light, profound meaning, and joy) we each stand up out of and embody a deeper source of life, truth, and love that constitutes a foundational or constitutive part of our deepest selves and is our ultimate destiny and absolute future as well.

My director's "job" has been and remains not only to help me heal in the ways I have needed, but above all, to accompany me in this process of journeying deep into memory, deep into self, and help me learn and continue to trace the hand of love that somehow ordered all things; her "job" was to assist me to "trust the process" (give myself over to a process where the hand of love, though often obscured, is and will become, evident) and to grow in my capacity to do that with every part of my Self --- whether in the midst of deep suffering and pain or profound consolation and joy. What I learned anew time and again in this work, what I came to know (in the intimate biblical sense!) and therefore, to trust more and more deeply, was the truth of the Ascension: we rest securely in the hands and heart of God. In Christ we always have been given and always have a place in the very life of God. If we can allow that truth to be the fabric of our lives --- not just their ground and source, but the thread which weaves throughout to structure, and inspire, the cloak with which we are embraced and clothed --- those lives will be utterly transformed and transfigured.

Sometimes putting on my cowl is especially challenging. That is not only because I stand alone in a parish setting where it is probably not well-understood by most people, or because few other Religious I know wear anything remotely similar. More truly, it is because it represents so much eremitical and monastic tradition and history, so much ecclesial trust and responsibility. It is never a garment I take for granted! And now I associate it freshly and more deeply with all of this work. It has become a symbol of it all, and of God's long process in creating the heart of a hermit. During this process my director and I have discerned and been moved in a variety of ways by the Mystery present in, embracing, and also transcending every particularity of my life. Together throughout this privileged time we have traced the hand of Love that orders all things.

My cowl is a smooth, white, wool blend --- and so it will remain. But it is also freshly woven and shot through with all kinds of new colors and textures --- some I never thought could belong to such a garment. Not a thread has been lost, forgotten, or rejected. All of them have been closely and tenderly handled and transfigured by the Mystery I (and my director) know as God. All of them have been worked into what is a sacred garment marking a life which is equally sacred. Through the whole of my life God has been working to create the heart of a hermit and this is a hermit's garment. Each time pull it on now I will remember Matthew Kelty's challenging: [[. . . and then. . .take the whole thing and throw it over [yourself] as a garment woven in love.]] Each time I pull it on I will be reminded that every moment of my life has been grounded in and embraced by Mystery. Meanwhile this work of healing and "reeducation" --- this process of metanoia! --- continues in response to the call to put on Christ and the Scriptural imperative to [[Remember how for forty [I read sixty-eight!] years now the LORD, your God, has directed all your journeying in the desert. . .]] ***

While in gratitude to God I may see my own situation as privileged, isn't all of this merely one way of undertaking the task we are each given at baptism when we are clothed with a white garment and each day after this challenged to "put on Christ"? Aren't we each grounded in and called to know intimately the Mystery which is the foundation of the universe? Of course. And thanks be to God!!

*** This reading is from the opening to Lection #1 from the Solemnity of Corpus Christi; on Corpus Christi at San Damiano Retreat Center I will don my cowl for Mass where I have the great joy of reading this Lection for the celebration of Franciscan Sister Susan Blomstad's 50th Jubilee. Susan was Vicar for Religious and/or Director of Vocations for the Diocese of Oakland in the first years of the mutual discernment process related to my becoming a c 603 hermit (@1985-1990); later (@ 2006) -- though living and working in another diocese --- she added her recommendation those of Oakland's Vicars re: my admission to perpetual profession and consecration as a Diocesan Hermit of the Diocese of Oakland (Sept 2007).

Today we are friends and share a number of other significant dates, interests, and pieces of background (including Saint Francis and Franciscanism). Not surprisingly we both know the challenges and consolations of the desert and the ways God lovingly weaves and reweaves the threads of our lives into something at once mysterious and miraculous. I hope you will all keep Sister Susan (and the other Jubilarians) in your prayers and thank God for their lives and commitment!