30 July 2017

Is Orchestra Consonant with your Hermit Vocation?

[[Dear Sister,
       I enjoyed the Beethoven symphony movements you put up. I think your orchestra should be proud of the job they did. I say that because you have pointed out they are an amateur orchestra. But this video raises the question for me: how can you be a hermit and get out so much? Do you think you represent the vocation of diocesan eremitical life well in this way? I am guessing your bishop approved this activity, but how can you play in an orchestra and live as a hermit? How much rehearsing does your orchestra do?]]

Thanks for your questions. You are the second person who wrote with a similar question. I am always surprised at how much time people believe I spend outside the hermitage to do this. So let me clarify this one point. Because it is an amateur orchestra, OCO rehearses one evening a week for about 2.5 hours with a 15 minute break where we can get a snack, talk a bit to one another and just generally say hey to folks we have not seen for a while. At the end of 6-7 weeks we have a dress rehearsal on Saturday morning and a concert on Sunday afternoon.

On the Sunday there's a brief warm up and then a period of waiting in the green room for concert time. Usually folks use this period: to warm up more completely by playing through difficult passages, to finish folding programs for guests, to eat and drink something light which will sustain them through the concert, and generally to get in the right space for the performance. Interestingly I think, there is a lot of solitude during this period as everyone prepares themselves for what will be both personally, physically, and intellectually demanding. (There is a lot of pre-performance anxiety and each of us deals with our excitement in different ways.) So, again, I am describing @ 3 hours per week mainly working hard to play music with one another --- working to learn parts and transform them into music together! The week of the concert is different with (usually) 2 rehearsals and the concert itself.

Apart from Mass or some other occasional activities at the parish, OCO is my major activity outside of the hermitage. It is important to me in a number of ways and while I have not always been able to play every set and sometimes have had to discern whether it is time to retire or continue, the bottom line is this is one of the ways I make sure my solitude is healthy. When I say that I do not mean that it is an outlet or escape from solitude so much as it is an extension of it; it is (or can be) a focused contemplative activity which symbolizes (embodies and expresses or mediates) the way solitude is intrinsically and reciprocally related to community. It is always important to remember that eremitical solitude is a form of community --- though a rare one which accents the hermit's physical solitude in communion with God lived as "ecclesiola" or "little church", and thus, as paradigm of the whole Church in whose name she is commissioned to live as ecclesiola. The hermit lives alone, but is not a lone individual, not in her prayer, not in her silence,  not in her joy or her suffering and not in her solitary witness to human wholeness achieved in continuing dialogue with the God she proclaims with her life

I believe profoundly in the importance (meaning) of my life as a diocesan hermit and that means I believe profoundly in the importance of a life of the silence of solitude, stricter separation from the "world", prayer and penance, etc.. But solitude in the canonical eremitical life is a rare  and even paradoxical expression of union and communion, first of all with God in Christ, secondly with God's people (Church), and thirdly with all who are precious to God. Isolation is not healthy, not for the human being generally, and not for the hermit specifically. As I have written before, even recluses in the Roman Catholic Church are supported by communities and live in relation to their religious community and the Church Universal. (The Church typically only allows two congregations to have recluses: the Carthusians and the Camaldolese.)

Do I think I live the diocesan eremitical life well in this way? Yes. More exactly perhaps, I think I live my own life as a diocesan hermit well in this way. Orchestra is written into my Rule and fits into a vision of this life which sees it as life giving and, most significantly, a way to genuine wholeness and holiness. This means it is intellectually, aesthetically, spiritually, and personally rich and challenging. At the same time it is a genuinely eremitical life which is lived according to the canonical vision of the life in the revised Code under the supervision of my bishop and delegate in accordance with my Rule and conscience.  It is not, in this way, a matter of anything goes --- nor does it leave the silence of solitude or a life of prayer and penance on the margins somewhere! These are central and orchestra supports and even enriches them. I love orchestra; I love violin, but they relate integrally to my own eremitical contemplative life. When that ceases to be true so will they.

I hope this is helpful.

25 July 2017

Oakland Civic Orchestra: Beethoven's 5th Symphony

One of the most personally important pieces I have ever played is Beethoven's fifth symphony. It is a piece everyone recognizes with its famous first four notes: dut dut dut DUH! These notes are an everpresent reality in most of the symphony; whether we are hearing the intervals involved, the rhythmic motif, the struggle to move from minor to major, etc., these four notes drive everything. When I was in Junior High School I was struck with the thought that "never was so much done with so little"! Remember, Beethoven was struggling to come to terms with his own deafness and the potential crippling of his own genius when he wrote this symphony. It seems appropriate that in situations of personal limitation, deficiency, and also potential, I have come back to this symphony in one way and another.

This last year, when working with my director on a number of areas of personal suffering, limitation, healing, and growth, a friend gave me four tickets to the SF Symphony. It was a lecture on and performance of Beethoven's 5th --- and a great grace for me. "Never was so much done with so little," was the refrain I heard again. Then, the Oakland Civic Orchestra did this same symphony for our last set this June, right at the one year mark of my own intensive work. Again and again, four notes, a simple rhythm, an almost unimaginable potential --- and the new refrain I heard was "Never was so much hidden potential revealed in such a focused way!" For me this is the symphony I associate most with the quality and virtue of hope. I have included OCO playing the first movement above; other movements to come as Carol gets them finished! I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed playing them! (Enlarge the screen for best visibility.)

The last two movements are included below.

05 July 2017

"When They Saw Him They Begged Him. . ." (Reprise)

I have to say that today's Gospel always suprises and delights me. At first. It is the story first of all, of Jesus' sending the demons which possess two men into a nearby herd of swine thus freeing the men from the bondage to brokennness and inhumanity which marks and mars their lives, and then, it is the story of what happens when he approaches the nearby town (Gadara) whose residents have heard of what he has done. Despite knowing how the story goes, I admit to being surprised everytime Matthew's last line which begins, "Thereupon the whole town came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him. . ." concludes with, ". . .they begged him to leave their district."

Now, granted, Jesus just destroyed an entire herd of swine, and they must have been someone's livelihood --- perhaps many people's. Some unhappiness with this would have been understandable. And Jesus has healed a couple of men whose conditions had made travel along a certain route unsafe, so one would expect a mixed response to that perhaps -- though the route is now free from this danger, these men now will need to be accommodated in some real sense --- not simply treated as wild animals or aliens of some sort. I begin to have a sense why Jesus was not welcomed here. But I admit to still hearing in the back of my mind cheers of welcome, beseechings of Jesus to come and change lives, a positive and welcoming response like that in fiction stories where the conquering hero comes back from slaying the dragon, or like the narrative in the New Testament where Jesus is welcomed as King with waving palm branches and cries of Hosanna --- temporary as that moment was! In a way, perhaps the "back of my mind" wants a costless or "cheap" grace, a "good news" fit for escapist fiction or an incredibly naive reading of the NT --- but not for the real world.

But besides surprise and delight this lection also stops me with its claim and challenge. That is so because the Gospel is good news in a much more realistic, paradoxical, and problematical way -- especially in regard to the first example above --- and today's Gospel lection highlights this for us. As we have heard over the past few passages from Matthew Jesus reveals himself to be a man of extraordinary, even divine authority --- a man with authority over nature, illness, the hearts of men and women, and now over demons. He heals, feeds on a profound and lasting level, frees, and provides true meaning and dignity for those lost and bereft. He is the Son of God (a title Matthew has on the lips of the demons in today's story)--- very good news indeed --- but he acts with an authority which is genuinely awesome and which turns the everyday world of politics, religion, simple ordinariness, and comfortable respectability on their heads. The Gadarenes in today's Gospel see this clearly and they are unprepared for it. More, he terrifies them. Far from misunderstanding Jesus and refusing to welcome him on those grounds, like the Scribes and Pharisees they understand precisely who Jesus is and want no part of him. Far better to simply ask Jesus to leave the district than to have to come to terms with who he is and what that truly challenges and calls forth in us!

One of the current complaints by some traditionalists is that Vatican II gave us a God of love (they frequently spell the word "luv" to denote their disparagement of it) and lost the God who inspires fear, etc. They may well be correct that there has been some "domestication" of God and his Christ in popular piety --- but then this is not because of Vatican II; it is a continual temptation and sin besetting the Church. After all, how many of us when faced with the daily prospect of renewed faith recognize that acceptance of Jesus' authority -- expressed as an unconditional love which is stronger than death -- will turn our world upside down and call us to a radical way of living and loving which involves renunciation, self-sacrifice, and commitment to a Kingdom that is NOT of this world and often is at distinct odds with it? The equivalent of a herd of swine or the accommodation of the mentally ill is probably the least it will cost us --- precisely because it is unconditional. How many of us choose not so much to be loved exhaustively by God -- to really open ourselves to His Presence with all that implies for growth, maturity and responsibility -- but instead (at least with some part of ourselves) would prefer to cling to a relatively undemanding (and world-reinforcing) piety which falls short of the life of the Kingdom? How many buy into (and construct our lives around) a religion which is at least as much OF this world as it is IN it?

So yes, today's Gospel both surprises and delights me --- but it also gives me pause. It does both because of its honesty; and it does so because it is genuinely good news, rooted in the awesome authority of the Christ who loves without condition but not without challenging and commissioning us to the radically transformed life that comes whenever he meets us face to face or heart to heart. Such a Christ will never be really popular I think. Many of our churches and cities are far more like Gadara than not. Sometimes, I am sorry to say, my hermitage is as well. The authority of Jesus over illness, fear, meaninglessness, and the demons that beset us is an awesome and demanding reality and our hearts are more often ambivalent and ambiguous than pure and single. I suspect that domestication of our faith is something most of us are guilty of every day of our lives.

The Gospel lection requires that we ask ourselves what parts of our lives would we instinctively desire to protect from an encounter with Jesus were we to hear he was on his way to our parish this morning? What kinds of changes would we be unwilling to make --- though we might well suspect Jesus would require them of us if we are to be true to ourselves and him? We might want to be apostles, religious, or otherwise summoned to follow Jesus in some way we ourselves esteem, but at the same time we might not want to hear Jesus say to us, "No, go home and witness to all that I in my mercy have done for you there." Would we minister in the compelling world-changing way the "demoniac" in today's Gospel lection ministered in his "lay" or "secular" vocation [to the power and mercy of God perfected in weakness] or would we reject the call because it was not the vocation we thought we should be gifted with? With these questions and today's Gospel in mind, let us summon up the courage to beg Jesus to enter into our towns, homes, churches, and hearts, and remain with us; let us give him free access to move within, call us and change our world as he wills! That is my own prayer for today.

04 July 2017

Happy Fourth of July!

Each year this day reminds me that Christians have much to tell America about the nature of true freedom, even while they are grateful for a country which allows them the liberty to practice their faith pretty much as they wish and need. Too often today Freedom is thought of as the ability to do anything we want. It is the quintessential value of the narcissist.

And yet, within Christian thought and praxis freedom is the power to be the persons we are called to be. It is the direct counterpart of Divine sovereignty and is other-centered. I believe our founding fathers had a keen sense of this, but today, it is a sense Americans often lack. Those of us who celebrate the freedom of Christians can help recover a sense of this necessary value by embracing it more authentically ourselves. Not least we can practice a freedom which is integrally linked to correlative obligations and exists for the sake of all; that is, it involves an obligation to be there for the other, most especially the least and poorest among us.

Today the United States is in danger of choosing to "protect" our freedom by refusing to open ourselves to "the other". We have forgotten that we are free only insofar as we are open to loving others, to sharing our lives and our freedom with the other, the alien. Like love, personal freedom is lost when we fail to extend it to others and make "neighbors" of them. Once we build walls against the other so too have we walled ourselves into the narrow confines of our own fear, ignorance, or selfishness. Authentic freedom always seeks the freedom of the other. It is expansive and, to  some extent, missionary in nature. While the boundaries of American freedom involve borders and finite resources which must be honored and husbanded, its heart is global and so must its vulnerability be. 

 All good wishes on this anniversary of the birthday of our Nation! May God empower us to live up to the obligations of the freedom, both personal and national, which we recognize as both Divine gift and human responsibility.

03 July 2017

Feast of the Apostle Thomas: What's that Doubt About? (reprise)

Today's Gospel focuses 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 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!) SERVES 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, 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 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 desperation, guilt, and the immense social pressure they faced, 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 instead, he was the most 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.