30 August 2017

On Renewing a Perpetual Commitment

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I wondered about something because of a post you made maybe a year ago. You said you had renewed your commitment as a diocesan hermit, but aren't your vows perpetual or solemn? I wondered why someone would renew vows that are not temporary. Thanks.]]

Thanks for your questions! While it is true that my vows are not temporary, that is, while they do not expire after a year or three years, for instance, it is important to regularly renew my own personal commitment to living those vows I think. To renew my commitment is not to remake vows (i.e., make vows again); with temporary vows the situation is a bit different.  In that case the person remakes vows and does so either for another finite period of time or as perpetual/solemn vows. It is fine to say, "I renew my profession (or my vows . . .) for another year", (or whatever period of time it is) but in such a case the renewal represents a material change in the original vows themselves --- namely, the period of profession is extended and new vows are received as binding for another several years, etc by those who have discerned the person is called by God to this and is therefore to be allowed to do so. The Church as well as the individual making profession are both involved in this new act of profession. Essentially, in such a situation one remakes vows (that is, one makes them again). In the case of perpetual or solemn profession, one needs to renew one's personal commitment even though the vows themselves remain canonically binding. Maybe it is even more accurate to say one needs to renew one's commitment especially because the vows remain canonically binding.

To look at one's commitment, the content of one's Rule and vows, to consider how one has grown over the past year or two --- or perhaps even where one seems to have made no headway, and then, to recommit to continue growing and living in this vowed way as well as to specify for oneself some of the avenues one needs to embrace to continue on this path with fidelity are all important dimensions of living one's life with integrity. The more serious and sustained the commitment, the greater the need to renew it. This year (02.Sept) I will celebrate my 10th anniversary of perpetual eremitical profession (perpetual profession as a c 603 hermit); given the significant personal formation I have undertaken over the past 15 months --- and the changes in my Rule (the changes in kind and amount of writing, parish participation, and in my horarium that personal formation has sometimes necessitated --- as well as the greater awareness of how God created a hermit heart within me that came with this work --- renewal of this commitment seems something I particularly need to do this year.

It is not simply that one's commitment can become less vital or even something one more or less takes for granted, it is also because one comes to know oneself better and to understand one's vocation even better too that renewal of commitment becomes essential. A few months ago someone asked me if I had considered seeking dispensation of my vows (cf., On Woundedness, Healing, and Vocation to Eremitical Life). I found the question surprising in some ways, but it was a very good question given the context (an intense process of personal work) in which I had been engaged. At that point I had come to the realization that God had been acting in my life since the time I was very small to create the heart of a hermit.

Circumstances made my life a solitary one in the sense of being both marked and marred by significant aloneness; what God did and does with that aloneness is the defining quality of eremitical life, the reason any person, but especially hermits can say that "God alone is enough" for us. Now, 15 months into this specific process of personal healing and growth (personal formation), it is even clearer to me that along with the fact that "the silence of solitude" is the redemption of both the muteness of isolation and the sterility of individualism, these truths are existential realities that c 603 and my own life are meant to reveal or witness to in their own way. When something like coming to greater clarity and conviction on something so fundamental happens, it should not surprise us that one needs to renew their commitment to eremitical life even when their vows are already perpetual.

As a kind of postscript let me say I don't know what other diocesan hermits do, but most religious in communities renew their vows together on the occasion of Jubilees, etc. You may remember I attended a 50 yr jubilee earlier this Summer; at that celebration there was the renewal of vows despite the fact that Sisters had lived these vows 40, 50, 60 and more years. They did so because Profession shapes our lives in innumerable ways; we commit to allowing it to continue doing that by giving ourselves in a freshly dedicated way to God in this vocation and to the mission to which God's love summons and sends us. In the same way then, we consent to witness to the gift consecrated life is to the Church and world in all the new ways that gift has been revealed to us --- something that is especially important in this day when the very possibility of life commitments have become doubtful and religious life is sometimes seen as a dying reality.

I hope this is helpful.

27 August 2017

A Little Bit of Lectio: Who do YOU say that I am? (reprise)

There is something startling about the second question in today's Gospel. Jesus is presented with all kinds of ideas about who people says he is, but he wants the disciples to state clearly who THEY say he is. Most people have several different answers to Jesus' first question, "Who do people say that I am?" The answers include Elijah, John the Baptist, and some of the prophets. But Jesus sharpens the question and moves from this more superficial way of knowing to the disciples own experiential or heart knowledge. He asks, "And you, who do YOU say that I am?"

I am reminded of the kinds of knowing found in last week's stories from Genesis with Adam and Eve in the Garden. As I told the third graders who attended a prayer service with us, the tree of knowledge of good and evil is not simply about knowing in our minds what is bad vs what is good. Instead the passage refers to a deeper, more intimate way of knowing good and evil, namely, deep within our selves. To "eat of this tree" is quite literally to take good and evil and the act of judging within ourselves. The way I illustrated this for 3rd graders was to ask how many of them knew what it felt like to stand on one foot for fifteen minutes. Several hands came part way up and then dropped down again. The kids knew they could imagine what it would be like, but they also saw clearly that only in doing it would they REALLY know in their muscles, memory, emotions, etc. (After the liturgy one of the adults present told me one little girl tried the whole time to stand on one foot!!)

I am also reminded of the conversation from last week between Eve and the serpent as the two of them theologize ABOUT God rather than speaking TO or WITH him. Two forms or levels of knowing, the first which is interesting and maybe even important for Eve, but which involves only a part of her being until she commits to the definition she has come to --- a definition which is not the same as God's self-revelation --- and establishes herself as estranged from God.

And finally I am reminded of my perpetual eremitical profession several years ago when I responded to the Bishop's question about what I desired in a statement which publicly claimed Jesus Christ as "Lord and Spouse" I had never used the term "Spouse" before, and never publicly! The question in Mark's Gospel, "Who do YOU say that I am?" was on my mind and heart. And at this moment, there was no call for my education in theology, no need for theologizing. Instead, I was being asked to bring my whole self before God and the assembly and ask the Church to accept this self gift in the name of Christ. Theologizing was over. Speculation had no place in this exchange. Wishfulness and indecisiveness was definitely out of line here. Instead it was time to claim that identity publicly which had been given privately many years earlier. This was my moment to answer Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?" from the knowledge I carried in my heart; I was actually surprised, and perhaps a little scared by my response.

There are all kinds of ways to avoid a genuine response to Jesus' question. Rote answers carved from creeds and catechesis are the most common. Playing it safe and refusing to answer for fear of what others will think is another common one. I answered on that day of vows, ". . . Jesus who is my Lord and Spouse" but in another situation I might as easily have responded, "You are the one who called me "little one" and who tried to coax me to drink a glass of milk in the hospital all those years ago when I was so very frightened"; and I might have continued, "you have been my elder Brother present at every bedside ever since, revealing the steadfast compassionate love of God to me." There are many other ways to answer Jesus' question in my own life. I call him Christ, and Lord, and Brother, but the content of those terms, consistent as they are with Tradition, is always partly my very own. So should all such answers to Jesus' question be, I think.

Peter apparently answers the question Jesus asks, and does so in the terms of personal experience and trust required: "You are the Christ", but when Jesus begins to redefine what being God's anointed one means in terms of suffering and death, Peter rebukes him and belies the authenticity of his own confession. Once again Divine reality conflicts with human theologizing --- and once again theologizing is estranged from the human heart and the trusting knowledge of faith. Peter even takes Jesus aside to instruct him in the truth of what the term Christ REALLY means (certainly not suffering and ignominious death!)! And Jesus' criticism is devastating: "Get behind me Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do!" He might well have said, Get behind me pseudo-theologian! You are thinking like human beings do, but I need you to know me, and claim that knowledge in a different and more exhaustive way!

The challenge of this Gospel is the same as the challenge to Adam and Eve in the garden, viz, allow God to reveal himself on his own terms. Trust in that revelation. Live from it and for it. Spend some time answering Jesus' question for yourself. He knows who the Church says he is, and what textbooks in dogmatic theology claim and expound on, but who do YOU say that he is?

The Silence of Solitude as Charism or Gift to Church and World

[[Dear Sister, thanks for posting what you have about diocesan hermits. You say that your vocation is a gift to the Church and to the world. I am having a hard time describing to a friend how it is that this is so. I don't mean that I don't believe it, only that I cannot explain it. Could you say specifically what you mean when you speak of the charism of your vocation or the gift it is to Church and World? Thank you!]]

Great question! Thanks. The eremitical vocation, and in my case the solitary eremitical vocation, is always very clearly a gift of God to the hermit. It is the way she comes to freedom from various forms of bondage, the way she experiences redemption and grows to wholeness and holiness. It is the way God shapes the weaknesses, deficiencies, as well as the gifts and talents of the hermit's life into a coherent whole so that all of these things witness to the grace of God. When I try to speak of what this means in my life I have sometimes said that God transformed what was often a scream of anguish into a Magnificat  of praise. (Neither part of this illustration is hyperbolic.)  But, because this is the work of God, because vocation is ALWAYS the work of God, it must be a gift to others as well and especially, it is a gift to the Church even as it is a gift to the whole world. It is by reflecting on the way the vocation transforms and transfigures my own life that I come to understand how it is a gift to these as well; when I do one phrase from canon 603 begins to sound in my heart and mind, namely, the silence of solitude. I think this phrase describes the charism or specific gift quality of the solitary eremitical vocation both in my own life and as that life is lived for the sake of the salvation of others. So let me summarize what I mean by "the silence of solitude" and why it is the unique gift I am asked to bring to the Church and world.

There are all kinds of silence but I think they can be divided into external or physical silence and inner silence. The silence of solitude is a combination of both of these but what I want to focus on throughout this response is how "the silence of solitude" reflects more than anything an inner wholeness and silence we each seek and need --- an inner wholeness and silence we are really called to by God. This silence is the quiet of inner peace, a silence that sings with the presence of God, and resonates with the love one knows as part of the Body of Christ, part of the family of mankind, and part of the Mystery of Creation more generally. It is the silence of belonging, of knowing one's value and the meaningfulness of one's life, the silence of the cessation of striving for these things or the noise of existential and unfulfillable yearning for them. The Jewish term which might best be applied to this particular silence is shalom. I say this because it is a dynamic, living thing which pulses with the life, peace, and promise of God even as it quietly and confidently contemplates that same God in wonder and love.

What you may notice is how intrinsically related to God and others, and to one's deep or true self too, this "solitude" is in what c 603 calls "the silence of solitude". The "silence of solitude" does involve an external silence and physical solitude; the hermit cannot live the inner reality without this. But in a deeper way the silence of solitude is a paradoxical reality I have to describe in terms of harmony and music and life and singing and relating to and resonating with others. The "silence of solitude" referred to in c 603 describes not only the outer environment of the hermitage, but the inner reality of loving and being loved in a way which witnesses to the truth that God alone is enough for us. So long as the relational element is missing from our definitions or descriptions, and so long as the "musical" or living dimension is omitted we can be sure we have missed the point of this phrase in the canon. But when we include it we begin to understand why the hermit's vocation is truly a gift to the Church and others.

The hermit lives alone; she lives in relative silence. And yet, the consecrated hermit, the solitary canon 603 hermit or the hermit living in a canonical community also consciously embraces an ecclesial vocation where the dimension of commissioning by and for the Church is never absent. These hermits have Rules and formal relationships (legitimate superiors, delegates, faith community expectations) which qualify or condition the quality of their solitude at every point. They are engaged in ongoing formation which empowers continuing healing, growth, greater maturity and even genuine holiness. They do this in order to witness to the grace of God and its place in transforming the isolation and alienation of every life into something hermits recognize as the Person glorifying (i,e,, revealing) the God we know as Love-in-Act. Individualism, isolation, alienation, the muteness and anguish of bondage have no place here. Powerfully and paradoxically the hermit stands against each and all of these in the freedom and profound relatedness canon 603 refers to as "the silence of solitude." As one called and commissioned to live this reality she witnesses to the possibility of being genuinely whole, truly happy, complete and capable of the relatedness, generosity, and love God's grace makes possible in every life --- even when the person has no worldly status, no physical wealth or power, no family or friends, and perhaps no place even to "lay her head". This is the charism of her vocation and life, the gift God bestows on Church and world through consecrated eremitical life.

I can spell some of this out more concretely perhaps, but I am hoping it gives you the beginnings of an answer to your question. To summarize: in a world torn apart by divisions of all kinds, by the rampant individualism marking and driving so much of its terrible dysfunction and disorder as well as by a grasping at and use of others with distorted forms of "love" and relatedness, the hermit ostensibly stands alone, but really is made whole and of almost infinite value by the continuing power and presence of the God she knows as Love-in-Act. She proclaims the potential held by each and every life and the way in which that potential can be realized by the grace of God. To stand apparently alone in the name of the Church, witnessing to the possibility,  power, and presence of Love and the indispensability of deep and harmonious relatedness with God, self, and others ("the silence of solitude", the song of shalom), that is her charism, the charism or gift of her solitary eremitical vocation.

26 August 2017

The Nature of the Vocation of the Diocesan Hermit

An old friend who reads here commented that she does not really understand what it means (for me) to be a hermit so I thought I would repost this piece defining the nature of diocesan eremitical life; perhaps it will serve as a beginning for others who are not familiar with this vocation and lead to additional questions. (Originally posted on Wikipedia.)

[[A diocesan hermit is a canonically (i.e., publicly) professed and consecrated hermit living primarily under Canon 603 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law (other canons also apply but Canon 603 defines the fundamental vocation of the diocesan hermit). Accordingly s/he writes his/her own Rule of Life, has that approved by his/her Bishop, and lives his or her life according to that Rule and under the supervision of the diocesan Bishop who is the hermit's legitimate superior. (Bishops may also appoint or have the hermit select a delegate who may serve as a kind of superior for everyday matters, and who can assist in communications between the hermit and his/her Bishop.) Because his/her vows are public the hermit lives his/her life and exercises appropriate ministries in the name of the Church. Unlike lay hermits s/he may therefore wear a habit as a sign of both the rights and responsibilities which are part of eremitical consecration. For liturgical functions and prayer in the hermitage the cowl is more and more the typical prayer garment of the perpetually professed hermit. In either case (habit or cowl) the hermit adopts particular garb only with the approval or wishes of the diocesan Bishop.

Canon 603 defines the life as a vowed contemplative life of "the silence of solitude," assiduous prayer and penance, and stricter separation from the world --- all lived for the praise of God and the salvation of the world (this last element ensures the positive nature of the vocation and disallows misanthropy, or other self-centered or unworthy motives). Each term in this definition has an essential or non-negotiable meaning but the way each hermit embodies the life is unique. The Canon is both demanding and flexible. One who lives in accordance with it can live a life of complete reclusion (one end of the eremitical spectrum) or a life involving some very limited work and ministry outside the hermitage (the other end of the eremitical spectrum) as contemplative life spills over into this service as well. (Note well, this is still and must remain a contemplative, eremitical life; it is not active or apostolic and the hermit's primary work and ministry is that of prayer in the silence of solitude!) Despite its freedom and flexibility, some daily practices tend to be fairly universal, the praying of the Divine Office, Lectio Divina, Contemplative prayer, Eucharist (C 603 hermits are ordinarily allowed to reserve the Eucharist in their hermitages), manual and intellectual labor, etc.

The life of the diocesan hermit is the life of a solitary hermit, not one of living in community, but some suggest that diocesan hermits may come together in lauras for mutual support and encouragement (this is not an explicit part of Canon 603 itself, however, and some disagree with its allowance). Because of the solitary eremitical nature of the C 603 vocation, the hermit's main community of (non-financial) support is primarily the parish and secondarily, the diocese. S/he will also live her contemplative solitude and the fruits of that solitude FOR these communities in a more specific and recognizable or formal way than would either a hermit living in community (a religious hermit) or a lay hermit, for instance.

While diocesan hermits may associate with, live from, and reflect any spiritual tradition (Carmelite, Camaldolese, Benedictine, Cistercian, Carthusian, Franciscan, Dominican, etc) their primary identity and charism (i.e., their gift-quality to the church and world) is linked to their identity as diocesan. That is, it is their presence within and commitment to the local church that is [part of] the basis for the unique charism of the diocesan hermit. For this reason some diocesan hermits in a number of countries have, with their Bishops' permissions, adopted the initials Erem Dio or Er Dio (Eremita Dioecesanus) rather than some other form of initials which can be mistaken for the post-nomial initials of a particular Order or congregation. The practice is not universal, but it reflects a recent development in the appreciation of the nature and importance of the diocesan hermit to the Church and World no matter what her/his basic spirituality or secondary affiliations. ]]

In Memoriam: Prof Ron Olowin 1945-2017

Last night the family, friends, and colleagues of Prof Ron Olowin (astrophysics) celebrated a vigil at St Mary's College marking his very distinguished and faith-filled life and death. Today we celebrated a Mass of the Resurrection at Ron's parish home, St Perpetua's in Lafayette, CA. Last night after the vigil and reception we walked outside on the SMC campus. The night was beautifully warm and the moon was a striking crescent. Several of us (Frs John Kasper, Jan Olowin, myself, et. al) pointed gleefully to the moon showing off what we had just learned from Ron even now when someone cited his rule on how to tell whether the moon was waxing or waning: "If it is light on the right, it is getting bright; if it is light on the left, it ain't!" It was amazing how many of us had no clue how to tell the difference in this --- and now we are unlikely ever to forget it.

In theology today two strains run through everything we do: 1) the relationship between science and faith, a topic which has been made all the more acute by the scientific reductionism (some would call it the scientific imperialism) known as scientism which asserts the scientific method or science itself is the only way to knowledge and that there is nothing other than, much less beyond the material universe to be known, and 2) the cosmic nature of reality and faith so that everything we speak about in theology has a cosmic depth and our hope for a "new heaven and earth" is a hope for what NT Wright calls, "life after life after death;" Paul refers to this state as that which comes to be when God is "all in all". These two strains were definitive in Ron's life. As Christians we assert a Mystery serving as the depth dimension of all reality, an infinitely personal Mystery we call God, the Mystery which makes science possible and faith necessary. It was this Mystery and the cosmos this God created which Ron explored in his scientific work; it was this  same Mystery he knew in prayer and/or celebrated in liturgy every day of his life. And it was this Mystery he looked forward to meeting "face to face" in what was a great personal and intellectual adventure Ron entered into even more fully over these past fourteen months since his diagnosis with acute myelogenous leukemia. Rarely have I known someone dealing with terminal illness or meeting death in such an inspiring way.

Similarly, never have I heard so many distinguished scientists, educators, and theologians, comment on Ron's life and the humble and utterly convincing way he moved and inspired them as he married scientific integrity and a sincere and intellectually challenging faith he proclaimed in the teaching he did wherever he was. (Ron and his wife Mary attended a presentation I did for Contemplative Outreach several years ago; he paid me one of the highest compliments I have ever received when he called me a "born teacher".) As with any true marriage Ron knew the Love-in-Act which was its real source and ground. This same Love-in-Act motivated his life as husband, father, and dedicated teacher to all of us who considered ourselves his grateful friends, colleagues, and --- to a person --- his students. In this week of total solar eclipses we celebrate Ron Olowin's life and death in the Cosmic Christ. And so we pray: Perpetual light grant unto Ron, O Lord, and let your own perpetual (and cosmic) light shine upon and through him in your Son and Our Lord. With Ron we look for the day when you will indeed be All in All and we stand reunited in a new heaven and a new earth.

23 August 2017

The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Reprise)

Today's Gospel is one of my all-time favorite parables, that of the laborers in the vineyard. The story is simple --- deceptively so in fact: workers come to work in the vineyard at various parts of the day all having contracted with the master of the vineyard to work for a day's wages. Some therefore work the whole day, some are brought in to work only half a day, and some are hired only when the master comes for them at the end of the day. When time comes to pay everyone what they are owed those who came in to work last are paid first and receive a full day's wages. Those who came in to work first expect to be paid more than these, but are disappointed and begin complaining when they are given the same wage as those paid first. The response of the master reminds them that he has paid them what they contracted for, nothing less, and then asks if they are envious that he is generous with his own money. A saying is added: [in the Kingdom of God] the first shall be last and the last first.

Now, it is important to remember what the word parable means in appreciating what Jesus is actually doing with this story and seeing how it challenges us today. The word parable, as I have written before, comes from two Greek words, para meaning alongside of and balein, meaning to throw down. What Jesus does is to throw down first one set of values -- one well-understood or common-perspective --- and allow people to get comfortable with that. (It is one they understand best so often Jesus merely needs to suggest it while his hearers fill in the rest. For instance he mentions a sower, or a vineyard and people fill in the details. Today he might well speak of a a CEO in an office, or a mother on a run to pick up kids from a swim meet or soccer practice.) Then, he throws down a second set of values or a second way of seeing reality which disorients and gets his hearers off-balance. This second set of values or new perspective is that of the Kingdom of God. Those who listen have to make a decision. (The purpose of the parable is not only to present the choice, but to engage the reader/hearer and shake them up or disorient them a bit so that a choice for something new can (and hopefully will) be made.) Either Jesus' hearers will reaffirm the common values or perspective or they will choose the values and perspective of the Kingdom of God. The second perspective, that of the Kingdom is often counterintuitive, ostensibly foolish or offensive, and never a matter of "common sense". To choose it --- and therefore to choose Jesus and the God he reveals --- ordinarily puts one in a place which is countercultural and often apparently ridiculous.

So what happens in today's Gospel? Again, Jesus tells a story about a vineyard and a master hiring workers. His readers know this world well and despite Jesus stating specifically that each man hired contracts for the same wage, common sense says that is unfair and the master MUST pay the later workers less than he pays those who came early to the fields and worked through the heat of the noonday sun. And of course, this is precisely what the early workers complain about to the master. It is precisely what most of US would complain about in our own workplaces if someone hired after us got more money, for instance, or if someone with a high school diploma got the same pay and benefit package as someone with a doctorate --- never mind that we agreed to this package! The same is true in terms of religion: "I spent my WHOLE life serving the Lord. I was baptized as an infant and went to Catholic schools from grade school through college and this upstart convert who has never done anything at all at the parish gets the Pastoral Associate job? No Way!! No FAIR!!" From our everyday perspective this would be a cogent objection and Jesus' insistence that all receive the same wage, not to mention that he seems to rub it in by calling the last hired to be paid first (i.e., the normal order of the Kingdom), is simply shocking.

And yet the master brings up two points which turn everything around: 1) he has paid everyone exactly what they contracted for --- a point which stops the complaints for the time being, and 2) he asks if they are envious that he is generous with his own gifts or money. He then reminds his hearers that the first shall be last, and the last first in the Kingdom of God. If someone was making these remarks to you in response to cries of "unfair" it would bring you up short, wouldn't it? If you were already a bit disoriented by a pay master who changed the rules of commonsense this would no doubt underscore the situation. It might also cause you to take a long look at yourself and the values by which you live your life. You might ask yourself if the values and standards of the Kingdom are really SO different than those you operate by everyday of your life, not to mention, do you really want to "buy into" this Kingdom if the rewards are really parcelled out in this way, even for people less "gifted" and less "committed" than you consider yourself! Of course, you might not phrase things so bluntly. If you are honest, you will begin to see more than your own brilliance, giftedness, or commitedness; You might begin to see these along with a deep neediness, a persistent and genuine fear at the cost involved in accepting this "Kingdom" instead of the world you know and have accommodated yourself to so well.

You might consider too, and carefully, that the Kingdom is not an otherwordly heaven, but that it is the realm of God's sovereignty which, especially in Christ, interpenetrates this world, and is actually the goal and perfection of this world; when you do, the dilemma before you gets even sharper. There is no real room for opting for this world's values now in the hope that those "other Kingdomly values" only kick in after death! All that render to Caesar stuff is actually a bit of a joke if we think we can divvy things up neatly and comfortably (I am sure Jesus was asking for the gift of one's whole self and nothing less when he made this statement!), because after all, what REALLY belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? No, no compromises are really allowed with today's parable, no easy blending of the vast discrepancy between the realm of God's sovereignty and the world which is ordered to greed, competition, self-aggrandizement and hypocrisy, nor therefore, to the choice Jesus puts before us.

So, what side will we come down on after all this disorientation and shaking up? I know that every time I hear this parable it touches a place in me (yet another one!!) that resents the values and standards of the Kingdom and that desires I measure things VERY differently indeed. It may be a part of me that resists the idea that everything I have and am is God's gift, even if I worked hard in cooperating with that (my very capacity and willingness to cooperate are ALSO gifts of God!). It may be a part of me that looks down my nose at this person or that and considers myself better in some way (smarter, more gifted, a harder worker, stronger, more faithful, born to a better class of parents, etc, etc). It may be part of me that resents another's wage or benefits despite the fact that I am not really in need of more myself. It may even be a part of me that resents my own weakness and inabilities, my own illness and incapacities which lead me to despise the preciousness and value of my life and his own way of valuing it which is God's gift to me and to the world. I am socialized in this first-world-culture and there is no doubt that it resides deeply and pervasively within me contending always for the Kingdom of God's sovereignty in my heart and living. I suspect this is true for most of us and I know today's Gospel challenges us each to make a renewed choice for the Kingdom in yet one more way and to another more profound or extensive degree.

For Christians every day is gift and we are given precisely what we need to live fully and with real integrity if only we will choose to accept it. We are precious to God, and this is often hard to really accept, but neither more nor less precious than the person standing in the grocery store line ahead of us or folded dirty and disheveled behind a begging sign on the street corner near our bank or outside our favorite coffee shop. The wage we have agreed to (or been offered) is the gift of God's very self along with his judgment that we are indeed precious, and so, the free and abundant but cruciform life of a shared history and destiny with that same God whose characteristic way of being is kenotic. He pours himself out with equal abandon for each of us whether we have served him our whole lives or only just met him this afternoon. He does so whether we are well and whole, or broken and feeble. And he asks us to do the same, to pour ourselves out similarly both for his own sake and for the sake of his creation-made-to-be God's Kingdom.

To do so means to decide for his reign now and tomorrow and the day after that; it means to accept his gift of Self as fully as he wills to give it, and it therefore means to listen to him and his Word so that we MAY be able to decide and order our lives appropriately in his gratuitous love and mercy. The parable in today's Gospel is a gift which makes this possible --- if only we would allow it to work as Jesus empowers and wills it!

21 August 2017

On Diocese Shopping and the Significance of Hermit Designations

[[Sister Laurel, you tend to discourage people wanting to become diocesan hermits to move from diocese to diocese shopping for one which would profess them under canon 603, right? Why do you do that? Is it like those TV shows where one wants to test the candidate's perseverance and so leaves them standing outside the monastery in the cold and snow for days and days? But people do it, see the following excerpt from another blog. Do bishops accept hermit "transplants"? Also,  did you make up the label "lay hermit"? Is the blogger I quoted referring to you? Are these kinds of designations helpful? Don't they tend to needlessly complicate things like this hermit says?]]

[[So I was struck yet again when a dear hermit wrote and mentioned he might be relocating to a different diocese because the diocese bishop designated him as an Independent Hermit rather than "bestowing" Canon Law 603. 
[Yet another example of designations and labels for hermits being creatively invented by individuals, this time a bishop making up "Independent Hermit"  That's a new one. Heard of another hermit who decided to create the label--"Lay Hermit"! Lord, have mercy on us label-making mortals!  We are silly and presumptuous.  Why complicate a beautifully simple vocation with making up additional labels and designations?  But, enough on all that.  I'm sure Jesus knows who we are and calls us as He wills and what He wills, if anything other than "child."] Returning to the thoughts of simplicity of love and simple love of Christ.  I consider once again that Christ is the end of the law.  Why complicate matters?  Why seek after others to bestow what we might want to think is our due, or a type of justice in the context of hermit life?  Seek Christ to bestow whatever upon us.  Christ is our all.  He is the end of the law.]]

Thanks for your questions. I'll try to take them in order but I do suggest you check the labels for these topics to check what I have already written. People do move from diocese to diocese to try and get professed under c.603, but it is usually an entirely futile exercise. There are a couple of exceptions: 1) the person is moving from a diocese which has determined not to implement c 603 at all; in such cases it can be unjust to make a person live as a lay hermit (a hermit in the lay state of life) without access to a genuine and mutual process of discernment, especially if this seems likely to (or even has a fair chance of) eventually lead(ing) to public profession and consecration. I would also suggest it can be unjust in this way especially if the person has begun to show a genuine awareness of the ecclesial nature of their vocation. In such circumstances simply refusing access to profession because the diocese refuses to implement c 603 for anyone at all is especially problematical and moving to another diocese may be the only solution. In such a case one might contact the new or proposed diocese (first the Vicar for Religious and then, if the Vicar supports one, the Bishop) before one moves and ask them if they will consider discerning a c 603 vocation with one in light of the situation in the home diocese. One would need to be prepared to demonstrate a strong history living this vocation and being formed in it to get the hearing one desires in these circumstances.

           Another exception might occur when 2) the person is willing to spend the time establishing themselves in the new diocese, a new parish, with a new spiritual director, etc. before seeking admission to a process of discernment and admission to profession. This could take several years and the discernment process several more with NO PROMISES it will lead to profession. One cannot effectively contact the proposed diocese for some kind of pre-approval (not even the assurance one will be given a hearing) in the absence of exception #1 above. Personally I think it is better to stay in one's own (i.e., the original) diocese and attempt to demonstrate the authenticity of one's vocation over time; however, if one is willing to re-establish themselves in another diocese completely before seeking admission to profession it suggests to me that perhaps the vocation really comes first for this person, not the quest for profession and some kind of social status.

My own concern is that the person show a commitment to living as a hermit first and foremost. My personal hope and even expectation is that they demonstrate they are not merely after the "perks" attached to being a religious while avoiding the difficulties and challenges of living in community for instance. Similarly I look for someone who feels compelled to live an eremitical life because it is the way to human wholeness and holiness for them. Dioceses that refuse to profess someone right off may be working from the understanding that the individual being considered must get the substantial formation they need before being professed and must not be mistaking being a lone individual with being a hermit. As I have written here a number of times these two realities are different; because they are a diocese must be able to see a hermit standing before them petitioning for admission to vows under c 603, not merely a lone individual seeking to validate their aloneness.

           Dioceses will certainly be sensitive to the fact that some who approach them in regard to c 603 like the idea of wearing a habit or assuming a title (Brother or Sister) or even being able to beg for money in some legitimate way even though they are not remotely hermits. They will also likely be aware that ordinarily there is very little direct oversight or supervision of these vocations and for this reason the motivations, personal discipline, and reality of a divine call which results in human wholeness and holiness must be well-established before allowing the person to live this vocation in the name of the Church. All my concerns regarding diocese shopping are concerns that the person proposing to do this shows a concern with the authenticity of the vocation and with living it as fully as one can no matter the conditions or situation. As part of distinguishing the authentic hermit I am additionally concerned that one demonstrates a strong sense of and commitment to the ecclesial nature of the vocation; moreover I am concerned that candidates for profession demonstrate the perseverance in their vocation and the patience required to allow one's diocese to come to greater openness to c 603 vocations --- something that only occurs over time. This perseverance and patience is a gift to the Church and a witness to the eremitical vocation lived in her name.

Bishops and Transplants to the Diocese

     Yes, bishops do accept "transplants" in two senses. First, they will accept hermits who have been publicly professed under canon 603 and need or desire to transfer to this new diocese for some good reason. The hermit must be in good standing with her home diocese (something the home bishop may affirm with some form of affidavit) and the new bishop must accept the responsibilities associated with receiving and supervising the hermit and her vows. Second, some bishops will accept people who have moved while seeking admittance to profession (public vows) under c 603. It is not easy to find such bishops in the latter case and the care they take in admitting a candidate to profession is usually significant.

One really cannot simply hop from diocese to diocese shopping for a chancery that will simply profess one immediately. If any such dioceses exist they would be exceedingly rare and thank God for that! I discourage diocese shopping because I believe this vocation is a significant (that is, an important and meaningful) one and because I recognize it requires significant formation, perseverance, motivation, theological understanding of what eremitism is all about, am established contemplative prayer life, a personal appreciation of monastic stability, and a commitment to living this life as an ecclesial vocation. Diocese shopping most often militates against at least some of these defining vocational elements.

On the Designation "Lay Hermit" (Yet Again!)

Your question about whether the blog author is referring to me in regard to the designation "lay hermit" is not something I can answer. Certainly I did not make up the term. It is common in the Church and is well-understood. Remember, a lay hermit is a lay person (a baptized Catholic) living eremitical life without added benefit of public profession and consecration (something mediated by the Church in a public act). In other words, they are hermits in the lay state --- that state of life lived by virtue of baptism alone. One might also live as a hermit in the clerical state if one is ordained a priest or in the consecrated state (C 603 and those publicly professed in religious institutes). None of that is complicated or difficult. We look at the person's (vocational) state of life (lay, ordained, or consecrated) and add that to the fact that they are living eremitical life. Thus, as I have said many times here, they are lay, ordained, or consecrated hermits --- each with different ecclesial rights and obligations which shape the eremitism they live. The purpose of such labeling is meant to indicate these different ecclesial rights and obligations and the commitment they define, nothing more, less, or other.

The person you are citing regularly confuses the nature of the consecrated state of life and shows a mistaken notion of how this vocational and ecclesial state of life is entered. She tends to believe and assert that an individual may "consecrate" her/himself and enter the consecrated state of life with private vows, that is, with a private act of dedication or "consecration" that is not also and publicly received or mediated by the Church. She regularly seems at least implicitly to denigrate lay vocations including vocations to eremitical life lived in the lay state by denying they even exist. She argues that as soon as one make private vows or some form of private "consecration" (dedication!) one leaves the lay state, and she affirms this despite the fact that 1) no additional canonical rights or obligations (including no ecclesial supervision or responsibility) are linked to this act, and 2) the Church herself disputes this position in her own teaching on the consecrated state of life. The result of this blogger's position purportedly leaves us without lay hermits because, she mistakenly claims, the moment anyone makes a private commitment that person ceases to be a lay person with a lay eremitical vocation.

Needless Complications?

Is this all a matter of needless complication? Isn't a hermit a hermit like any other hermit? No. When we consider all the ways eremitical life can be distorted, all of the stereotypes which still dominate the minds of folks and are evoked just hearing the word "hermit", or the extreme individualism the term "hermit" is sometimes used to justify, when we think of people like Tom Leppard (cf posts labeled with his name), the unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, the mentally ill recluse, Howard Hughes, the Maine thief who violated peoples' homes and lives repeatedly, etc, we know (or hope!) there is a significant difference between them and those persons the Church consecrates to live eremitical life in her name. When we consider that lay (non-canonical) hermits continue the prophetic vocations of the desert Fathers and Mothers in a way which differs some from canonical hermits, or when we consider the importance (and sometimes the apparent problem) of the additional rights and obligations assumed by those the Church commissions to live them as opposed to hermits who eschew such things, we come to understand the distinctions we draw are important to understand and consider.

Not every hermit has to spend time on this, nor are they called to articulate these matters or analyze the theological implications, but it seems to me that every hermit must have at least an implicit appreciation of the significance of their unique eremitical call for the entire People of God and for the world at large. That means if they are hermits in the lay state rather than in the consecrated state, for instance, they understand and have embraced wholeheartedly the uniquely prophetic nature of this vocation as well as understanding, again at least implicitly, the ecclesial nature of the consecrated eremitical life --- especially when one has rejected this option for one's own eremitical life.

More generally people need to know that the vocation the Church has chosen to reprise, honor, and celebrate in universal law  with c 603 is nothing like what often passes for eremitical life or the "hermiting" done by lone individuals asserting their misanthropy, individualism, selfishness, and brokenness with the "hermit" label. It is the fact that the term "hermit" itself is not merely little understood but widely misunderstood as well as significantly distorted that makes the qualifiers we add even more important. The terms canonical hermit, diocesan hermit, c 603 hermit, and Catholic hermit indicate that these vocations have canonical standards which are inherent to the vocation itself, while the hermit has legally and morally binding bonds made to assist her in living her call, as well as the fact that these vocations are formally received and supervised by the Church. In other words, labels or modifiers are helpful in helping everyone come to understand and honor authentic hermits, whether non-canonical or canonical as significant prophetic vocations in a world which needs them acutely even as it misunderstands them significantly.

14 August 2017

On Reunions and the Feast of the Transfiguration

Well, the best laid plans often "gang aglay" as Robert Burns once said. I had thought I would have a post up from the Feast of the Transfiguration but the reunion weekend was just too full and wonderful and I was simply wiped out. So, here we are more than a week later and I am still thinking about the Transfiguration and how it related to the weekend. I said I wanted to write a little about transfiguration in light of it all and I would like to do that --- at least as a start.

Unlike some reunions this one was not merely a single evening spent having dinner with a group of people one no longer knows or cares about. It was not about having outgrown people and places nor was it about speaking different languages professionally or being unable to relate. It was not about bragging to set ourselves apart or lacking empathy and compassion. Perhaps that happens in earlier reunions when folks have not but begun careers and families and businesses and work on terminal degrees; I don't know.  It was, for me, and I think for at least several others of us, about, or at least a little like, what T.S. Eliot describes when he writes, "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." In my journal I said it this way,  "It felt like we were each pilgrims, journeying apart from one another, finding our way, struggling, succeeding, loving, sometimes alone and lonely and sometimes not, at home yet still journeying --- still not quite "home" in the way we came "home" this weekend."

"I am so blessed." That is what I feel now and it is the sincere refrain I heard numerous times at our reunion dinner as each of  about 23 of us stood with mic in hand and told our stories to our classmates and friends. So many ended their narratives by affirming for the rest of us: "I am so blessed!" I was able to stay with a friend and her husband along with another friend who flew down from Sacramento. Over the next days we were joined by two other once-close friends and spent hours together talking, eating, driving around our old haunts, attending the reunion dinner, praying and sharing about our faith (each of the five of us has her own unique faith and faith tradition. I don't know when I have sat at a table with such a diverse group of Christians: Christian Science, Lutheran, Baptist, Evangelical Christian (worshipping with Messianic Jews), and Roman Catholic. But in spite of the few difficulties (or "minor speed bumps") created by this diversity we talked for some hours regarding our faith and spirituality; what I saw with my own "new eyes", what I recognized by the resonances of my heart, was that in some incredibly fundamental way each of us have the same hearts --- hearts shaped by that faith and by the truth of God and the Gospel); but our hearts were also shaped by coming to know each other in the present. It is this entire dynamic of really coming to know each other in the present and being blessed by every surprising bit of revelation that reminds me most of the Transfiguration.

I was not surprised that each of us has grown older and changed physically in many ways. Neither should I be surprised, I guess, that each of us has grown into the extraordinary people we had the potential to become --- though our journeys were often nothing like we once anticipated they would be. But I was gratified by and a bit stunned at that. What really awed me was how little we had each changed and how truly ourselves we had become over the years. That too reminded me of the Transfiguration. I found myself knowing these people again, well on some levels, for the first time on others. First, after the initial meetings when physical differences dominated and more than anything else the years apart still defined our relationships with one another, I found myself forgetting what we each looked like 50-60 years ago; even more, I literally saw these friends transfigured by their personal stories. The images from youth which had filled my mind and remained normative for me of who these women were ceased to be normative except as images of early and essential life and potential now more fully embodied and shaped by one's history. At the same time those early images of these old friends became the dynamic form which shaped and animated their Selves now --- analogous to the way a soul is "form of the body" and "builds a body around itself". 

I also found myself realizing freshly how much I had really loved this smaller group of women with whom I spent about three days --- and how truly I loved them now. In this too I was struck by how amazingly they each embodied the abundant life and grace of God and had grown to do that as promised by Christ as the "perfection" of the potential each carried deeply within themselves all those years ago. And for the first time I knew myself in the same way. Perhaps in this way too I came to understand the Transfiguration a bit better. After all, this is the story of Jesus being revealed for who he really is to those who, for all their defects and bits of personal ignorance and insensitivity, know him better than most. But they must also come to see him with new eyes. They must come to know him not as they did when they were younger and took him for granted even as they loved him. They must come to see him as the exhaustive embodiment of God's story with and for his people. They must come to see him as someone stamped first with the shadow of the cross and then with the light of the resurrection and the fire of the Spirit. And that is how I came to see each of these women --- and perhaps it is a piece of how they came to see me.

The experience of  the Transfiguration --- the invitation to journey in the desert and eventually stand on the mountain with Jesus, to truly know him, to be known and loved by him, comes to us in ways and at times which will surprise and console, challenge and heal. This is what I experienced when I went home weekend before last. I knew these friends I had not seen in 50 years. I knew them and they opened themselves to knowing me; it is an astounding gift of God to come to know them for the faithful women they have become, to come home and have it be home in the truly profound ways we need as adults and pray for every day of our lives. In and with Christ [[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.]] Thanks be to God!

Feast of Saint Maximillian Kolbe (Reprise)

Please note, the readings referenced below differ from today's but I hope this reprise is still of value!

Today is the feast day of Maximillian Kolbe who died on this day in Auschwitz after two months there, and two weeks in the bunker of death-by-starvation. Kolbe had offered to take the place of a prisoner selected for starvation in reprisal when another prisoner was found missing and thought to have escaped. The Kommandant, taken aback by Kolbe's dignity, and perhaps by the unprecedented humanity being shown, stepped back and then granted the request. Father Maximillian sustained his fellow prisoners and assisted them in their dying. He was one of four remaining prisoners who were murdered by an injection of Carbolic Acid when the Nazi's deemed their death by starvation was taking too long. When the bunker was visited by a secretary-interpreter immediately after the injections, he found the three other prisoners lying on the ground, begrimed and showing the ravages of the suffering they had undergone. Maximillian Kolbe sat against the wall, his face serene and radiant. Unlike the others he was clean and bright.

The stories told about Maximillian Kolbe's presence and influence in Aushwitz all stress a couple of things: first, there was his great love of God, Mary the Imaculata, and his fellow man; secondly, it focused on the tremendous humanity he lived out and modelled in the midst of a hell designed in every detail to dehumanize and degrade. These two things are intimately interrelated of course, and they give us a picture of authentic holiness which, extraordinary as it might have seemed in Auschwitz, is nothing less and nothing more than the vocation we are each called to in Christ. Together, these two dimensions of true holiness/authentic humanity result in "a life lived for others," as a gift to them in many ways -- self-sacrifice, generosity, kindness, courage, etc. In particular, in Auschwitz it was Maximillian's profound and abiding humanity which allowed others to remember, reclaim, and live out their own humanity in the face of the Nazi's dehumanizing machine. No greater gift could have been imagined in such a hell.

I think it is easy to forget this fundamental vocation, or at least to underestimate its value and challenge. We sometimes think our humanity is a given, an accomplished fact rather than a task and call to be accomplished. We also may think that it is possible to be truly human in solitary splendor. But our humanity is our essential vocation and it is something we only achieve in relation to God, his call, his mercy and love, his companionship --- and his people! (And this is as true for hermits and recluses as it is true for anyone else.) Likewise, we may think of vocation as a call to religious life, priesthood, marriage, singleness, eremitism, etc, but always, these are "merely" the paths towards achieving our foundational vocation to authentic humanity. Of course, it is not that we do not need excellent priests, religious, husbands and wives, parents, and so forth, but what is more true is that we need excellent human beings --- people who take the call and challenge to be genuinely human with absolute seriousness and faithfulness.

Today's gospel confronts us with a person who failed at that vocation. Extended mercy and the complete forgiveness of an unpayable debt, this servant went out into his world and failed to extend even a fraction of the same mercy to one of his fellows. He was selfish, ungrateful, and unmindful of who he was in terms of his Master or the generosity which had been shown him. He failed to remain in touch with that mercy and likewise he refused to extend it to others as called upon to do. He failed in his essential humanity and in the process he degraded and punished a fellow servant as inferior to himself when he should have done the opposite. Contrasted with this, and forming the liturgical and theological context for hearing this reading today, is the life of Maximillian Kolbe. Loved with an everlasting love, touched by God's infinite mercy and grace, Father Maximillian knew and affirmed who he truly was. More, in a situation of abject poverty and ultimate weakness, he remained in contact with the Source of his own humanity as the infinite well from which he would draw strength, dignity, courage, forgiveness, and compassion when confronted with a reality wholly dedicated to shattering, degrading, and destroying the humanity of those who became its victims. In every way he was the embodiment of St Paul's citation, "My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness!"

In Auschwitz it is true that some spoke of Kolbe as a saint, and many knew he was a priest, but in this world where all were stripped of names and social standing of any kind, what stood out to everyone was Maximillian Kolbe's love for God and his fellow man; what stood out was his humanityHoliness for the Christian is defined in these terms. Authentic humanity and holiness are synonyms in Christianity, and both are marked by the capacity to love and be loved, first (by) God and then (by) all those he has dignified as his image and holds as precious. In a world too-often marked by mediocrity and even outright inhumanity, a world too frequently dominated by those structures, institutions, and dynamics which seem bigger than we are and incapable of being resisted or changed, we need to remember Maximillian Kolbe's example. Oftentimes we focus on serving others, feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless and the like, and these things are important. But in Kolbe's world when very little of this kind of service was possible (though Kolbe did what was possible and prudent here) what stood out was not only the crust of bread pressed into a younger priest's hands, the cup of soup given gladly to another, but the very great and deep dignity and impress of his humanity. And of course it stood out because beyond and beneath the need for food and shelter, what everyone was in terrible danger of losing was a sense of --- and capacity to act in terms of -- their own great dignity and humanity.

Marked above all as one loved by God, Father Maximillian lived out of that love and mercy. He extended it again and again to everyone he met, and in the end, he made the final sacrifice: he gave his own life so that another might live. An extraordinary vocation marked by extraordinary holiness? Yes. But also our OWN vocation, a vocation to "ordinary" and true holiness, genuine humanity. As I said above, "In particular, in Auschwitz it was Maximillian's profound and abiding humanity which allowed others to remember, reclaim, and live out their own humanity in the face of the Nazi's dehumanizing machine. No greater gift could have been imagined in such a hell." In many ways this is precisely the gift we are called upon in Christ to be for our own times. May Saint Kolbe's example inspire us to fulfill our vocations in exemplary ways.

06 August 2017

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

Transfiguration by Lewis Bowman
I am reprising this post as I work on finishing another while I am away in Southern CA celebrating my fifty-year high school reunion. In that post I am looking at the difference between transformation and transfiguration --- and also the notion of seeing with new eyes. because I have experienced both on this weekend of amazing surprises,  profound trust and sharing, incredibly intimate revelations, and moments of new clarity of vision of eyes and heart. Today's actual Gospel lection from Matthew does not include Peter's stumbling, incredibly misguided, "let us build booths for them" but I think the lesson is important, ---- and something which figures into the new blog piece --- so I am not hesitant to post this reprise! Thanks for your patience. The new blog piece should be up this afternoon or evening and I am hoping this one will help "Prepare the way."

                                                * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

02 August 2017

Contemplative Life and Vulnerability to Pain

[[Dear Sister, I wondered if you feel pain differently because you are a contemplative. I read that one hermit is unaware of most pain unless it becomes really intense and then she comes back to a more physical level of consciousness. The post I read gave the impression that most of the time she is in touch with God but not with the temporal. She said, [[The pain has to be enough, or coupled with such as red-pink streak going up foot from pinkish-red toe, to be enough to bring me back to more physical awareness. And, perhaps this is true, also, for bringing my mind to more conscious awareness of spiritual readings. I'm finding my mind is away, possibly close in with God, but I don't know for sure, of course. It flies from my willed awareness or forced consciousness; the thoughts become whatever God weaves within.]] Do persons of prayer feel pain less? Do you?]]

LOL! Interesting question. I'm pretty sure I experience pain the same as anyone else. I deal with chronic pain, but I do that the way most people do --- medically. I try to pray through this specific kind of pain, but generally it is too distracting so I medicate as necessary and meditate as possible. Other kinds of pain (psychic, emotional), of course, are something that can only be lived through with prayer --- no medication is possible or desirable. I think it is possible that contemplatives are actually more sensitive to these kinds of pain --- after all, they are not numb to them but vulnerable.  But what you cite raises serious questions regarding self-care and attentiveness; I wonder how appropriate it is to be so wrapped up in what one describes as some sort of non-temporal "God-consciousness" that one is generally unaware of infections, injuries, etc. Beyond this I wonder at the phrases "willed awareness" and "forced consciousness". It sounds like the writer is setting up some sort of human will versus will of God calculus or something where being in touch with God means being unaware of oneself and the needs of one's body. These ideas seem to me to be antithetical to a healthy contemplative life.

It may well be that someone's prayer life allows them to move more easily through pain and to function more freely in spite of it, but what is being described here is the presence of recognizable and, one assumes, preventable infection in one's foot for instance. No contemplative I know would EVER suggest their awareness of God or the presence of God's life and love within them detracts from the critical or essential attentiveness to reality which is part of the very definition of contemplative life. Just the opposite in fact. Contemplatives honor God and the life God has given to and entrusted them with. They, especially when they are Christian, approach reality from an incarnational perspective. They know that we are "temples of the Holy Spirit" and members of the very Body of Christ. They see the everyday, supposedly mundane as sacramental and thus, essentially sacred, and they take what care they can and must do to honor this foundational truth of creation.

It is pretty well known that throughout its history Christianity has sometimes fallen prey to an unhealthy dualism rooted in misreadings of texts that speak of detachment or despising the "things of the world" or the Pauline contrast between a body of flesh and one of Spirit. The passage you cite reminds me of some of these misreadings. Especially it reminds me that when Paul speaks of being "in the flesh" or refers to the "flesh body," he is speaking of the whole person under the sway of sin; when he speaks of being in the Spirit or refers to the "spiritual body," he is speaking of the whole person under the power of the Spirit of God. Similarly it reminds me of the piece I wrote a while back looking at the spiritual life as the life we each live under the power of the Holy Spirit. (cf., What Spirituality really Means) More specifically, it is the embodied human life we live in and through the dynamism of the Spirit of God whenever we focus on the vulnerability to Love-in-Act this involves.

In my own experience there have been times when contemplative prayer has involved occasional periods of "raptness" where I am not aware of sensations in my body and where I may even have ceased to breath for periods of time. BUT apart from these very rare "experiences" this same prayer has made me more capable of genuinely incarnational life. Many of us may have reasons which detract from this ability to live a healthy incarnation or embodiment of the Spirit of God, but the life of prayer is not one of these. Instead a healthy contemplative prayer life counters and helps heal those things which may prevent healthy embodiedness.

 One final comment on the passage you have cited. As I noted above, I am concerned with the reference to "willed awareness" and "forced consciousness" which supposedly gives way to "whatever God 'weaves within"'. Attentiveness is a central characteristic of contemplative life, but so are awareness and consciousness. These are "the way we are in the world"; they are part of what contemplative life witnesses to. In contemplative life we attend to reality; we are aware of and consciously honor reality. We are empowered by God for this. While prayer is certainly the work of God within us it is the work/dynamism which illuminates and sharpens, makes whole, empathetic, and compassionate. It is the Spirit of life and love, truth and beauty, the flame of light and comfort which thus becomes the source and ground of genuine rest (Sabbath) and "at-home-ness" (eternal life). The Divine life is the Spirit within us which does not supplant our intellects or consciousness and awareness but instead perfects them.

To float through life in some sort of dissociative state is simply incompatible with contemplative and especially with eremitical life. (Such states may actually represent part of what the NT refers to as "hardness of heart" --- something I am hoping to write further about soon.) Times of genuine prayer which take us up or carry us away from more "everyday" consciousness and awareness are wonderful and are to be honored, but generally speaking these also serve to transform the way we see things so that all reality is transfigured through it. This may mean an increased experience of pain because it will ALWAYS mean an increased vulnerability to reality --- just as it did with Jesus and his own life, passion, and death. Contemplative life is vulnerable life and vulnerable life is obedient life which is responsive to the whole of creation, including the dimensions of sin and death still at work in reality. We must be wary of labeling forms of dissociation (which need not be pathological) "ecstasy", "rapture," or Christian detachment.