23 November 2017

Happy Thanksgiving (partial reprise)

Personally speaking, I have had an amazing year and more, especially the past 18 months. For me, the work of those months is reaching some greater healing just at the end of the liturgical year and I can hardly say how grateful I am for it all. It has not been pleasant much of the time; it was downright painful for weeks on end, and at the same time it was a grace of God which healed, freed, and summoned to new life at every moment. Especially I experienced the consolation and challenge of a divine and humanly mediated love which has mainly supported me at every moment as it called me to leave behind ways of thinking, feeling, and being which had defined --- and sometimes crippled --- me and made me unable to respond adequately to God's call to abundant life. I think we are each called to know and to mediate this kind of love to others; it is the essence of any Christian vocation. For the hermit who is given time to focus on this kind of inner work as part of her growth in prayer and holiness it is especially an occasion of thanks.

Last year at this time my delegate sent me a copy of Nimo's song "Grateful". I had never heard it before (and I was a little surprised she would send me a "rap" song --- until I actually listened to it!) but it is truly wonderful and I want to share it here. Whether it is  because our liturgical year is coming to a close with thoughts of the creative act of God we know as judgment, because that same calendar is gifting us with Advent and the preparation for new beginnings, fresh commitment, and new birth or because some of us are US citizens celebrating Thanksgiving this week in the midst of national turmoil and anxiety, we have each been given today and the blessings it holds. Even in the midst of life's struggles and concerns, this day is a time to be grateful for all we have and are. Once again, as Dag Hammarskjöld wrote in Markings, "For all that has been, Thanks. For all that will be, Yes."

On Thomas Merton and Monastic Garb

Dear Sister Laurel, I read the following quotation from Thomas Merton which I thought was terrific. I wondered what you would say about it since you wear both cowl and other monastic garb. Would you mind commenting on it? I guess I also wonder if you agree or disagree with Merton's practice. [[I am deliberately discarding everything that can conjure up the artificial image of the monk in a cowl, dwelling in a medieval cloister. In this way I intend obviously, not to disparage or to reject the monastic institution, but to set aside all its accidentals and externals, so that they will not interfere with my view of what seems to me to be deepest and most essential.]] Thomas Merton, "Notes on a philosophy of solitude," Disputed Questions.

Thanks for what is indeed a truly terrific question from one of the Merton texts I personally love the best. Let me say I agree completely with Merton's intention or aim in structuring his discussion. I also generally agree with the way he has chosen to illustrate this intention; insofar as this was the way that worked best to allow Merton so explore what is deepest and most essential about the eremitical vocation I agree completely with his choice. It is important to remember that Merton remained a Trappist living on monastic grounds, supported by his Trappist community at Gethsemane. I think this strictly monastic context allows Merton to deal with anything that struck him as artificial or a matter of mere "externals", especially in the portrait of contemporary eremitical life. But more than this, as I recall, the entire discussion including what you have cited is part of a long note introducing the topic of a philosophy of solitude; it was meant to point to the fact that contemporary solitaries need not be monks at all, but might be lay persons.

Thus Merton's comments, when read in this specific context were not contributions to a discussion of whether or not one should wear a habit and/or cowl. Instead Merton wanted to examine the essence of a call to solitude where the individual lives the most basic or essential existential isolation and loneliness common not only to every person but to God as well. More, he wanted to do so in a way which demonstrated its enormous and universal challenge and meaningfulness. To do this he did indeed eschew those things which are "accidentals" or mere externals and which pull the discussion in the direction of monastic life alone so that he might also include folks like Thoreau. Solitude as Merton portrayed it, is a fundamental existential characteristic of human and Divine life. To embrace it as vocation is to serve both God and Mankind in a radically significant way. So Merton stripped his discussion of artificial elements which would only speak to and of a monk in his cowl or a Medieval cloister.

But your question to me broadens the discussion some to include the notion of wearing monastic garb like a habit and/or cowl. Does doing so indicate one is more concerned with accidentals and externals than with those things which are most essential and of greatest import? Depends, of course. My own sense is that this is much more a problem at the beginning of vocations when wearing a habit is a novelty, when one is not really comfortable in it yet (and perhaps not even in one's own skin!), and before one has had the time to take seriously the essentials or that which is deepest. After all it takes time for one to begin living any vocation in a way which plumbs and reveals the depths of that call. Reflecting on what is deepest or essential  demands time and some intellectual formation and focused attention. One needs to become acquainted with the thought and lives of those who have gone before in whatever tradition is involved; additionally one needs to have lived and struggled with this same tradition enough to discover the depths of one's own faith and identity in Christ.

If you notice Merton's own practice you will see that he wore a habit at times and ordinary monastic work clothes at other times. I don't think he rejected monastic garb, nor do I think he was all that concerned with what he wore --- and this would include not eschewing the Trappist habit as something external as much as it might have included embracing it as something which was not merely external. Merton was a Trappist and part of that tradition and life was the Trappist habit. Diocesan hermits today may or may not wear a habit and/or cowl. Those coming to c 603 life from some form of religious (cenobitical) life  will tend to wear a habit  which is a modification of what they already wore.

Those without any history in religious life may or may not wear a habit and if this is a first-time thing they will go through the same "stages" as anyone else: initial novelty and self-consciousness (often with a misplaced pride or sense of specialness), loss of self-consciousness and increasing identification with the tradition represented by the habit (often with an increased internalization of the values which transmute "specialness" into mission), and finally, the gradual or eventual making of the habit truly one's own (which may involve a sense that by the grace of God one's life embodies a special gift or charism to Church and world). Each of these "stages" represents a kind of deepening of one's appreciation of the vocation and the way one lives it. Each represents a shift to greater humility and communion.  The last stage (which is not really last but accompanies the other stages) emphasizes the way one's life imbues the habit with one's own story, while the penultimate stage (again not really a separate stage but a dimension present in each) emphasizes the way one's own story is shaped and sustained by a specific eremitical (or spiritual) tradition.

Eduard Schillebeeckx, a 20th C. Dominican theologian describes this same process in his essay entitled "Dominican Spirituality" in God Among Us.  [[For the most part people live by stories. I myself live by my own story. When I became a Dominican I linked my life story with the family Story of the Dominicans; as a result, my life story took on a new orientation and I picked up the thread of the story of the Order in my own way. So my own life has become part of the Dominican family story: a chapter in it. Through the story of the Order I have attained my own identity. Stories of the Dominican Order keep us together as Dominicans.

Without stories we should lose our memories, fail to find our own place in the present and remain without hope or expectation for the future. Thus as Dominicans we form a group by virtue of being our own storytelling community, which hands down its own traditions within the wider story of the many religious communities, within the all embracing story of the great community of the church, and within the even greater community of humankind. This makes us our own special family, recognizable from all kinds of family characteristics. Some are major, some are minor, but none of them can be hidden. 

In saying this, I have already said something about Dominican spirituality. The story of my life can be my own life story only in so far as it has become a chapter of the Dominican family story. The story of my own life extends and enriches the history of Dominican spirituality, while as a small almost infinitesimally small – almost infinitely small – chapter in it, it is at the same time relativized and criticized by the already older and wider story of the Dominican family. This makes me ask whether I really am not distorting this family story. So I am already others as a norm for Dominican spirituality. Furthermore, thank God, there are still Dominicans alive today. In other words, our story is not yet exhausted, completely told; there is still something to be said.]]

I understand the wearing of (and often, the well-considered choice to relinquish the habit in certain circumstances) is part of this process of making a particular story one's own and assuming responsibility for being a living chapter in that story. It is only a part of the necessary deepening of an ecclesial vocation such as c 603 eremitical life, but in such a process, when lived well it is certainly more than something which is merely an external and superficial element of living out one's call. For the solitary canonical hermit who must live "stricter separation from the world" in the midst of the world, the habit can be an especially challenging as well as indispensable piece of embracing both the mission and charism of her vocation. Those who choose not to wear a habit (and lay hermits who may not do so anyway because they have not been given the right) embrace characteristics like the call's hiddenness differently and  tell the eremitical story in a different way. So long as each hermit is acting in considered and prayerful ways they are an important part of the essence of the call and an expression of the depth such vocations demands.

I hope this helps as a start on this topic of habits.

17 November 2017

Pretense, Fraud, and the Transparency of Faith

I admit that I get a lot of questions by readers wondering about various online hermits and whether they are fakes or frauds. Recently my attention was drawn to a highly developed website constructed by a "hermit" who includes a similarly developed and self-serving philosophy of tithing allowing people to pay this person's living expenses, internet presence, "ministries", etc. Of course the person is dressed in a habit (he has never made canonical vows), has a number of "advanced degrees" listed all from a correspondence school he runs himself (listed at a residence he once used), etc. The immediate impression is weighty, especially given the liberal sprinkling of Latin phrases, papal symbols, references to canon law, and the included photo of a "doctorate" in Theology from his unaccredited "school"  --- but it all falls apart with a little bit of examination. Others call themselves "Catholic hermits" or "consecrated Catholic hermits" despite the fact that their only vows are private acts of dedication and the Church has not commissioned them to live eremitical life in the Church's name --- something only She can do. Some of these folks have worn a habit for so long and used titles so facilely that folks wonder how they can not be genuine (authorized canonically by the Church to live as hermits or religious). But they are not.

I remind myself that these people may be doing very good things with their lives. They may be splendid examples of God's power perfected in weakness and they may even be living exemplary eremitical lives in some senses. The problem for me is there is so much pretense involved that it is hard to excuse or even understand such lives as instances of grace winning out over weakness and incapacity. When there is outright deception and fraud it gets harder still to give the benefit of the doubt in this matter. And when I run into such persons or am asked questions about them, it is simply hard not to hear echoes of Jesus' warning about scandalizing the little ones and having a millstone hung around one's neck as one is thrown into the sea (cf Monday's Gospel lection). In any case I am reminded that pretense can give scandal and that it is a sure way to drown in a Christian life. However, there is a time and a place for me to answer queries and even to take appropriate action regarding such fraud. Generally speaking, my attention cannot be focused there except to hear these stories as cautionary tales about the danger of pretense and fraud in any eremitical (or Christian) life! And so should we all.

Our current lections from the Gospel of Luke have been challenging, especially to those unused to language designed to harpoon our complacency and outline what we are obligated to by our call from God. The Gospel lections from Monday and Tuesday were particularly challenging, as was last Friday's parable of the prudent Steward. In Monday's lection, as noted above, we are warned that we ought not give scandal to God's "little ones". Our faith is meant to be exemplary --- not a matter of show but of complete transparency to the life and power of God. When I was at St Mary's College (CA) in the 1970's I did my Major's senior project on Paul Tillich's Systematic Theology. In the process of reading Tillich I learned that he understood faith as, ". . .das Ergriffensein von dem, was uns unbedingt angeht,"**  or "A state of being grasped by an unconditional concern." (It is a sentence I still know better in German than I do the English!) In other words, faith is a matter of being taken hold of by a transcendent hope and need beyond all others. Pastorally speaking it means being grasped by God's own will and purposes, God's love and mercy; it means being shaken to our core by that which is ultimate rather than passing and superficial, and it means revealing this state and what makes it possible to others so that they too may be grasped in the same way. In such a life no pretense is possible much less outright fraud. Our lives are meant to be marked by miracles --- even if we are not aware of them ourselves. We are to live from a faith which moves mountains or pulls up densely rooted trees and tosses these into the sea.

In Tuesday's Gospel passage Luke's Jesus addresses any attitudes of self-congratulation or (again) complacency. Luke recounts the question of how his hearer would behave if a servant came in from the field and we were waiting for lunch. He has Jesus ask us if we wouldn't insist the servant get busy and fix and serve us our meal rather than allowing him to get washed up and rest a bit first --- and the text reads that of course we would insist in this way! It's on a par with the question about going off to save the lost sheep while leaving the 99 to fend for themselves! We are supposed to agree when Jesus asks us these kinds of  rhetorical questions but deep down we really think he's a bit crazy to think, much less ask us to think  like this. In this way Jesus manages to uncover our deepest selves; he troubles us and makes us reflect on who we are and how we believe and act. With Tuesday's lection the lesson cuts in a surprising way; we are asked to recognize that we are called to serve God in the same way a servant in Jesus' day was called to serve their Master. If we do this we are not doing anything worthy of congratulation or kudos. We are merely being the persons we are meant and made to be --- and made to be ceaselessly. (The fact that we are called unprofitable servants does not mean we are worthless; it means that what miraculous things we have done with our lives in light of our faith are only what we are made to do; there is no profit above and beyond that that we can bring to our account with God.)

Again, Luke's Gospel can be challenging and even downright difficult; the readings over the past week have certainly been that! What is true though is that Luke recognizes that we are each called to be afire with faith in a way which casts sparks in every direction and allows others to catch fire with that same faith (cf Tuesday's lection from Wisdom). Discipleship is a demanding reality; it has room for neither pretense nor fraud. It calls for  the gift of our entire life so that we might be the source of God's life to all we meet. But the life of real discipleship is also a life of joy and incredible satisfaction --- if only we will allow God to grasp and shake us to our very foundations, and remake us in the image, truth, and beauty of His Christ!

** Tillich, Paul, Wesen und Wandel des Glaubens (or Dynamics of Faith)

16 November 2017

The Crisis Parable of the Shrewd Steward: "What Should I do?"

Awhile back I wrote that the evangelical counsels apply to all the baptized, though not in the same way. For instance religious men and women make vows of religious poverty and religious obedience while other Christians are responsible for a praxis of poverty and obedience appropriate to their state of life. Those not in the religious or consecrated state must live simply and attentively as befits a disciple of Christ but must also take on all those responsibilities the laity is expected to assume whether those of raising a family, building and running a business, participating in public office, etc etc. Especially they  must learn to handle material wealth of all sorts appropriately. The parable in last Friday's Gospel reiterates this lesson in the same language as we hear in the affirmation that we must be gentle as doves and shrewd as serpents. Because of the unlikeable nature of the characters in the story and a tendency to treat this as an analogy we might miss this fact.

The parable of the prodigal (and prudent) steward (sometimes called the dishonest steward) is known as one of the most difficult and "off-putting" parables in the entire corpus. Scholars note that more ink has been penned in regard to this parable than most all others. The situation it describes is seemingly straightforward. A property manager is accused of being prodigal with the wealth of his Master. He is found out and told by his Master that he will be sacked. Upon looking at his prospects he realizes that since he is too weak to work as a manual laborer ("too weak to dig") and too proud to beg he needs to do something to secure his future. In a culture where one who is done a favor by another is strictly indebted to the other to return the favor, the manager goes to each of the Master's client villages and has them cut the amount they owe the Master by a substantial degree. To the one owing  100 measures of wheat he has them cut it to 80. To the one owing 900 gal of oil he has them cut it to 450 gal. To his own prodigality it seems he has now added inciting to forgery and fraud. And yet, is this really the way things stand?

A few things we should pay attention to before we leap to judgments: First, the amounts "owed" have likely had a degree of interest added up front to skirt the legal prohibition against usury. Thus, if a village owed 83 measures of wheat and the Master wanted to gain 20% interest he (and his manager or steward) would have written the contract for @100 (99.6) measures and no interest in order to "honor" the Torah. Thus it may be (and a number of commentators assert) that the manager is only cutting off the interest on the principal. Secondly though, we need to understand that the steward (manager) has complete authority to act in the name of the Master, and that means that whatever he does is valid --- including cutting the amounts owed. (The furtiveness of his action belies this in this parable but it remains "the way things were" when one acted in the name of another.) Thirdly, while he has been accused of "scattering" the Master's property, there is nothing he does which makes him guilty of illegality from the get go. Structurally this parable mirrors Luke's parable of the merciful Father or prodigal Son; he is prodigal at first but no more or less. Fourthly, while we may not like to hear that God is like the Master or Jesus like the steward, we need to remember that the parable is not an allegory. Instead it is an analogy and compares at only one point, namely, what shrewdness the children of this world have and how like them the Children of Light should be but using the values of the Kingdom of God to guide and inspire!

Once these things have been considered and once we pay attention to the fact that the Master never applauds the steward's dishonesty but rather his shrewdness or prudence we may have a better sense of how the parable instructs us. If we look very carefully we must see that the Master may lose nothing because he regains a prudent steward with an "in" with the tenants or client villages. It is unclear he actually loses any of the principle (goods) owed him (commentators disagree on the matter). The steward has the same kind of "come-to-Jesus" moment the prodigal Son does. It is not a wholehearted conversion experience any more than is that of the prodigal Son, but he seeks to secure himself in a humbling way and may improve his lot with the Master as well. We simply don't know this but given the Master's praise for the steward's shrewdness it is a possibility. Finally the tenant farmers benefit by having a large amount of the property owed forgiven them. If the steward is taken back by the Master they are also unlikely to have to pay on the favor done them. In other words everyone wins!

If we Christians use a similar shrewdness but as driven or motivated and informed by the principles of the Gospel and Reign of God, we will be doing well indeed! We are told to be gentle as doves and clever as serpents in other texts. Here we are reminded to use our wealth prudently and to make friends of others so that we might have heavenly friends. In this regard I admit I am always stunned to see folks depend upon financial managers, go to school for MBA's, and so forth even while they tend to embrace a theology or approach moral theology and prayer in a way which is no more sophisticated than a grade school education allows. But in light of this "crisis parable" the steward's question, "What should I do?" must also be our own. Our Christian lives are meant to respond to this very same decision or "krisis (κρισις)" and reveal an even greater shrewdness in regard to possessions and the way we structure our world which is rooted in and reflects the reign of God. It is one of the primary ways the baptized Christian without a public vow of religious poverty is attentive to the evangelical counsel of "poverty".

03 November 2017

Apologies and Thanks!

[[Dear Sister Laurel, where are you??? No pressure. I just wondered if you are okay or have been on retreat or something. I miss your posts.]]

Thanks to a number of readers who asked after me in the past week or so. I have not been on retreat nor am I directly affected by the horrific wildfires in the North Bay; even so the past six weeks or so have still been difficult for me and writing is one of the things that suffers as a result. This last month is the first time I have been unable to put up at least a few posts. So please accept my apologies. I am certainly not abandoning this blog and plan to continue writing as I have done for more than ten years. Hopefully that will be in the very near future! Meanwhile if you have questions or if I have not yet posted a response on a question, could you be sure and email me again at SRLAUREL@aol.com? Also please keep me in your prayer as I will do with you. That would mean a lot to me. As St Francis would have closed, Pax et bonum!