25 December 2017

Joy to the World! Hodie Christus Natus Est! (Reprise)

The scandal of the incarnation is one of the themes we neglect at Christmastime or, at best, allude to only indirectly. Nor is there anything wrong with that. We live through the struggles of our lives in light of the moments of hope and joy our faith provides and there is nothing wrong with focusing on the wonder and joy of the birth of our savior. There is nothing wrong with sentimentality nor with all the light and glitter and sound of our Christmas preparations and celebrations. For a brief time we allow the joy of the mystery of Christmas to predominate. We focus on the gift God has given, and the gift we ourselves are meant to become in light of this very special nativity.

Among other things we look closely in the week prior to Christmas at the series of "yeses" that were required for this birth to come to realization, the barrenness that was brought to fruitfulness in the power of the Holy Spirit. We add to this Zechariah's muteness which culminates in a word of prophecy and a canticle of praise, along with the book of Hebrews' summary of all the partial ways God has spoken himself to us; we then set all of these off against the Prologue to John's Gospel with its majestic affirmation of the Word made flesh and God revealed exhaustively to US. The humbleness of the birth is a piece of all this, of course, but the scandal, the offense of such humbleness in the creator God's revelation of self is something we neglect, not least because we see all this with eyes of faith --- eyes which suspend the disbelief of strict rationality temporarily so that we can see instead the beauty and wonder which are also there. The real challenge of course is to hold both truths, scandal and beauty, together in a sacramental paradox.

And so I have tried to do in this symbol of the season. This year my Christmas tree combines both the wonder and the scandal of the incarnation, the humbleness of Jesus' estate in human terms, and the beauty of a world transformed with the eyes of love. Through the coming week the readings are serious (Stephen's martyrdom and the massacre of the holy innocents, a warning about choosing "the world," and so forth) for darkness is still very real and resents and seeks to threaten our joy. Yet, all this is contextualized within the Christmas proclamation that darkness has been unable to quench the divine light that has come into our world, and the inarticulate groaning which often marks this existence has been brought to a new and joy-filled articulateness in the incarnate Word. Everything, we believe, can become sacramental; everything a symbol of God's light and life amongst us; everything a song of joy and meaning! And so too with this fragile "Charlie Brown" tree.

All good wishes for a wonderful Christmastide for all who read here, and to all of your families. Today the heavens are not silent. Today they sing: Alleluia, Alleluia!! Hodie Christus Natus Est! Alleluia!

17 December 2017

Gaudete Sunday

As I have written here before, Chanticleer sings each year in the St Ignatius Church of USF and I am often delighted by the opportunity to celebrate the last week of Advent in this way. There is a signature piece they do each year, namely, Biebl's Ave Maria --- what most of us would recognize as the Angelus. People attending await it with excitement; in response they applaud with hands and feet, with gentle cries of delight and the occasional whoop of appreciation. The music expresses joy, reverence, and awe. It is perfect to remind us of the quietly jubilant quality not only of Advent generally but of Gaudete Sunday especially. My very best to you and yours for the rest of this season and, until I can post again, for a wonderful Christmas season. Rejoice!

Response to Article on Hermits

 Dear Sister, I am sending you the link to an article on contemporary hermits and solitude. A reporter went to talk with hermits whose names came from a newsletter and also from a monk. He visited two hermits and writes about both of them. Over all he was in search of some special wisdom solitude provides and was disappointed by both encounters. One of his summaries of his experience said: [[In other words, if you go into solitude to get away from something, your troubles will probably follow you. This, I suspect, was Virgil’s story. It was probably my own, too, and I returned to the city unhappy that my hermit encounters had not yielded more. To my disappointment, Virgil and Doug had proved all too human.]] I was hoping you would read the article and comment on it. Are these two men typical of hermits? How about diocesan hermits? Have you ever had someone come see how you were living? I don't even know what to ask. Please just comment on the article!! ("This reclusive life: what I learned  about solitude from my time with hermits"  in The Guardian, 6 October, 2017)

Thanks,  your link didn't work for me but I was able to google the article with the information you provided. The article was an interesting one. It sounds like the author made a number of correspondents through Raven's Bread, a longstanding newsletter for hermits, solitaries, and those interested in eremitical life. He notes the contacts he made there didn't lead anywhere so he first contacted Virgil ---   vying now, to my mind anyway, with Tom Leppard as the misanthropy  poster boy. Virgil is a disturbing and problematic stereotype. He is portrayed as an angry, volatile, possibly alcoholic misanthrope. Undoubtedly he did not yield any significant insight or piece of eremitical wisdom because his solitude was a matter of self-indulgent escape, nothing more. Solitude, as Merton might have said, had apparently not opened her door to him and for that reason the wisdom of solitude is not really accessible to him. There are other ways of saying that, but I think this is the most general and least personal since I do not know the man.

Doug sounded like both a nice and a lonely guy. I tend to believe the monk who characterized him as "the real deal."  Doug had his problems (possibly some form of ADHD) but solitude seems to be or have been an environment that suited him. The author may or may not have understood vocations to solitude; whether or not he did is unclear to me. What seems clear is that Doug's conversations with Saints, et al, made the author of the article believe solitude was harmful in Doug's case. After summarizing his contact with Doug the article starts to focus more completely on the destructive capacity of solitude. I wonder if this was not the cynical backstory which presupposed the author seeking out and speaking with contemporary hermits at all. Whether I am correct in that I do conclude he misunderstood the way he translated the following saying from the desert Fathers and Mothers: [[It is better to live among the crowd and keep a solitary life in your spirit than to live alone with your heart in the crowd.]]

As you note in your question, the authors says [[In other words, if you go into solitude to get away from something, your troubles will probably follow you.]] But the saying really means, if one is called to solitude and cannot live that out in physical solitude, it is better to live an inner solitude of the heart in the midst of the crowd than it is  to live alone when one's heart is somewhere else. Hermits, as the Church uses the term, are people whose hearts are made whole and full of life in physical and inner solitude. For one called to be a hermit it might still be necessary to live in a physically crowded situation like a city, but even then this person can cultivate a solitude of the heart which will be life giving. They will be in far better condition than the one who tries to live as a hermit when s/he is not called to it. Yes, one not called to live eremitical solitude might well be running from something when s/he moves into the desert, but this is not the only possible reason one turns to solitude when one is not called to it. In any case I think the article got the point of the desert apothegm wrong.

Also, the author reveals the real reason he is disappointed in these two hermits, namely, [[Virgil and Doug had proved too human"! I wish he had said too fallible or too hung up, or something similar. If one is looking for hermits to be anything more than entirely and radically human, then one is looking in the wrong place. The desert does not create angels. It creates (or destroys) human beings.

For those to whom solitude opens her door, solitude creates radically whole and holy human beings, human beings significantly marked and measured by compassion and love, persons who are attuned to mystery and the transcendent but who, for this very reason, are empowered to live as embodied spirit in the present moment. Hermits are profoundly human because they live from and for a dialogue or conversation with God who makes us human. This is true for any human person to the extent they are truly and fully human. That dialogue might be mediated in many many ways and God might be met in/and as truth, beauty, meaning, justice, future, depth, etc. but again, human beings are human to the extent they exist in dialogue with and are completed by God. The wisdom of solitude is always some form of this conclusion and the way solitude empowers this dialogue.

Have I ever had someone come to see how I was living? Beside the Vicar for Religious who visited regularly when I was first becoming a diocesan hermit and my own director (delegate) and pastor, no I haven't. I have been interviewed here twice, once for a local newspaper and once for a student's doctoral dissertation. A couple of other things including a podcast for A Nun's Life were done by phone or by skype.

In the main it is impractical to have someone come here to "see how I live." My hermitage is small and there is not much to see and no way to accommodate overnight guests. I have had a couple of lay persons who wanted to come and see "how I live" but what could I show them? How I pray? How I read or study? How I meet with clients, etc? How I do chores, cook dinner, wash the dishes? I think you get the picture. Life here in Stillsong is extraordinary but it is extraordinary because of the God that transfigures it with his grace; otherwise it is extremely ordinary and there is simply not much to see! Like Doug and Virgil I am all too human and if someone came here looking to find some extraordinary insight and wisdom or evidence of extraordinary prayer experiences, I would have to think they would be disappointed --- just as they might be disappointed by the incarnation and a God who chooses to come to us in the ordinary.

By the way, I don't think either man in the article is typical of the diocesan hermit because diocesan hermits live eremitical solitude in the name of the Church and for the sake of others. I did not get the impression from either Doug or Virgil that they had a sense of living solitude for the sake of others. This is an important dimension of every canonical (Catholic) hermit's life and motivation.

12 December 2017

Primacy of Conscience and Voting in "One Issue Elections"

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I've been watching the Alabama election returns. One issue that comes up again and again is that of abortion. For many in this election their vote hinges on that one issue only --- abortion. I remember you put up a post about this at one point but I couldn't find it tonight. Would you mind reposting it? Thank you!]]

Yes, I am sorry you couldn't find it. It is filed under "conscience -- primacy of" as well as "Benedict XVI and voting" and just plain "voting". Here is the article you were asking about. I have cut some of it to limit it to the key points: 1) what it means to have an informed and a well-formed conscience, and 2) how one determines one is to vote in a situation which is ambiguous or (misleadingly) marked as a "one-issue" situation.

The Cave of the Heart
. . .Let me restate 1) the pertinent part of the Church's teaching on the nature and primacy of conscience, and 2) Benedict XVI's analysis of elections which involve, for instance, the issues of abortion and contraception when neither candidate or party platform is really completely acceptable to Catholics.

First, we are to inform and form our consciences to the best of our ability. This means we are not only to learn as much as we can about  the issue at hand including church teaching, medical and scientific information, sociological data, theological data, and so forth (this is part of the way to an informed conscience), but we are to do all we can to be sure we have the capacity to make a conscience judgment and act on it. This means we must develop the capacity to discern all the values and disvalues present in a given situation, preference them appropriately, and then determine or make a conscience judgment regarding how we must act. Finally we must act on the conscience or prudential judgment that we have come to. (This latter capacity which reasons morally about all the information is what is called a well-formed conscience. A badly formed conscience is one which is incapable of reasoning morally, discerning the values and disvalues present, preferencing these, and making a judgment on how one must act in such a situation. Note well, that those who merely "do as authority tells them" may not have a well-formed conscience informed though they may be regarding what the Church teaches in a general way!)

There are No Shortcuts, No Ways to Free ourselves from the Complexity or the Risk of this Process and Responsibility:

There is no short cut to this process of informing and forming our consciences. No one can discern or decide for us, not even Bishops and Popes. They can provide information, but we must look at ALL the values and disvalues in the SPECIFIC situation and come to a conscientious judgment ourselves. The human conscience is inviolable, the inner sanctum where God speaks to each of us alone. It ALWAYS has primacy. Of course we may err in our conscience judgment, but if we 1) fail to act to adequately inform and form our consciences, or 2) act in a way which is contrary to our own conscience judgment we are more likely guilty of sin (this is  actually certain in the latter case). If we act in good faith, we are NEVER guilty of sin --- though we may act wrongly and have to bear the consequences of that action. If we err, the matter is neutral at worst and could even still involve great virtue. If we act in bad faith, we ALWAYS sin, and often quite seriously, for to act against a conscience judgment is to act against the very voice of God as heard in our heart of hearts.

And what about conscience judgments which are not in accord with Church teaching (or in this case, with what some Bishops are saying)? I have written about this before but it bears repeating. Remember that at Vatican II the minority group approached the theological commission with a proposal to edit a text on conscience. The text spoke about the nature of a well-formed conscience. The redaction the minority proposed was that the text should read, "A well-formed conscience is one formed in accord (or to accord) with Church teaching." The theological commission rejected this redaction as too rigid and reminded the Fathers that they had already clearly taught what the church had always held on conscience. And yet today we hear all the time from various places, including some Bishops, that if one's conscience judgment is not in accord with Church teaching the conscience is necessarily not well-formed. But this is not Church teaching --- not the teaching articulated by Thomas Aquinas or Innocent III, for instance, who counseled people that they MUST follow their consciences even if that meant bearing with excommunication.

Benedict XVI's Analysis:

Now then, what about Benedict XVI's analysis of voting in situations of ambiguity where, for instance, one party supports abortion but is deemed more consistently pro-life otherwise? What happens when this situation is sharpened by an opposing party who claims to be anti-abortion but has done nothing concrete to stop it? MUST a Catholic vote for the anti-abortion party or be guilty of endangering their immortal souls? Will they necessarily become complicit in intrinsic evil if they vote for the candidate or party which supports abortion? The answer is no. Here is what Benedict XVI said: If a person is trying to decide for or against a particular candidate and determines that one candidate's party is more consistently pro-life than the other party, even though that first party supports abortion or contraception, the voter may vote in good conscience for that first candidate and party SO LONG AS they do not do so BECAUSE of the candidate's position on abortion or contraception.

In other words, in such a situation abortion is not the single overarching issue which ALWAYS decides the case. One CAN act in good faith and vote for a candidate or party which seems to support life as a seamless garment better than another party, even if that candidate or party does not oppose abortion. One cannot vote FOR intrinsic evil, of course, but one can vote for all sorts of goods which are clearly Gospel imperatives and still not be considered complicit in intrinsic evil. By the way, this is NOT the same thing as doing evil in order that good may result!! Benedict XVI's analysis is less simplistic than some characterizations I have heard recently; theologically it seems to me to be far more cogent and nuanced than these, and it is [an analysis] Bishops who are supposed to be in union with him when they teach as the ordinary Magisterium should certainly strongly reconsider and learn from. . . .

10 December 2017

On Eremitical Life: Advent, Movies, and Lectio Divina

 [[ Dear Sister Laurel, I'm thinking you may not be surprised by my questions. I saw what you said about going to the movies 2 or even 3 times during Advent and Christmas and it made me wonder how you could do that and be a hermit. I was even more surprised that your delegate went with you! So, could you explain to me how that all works? Does it fit into your Rule? Isn't Advent a period of greater solitude for you (hermits).  I can hear others saying, "The movies? She isn't a hermit!" I would also bet I am not the only one who wrote you wondering about this!]]

Well, I will say I expected people to write me about this but so far, you are the only person to do so! Now that's not bad. Your questions are, as I say, understandable. So let me give them a shot. First of all, this is not a regular practice but it could be (say once a month or every two or three months), especially if I choose good movies that are thoughtfully and artistically done, and more especially if they are based on a true story or a book that is recognized as inspiring. It is not surprising to folks that hermits do a kind of reading called lectio divina. What may be surprising though is that movies may also be good subjects for lectio. For instance, in 2011 I saw the movie "The Tree of Life" with my pastor. Initially we both hated it, but I found it working within me in the hours and days thereafter and decided it was really a beautiful, wonderful film which was suitable to contemplative prayer and life --- much to my pastor's (perhaps feigned)  irritation! In talking about all this with other religious I learned that a monk and hermit from a nearby monastery had seen this film 5 or 6 times and was "using it for his lectio"; he was planning on seeing it several more times.

Something similar happened for me with the movies Life of Pi, The King's Speech, Of Gods and Men and Into Great Silence; eventually we arranged a DVD showing/discussion of this last one at my parish. The simple fact is that God can speak to us in movies just as God does in passages of Scripture, theological books, or even some novels. For instance, I have long known that every time I read a Steinbeck novel something profound happens to me spiritually. The same was often true of AJ Cronin's novels which I read mainly in junior high school --- and again as an adult. The notion that some works are "spiritual" while some are "worldly" in a way which means they cannot mediate the Word of God to us and must be avoided is not only simplistic, it is counter the truth the Incarnation itself reveals to us; namely, our God comes to us in whatever ways we seek him; He makes holy whatever He will, whatever He touches. The "ordinary" and "worldly" (as this term is commonly used) are entirely suitable to mediate God's powerful presence to us. Christians know that with God nothing is ordinary. All is at least potentially sacramental. When a filmmaker or novelist, etc, creates a work of art meant to be beautiful, true, meaningful, and so forth, and when that work attempts to speak these with integrity, God will be mediated to the one who knows how to listen and to seek Him. One may therefore practice lectio with these as well as with other "texts".

In the case of Wonder both I and my director (a word I use in place of "delegate" more and more) knew the story and the story of the person on whom the movie is based. Both of us had heard from other Sisters, et. al. that the movie was excellent and well worth seeing. It was not until I saw it though that I saw how clearly it fits with Advent and some of the early readings in this season. Only then did I recognize its capacity to inspire and shape my own heart with courage, compassion, and empathy. While I am unlikely to see the movie again (unless it becomes available on DVD), I am likely to read the book and use that for lectio along with the movie that now (still) lives within me.

When you consider this I think you can understand how it is possible to see movies not only because they are recreational in the usual sense, but because they can be prayed and are meant to be prayed (that is, attended in a way where one "seeks God"). With good films one opens oneself to the story (just as one does with one of Jesus' parables), is drawn in some way, and then one finds one's mind and heart engaged by the God of truth, beauty, love, challenge, courage, consolation, death, (monastic) stability, martyrdom (witness or parrhesia), and so forth. Let me say that when one attends a movie in a theatre, it remains a fairly solitary event. The reflection done on it may include others at points thereafter, but there is little or no conversation during the film and afterward one brings it all to God in solitary prayer. So, to answer your initial questions, yes, this comports with my Rule. My director usually leaves decisions re what comports with my Rule in my own hands of course, but at the same time I don't think she would have worked out the accommodations she did if she had had misgivings about my decision. So, was seeing this film (and the others as well) appropriate for a canonical (consecrated) hermit? Yes, it was; and given all the conditions already stated it could make a significant contribution to one's eremitical life.

Regarding Advent, no, it is not a season of stricter or greater solitude. I simply live my Rule as I would during ordinary time or Pentecost. Advent is not a penitential season; the focus is not on sin, forgiveness, ascesis, and so forth, but on preparation and waiting in joyful expectation. Yes, there is an aspect of penance, but strictly speaking Advent is not a penitential season. I understand the season as a time to focus on listening, preparing, and responding with all the small "fiats" embodying the God of the Incarnation may require. I approach it as a season focusing on the sacramentality and therefore, the transfiguration of the ordinary. It is a season marked by pregnancy --- thus my reading of Haught's The New Cosmic Story; it tells the story of an unfinished universe unfolding and evolving into something (a new heaven and new earth) we cannot even imagine, a pregnant universe burgeoning with potential and grace. And, as it turns out, in my own inner work this is a theme I need especially to focus on right at this time.

I hope this answer your questions and is helpful to you. All good wishes for Advent, and too, for Christmastide.

Addendum: Those interested in the use of Lectio Divina with icons, movies, and other forms of media --- or even with one's life experience (!) might be interested in Lectio Divina: Contemplative Awakening and Awareness by Christine Valters Paintner and Lucy Wyncoop OSB.

09 December 2017

Sunday #2: Preparing the Way of the Lord, A bit of Advent Reading and Writing

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths: All flesh shall see the salvation of God.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
We all choose what is important for celebrating Advent well,--- what is necessary to prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight his paths, to ready ourselves to see (i.e., to receive, understand, and to be transformed and transfigured by) the salvation of our God in Christ. This year I am going back to focus once again on the Lord's Prayer as one key to this preparation. I am spending my mornings doing lectio, study, and writing on this prayer. It has always been an incredible source of life, insight, and strength for me; two of my favorite authors, Tom Wright and Gerhard Ebeling write especially about the prayer in terms of Advent and waiting on the Lord.
One of Ebeling's most striking observations in his work, On Prayer, The Lord's Prayer in Today's World is an insight that transformed my own theology and understanding of prayer when I first read the book as an undergraduate @ 1973. Ebeling was writing about the petition, "Hallowed be Thy name," and said: [[. . .we ought not to tone down its amazing, and indeed offensive, aspect or reduce it to a mere act of reverent adoration before the glory of God. For this is the most necessary petition. In other words it is concerned with the greatest need, God's need. . . .we must pray to God on behalf of God: that he would take up his own cause, that he would assert himself as God, that he would come, that he would appear, that he would reveal himself, that he would arise as God, that he would in very truth become God. This is the deepest source of prayer: God himself compels us to this intercession for God, to this passionate longing, that God will become God.]] In this passage I think Ebeling captures two senses of the meaning of waiting on God: 1) looking forward to God's coming and to the fulfillment of God's purposes with anticipation, and 2) serving God and allowing our lives to be defined by this service.
I am reading two other books for Advent. The first is a new book by John Haught, The New Cosmic Story, Inside Our Awakening Universe. As we hear in some of the readings of Advent, we look forward to a new Heaven and a new Earth, not merely to going to an otherworldly Heaven. Theologically this means that we must look at ourselves, our religion, and our world very differently than we have in the past. It is the Christ event, the exhaustive Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, that is the key to understanding what this means, namely, that we human beings are embodied Spirit and that our ultimate hope is that the entire cosmos will be fulfilled in Christ. Human beings are not meant or made to be disembodied Spirit. Our souls yearn to be embodied and our ultimate form of existence will be embodied. As Ratzinger once explained in his book, Eschatology, as our souls are the form of our bodies, so do they "build a body about (around) themselves," and, after death, yearn for what our creeds affirm as the resurrection of the body. Meanwhile, science has "given us" a universe which is unfinished; our faith tells us that in Christ human beings play a part in helping creation be brought to fulfillment as a "new creation", "a new heaven and earth" --- just as we have a part in God becoming God!
The second book is Pagola's,  Jesus, A Historical Approximation. I first read this five or six years ago and return to it from time to time, rereading a section or two, and sometimes more. It is a beautiful book in every sense; it introduces us to the historical Jesus and his world without being either heavily academic or skeptical. It reads like the book of someone in love with Jesus even as it is informed by contemporary scholarship; certainly it can help with the preparation of one's mind and heart for the coming of Jesus. Especially, as I pray and work with Jesus' prayer, it is a book that can remind me of who Jesus was/is and how he related to his Abba --- it is a work that helps me see what the fulfillment of embodied Spirit (or embodied Word) is and does --- and thus, by participation in Christ, to the incarnation I am called to realize during Advent and beyond.
Meanwhile, Advent and Christmas are seasons when I sometimes do more outside the hermitage --- specifically, every couple of years or so I go to the movies two or even three times if there are good things showing or to a concert or ballet. (Sometimes I will go alone, but more often it is something I do with friends as a holiday celebration.) A week ago Friday my delegate and I met for about an hour and a half, had a light lunch, and then we went and saw the movie Wonder. We stopped for hamburgers (well, fillet o' fish) on the way home --- all (except for meeting together) things we do very rarely; it was an excellent day! I will try to write more about the movie separately, I think, but let me say here it was wonderful: inspiring, moving, and incredibly appropriate for the beginning of Advent (the scandal of the Incarnation and Isaiah's, "A little child shall lead them," comes to mind here!). My delegate's characterization was exactly right, I thought; she commented that what she most appreciated, "was everyone had their journey to make because of the presence and impact of this unique child!!!" And so, this wonderful story helped set the tone and prepare our hearts to meet Christ anew as we entered the season of Advent.

08 December 2017

Mary, I Will Overshadow You. Be Not Afraid!

I wonder what the annunciation of Jesus' conception was really like factually, what the angel's message (that is, God's own message) sounded like and how it came to Mary. I imagine the months that would have passed without Mary having a period and her anxiety about what might be wrong, and then a subtle sign here, an ambiguous symptom there, and eventually the full realization of the inexplicable fact that she was pregnant! That would have been a shock, of course, but even then it would have taken some time for the bone deep fear to register: "I have not been intimate with a man! What will Joseph think?" and then, "O God, I can be killed for this!" while only over more time comes the even deeper sense that God had overshadowed her and that she need not be afraid. God was doing something completely new and would stand by Mary just as he promised when he revealed himself originally to Moses as: "I will be who I will be," --- and "I will be present to you, never leaving you bereft or barren."

In the work I do with people in spiritual direction, one of the tools I ask clients to use sometimes is dialogue. The idea is to externalize and make explicit in writing the disparate voices we carry within us: it may be a conversation between the voice of reason and the voice of fear, or the voice of stubbornness or that of impulsivity and our wiser, more flexible selves who speak to and with one another at these times so that this existence may have a future marked by wholeness, holiness, and new life. As individuals become adept at doing these dialogues, they may even discover themselves echoing or revealing at one moment the very voice of God which dwells in the deepest, most real parts of their heart as they simultaneously bring their most profound needs and fears to the conversation. Almost invariably these kinds of dialogues bring strength and healing, integration and faith. When I hear today's Gospel story I hear it as this kind of internal dialogue between the frightened, bewildered Mary and the deepest, truest, part of herself which is God's Word and Spirit calling her beyond all she has known before but in harmony with her people's covenant traditions and promises.

This is the way faith comes to most of us, the way we come to know and hear the voice of God in our lives. For most of us the Word of God dwells within us and only gradually steps out of the background in response to our fears, confusion, and needs as we ponder them in our hearts --- just as Mary did her entire life, but especially at times like this. In the midst of turmoil, of events which turn life plans on their heads and shatter dreams, there in our midst will be the God of Moses and Mary and Jesus reminding us, "I will overshadow you; depend on me, say yes to this, open yourself to my promise and perspective and we will bring life and meaning out of this; together we will make a gift of this tragedy for you and for the whole world! We will bring to birth a Word the world needs so desperately to hear: Be not afraid for I am with you. Be not afraid for you are precious to me."

Annunciations happen to us every day: small moments that signal the advent of a new opportunity to embody Christ and gift him to others. Perhaps many are missed and fewer are heeded as Mary heeded her own and gave her fiat to the change which would make something entirely new of her life, her tradition, and her world. But Mary's story is very much our own story as well, and the coming Feast of Christ's nativity is meant to refer to his being born of us as well. The world into which he will be brought will not love him really --- not if he is the Jesus our Scriptures and our creeds proclaim. But our own fiat will be accompanied by the reassuring voice of God: "I will overshadow you and accompany you. Our stories are joined now, inextricably wed as I say yes to you and you say yes to me. Together we create the future. Salvation will be born from this union. Be not afraid!"

03 December 2017

First Sunday of Advent

 All good wishes on this first Sunday of Advent! "Adventus" is a season where we prepare to see the surprising ways God works in our lives, where we are especially cognizant of the choices which allow God to be active deep within our own hearts and within our larger world; it is where we learn to look more closely and attentively at everything within and around so that we are prepared to respond as fully as possible to this God of newness and surprises.

For many of us there is a paring down to the essentials in order to make all this possible. We also take greater care and time with our own self-inventory, our own inner work --- especially as that allows the life of God to move through and fill us. And of course, we make sure there is sufficient silence to truly hear the movements of our own hearts and the God who would be Emmanuel by taking up complete residence there. These are the really essential "preparations for Christmas" which put shopping and other things we also must do in their proper place.

I find it awesome to consider that the God who would "tent" among us has chosen my own heart and soul, my own mind and body --- with all of their flaws and weaknesses --- to reveal the fullness and perfection of Divine love made manifest in Christ. But through the past months I have watched the greening of new life nascent within me; I have seen it where I thought it could never be and sometimes where I thought it had been quenched forever. Ours is a God of newness and life and we are called to allow these to spring up within us wherever they will. He is faithful beyond telling and does not disappoint. So I am reminded that the season begins with a single candle in the darkness. It will end with a blaze of light and warmth -- and especially that of the light of Christ within us --- if only we allow it.

 May these weeks of preparation see the kindling of new life and light even when it begins with a small and sometimes stuttering flame in the midst of great darkness. Especially may we all come to know more intimately the surprising God of newness who takes up residence and "tents" within and among us in Christ; He is the God who treasures our poverty and weakness and transforms and transfigures them into the mangers and lamps of his life and love.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

01 December 2017

On Merton, Suffering, Solitude, and the Making of the Hermit

[[The contemplation of the Christian solitary is the awareness of the divine mercy transforming and elevating his own emptiness and turning it into the presence of perfect love, perfect fullness.]] [Merton's ideal solitaries] are thus, [[the paradoxical, tormented solitaries for whom there is no real place; men and women who have not so much chosen solitude as been chosen by it. And these have not generally found their way into the desert either through simplicity or through innocence. Theirs is the solitude that is reached the hard way, through bitter suffering and disillusionment.]]

[[Dear Sister, I have wondered for some time what makes a person want to be a hermit. It just never made sense to me unless the person was broken and embittered by life and needed to withdraw from that by giving up on people and even on God. It's the solitude that I can't justify. Community made sense but not solitude unless hermits were people who were unable to participate in community for some reason. When you have written about the creation of the hermit heart in your own life it sounds like it involved a lot of suffering but you don't come across as bitter or broken. Thomas Merton has written about this very thing (please see what I quoted from "The Hermitary" site); have you seen this already? But I wondered what makes your heart a hermit heart and not the heart of an embittered survivor of suffering. Is the answer in what Merton wrote about mercy?

Do you think Merton is correct in characterizing the "ideal solitary" as he does? If this is true it must be really difficult for dioceses to "discern" this kind of vocation. Do you know what I mean? In religious life candidates are screened for their health and wholeness and backgrounds involving suffering raises red flags for the vocation personnel. But if ideal hermits are "tormented solitaries" what does a diocese look for in determining authentic eremitical vocations?]]

Thank you for your observations and questions. I have written recently again, though briefly,  about fraudulent hermits; what you are asking about is really one of the more significant ways people betray the eremitical vocation or substitute an inauthentic version of the life for the real thing. What Merton was saying first of all, as I read him, is that solitude must open the door to the one wishing to live an eremitical life; one cannot simply decide to live solitude and do it without such an opening. The second thing I believe Merton is writing about is how the door of solitude is often opened to a person. One of the main ways is through suffering that isolates in any of the many ways this occurs. But I agree with you that suffering is not sufficient to truly discern an eremitical call; it is a beginning and might be suggestive but it is not definitive.

On Unredeemed Suffering and the Door to Solitude:

Moreover, if a person has nothing but her suffering and if that suffering  remains unredeemed or un-transfigured by the grace and love of God, she will never be a hermit in the proper (Christian) sense; instead she will remain an isolated, broken, and possibly embittered person but one who is largely, if not entirely incapable of proclaiming the Gospel with her life. Such a person ought not be admitted to profession as a canonical hermit because while she may "not have a place" --- one element of Merton's description --- neither can she live out the mission or charism of the canonical hermit. Genuine solitude is redeemed and transformed isolation. It is marked or characterized by its relational tenor, a unique but very significant and paradoxical form of relatedness, of ecclesiality and community. The place the hermit has is unusual but very real. The door solitude opens to us is unlocked in part by significant and long-term suffering a person experiences through the first half of her life, but at the same time the door of Solitude can only said to be opened if the person has come to know the potential healing and transformation of her woundedness by the unqualified love and eternal life of God.

While persons whose first half of life may be marked by significant suffering are sometimes important and illustrative of the way some eremitical vocations are born, as you say they are sometimes also difficult cases in regard to discernment by dioceses. This is especially true if suffering remains the defining dimension of the person's life.  When I began this blog more than a decade ago I wrote about one needing to be a hermit in some essential sense before one approached a diocese with a request to be professed. What I meant then and still hold is that one has to move from being an isolated person for whom physical solitude may merely mirror or even exacerbate the alienation that can come from and be a source of suffering to being one for whom solitude is a relational reality which heals isolation and is the context for real reconciliation. Hermits know more than physical solitude; they know communion -- with God and others. And this means they can (and in fact must) know the healing of whatever suffering marked their earlier years. When dioceses work with potential candidates for profession they must look for those persons for whom physical solitude is a unique form of communion and symptom and source of healing.

My Own Healing and Growth Work:

In my own inner work I have become even more convinced of this truth.  Both of the quotations you cited are important but in regard to becoming the hermit I am called and consecrated to be I especially resonate with the first one. [[The contemplation of the Christian solitary is the awareness of the Divine mercy transforming and elevating [her] own emptiness and turning it into the presence of perfect love, perfect fullness.]] This is the one which mirrors my profession motto, [[(God's) power is made perfect in weakness]] --- a motto I chose precisely because it reflects first the nature of the Christ Event and then my own story with and in light of the grace of God. My own story involves suffering, yes, but far more than that it is the story of God's grace, a grace which, as I have said here many times, brings light out of darkness, life out of death, and meaning out of senselessness and absurdity. What Merton says, what Paul says, what the Christ Event makes real in space and time, and what authentic hermits of all sorts also say is that suffering plunges a person into the depths of isolation and readies her to hear God's invitation to depend on God alone. When, and to the extent that invitation is accepted one's life is entirely transfigured into one of wholeness and holiness, one is defined in a new way. Suffering may not ease entirely and may even increase in some ways, but it will no longer be the thing which drives and defines the person.

 And this means, of course, that one whose defining experience is the mercy of God will show this to those discerning her vocation. The one who wishes to become a diocesan hermit will reveal the mercy of God as the ground and source of her suffering's redemption and her life's transfiguration. Without this her solitude will be nothing more than physical and maybe spiritual, and emotional isolation. She will be a lone individual --- her suffering will have made her this on a number of levels, but she will not be a hermit in the sense the Church uses the term. On the other hand those individuals who have made the journey that Merton describes, the journey through serious suffering and into the mercy and love of God, may well have discovered the eremitical world solitude herself (and only "Solitude" herself) admits them to.

Summary: A Note to Dioceses on the Charism of Diocesan Eremitical Life

To reiterate then, Dioceses which are careful in their discernment will not eschew a person whose life is full of suffering so long as that life is also one defined and clearly transformed by the grace of God experienced in eremitical solitude. Such a diocese is careful to look not only at the suffering but at the fruits of that suffering which would  demonstrate it has been transfigured by the mercy of God. When the latter is not clearly present, when for instance, the person's message is self-centered and full of expressed pain but little else, when, that is, her life is defined by her suffering and not by the grace of God, the diocese will have to wait and watch to see what kind of vocation is actually present. They will give the person some reasonable time in physical solitude to see what changes occur. Generally speaking, if the person is called to be a hermit, isolation and a focus on suffering will be transformed by the love of God into genuine solitude (a unique but very real expression of reconciliation and community in Christ)  and the proclamation with her entire life of the healing and redemptive love of God.

Also generally speaking, all of this reflects the way the heart of a hermit is created and the door to eremitical solitude is opened when there is a background or history of significant suffering. It reflects the way a life comes to reveal the charisma or gift to Church and World c 603 calls "the Silence of Solitude" in such cases.  Suffering of all sorts can hollow one out and make one yearn for answers to the question of self that only God can provide. One lives the questions associated with meaning: does my life make sense? Is it meaningful? Is it moved by love, both as giver and receiver? How can I make sure my life is meaningful by ministering to others in a way which is redemptive for them?  Why have or am I suffering in the apparently gratuitous way I have or am? Where is God in all of this and how can I live for God and others? As important as living the questions is, through the grace of God mediated to one in all the ways it comes to us, one will also come to live the answer: namely, I have lived/am living all of this so that the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ is proclaimed loudly and clearly (or silently but with clarity and poignancy!) and the God whose power is perfectly revealed in weakness resonates within my heart causing it to sing a Magnificat of gratitude and praise.