To “listen” another’s soul
into a condition
of disclosure and discovery
may be almost the greatest
service that any human being
ever performs for another.
Stillsong Hermitage is a Diocesan (Canon 603) Hermitage in the Camaldolese Benedictine tradition. The name reflects the essential joy and wholeness that comes from a Christ-centered life of prayer in the silence of solitude, but also points to the fact that contemplative life -- even that of the hermit -- spills over into witness and proclamation. At the heart of the Church, in the stillness and joy of God's dynamic peace, resonates the song which IS the solitary Catholic hermit.
Posted by Sr. Laurel M. O'Neal, Er. Dio. at 10:58 PM
Today is the feast of the Camaldolese Saint, Cardinal, and Doctor of the Church, St Peter Damian. Peter Damian is generally best known for his role in the Gregorian Reform. He fought Simony and worked tirelessly for the welfare of the church as a whole. Hermits know him best for a few of his letters, but especially #28, "Dominus Vobiscum". Written to Leo of Sitria, letter #28 explores the relation of the hermit to the whole church and speaks of a solitary as an ecclesiola, or little church. Damian had been asked if it was proper to recite lines like "The Lord Be With you" when the hermit was the only one present at liturgy. The result was this letter which explains how the church is wholly present in all of her members, both together and individually. He writes:
[[The Church of Christ is united in all her parts by the bond of love, so that she is both one in many members and mystically whole in each member. And so we see that the entire universal Church is correctly called the one and only bride of Christ, while each chosen soul, by virtue of the sacramental mysteries, is considered fully the Church. . . .From all the aforementioned it is clear that, because the whole Church can be found in one individual person and the Church itself is called a virgin, Holy Church is both one in all its members and complete in each of them. It is truly simple among many through the unity of faith and multiple in each individual through the bond of love and various charismatic gifts, because all are from one and all are one.]]
Because of this unity Damian notes that he sees no harm in a hermit alone in cell saying things which are said by the gathered Church. In this reflection Damian establishes the communal nature of the solitary vocation and forever condemns the notion that hermits are isolated or "lone" persons. His comments thus have much broader implications for the nature of eremitical life than the licitness of saying certain prayers or using communal phrases in liturgy per se. In the latter part of the letter Damian not only praises the eremitical life but writes an extended encomium on the nature of the eremitical cell. The images he uses are numerous and diverse; they clearly reflect extended time spent in solitude and his own awareness of all the ways the hermitage or cell have functioned in his own life and those of other hermits. Furnace, kiln, battlefield, storehouse, workshop, arena of spiritual combat, fort and defensive edifice, [place assisting the] death of vices and kindling of virtues, Jacob's ladder, golden road, etc --- all are touched on here. Peter Damian's rich collection of images serves to underscore the classic observation of the Desert Fathers and Mothers: "Dwell (or remain) within your cell and your cell will teach you everything."
Every violinist in this (or any) orchestra has played this double violin concerto (universally known simply as "the Bach Double") --- and usually more than once so one plays both first and second violin at some point. Usually it is one of the first concerti violinists learn once they have moved beyond first to third and fifth positions. We don't all get to play it with an orchestra but we all tend to get to play it with our teachers or a mentor or friend at some relatively early point in our violin careers. And yet, like all such things it is an incredibly demanding concerto, not technically perhaps, but emotionally and musically. When violinists return to it as adults (if they have played it as younger students) they find a "new" piece entirely. What is most striking is the way the voices are so incredibly balanced as well as how they echo, blend, intertwine, and hand off passages. The second movement in particular remains the most beautiful I know for two violins.
When I prepared this movement with my own teacher --- after we had gotten all the fingerings and bowings down (for I had not played this as a younger student so it was all new) --- we moved onto the task of "making music" of the notes. The approach reminded me of some of the dimensions of spiritual direction and/or growth work. First we went through the entire movement deciding on what emotion we would like each passage or section to express, what emotions or feelings the passage evoked in us and those we wanted to evoke in listeners, where it changed in intensity and how abruptly, what it changed to, where we were in tension with one another, where in union, and so forth. Though the musical term for much of this is "dynamics" our vocabulary was first of all that of feelings and nuances of feelings. Then we went through the music again and, as we stopped at the places we had noted emotions, each of us privately made a note about some memory which clearly evoked those feelings for us. The memories remained private but the awe or tenderness or pain or determination --- or whatever it was we personally poured into this music and expressed through it was communal; the intimacy of the experience was and still is hard to describe. (Check the looks exchanged by the two soloists at the end of the third movement in the above video; through all of their own rehearsals and especially in this performance Christina and Thomas have shared something both transcendent and ineffably intimate. They are not merely demonstrating that they are relieved or pleased with the technical performance --- though both of these might also be true.)
At every point my teacher and I had to listen and listen profoundly in attempting to interpret this piece of music --- not only to be faithful to the truth Bach captured there in the manuscript itself, but to our own hearts and the hearts and voices of one another as we attempted to come together in a single unified performance. a single unified heart and voice. In the language of the Camaldolese we were "alone together" in this amazing process. This was one of the most transcendent experiences I have ever had apart from formal prayer periods --- and one of the most potent experiences of the paradox of solitude in community. In some ways I am sure my own sensitivity to the communal nature of eremitical solitude is formed or at least heightened by my experience of learning and playing this concerto.
A note on the video: In the performance by the OCO and soloists Christina Owens and Thomas Chow you might note that Christina is playing in the Baroque style as violinists would have played Bach's music. She uses little or no vibrato creating a characteristic sound. Thomas tends to be using a more contemporary style with less than usual vibrato but still using it in many instances. Both are also using modern violins and modern bows rather than Baroque instruments or bows. Finally the orchestra is taking their cues by attending to the soloists; there is no conductor. I can't remember another time OCO has played a piece in this manner --- also pretty typical of the Baroque approach to string orchestras and soloists.
[[Hi Sister! In your last post on canonical obedience are you saying that those with canonical vows are no longer free in the sense other Christians are free? If canonical vows mean one is no longer called to Christian freedom then why should anyone desire to make canonical vows? I am sure I must've misunderstood you somehow!]]
Thanks for this latest question! I tried using the phrase, "qualified but undiminished" to indicate I was not speaking of Christian freedom versus something else. Instead I was trying to describe an expression of Christian freedom that differed from expressions linked to the baptismal state and bonds alone. Remember that Christian freedom is always the power to be the persons we are called to be and it is that in spite of and sometimes even through the constraints which limit our lives. That is true whether one lives one's life in terms of baptismal bonds alone or whether one embraces additional canonical bonds. The essential point is that those admitted to canonical vows, to the public rights and obligations of such vows, are called to the same authentic freedom as any other Christian. However, they have participated in a mutual process of discernment and been formally and publicly admitted to a profession and consecration which involves elements defined by canon and proper law which further specify their baptismal commitment and the shape of their freedom.
We might consider these elements to be constraints on the individual's authentic freedom but this is not so. Because the Church herself along with the candidate has mutually discerned the presence and nature of the call involved, both Church (hierarchy or congregational leadership) and the one petitioning to be admitted to public profession and consecration have determined as best they are able that such admission actually serves the candidate's authentic (Christian) freedom. While discernment processes may sometimes be mistaken it is critical that we understand the point of mutual discernment in ecclesial vocations is the determination of what is truly and Divinely ordained as a source of freedom for the candidate and a gift of the Holy Spirit to and for the whole Church. Private vows may be both or neither but this is not ascertained by the Church because such a dedication is an entirely private act. Even when such private vows are both a source of freedom for the person making the vows and a gift to and for the Church, the private nature of the act means this cannot be adequately discerned or celebrated --- much less extended to others in what must be a mutual act of discernment.
Posted by Sr. Laurel M. O'Neal, Er. Dio. at 9:09 PM
A friend returned from a trip to France (etc.) with about 32 other Dominicans from various congregations and brought me a picture of this statuary from Chartres Cathedral. It is a favorite of hers and is called God Creates Adam; it is a small piece, only about a foot and a half or two feet high and is located on a Northern portal to the cathedral.
While I had never seen it before, I loved it instantly. It recalls for me so many prayer times when I had the sense of having God's entire attention or of being held securely and loved into wholeness. It speaks to me of the place of God in each of our lives --- even when we fail to realize how inextricably wed our lives are with one another. There is an amazing combination of strength and gentleness, quiet joy and determination, as well as dependence and independence here. God looks completely sure of himself and quietly pleased. Adam --- who looks neither male nor female to me --- looks content and at peace.
I hear an invitation here: "Give yourself over to me; let me make you my very own creation, my very own image and counterpart! Let me truly make you what you are!" --- as God reminds me of the dignity and nature of my original creation and all the potential it holds. There have been times I have not known or remembered that God's creative presence was at work in me calling into existence, healing, molding, shaping, and summoning me into the absolute future of God's own life; there were times when I thought all potential had been spent or was lost forever. Yet I know very well now that this is an image of every day of my life as well as a picture of the covenant reality I am most truly meant to let myself become. For me it is a wonderful image!!
On this Memorial of St Scholastica I think it is timely to remind readers of the famous story of St Scholastica and her brother St Benedict. That is especially true given the conversation here on the gift of tears In the following account of this story the description of Scholastica's prayer when she is in need of profound consolation is particularly apt. In the meantime my very best wishes to all my Camaldolese, Cistercian, and Benedictine Sisters and Brothers on this feast!
|The final meeting between Ss Benedict and Scholastica, depicted in a 14th-century fresco in the Sacro Speco of Subiaco.|
|Jesus Meets His Mother**|
by Bro Mickey McGrath OSFS
The following thoughts were written several years ago but have clear resonances with recent posts and concerns published here. The nature of theology, the importance of it being rooted in out experience of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the notion that those who disavow the importance of the intellect are also doing some form of theology, etc. are all present here.
I was reflecting about tomorrow's first reading. It is the part of the Genesis account where Eve is seduced to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, where (perhaps at her urging and perhaps not) Adam does the same thing, and where "their eyes are opened" as a result. Of course this opening of their eyes is a form of self-consciousness which is rooted in only a partial truth about themselves, namely, that they are naked before God and each other. But it is a self-consciousness which blinds them to the greater truth of who they are with and through God, namely, persons of infinite worth with the very breath of God sustaining them at every instant --- even in their sinfulness.
From here my reflections moved in the direction of humility. I came to think that what passes too often for genuine humility is precisely the partial truth occasioned by alienation from God and the resulting self-consciousness that blinds us to the whole truth. What passes for humility is often nothing more than a self-centered view of our "nakedness" but without the broader perspective granted us by our relationship to and with God and the incredible worth that affirms. Without this other piece of the picture, we know only our own unworthiness, our own poverty and incapacity --- and we will rightly come to despise ourselves. Of course Adam and Eve fail at humility in other ways. They grasp at a knowledge they are not made for, they fail to trust a God who has given them no reason to fail in this, and they hide from him taking refuge in shrubbery and stuck-on fig leaves! But most fundamentally in all of this, I think, they only look at (or accept) part of the truth of who they are in relation to God and, for that very reason, fail in humility.
But my reflections also went in another direction (though I am pretty sure they link up at some point; it is just that my lectio has not gotten me to that point yet!). I was thinking about something Walter Brueggemann said about the hugely "over-interpreted" serpent in this narrative, namely, that he was not a symbol of Satan or evil, but a neutral character used to move the story along. This led me to think of the serpent as an externalization of what Eve comes to think in her heart --- a debate she has with herself, really: that God has somehow not told them the truth, that she knows what God is really like, that she knows what is best for her own life and is capable of determining what is good and what is not without reference to God!
Part of this sense that the serpent is the externalization of Eve's own thought processes were occasioned by something else Brueggemann said, viz, that the speech made by the serpent, indeed the whole conversation, is a matter of "theologizing" and that the serpent is the first "working theologian"!!! (I admit, I found this point really funny --- but because it was strikingly "right." It reminded me of the fear I felt regarding presuming to speak about God with any authority early in my years of studying theology. Somehow, doing "theology" seemed to be oxymoronic to me. Arrogant perhaps, probably presumptuous, and at least awfully risky. It is a fear which has never completely left me, and I mainly know it now as a kind of awe that I am a theologian.) Perhaps I need to recover some of that original "fear"! (Ah, can you sense these directions in my lectio beginning to link up?) At the same time then, it recalled the stress in Eastern Christianity on theology as an act of prayer, or at the very least, something which is never to be divorced from prayer.
But in tomorrow's reading, that is exactly what happens. As Brueggemann notes, no one is speaking to or with God in this section. They are speaking about him, and in doing so they even distort (or lie to themselves about) what they were told WHILE they were speaking with him and he them. How often this happens in our own lives! Whether we are professional or academic theologians or the armchair variety, how very often we speak about a God we really don't know or allow to know us all that well! How often our speech about God, our theologizing, has nothing whatsoever to do with prayer! It neither stems from prayer, adverts to prayer in gratitude or supplication, nor moves us to return to prayer! And how often it distorts, subtly or otherwise, the truth about God which he himself has revealed to us. Much of our religion is (or has been) built upon such distortions!!
It occurred to me that if we were speaking without reticence about science, or economics, or child-rearing, or any number of other things without first hand knowledge OF the thing being talked about, people would laugh us out of the room. And rightly so! Consider how truly stupid we would be and seem if we spoke about a person as though we knew them first hand and were instead required to confess to listeners that we had never actually met this person face to face! And yet, how often we characterize people, speak of their motives, etc without ever having met them! Why is it that with theology we don't get uneasy in attempting to speak about God and the other ultimately important dimensions of life which are tied to faith in him apart from a first-hand knowledge of God??? (Here I am thinking of suffering, death, illness, evil, and more --- and about all the really silly and even offensive things people say about them and about God when they wax on about such things.) Of course, it is true that the truly first rate theologians never lose perspective like this (or not for long!!) and that their theology is a function of their prayer lives. But for most of us, we rarely talk to or with God before we presume to talk about him, and as a result our theologizing is as blind, self-centered, and distorted as in today's first reading. . . .
Posted by Sr. Laurel M. O'Neal, Er. Dio. at 10:39 AM
[[I was informed that a hermit colleague has been blessed with a spiritual gift, a spiritual phenomenon. I am rejoicing over this news! This particular hermit has in the past has seemed more leaning to the laws of minds; thus I have been praying for some time for the Holy Spirit to reach into the hermit's soul and inflame it with a touch of God's law of love, of the supernatural realities which soften us and remind us that the temporal is passing but the realm of the Spirit is eternal. . .]] cf.,. . . Hermit Rejoices for entire post.
I always gratefully accept prayer on my behalf and thus count on others to hold me in prayer. Beyond that it is always good to hear that my life has brightened someone's day in some small way. Still I admit I am stunned when someone presumes to pronounce on the state of my soul and though this occurs much less rarely, I am surprised when anyone's spirituality involves anti-intellectualism. When they misinterpret my own definite intellectual bent as being somehow opposed to a vital spiritual life which is relatively untouched by God's "law of love" even as they try to justify these errors in religious terms my surprise is compounded. What I sincerely hope readers recognize is that such anti-intellectualism is incapable of dealing adequately with reality. This is so precisely because it is incapable of loving in the "shrewd but gentle" and compassionate way the Gospel calls for! That is especially true when St Paul is misread in the process -- as the above post does and as its author has consistently done in the past when commenting on Paul's "law of the mind" or his teaching on law and Gospel.
What is the Law of the Mind according to Paul?
Paul refers to the law of the mind in Romans, but we must be very clear that it is 1) in the singular (it is not "laws of the mind" or laws made up by human minds!) and 2) that it is not something Paul criticizes. It is, in fact, an enemy of the law of sin: [[For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.]] (Romans 7:22-23) The law of the mind which Paul refers to is that deepest and truest reality within us that says we are made for God. It is the truest inner moral compass and drive which contends with the more superficial law of sin dwelling in our members. Together with the will it is that dimension of our existence deep within us that is linked to our natural impulse to love God. As Paul says above, it is the "law of the mind" that actually delights in the law of God because, of course, it delights in truth and meaning and beauty! It is this fascination by and delight in truth, beauty, and meaning which opens each of us to fuller expressions of the law of God, the law of Love.
It used to be kind of faddish in spirituality to encourage people to "get out of (their) heads and into (their) hearts." (Let me be clear: there were and are excellent reasons for this too, but it was sometimes encouraged by directors whose strongest function was not their intellect and who may even have distrusted it to some extent.) Because my own intellect is an especially intensely pivotal dimension of the way I relate to God and his entire created reality I am very fortunate to have a director who understands the importance of a strong intellectual life and knows full well what it means to have God reveal Godself via a person's intellectual life.
Consequently, one of the most important truths I have had reaffirmed throughout the inner work I have done over the past 8 months or so (I am in the 9th month of that work) is the fact that my intellect is a precious gift of God and the faculty through which God most often graces and has graced me with his self-revelation. Does my mind require the love of God to truly function well? Of course! It is MADE FOR the love of God! It is empowered to function rightly through the grace of God! So of course my intellect and the law of the mind is God's good gift to me (indeed, to all of us) and it has been a source of awesome nourishment to me --- and to those I minister to.
Trusting the Process and Doing Theology:
That said I should also emphasize that of course our intellects are not the whole of the way we relate to God or receive God's revelation of Godself. The law of love is imprinted on intellect, will, spirit and sensibility --- all of them. And all of them are meant to function together accordingly in what constitutes what the NT calls a purity or singleness of heart. I have reported here that quite often in these last months my director has encouraged me to "trust the process". Trusting the process did not mean the intellectual pieces of things could be demeaned or ignored -- nor did this ever happen ---but that in some things it takes the intellect time to catch up with the other pivotal centers of human functioning and that can be challenging for me. More, the intellect needs to build on human experience and be grounded in it while human experience needs to be rendered articulate in the various ways this occurs and to the extent this is possible, through the work of the intellect. While all this can be challenging for one who depends on a strong intellect anti-intellectualism is ruled out of court.
The bottom line here is that far from being something that draws me away from God it is and has always been the activity of "doing theology" --- and here I mainly mean academic and systematic theology --- which most often brings these three dimensions of my being together; it is thus the "place" where I am most profoundly touched by the Word of God or the presence of the God who speaks to my heart from within. Many people fail to understand that doing theology in a serious way is never "merely" an intellectual exercise. That is true because doing theology means being a person of prayer as well as of study, a person of compassion as well as of the capacity for intellectual insight and systematization, a person of heart as well as mind. It means being a person who loves God and the mystery of God's creation, being fascinated with these realities, concerned for them and in fact responsible for the struggle to understand and to articulate their truth for those who need it. It also means knowing from the very first day one walks into a theology class (and possibly before one even does this) that one's efforts will always fall short and quite often fail very badly.
On the Holocaust and Doing Theology:
This was brought home to me in my first introductory course in theology. Not only were we faced with the rock bottom theological datum of a literally incomprehensible and ineffable God (the infinitely fascinating and awesome Mystery around whom we literally cannot get our minds and hearts) but our professor pointed out emphatically that anyone wishing to do serious theology needed their work to be capable of doing justice to the tremendum we call the Holocaust or their theology was, at best, unworthy of the name. In this latter case we cannot do this unless theology engages and depends on one working with their whole self! Moreover it will not happen unless our theology is profoundly historical and critical, not only in our reading of Scripture but in our approaches to doctrine, law, and anthropology as well. Again, our approach to theological and spiritual realities must be informed by both our hearts and our intellects. Jesus, of course, said the same thing when he counseled us to be gentle as doves and shrewd as serpents. And yet again, we know that our efforts will ultimately fail because of the incomprehensible Mystery which is the focus of our efforts and the finite nature of our own minds and hearts. This does not mean we are relieved of the necessity of doing theology; instead it spurs theologians to humility in an enterprise they are summoned and even impelled by God himself to undertake for the sake of his People but also for the sake of his entire Creation.
Paul's "law of the mind," again, is that deep and dynamic reality which delights in and is profoundly fascinated by the law of God. It does not in the least allow the kind of anti-intellectualism present in the post cited above. Faith requires both our heads and our hearts together; it cannot exist otherwise precisely because as Paul Tillich insightfully characterized it, it is a centered act of the whole person and a state of being grasped by an ultimate concern. Such a state of being grasped means being taken hold of in our entire being so that every locus and focus of human functioning (intellect, will, spirit and sensibility) is empowered by and responsive to the God who demands our whole self and promises us everything we need for the completion we and our world are made for.
N.B., The painting (print) above is one I got for Christmas this year. It is Brother Mickey McGrath's, Madonna of the Holocaust and is something that moved me profoundly not only because of conversations I had with Brother Mickey on the Theology of the Cross while he was here on sabbatical in November, but because of the story I told above about my intro to NT course and the challenges of doing serious theology. I think it is an awesome symbol of an historical-critical theology which is a matter of both heart and mind.