31 March 2018

Exultet!! Life is Victorious Over Death




30 March 2018

Madman or Messiah? In the Darkness We Wait in Hope (Reprise)

I admit that a pet peeve of mine associated with celebrating the Triduum in a parish setting is the inadequate way folks handle what should be periods of silence after Holy Thursday's Mass and reservation of the Eucharist and the stations and celebration of Jesus' passion on Good Friday. Unnecessary conversations, hearty and premature  wishes of "Happy Easter" in the sacristy or upon leaving the Church and parking lot immediately after the Passion drive me more than a little crazy --- not only because we have only just celebrated the death of Jesus, but because there is a significant period of grief and uncertainty that we call Holy Saturday still standing between Jesus' death and his resurrection.

Silence is appropriate during these times; Easter is still distant. Allowing ourselves to live with something of the terrible disappointment and critical questions Jesus' disciples experienced as their entire world collapsed is a significant piece of coming to understand why we call today "Good" and tomorrow "Holy." It is important to appreciating the meaning of this three day liturgy we call Triduum and a dimension of coming to genuine and deepening hope. I have often thought the Church could do better with its celebration of Holy Saturday, but spending some time waiting and reflecting on who we would be (not to mention who God would be!) had Jesus stayed good and dead is something Good Friday (essentially beginning after Holy Thursday Mass) and Holy Saturday (beginning the evening after the passion) call for.

                                            *   *   *   *   *   *   *

In explaining the theology of the Cross, Paul once said, "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more." During Holy Week, the Gospel readings focus us on the first part of Paul's statement. Sin has increased to an extraordinary extent and the one people touted as the Son of God has been executed as a blaspheming godforsaken criminal. We watched the darkness and the threat to his life grow and cast the whole of Jesus' life into question.

In the Gospel for last Wednesday we heard John's version of the story of Judas' betrayal of Jesus and the prediction of Peter's denials as well. For weeks before this we had been hearing stories of a growing darkness and threat centered on the person of Jesus. Pharisees and Scribes were irritated and angry with Jesus at the facile way he broke Sabbath rules or his easy communion with and forgiveness of sinners. That he spoke with an authority the people recognized as new and surpassing theirs was also problematical. Family and disciples failed to understand him, thought him crazy, urged him to go to Jerusalem to work wonders and become famous.

Even his miracles were disquieting, not only because they increased the negative reaction of the religious leadership and the fear of the Romans as the darkness and threat continued to grow alongside them, but because Jesus himself seems to give us the sense that they are insufficient  and lead to misunderstandings and distortions of who he is or what he is really about. "Be silent!" we often hear him say. "Tell no one about this!" he instructs in the face of the increasing threat to his life. Futile instructions, of course, and, as those healed proclaim the wonders of God's grace in their lives, the darkness and threat to Jesus grows; The night comes ever nearer and we know that if evil is to be defeated, it must occur on a much more profound level than even thousands of such miracles.

In the last two weeks of Lent, the readings give us the sense that the last nine months of Jesus' life and active ministry was punctuated by retreat to a variety of safe houses as the priestly aristocracy actively looked for ways to kill him. He attended festivals in secret and the threat of stoning recurred again and again. Yet, inexplicably "He slipped away" we are told or, "They were unable to find an opening." The darkness is held at bay, barely. It is held in check by the love of the people surrounding Jesus. Barely. And in the last safe house on the eve of Passover as darkness closes in on every side Jesus celebrated a final Eucharist with his friends and disciples. He washed their feet, reclined at table with them like free men did. And yet, profoundly troubled, Jesus spoke of his impending betrayal by Judas. None of the disciples, not even the beloved disciple understood what was happening. There is one last chance for Judas to change his mind as Jesus hands him a morsel of bread in friendship and love. God's covenant faithfulness is maintained.

But Satan enters Judas' heart and a friend of Jesus becomes his accuser --- the meaning of the term Satan here --- and the darkness enters this last safe house of light and friendship, faith and fellowship. It was night, John says. It was night. Judas' heart is the opening needed for the threatening darkness to engulf this place and Jesus as well. The prediction of Peter's denials tells us this "night" will get darker and colder and more empty yet.  But in John's story, when everything is at its darkest and lowest, Jesus exclaims in a kind of victory cry: [[ Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in him!]] Here as darkness envelopes everything, Jesus exults that authentically human being is revealed, made known and made real in space and time; here, in the midst of  the deepening "Night" God too is revealed and made fully known and real in space and time. It is either the cry of a messiah who will overcome evil right at its heart --- or it is the cry of a madman who cannot recognize or admit the victory of evil as it swallows him up. In the midst of these days of death and vigil, we do not really know which. At the end of these three days we call Triduum we will see what the answer is.

Today, the Friday we call "Good," the darkness intensified. During the night Jesus was arrested and "tried" by the Sanhedrin with the help of false witnesses, desertion by his disciples, and Judas' betrayal. Today he was brought before the Romans, tried, found innocent, flogged in an attempt at political appeasement and then handed over anyway by a fearful self-absorbed leader whose greater concern was for his own position to those who would kill him. There was betrayal, of consciences, of friendships, of discipleship and covenantal bonds on every side but God's. The night continued to deepen and the threat could not be greater.  Jesus was crucified and eventually cried out his experience of abandonment even by God. He descended into the ultimate godlessness, loneliness, and powerlessness we call hell. The darkness became almost total. We ourselves can see nothing else. That is where Good Friday and Holy Saturday leave us.

And the question these events raises haunts the night and our own minds and hearts: namely, messiah or madman? Is Jesus simply another person crushed by the cold, emptiness, and darkness of evil --- good and wondrous though his own works were? (cf Gospel for last Friday: John 10:31-42.) Is this darkness and emptiness the whole of the reality in which we live? Was Jesus' preaching of the reality of God's reign and his trust in God in vain? Is the God he proclaimed, the God in whom we also trust incapable of redeeming failure, sin and death --- even to the point of absolute lostness? Does he consign sinners to these without real hope because God's justice differs from his mercy? The questions associated with Jesus' death on the Cross multiply and we Christians wait in the darkness today and tomorrow. We fast and pray and try to hold onto hope that the one we called messiah, teacher, friend, beloved,  brother and Lord, was not simply deluded --- or worse --- and that we Christians are not, as Paul puts the matter, the greatest fools, the most pitiable of all.

We have seen sin increase to immeasurable degrees; and though we do not see how it is possible we would like to think that Paul was right and that grace will abound all the more. But on this day we call "good" and on the Saturday we call "holy" we wait. Bereft, but hopeful, we wait.

29 March 2018

On Why God cannot Forgive Sin by Fiat (Reprise)

[[Sister, I know you might not be able to answer this until after Easter and that's okay. I can see why a lot of individual miracles would not have been enough, I think, but couldn't God have just have defeated sin and death with a word? Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead so why couldn't God not have done something similar for all of us? Thank you for your posts. I really enjoy them.]]

Thanks for your comments and questions. They are good and important ones. They arise for us especially around the Triduum. In fact, the question of what was possible for God came up in a discussion I had with a priest friend on Holy Thursday so it's pretty fresh for me. Your reference to Lazarus' being raised not only sharpens the question, but is actually also the key to answering it. You see, one of the things biblical scholars and theologians point out is that Lazarus was not resurrected in the way Jesus was. Lazarus was not raised to new or eternal life but to a mortal life in and of this world, a life which would one day end again in death. Sometimes they will point out the difference between resuscitation and resurrection in speaking of Jesus himself; the distinction works for what happened to Lazarus as well. What they are trying to point out in this is that there was something lacking in this event; the raising of Lazarus was somehow insufficient to deal definitively with death.

In Jesus' raising of Lazarus, godless death itself is not destroyed and until this happens the victory needed over sin is not accomplished in any life much less brought to completion in every life and the whole of creation. It is therefore possible to understand this particular miracle of Jesus as the climax of a history of acts of power --- healings, exorcisms, etc --- which are still insufficient to destroy godless death and death itself.  Even were Jesus to do this for every person he could have, it would simply not have been enough. Death itself must be transformed from the godless reality it is to a reality in which God is met face to face and one day, destroyed completely. This  entry into the realm of godless death (or, from another perspective, the taking up of godless death into God's own life so that it and the whole of reality is transformed and made sacramental) is the heart of what we understand as the reconciliation of the world on a cosmic level.

On a more personal but intimately related level it is important to remember that the death we die is understood theologically as a consequence of sin. There is a natural perishing which is intrinsic to the evolving, imperfect (unfinished) world we know. But human beings are broken and estranged by sin and this complicates the death we each will die. It is no longer a natural perishing but what I have referred to a number of times as godless death. Every time we make a choice for something other than God or for life in God, we effectively choose godless death as well. If we choose to live without God so then we choose to die without God --- and that means we choose death as emptiness without Love, without God. We not only choose it as a future reality, we build it into our lives and even into our very selves (body, etc.) so it affects every moment of our lives. Paul asks, "Who will save us from this body of death?" He is clear in his theology that the situation is more dire and intractable than a merely natural perishing. It is something from which we must  be saved.

When we are being saved from godlessness this occurs by God transforming this, and in fact the whole of historical existence with his presence. And when godlessness is a dimension of the death which dwells within us and which we ourselves loose in this world, we are speaking of a personal reality which God cannot simply destroy by fiat --- not without destroying us as well. God must be "given access" to this reality, and that access, which is achieved in a generous self-emptying motivated by love of God, must be more radical, more profound, than any sinner can manage. This is so because it can only occur through one's openness and attentiveness to God --- an openness and attentiveness which is deeper than human sinfulness, an openness to the will of God which can only be seen clearly by one whose selflessness and love are entirely uncompromised by human alienation and brokenness.

The NT word for this kind of openness is obedience; to express the radical or exhaustive quality of Jesus' own salvific obedience Paul says more;  namely, he defines it as [[obedience unto death, even death on a cross]]; Jesus' radical, exhaustive obedience, opens the way for God to enter the most godforsaken dimensions of our lives and world. But this is not a miracle he could have done "from the outside" or "without complete self-emptying" in the profoundly compassionate but still somewhat personally distanced way he healed illnesses or exorcised demons. It required he take on sinful death itself in an act of complete identification with out state and in an exhaustive helplessness and kenosis. In this way Jesus' obedience allows for "God's power [to become] perfected in weakness." In both his miracles and in his resurrection Jesus mediates the grace of God. In the miracles he has not yet relinquished the degree of agency or authority he yet possessed nor the distance from our sinful conditions or situation he entirely relinquishes on the cross.

This kind of relinquishment or self-emptying is only "learned" --- if it is ever "learned" or "achieved" in one's life --- through radical suffering. (Words are difficult at this point and in speaking about this "learning" and "achieving", "revealed" in the sense of  "being made real (realized) in space and time" may be the best word here.) The process is not automatic --- as though suffering alone produces the change; it does not. But through such suffering the person of faith gradually becomes entirely dependent on the grace of God; thus, self-emptying occurs. One moves from faith to deeper and deeper faith as human weakness is transformed and transfigured by Divine power. We have all experienced this process in our own lives in various ways and to various depths and degrees, but to remain open to God's presence and power even as one experiences God's complete absence (something I believe only Jesus has experienced) was necessary to destroy godless death. The bottom line in all of this is that God could not have destroyed godless or sinful death simply by fiat; human obedience (openness to God's power and presence) was necessary to allow God access to this essentially personal reality. In his exhaustive openness to God Jesus achieved this in and through his death by crucifixion; as a direct consequence he was raised from godless death to eternal life at the right hand of God.

And though this is a separate topic let me note that what remains is for us to be made sharers in THIS death of Jesus. Christians have had this happen through baptism where they are "baptized into (Christ's) death, and thus too, into his resurrection"; in this way we are literally made a new creation. Eternal life has broken into our temporal/historical world and transformed it utterly; we become a people of hope --- trusting God for the ultimate meaning of our lives and empowered to love God's creation into greater and greater  wholeness as we live this new creation here and now in a conscious and explicit way. This is at the heart of our vocations and (com)missioning to embody and proclaim the Good News with our lives.

03 March 2018

The Desert Fathers and Mothers: On the Hermit's Need for Human Relationships in Achieving Holiness

[[When one desert father told another of his plans to “shut himself into his cell and refuse the face of men, that he might perfect himself,” the second monk replied, “ Unless thou first amend thy life going to and fro amongst men, thou shall not avail to amend it dwelling alone.”]] (Sayings of the Desert fathers and Mothers)

I think this Desert Father and Mother apothegm is especially important and fascinating because it explicitly forbids one to move into solitude and away from others merely in some attempt to perfect oneself. This flies in the face of the way many conceive of eremitical life as well as the way some would-be-hermits describe the vocation. But it should not surprise anyone who carefully reflects on the Great Commandment and the interrelatedness of its two elements, love of God and love of neighbor. Especially it should not surprise those who live eremitical life in the name of the Church; we know the communal nature of our eremitical solitude --- nuanced and rare as it may be. We know too that our formation as hermits generally comes after (and requires) years of life in community, whether religious or parish (along with all of the forms of community we experience throughout life). Similarly, ongoing formation requires personal work with directors and delegates --- and usually some degree of life in a parish community. (As I have written here before, actual eremitical reclusion today is allowed by the Church in only two congregations: Camaldolese and Carthusian. It is important to recognize the community context, supervision, and support this even rarer vocation calls for.)

The human perfection we call holiness is the wholeness of the reconciled person who is therefore alive in the fullness of his or her personal truth. This implies reconciliation with God, with self, and with all else in God. It implies a profound capacity for compassion, for the ability to see Christ in others, and the willingness to spend oneself for the sake of others. Desert elders knew the desire to seek perfection in physical reclusion by turning one's back on people is badly motivated and can lack the preparation necessary for becoming a hermit and moving into eremitical solitude. They knew that solitude is a demanding and dangerous environment and particularly so for those unprepared for and not called to it. Even in those who are called to it eremitical solitude can be the source of illusory and delusional thinking and perceptions. Thus the requirement for ongoing direction by experienced spiritual directors and the supervision by bishops and/or their delegates.

The desert Fathers were convinced that the way human beings come to achieve the necessary experience leading to repentance for sin and amendment of life is through one's ordinary interactions with other human beings. Contrary to popular opinion perhaps, the authentic eremitical vocation is not one where an individual moves into the desert merely to pursue personal or "spiritual" perfection in some sort of "solitary splendor" or in an interpersonal and relational vacuum. One moves into solitude 1) because solitude has truly opened her door to one, and 2) because with the church one discerns this is what God is calling one to and is prepared to live for the whole of her life as the fulfillment of the Great Commandment. Discernment that one is called in this way will include a sense that one is healthy in terms of interpersonal relationships and that one has achieved relative maturity in one's spirituality and Catholic identity. This is a traditional stance. St Benedict, for instance, affirms that hermits must have lived in community for some time and, of course, not be in the first blush of conversion.

I want to emphasize the place of discernment here, not only the discernment we each do on our own but the discernment we do with the Church itself in the person of legitimate superiors and directors, i.e., bishops, vicars of religious, delegates, et al. Part of this discernment, and indeed initial and ongoing formation is meant to ensure that the hermit or hermit candidate's motives are not selfish or otherwise misguided and that solitude has indeed herself opened the door to this vocation. What this means is that the hermit/candidate is responding to a Divine call; the Church will also make sure the hermit/candidate is prepared not only to live in solitude but more, that she will grow and thrive in it in ways which will be a gift to the Church and thus, to others. There are subtleties involved here and nuances which the hermit/candidate may not appreciate until much later and may not be able to determine on her own. It is also important to remember that since a hermit does not do apostolic ministry** the ways she lives her solitude and the meaning her life embodies within and as a result of this solitude are themselves the gift God gives the Church through the hermit. Supervision and discernment (mutual and otherwise) are required not only early on for a candidate not yet admitted to profession but throughout the hermit's life. ***

One of the reasons I stressed these needs (supervision and discernment) and the way they are ensured is because they are a part of the hermit's integral need for others in her life. Whether we are hermits or even recluses we need others who know us well and are capable of assessing in a continuing way the quality of our vocation, and encouraging and assisting us to grow in our responsiveness to it. Canonical (consecrated) hermits are called to ecclesial vocations and the Church has the right and obligation to oversee these just as she expects us to continue to grow as human beings; canonical hermits have accepted the obligation to grow and participate in those "professional" relationships which help ensure that. Yes, hermits do grow in light of their experience of the love of God; they grow as human beings and as hermits through their experience of Christ in the silence of solitude and the disciplined and attentive living of their Rule and horarium, but what growth there is in these things is often dependent on the hermit's work with her director and delegate, and also with her interactions and relationships with folks from her parish and/or diocese.

In eremitical (or any other) solitude it is simply too easy to say, "God wills this," or "God is calling me to that," when discernment is done by the hermit alone. In such a situation the temptation is to canonize or apotheosize one's own opinions, perceptions, tendencies, and so forth. God does not literally speak to us as human beings do but instead does so through Sacred texts, sacraments, prayer, and the fruits of our choices and actions, etc; since we learn to love and be loved in our contact with others, hermits must 1) be well-formed in learning to hear (discern) and respond to God in authentic ways, and 2) they must be adequately supervised and directed in this. This does not mean one meets every week or even every month with one's delegate, or spiritual director. "Adequate" means whatever is sufficient to allow the hermit/candidate to grow in her vocation first as a human being called to live from and mediate the love of God (and others) and secondly as a hermit who does this in the silence of solitude.

** Hermits may do some very limited apostolic ministry but are not and cannot be identified in terms of this ministry as are apostolic or ministerial religious. The silence of solitude is always primary and definitive for the hermit's life.

*** Some have written that the need for direction and supervision cease to be important when the hermit has lived the life for some time. I believe this is a false conclusion, It is true that the nature of direction and the supervisory relationships change with time and maturity but it seems to me they may become even more critical over time. Whether that is generally true or not the need for ongoing formation and discernment continues through the whole of the hermit's life.

On Diocesan Hermits and Ordinary Visitations

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I hope this finds you doing well. I came across this entry on your blog about having hermitages and hermits' prayer spaces blessed. It brought to my mind a question about visitations. How do diocesan hermits handle canonical visitations? Or is it an issue at all?]]

Hi there. All is well so thanks for asking. Your question about visitations is a good one and one I have never been asked until now, so thanks for that too! As you likely know, canonical visitations are undertaken by the Bishop each year because every three years he is expected to meet with every parish, religious house, and other institution in his diocese in order to gauge their health and take what pastoral steps are necessary to improve or optimize this. Hermitages would fall under this requirement unless there is some other way of securing the necessary information and implementing the necessary pastoral actions if there are any.

My own sense is the Bishop may have a better sense of a hermit's wellbeing than he does of any other house, parish, or convent in the diocese. This is because besides meeting once a year or so with the bishop, in some dioceses diocesan hermits are supervised by a delegate who serves the Bishop and the hermit in ensuring the health of the hermit's vocation.  The delegate meets with the hermit more frequently than the Bishop can and quite often, knows more about religious life as well. So, for instance, I ordinarily meet with my delegate at least three or four times a year; in the last year and a half, because of special inner work we are doing together, we have met at least every two weeks (last year it was closer to once a week). Because the Bishop can simply speak with the hermit's delegate at any time to determine how things are going for the hermit, and because the bishop also meets with the hermit once a year or so, a formal visitation is not usually necessary.

I don't have any information on other hermits and visitations but most of the hermits I know meet regularly with their bishop and for that reason he sees them more frequently than he sees others under his purview. (Some religious, for instance, never see or speak to their bishop; after all, he is not their legitimate superior as he is for diocesan hermits. Meetings with laity are even less frequent or likely.) I would think visitations with these hermits is also seen as relatively unnecessary.