31 August 2018

In Memoriam Dom Robert Hale, OSB CAM

Our beloved Robert passed away last evening around 9 PM, 30 August, his struggle mercifully over, his reward richly awaiting. 

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.


Il nostro carissimo Robert è morto stasera verso le 21.00, 30 agosto, la sua lotta misericordiosamente conclusa, la sua ricompensa lo attende. 

Possa egli dormire in pace ed esser 

innalzato nella gloria.


Please pass this message on particularly if I have forgotten someone in the congregation.

Per piacere trasmettere questo messaggio particolarmente se ho dimenticato qualcuno della congregazione.


Funeral Mass arrangements will be 
announced  once confirmed.

29 August 2018

Update On Father Robert Hale, OSB Cam

Many thanks to all who have prayed for Father Robert Hale, OSB Cam. The following update was posted today by Prior Cyprian Consiglio. For those knowledgeable about Camaldolese spirituality you will recognize "The Privilege of Love" refers to a book on Camaldolese spirituality in which the title essay was Father Robert's. I ask you to continue to pray not just for Robert, but with him and the whole Camaldolese family in the God he loves so well. Laurel.

Update on Fr. Robert (Wed. 8/29):

Fr. Robert took a sharp turn for the worse Wednesday morning. He has been taken off of all life support now and transitioned into hospice/comfort care. It may be hours, it may be days, but we are certainly at the end of this phase of the journey. Fr. Andrew and I are with him. Please pray for the safe passing of our brother and father into the Privilege of Love.


Followup Question: Ancient and Contemporary Hermits, Ancient and Contemporary Asceticism

[[Dear Sister, in the history of hermit life isn't it true that hermits went out into the wilds without ways to support themselves and often had to live barebones, subsistence lives? Are hermits today not allowed to do this? I am asking because you have criticized the living arrangements of a lay hermit who seems to have taken on a project much like ancient hermits might have done and had no one to assist her. I think of some of these hermits as heroes and find their motivation completely inspiring, especially if they felt drawn into the desert by the Holy Spirit and were faithful to that call. So what is the difference between the situation you wrote about recently and these more ancient vocations? Isn't this kind of asceticism acceptable any longer?]]

Thanks for your questions and your very good points. First, let me say I generally agree with you about the ancient hermits you refer to. That is especially true if we are talking about folks like the Desert Mothers and Fathers from @ the 3rd-4th Centuries, the original Carthusians, the Camaldolese, etc. All of these hermits lived eremitical lives of serious asceticism and poverty. The deserts they entered required they make do with what they had at hand and that they live their faith commitments in and through such circumstances. Today the Carthusians continue to live similar lives --- though ordinarily in established Charterhouses with the basic means for healthy lives given to God alone. While people reading the stories of these hermits today might not understand what motivated or motivates them, I think most would find the accounts of their lives and foundations to be powerful witnesses to being driven by something greater than ordinary life seems to provide. One may not understand what moved these hermits but I think most would admire their courage and persistence.

What moves me most when I read or read about these ancient and contemporary hermits is that the hardships they lived, the asceticism they undertook all fade into the background in light of the reasons they undertook these things and their accounts of what they found in their quests. Specifically, the circumstances in which they found themselves did not detract from their eremitical lives, nor were they the focus of these lives; they were a part of the soil in which these lives were fruitful. As a result these hermits (or those who author the accounts we have of their lives) write not primarily about the difficult, even miserable conditions in which they found themselves but about the God who held them securely in spite of these conditions and the struggles they required. More, they do so in ways which are coherent and compelling. In other words, they lived lives faithful to their sense of God's call; they prayed assiduously and worked and grew in their gratefulness to God. They assisted one another, were faithful to a call to solitude and, when a situation was truly unlivable or manifestly unhealthy, they moved on and lived their call elsewhere. So, while asceticism was essential and sometimes simply unavoidable anyway it was the eremitical or "desert life" itself in which one is fulfilled in God which was the focus of their efforts; it is this redemptive content that is the compelling and clear center of their witness --- their living, writing, apothegms, and the accounts of those who write about these hermits.

The questions I had been asked earlier focused on the role of the diocese in allowing a diocesan (solitary consecrated Catholic) hermit to live in uninhabitable, and even harmful situations or circumstances. What I tried to stress was that a diocese will allow a hermit she has publicly professed to purchase and remodel a house in order to have a hermitage, but that it cannot become a fulltime project which detracts from the hermit's ability to live her Rule or to live a fully and abundantly human life --- especially in the long term. Dioceses can and do allow hermits to build hermitages but they also require prudence in the details. This is only appropriate. Remember that dioceses have to discern the nature and quality of the vocation in front of them; beyond this they must supervise, protect, and nurture such vocations. If an individual is going into substantial debt, living a more and more isolated life, and injuring themselves or exacerbating existing conditions and illnesses needlessly all in the name of creating this "hermitage" then something has gotten skewed, namely, the living of a healthy eremitical life itself has lost its priority and been replaced by concern for one's hermitage itself.

A hermit can make a hermitage of almost any habitable dwelling place. I am thinking now of a chapter written by a Trappist hermit at the Abbey of Gethsemani in KY. (Paul Quenon, OCSO, In Praise of the Useless Life, A Monk's Memoir) In this section devoted to the "Our Golden Age of Hermits" at the Abbey, the author describes the great variety of hermitages found on the Abbey grounds in the years following Thomas Merton's death. Besides Merton's own cinderblock hermitage, hermitages were built in a variety of places out of a variety of materials. Fr. Flavian's was built of cedarwood and was small and isolated but with large small-paned windows taking up most of a couple of walls; Dom James' hermitage (which was designed and built for him after his years of service as Abbot by one of the brothers) was constructed with three wings constructed of steel and glass and cantilevered from a concrete base. The base contained the kitchen, bedroom, and bath, while one wing was the chapel, another a porch and entrance, and a third a living room. As one approached the hermitage from the Abbey all one could see was a pyramid of stone with a slot for a window. (Dom James retired to this hermitage that was a 30 minute drive from the main abbey buildings. He was notably frugal in terms of heating and other expenses, including food; later he was assaulted by intruders and moved back to the abbey infirmary where he would be safe from additional harm.).

Br Odilo built a hermitage from scraps from other projects; some monks lived in trailers, one in an old "pig house"; Brother Rene's 16'X8' hermitage was made from the scraps of wood left over after the abbey monks made cheese boxes and it was roofed with corrugated metal; it had neither electricity nor running water but it provided the place where Br Rene could pray and rest in solitude as his own life required. His regular physical needs were taken care of in the abbey itself so the extreme poverty of the hermitage was not problematical in this way. I am also reminded of a contemporary Camaldolese who, in setting up a solitary hermitage, decided to convert a utility shed of the type used today for tools, etc. He rents living space from another person, but the shed is his hermitage and allows him time and space in privacy and solitude; it is snug and comfortable for this use, but it is not habitable and he will spend no time making it so.

Folks hearing the story of any of these hermits would rightly wonder if that story focused on the details of the hermitage, the struggle to build it, the terrible expense and injuries incurred in its building, the hermit's exacerbated chronic pain and illness occasioned by the conditions of his solitude. The point, of course, is that the hermitage itself was of less concern than the call to the silence of solitude and the life of solitary prayer. People find or build a place they can live such a life, but they do not give over years of their lives building the hermitage at the expense of their health or the life they are committed to live in the process. A diocesan hermit's diocese/bishop would never allow this, nor should they I think.

Simplicity? Sacrifice? Asceticism? Frugality? Yes, of course. But these will necessarily involve limitations on the time and energy spent on the hermitage itself. If versions of these are embraced in a way which detracts from one's ability to live the very life they are committed to living, no diocese would or should permit it. Similarly, I also think it is prudent of dioceses to insist that diocesan hermits have a reliable way to support themselves. Dioceses may (but are not required to) assist in times of emergency and temporary need but it is important that the hermit be responsible for her own support and legal decisions --- not least so dioceses are not to be left liable for expenses, injuries,  etc., when something untoward happens.

Again, this is all about living and protecting a vocation which is a gift of God. Not all historical forms of asceticism have been edifying, nor have all forms of suffering or isolation. It seems to me that we are more sensitive today to what are healthy forms of these, or what are forms which speak primarily of redemption rather than of sin/brokenness; it also seems to me that the Church, in approving certain eremitical vocations and disapproving others demonstrates this sensitivity and insists that canonical or public eremitical vocations witness to the redemption that comes to each of us through and in Christ.  I hope this is of assistance to you.

28 August 2018

Parable of the Ten Virgins (Reprise)

(Posting in preparation for Friday's readings.) Friday's Gospel lection is the parable of the ten virgins waiting for the Bridegroom. Five are wise and five are foolish. While all of them fall asleep at some point after the bridegroom is delayed, half of them are still ready to greet him when he comes and also to serve him as they are meant to. Their lamps are full. The other half have not prepared so their lamps are either out or running out of oil. These latter virgins ask the "wise" virgins to share oil with them, but are told  that if they were to do that they too might run out. The "foolish virgins" are sent out to buy some oil (it is after midnight, remember). In the meantime, the Bridegroom comes, the doors are locked, the party begins, and the foolish virgins are left out in the cold with the Bridegroom declaring, "I never knew you!"

Parables have a unique capacity to take us where we are and lead us to Christ. It doesn't matter that we are all in different places. We enter the story and thus enter a sacred space where we can meet God in Christ ourselves. For this reason, although I have written about this parable before, it had a freshness for me this week. Themes may remain similar (waiting, covenant, consummation of a wedding, faithfulness, preparation, celebration, future fulfillment, foolishness, wisdom, etc) but what the parable calls for today will differ  from what it personally entailed for the hearer yesterday. It seems to me this parable describes and calls us each to a life of prayer, a life given over to another so that his own purposes may be fulfilled through our relationship. It is the story of a life given over to waiting; it is a waiting of disciplined preparation and attention, but it is also, for that very reason, waiting which is joyful and full of promise and hope. It is the kind of waiting which signals a life where, in terms of today's parable, one especially prepares oneself to be surprised by the Bridegroom's promised and inevitable coming and by all he has done to prepare for us as his bride.

Reminder: The Nature of Jewish Marriages in Jesus' Day

Jewish weddings took place in two stages. First came the betrothal in which the two were joined in a covenant of marriage. This was more than an engagement and if it was to be sundered it could only occur through processes called "divorce". After the betrothal the bridegroom went to his family home and began to prepare for his bride. He ordinarily began building an addition to the family home. It was understood that he would provide better accommodations than his bride had had until this point. (We should all be thinking of this situation when we hear Jesus say, "I go to my Father's house to prepare a place for you.) Meanwhile the bride also begins a period of preparation. There is sewing to do and lessons in being a wife. There is preparation for the day her bridegroom will come again to take her to his home where the two shall become one (in ritual marriage) and where the marriage will be consummated.

At the end of about a year (the groom's  Father makes sure his Son does not do a haphazard job on the new addition just so he can get to his bride sooner!), on a day and at an hour the bride does not know, the groom comes with his friends. They bear torches, blow the shofar, and announce, "The Bridegroom comes" --- just as we hear in Friday's Gospel. The bride's attendants come forth with their own lamps and, with the entire town, accompany her to her new home. The marriage of this bride and groom symbolizes (in the strongest sense of that term) the marriage of God to his people achieved on Sinai. Thus, the service the bridesmaids and groomsmen do for these friends is also a service they do for Israel and a witness to God's ineffable mercy and covenant faithfulness.

On Waiting and preparing to be Surprised: The Life of Prayer

We are each called to be spouses of Christ. Christ has gone to his Father's house to prepare a place for us and we are called to spend the time between our betrothal and the consummation of this marriage in joyful preparation and waiting for that day. In other words, everything we do and are is to be geared to that day. One response to this reality is to develop a prayer life and commit to a life of prayer. (I would argue we are all called to this but that a solid prayer life and even a life of prayer looks different depending on the context and our state of life. For instance, a life of prayer in a family looks differently than a life of prayer in a hermitage.) This parable describes very well for me the dynamics of a life of prayer. Simultaneously it describes the celebratory nature of genuine waiting because prayer implies both waiting for and waiting on.

We all know both kinds of waiting. Neither is always easy for us. We wait for our moment before the cashier in grocery stores lines and are unhappy we have to be there. We look at magazines in the nearby racks, shift restlessly from foot to foot,  fall prey to impulse buys of small items located in front of us for precisely this reason, and get more irritable by the moment. (Waiting is hard because it means some form of incompleteness and lack of control; thus we impulse buy to get a sense of completion, control, etc.) We tell ourselves we have better things to do, that our time is important -- often more important, we judge, than that of the person standing in front of (or behind!) us. (There's the specter of entitlement and narcissism that so plagues our culture. The whole dynamic of waiting reminds us we are not the center of the universe and it is not easy to take sometimes.) We fill our time, our minds and our hearts with all kinds of things to distract us from waiting; at the same time we thus prevent ourselves from being open to the new and unexpected.

Similarly waiting on others is not always easy either. Wait staff in restaurants sometimes resent the very guests they are meant to serve; work keeps them from their "real  lives".  And some of these wait staff take it out on those they are meant to serve. Whether this means allowing some to go unserved while waiters talk on cell phones, or arguing with and blaming customers, or actually doctoring the dishes served at the table, putting nasty comments on the bill, etc. waiting on others can be challenging and demanding; our own inability to wait on God is an important reason we fail to pray as we are called to. We may fail at this out of ignorance; we may not know prayer is about putting ourselves at God's disposal rather than expecting God to be at ours. We may be unwilling or resistant to putting ourselves at God's disposal or to order our lives around this relationship as fully as we know we ought.

Again, in prayer we both wait for and wait on God. We wait for God and allow him the space to love and touch us as he will. We wait in the sense of the bride, knowing both that she is betrothed and thus wed to her groom while recognizing and honoring as well that the consummation of this relationship (and the proleptic experiences we occasionally have while waiting) come to us inevitably but at moments when we do not expect them. The temptation of course is to do as we do in the Safeway checkout line: fill our time with unworthy activities, seek distractions which relieve the tension of waiting, allow entitlement and impulsivity to replace patience and perseverance. But when we do not succumb to temptation, in prayer we wait for God. We wait in the sense of those preparing for something greater which we cannot even imagine. In other words, we wait as persons of hope whose ultimate union with our beloved is already begun and remains promised and anticipated in everything we say and do. We wait to be surprised by the one we know will come. And when we do, everything and everyone entering our purview will fire us with anticipation, will look, at least for a moment as the one we are awaiting. Each one may be the bridegroom, or his messenger, or someone with word of him and his own preparations. Each one bears promise and becomes a symbol of our hope.

At the same time we wait for God in Christ, we wait on God. Our prayer is not merely a matter of seeking God, much less of asking God for favors --- though it will assuredly and rightly include pouring out our hearts to him. Still, we are called to leave behind the prayer that is self-centered and adopt that which is centered instead on God's own life and will. Mature prayer is first of all a matter of making ourselves available to serve God so that his own love may be fulfilled, God's own plans realized, the absolute future he summons all of creation to may culminate in him and the Reign of sovereignty he wills to share with us is perfected. Again, in prayer we prepare to be surprised by that which we already know most truly and desire most profoundly. As in the Transfiguration we prepare to be surprised by that which has been right in front of us all along.

In the life of prayer and discipleship both waiting for and waiting on God take commitment, diligence, and attentiveness. Both require patience and persistence.  It is to this we are each and every one of us called. No one can do this for us. The fuel and flame of our hearts and prayer lives is something only we can tend, only we can steward this fire in patient and joyful preparation for our Bridegroom's coming. It is in this that the foolish virgins failed and the wise virgins succeeded. The question Jesus' parable poses to us is which will we ourselves be, wise or foolish?

24 August 2018

Prayers Requested for Dom Robert Hale, OSB Cam


I have not asked readers for prayers for Dom Robert Hale, OSB Cam but I am doing so now. Fr Robert took a bad fall a couple of months ago and sustained a serious head injury. Surgery was done and Fr Robert did well. However, there were complications and additional surgery was required. Again, Fr Robert did well. However, after this there were additional problems and despite a common surgical procedure, a little more than two weeks ago Fr Robert slipped into a coma. The doctors remained hopeful but early this week Fr Robert's community and family, in accord with Dom Robert's specified wishes weaned and then removed him entirely from the ventilator on which he was being sustained. And following this Fr Robert woke up! He was a bit confused and spoke Italian (not his first language --- though he is fluent and the Camaldolese Motherhouse is in Tuscany!). We recognize Fr Robert could slip back into a coma at any time, but for now everyone is grateful and hopeful!
When I was first becoming a diocesan hermit Father Robert read my proposed Rule and gave me suggestions --- mainly an encouragement that I build in enough time for rest. For those who have not already done so I recommend reading Dom Robert's, Love on the Mountain, the Chronicle Journal of a Camaldolese Monk. Written while Robert was Prior it is a touching, often humorous autobiographical account of his community's life as Camaldolese in Big Sur. I have mentioned this before but do so again since I am rereading it as part of keeping Dom Robert in prayer.

22 August 2018

Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Reprise)

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

Now, it is important to remember what the word parable means in appreciating what Jesus is actually doing with this story and seeing how it challenges us today. The word parable, as I have written before, comes from two Greek words, para meaning alongside of and balein, meaning to throw down. What Jesus does is to throw down first one set of values -- one well-understood or common-perspective --- and allow people to get comfortable with that. (It is one they understand best so often Jesus merely needs to suggest it while his hearers fill in the rest. For instance he mentions a sower, or a vineyard and people fill in the details. Today he might well speak of a a CEO in an office, or a mother on a run to pick up kids from a swim meet or soccer practice.) Then, he throws down a second set of values or a second way of seeing reality which disorients and gets his hearers off-balance.

This second set of values or new perspective is that of the Kingdom of God. Those who listen have to make a decision. (The purpose of the parable is not only to present the choice, but to engage the reader/hearer and shake them up or disorient them a bit so that a choice for something new can (and hopefully will) be made.) Either Jesus' hearers will reaffirm the common values or perspective or they will choose the values and perspective of the Kingdom of God. The second perspective, that of the Kingdom is often counterintuitive, ostensibly foolish or offensive, and never a matter of "common sense". To choose it --- and therefore to choose Jesus and the God he reveals --- ordinarily puts one in a place which is countercultural and often apparently ridiculous.

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

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

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

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

For Christians every day is gift and we are given precisely what we need to live fully and with real integrity if only we will choose to accept it (and I say this as someone who has known certain kinds of severe deprivation as I grew up, it is not a naïve or Pollyannaish kind of statement but one rooted in faith in what God has revealed to me during the past years.). We are precious to God, and this is often hard to really accept, but neither more nor less precious than the person standing in the grocery store line ahead of us or folded dirty and disheveled behind a begging sign on the street corner near our bank or outside our favorite coffee shop. The wage we have agreed to (or been offered) is the gift of God's very self along with his judgment that we are indeed precious, and so, the free and abundant but cruciform life of a shared history and destiny with that same God whose characteristic way of being is kenotic. He pours himself out with equal abandon for each of us whether we have served him our whole lives or only just met him this afternoon. He does so whether we are well and whole, or broken and feeble. And he asks us to do the same, to pour ourselves out similarly both for his own sake and for the sake of his creation-made-to-be God's Kingdom.

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

Questions on Catholic Hermit Blog and Blogger

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I was reading Catholic Hermit: Time to Praise among other related posts on this blog, and I wondered how a diocese could allow a hermit to live in substandard living conditions for years at a time. I also wondered how they could let a consecrated Catholic hermit spend the majority of her time re-habbing an old farmhouse to use as a hermitage and then to just move on to somewhere else (she says in another post that place may have to be a shelter!) when the rehab is finished. What raised questions for me is this hermit's description of living an essentially unbalanced eremitical life of physical labor she is ill-equipped for and which increased her own chronic pain, led to or worsened unnecessary injuries and unanticipated expenses --- all without assistance or support of any kind from her diocese. Is this typical? It seems unconscionable that a diocese could treat a hermit this way --- without guidance or assistance in housing even to the point of allowing the hermit to write about maybe needing to go to a shelter lest they be "homeless" and out on the streets. How could a diocese allow this? It all reflects badly on them -- the Church I mean. What am I missing?]]

Introduction, Continuing Questions Regarding the Blog/Blogger Cited

Thank you for your questions. I will not pull punches here. I am more than a little frustrated by similar questions and by the situation which prompts them because again and again this particular blogger is responsible for confusing those who come to her blog after googling, "Catholic hermit". How ever good her reasons or motivations are, she is misrepresenting a significant vocation with her own eccentric way of living and inaccurate way of describing herself. 

However, also according to her own blogging  she is not a consecrated Catholic hermit when these terms are used in the way the Roman Catholic Church uses them. So, before I answer the questions you have asked about hermits and the responsibility of dioceses let me say once again, the author of the blog you cited is a Catholic laywoman and hermit with private vows. Her lay vocation is to be esteemed but she is responsible for her life in the way any other lay person is; the Church has not initiated her into the consecrated state and for this reason the local Church/bishop, et al, are not responsible for her in the limited way the church/bishop would be for a publicly professed/consecrated hermit.

The Real Question: The Church's Exercise of Responsibility in Regard to Those She Consecrates

Your questions, while triggered by this person's situation, are more about the Church's exercise of responsibility in regard to those she consecrates as hermits, so let me speak more specifically to these. My own sense is a Catholic (specifically a c 603) hermit's living circumstances are overseen by her bishop and delegate. (Hermits who belong to canonical institutes live their lives under the supervision of leadership in that institute.) My own delegate, for instance, understands her role as helping ensure that the life I live is a healthy one, one leading to human wholeness, holiness, and representing the best eremitical life calls for and calls forth from me for the sake of the Church and world. I keep her apprised of my spiritual life, of course, but it also means that generally speaking she is aware of my physical health and the way I live my life both in this hermitage and in my parish. She is similarly aware of my significant relationships (friendships and professional), work, intellectual pursuits, the things I do for recreation or creative outlets, and the contents of the Rule by which I live my life. (All of these concerns are my own responsibility but my delegate assists me as needed both for my own sake, and for the sake of the vocation to eremitical life itself. She does this on my behalf as well as on behalf of the local and universal Church.)

Temporary situations may cause a certain imbalance in a hermit's life. Medical situations may mean she needs assistance with personal care, trips to the doctor's, etc, for a period of several weeks or even a few months. However, living situations which are substandard as described on the "Catholic Hermit" blog and cannot be rectified in a reasonable time (several months) at an expense the hermit can truly afford would not be allowed, not least because both the hermit's health and vocation are threatened by them. 

While a diocese does not subsidize any hermitage a diocesan hermit buys, the diocese does have the right to expect the canonical hermit to make a prudent investments of time, money, and energy with the help of knowledgeable professionals (realtors, attorneys, bankers, etc).  Should the diocesan hermit make a bad financial investment and be caught in a situation like that described in the blog you cited (inadequate medical care, insufficient hygiene and access to personal necessities like toilets and showers, dangerous vermin-ridden living conditions, inadequate conditions for food preparation and storage, insufficient financial resources, etc.)  they would have the right to expect the hermit to find a way out of the situation within a reasonable period of time. If she needed assistance in this a diocese could be expected to try to find people (or help the hermit locate people) who can offer some assistance but the overall responsibility remains the hermit's own. However, let it be noted, a hermit's extended inability to live his/her Rule of life might well mean, for example, the diocese will eventually need to dispense the hermit's vows.

I don't believe any diocese would allow a publicly professed hermit to buy a house to fix up as a hermitage if that project was going to take more than five years of apparently full-time effort by the hermit herself; they would especially not allow it if the hermit was merely going to sell the property at the end of that time and had nowhere to go after this. (Dioceses of course can (and do) allow a hermit to build or remodel a hermitage, but they have a right and even an obligation to set limits in terms of finances, time frames, living conditions, and so forth. The life is a contemplative one, after all; it is a healthy one and needs to be stably established. A diocese might also put off admittance to new stages of the life until a person is finished with the project and can truly live their eremitical life consistently and fully. If such a project was approved or allowed and was projected to take a year or two, a diocese might wait until its completion to admit one to perpetual profession and consecration, for instance.)

A fulltime long-term building situation would become even more objectionable if those five years involved insufficient professional assistance (skilled carpenters, licensed plumbers, electricians, etc) or skill which led to numerous injuries linked to accidents with power tools the hermit was incompetent to wield skillfully. After all, the prudential witness value of such a life is dubious; going it entirely alone when this leads to personal harm is not really typical of eremitical life nor does it witness to a stable state of life lived under a vow of religious poverty. Moreover, since it means the long-term suspension of the hermit's Rule for insufficient reasons, it lacks integrity. While dioceses allow hermits to choose and finance their own living arrangements according to what is allowed by religious poverty and their own budgets, and while manual labor is certainly permissible and even essential to the life, that hermit must be able to live her Rule in the midst of any building and re-habilitating. Some temporary adjustments in this can be made, just as may occur in times of illness or injury, of course, but these are worked out under the supervision of directors, delegates, and (sometimes) the hermit's bishop.

Most of your questions about the diocese's behavior presume the author of the blog you cited is really a Catholic hermit who is publicly admitted to the consecrated state of life and all the rights and obligations thereto. Most of them also dissolve once it is made clear this person is NOT publicly professed or consecrated and has not been entrusted with nor accepted the rights and obligations of living eremitical life in the name of the Church. Still, no, this situation is not typical! To reiterate, while it is required that hermits be self-supporting in some sense (this can include disability and similar aid)  and take on all the expenses associated with living this life, it is possible (though not required) for dioceses to assist the hermit temporarily should emergency medical or other expenses be necessary which are more than the hermit herself can manage. What is true for consecrated hermits is that when unexpected circumstances come up the hermit and those who assist her will generally work together to determine what solutions are possible which best preserves the hermit's commitments to the Rule she is morally and legally bound to live and to canon 603 under which she lives her Rule and which her Rule "unpacks". They will do this because they all have a commitment both to the hermit and to the solitary eremitical vocation itself which they will want to see protected, nurtured, and lived as the gift of God to the Church that it is.

I hope this is helpful.

14 August 2018

Feast of Maximillian Kolbe (Reprise)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

06 August 2018

Feast of the Transfiguration (Reprise with Tweaks)

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

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

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

Taking Offense at Jesus:

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

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

Learning to See With New Eyes:

I watched a video today of a man who was given Enchroma glasses --- a form of sunglasses that allows colorblind persons to see color, often for the first time in their lives. By screening out certain wavelengths of light someone who has seen the world in shades of brown their whole lives are finally able to see things they have never seen before as browns are transformed into yellows and reds and purples, and suddenly trees look truly green and three-dimensional or the colorful pears no longer simply blend into the background. The man was overwhelmed and overcome by what he had been missing; he could not speak, did not really know what to do with his hands, was "reduced" to tears and eventually expressed it all as he hugged his wife in love and gratitude. Meanwhile, family members were struck with just how much they themselves may have taken for granted as everyday they moved through their own world of "ordinary" color and texture. The entire situation involved a Transfiguration almost as momentous as the one the disciples experienced in today's Gospel.

For most of us, such an event would overwhelm us with awe and gratitude as well. But not Peter --- at least it does not seem so to me! Instead he outlines a project to reprise the Feast of Tabernacles right here and now. In this story Peter reminds me some of those folks (myself included!) who want so desperately to hang onto and even control amazing prayer experiences --- immediately making them the basis for some ministerial project or other; unfortunately, in doing so, they, in acting too quickly and even precipitously, fail to appreciate these experiences fully or learn to live from them! He is, in some ways, a kind of lovable but misguided buffoon ready to similar build booths for Moses, Elijah and Jesus, consistent with his tradition while neglecting the qualitative newness and personal challenge of what has been revealed and needs to be processed in personal conversion. In some way Matt does not spell out explicitly, Peter has missed the point. And in the midst of Peter's well-meaning activism comes God's voice, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!" In my reflection on this reading this last weekend, I heard something more: "Peter! Sit down! Shut up! This is my beloved Son! Listen to him!!!"

Like Peter, and like the colorblind man who needed wear the glasses consistently enough to allow his brain to really begin to process colors in a new way, we must take the time to see what is right in front of us. We must see the sacred which is present and incarnated in ordinary reality. We must listen to the One who comes to us in the Scriptures and Sacraments, the One who speaks to us through every believer and the whole of creation. We must really be the People of God, the "hearers of the Word" who know how to listen and are obedient in the way God summons us to be. This is true whether we are God's lowliest hermit or one of the Vicars of Christ who govern our dioceses and college of Bishops. Genuine authority coupled with true obedience empowers new life, new vision, new perspectives and reverence for the ordinary reality God makes Sacramental. There is a humility involved in all of this. It is the humility of the truly wise, the truly knowing person. We must be able to recognize how very little we see, how unwilling or unable we often are to be converted to the perspective of the Kingdom, how easily we justify our blindness and deafness with our supposed knowledge, and how even our well-intentioned activism can prevent us from seeing and hearing the unexpected, sometimes scandalous God standing there right in the middle of our reality.