31 October 2018

Home From Trip to Morro Bay

Anita, Raschi, Elaine, and Karen
Well, after retreat weekend before last (I am posting this a few days after writing it) I had hardly settled back in here at Stillsong and yet, on Monday I traveled South to Morro Bay where four of us --- friends from high school (and junior high in a couple of cases) rented a house for three nights. Last Summer (2017) I wrote about going to a 50 year high school reunion where several of us spent most of the weekend together and went to a dinner for a larger group of classmates. What was astounding was how we found we loved each other even after so many years; as I think I related then, we shared faith stories for hours despite each of us being part of a different Christian tradition and only found how similar faith was for each of us. So, we recently texted each other (part of a group text) and decided we really missed one another; we had spoken last Summer about getting together again, but this recent sentiment resulted in a plan to rent a house on the beach and spend some quality time together sharing, getting to know one another even better (there were and are still 50 years of experience to catch up on!) --- simply renewing some very old friendships.

Anita drove from Sacramento to pick me up here in Lafayette and then we started South. Karen and Elaine drove up from Orange County and we met at the house in Morro Bay. We went out for dinner that night (fish and chips for some of us) and then went grocery shopping for stuff we had forgotten or been unable to pick up before leaving for the beach house. What a trip that was! We came away with food for a picnic the next day, but we also bought four different kinds of ice cream, caramel sauce, and (I think) two or three kinds of cookies along with a couple kinds of coffee pods (the house had a Keurig)! (We started on the ice cream that night as we talked until late sustained by excitement and the coffee! I fell asleep in the middle of it all.) The next day we drove to Cambria; Karen worked on school stuff (Karen's an adjunct professor at Concordia University) while the rest of us window shopped, tasted herbal teas, local honeys, and admired some of the really beautiful work by local artists..

Then, Karen's work mainly done for the time being and a little more window shopping and talking done, we went off to see the elephant seals up the coast and following that, had our picnic at the small schoolhouse on the ranch grounds of Hearst Castle (Anita, who was once an archivist at the castle, picked the spot; perfect). The elephant seals were fascinating (and the wind off the beach was astoundingly fierce). Mainly juveniles were left on the beach. I asked how long they nursed and was told "only a month!" Mom only has milk for that long. Starving and 40% of her body weight gone to nursing, etc, she must return to sea to rebuild her strength and body weight.  She will get pregnant again immediately but the fetus will not develop for as long as four months while she regains her health. The pups, who are left behind, stay on the beach for another month; then they go to sea where 50% will die shortly to predators and starvation. Speaking of food (or starvation), we drove back through Cambria and bought a Linn's chicken pot pie for dinner at home. Absolutely the best!!

Laurel, Raschi, Karen, Priscilla
That evening we spent another evening talking, reading, crocheting, watching some news (the mail bombs were a story we had partly missed and caught up on). Still, we tried to stay away from politics because we each fall at a different place along the liberal/conservative spectrum. I was reminded how important the Johnson Amendment is in our churches and parishes in ensuring the ability of people to celebrate their lives and faith without adverting to political passions and differences. That is something I appreciate about life in my own parish --- a real freedom of religion. Yet, it was our love for one another, not some law, that kept us from venturing into areas that could cause tension, pain or outright wound one another. (I suspect the ice cream helped some too! Just kidding!) We know where we each stand politically in a general way and in some instances we know more specifically and why. We may disagree with one another on this or that, but we love and respect one another --- and that implies trust that we will each reflect on and pray about matters and act in good conscience --- in light, that is, of that inviolable sacred "place" within each of us where God speaks.

One of the things I have been most moved by theologically in the past several years is how it is God brings all things together and loses nothing as he draws reality into the future. (See posts on God as the Master Storyteller for this idea.) Last Summer (2017) that was brought home to me in a very personal way by my time with these friends, not least because this time occasioned the healing of a loss of memory caused indirectly by the trauma of my seizure disorder; along with specific memories tied to this deeper sense, I had lost the sense of how profoundly loved and loving these friendships were. Though I had and have had good friends throughout my life, there is simply something unique and critical about the friendships we have in grade school through high school and I can hardly overstate how grateful I am for the gift last Summer's reunion was to me. While specific memories were mainly not recovered (and are unlikely ever to be recovered), there are now new ones which somehow allow me to access the deeper sense of loving and being loved by these friends.

The truth is that with God nothing is lost. We pray that God will remember us, and of course God does --- in every sense of the word! With God Who is Love-in-Act, Love secures and binds all of reality together; Love is the source and ground of all reality and in each of us that source and ground is made real in space and time. When you haven't seen or spoken to friends for 50 years or more and then discover they are a not only a constitutive part of your very heart who were pivotal in your own personal formation and capacity to love, dream, hope, etc, and who want very much to be an active part of your life now, the reality of God as the One  "holding all things together" and willing the reconciliation and perfection of all creation can hardly be questioned, much less denied. By the way, I know that posting this may well mean at least a couple of people will write critical and even downright snarky emails about what is clearly a vacation and whether hermits could need or should take vacations. One person in particular who apparently reads this blog and writes occasionally, is likely to question whether my delegates or directors and/or my bishop knew I was doing this and how they could "permit" it! (Her last question pushed my thought in the direction of considering the importance of play for the contemplative life so I owe her a real debt of gratitude!)

Laurel, Gary, Karen
In any case, let me say that while I might desire to forestall the snarky questions and relatively unloving critical questions (critical questions, I should note, can be loving!), I am more than open to reflecting on and answering questions that are the result of apparent contradictions between my life as a hermit and four days of vacation with very old friends; I believe such questions can help illumine the nature of this vocation even as it helps dissolve away destructive stereotypes and misconceptions. So please, if questions are raised for you by what I have written here about the eremitical vocation or the way I live it out do feel free to write with these.

An Apologia for Contemplative Prayer

[[Dear Sister, Since you are a contemplative who prays contemplatively I wondered if you could respond to the following arguments against contemplative prayer? 1) it is rooted in a pagan, Neo-Platonic notion of God; 2) the revelation of God in Scripture becomes secondary. Awakening is rooted in the study of Scripture, not in contemplative prayer with its goal of mystical experience and its emphasis on postures and techniques; 3) Jesus and the early church did not practice or preach it. Instead the Lord's Prayer teaches us to verbally express ourselves, and to use dynamic relational prayers. Contemplative prayer is a substitute for what is promised as the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I got these from the following article: Three reasons I Refuse to Pray Contemplatively. It came up on a list serve I belong to. Thanks.]]

 Sure, I can give it a shot. I believe a large part of the reason the author of your article distrusts contemplative prayer is its linkage to the mystics of the Roman Catholic Church, however. He is also suspicious of silent prayer opting instead for verbal dialogue. He says that in the intro to his article before he lists the three reasons you cited (good job with those, by the way): [[Contemplative prayer, emphasizing "silence," has roots that go back to the mystics of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. The mystics were, in turn, profoundly influenced by Neo-Platonism, a pagan, mystical religion founded by Plotinus, a disciple of Plato.]]

While there is no doubt Platonism and neo-Platonism have been influential in Christianity, I don't see where the work of Plotinus (philosopher, pantheist or maybe panentheist), whom your author refers to at length, has any significant bearing on the practice of prayer including contemplative prayer. Moreover, even when there are similarities between mystics and some of the themes they might reflect in their prayer and Plotinus' thought, things like the transcendence of God, God's ineffableness (ultimate nature as Mystery which cannot be captured or adequately expressed in finite speech) or the capacity of one to know him to some extent in beauty or the good, this does not imply they have swallowed whole a pagan notion of God. It argues instead that we all do theology and approach similar notions of God even apart from the Christ Event. The fact is that Hellenism (especially Gnosticism) influenced Christianity in vast ways --- including both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Someone arguing a sola Scriptura position, as I think your author does in objections nos 2 and 3, needs to be aware of this influence among the sources of both Testaments. So, to the various objections to contemplative prayer cited in your question.

1) Contemplative prayer is rooted in a pagan notion of God. On the contrary, contemplative prayer, as I know it and practice it, is rooted in a profoundly Biblical notion of God. Often this prayer is occasioned by lectio with Scripture, often it leads back to Scripture at the same time. Its God is a transcendent God, yes, but S/he is also a God who grounds the whole of existence and resides in the human heart, constantly summoning each (and all) of us to completion in God. This is the God who sought a counterpart who would exhaustively and responsively incarnate his love in space and time, and who invites us each to share in the reality of such an incarnation achieved in Jesus. It is the God of Jesus Christ, the One Jesus called Abba. We meet (him) and know him --- and more, as Paul says, we are known by Him --- as we enter deeply into our own hearts and learn to open ourselves to Love-in-Act. As we enter into contemplative silence we drop our defenses, exercise greater degrees of trust and vulnerability, and learn to allow and listen profoundly for God's presence there. In short, we give ourselves to God for God's own purposes; we wait on and for God to reveal Godself on (his) own terms --- neither  more nor less than this.

2) These encounters with God involve pouring our hearts out to him in ways and to degrees which may begin with but eventually transcend speech. The purpose of contemplative prayer is to allow God "ownership" of our hearts and lives. We allow or consent to God's sovereignty; at least in part this is what it means to pray for the coming of God's Kingdom/Reign on earth as in heaven. It is emphatically not about mystical experiences --- though we may well experience God's love in ways which can be described as mystical --- ecstasy, the gift of tears, healing and wholeness, extraordinary joy, temporary detachment from bodily needs, inner locutions, images, and so forth. However, every genuine mystic and every spiritual director will caution about the dangers of expecting, much less depending on such experiences; they are never the focus in contemplative prayer. Still, some of us are naturally "visual" or "aural" in our insights and perceptions and may be predisposed to such experiences. Of themselves they are not a sign of maturity, much less giftedness, in prayer and should never be overestimated in importance --- especially for the contemplative whose focus is God.

Prayer posture is important but must not be misunderstood as manipulative or a matter of mere "technique". In fact, contemplative prayer requires that a person sit in a way which is at once relaxed and attentive; the criticism regarding a focus on postures is as unwarranted as that on mystical experiences since there is no such "focus". One simply learns the way/posture in which one is both relaxed and able to maintain attentiveness during a long prayer period --- just as we do whenever we do something important which requires our full attention. A couple of years ago, after some time of being unable to use my prayer bench because of an injury, I learned that sitting "seiza"  on a "zafu" (a sturdy cushion made for this) allows me to pray much better than sitting in a comfortable chair --- where, over time (i.e., during a prayer period), I tend to slouch and drowse and am uncomfortable and unfocused; others will be more relaxed and attentive in other postures --- though "seiza" is well-established for allowing both relaxation and attentiveness. In any case, please check out the following post, On Prayer Postures and Prayer Furniture, for more on this topic.

3) Relativizing the revelation of God in Scripture: God comes to us in many ways and is mediated to us through a world which is potentially sacramental at its core. We meet him in the Risen and Cosmic Christ who comes to us variously in Word and Sacrament, but who also can be met in one another and so many of the works of our hands that communicate truth, and goodness, and beauty, and meaning. Yes, the Scriptures are a privileged means of this mediation and they are central to God's revelation of Godself; they are normative and are a crucial way we measure and clarify other more partial revelations of God's power and presence. (Remember the NT itself points to other partial revelations of God than in Christ. cf  Heb 1:1-2;we recognize prophetic presences, speech, and actions today even apart from Scripture. So too do we find partial or fragmentary but real revelations of God's presence in other religions, the sciences, and so forth. We will measure and clarify these partial and more obscure revelations according to the Christ Event as revealed in the Scriptures, but we cannot simply deny them and still adequately honor the God of Creation or of the Risen and Cosmic Christ.)

Personal prayer (including contemplative prayer) is one of the ways God reveals Godself effectively and powerfully. (This is generally recognized by the author of the article you cite when he points to the dialogical or "relational" nature of prayer. I think it needs to be remembered however, that prayer is not relational because we bring ourselves into relationship with God during this time but because prayer is an expression of and opening ourselves to an already-existing relationship with and invitation by God. God is knocking at the door prompting us to open it in prayer. This is true whether our prayer is liturgical, silent, spoken, acted out, contemplative, etc. Prayer is always a graced and responsive reality, invited and empowered by the living God --- a responsive act which presumes an existing relationship, no matter how fragile or tenuous.

4) "Jesus didn't practice or preach it." It is impossible to prove a negative like this and affirming that Jesus never prayed silently and/or contemplatively simply goes beyond the evidence. On the other hand, we know he frequently went apart in the night; we know he poured himself out to his Abba in ways marked by significant inner (heartfelt) exertion and physical symptoms (think Gethsemane) --- all of which go beyond verbal expression; we know others slept while Jesus prayed to/with his Father. I don't see why any of this indicates Jesus -- whose intimacy with his Abba surely went beyond the limitations of words --- did not, much less that he could not have prayed silently and contemplatively as well as using the psalms and other common Jewish prayers. (Though I do not wish to follow this thread at this point, I should also note that the way Mary responded to God's activity in her own life was to "ponder (all these things) in her heart." I have always thought this  meant the whole of the Christ Event, not just Jesus' conception. Sounds like contemplative prayer to me!)

The single prayer Jesus taught his disciples is what we call "the Lord's Prayer" (LP) and generally speaking, it reprises the Jewish prayers Jesus was familiar with --- with the single exception of the invocation ("Abba" or "Pater") whose intimacy goes well beyond anything Jews would have been comfortable with. The Lord's prayer was known in a number of versions in the early Church (we have three now, those in Matt and Luke and the Didache) and so we have Greek translations and Aramaic as well. What we do not have is any indication we are meant merely to recite this prayer. Yes,  Jesus' instructions say, "When you pray, say (λεγετε). . .," but it is important to remember that prayer is the work of God in us and speech in such a context is more speech-act, a matter of saying and doing simultaneously, of making real in space and time, than it is merely a matter of recitation. (Whenever God speaks in the Scriptures things happen, things come to be or come to greater wholeness and perfection. To pray in the Name (i.e., the power, and presence) of God is never merely simply to recite words; it, in Christ, is to change reality, whether our own or that around us.)

Moreover, the LP differs in the versions we have, both in words and in number of petitions. If Jesus was giving us something he simply wanted us to recite (and accurately!) I don't think the early Church would have given us three different versions. And finally, the structure of the prayer corresponds to an outworking of Jesus' instructions, "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God (part 1 of the prayer), and all things else will be given to you. (part 2 of the LP)" We pray by calling upon God by name, an act in which the entire prayer is already accomplished or "heard" (for what else can it mean for our prayer to be heard than to be brought into the intimacy accomplished and evidenced in invoking God by name? Invocation is a speech act which makes God's reign more fully real in history). Then we open (or continue opening) ourselves to God in more specific ways; we open all we are and hold within us to his holiness, his sovereignty or reign, and to his will. We seek the Kingdom first of all; we let God love us, empower us, lead, challenge, and enlighten us; we open ourselves to the coming of his Kingdom in and through our prayer and thus, to being remade in his Son's image and likeness. We seek the accomplishment of God's dreams and will, that is, to being made authentically, exhaustively, and truly human.

And, as the second half of the prayer indicates, with renewed mind and heart we now turn to the present moment without anxiety; we turn to the world of ordinary needs and challenges, the world of daily bread and the love we are called to today --- a love we can receive and rejoice in as gift but for that very reason never hoard; we turn to the world of sin, alienation, and forgiveness, of temptation and freedom, bondage and choice --- and we find we can now live more truly without fear (or the consequences of that fear) in this same world. In other words, the dialogue which goes on in the prayer is deeper than words; it occurs at the level of heart.

The dynamic is not that of speech only (though our words introduce us gradually into this dynamic) but of loving, being loved, and living in light of that love. In other words, when Jesus taught this prayer he was showing his disciples the essence of prayer, not simply giving us a text to recite; he was showing us what had priority in a Christian life devoted to allowing God's life, plans, and projects to come to fulfillment. The LP is more a paradigm of what a prayerful life rooted in the Gospel of God's Kingdom looks like and how it comes about than what prayer sounds like! This is because Jesus was more profoundly concerned with the prayer we would become than the prayers we would say; after all, as indispensable as prayers are and as it was for Jesus, prayer is always more about becoming the incarnation of God's own Word than it is about reciting prayers.

I sincerely hope this is helpful. Let me know if I have been unclear or raised other questions.


28 October 2018

Once Again on the Requirements of Age and Self-Support for the Diocesan Hermit

[[ Dear Sister, your post on c 603 and bankruptcy brings up the question of hermits who seem unable to provide adequately for themselves, whether that has to do with housing, medical care, or other needs. I wonder what you would say about a hermit who lives in abject poverty, housing which is not sanitary or habitable, or who has inadequate medical insurance. Catholic Hermit  writes all the time about her living conditions and now has gone to live with family, at least temporarily; she also writes about not having adequate medical insurance. How can her diocese allow her to represent a public vocation as you say, "in the name of the Church," and yet seemingly have none of her real needs taken care of or even live in eremitical solitude?]]

I have written fairly recently in response to a similar series of questions. Here is the link to that post: Questions on Catholic Hermit blog and Hermit.  I have not written recently about the need to live in eremitical solitude rather than with one's family, for instance, so perhaps I can say a bit more about that here; the question affects anyone aspiring to be professed as a solitary hermit so it might be important to discuss at this point. Otherwise, please check the link provided and get back to me if you don't find it answers your specific questions.

Some very few dioceses have broken with received wisdom and professed young hermits (in their 20's or early 30's, for instance) who may then live with their families. I think this is a mistake for several reasons. First, the eremitical vocation, but especially the solitary eremitical vocation is generally understood as a second half of life vocation. It requires individuals to have lived a rich and independent life before giving over everything to a life of such unusual community ("living together alone"), depth, and intensity. It takes time to negotiate all the ways God calls us to fullness of life, to achieve true individuation, develop an essentially contemplative prayer life, and then move to the kind of depth of listening contemplative life requires.

We will try many avenues to develop our personal capacities and serve others and usually, only along these various intellectual, psychological, social, professional, and other avenues will we learn to hearken to the deep inner reality which is at the heart of contemplative life. Secondly, eremitical life under c 603 means one lives alone and deals with all the exigencies of solitary (not isolated) life. It is not ordinarily lived in the midst of one's family, and certainly not by someone who has not achieved true adulthood apart from their families. Again, it takes time to learn to live one's faith in community with the kind of maturity, depth, and intensity necessary before one embraces a solitary vocation which is truly sensitive to and responsible for an ecclesial identity.

As I have noted before, Karl Jung once wrote that solitude could be lived by those with significant early experiences that suited them to solitude, but at the same time, these are rare individuals since the experiences we are speaking of wound and are more likely to make the person uniquely unsuited for eremitical solitude (it can isolate and make isolation relatively comfortable, but this is not the same as eremitical solitude). In either case, the person will need to work through the woundedness that leads to various dimensions of isolation and allow the love of God and others to transform these into the conditions for authentic eremitical solitude.

In the main this will happen before one can discover a genuine call to eremitical life; in some cases one will need to continue this work at deeper levels of healing and transformation once she is professed. (Because one commits to  live eremitical solitude or "the silence of solitude" in the name of the Church, diocesan hermits are obligated to undertake the healing work necessary to be sure isolation is transfigured and transformed into eremitical solitude and the quies, or stillness of hesychastic silence.) In any case, those who continue to live at home with their families have not yet lived eremitical solitude, and in my opinion, have not yet discerned nor been sufficiently formed to live eremitical solitude.

Even diocesan hermits can run into situations which make temporary living arrangements with family, friends, convents and monastic communities necessary. These need to be discerned and embraced as truly temporary. If they are made necessary by health problems or finances, a diocese will need to discern with the hermit whether or not she will be able to once again live as a solitary hermit. (Living on the grounds of a monastery is not the same situation; in such communities it is typical that the diocesan hermit lives a significant solitude while being a significant part of the monastic and parish or diocesan community.) After years of living as a solitary hermit it may well be one will need caregivers or be required to live in a care facility (especially where one where other religious and priests retire!) and some degree of healthy solitude can be maintained. In such instances no diocese will dispense the hermit's vows; however, if the hermit is relatively young, has many years before her and is simply incapable of living alone or of supporting herself adequately as a solitary hermit, a diocese may well decide her vows should be dispensed (or never allowed or received in the first place) --- and rightly so I think.

Whether the Church is right in her stance on the self-support of diocesan hermits or not (and in general, I believe she is), those who developed c 603, write about it in an expert and canonical capacity, and who live it in season and out,  understand that living with one's family and being generally incapable of living solitary eremitical life as self-supporting does not allow one to witness to the essence of the eremitical vocation, namely, that God alone is sufficient for us. Only very rarely have bishops departed from received wisdom in this matter and professed the too-young or yet-too-dependent. My sense from these professions is that c 603 is still insufficiently understood or appreciated and esteemed even by some among the hierarchy; as we have greater experience of diocesan eremitical life and through the wisdom gleaned from this experience, educate the Church and others on the nature of this vocation, I believe the situation will change.

27 October 2018

On c 603 Vocations and Bankruptcy

[[Dear Sister, if a person is discerning a vocation as a diocesan hermit but has had a bankruptcy, how does this affect their petition to be admitted to public profession and consecration?]]

Brand new question for me! Thanks. I would say that unless there is a reason for the diocese to doubt one's ability to support oneself adequately and prudently as a hermit, I can’t see any reason a bankruptcy would affect the discernment of such a vocation. If, however, this (bankruptcy) bears on the candidate's ability to vow and live religious poverty, to deal with (and avoid) significant debt, to prioritize and moderate one's spending (some expenses are necessary for the diocesan hermit when they might not be for the lay hermit), and other similar issues like assuring adequate medical insurance, housing, formation, etc, then one's diocese might well be concerned by it.

The candidate will know the reasons for the bankruptcy and the diocese, I think, has a right to know what these were or are. Similarly both the diocese and the candidate will need to discern the candidate's capacity for living religious poverty and supporting herself as a diocesan hermit. Insofar as the bankruptcy is a matter of the past alone it should not matter. To the extent it reveals things about the candidate and her relationship with money, or her ongoing needs, impulses, habits, priorities, etc, it will bear on the mutual discernment she and the diocese undertake.

I should note that as I understand it, bankruptcy wipes out significant debt, but also ruins one's credit-worthiness for some time. This takes care of the problem of significant debt --- hermit candidates cannot be admitted to public profession with significant debt; however, it may also cause the diocese some legitimate concern that the hermit will be able to manage finances, house themselves, take care of medical expenses (especially unexpected expenses) and the like. If the bankruptcy is recent a diocese may decide prudentially to prolong the period of discernment for several years until the candidate has established a good track record with finances and so forth. Hermits sign a waiver of liability on the occasion of their perpetual profession which makes it very clear that their dioceses are not responsible in any way for financial support. Still, and partly for this very reason, dioceses must be certain a hermit can and will live religious poverty (which is not the same as simply being materially poor) and that she be able to support herself accordingly without significant debt and/or default. This is only just since these are things the hermit will be called upon to witness to in her life as a consecrated religious.

I hope this is helpful! Be assured of my prayers. Please remember me in your own.

21 October 2018

On Hermit Ministry and the Call to become God's own Prayer in our World

[[Dear Sister, I've been thinking about what you wrote about eremitical life not being selfish earlier this month. I also read the post you linked that one to. I think I understand your position but how in the world would the Church be able to distinguish between someone who is living a form of selfishness and someone who gives up using discrete gifts for the sake of a more basic message?  How does the Church at large see what hermit's witness to when they have such a strong emphasis on ministering to others in active ministries? Do you see your prayer for others being an important piece of your own ministry (not sure I understand about becoming God's own prayer but I don't like the language of "prayer warrior" either)?]]

Your questions are important; thank you for them. Your first question has to do with discernment and implicitly it addresses the importance of the Church's role in governing and supervising eremitical vocations --- at least to the extent they are truly eremitical and genuinely witness to the fact that God alone is sufficient for us. It is true that superficially a selfish life and a life that instead gives up discrete gifts for the sake of this message largely look the same. Both are mainly not involved in active ministry; both are lived in a kind of separation from others. At bottom, however, I think it becomes clear that the motivation for these will differ one from the other; at the same time, when one looks deeper, it becomes clear that the first is NOT lived for the salvation of others while the second one is. You see, the second and authentically eremitical vocation is motivated by love, 1st love of God and through that, by one's love of everyone and everything grounded in God; it will be marked not by selfishness but by the gift of one's time. energy, resources, dwelling place, etc (including some or most all of one's specific gifts and talents), for God's own sake. It is a difficult paradox which trusts that the Gospel message turns on the power of God being made perfect in weakness or even emptiness.

My sense is this will simply not be so clearly the case in the instance of selfishness. A diocese will, over time, be able to see that a hermit lives this life mainly as an expression of selflessness. They will be able to discern how and why this is a vocation of love instead; similarly then, they will be able to discern whether this person is an isolated person happy in their isolation (that is, they are not living or seeking to live eremitical solitude) and who are perhaps attempting to validate this antisocial stance by achieving the standing of a religious, or whether this person/candidate has embraced a necessary separation from others in order to serve them as a hermit. (For those with chronic illnesses, and other forms of brokenness that they are working with and through with spiritual direction, etc., the Church will generally be able to see that isolation has been transformed by God into a "stricter separation from the world" than that embraced by other religious and too, that the person desiring to be known as a hermit will have worked towards and embraced this important redemptive distinction.) I think this is one way the Church discerns whether they are dealing with a lone, isolated individual or whether they are dealing with an authentic eremitical vocation.

Your question about seeing can also be a question about understanding, namely, how does the Church understand what hermit's witness to when they have such a strong emphasis on ministering to others. Here I think the Church must turn to her own theology of the Cross, her own reflection on the cross of Christ and how it was that at the moment Jesus was most incapable of active ministry, when he had to let go of all of his discrete gifts and talents, when, that is, he could count on nothing and no one but the power of God's love working in and through him in his abject poverty and weakness, that was his most powerful act of ministry. Jesus' death on the cross changed the whole of reality; it was  not a matter of healing 1 person or 1000, or even 1,000,000's. His openness and responsiveness to God alone, his witness to the fact that God's love alone is sufficient for us and for reconciling and perfecting the whole of reality, was something he did only as his deepest, most exhaustive act of self-emptying.

My own conviction is that hermits are called to a similar degree of self-emptying. My own life and death are not going to change all of reality in the way Jesus's did, but I participate in moving that same change in Christ forward and I can certainly witness to the foundational truth that nothing at all (including isolation and the lack of gifts and talents with which one can or will serve others) will separate us from the love of God. More, even in our emptiness and incapacity we can witness to a love that is deeper than death and itself can transform all of reality. My own hope is that the Church will come in time to understand more completely that hermits are not primarily called to be prayer warriors or "power houses of prayer", for instance, or to measure their lives in terms of various active ministries, but instead, that we are called to witness in a form of white martyrdom to the Cross of Christ and the way human emptiness itself can become a Sacrament of the powerful and eternal Love-in-act that is God --- if only we are truly obedient to that Love-in-Act. This obedience (which is always motivated by love, faith, and a degree of selflessness) is what I was referring to in the first couple of paragraphs above --- the thing that distinguishes a true hermit from a lone individual whose life is marked by isolation rather than eremitical solitude.

So, in saying this, I think I have anticipated your question about being a prayer warrior vs becoming God's own prayer. Yes, I believe the assiduous prayer a hermit does is important and indispensable. However, in saying I believe the hermit (especially and paradigmatically) is meant to become God's own prayer in the world, what I mean is that in our radical self-emptying and obedience we open ourselves to becoming the Word God speaks to the world. This word, like the Word Incarnate in Christ, will be the embodiment of God's own will, love, life, dreams, purposes, etc. When you or I pray we pour ourselves into our prayer and our prayer is an expression of who we are and yearn to become. At the same time, in prayer (and thus, in Christ) we are taken up more intimately into God's own life. God's own being, will, and "yearnings" for the whole of creation are realties we are called on to express and embody or incarnate with our own lives. When we allow this foundational transformation to occur we more fully become the new creation we were made in baptism, a new kind of language or word event; we become flesh made Word and a personal expression of the Kingdom/Reign (sovereignty) of God. In other words, while hermits (and others!) are called upon to pray assiduously, we are made more fundamentally to be God's own prayer in our world and to witness to the fact that every person is capable of and called to this.

Addendum: I realized I did not answer your question re how the church sees this vocation given her strong emphasis on active ministry. It is a really good question, perceptive and insightful. Unfortunately, despite documents and other clear statements on the importance of contemplative life, my own experience is that generally speaking, chancery personnel distrust contemplative life and especially eremitical forms of contemplative live. In part this is because everything happening there is inner --- a matter of the deepest parts of the human person alone with God --- without this necessarily spilling over into active ministry or immediate personal change (growth here is ordinarily slow and quiet); for this reason such vocations can be difficult to  deal with and seem difficult to govern by those charged with such tasks in the chancery --- especially when these persons are not contemplatives or essentially contemplative themselves.  But in part it is because among chancery clergy and religious  there is sometimes a kind of sense that contemplative prayer is relatively insignificant in comparison to active ministry. (This may well be a reason prayer itself is consistently made into a quasi-active ministry and hermits are called (or called to be) "prayer warriors" by some; this may also stem from the traditional vision of hermits battling the demonic in our world) The notion that the hermit is called to BE someone, namely God's own prayer in our world, rather than simply being called to DO something, namely assiduous prayer and penance is not an easy theologicaL transition for some to take hold of.

It is the case that some who do not understand contemplative prayer mischaracterize and distrust it. This tends to be a more Protestant than Catholic failing but some Catholic clergy has been known to see contemplative prayer in an elitist way, and so, dismiss ordinary person's accounts that they are called to it. Also, however, given the prevalence of individualism rampant in today's society which includes experiments in cocooning and an overemphasis on electronic devices even when we are together socially,  chancery personnel are right to be suspicious of (or at least cautious about) individuals claiming to have felt they have an eremitical vocation, since such vocations are actually antithetical to the individualism of the culture and meant to be prophetic in this regard. Finally, there is the simple fact that such vocations have always been statistically and spiritually rare. Church officials are, in this regard as well, rightly cautious in discerning eremitical vocations or dealing with something whose nature is so clearly paradoxical (e.g., communal in solitude, witnessing in silence, etc).

Thanks again for your questions. I sincerely hope my answer is helpful. Get back to me if it raises more questions.

16 October 2018

Retreat with Sister Ilia Delio at Santa Sabina Center

I returned from a weekend of retreat Sunday afternoon. I had ridden with another Sister to Santa Sabina Center, a ministry of the San Rafael Dominicans, in order to hear Ilia Delio, OSF who gave five sessions on the new cosmology and the coming to human wholeness which is both an evolutionary drive rooted in God Who is the depth dimension of all existence and the result of life in the risen and cosmic Christ.  I like Sister Ilia's work generally but in the last number of years have spent more time on books like, Franciscan Prayer, The Humility of God, Ten Evenings With God, Saint Claire, Compassion, and Simply Bonaventure than I have with books like A Hunger for Wholeness, or The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, etc. Well, it's time to catch up!

My systematic theological foundations are strong and I was delighted to find the work of Paul Tillich pervading (though usually implicit in) the discussions this weekend. My own teacher introduced me to Paul Tillich as an undergraduate (my senior majors' project was his Systematic Theology vol 1-3) and I did more work on Tillich as a doctoral student (his theology of the cross).  And now, the theological insights of Tillich, especially his focus on ontology, his method of correlation and his notion of God as Ground of Being and Meaning will help carry theology into the future of an unfinished and evolutionary universe. At one point during the retreat Ilia quipped that those with degrees in theology would need to go back for another degree -- the demands of  the new cosmology would require it! That does not tempt me, nor is it necessary. My major professor saw clearly I think, the place of Tillich in the future of theology and spirituality --- and the capacity of his theology to transcend the boundaries of new theological paradigms. I am feeling very grateful John Dwyer assigned Paul Tillich to me all those years ago; it was providential and far-seeing of him.

So this was exciting for me this weekend, but even more exciting was seeing the importance of who I am and what I am about in a fresh context and even more intense way. All of the Sisters I know are committed to being a contemplative presence in our world as well as to providing ways to deepen the contemplative dimension  of the lives of those they work with or otherwise touch. We know God not as A Being, but rather as being itself and as the source, ground, and/or depth dimension of all that exists. This is not a new theological idea, not even for Tillich (though he pretty much came to own it) but it conflicts with some traditional theology which treated God as A being --- though the most perfect and superior being. Unfortunately, as Tillich and others (including Ilia this weekend) point out, if God is A being, no matter how powerful or perfect, that God will come in conflict with other beings. It is inescapable. If, however, God is the ground and depth dimension of all that exists, one truth is that to the extent we are and become truly ourselves, God will be allowed to be truly God (and vice versa). The only conflict that will exist, to whatever degree it does exist, will be between authentic and inauthentic, loving and unloving, and that which is rooted in life vs that which is rooted in death.

Physicists representing the new cosmology have come to the conclusion that there is an underlying ground, dimension, or field to reality which can be described as consciousness. Theologians and contemplatives know this dimension, ground, or field as God; they know we participate in this ground, that, in fact, it is the deep dimension of ourselves which gives us ourselves as call and task at each moment of everyday. They know that increasing consciousness, a growth in awareness and community in and through this ground we also know as love-in-act is precisely the essence of the contemplative (and profoundly human) vocation. Traditionally contemplatives describe this increasing awareness and growth in consciousness, this coming to oneness in and through the Love-in-act which/Who is God as "union with God." Traditionally, we also know that growth in union with God will result and manifest itself in increasing union with others and all of creation. In the NT we hear this as the eschatological goal of everything -- it is described as "New Creation" and "God becoming all-in-all". But in all of this we may not hear as clearly as we need to  that this New Creation is coming to be as we speak and that we are responsible for allowing it to occur in fullness.

I have often written here about heaven (God's own life/love shared with others) interpenetrating and transforming or transfiguring this world of space and time. I have written here about God as a constitutive part of our own being. Similarly I have written about hermits (and all persons, really) not merely being called to pray but to become God's own prayers --- the embodiment or incarnation of God's own life, love, will, dreams, breath and word --- in our world; related to this I have written often about eremitical solitude as essentially communal and to isolation or individualism as antithetical to genuine solitude. Especially I have written about why it is eremitism is not essentially selfish but, in the traditional language of canon 603, lived "for the salvation of the world". What I found being stressed time and again during this last weekend's retreat was a context supporting and calling for all of these ideas, but from a new perspective, the perspective of the new cosmology with a theological dependence on Paul Tillich's work in systematics and more explicitly upon the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It is one thing to understand one's life as response to a personal call by God, but it is something much richer and more profoundly true to come to see that same Divine call and vocational response as having cosmic implications and cosmic import!

The Camaldolese write about the Sacred Hermitage (Sacra Eremo) in Tuscany as "a small place opening up to [universal or cosmic] space". What I came to know this weekend in a new way was that my own vocation, small, solitary, and relatively singular as it is, is part of  the universe's movement toward an eschatological conclusion --- a critical part of the whole of existence coming to consciousness in God as God gradually comes to be All-in-all. We all have our own small but infinitely meaningful parts to play in this process; in us creation comes to consciousness and more, to articulateness as reality is made Word. It is at once humbling and energizing to begin to look freshly at one's vocation in these terms, to have one's eyes opened in the way my eyes were opened more fully this weekend, and to have before me a whole field of theology I now need to attend to more carefully, diligently, and explicitly --- not simply because it is new (in many ways it is not), but because it is part of the way the dialogue between faith and science and the movement of God to make all things one in and through the risen (and therefore, the cosmic) Christ is taking place --- not just generally, but at Stillsong Hermitage more specifically.

04 October 2018

Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi! Rebuilding a Church in "Silent Schism"


My God and My All! Deus Meus et Omnia! All good wishes to my Franciscan Sisters and Brothers on this patronal feast! I hope it is a day filled with Franciscan joy and simplicity and that this ancient Franciscan motto echoes in your hearts. In today's world we need more than ever a commitment to Franciscan values, not least a commitment to treasure God's creation in a way which fosters ecological health. Genesis tells us we are stewards of this creation and it is a role we need to take seriously. Francis reminds us of this commission of ours, not least by putting God first in everything. (It is difficult to exploit the earth in the name of consumerism when we put God first, and in fact, allow him to be our God and our All!)

Another theme of Francis' life was the rebuilding of the Church and he came to know that it was only as each of us embraced a life of genuine holiness that the Church would be the living temple of God it was meant to be. The analogies between the Church in Francis' day and our own are striking. Today, the horrific scandal facing a Church rocked by sexual abuse and, even more problematical in some ways, the collusion in and cover-up of this problem by members of the hierarchy, a related clericalism Pope Francis condemns, and the exclusion of women from any part in the decision making of the Church makes it all-too-clear that our Church requires rebuilding. So does the subsequent scapegoating of Pope Francis by those who resist Vatican II and  an ecclesia semper reformanda est (a church always to be reformed).

And so, many today are calling for a fundamental rebuilding of the Church, a rebuilding which would sweep away the imperial episcopate along with the scourge of clericalism, and replace these with a Church which truly affirms the priesthood of all believers and roots the Church in the foundation and image of the kenotic servant Christ. The parable of new wine requiring new wineskins is paradigmatic here (and part of the reason we speak of ecclesia semper reformanda est). On the other side of this "silent schism," some are calling for a Church that retreats into these very structures and seeks to harden them in an eternal medieval mold. Yes, in some ways we are already a Church in schism; we are a divided household, so it is appropriate that on this day we hear Jesus' challenging commission to his disciples (Luke) or grapple with the lection from Job where Job struggles to come to a mature and humble faith in the midst of his suffering, and to do so in order to remind us of the humble world-shaking faith of St Francis of Assisi.

Francis of Assisi, despite first thinking he was charged by God with rebuilding a small church building (San Damiano), knew that if he (and we) truly put God and his Christ first what would be built up was a new family, a new creation, a reality undivided and of a single heart. Ilia Delio, OSF has a penetrating analysis of the current situation in the church entitled, Is New Life Ahead for the Church? (National Catholic Reporter)  Like so many today, Delio calls for the systematic reorganization of the church and the inclusion of women at all levels of the church's life, but she adds the need for a scientifically literate theological education as part of achieving the necessary rebuilding. So, in a broken world, and an ailing church, let us learn from these  Franciscan "fools for Christ" and begin to claim our baptismal responsibility to work to rebuild and reform our Church into a living temple of unity and love. The task before us is challenging and needs our best efforts.

Again, all good wishes to my Franciscan Sisters and Brothers on this Feast! Meanwhile, as a small piece of my own continuing education towards a genuinely "scientifically literate" theology, I am trying to finish Ilia Delio, OSF's book A Hunger for Wholeness before I hear her on this theme on retreat the weekend of the 12-14. October.

03 October 2018

The Importance of the Church's Role in Professing and Governing c 603 Hermits

[[Dear Sister, if the Church is so important in establishing the nature of a person's eremitical vocation, and if the commissioning of the hermit is crucial in protecting eremitical life from selfishness, why is it some dioceses refuse to profess anyone at all as diocesan hermits? How should we regard such blanket refusals?]]

This is a great question and one I have not written about for some years. Thank you for bringing it up again. It is clear that I believe the Church's discernment and commissioning of the eremitical vocation is critical for healthy eremitical life and also that I believe healthy eremitical life is critical for the life of the Church. So what happens when a diocese simply refuses to use canon 603 at all? This does happen, probably more frequently than I am personally aware of. It was once the case in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles (I am not sure of their position in this regard now), and has been reported in several other dioceses and Archdioceses. Let me say that I understand the difficulties of implementing canon 603, especially in terms of discernment, formation, time frames, diocesan support and justice issues, but also that difficulties notwithstanding, canon 603 is a matter of universal law which recognizes the unquestionable way the Holy Spirit is working in the Church; while dioceses must be careful in their discernment and admission of candidates to profession, it is irresponsible to simply refuse to even undertake suitable discernment or otherwise abdicate the diocese's proper role in mediating and supervising this vocation in today's Church.

God is working in people's lives to call them to solitude. We know this is true because we have persons living as diocesan hermits throughout the world now, most of them in edifying ways. For most of these, canon 603 is not a stopgap vocation but the way God is truly calling them to wholeness and holiness. Others live both more and less credible eremitical lives without benefit of the Church's profession, consecration, and commission (missioning) into the silence of solitude. At the same time it remains true that this vocation belongs to the Church; God has entrusted it to the Church as a unique paradigm of the power of the Gospel, the importance of prayer, the potential of nature and grace combined, and of the prophetic dimension of ecclesial life besides.

It is the Church that is responsible for discerning ecclesial eremitical vocations with the hermit candidate, for entrusting and supervising the vocation especially in terms of the rights and obligations that come with public profession and initiation into the consecrated state --- rights and obligations that are not additional to the vocation (because it is ecclesial) but intrinsic to it, just as she is responsible for mediating the hermit's call and commissioning to embrace stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, and the life of the evangelical counsels, in ways which are both healthy and countercultural.  All of these elements of ecclesial vocations protect the eremitical life from needless eccentricity, individualism, and even selfishness; they are part and parcel of God's redemption of human isolation and transformation of that into what canon 603 calls "the silence of solitude."

Just go off into Solitude; That's all you Need:

I used to hear from folks who had approached their dioceses seeking admission to profession and consecration under c 603 that they had been told, "Just go off and live in solitude; that's all you need." But given all I have written about this vocation as an ecclesial vocation, I have to say I believe such advice has very limited utility in cases of lay hermit vocations or as a tactic to temporize initially when evaluating the suitability of a candidate or starting them out (or revisiting the possibility of starting them out) on a process of mutual discernment (some folks approach dioceses without yet having lived even a week in eremitical solitude and are given such instructions before being allowed to return to the diocese to participate in a serious process of discernment). However, it is downright wrong in cases where God is calling someone to serve God and the Gospel in an ecclesial vocation to eremitical solitude, and therefore, who both needs and desires to do so as a Catholic hermit. While the need for careful discernment is critical, it is not necessarily an indictment of the hermit's maturity or spiritual readiness to admit they need to be admitted to canonical standing in the consecrated state of life. Instead it can be a sign of a genuine vocation.

When I wrote and submitted my first Rule I noted that I sought canonical standing because over time I had determined it was impossible for me to live eremitical life without it; while I came to terms with the possibility my diocese might never implement canon 603, I also came to see I needed the freedom to fail in my attempts to live the central elements of the canon, but also to succeed in doing so; I needed a way to assure the motivation to try again day after day to truly be the person God was calling me to be in stricter separation from a world that pulled at me in every way. I needed the protections and permissions afforded by profession under canon 603 including ecclesial guidance, the weight of becoming part of a living tradition of hermit life, and a very real accountability to the Church and those who formally represent her in my life.  In short, I needed the freedom to explore a call to union with God, and to do so in a way which proclaimed a Gospel I had given my life to.

All of this became even more critical given the radical countercultural nature of eremitical life. Embracing such a life, no matter the personal circumstances, could (and mainly would) be seen as abdicating one's own responsibility for a loving life both living and proclaiming the Gospel of Christ. In other words, "just going off and living in solitude" without canonical commission would never have been enough for me if I was to live my vocation wholeheartedly over the whole of my adult life. I needed to be sure my life was not an instance of misguided individualism, personal and ministerial failure, or some form of unhealthy selfishness subtly disguised with pious labels; I needed to be confirmed in my own discernment of God's movement in my life and encouraged to feel free to continue discerning this movement every day of my life. And I needed to proclaim that God had redeemed the isolation of a life marked and marred by chronic illness and transformed it into an instance of essential wholeness and paradoxical presence precisely in and through the silence of solitude.

This is a difficult (and not atypical) discernment, I think, requiring time and expert assistance. It was and remains today the Church's obligation to aid and support me and others in this process by virtue of her Divinely granted responsibility for eremitical life --- something I think remains true, though in differing ways, whether or not she decides to profess a person or not.

The problems Dioceses Face in Implementing Canon 603:

There are certainly problems dioceses face in implementing canon 603.  Adequate discernment and formation are demanding requirements which dioceses may not feel able to achieve or assist with. (This is the reason I have posted here about a process of discernment and formation which protects the hermit's freedom, allows a diocese to follow and dialogue with the hermit in a constructive way, and which is not onerous for the diocese or her personnel.) Many dioceses have c 603 hermits today and can refer Vicars and others should assistance in discerning authentic vocations be required. The hugest caveat dioceses should be aware of is the caution that being a lone individual, no matter how pious, is not necessarily the same as being a hermit and that c 603 is meant for eremitical vocations, not simply to profess solitary religious as is the case with the Episcopal church's canon on "solitaries."

Contemplative vocations are relatively rare and misunderstood (or at least not understood or sufficiently esteemed) today; eremitical vocations are even more rare and mainly misunderstood, not only by the faithful generally, but by chanceries as well. In a culture marked and marred by an exaggerated individualism and currents of selfishness it may be tempting to dismiss eremitical vocations as illegitimate instances of the culture in search of legitimization, but this would be a mistake. In relatively rare instances genuine hermits will come along who can and do live a paradoxical call to "stricter separation from the world" and "the silence of solitude" and do so as a direct challenge to the individualism and selfishness of the culture. The Church must be open to discerning and professing these vocations!

Questions of justice remain: what do we do with and for hermits who have lived their vows for years and even decades but may, as they age or become infirm, require financial assistance or help with housing? As it stands now dioceses require waivers of liability and stress the hermit must be self-supporting; but what happens down the line when civic safety-nets no longer work and the only option the hermit has is to live in a nursing facility where silence and solitude, much less the silence OF solitude cannot be found? These are important questions and will need to be dealt with but I don't think they are insoluble, especially if the Church continues to be careful in her discernment and profession of eremitical vocations and willing to work with them on a case by case basis. I think the careful way most (but not all!) dioceses have proceeded in professing the c 603 hermits they have aids in solving these problems. What must not happen (and really has not happened) is to allow the floodgates to open and every solitary person approaching a diocese to petition for profession under c 603 in search of a sinecure to be admitted to profession in a careless and undiscerning way. Similarly, (and this has happened) we must not allow c 603 to be used as a pretense to profess individuals with no real eremitical vocation --- lone individuals who have not and may never embrace a desert spirituality, those who want to start communities (even communities of hermits!), those who work fulltime outside the hermitage in highly social jobs, and those who simply want to be religious without the challenges and gifts of community.

At the same time though, it is equally irresponsible to simply refuse to profess anyone under c 603 as though the Church's post Vatican II decision to honor the eremitical vocation in the revision of the Code of Canon Law did not reflect the movement of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, it is hardly fair to penalize individuals with authentic vocations but who merely happen to live in a diocese that has refused to implement the canon in any case. It may be that Vicars, bishops and others will need to educate themselves on this vocation, but isn't this part of their legal and moral responsibility? Canon 603 provides the means to be admitted to a new and stable state of life, namely, the consecrated eremitical state. It does that not only for the church as a whole, but for a fragile, rare, and significant ecclesial vocation that requires not only everything the hermit can give, but the Church's own wholehearted pastoral care and concern as well. The refusal of dioceses to discern, profess, and supervise or govern c 603 hermits now, a full 35 years after c 603 was first promulgated, represents nothing less than the local Church's abdication of her own role precisely as Church!

02 October 2018

On Selfishness versus Selflessness in Eremitical Life

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I wondered if you could clarify how an eremitical vocation is not a selfish vocation, particularly in light of your last post on limited ministry and having an apostolate to the eremitical life/hermitage. Thank you.]]

Thanks for your question. I have been struggling to articulate the truth of this since August 2015 or so and gradually moving towards this important point in my prayer and reflection for a lot longer than that. One of the posts I wrote prior to the last post (01. October. 2018) dealt with the distinction between retiring to a hermitage out of selfishness and doing so out of a genuine love for others; it is found here: On the Question of Selfishness versus Hiddenness Lived for Others. I would urge you to take a look at this. I think it is clearer in some ways than my last post, but it does not use the language of "apostolate", a form of structured evangelization or proclamation of the Gospel to which one is sent (or with which one is entrusted) by the Church.

You see, hermits evangelize precisely by becoming whole and holy in their hermitages and thus witnessing to the fact that every human being, no matter how poor, is called to and can attain the same authentic humanity. We say that God completes us, that God alone is sufficient for us. I think this is what Merton was speaking of when he said (paraphrase) "the primary duty of the hermit is to live in (his) hermitage without pretense in a fundamental peace (and joy)," or, that the hermit makes "fundamental claims about nature and grace" which truly gives hope to others. What Merton saw, and I think what every authentic hermit sees is that his "apostolate" was exercised precisely within the hermitage. We are sent forth (made apostles) to proclaim the Good News with our lives, but the place within which that apostolate always occurs is the hermitage through  "stricter separation from the world," and "the silence of solitude" lived and achieved there. The Church is entrusted with this vocation and is responsible for sending hermits forth into their hermitages because she believes profoundly that commissioning hermits paradoxically advances the proclamation of the Gospel in our world.

I think it is relatively easy to substitute selfishness for the unselfishness of the authentic eremitical vocation. While people are free to choose lay eremitical life, it is easier to do so selfishly when hermits are not charged (commissioned) by the church with the mission canonical hermits are charged with, when, that is, someone simply chooses solitude as the environment in which they will live their lives. Whether true or not, this choice usually seems at least somewhat selfish to those looking at the hermit's life unless there are mitigating circumstances which make solitude a necessary context for living a life of wholeness and holiness. Here is one place admission to canonical standing helps clarify the motivation and meaning of the hermit's solitude. Moreover, since the external trappings are mainly the same for each one these do not clarify whether the life lived is essentially selfish or not;  thus too, determining selfishness and unselfishness is part of what makes discernment and formation both critical, difficult, and relatively time consuming. Over time the Church will see that the hermit's life is lived for God and for others, and that the hermit will persevere in the sacrifices needed in order to do this in "the silence of solitude" or she will find that the hermit is not called to eremitical life. The Church will find that she is meant to mediate God's own "sending" or missioning a person into stricter separation from the world and the silence of solitude, or she is not.

Certain things will be evident in the life of eremitical authenticity: faithfulness to one's Rule, perseverance in trust in the God who alone is sufficient for us, growth in wholeness and holiness as one undertakes one's life of prayer, personal work, lectio, and study in silence and solitude.  One's love for God, for others and for oneself will also grow; personal healing and maturation will clearly be present in an ongoing way. The capacity to securely hold onto the foundational vision of the life as one negotiates legitimate ministerial claims upon one's time and energies will gradually be revealed and strengthened. A deep happiness at being oneself as a hermit which is not the same as the superficial happiness of getting one's own way or "doing one's own thing" will be increasingly evident, and one will be entirely comfortable with the sacrifices the vocation requires because the grace of the vocation is so much greater and important to and for others.

Although not quite on topic, let me say here that the profound sense some bishops and vicars have that this vocation should not be rushed into, that formation and discernment both take time (at least five years for initial formation and discernment) are right on target. (I would suggest at least five years mutual discernment is necessary before one can be admitted to temporary profession but that this is not long enough to admit to perpetual profession unless there is significant religious formation and life experience before beginning the pursuit of profession under c 603.) In any case, it is only over time that the motivation and sacrifices which are part and parcel of the vocation become truly clear to everyone involved in the processes of discernment and formation. One of these sacrifices is active ministry except on a very limited basis; at the same time the conviction that life in the hermitage itself is our apostolate is something we will come to see clearly only in time.

The bottom line in distinguishing between selfishness and selflessness is rooted in the truth that it is a profoundly loving and ministerial act to accept the commission to become the persons God calls us to be in the silence of solitude. Because the hermit believes deeply in this paradoxical truth and embraces it wholeheartedly she will make every sacrifice including the renunciation of many discrete gifts and talents which would be tied to ministries outside the hermitage in order to live the truth of the completion and redemption  that comes to her as the fruits of eremitical life.  She will wholeheartedly embrace stricter separation from the world and life lived in and for the silence of solitude along with the other requirements of c 603 precisely because doing so will allow her own redemption and the unique proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ associated with her eremitical life. She will do so in order to witness to the power of the grace of God to transform every human poverty into the fullness of incarnational humanity. She will embrace and allow God to achieve in her life the self-emptying required to glorify God in the silence of eremitical solitude.

Moreover, she will do so for the sake of those from whom she is largely separated and to whom her life is largely hidden in order that they may also know the freedom and hope of life lived in communion with God. To fail in this is to fail to allow God to redeem one in the solitude of the hermitage; it is to fail to commit to the growth in wholeness and holiness the love of God makes possible and to live an isolated egotism rather than the silence of solitude. Beside the importance of the Church's "sending" of the hermit into "the silence of solitude," this is the reason the redemptive element is also so crucial for discerning authentic eremitical vocations.  When the hermit's eremitical life fails to reflect an experience of redemption in solitude there is simply nothing for her to witness to and she will have failed to live eremitical life successfully ---  or at least to demonstrate this was what she was called and sent to by God via the ministry of God's Church..

I sincerely hope this is helpful to you.

01 October 2018

On Determining Limits on Active Ministry Under c 603.

[[Dear Sister, you have criticized situations in which a "hermit" undertakes significant levels of ministry outside the hermitage. I am thinking about a Sister in the Archdiocese of Boston who worked fulltime at Boston College (I think that's right), a situation with which you took exception. I think you have written about several similar situations and characterized the use of canon 603 as a stopgap for an apostolic life marked mainly by active ministry and not eremitical life. How does one determine how much is too much active ministry in all of this? You do limited ministry at your parish, how do you determine how much is appropriate? Also, I was wondering what happens if a hermit's pastor desires she do more active ministry than she is comfortable with? Can a hermit's bishop assign her to more active ministry outside the hermitage?]]

Thanks for your questions. Yes, I have criticized a number of situations in which I believe c 603 was abused in order to profess someone in a stopgap vocation which was not truly eremitical. The situation in the Archdiocese of Boston was not the only one in that diocese which suffered from the same problem. I believe these kinds of abuses of c 603 stem from a couple of significant deficiencies: 1) a failure to understand that eremitical life is not the same as simply being a lone religious without a community; 2) a failure to esteem eremitical life or its specific witness, not merely to the ministry of prayer, but to the foundational truth that we are each completed by God alone, 3) a correlative failure to understand or regard the significance of a life of the silence of solitude where the silence of solitude is the context, goal, and charism of the vocation God has entrusted to the Church. When these deficiencies are present, whether on the part of the diocese, the candidate, or both of these, one of the first things that happens is a tendency to embrace ever-greater kinds and degrees of ministry outside the hermitage.

The Silence of Solitude as Foundational Charism and Apostolate:

Before one can determine the level of outside ministry that is appropriate in any given eremitical life I think it is crucial that they are clear about just how and why eremitical life itself is a gift, and why the sacrifice of the silence of solitude is not only as loving as any other form of apostolate, but is the foundational charism of eremitical life. Unless we understand that the truth of the person's completion in God, that God alone is sufficient for us and what we are made for, is the greatest truth to which one can bear witness, we are apt to see a need to complement our eremitical life with various forms of outside ministry. Unless we understand how profoundly loving it can be to sacrifice so very many of the discrete gifts and talents we may possess in order to make our life in and with God itself the single gift we bring to the entire Church, we will feel compelled to add ministry outside the hermitage to the silence of solitude. Hermits are gifts to the Church and world precisely as hermits. While they engage in prayer and by definition live a life of prayer as "ecclesiola", they are not gifts to the Church and world as "prayer warriors". Instead, to the extent they allow God to pray in and through them, to the extent they are covenant partners of God who allow God to complete them and perfect authentic humanity in this way, they will  minister effectively to the Church and world precisely as hermits.

Being over Doing:

What I am trying, even struggling, to say here is the truth that allowing God to complete one in the silence of solitude (which will include prayer, study, inner work, lectio, etc) is the single foundational apostolate or ministry the hermit is charged with by canon 603 and the Church herself. However, the Church does not send the hermit out to the world around her but rather into the hermitage and its environment of silence and solitude where this apostolate will be undertaken. When I was perpetually professed, my cowl (prayer garment) was granted with the following prayer from the Rite of Profession: " Sister, may you be faithful to the ministry the Church entrusts to you to be carried out in its name." But let me be clear, the Church charged me to undertake a life of prayer (and all that requires) in order to be transfigured by the love of God as my ministry to and within the Church. She sent me into the hermitage where I wear the cowl during large parts of my life there to undertake my ministry to become my truest self in God and witness to the universal call to holiness. I was not sent out into the world, but into stricter separation from the world in a focused search for communion with God and personal perfection in order to minister to that same world for the sake of its salvation. This will always be fundamental to the eremitical vocation.

It took me some time to understand precisely what the ministry and witness of a life of the silence of solitude consists. It took time for me to understand that it could involve and even require the sacrifice of discrete gifts and talents that led to a poverty which only God could make rich with grace. It took some years before I understood that it was precisely this poverty and this treasure --- the treasure of authentic humanity achieved only in and as communion with God --- to which a hermit witnessed in the silence of solitude. And it took more time for me to understand that "the silence of solitude" was precisely the goal and gift (charism) of the eremitical life, or that it could thus be the witness I was called to become, the ministry to which I was fundamentally called, the apostolate of being (myself-with-and-in-God) over doing to which I have been sent by the Church. Once I had come to relative clarity on these things, the tension I continually felt between solitude and ministry outside the hermitage eased considerably. The Camaldolese with whom I am an oblate speak of "the privilege of love" as the heart of our lives, and the dynamic behind every impulse and movement or ministry of our vocations. While we will sometimes express this privilege of love in limited ministry outside the hermitage (and offer hospitality within our hermitages), we recognize that an eremitical life of "the silence of solitude" itself, a term which points to the very being of the hermit in communion with God, is a foundational expression of the privilege of love which is the necessary ground of every other ministry or apostolate in the church.

Your Specific Questions:

With all that background, perhaps now I can answer your specific questions. One cannot accept profession under c 603 unless one understands the gift quality of the life it outlines --- and unless one understands that one is sent not out into the world, but instead into the hermitage for the very sake of the salvation of the world, a world which needs to hear that only God alone can complete and perfect us and our humanity. To do so when one mainly feels called to ministry outside the hermitage, or for other less worthy reasons, is to use c 603 as a stopgap solution --- that is, as a way of gaining religious profession and standing without the challenges of community, for instance. But when one is clear about the essential nature of one's ministry and apostolate, then one can more easily discern the appropriateness of limited ministry outside the hermitage.

What I now do is remind myself of the foundational calling I have embraced, the reason and way it is a gift of God from which others can benefit, and only then do I determine if and to what degree other ministry is appropriate. Usually it must be ministry that is directly linked to my solitary (covenantal) life of prayer in and through God. Spiritual direction is a natural expression of this along with other gifts and skills I have (theology, pastoral skills and training, etc); so is leading Communion services or doing the Scriptural reflections which are part of these. Occasional workshops or talks at my parish also seem to me to be a natural expression of the foundational charism of my vocation as is writing this blog. But let me be clear, I am not called go out to do prison ministry, or ministry to some other specific group of people in the Church or world. (I might well, however, choose to write prisoners who are trying to deal with the isolation of their lives and the frustration of not being able to "do" for others. Crucially, these persons need to hear they mainly have what they need to become who God calls them to be, even in such limiting circumstances.) Neither am I to allow anything to distract me from the silence of solitude of the hermitage.

Should my pastor or bishop ask me to undertake some form of ministry outside the hermitage it would need to meet these conditions. I am first of all and in everything I do, a hermit --- nothing more, nothing less, nothing other. I will not have or be able to accept an apostolate outside the hermitage -- though I may do limited ministry outside it. My apostolate is the life of the hermitage; ministry is the service I do by virtue of this and it will only occasionally take me outside it. Should I be asked to undertake activity outside or apart from the hermitage with which I am not comfortable because it seems to mitigate faithfulness to the essential vision and praxis of my eremitical life, I will need to decline the request to do so.