30 November 2018

Realized Eschatology: Embracing the Mid-Air Living of Advent (Reprised)

Almost two weeks ago (Saturday evening) my pastor and I had an email conversation about the situation in Paris and Sunday's readings which were so dramatically apocalyptic in tone and content. The underlying Theology we were both challenged by was the Johannine perspective which is sometimes called "realized eschatology" --- a term which captures the "already and the not yet" character of the world in which we live and of the Kingdom of God for which we and all of creation yearn. We recognize clearly that our world is one where Jesus' passion has "defeated death" and thus, everything has changed but at the same time we recognize that death is still with us and our world is not yet all it is meant to be; it is not yet the world in which God is "all in all."

Monks of Tibhirine
Father John shared a quote with me that Saturday evening from John Shea --- the theologian and poet whose poem on the resurrection I shared here around last Easter, (cf., After the End) John Shea speaks of "mid-air living" which is something like when a trapeze artist lets go of one bar and then --- after what seems like a long moment ---  grabs the wrists of the person catching him/her. "This life is/always will be a time of transition./ Change can be quick,/ in the “blink of an eye,”/ but transition is slow."

Thus, John began his homily with a reference to the Cirque de Soleil and drew out this image of a change that happens quickly "in the blink of an eye" but a transition that can (seemingly at least) take forever." I thought the image and Father John's use of it were truly brilliant as an illustration of the situation in which we Christians find ourselves today. In the face of the apocalyptic tone of so many of the readings over the past two weeks John Shea's reference to mid-air living and Father John's images from the Cirque de Soleil have stayed with me these last couple of weeks. That was especially true as we celebrated the Feast of Christ the King. Once again the contrast between the world of everyday reality and the world where God is sovereign in Christ, worlds which interpenetrate one another but are not yet one spoke of "mid-air living".

Today's readings underscore the same imagery and dynamic. Daniel is actually recognized as the "already but not-yet" book of the Old Testament. It speaks of two very different Kingdoms, both present in this same world of ours. One is all-too-recognizable. Originating from the four winds and drawn from the sea (a symbol of primordial chaos and too, sinful reality) are four monsters, four rulers which are "like men" or become "like men" but are characterized as less than and other than that at the same time. One has a human-like brain and is seriously smart, one is "like a bear" and characterized by his cruelty, He is a devourer of much flesh. A third is drawn as a leopard with four heads; to him all dominion is given. A fourth is very like a man but again, is not human; he is incredibly strong and arrogant.

And finally, in Daniel's picture of the world he knows, there is another truly sovereign Ruler called the Ancient One or the Ancient of Days. When thrones are set up this ruler's trappings are marked by flames and incredible whiteness --- symbols of power, judgment, mystery, life, and purity. The throne itself has "wheels of fire" --- a symbol whose meaning is now uncertain. Some say it symbolizes the notion that the throne is moveable and will no longer be in Jerusalem --- an idea supporting the notion that God will be Lord over all nations, not just Israel; others suggest that this Ruler, God's very self, has taken the throne of heaven and moved it to earth. In any case, this Ruler and his Kingdom are present alongside the "monsters" described in the first part of the lection and their Kingdoms. Daniel thus describes an ambiguous world in which there are two kinds of kingdoms, two kinds of sovereignty and even two kinds of time existing alongside one another. As Daniel puts it, the kingdoms standing in opposition to the Kingdom of the Ancient One have already been judged and the great beast (Death itself?) has been slain but, [[The other beasts, which also lost their dominion,were granted a prolongation of life for a time and a season.]]

The significant lesson in this is twofold: 1) our God is and will always be with us in the midst of this world's trials, and 2) one day God's kingdom will be established in a way which transforms us and our world completely. Judgment, the making right of all reality has begun, and we ourselves will be made truly human only in light of the sovereignty of God. In Daniel it is from the Sovereignty of the Ancient One that the Son of Man comes. Originally the term "son of man" meant one who is truly human and it had messianic connotations. Eventually, in light of the Christ Event, it came to be seen to refer to Jesus, God's anointed One. This Son of Man is seen as the  destroyer of death and the redeemer of our world, the one in whom reality is set to rights.

Today's Gospel underscores the sense that in Christ God's Kingdom has come upon us in a truly unexpected way. Jesus has been healing and preaching the Kingdom. The blind see, the deaf hear and crippled people walk because of him. But many remain blind and in bondage; many refuse to see. All the signs are that the Ancient One has "moved his throne" and Jesus iterates that people must learn to see these signs right in front of them. And of course, in a world filled with terrorism and death it is not always easy today either to see the signs that the Kingdom of God has come amongst us. It is not always easy to hold onto the hope Daniel wanted to inculcate in his own people and which Luke and John with his Gospel of "mid-air living" (realized eschatology) proclaims. It is not easy to claim the humanity which is ours in Christ who is the Son of Man so long hoped for when that contrasts so wildly with the other sovereignties of our world. The change we were looking for came quickly and definitively in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It came in wholly unexpected ways, in incarnation, powerlessness and self-emptying; in relative obscurity, poverty and shameful death. In Christ eternal death has been destroyed. Transition though takes a long time.

This weekend we begin the new liturgical year as we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent. Once again the Church offers us the chance to "begin at the beginning" and allow ourselves and our world to be further transformed by the God who has set up his throne amongst us. Today's readings remind us what Daniel and Israel hoped for, what they saw all of creation moving towards in a long moment of trial and transformation. Let us enter into this season with joy and hope as those who see reality with new eyes, the eyes of the dreamer and prophet Daniel, the eyes of Jesus whose vision is filled with the love of his Father, the eyes of those who have been made a new creation in Christ. Let us commit to working toward that day when God will be all in all.  Let us commit to being People who live fully in that long and difficult, but also joyful moment of already and not yet.

29 November 2018

On Esteeming Prayer as the Heart of the Universal Call to Holiness

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I pray you are well and I would like to wish you in advance a good Advent and a merry Christmas. I read your recent blog post which responded to a reader who assumed hermits “do nothing”. I thought your response was excellent. I just wanted to share with you the response I heard a Trappist monk gave when he was asked that question by someone visiting the monastery. Essentially, he said: “The value you place on prayer will determine the value you place on contemplative life.” I loved his response because of its simplicity. He left it at that, and it left us thinking. It really challenged me to evaluate how important I think prayer and worship is.

If prayer and worship is really important then it makes sense that certain people devote their lives exclusively to that for the good of the Church and world. That prayer and that witness to its importance is “ministry”. I think why many people have a problem with contemplative life is that deep down they really don’t think prayer, worship and penance are that essential. What do you think? ]]

Thanks for your comments, sharing, and question; it is always good to hear from you. I think your observation, building as it does on the Trappist monk's analysis is right on. However, I also think that it is important to analyze why it is prayer, worship, and penance are no longer considered essential. (For now, however, I am going to set the idea of practicing penance aside and focus on the devaluation of prayer we see so often.) Since you have read my blog for some time I don't think my own observations will surprise you, but to be frank, I believe the way prayer has been presented not only by the Church generally, but especially within the context of a dated cosmology and naïve theology (portrait of God) which sees God as A being rather than as the ground and source of being, meaning, and true personhood has been a central reason folks no longer see prayer and worship as essential. There are related cultural and anthropological (human!) reasons, not least a post Enlightenment esteem for human capacities and progress, our very real scientific naturalism (the idea that only empirical reality is real), a correlative atheism or at least agnosticism, and a correlative, and thus, inflated notion of the independence and power of the human person (which results in, among other things, an exaggerated activism.

All of these have contributed to notions of prayer which are (or tend to remain) superficial, often superstitious, extraordinarily selfish, and focused almost entirely on what human beings want and do, rather than on allowing God to work within us according to God's own will and our deepest needs. In a culture which mainly sees faith in God as irrational and entirely unjustified except among the supposedly naïve and scientifically ignorant, it is not hard to understand another part of why prayer and worship are no longer sufficiently esteemed. However, in this post I want to look in a summary fashion at ways the Church herself complicated the matter. This occurred by encouraging a kind of infantilism of the laity, discouraging lay Catholics from even entertaining the idea that they might be called to contemplative prayer, by discouraging and otherwise limiting the reading of Scripture by Catholics of all states of life, and of course, by embracing clericalism and a theology of vocations that opened the riches of the Tradition we hold in trust and expectation by God to a relative few and prevented the laity from assuming positions of ministerial, pastoral, and administrative leadership.

The Church Contributes to the Problem:

Prayer, especially contemplative prayer and lives of prayer (as opposed to "merely" saying occasional prayers), have neither generally nor effectively been seen as truly fundamental to every vocation and every state of life --- at least not in the modern church. Prayer-as-foundational was seen as the purview of priests and religious, the truth of "their" vocations. The Church in the last several centuries legally enforced minimal participation in liturgy and sacraments until the Vatican Council II; similarly she expected relatively little of adult lay Catholics beyond an embrace of prayer mainly using devotions, perhaps a morning offering and grace before meals. While the purpose of her legislation may have been concern for the eternal lives of People of God, the result, in combination with other elements, was the infantilization I spoke of earlier. When Vatican II occurred the Church officially embraced a very different theology of and perspective on the laity. She expected and encouraged the laity to embrace mature spiritual lives in which almost nothing familiar and common to the prayer lives of priests and religious would remain foreign to the laity. She expanded the Lectionary, reformed and taught the Divine Office as the official prayer of the WHOLE Church and encouraged the laity to adopt at least some of the major hours (Lauds, Vespers, and perhaps Compline, for instance).

The Church opened the Scriptures via Lectio Divina and Bible study to the laity as well, encouraged genuine participation in the Liturgy as she unofficially eased her emphasis on devotionals; she recommended retreats and workshops, opened ministries and theological education on several different levels including undergraduate and graduate through post-doctoral levels for the first time to the laity (including women!). In other words, the Church did a 120 degree turn in all of these things and codified the changes in the major decrees and more minor documents of Vatican II. (I am leaving 60 degrees shy of 180 degrees for the role of women in leadership in the Church.  I believe this remaining significant deficiency also has an affect on the prayer lives of lay women and perhaps women religious as well.)

Change is hard:

But the implementation of such wide-ranging change (even only 120 degrees!) takes time. Most fundamentally, below all of these changes, the most difficult transition has been developing a theology of the laity which embraces and makes theological sense of these changes. Clericalism has prevented this as has the flawed notion of religious or consecrated life as a "higher" vocation than the lay vocation. (Again, in the hierarchical sense of the term "lay", religious who are not clerics are laity; in the vocational sense of the term "lay" they are not.) Religious men and women who chose to adopt regular garb did so, in large part, as a piece of helping the whole Church embrace this new esteem for the laity. (I disagree that this produced the results desired, but I understand this reason for relinquishing habits and respect those who chose to do so for this reason more than I can adequately say.) Implementation also takes effort and resources --- and interest! While clerical and religious theologians can contribute to this project, properly speaking it takes laity to develop and implement an adequate theology of lay life!

What I mean is that parishes have done a lot in offering programs for adults, in opening ministries to the laity, in improving preaching so it really speaks to the circumstances of the ordinary person, and otherwise encouraged lay members of the faith community to mature theologically, spiritually, and as human persons. At the same time it is not always easy to get folks to let go of some things or rearrange priorities to truly embrace a new vision of the lay vocation and what I call a prayer life. And yet, that is what God calls each of us to, viz, a life suffused with and empowered by prayer, a life marked by conscious and focused openness to the Presence and Spirit of God that seeks to breathe within us in ways that enlarge and transfigure our hearts, a life in which the incarnate and cosmic Christ is truly sovereign.

Recovering an Appreciation of Prayer as the Heart of Every Vocation

In my own vocation I have come to understand prayer differently than I once did and differently than I think many tend to do. My allergy to the notion of people as "prayer warriors" has hardened (though at the same time I recognize lives of prayer are truly engaged in a struggle for the Kingdom of God). God is at work in us and in our world offering us all we need to be our truest selves. Prayer is first of all and always a matter of God working within us.  Moreover then, our own part in prayer is always our response to the activity/presence of God within and around us. Because I believe what I have written about contemplative prayer  --- namely, that it is in this way that we witness to the fact that God alone completes us whether or not we have and/or use other gifts in active ministry, I also believe this is the deepest truth of prayer, the thing which makes it the heart of what Vatican II identified as the universal call to holiness, and provides the one perspective which makes truly esteeming prayer possible.

So much here I had to leave unsaid and will need to return to! Thanks again for your email and questions. Have a fruitful Advent and a Good Christmas if I don't hear from you again before then.

27 November 2018

On Hermits, Ministry, and Community --- Learning to see with New Eyes

[[Dear Rev. Sister, There are two things about your life which I don't understand. The first is how you justify not doing any kind of ministry like other Sisters do. The second one has to do with how you live community if you don't live in a religious community with other Sisters. I don't see how you can be a religious if you don't live in community. Isn't that the very definition of a religious? It seems to me the Church is making a mistake in professing hermits. Our world needs religious who model community, not individuals who can't or anyway don't live even in community. It also needs Sisters who do ministry. Some parishes have never even seen a Religious Sister in recent years and the laity are not committed to ministry like a Sister is. I think we need Sisters who model ministry, not those who live alone and do nothing. By the way are you allowed to go home for Thanksgiving?]]

Good questions. Canon 603, the canon which governs my life and that of other solitary consecrated hermits has led to some changes in the way we see religious life; at the same time some dimensions of consecrated life which were long-accepted are underscored and call us to an even deeper appreciate the Church's theology of consecrated life. In particular, the Church's approach to eremitical life is all-important for understanding why hermits exist and why the Church consecrates them and thus, recognizes or even  "honors" their existence! Your questions are really posed to the Church itself, I think: why does she esteem this vocation? Why recognize it as a divine call at all? What justifies this? Isn't eremitical life itself --- as I once would have put it --- a waste of skin?

Your first question has to do with ministry and assumes (or asserts) I don't do any or that I "live alone and do nothing". While you don't use the word, I think you are wondering about active ministry and why I don't do much of that in the way apostolic or ministerial Sisters do. It is true that active ministry is not and cannot be primary in my life, but I still do a significant (that is, a meaningful) degree of this within the limitations of solitary eremitical life. I am Pastoral Assistant at St Perpetua Catholic Community and do Communion Services once a week and a handful of other things from time to time; I also do spiritual direction and some writing. But this aside, my own eremitical solitude and prayer are actually my primary ministry and gift to the Church and world.

You see, I try to share some of what this is all about on this blog; what I try to live is something Merton said this way: “the Christian solitary today should bear witness to the fact that certain basic claims about solitude and peace are in fact true, [for] in doing this, [they] will restore people’s confidence first in their own humanity and beyond that in God’s grace.” The hermitage represents for the individual and society that place where the hermit “can create a new pattern which will fulfill (her) special needs for growth. . .and confront the triple specters of ”boredom, futility, and unfulfillment, which so terrify the modern American.”

The freedom of the hermit is at the service of this witness which is her ministry. I think it's pretty important, but you are correct that I am not involved in active ministry in the same way or to the same degree as ministerial or apostolic Sisters. I am a contemplative and while there are several ways of describing this I like Thomas Merton's: [[The contemplation of the Christian [hermit] is the awareness of the divine mercy transforming and elevating [her] own emptiness and turning it into the presence of perfect love, perfect fullness.]] This is the same awareness we have when we understand ourselves in the Pauline sense of "Earthen vessels" or when we embrace the reality of authentic incarnation through kenosis. My life is dedicated to this kind of growth, self-emptying and incarnation. It is the contemplative way of prayer and the way to holiness to which God calls me. The question then, is why is this witness so important? Why would God call someone to this and why would the Church recognize and esteem such a call?

I think you can imagine a spectrum of human needs and corresponding ecclesial ministries. People seek to be fed, taught, and healed; they need advocates and assistance in all kinds of ways (attorneys, social workers, spiritual directors, etc.); they need the Gospel proclaimed to them in Word and deed. Active ministry fills all of these roles and more, but a human being's deepest need, a need which is most vividly revealed when suffering drives a person to the depths of helplessness and hopelessness, for instance, is the need to be assured that faith in God is not only reasonable, but that, in fact, one's relationship with God is the single thing which will complete us and bring real happiness and peace; it is the single thing that will inspire, strengthen, and provide the impetus for moving forward or enabling one to live fully and freely no matter the limitations or constraints also present. While every religious witnesses to the importance of one's relationship with God, some do so in a more primary and, in some ways, even more vivid and exclusive way; these religious are contemplatives and a relative few are hermits.

While it is true that hermits pray "assiduously" --- as canon 603 puts the matter --- what this means most fundamentally is that we try to allow God to work in us in ways which make of our hermitages outposts of the Kingdom of God, and (we sincerely hope) mediators of the energy of love we know as the Holy Spirit. I have a deep trust that the love of God, when embodied in this way changes the world --- though I have no sense of how that is and no way to quantify it. I hold people in prayer and trust that because God is at the center of both of our lives they will experience some degree of being accompanied by me in God, some sense of presence and love beyond what they might otherwise have experienced; and yet, the experience of this is not crucial; the fact of it is, however. When I think of praying in this way I think of binding people together in ways that begin to reflect the unity of the Kingdom once fulfilled. I think of allowing the Kingdom to come in my own heart and in the world around me. I do not pray to change God's mind, or to ask God for something he has not already anticipated; I pray to enter into God's own will and love for the persons for whom I am praying.  I think of this as ministerial, though no doubt it is not the active ministry most folks would recognize.

Similarly, in contemplative prayer I simply allow God to be God --- and to complete and perfect me as the one God calls me to be. In this way I give witness to the same thing Thomas Merton once discussed when he spoke about the fundamental vocation of the hermit. What Merton said in a passage very similar to the observation quoted above, was that he owed it to his community to live happily and at peace in his hermitage and in union with God. If the hermit does that, Merton affirmed, she witnesses to certain truths about the relation of nature and grace. When I have written about this here I have spoken of the "dialogical" or covenantal nature of the human being. Hermits witness above all, it seems to me, to the truth I wrote about recently, namely, that which only I can do (in this case, to be myself), I cannot do alone. But hermits do this on the most foundational level, the level of being itself. We say that the human person, insofar as she is truly an "I" is constituted as a "we", that God is a constitutional part of our selves.

When hermits through the ages have said that "God alone is sufficient for us" they have not truly meant we can live lives of total isolation (though physical solitude is crucial here); they have meant God is the One necessary if we are to truly be ourselves. We speak of this "being ourselves" with and in God as being whole and holy or being complete(d) and perfect(ed).  Again, I believe these things have important ministerial dimensions and are profoundly pastoral; it is important that persons understand the eremitical life for this reason, but I think that even when the vocation is not well-understood, it remains provocative and raises questions for those who hear of hermits in their midst (in the Universal Church, diocese, or even in the parish), for instance.

Sisters and Community, Presence in Parishes, etc.

Clearly I disagree with you that the Church is making a mistake in professing hermits. But again, they are not trying to profess ministerial Sisters in doing so. They (the Church) pray that these professions will witness to the Gospel, to the truth that our God loves us unconditionally and eternally and will never leave us. They (hermits)witness to the fact that our God's love completes and sanctifies us no matter our personal poverty otherwise. They (hermits) say this with their lives. But they also witness to community rather than isolation; solitary consecrated hermits have what are called "ecclesial vocations"; they exist in the heart of the Church in a silence and solitude which are the deepest expression of identity and community. (Imagine a communion which is beyond words and busyness, a communion marked by rest and simply "being with and for".) Every person is called to know and witness to this profound solitude whose heart is the identity (selfhood) and relatedness of communion with and in God -- though very few will do so in eremitical solitude. We all know what it means to stand alone, to be our selves alone; this latter occurs only with and in God. The paradox at the heart of our faith is that when we are truly ourselves, when we are our selves alone we no longer stand alone; instead we are more profoundly related to God and one another than ever before. (Hence the article I wrote which affirmed, "That which only we (ourselves) can do, we cannot do alone!"

The problems you raise with regard to Sisters in parishes and children who have never seen or been taught by a Sister are very real. However, there have always been different vocations and we do no one any service by refusing to recognize those that we believe are less needed than those we miss and more evidently esteem. That is a little like asking a store to stop selling apples because farmers have been unable over the last decade or so to provide as many oranges as they once did. The problem, which is likely a complex one, needs to be resolved in different ways and on different levels --- if resolution is even possible. Meanwhile, while you are correct that prior to canon 603, the term "religious" applied only to those living in a community with other Religious Sisters and Brothers, canonists now recognize that in light of canon 603, the term religious now applies to persons with no formal bonds to a religious institute. (Handbook on Canons 573-746). This does not include hermits with private vows, of course, but those who instead are legitimately consecrated by the Church in a Rite of Public Profession and Consecration.

More and more, the laity (in the vocational rather than hierarchical sense of that term) are able to do ministry in the same way Religious Sisters once did within parishes. They are better educated theologically and pastorally and while they tend to work full time elsewhere, the contributions lay persons make to the life of a parish is significant (invaluable) and will continue to grow to be more so. The Church Vatican II envisioned is, in some ways, a very different Church than most of us knew as children or young adults. As the numbers of Religious men and women dwindle, the laity will become more and more responsible for the very life of the Church and all the ministry done therein. In the same way as the number of ordained celibate priests declines (and we do not see this decline diminishing in the near future), alternatives will need to be found to ensure the Church's Sacramental ministry. But God has always provided, and will continue to provide -- if only we have the vision and the courage to embrace the solutions which open to us! The Gospel continually challenges us to learn and be made able to "see with new eyes". In each of the situations you outlined this need is perhaps the greatest one we face.

Thanksgiving:

Yes, I am certainly allowed to "go home" for Thanksgiving. I ordinarily do not do so. Last year I celebrated Mass and ate dinner with the Friars at San Damiano though. This year, I went to Mass, had coffee with a Dominican friend, and then I stayed in and spent a relatively quiet day, reading, praying and working on a reflection for the service on Friday morning. I did have turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce for dinner --- along with pumpkin ice cream and caramel sauce. (Of course last month I was able to go on retreat with Ilia Delio, OSF, then to spend several days with old friends, and at the beginning of this month I was able to attend a weekend retreat with Brother Mickey McGrath (cf picture to the right) so there has been an almost unprecedented amount of time away from my hermitage, a lot of celebrating, and a good chunk (experience) of "home" as well. It has been a wonderful Thanksgiving "season" and I am looking forward to Advent back in relatively uninterrupted solitude.)

I sincerely hope this is helpful to you.

22 November 2018

"And When they Saw Him, they Begged Him to. . ." (Reprise)

I have to say that today's Gospel always suprises and delights me. At first. It is the story of first, Jesus' sending the demons which possess two men into a nearby herd of swine thus freeing the men from the bondage to brokennness and inhumanity which marks and mars their lives, and then, it is the story of what happens when he approaches the nearby town (Gadara) whose residents have heard of what he has done. Despite knowing how the story goes, I admit to being surprised everytime Matthew's last line which begins, "Thereupon the whole town came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him. . ." concludes with, ". . .they begged him to leave their district."

Now, granted, Jesus just destroyed an entire herd of swine, and they must have been someone's livelihood --- perhaps many people's. Some unhappiness with this would have been understandable. And Jesus has healed a couple of men whose conditions had made travel along a certain route unsafe, so one would expect a mixed response to that perhaps -- though the route is now free from this danger, these men now will need to be accommodated in some real sense --- not simply treated as wild animals or aliens of some sort. I begin have a sense why Jesus was not welcomed here. But I admit to still hearing in the back of my mind cheers of welcome, beseeching of Jesus to come and change lives, a positive and welcoming response like that in fiction stories where the conquering hero comes back from slaying the dragon, or like the narrative in the New Testament where Jesus is welcomed as King with waving palm branches and cries of Hosanna --- temporary as that moment was! In a way, perhaps the "back of my mind" wants a costless or "cheap" grace, a "good news" fit for escapist fiction or an incredibly naive reading of the NT --- but not for the real world.

But besides surprise and delight this lection also stops me with its claim and challenge. That is so because the Gospel is good news in a much more realistic, paradoxical, and problematical way -- especially in regard to the first example above --- and today's Gospel lection highlights this for us. As we have heard over the past few passages from Matthew Jesus reveals himself to be a man of extraordinary, even divine authority --- a man with authority over nature, illness, the hearts of men and women, and now over demons. He heals, feeds on a profound and lasting level, frees, and provides true meaning and dignity for those lost and bereft. He is the Son of God (a title Matthew has on the lips of the demons in today's story)--- very good news indeed --- but he acts with an authority which is genuinely awesome and which turns the everyday world of politics, religion, simple ordinariness, and comfortable respectability on their heads. The Gadarenes in today's Gospel see this clearly and they are unprepared for it. More, he terrifies them. Far from misunderstanding Jesus and refusing to welcome him on those grounds, like the Scribes and Pharisees they understand precisely who Jesus is and want no part of him. Far better to simply ask Jesus to leave the district than to have to come to terms with who he is and what that truly challenges and calls forth in us!

One of the current complaints by some traditionalists is that Vatican II gave us a God of love (they frequently spell the word "luv" to denote their disparagement of it) and lost the God who inspires fear, etc. They may well be correct that there has been some "domestication" of God and his Christ in popular piety --- but then this is not because of Vatican II; it is a continual temptation and sin besetting the Church. Afterall, how many of us when faced with the daily prospect of renewed faith recognize that acceptance of Jesus' authority -- expressed as an unconditional love which is stronger than death -- will turn our world upside down and call us to a radical way of living and loving which involves renunciation, self-sacrifice, and commitment to a Kingdom that is NOT of this world and often is at distinct odds with it? The equivalent of a herd of swine or the accommodation of the mentally ill is probably the least it will cost us --- precisely because it is unconditional. How many of us choose not so much to be loved exhaustively by God -- to really open ourselves to His Presence with all that implies for growth, maturity and responsibility -- but instead (at least with some part of ourselves) would prefer to cling to a relatively undemanding (and world-reinforcing) piety which falls short of the life of the Kingdom? How many buy into (and construct our lives around) a religion which is at least as much OF this world as it is IN it?

So yes, today's Gospel both surprises and delights me --- but, again, it also gives me pause. It does all of this because of its honesty; and it does so because it is genuinely good news, rooted in the awesome authority of the Christ who loves without condition but not without challenging and commissioning us to the radically transformed life that comes whenever he meets us face to face or heart to heart. Such a Christ will never be really popular I think. Many of our churches and cities are far more like Gadara than not. Sometimes, I am sorry to say, my hermitage is as well. The authority of Jesus over illness, fear, meaninglessness, and the demons that beset us is an awesome and demanding reality and our hearts are more often ambivalent and ambiguous than pure and single. I suspect that domestication of our faith is something most of us are guilty of every day of our lives. Today's Gospel requires that we ask ourselves what parts of our lives would we instinctively desire to protect from an encounter with Jesus were we to hear he was on his way to our parish this morning? What kinds of changes would we be unwilling to make --- though we might well suspect Jesus would require them of us if we are to be true to ourselves and him? With these questions and today's Gospel in mind, let us summon up the courage to beg Jesus to enter into our towns, homes, churches, and hearts, and remain with us; let us give him free access to move within and change our world as he wills! That is my own prayer for today.

13 November 2018

On Apostolic Ministry vs the Ministry of Hermits

Dear Sister Laurel, Today's society is one of action, which is how practically everyone, religious included seem to live.  If one is quiet or humble, it's generally looked down on.  What are your thoughts about this?

Good question! First off, I don’t think quietness and humility per se are the problem. What I mean is if one is a contemplative religious or hermit it is not quietness or humility which are problematical in a world which esteems active ministry. All religious life, active, or contemplative, --- indeed all Christian life --- value quietness (silence, stillness, self-control, etc.) and genuine humility (a loving self honesty), but there is no doubt our church generally esteems active ministry and what is called Apostolic religious life while it fails to truly esteem adequately contemplative life and especially eremitical life. I say this although the Church still writes contemporary documents honoring contemplative life; namely, in  spite of these and the fulsome praise of eremitical life given by Bp Remi de Roo in his intervention at Vatican II, for instance, it is still possible to find bishops and dioceses who/that will not give the implementation of canon 603 a chance, and who fail to demonstrate any genuine understanding of the eremitical vocation's charism or pneumatic gift-quality.

What I believe is that unless the church is truly able to see these things (forms of life and their charisms) as powerful and effective ways of proclaiming the Gospel, I don’t think this will change. Our world is in terrible need of hearing the Gospel proclaimed in every possible key and yet all too often contemplative life is seen as ineffective or even selfish. In a world marked and marred by individualism, eremitical life strikes people as a symptom and even the epitome of a cultural epidemic of alienation, selfishness, and self-centeredness. Once again people have to see these things (contemplative and eremitical life) as being powerful ways of witnessing to and proclaiming the generosity, self-emptying, grace, promise, and hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

For instance,  while I agree hermits should be persons of assiduous prayer, I don’t think the idea of being powerhouses of prayer, for instance, ordinarily serves as much more than a thinly veiled form of active ministry; it is not the way to achieve the goal just mentioned. On the other hand, witnessing to the salvific love of God that heals, sanctifies, completes, and perfects a person even when the person seems otherwise to have no specific gifts, ministries, or "use" in the community is a particularly vivid witness to the power of the Gospel. Until contemplative religious and hermits do this and make sure the Church understands what contemplative and by extension, eremitical life are really all about I think we will continue to have problems with a failure to esteem such lives.

At the same time, this difficulty in esteeming contemplative and/or eremitical life is not only the hierarchy's problem --- or not their problem alone. Would-be candidates presenting themselves to chanceries and petitioning to be admitted to profession and consecration under canon 603, for instance, frequently are every bit as selfish, self-centered, alienated, and so forth as bishops and vicars or vocation personnel fear! They quite often are social and professional failures who are looking for a way to validate that failure while at the same time they retreat from its consequences into a "hermitage". They might well, for example, have bought into the culture's new fad called "cocooning" and now be seeking a way to give it a bit of religious and even ecclesial standing and prestige. They might have been found unsuitable during a trial of religious life, perhaps even after several tries of different communities and merely be looking for a way to get permission to wear a habit. Some have been unable to cut the apron strings and still live with parents. And so forth.

In relatively rare instances some of these people may discover they actually do have a vocation to eremitical or contemplative religious life which they will need to grow into; dioceses will need to carefully discern and pay attention to the eremitical formation of such persons. These kinds of experiences will demonstrate the redemptive character of eremitical life and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so again, I believe they bring us back to my first conclusion, namely, it is only insofar as the Church is able to see that eremitical life witnesses to the effective and redemptive power of the Gospel that she will truly be able to come to esteem it appropriately. After all, if one cannot see the power of the Gospel at work in the person supposedly "called" to an ecclesial vocation how can one consider it any valid kind of call by Christ in the his Church?

Quietness and humility can be effective signs of the redemptive power of Jesus Christ and the Gospel. In fact, when they are healthy and genuine, they tend to be the consequence of being profoundly loved and authentic individuality and independence. Noisiness, arrogance, etc are just the opposite. What c 603 calls "the silence of solitude" is about much more than external silence of course. Eremitical life begins there and finds that a source of life, but at the same time the silence of solitude points to the inner quiet that results when we discover how profoundly and unceasing loved we are by God; it is the quiet that comes when we let go of all the various forms of drivenness and insecurity that make our lives a noisy, clamorous seeking. The silence of solitude is the result of being held securely by God and learning to rest in that in ever greater union with Him.

Thus both stillness (quies or hesychasm) and genuine humility are the result of the love we come to know in external silence. Hermits witness to this, and to the radical hope human beings need to live truly human lives at all. In a time when belief in God is often seen as silly or unintelligent, hermits live fully human lives and grow in that in a solitude which is defined in terms of communion with God. As I have quoted here a number of times. Thomas Merton wrote the one gift the (monastic) hermit gives to the world is: to “bear witness to the fact that certain basic claims about solitude and peace are in fact true, [for] in doing this, [they] will restore people’s confidence first in their own humanity and beyond that in God’s grace.”

07 November 2018

"What We Alone Can Do We Cannot Do Alone"

Today's Gospel was challenging, not least because we had children attending. They heard one of the more confusing directives of Jesus, "Unless you hate your Mother and Father, Brothers and Sisters, and even your own life, you cannot be my disciple!" Jesus follows this section of the lection with a couple of examples of why we must count the cost of things, first a parable about a man building a tower without sufficient planning and resources, and next a King with an army of 10,000 considering facing an army of 20,000. There is foolishness involved when we take on something serious and fail to count the cost. Discipleship is certainly the most serious life "project" we take on.

Folks thought perhaps I was doing the reflection today at Mass and asked that I make the context of the reading clear to the children who were coming. After all, what could it mean for Jesus to ask we love him at the expense of hating our own families and even our very selves? What kind of sense does that make, especially to children? What kind of discipleship would that be? But of course, Jesus' language is a Semitism in a language without the gradations we English-speakers and thinkers might take for granted. More, the absoluteness of this Semitism mirrors the absolute priority of loving God. Jesus is saying we must love God more than all others and really, before all others. Of course we owe God this --- God deserves this from us, but the reasons for this directive are also profoundly practical, namely we love God who is Love-in-Act by allowing God to love us and to fill us with the Divine Life that is meant to animate anyone who is truly human. Only then can we love anyone, including ourselves, as we really deserve and are called to do. The paradox that we love God by allowing God to love us, that is, by allowing God to be God and that means God-for-us, is not surprising once we consider Who and what God is.

But the challenge of counting the cost of discipleship and allowing God to love and empower my love for self and others took my thoughts in the direction of my own vocation. Hardly surprising I guess. Especially it reminded me of something I read this morning early. By way of introduction, Martin Laird, OSA, has a new book on contemplation coming out in December. Fortunately, the Kindle version came out yesterday at midnight! I am already loving the book which develops themes from his first two books on contemplation and is geared to those facing expected difficulties in contemplative lives that are already-well-established. Laird does not deny we are all always beginners but he does recognize that different problems face us at different points along our journey to know or realize more fully our already-real union with God. But this morning one sentence in the first chapter struck me as wonderful and exactly right, "What we alone can do we cannot do alone"! The paradox of being truly ourselves only to the extent we are breathed forth and empowered by God --- that is, only to the extent we are a dialogical or covenant reality with God as our soul (the Divine breath that animates us), as well as only to the extent we are beings-in-relation-with-others comes up very often in what I write here (or anywhere!), and these are central to Laird's observation, "What we alone can do we cannot do alone"!

In my own life as a hermit, this is a central insight which helps determine the meaning of canonical terms like, "the silence of solitude" in canon 603. In the inner work I do with my director and accompanist it is similarly central and demands that I understand the gift of working with another is not a luxury, nor is it something which interferes with eremitical solitude. Instead, eremitical solitude is all about a relatively rare but also a universal way of "being relatedness" someone actually constituted by my relatedness to God, to others, and to all of reality. In the work Sister Marietta and I do, for instance, it is essential to being and becoming myself that I (allow myself to) be heard and find ways to express myself as well as I can --- as essential as it is that I hear God alive within me! This is absolutely critical to the effectiveness of the work I (we) do. And, though I do the majority of the work on my own, ultimately this means another person (and especially one with appropriate expertise and sensibilities!!) is also indispensable.

Even so, of course I often find it difficult to articulate what I am experiencing. Sometimes it is too vague, too visual or aural and too far from my thinking mind or the vocabulary that usually serves me so well; sometimes it is too painful or too frightening. Sometimes I know that because Marietta is compassionate and has chosen to accompany me, and because she listens so very well, my sharing will cause her some pain.  Compassion hurts; love is sometimes painful. Of course, this is her decision, not mine; only she can decide whether and how the demands of accompaniment are something she will undertake, and yet the desire to protect her comes up for me and sometimes this too prevents expression of what I am experiencing. But even at these times I am aware of her presence (and God's!) sitting near (or breathing gently and silently within), watching, waiting, praying, listening, and inviting my sharing --- for sometimes it is only her presence that gives me the courage to go deep within --- much less to share what occurs there; as I am often reminded, whatever sharing I can do is healing and strengthening. What we alone can do we cannot do alone.

And so, as a piece of genuine discipleship we count the cost. Many times over the past two years (and especially early on during this time) I have had to discern whether my eremitical life was jeopardized by the work I had undertaken with Marietta. I have noted this here before. Again and again the answer came back, "This is part of the cost of truly growing in wholeness and holiness." I know this. "It is absolutely necessary if you are to become the person (the hermit!!) I have called you from the beginning to be. Look! Look at how your prayer has been transfigured, how you have grown in freedom and how again and again your work together with Marietta deepens both your eremitical solitude and the silence of that solitude as your heart is enlarged and made more wholly My dwelling place!" I do try not to count the cost Marietta has determined she will accept and bear as part of her own vocational faithfulness; that really is something only she can and should do, just as only I can truly count and bear the cost of my own faithfulness to God's call.  After all, if I allow my own attention and discernment to be distracted, if I fail in this way to trust Marietta to do what she alone can do, I am pretty sure I "will not have the resources to finish" a process which is already costly indeed ---but even more worthwhile!!

I suppose this is on my mind in part because I continue to get questions from people who do not see how working in the way I have described over the past 2.5 years is consistent with eremitical solitude.  I do not know how to answer any better than I have in a number of posts throughout this period. But of course, ultimately, my own commitment to this work and to eremitical life as I and those mutually responsible for my vocation understand it, means I do not really have to explain further unless I believe it will be really helpful to someone. However, at bottom the work itself clarifies its own indispensable nature as it mediates God's love and empowers my own growth, healing, and sanctification precisely as a hermit living this life in the name of the Church. Those who are, to whatever extent, also responsible for my vocation see this clearly. What I alone can do I cannot do alone --- and this especially includes living into the context, charism, and goal of eremitical life c 603 hermits know as the "silence of solitude."

P.S., For those interested, Martin Laird, OSA's third book in the trilogy I mentioned is called, An Ocean of Light.  While it may be helpful, one does not, Laird says, need to read the first two books before this one.

06 November 2018

The Power of Silence



While I don't entirely share the generally negative view of Western Civilization expressed by the Cardinal, I do share his sense of the importance of silence for authentic humanity. Cardinal Robert Sarah's 2017 book on Silence (The Power of Silence; Against the Dictatorship of Noise) is a significant work. Sarah knows Silence and is best when he speaks of it as an intense presence rather than merely some kind of negation or absence. Not a quick read but one to be returned to, I think, over a longer time of lectio and prayer. Because I have read most of his book during the past year or more and sometimes wondered if it was a good translation, I thought hearing him speak might be interesting. It was. Enjoy.

05 November 2018

"Without Always Professing. . .Publicly" A Mistranslation?

[[Hi Sister, you once wrote an explanation of the paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which say consecrated hermits might not always make public vows. Would you mind posting again what you said there about pars. 920-21?]]

Yes, sure. I don't know if you want the whole post or just the portion devoted to the phrase, "without always professing the evangelical counsels publicly," (a translation which does not comport with or correspond to the Latin original) so I will quote and expand on that portion and then provide a link to the original post with its broader discussion or other paragraphs in the CCC.

[[But what then about the strange phrase [["Without always professing the evangelical counsels publicly]]  First the key Latin phrase in the original is this: [[quin publice tria consilia evangelica semper profiteantur]] Which translates, [[but always professing the three evangelical counsels publicly]] This corresponds exactly with the Church's theology of consecrated life; that is, any profession will be a public and ecclesial act; it will be canonical resulting in canonical obligations and rights. If this is so, if the Latin is clear on this matter, then where does the word and notion of "without" come from in the English translation? By this I mean what is optional for the consecrated hermit if the profession itself is ALWAYS to be made as a public, ecclesial act? There are two possibilities.

If the CCC is referring to consecrated life (life in the consecrated state) here there is only one thing it could be: canon 603 allows for diocesan hermits to use "other sacred bonds" than vows" for their public profession if they choose. It is the only form of consecrated life besides consecrated virgins living in the world (who do not make vows) that does. Thus, the clumsily formulated English phrase would not mean, "Without always making vows publicly" but rather, " Without always using vows to make their public profession."
[My thought is that perhaps the redactors attempted to make as small a change in the text as possible (adding "without" and changing "profession" to "vows"); they may have thought other texts on consecrated life would prevent misunderstanding, but if so this has proved to be untrue.

There is a second possibility regarding why the redactors added "without" in the English version of the CCC --- especially given the change in terminology from "profession" to "vows", namely, they may have meant to include lay hermits living out their baptismal consecration here using private vows (etc.) and without benefit of entering the consecrated state through the canonical act of profession. Moreover, they may have tried to do this without adding a separate section to the Catechism on non-canonical or non-consecrated (lay) hermits. Given the presence of the discussion of baptismal consecration preceding any initiation into the consecrated state, Vatican II's emphasis on the lay state and vocation, and recognizing the growth in the non-canonical hermit vocation this makes real sense. Unfortunately, doing this while making brevity a priority and maintaining unchanged the heading of the entire section, creates problematic ambiguities which have been a source of unending confusion for some who are theologically or canonically naïve or who may even seek to benefit from the ambiguity by treating it as a loophole. 

In citing CCC #920,] Ms McClure has italicized parts of the paragraph. . .which seem geared to ensure one reads it as providing the option of private vows rather than public for those in the consecrated state of life. However, the overall context [of this section of the CCC, namely, the heading:] "consecrated states of life" will not allow this, [not least because it refers to states of life which are never entered with merely private acts]. Neither will the original Latin text nor the Church's theology of consecrated life per se. The only option, the only "without always"  c 603 allows is that of [making one's profession with sacred bonds other than vows]; even so the profession of either of these will ALWAYS BE PUBLIC [with definitive profession initiating one into the consecrated state and every profession establishing] public rights and obligations, public ecclesial relationships (legitimate superiors), and even public expectations on the part of the faithful generally.]] 
The link to the whole post is: Clarifying Vocabulary and Texts, CCC pars 914-15 and 920-21.

On Private Vows as a Lay Hermit

[[Dear Sister, if I choose to make private vows as a hermit, do I need to check with my bishop? Do I need his permission? Would bishops know the lay hermits (I mean the privately vowed hermits) in their diocese --- maybe because my pastor tells the bishop about me? I'm asking because of the following comments by a lay hermit: "The choice may include the individual with spiritual director or if would-be hermit in a religious order with a superior. And as a Catholic in one manner or another, at some point in time, one's bishop is involved more directly or else indirectly, whichever the path of eremitic is discerned and taken." She also says she usually trusts her pastor to tell her bishop about her but does not need to get permission to move into a parish and live as a Catholic hermit because she has private vows.]]

Thanks for your questions. The simple answer to all of these is "no." I am not sure what the author meant by "whichever path of eremitic life is discerned. . ." in the passage you are citing (there are three, two of them for solitary hermits --- one of these lay and one consecrated), but the only time one's bishop is involved directly or indirectly is when one is making public profession whether as a canon 603 hermit or as a member of a religious order of hermits. Otherwise one's commitment is a private matter entirely. Private vows do not change one's state of life, do not add canonical rights or obligations and as a result they can be dispensed easily without paper work, etc. Because of this there is simply no need for the bishop to be involved, whether directly or indirectly. Of course if the bishop is already one's spiritual director, friend, pastor, etc, he may become involved and even witness your vows --- but he will not do so as bishop per se, nor will he  receive such vows. Private vows may be made by anyone at any time and while one hopes these are well-considered and discerned precisely because they are an important personal commitment specifying one's baptismal commitment, there is no need for any kind of authorization, not least by one's bishop.

Similarly, unless one already knows one's bishop in some capacity chances are slim to non-existent that he will know of one's private vows. The Church does not keep any records of such private commitments precisely because they are private, not public and not undertaken in the name of the Church. Generally speaking, bishops may come to know of lay hermits (hermits in the lay or baptismal state alone) living in their dioceses but chances of this are greater if the hermits are sources of confusion or difficulty --- or, alternately, if these persons are particularly edifying or inspirational to their parishes and pastors. Another instance in which privately vowed (not professed since by definition this term implies a change in state of life) hermits may become known to their bishop is if such a person decides to seek public profession under canon 603. (In this instance the bishop may truly become "involved" in a real way and not simply know of the person.) Living as a lay hermit either with or without private vows can be an important way of preparing for a publicly professed life; in fact, unless one is already a religious, living as a lay hermit for some meaningful period of time (at least several years) during discernment and formation in anticipation of public profession is necessary. No one is professed under canon 603 unless they are already hermits in some essential sense.

I have waited to respond to the last piece of your question because it really raises significant issues of irresponsibility in claiming the name "Catholic hermit." Remember that a diocesan bishop is responsible in a direct way for anyone or anything in the diocese which is explicitly identified as "Catholic." A Catholic institute of religious, a Catholic priest, a Catholic broadcasting organization, a Catholic theologian, etc, etc. All of these claim to act in the name of the Church and as such, they do so under the specific authority of those commissioned by the Church to exercise such authority. In diocesan organizations or entities this is ordinarily the diocesan bishop. Again, no one may adopt the designation "Catholic" unless they are specifically authorized to do this. Canon Law is clear about this and the Church acts on significant instances of abuse where the name Catholic is being misused and/or misrepresented. (Ordinarily a single lay hermit mistakenly calling themselves a "Catholic Hermit" will not fall to the bishop to handle; it is more likely to be addressed by the parish priest or pastor.)

Baptism gives us the right to call ourselves Catholic but it does not give us the right, nor convey the obligations linked with being a Catholic Hermit --- a Catholic who lives eremitical life in the name of the Church and thus, under the specific supervision of the diocesan bishop. Remember c 603.2 reads, [[§2. A hermit is recognized by law as one dedicated to God in consecrated life if he or she publicly professes in the hands of the diocesan bishop the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by vow or other sacred bond, and observes a proper program of living under his direction.]]

It is irresponsible of one to claim the title "Catholic Hermit" and do so without being specifically and publicly (canonically) commissioned to do so by the Church. However, it is equally irresponsible for an individual claiming to be a member of the consecrated state of life and calling themselves a Catholic hermit to fail to contact the bishop of a new diocese directly. They do not hope or expect or count on someone doing this for them! They do not trust it to chance. Members of Catholic Institutes of Consecrated life know this and work out moves in location with those in legitimate authority. Consecrated virgins also know this, not least because it is specifically required in the guidelines codified for them by the Vatican. Solitary Catholic (c 603) Hermits know it because c 603 is clear re who is actively supervising their vocations!

Consecrated life is constituted by several different ecclesial vocations (canonical cenobitical, canonical eremitical, consecrated virginity, etc) and if one really is called to such a vocation one honors the Church and authority in the Church which has publicly professed, consecrated, and commissioned one. After all, ecclesial vocations belong in a special way to the treasure and patrimony of the Church. Thus, C 603 hermits must get approval of the bishop in the diocese to which they wish to move if they wish to remain a professed hermit. Otherwise their vows cease to be valid should they move due to a material change in the substance of those vows.

At this point the hermit would cease to be a Catholic Hermit and, if she continues in the eremitical life, becomes a Catholic who also happens to be a hermit with an entirely private commitment. Such a life is significant but it does not constitute an ecclesial vocation, is not lived in the name of the Church, and thus, is not specifically called by the term Catholic. The bottom line in all of this remains: solitary Catholic Hermits live under the direct supervision of a legitimate superior, namely the diocesan bishop; if she moves she will have contacted the new bishop directly re continuing to be a solitary Catholic Hermit before she makes her move, and again afterwards if he agrees to receive her as a diocesan hermit who will be living eremitical life in the name of the Church. Private vows are a possibility for her if the bishop will not receive her as a canonical hermit under c 603, but she cannot continue to represent herself as a Catholic Hermit. 

I sincerely hope your own discernment in eremitical life goes well. If you should decide to make private vows as a lay hermit (again, a hermit in the lay state) I wish you well in that especially. It is not easy living such a life without the moral support of one's parish family (though you can certainly secure that if you desire it) and the Church at large --- at least that is what I have found. As a lay hermit you may well have the support of members of your parish and find that you have something unique to offer the parish at large as well. As a lay hermit you will have something to offer the post Vatican II Church as well because this Church is still trying to implement Vatican II and its esteem for the laity. Because you will represent the desert Fathers and Mothers (who were lay hermits and a powerful prophetic presence for and in the Church) you may serve members of your local Church in ways canonical hermits might not be able to do. I hope so!