21 January 2019

They Came to listen and be healed. . . Nevertheless Jesus Would Withdraw to Pray

It happened that there was a man full of leprosy in one of the towns where Jesus was;
and when he saw Jesus,
he fell prostrate, pleaded with him, and said,
"Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean."
Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said,
"I do will it.  Be made clean."
And the leprosy left him immediately.
Then he ordered him not to tell anyone, but
"Go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing
what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them."
The report about him spread all the more,
and great crowds assembled to listen to him
and to be cured of their ailments,
but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.


 I have written in the past that had Jesus healed every person that came to him in need it would still not have been enough; Jesus' mission was the reconciliation of all of creation, the destruction of sin and death themselves and not merely the  healing of this illness or that form of "demonic possession", this dimension of social dysfunction or that aspect of personal distortion or alienation. Jesus' realization that his mission has various differing priorities may have grown as he matured "in stature and grace", but gospel writers clearly recognized and convey to us he was more than a healer or exorcist.  They do this by comparing him with other healers and exorcists or by identifying him as King and Messiah; they do it by noting his refusal to heal or exorcise at times, and of course they do it by focusing on the import of Jesus' death and resurrection --- where no one was healed and nothing exorcised, but creation as a whole was reconciled to God and sin and death were transformed forever on the way to their eventual total destruction.

But the Gospel lection two Fridays ago ends with an even more surprising set of priorities. After healing a leper and having reports of this and other healing activity spreading far and wide and after crowds of people actually assemble to hear him teach and  heal Luke says, BUT he would withdraw to deserted places to pray. The coordinating conjunction "but" makes it very clear that despite the clear need for his capacity to teach and heal Jesus recognized and embraced a greater priority; crowds of people had assembled so he could minister to them nevertheless he would withdraw (meaning he would regularly withdraw even in these circumstances) to deserted places to pray. Granted, as a hermit, this clear statement of priorities is something I am sensitive to and appreciate; it is a way the gospels indirectly justify my own vocation to mainly eschew active ministry and embrace a contemplative life of prayer in the silence of solitude. At the same time it is a salutary reminder to everyone in active ministry that withdrawal (anachoresis) to the desert is a priority that must be embraced in significant ways even when crowds clamor for our teaching and mediated healing.

I think sometimes we treat Jesus' clear pattern of regular withdrawal to pray as some sort of icing on the cake of his mission --- something which adds sweetness or depth but is not strictly necessary because, after all, "he is both human and divine". But with Christmas we recognize that his mission is to be and truly allow God to be Emmanuel, God with us; this means that Jesus' prayer is the very essence of his embracing this identity because prayer is the very act of allowing God to be present to and active within us. Incarnating the Word of God demands and implies the lifetime dialogue of a human being with God. Incarnation itself is the result of this dialogue; it is the acceptance of a covenant relationship, the actual embracing of an identity as covenant reality. It is to be a person of prayer, and for Jesus, it is to the be  THE person of prayer or even  THE embodiment of God's own prayer (God's Word, plan, will, desire, the very content of God's heart) in our world.

The Incarnation of the Word of God is real at the moment of Jesus' conception but God's desire to be Emmanuel is not fully accomplished at the moment of Jesus' conception and nativity; it requires Jesus' entire life for its full revelation (remember revelation is not just making known or manifest; it also means making real in space and time}. Christmas marks the nativity of the Incarnation, but Jesus' "growth in grace and stature" clearly points to an understanding of Jesus' fuller and fuller embodiment and revelation of the Word of God in every moment and mood of life. This covenantal identity implies his continuing dialogue with the One he calls Abba; again, it implies being a person of prayer and more, the incarnation of God's own prayer in our world. Whether we use the language of dialogue or covenant, prayer and the embodiment of prayer is the priority of Jesus' life, identity, and mission.

I am used to hearing from folks in active ministry for whom prayer is important but quite often seen as a way of "recharging one's batteries", or in some other way serving as a break from active ministry. It may also be understood as something which allows one to recover energy for further active ministry. The problem with these views is that they do not see that Jesus' prayer says prayer is  essential for one's identity as authentically human, as a covenantal reality who can only minister to others when they are authentically human. Maybe for some the idea of prayer (and retreat) as a way of recharging one's batteries is a colloquial way of describing this truth, but it seems to me when one really understands the importance of prayer for one's very identity and only then, for one's capacity to minister God's own Good News to others, "recharging one's batteries" simply fails to capture the truth of the situation. But prayer was essential to who Jesus was; it is meant to be at the heart of who we are as well.

Recently, as I was working through something in spiritual direction, my director asked me, somewhat rhetorically, "Why do you pray?" And looking around briefly to the space in which we were meeting (my hermitage prayer space) she continued, "It is the heart of your life; why do you pray?"  My answer was that I pray so that God might be God in me and, through me, in and to our world. Of course I also pray so that I might be made whole and holy, so that I might become the person God calls me to be --- a counterpart God created the cosmos in search of, someone who can be loved and love in response and therefore, in whatever way possible, reveal the God who is Love-in Act and the nature of the human being as covenant partner of that same God. But all of this is covered under the affirmation that I pray in order that God might be God. In this way my life of prayer is also my mission and I think the same is true of Jesus. This, it seems, is what Luke is saying about Jesus and Jesus' prayer when he points to the striking priority this has in Jesus' life; according to our vocations, I think it is the priority that Luke is asking we each and all embrace in regard to prayer in our own lives as well.

13 January 2019

Feast of Jesus' Baptism (Reprise)

Of all the feasts we celebrate, [today's] feast of the baptism of Jesus is one of the most difficult for us to understand. We are used to thinking of baptism as a solution to original sin instead of the means of our initiation into the death and resurrection of Jesus, or our adoption as daughters and sons of God and heirs to his Kingdom, or again, as a consecration to God's very life and service. When viewed this way, and especially when we recall that John's baptism was one of repentance for sin, how do we make sense of a sinless Jesus submitting to it?

I think two points need to be made here. First, Jesus grew into his vocation. His Sonship was real and completely unique but not completely developed or historically embodied from the moment of his conception; rather it was something he embraced more and more fully over his lifetime. Secondly, his Sonship was the expression of solidarity with us and his fulfillment of the will of his Father to be God-with-us. Jesus will incarnate the Logos of God definitively in space and time, but this event we call the incarnation encompasses and is only realized fully in his life, death, and resurrection -- not in his nativity. Only in allowing himself to be completely transparent to this Word, only in "dying to self," and definitively setting aside all other possible destinies does Jesus come to fully embody and express the Logos of God in a way which expresses his solidarity with us as well.

It is probably the image of Baptism-as-consecration and commissioning then which is most helpful to us in understanding Jesus' submission to John's baptism. Here the man Jesus is set apart as the one in whom God will truly "hallow his name." (That is, in Jesus' weakness and self-emptying God's powerful presence (Name) will make all things Holy and a sacrament of God's presence.) Here, in an act of manifest commitment, Jesus' humanity is placed completely at the service of the living God and of those to whom God is committed. Here his experience as one set apart or consecrated by and for God establishes God as completely united with us and our human condition. This solidarity is reflected in his statement to John that together they must fulfill the will of God. And here too Jesus anticipates the death and resurrection he will suffer for the sake of both human and Divine destinies which, in him, will be reconciled and inextricably wed to one another. His baptism establishes the pattern not only of HIS humanity, but that of all authentic humanity. So too does it reveal the nature of true Divinity, for our's is a God who becomes completely subject to our sinful reality in order to free us for his own entirely holy one.

I suspect that even at the end of the Christmas season we are still scandalized by the incarnation. (Recent conversations on CV's and secularity make me even surer of this!) We still stumble over the intelligibility of this baptism, and the propriety of it especially. Our inability to fathom Jesus' own baptism, and our tendency to be shocked by it  because of Jesus' identity,  just as JohnBp was probably shocked, says we are not comfortable, even now, with a God who enters exhaustively into our reality. We remain uncomfortable with a Jesus who is tempted like us in ALL THINGS, and matures into his identity as God's only begotten Son.

We are puzzled by one who is holy as God is holy and, as the creed affirms, "true God from true God" and who, evenso, is consecrated to and by the one he calls Abba --- and commissioned to the service of this Abba's Kingdom and people. A God who wholly identifies with us, takes on our sinfulness, and comes to us in smallness, weakness, submission and self-emptying is really not a God we are comfortable with --- despite three weeks of Christmas celebrations and reflections, and a prior four weeks of preparation -- is it? In fact, none of this was comfortable for Jews or early Christians either. The Jewish leadership was upset by JnBp's baptisms generally because they took place outside the Temple precincts and structures (that is, in the realm we literally call profane). Early Christians (Jewish and otherwise) were embarrassed by Jesus' baptism by John --- as Matt's added explanation of the reasons for it in vv 14-15 indicate. They were concerned that perhaps it indicated Jesus' inferiority to John the Baptist and they wondered if maybe it meant that Jesus had sinned prior to his baptism. And perhaps this embarrassment is as it should be. Perhaps the scandal attached to this baptism signals to us we are beginning to get things right theologically.

After all, today's feast tells us that Jesus' public ministry begins with a ritual washing, consecration, and commissioning by God which is similar to our own baptismal consecration. The difference is that Jesus' freely accepts life under the sway of sin in his baptism just as he wholeheartedly embraces a public (and one could cogently argue, a thoroughly secular) vocation to proclaim God's sovereignty. The story of the desert temptation or testing that follows this underscores this acceptance. His public life begins with an event that prefigures his end as well. There is a real dying to self involved here, not because Jesus has a false self which must die -- as each of us has --- but because in these events his life is placed completely at the disposal of his God, his Abba, in solidarity with us. Loving another, affirming the being of another in a way which subordinates one's own being to theirs --- putting one's own life at their disposal and surrendering all other life-possibilities always entails a death of sorts -- and a kind of rising to new life as well. The dynamics present on the cross are present here too; here we see only somewhat less clearly a complete and obedient (that is open and responsive) submission to the will of God, and an unfathomable subjection to that which human sinfulness makes necessary precisely in order that God's love may be exhaustively present and conquer here as well.

04 January 2019

Once Again on the Importance of Canonical Standing in Nurturing and Supporting the Eremitical Vocation

[[Dear Sister, I wondered if one of the reasons you support canonical standing for hermits has to do with the difficulty and importance of people understanding that solitude is more about communion or community than it is about isolation? What I was thinking was that it takes people to discern whether one is living an isolated life or one of eremitical solitude and the individual might not even know the difference. I also wondered if countering stereotypes of hermits is part of this same need for canonical standing or Church approval. Is this the reason the Church requires the hermit to jump through so many "hoops" to be professed canonically? I think you have written about this some. Lastly, I wondered if your own distinction between isolation and solitude as a "unique form of community" is rooted in your own experience of isolation or of growing to maturity in eremitical solitude? I don't think you have said much about this.]]

Thanks for your questions. They are excellent and it is very cool to hear you were wondering about this! I think I have written about all of these things except perhaps my own experience with/of isolation; I know I did some writing about the importance of canonical standing in On Hermit Ministry and the Call to Become God's Own Prayer and there may be another recent article that did the same. You might check under the label "solitude vs isolation" to see some of the ways I have approached this topic, especially as the place of the Church's discernment is revealed; the same is true of the label "eremitism as ecclesial" (or variations of this). One clarification, I do think canonical standing is important for hermits who live their vocations in the name of the Church, and I believe that strictly speaking, eremitical life is a gift of God to the Church and World which needs to be governed and supervised --- not always easy with such a prophetic vocation, but necessary nonetheless. At the same time I believe that many more than these relative few (consecrated/canonical hermits) are called instead to be lay hermits and to live eremitical life with the aid of spiritual directors and the support of their parishes; I also believe that the Church and world can and should benefit significantly from these lay eremitical lives --- no less than they do from the lives of consecrated hermits.

Difficulties in Discerning the Difference between Isolated Persons and Hermits:

That said, I do agree that there can be a significant difficulty in discerning the difference between an isolated person and one who has been embraced by and embraced eremitical solitude. (Remember that Merton writes poignantly about the necessity of solitude herself opening the door to the one who would be a hermit!) It requires a real knowledge of the person's heart and her commitment to and relationship with Life, Truth, and Love,  not merely a sense of the external silence and physical solitude of the person's life. I also agree that the process of discernment associated with the relatively long journey toward eremitical profession and consecration (always public or canonical in nature!) is a central way the Church lays bare and resolves this difficult question on a case by case basis. But the general difficulty remains and is evident even in newsletters, etc., which are meant to support and nurture eremitical vocations per se. One of the reasons I am not particularly enthusiastic about the self-identification so prevalent in forums like that of Raven's Bread (a newsletter for hermits, solitaries, and others who love solitude), for instance. is because just about anyone can call themselves a hermit and never feel a need to draw important distinctions regarding motivation, personal woundedness vs relative wholeness, historical and ecclesial understandings of the vocation, or to attend much to the tradition of eremitical life.

In today's excessively individualistic society everything from  an intolerant or self-indulgent cocooning to agoraphobia and misanthropy can be subsumed under the rubric "eremitism" in order to attempt to validate expressions of selfishness and woundedness while escaping the need for responsibility to Church and world in regard to a vocation which is meant for the edification of others via a unique proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This tendency to re-brand any number of social deficiencies and "disorders" as "eremitism" because solitude is defined only in terms of physical aloneness goes hand in hand with the tendency to rebrand or redefine license as authentic freedom. But eremitical solitude is only partly about physical solitude; at its heart it is about communion -- communion with God, with oneself, and with all others, communion which vividly defines the nature of the human being as a covenantal reality and human freedom as the counterpart of divine sovereignty.

In any case, just because someone says, "I am a hermit" in today's world does not mean they are one --- at least not as the Church understands the term; you are exactly right in pointing to the need for discernment in this. Even more important than the distinction between solitude and isolation in the need for canonical standing is the way in which this distinction is achieved and the reality it witnesses to in the authentic hermit: namely through her experience of the love of God in Christ which heals and transforms isolation into solitude. Because the canonical hermit is very specifically called and commissioned to live a solitude which vividly and consciously proclaims the life and love of God, the mutual discernment of the canonical process is necessary and helpful for all eremitical vocations. This is so because such a vocation results in wholeness, holiness, and a freedom expressed in compassionate self-gift rather than an isolation associated with personal woundedness, lack of freedom, a lack of generosity, and the incapacity for compassion or sacrifice. Distinguishing between these dimensions (solitude vs isolation, healthy withdrawal vs unhealthy withdrawal) in oneself is difficult; they can co-exist, especially in the beginning of an eremitical life when so much is ambiguous and still needs to be sorted out, integrated, or formed.

Fooling Ourselves and Misleading Others: The Importance of Mutual Discernment

Moreover, apart from this, our ability to fool ourselves and justify isolation --- especially by applying a label like "hermit" to validate this, by uncritically comparing ourselves to "hermits" of different centuries with different (and sometimes less valid) or actually unhealthy sensibilities and spiritualities, or (when unhealthy withdrawal or selfish isolation are met with skepticism or concern) by concluding, for instance, that we are simply misunderstood by "the world" which we believe we are somehow superior to spiritually or otherwise --- is simply too easy to do. But in these situations the so-called "hermit" will never witness adequately to the power of the love of God which unites her with all God loves; she will never be able to proclaim the Gospel in the unique way a hermit called to human wholeness and holiness will.

It takes others to assess and assist the hermit in assessing the real nature of her physical solitude, her deep motivations, her understanding of the nature of the vocation itself, the place of her relationship with God in Christ and others, and her own wholeness and holiness, if they are to truly discern the presence of an eremitical vocation. This has always been true in the church but it is much more urgent since canon 603 and the possibility of dioceses accepting hermit candidates without long formation in religious and/or monastic life.  Further, because of the individualism of our society, eremitism looks like many other things today  but at its heart it is generously (sacrificially) countercultural. Thus, because it is lived for others it is not a facile rejection of the world outside the hermitage nor an expression of spiritualities which falsely hypostasize and demonize "the world". (See posts re Thomas Merton's treatment of the notion of "the world" for explanations of this.)  Countering this false and destructive approach to the world around us and other stereotypes and misconceptions is certainly a part of the importance of canonical standing and the sometimes-lengthy discernment those seeking profession require.

After all, how can a church be expected to profess individuals to a genuinely compassionate and generous eremitical life without making sure the distinction between isolation and eremitical solitude is something candidates for profession and consecration have come to understand on the basis of long-experience, prayer, and even struggle to love effectively while embracing the life of a hermit? I sincerely believe the "hoops" we often refer to having candidates jump through are not usually onerous and are completely reasonable as the Church attempts to adequately embrace and celebrate the gift which God has given her in the midst of a world so often marked and marred by individualism and license. This is especially true given the uniqueness of each vocation and the way each candidate serves to educate the Church on the way the Holy Spirit brings individuals to an authentic eremitical vocation.

My Own Experience of the Distinction Between Isolation and Eremitical Solitude:

Your question about my own experience of isolation and growing to maturity in solitude is very perceptive. I insist that solitude is a unique experience of community partly because I have experienced the unhealthiness or destructiveness of isolation (physical, emotional, etc.) and its antithesis in the healing character of solitude,  partly because psychology and theology stress the importance of human relatedness (theology stresses this is our very nature), and partly because my own growth in solitary eremitical life (including the inner work I have undertaken over the past couple of years with my director) have each underscored this in its own complementary way.

Taking all these things together I would say I have been exploring the distinction between isolation and solitude for the whole of my life; I began long before I began doing so in a conscious way by focusing on eremitical solitude as a result of the publication of canon 603 in 1983. A number of factors made this necessary, not least significant childhood experiences of isolation and the effect of medically and surgically intractable epilepsy from the age of @ 19.  Similarly, the really positive influences in my life have underscored the communal nature of solitude along with the solitary pole of all community; that has been especially true with violin and orchestral playing, but also with academic work in Theology, my experience of community in religious life, work with physicians and others, and the gift of friendships, parish relationships, etc.

Without the deep and extensively-rooted sense that solitude represents the redemption of isolation, or the profound experience of being communal at our core, I do not know how I could have made sense of eremitical life or embraced it as a divine vocation. Thomas Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action captured my imagination but it did so because it spoke to and built on my life-experience of isolation vs. solitude. Without the experience of having the whole of my life being called to this particular form of self-gift, or the sense of the significance such a life holds where even many discrete gifts and talents are relinquished in order to witness to the way God alone creates, calls, and completes us as covenant partners in a relationship foundational for authentic human being, I could only have rejected eremitical life as the epitome of an unhealthy and inhuman withdrawal. For a host of reasons through the whole of my life I have been uniquely sensitized to isolation and marked with a hunger for genuine solitude. The inner work I have undertaken as part of spiritual direction is a commitment to being made more and more whole and holy in this kind of deeply relational or communal solitude.

By the way, in my emphasis on the ecclesial nature of this vocation this same dynamic is a defining element. While it is true that I often speak of ecclesial vocations in terms of ecclesial rights, obligations, and stable and governing structures, the communal nature of every such vocation is at the heart of the term "ecclesial". Ecclesial vocations represent vocations summoned forth by God from the "called ones" constituting the ecclesia. We say canonical hermits live eremitical life in the name of the Church and by that we mean such hermits are specifically authorized to live these vocations in the power and as an instance of the presence of the ecclesia. In other words, all such vocations are commissioned by the Church; they are nourished by, embraced on behalf of that community and missioned by and for that same community as well as those outside it; finally they are lived in a way which edifies (builds up) the faith community/ecclesia. While it does happen, it is hard for me to conceive how someone claiming to be called by God to be a canonical hermit could  honestly accept consecration to this ecclesial vocation if she failed to appreciate the communal dimension of her solitude and was committed to an individualistic isolation instead of eremitical solitude.