29 August 2019

Follow-up on Chronic Illness and Prayer

[[Dear Sister Laurel, thank you for  your post on chronic illness and eremitical life. I liked lots of it but especially I was touched by your comment on remembering the difference between praying all the prayers and praying always! You have described a situation in which someone learns to pray their whole lives even when they can't pray particular prayers! I presume you are not saying, though, that folks can let go of specific prayer periods altogether. You clearly do not mean this because you describe maintaining prayer periods in spite of difficulties. I wondered if you find it difficult to change the way you pray during times of more acute illness? I never quite know what to do with prayer as I transition from wellness to illness and back again. Are these changes hard for you as well? Where does the idea of praying always come into all of this for you?]]

First, you are correct that I don't ever suggest folks let go of discrete prayer periods. That is simply the quickest route to never praying at all --- or, at best, to settling for a superficial prayer life which is made up of casual "conversations" with God or asking God to take care of our needs when we become aware of them. Like any quality relationship we need to spend time allowing God access to  our hearts and minds. Omitting dedicated prayer while learning to "pray always" is like expecting to become a skilled violinist without ever using  specific and regular periods of practice!  Over time, as we learn to pray in season and out in a variety of ways, prayer becomes our usual way of approaching and apprehending reality, our usual way of opening ourselves to the world around us and its Creator God. As this attitude of obedience develops in us, as we grow more open, responsive, and loving to everything and everyone in Christ, we become God's own prayer in our world. I believe this is what the NT refers to as "praying always."

When illness prevents us from praying a discrete prayer period: the Office, quiet prayer, lectio divina, etc.,  our capacity for genuine obedience and perceiving the holiness of everything in our world can allow us to pray our illness  --- indeed to making of our suffering but also our forced quiet a Prayer motivated and empowered by the Spirit of God within us. What is essential, however, is that we live a regular life of prayer apart from our illness and also that even within our illness, to whatever extent we are able, we continue with discrete periods of prayer no matter how abbreviated or differently formatted. I am not speaking here of making everything we do into "prayer" by a simple change of name --- as though calling doing the laundry "prayer" is the same as making it prayer. When it happens that our daily chores or physical work become prayer this is a process of transfiguration where the deepest potential of the chores or work are realized because we have become people of prayer who see and do everything in light of God's own presence and empowering Spirit. I have seen (and I am certain you have too) people calling various dimensions of their life "prayer" while never finding time for prayer itself. Dealing with illness and making it into prayer requires we pray regularly and faithfully long before illness occurs. If the transfiguration I mentioned is to occur, this regular faithful prayer is a prerequisite.

The transition from wellness to illness and the necessary modifications of prayer required in these times is something I found difficult for a long time. Today that is less so and I have found several things to be key to negotiating these transitions. First, I must know what is essential to my own prayer and consider different ways to fill those essential needs.  Secondly, I must be aware of how I more ordinarily resist prayer or distract myself from the things prayer brings up within my life so I can be sure I am not unconsciously sliding into these kinds of things.  Thirdly, I need to have a strong trust in the God who prays within me and be able to be comfortable with my own weakness in this matter. The corollary here is that I must be able to discern the presence and activity of God within myself and be comfortable with acquiescing to that when I am well. The fourth element in transitioning is that I have a repertoire of prayer forms and resources which can be available to me when circumstances change. When I trust God to work within me no matter the situation and have ways to open myself to that activity negotiating transitions in prayer made necessary by illness is more easily accomplished.

Your own director (if you work with someone) can assist you in all of this, of course. If  you are not used to the changes required in prayer by illness one of the things a director can do is to encourage you that learning to pray in different circumstances is just a natural thing we all have to negotiate. Sometimes people think they should be able to pray the same way they usually do and they can beat up on themselves when this is not possible. The same thing can happen when people don't feel like praying at all. It is at these times that being able to turn everything, every concern and yearning over to God (including one's resistance or lack of desire re prayer) is helpful. If one truly prays regularly in response to the Holy Spirit, then in difficult times one can simply ask God to accompany one in whatever it is one feels well enough to do (here is where reading  novels, coloring, doing a jigsaw puzzle, etc) --- but also when one feels entirely incapable; thus these can become explicit periods of prayer and also nurture an approach to living which is really "praying always".

For me the idea of "praying always" is about being an ongoing or continuing response to the Holy Spirit; it is about being responsive to God's presence and allowing the Spirit to move and empower me in all of the moments and moods of life; I understand it as being/becoming the embodiment of the Word of God so that God speaks/sings in and through me and I am truly the image of God's glory. What this  means is that at times when I cannot pray explicitly I can trust God to be with me and I can trust that my own heart is still attentive to God and open to allowing God to be present in and through me. Paul understood the human person as a Temple or image of the glory of God. Even in the weakness and incapacity of illness we can rest in God and allow God to reside within us. This is a critical dimension of praying always.

I hope this is helpful.

28 August 2019

Dealing With Chronic Illness as a Hermit

[[Dear Sister, you have written you have chronic illness with chronic pain. I was wondering if that gets in the way of living of living eremitical life. For example, if you have a bad spell or relapse or something what happens to your Rule? Have you ever had to deal with long-term hospitalization or surgical rehabilitation? Did that change the way you prayed?. . . Do you ever feel like a failure as a hermit or contemplative?. . . Do you ever worry that God will not be able to put up with your weaknesses or failures (or falling short)? . . . I wonder if you would ever consider seeking dispensation of your vows for any of these reasons.]]

Interesting questions. I think I have answered something like this before but I looked for it and couldn't find it. You might want to check through the list of posts (under months and years) or the labels to the right and see if you can do better. Still, let me answer this briefly. Neither illness nor the chronic pain get in the way of my eremitical life per se. Both have led me over time to consider chronic illness as a potential vocation with eremitical life as a specific instance of this. However, there are certainly times when there are flares of illness and when pain is more difficult to control than other times. When this is the case my horarium changes, I spend more time in bed, I am unable to do some of the limited ministry I usually undertake, I tend not to study or sing as much, and my reading choices change. What does not change is my approach to the day as one sanctified by God through prayer at intervals throughout the day, some lectio divina, and some inner work via journaling or other writing.

While morally and canonically binding, my Rule is written more in terms of gospel and less in those of law. What I mean by this is that it lays out the ways I live the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the source and ground of life, love, and meaning for me, and it does this less than it spells out things I must or must not do. It defines what makes my life healthy and whole as a contemplative and eremitical life. But in times where I am not well or where chronic illness flares up especially, I will not be able to live this without modifications. Yes, at these times the ways in which I pray will likely differ in one way and another. For instance, rather than praying the whole of any hour of the Office I am more apt to pray a single psalm with antiphons, the Lord's Prayer and a canticle, but slowly while letting myself rest in God's hands. If I miss an hour I miss an hour. When I am awake or up again I pick up what seems most important to me --- the part that draws me most, for instance or the piece missed where I am most truly at home. Sometimes I will substitute a hymn on CD or a Taize chant for structured prayer/Office and just give myself over to the music. If I miss lots of prayer periods (and unfortunately this is sometimes unavoidable), I trust that "God gives to his beloved in sleep" (Psalm 127:2) and pick up wherever I can with whatever I most need once I am awake (whether prayer, food, water, shower, sunshine, contact with my director, etc). I think during times of flareups or extra difficulties it is critically important to keep in mind the difference between "praying all the prayers" and "praying always."

My Rule is helpful in letting me move back into various rhythms of the day as I can, but even more it is helpful in reminding me of the vision I seek to live whether well or ill, namely, "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness." I know that God is with me in every circumstance including sin and death! God accompanies me whether I am conscious of that or  capable of cooperating with him or not. So long as that is the case every moment of my life, from chronic pain, to intractable seizures and post ictal sleep, to the emotional pain and joy of inner work, to the favorite or latest Chaim Potok or Anne Perry book, can become a prayer and a source of growth in holiness. Again, prayer is the work of God within us. As for God giving up on me or some other absurd notion that somehow or other I could exhaust his patience, love, mercy, or will to accompany me well, that's the same as suggesting that my weakness might be too much for God to be the God Christ revealed! Whenever I am even tempted to give up on God in this way (not something that has happened often!), I remind myself of the following from Paul, [[ But God demonstrates his own love for us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.]] (Rom 5:8) In other words, when we are at our worst God loves us and gives his very life for us.

I don't feel (and have never felt) like a failure as a hermit or contemplative but I (like anyone else I imagine) always fall short in the sense that I can always grow in my vocation/authentic humanity and prayer. Again, my Rule (and the God and Gospel that inspires it) envisions and helps empower my growth in this vocation and in communion with God and love of myself and others. Sometimes I will fail at a given task (for instance, a reflection I am supposed to give, inability to meet with a client and need to postpone sessions, etc), and sometimes I will resist what is happening in prayer or the personal formation work I am doing, but while I find these failures frustrating, this is not the same as failing as either a contemplative or a hermit. When physical pain is a problem I treat it in the ways I can (medicine, TENS, exercise, meditation) and I do what I need to do while meds are kicking in (online scrabble, coloring or painting, walking around, watching the news or other TV program or great course lecture, reading an engrossing novel, etc) --- things which are engrossing and distract from the pain while ensuring I give the meds a full time period to work as they usually do. I ordinarily cannot sit in quiet prayer at these times because I really cannot be physically still in the way that requires. Even so, whatever I do to get through these periods, I pray and entrust myself to God's care as I wait.

There are periods of time when illness dominates (and yes, I have had periods of hospitalization that extended for weeks or even several months at a time including a period of (7) experimental neurosurgical interventions --- this latter about 8 years before I became a hermit). On the whole the essential elements of my Rule remain in some form or configuration. Were I to be unable to live dimensions of my Rule for a significant period of time I would need to redact these to account for necessary changes while ensuring it remains an eremitical Rule with the same vision of such a life. (Since my Rule is drawn from my own experience it could change on the basis of my own experience --- though my vision of the nature and importance of eremitical life according to canon 603 is very unlikely to change radically; I just can't see that happening, espeically because of illness/pain.)

Dispensation of vows would be unlikely to come up as an issue or option, and certainly is not something I can see myself requesting! (More likely the question of a change of vocation would come up in the beginning of a hermit's professed life, especially if there is a radical change in circumstances occurring before they have developed the heart and prayer life of a hermit.) Once these are formed, however, and the hermit has been admitted to perpetual profession and consecration, dispensation is much less likely to be something that will be considered because of illness. It is possible, however that significant illness can reveal an eremitical life which is inadequately formed and rooted in the first place. Suffering is a wonderful test of the foundation of our lives and spirituality! At this point in my life, however, I am a hermit; it is a matter of my deepest inner truth as well as outer expression and even canonical standing; this means that I have and will always live illness and pain as challenging but integral parts of eremitical life. I think all the hermits I know, but especially those with chronic illnesses, feel essentially the same way about this.

25 August 2019

What is a Stable State of Life?

[[Hi Sister, I was reading the Catechism and canon 603 because I was trying to understand the idea of a "stable state of life" or a "stable way of living". You have said more on this --- though indirectly ---than I could find elsewhere online. Could you please define what constitutes a "stable state of life" in Roman Catholic theology? How does it apply to your life as opposed to that of a lay hermit? Thanks.]]

Great question. I don't know why I haven't ever thought to write about this; a stable (or permanent) state of life is a core element in understanding the distinction between consecrated eremitical life and lay eremitical life. I am very grateful you asked this. I checked it out online and as you said, while it was part of every accurate definition of consecrated life (including consecrated eremitical life) there isn't much written about it that I could find. So let me try to make explicit what has been implicit in my writings on this and related topics.


Stable in this context means lasting, solid, established, and (relatively) secure. The necessary noun "state" means ä fixed and permanent mode of life, established (in and by the Church) to acquire or practice a certain virtue (e.g., perfection in the Christian Life, holiness, the evangelical counsels within religious life, etc). Implicit in these definitions (and often explicit in canon law and the CCC) when the two words are combined is that such a stable state signifies an instance of a recognized way God is working in the Church, ecclesial approval and mediation of God's call, canonical standing (standing in law), appropriate oversite, support, freedom, and governance (legitimate superiors), and a formal (legitimate or canonical) commitment (say, to God via the evangelical counsels, for instance) by the one assuming the rights and obligations of the given state of life. The elements required for something to be considered a stable state of life tend toward structuring and extending to the individual life the elements necessary to truly pursue the given vocation in the name of the Church (and so, as a recognized representative of the vocation) with which the Church is entrusted. The Church recognizes several such states : Baptized or Lay, Married, Consecrated (Religious, Hermits, and Virgins), and Ordained. All require public commitments, whether Sacramental (Marriage and ordination) or via canonical profession and consecration (Religious, consecrated hermits, consecrated virgins).

When we begin to think about what makes a state of life in the Church a stable state we begin to understand why it is private vows per se never constitute the means to initiation into the consecrated state of life. They can be a significant part of the stable state of life we know as the baptized or lay state however, and they serve as significant (meaningful) specifications of one's baptismal consecration in this way. But in this case it is one's baptismal consecration into the lay state which defines one's stable state of life; private vows are expressions of that particular consecration but do not initiate one into it. Hence my references in many places to "lay hermits" --- hermits who live their vows in the baptized or lay state alone. In any case, private commitments, though often witnessed by a priest or spiritual director, are not actually received in the name of the Church or overseen by anyone in a formal or canonical way. There are no additional public rights or obligations, nor approved Rule the living out of which the Church as a whole is responsible for governing and supervising. Neither is there any process of mutual discernment by which one may be evaluated as to their capacity and suitability to assume the public rights and obligations of a given state (here I am thinking of the consecrated state), nor of methodical formation with such commitments.

 Moreover, private vows are easily dispensed precisely because of their private nature. In other words one may make private vow as a hermit (whether with serious thought or on a relative whim) one day and days later (perhaps rightly, perhaps not) decide one has made a mistake or circumstances may change which make the vows inconvenient or an obstacle to a greater or more fundamental call from God re one's lay state. The vows can be dispensed by one's pastor. Because of the lack of oversight, etc.. other problems can creep in. If the person does not decide they have made a mistake an individual living a private dedication to eremitical life, for instance, may decide to substitute their own private notions of eremitical spirituality, or live inconsistently given conditions of health, education, training, economics, etc. Even for the most sincere and well-intentioned individual, in a private commitment there is no authority to whom the individual is canonically answerable, no canonical constraints or ecclesial vision to which one has committed oneself to make sure the hermit in this case can make, has made, is keeping, and continues to (be empowered to) keep through the years an appropriate and maturing commitment which the Church herself could recognize as consistent with the eremitical tradition and as rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Canonical standing provides a context which is stable.

Remember that consecrated persons act (live this vocation) in the name of the Church (and also their founders and spiritual Tradition) and that gives the People of God their own rights and reasonable expectations about the quality of life being lived by the person who has been professed and/or consecrated. The people also have a right to turn to the person's legitimate superior if there are grounds for suggesting the vocation is being lived badly or there are scandalous or concerning circumstances involved. Of course this is true only because canonical vocations are public vocations. But think how important it is that such expectations and accountability add to the stability of genuinely consecrated vocations! Accountability itself is a central element of a stable or permanent state of life. It shapes the vocation, challenges and supports it. In a public (canonical) vocation where the vocation "belongs" first of all to the Church who is entrusted with this calling, and only secondarily to individuals called by God through the mediation of the Church, stability is a function of clear channels of authority and accountability. This does not mean these channels are heavy-handed, of course, but it does require them nonetheless.

One of the things I appreciate most about canonical standing is the way
it establishes a person (or a community) in a living tradition in a way which means there is a clear and responsible dialogue ongoing between the individual, the Church, and the spiritual tradition involved. (This is true in religious families like the Franciscans, Dominicans, Trappist(ine)s, Benedictines, Camaldolese, etc. and it is true in eremitical life per se.) The continuing give and take as the consecrated person is granted and assumes a defined place in the living stream of eremitical tradition is tremendously edifying. The individual is formed in a given strand of the tradition and at the same time she will shape and extend the tradition with her own life. Edward Schillebeeckx writes about this powerfully in his essay on being a Dominican in God Among Us. A life that assumes this kind of responsibility, accountability, humility, and obedience has been initiated into a stable state of life that extends both behind and after her. She has taken a place within it and lives in a conscious and recognizable dialogue with and for this traditional thread, a thread which may have existed for two thousand years and stretches into whatever future the Church has. Private commitments which of their nature are truly entirely private (as opposed to public in the technical sense I use it throughout) simply do not do this.

The Church is a complex living reality. States of life within the Church have been some of the primary ways the Gospel has and continues to be proclaimed and ministry carried out; they are capable of being flexible and responsive to the needs of the world as a whole because they are also well-founded and rooted in a living tradition. Because of their stability (again, they are mutually discerned, publicly committed, ecclesially consecrated, governed and supervised) they can represent a way of life in away which teaches and inspires. When the congregation or individual requires assistance, when congregations reach the  end of their natural life, for instance, canonical standing allows for various creative ways to be sure their life and/or charism can be handed on and, eventually, their history entrusted to archives so scholars can research them and allow their life, a response to the Holy Spirit in a variety of circumstances, to be of continuing benefit to the Church and world.

With regard to the lives of diocesan hermits or publicly professed vs privately vowed hermits I think you can see where the Church will be able to follow and assess the phenomenon of solitary eremitical life beginning in the late 20C. She will be able to look at the Rules written by c 603 hermits, interview bishops professing and supervising them, speak with their delegates, parishes, and dioceses, and just generally provide the story of professed solitary hermits since 1983 according to c 603. Both as individuals and as a group these hermits will contribute to the eremitical tradition, to assessments of what formation was helpful or inadequate, to considering what time frames were associated with successful discernment and formation of eremitical lives, to considerations re protecting the hermit's requirements for support, modes and effectiveness of supervision, the place and nature of limited ministry in the lives of these hermits, and possibly -- to some extent -- the hermits' affect on their local church communities.

We will also more easily contribute to theologies of eremitical life that allow chronic illness as a witness to the way God's power is perfected in weakness, for instance, because some number of us are chronically ill and sought out eremitical life in part because of this. Because we are professed and consecrated into a stable (and public!) state of life, the witness value of our lives will take on greater import for the Church and world. Sometimes folks decry the canonical paper trail that is attached to the profession of the diocesan hermit; others treat it as merely pro forma and relatively meaningless. But the paper trail is a witness to and even part of the stability of the hermit's life and a key to appreciating and researching eremitical tradition not only in the 20-21C but in comparison with it throughout history.

14 August 2019

Treating Disaffected Brothers and Sisters Like Gentiles and Tax Collectors: Loving Them as We Ought (reprised)

In today's Gospel pericope (thought unit, literary unit) for the Feast of Maximillian Kolbe we hear Jesus telling folks to speak to those who have offended against God one on one and then, if that is ineffective, bring in two more brothers or sisters to talk with the person, and then, if that too is ineffective, to bring matters to the whole community --- again so the offended can be brought back into what we might call "full communion". If even that is ineffective then we are told to treat the person(s) as we treat Gentiles and tax collectors. In every homily I have ever heard about this passage this final dramatic command has been treated as justification for excommunication. Even today our homilist referred to excommunication --- though, significantly, he stressed the medicinal and loving motive for such a dire step. The entire passage is read as a logical, common-sense escalation and intervention: start one on one, try all you can, bring others in as needed, and if that doesn't work (that is, if the person remains recalcitrant) then wash your hands of him or, if stressing the medicinal nature of the act, separate yourselves from him until he comes to his senses and repents! In this reading of the text Matthew is giving us the Scriptural warrant for "tough love."

Not a warrant for "tough love":

But I was struck by a very different reading during my hearing of the Gospel this morning. We think of Jesus turning things on their heads so very often in what he says; more we think about how often he turns things on their head by what he does. With this in mind the question which first occurred to me was, "But what would this have meant in Jesus' day for disciples of this man from Nazareth, not what would it have meant for hundreds of years of Catholic Christianity!? Is the logic of this reading different, even antithetical to the logical, commonsense escalation outlined above?" And the answer I "heard" was, "Of course it is different! I am asking you to escalate your attempts to bring this person home, not to wash your hands of her. To do that I am suggesting you treat her as you might someone for whom the Gospel is a foreign word now -- someone who needs to hear it as much or more than you ever did yourself." Later I thought in a kind of jumble, "That means to treat her with even greater gentleness and care, even greater love and a different kind of intimacy. Her offense has effectively put her outside the faith community. Jesus is asking that we let ourselves be the "outsider" who stands with her where she is. He is saying we must try to speak in a language she will truly hear. Make of her a neighbor again; meet her in the far place, learn her truth before we try to teach her "ours". After all, what I and others have said thus far has either not been understood or it was not compelling for her."

While I should not have been surprised, I admit I was startled by my initial thoughts! Of course I knew that Jesus associated with tax collectors and with Gentiles. The reading with the Canaanite women last week or the week before makes it clear that Jesus even changed his mind about his own mission in light of the faith he found among Gentiles. Meanwhile, today's reading is taken from a Gospel attributed to Matthew, an Apostle who is identified as a tax collector! Shouldn't we be holding onto our seats in some anticipation while listening for Jesus – as he always does -- to say something that turns conventional wisdom and our entire ecclesiastical and spiritual world on its head?  Maybe my thoughts were not really so crazy after all and maybe those homilies I have heard for years have NOT had it right! So I looked again at the Gospel lection from today in its Matthean context. It is sandwiched between passages about humbling ourselves as children (those with no status), not being a source of stumbling and estrangement to others, searching for the one sheep that has gone astray even if it means leaving behind the 99 who have not strayed, and Peter asking how often he should forgive his brother to which Jesus says seven times seventy!

What kind of Church Jesus is Calling for:

I think Jesus is reminding us of the difference between a community which is united in and motivated by Christ's own love (a very messy business sometimes) and one which is united in and mainly concerned with discipline (not so messy, but not so fruitful or inspired either). I think too he is reminding us of a Church which is always a missionary Church, always going out to others, always seeking to reconcile the entire world in the power of the Gospel. It is not a fortress which protects its precious patrimony by shutting itself off from those who do not believe, letting them fend for themselves or simply find their own ways to the baptistry or confessional doors; instead it achieves its mission by extending its love, its Word, and even its Sacraments to those who most need them --- the alien and alienated. It is a Church that really believes we hold things as sacred best when we give them away (which is NOT the same thing as giving them up!). Meanwhile Jesus may also be saying, "If your brother or sister has not and will not hear you, perhaps you have not loved them well or effectively enough; find a new way, even a more costly way. After all, my way (the Way I am!) is not the way of conventional wisdom, it is the scandalous, foolish, and sacrificial way of the Kingdom of God!

I had always thought today's reading a "hard one" because it seemed to sanction the excommunication of brothers and sisters in Christ. But now I think it is a hard one for an entirely different reason. It gives us a Church where no one can truly be at home so long as we are not reaching out to those who have not heard the Gospel we have been entrusted with proclaiming. It is a Church of open doors and open table fellowship (open commensality) because it is a church of open and missionary hearts -- just as God's own heart, God's own essential nature, is missionary. Above all it is a church where those who truly belong are the ones who really do not belong anywhere else! We proclaim a Gospel in which we who belong to Christ through baptism are the last and those outside our communion are first and, at least potentially, the Apostles on which the Church is built.

When we treat people like Gentiles and tax collectors we treat them in exactly this way, namely, as those whose truest home is around the table with us, listening to and celebrating the Word with us, ministering to and with us as at least potential brothers and sisters in Christ! We treat them as Gentiles and tax collectors when we take the time to enter their world so that we can speak to them in a way they can truly hear, when we love them (are brothers and sisters to them) as they truly need, not only as we are comfortable doing in our own cultures and families. Paul, after all, spoke of becoming and being all things to all persons --- just as God became man for us. He was not speaking of indifferentism or saying with our lives that Christ doesn't really matter;  just the opposite in fact. He was telling us we must be Christians in this truly startling way --- persons who can and do proclaim the Gospel of a crucified and risen Christ wherever we go because we let ourselves be at home and among (potential) brothers and sisters wherever we go. We do as God did for us in Christ; we let go of the prerogatives which are ours and travel to the far place in any and all the ways we need to in order to fulfill the mission of our God to truly be all in all.

Summary, Calling for More informed and sensitive proclamation:

When the logic, drama, and tension of today's Gospel lection escalate it is to this conclusion, I think, not to a facile justification of excommunication. In this pericope Jesus does not ask us to progressively enlist more people in order to increase the force with which we strong arm those who have become alienated, much less to support us as we cut them loose if they are unconvinced and unconverted, but -- I posit -- to offer them richer, more diverse and extensive chances to be heard and to hear; he is asking that we provide increasing opportunities for them to be empowered to change their minds and hearts when we, acting alone, have failed them in this way. This is what it means to forgive; it is what it means to be commissioned as an Apostle of Christ. And if that sounds naïve, imprudent, impractical, and even impossible, I suspect Jesus' original hearers felt the same about the pericopes which form this lection's immediate context: becoming as children with no status except that given them by God, leaving the 99 to seek the single lost sheep or forgiving what is effectively a countless number of times. Certainly that's how someone writing under the name of a tax collector-turned-Apostle presents the matter.

Feast of Saint Maximillian Kolbe (reprised)


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

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

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

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

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

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

13 August 2019

Discerning an Eremitical Vocation

[[ Dear Sister,  I’m writing to ask you specifically how one discerns a call to the eremitic life? Are there things one discerns alone and others one discerns with someone from the diocese?]]

Thanks for your questions. Let me be more general before getting truly specific. One discerns an eremitical life in the same way one discerns any other vocational path: one evaluates what is happening inside one which seems to call him/her for this particular pathway to 1) contemplative prayer, 2) then to contemplative life itself, 3) and then then to a life of even greater silence, solitude and stricter separation from the world we know as the eremitical life. Beyond this, if one decides one is called to the eremitical life described generally in step three, one will discern which type of eremitical life to which one is called. At every step of these three basic stages one discerns whether or not one is living one's own truth more fully and fruitfully. Is one more whole and holy or is one's life (and especially one's inner life) becoming narrower or constricted in ways one would call "disedifying" (they do not build up the body of Christ), more limited or less fully alive, and therefore is one becoming less human, less loving, less fruitful and less Christian? Also at every step along the way I assume the need for working with a qualified spiritual director. (This is really a sine qua non for any adequate discernment in the eremitical life.)


When one reaches the final stage mentioned above  (what form of eremitical life?) one may understand oneself as a hermit in an essential sense but not necessarily in a formal sense; one needs to determine the more "formal" context required to be the hermit one is called by God to be. For instance, one will need to discern if one will do this in the lay state or the consecrated state of life. If one feels one might be called to the latter s/he will need to explore profession under canon 603 or life in an eremitical or semi-eremitical community or "institute of consecrated life". It is at this point, whether with a diocese or in the community, that one will need to engage in a mutual discernment process. If one does not wish to explore canonical (that is, a publicly committed or consecrated) life as a hermit, then there is no reason to consult with one's diocese. If one determines one is called to live eremitical life in the lay state (i.e., as a lay person acting in and from the rights and obligations of baptism alone), then one can freely do that without any further permission, admission by the Church to profession or consecration, etc. If, however, one believes one's vocation will be fulfilled as an ecclesial vocation or, that is, that one is called to live as a hermit in the consecrated state, then one must engage in this process of mutual discernment.

Clearly this process takes time. It takes time (usually at least a couple of years) to move from a more typical prayer life to contemplative prayer as a regular practice and then from contemplative prayer itself to a truly contemplative life (again, several years is typically required for this transition). It takes time living this and building in the degree of silence and solitude needed for it before one determines a genuine need for greater silence and solitude; and it takes time (once again, several years is typical here) before one can evaluate all of this and determine one is being called to what the Church recognizes as appropriate to and characteristic of eremitical silence and solitude or, as I have often written here, to a life where the silence of solitude is not only the environment in which one's life in wholeness best grows, but is also the goal of one's life and the gift quality (charism) one will bring to the Church and world with or through one's life.

Generally speaking, one's spiritual director can assist one in all of the steps or stages mentioned here. This is true especially with the specific pieces of adaptation and discernment involved in each step/stage. A director would be able to help the directee or client explore how the various elements of eremitical life "fit" with his/her call to human wholeness and holiness. In the third stage a director can help the person to explore the nature of and reasons for their needs for increased silence and solitude. Not all needs or reasons for these indicate a call to eremitical life and some can be unhealthy or at least unworthy of being chosen; these indicate the need for other kinds of adaptations or changes. When this is the case needs for greater silence or solitude are very unlikely to be indicators of a call to eremitical life. Meanwhile, if you want to bring additional questions, especially given how general I have been here, I will always be happy to answer them

11 August 2019

On Canon 603 and the Chronically Ill and Disabled (follow-up questions)

 [[Dear Sister, I have been interested in an article you wrote several years ago about eremitical life as a possible vocation for those who are chronically ill. Do dioceses consider that article when they are discerning whether or not to profess someone as a diocesan hermit? What about canon law that argues that candidates for religious life and priesthood must be in good health? Doesn't what you wrote conflict with these canons or do dioceses determine things on a case by case basis? I would think it might be problematical to have writers like you seeing canon 603 as a kind of "haven" for those with mental and physical illnesses, wouldn't it? . . . Has anyone ever suggested your article makes it hard for dioceses with regard to canon 603 vocations?. . . Has anyone suggested you are giving false hope to those who are disabled and expect to be admitted to profession when dioceses are more likely to reject them?]]

Wow, good and difficult questions in some ways. Let me give them a shot! First of all, I have no idea if dioceses consider the article I wrote 30 years ago for Review for Religious (cf RFR archives: Volume 48, Number 2, March/April 1989). Certainly there are copies out and about regarding this even though RFR is no longer, being published; also, I have posted a copy of it here on this blog ( cf, Review For Religious, Chronic Illness as Vocation and Possible Eremitical Vocation) as well as answered questions about it as follow-up. However, I really cannot say how widely read or influential the article is or has been over the years. On the other hand, it is my hope that at least some dioceses, pastors, and spiritual directors have read and considered the article and that they bear it in mind as they consider candidates for public profession under c 603 or work with those who are chronically ill. Chronic illness prevents many of us from living in community and sometimes (I don't know how often) it may condition us in ways which predispose towards lives of the silence of solitude -- lives in which the isolation occasioned by chronic illness can be redeemed and transfigured into the silence of solitude associated with eremitical life. Dioceses must be able to recognize this dynamic at work in the lives of the chronically ill when it occurs and, when circumstances are right (meaning when many more circumstances than illness per se come together in the relatively clear pattern of a healthy and graced eremitical calling), they must be open to admitting such persons to profession and consecration under canon 603.

I wrote the article you mention because I had come to understand that while I could not live religious life in community (my illness was both too demanding and too disruptive --- though initially we had not thought this would be the case), I could certainly live as a hermit. In fact, I came to understand that the context of eremitical silence and solitude could allow my own life in  and with Christ to transform weakness and brokenness into a source and form of strength and essential wellness. I knew Paul's theology, "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness," and it seemed to fit the  situation perfectly. At the same time, while illness and the isolation it occasioned was one predisposing condition for a life of eremitical solitude, it was not enough of itself to suggest, much less indicate I had an eremitical vocation. On the contrary, it might have suggested that physical isolation was a component of something pathological which must be countered, not given the chance to be transfigured into eremitical solitude via even greater silence and physical separati
on from others.  For that reason, when I wrote the article in RFR I was very careful to indicate chronic illness was something which might indicate such a vocation; it was a possibility dioceses and spiritual directors should consider as they worked with those who were chronically ill or disabled.

In no way would I ever consider canon 603 a "haven" for the chronically ill and disabled but yes, I do think that despite its demanding character, eremitical life has the flexibility and freedom to allow for some among this population to discover the grace of God calling them to a wholeness and holiness via this path. When this happens their lives will makes a powerful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ --- in spite of and even especially in the case of their illness/disability. What Merton said about the necessity of Solitude herself opening the door to the one who would be a hermit remains true. I do believe that the canons requiring good physical and mental health for those entering religious congregations or moving towards ordination are necessary. However, today congregations can and do make case by case decisions on who they will allow to enter and who they will advance to profession while congregations and dioceses do the same with candidates for ordination. There are some absolute impediments to ordination, and  generally speaking, I agree with these, but profession as a diocesan hermit is really a very different matter and dioceses can afford to be more flexible without making the vocation a "haven" for the chronically ill and disabled; not only do hermits not live in community but they are self-supporting so that dioceses are not, generally speaking, responsible for medical expenses, insurance, living expenses and the like.

No one has ever suggested my article makes it hard for dioceses trying to discern c 603 vocations, though I admit I hoped when I wrote it to introduce a possibility into their discernment processes they might not have considered adequately, namely, that chronic illness might be a source of the grace of an eremitical vocation which itself could contribute to eremitical formation in terms of several different and critical values (pilgrimage, solitude vs isolation, an independence rooted in radical dependence upon God, a paradoxical wholeness, etc). That was completely contrary to the wisdom of the time re religious vocations; but then canon 603 itself was also pretty contrary to what we were used to at that time as well! Again, my article did not argue that chronic illness is a kind of passport to profession. I did not say that illness provides sufficient grounds for professing someone or discerning eremitical vocations; it argued that in some cases there was the possibility that illness might condition one towards such a vocation, might make it easier for such a vocation to be received. At the same time then, I have not heard anyone suggest I am giving folks false hope. I have been clear that discerning an eremitical vocation takes time and serious attention and prayer; I  know that some dioceses may not consider chronic illness in the way I would hope they would, but at the same time I think dioceses in general do recognize the flexibility and freedom built into canon 603 even while they recognize the demanding nature of the life codified there.

It is the case that I hear occasionally from someone who is chronically ill or disabled and who read my article all those years ago (or more recently for that matter!) and have subsequently been profoundly disappointed by a diocese who will not admit them to profession. Those communications are some of the most difficult I receive; they cause me pain because my article did have a place in encouraging their imagination about and discernment of a vocation; I feel particularly sorry for the individuals involved and empathize with their disappointment. The difficulty of balancing the nature of a public vocation (consecrated life is always a matter of public commitments and obligations) and discerning a call in someone whose life does not fit all the standard criteria or who embody the grace of  God in a new and unexpected way, is very difficult for dioceses as well as for the individuals petitioning for admission to profession and consecration. Sometimes the answer is living eremitical life with a private commitment rather than as a consecrated hermit or anchorite. Sometimes the person needs to transition from the isolation occasioned by their illness to solitude-as-healing, and then to life in society. Sometimes (especially in these kinds of cases I think) both the individual and the diocese need to take more time together in their discernment. Canon 603, because it does not codify any specific time frames, certainly allows for this kind of time if dioceses take both its traditional elements and its uniqueness seriously.

What must be certain is that the person advanced to profession (public vows) and eventually to consecration can live c 603 in an exemplary (that is, an edifying) way which helps dispel the stereotypes which so accrued to eremitical life throughout history. This person MUST say to the whole Church that eremitical solitude is not about isolation but is instead about the redemption of isolation into a unique and often obscure but very real form of community lived in and with Christ for the sake of others. This is why I have written those admitted to profession must have experienced eremitical solitude as redemptive and be able to witness to that clearly with their lives. The witness given depends upon the authenticity and depth of the hermit's experience and ecclesial rootedness. This presence of a redemptive element is something I have put forward as a central element in discerning an eremitical vocation under c 603 and it is something I am more clear about now than when I first affirmed it. Still, if dioceses are to demand the presence of such an element they also MUST, for their part, be open to discerning its presence which builds on chronic illness and/or disability. The process leading to c 603 profession and consecration is meant be truly mutual.

09 August 2019

Feast of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

prodigal daughter2.jpgAt today's service I read the Gospel from today's daily readings. It was the very familiar, " Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." (Matt 16:24-28). It was not the optional readings for the Feast but certainly suited the day given who Sister Teresa Benedicta was and is. I think it is easy for us to think of taking up our crosses as an exhortation simply to embrace suffering. It certainly means that but it means more besides, namely, it calls us to grow in what some call cruciformity as we adopt an attitude of vulnerability and love towards all we meet in our world. It asks that we open ours arms and our hearts to embrace those we meet with the love of God that empowers us. In short we allow the love of and our love for others to shape us in a cruciform way. Two elements brought this home to me this week besides the fact of our Feast.

Last week and this I reread several novels by Chaim Potok. One of these was My Name is Asher Lev. Asher Lev is a Hasidic Jew growing up in the earlier to mid 1900's. His devoutly religious family are Ladover Hasidim who seek to counter the murderous anti-Semitism so prevalent in Europe in the 1930's and 1940's by establishing Ladover communities, synagogues and yeshivas. They have lost dearly-loved relatives in pogroms and the holocaust and have heard again and again that anti-Semitism is a justifiable result of the supposed fact that "It was Jews that killed Jesus". (It must be said that this is an undeniable, and unutterably shameful piece of our Christian history which has blasphemously victimized the innocent in the name of the greatest act of selfless love we know.) So these people too are marked by the Cross of Christ; it is linked for them to the senseless and hate-filled deaths of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, aunts, uncles, and cousins --- and yet, at great risk to himself  Asher's father travels in faithfulness to the Master of the Universe to support Jews and extend Ladover Hasidism throughout Europe.

That is one part of the story. The other is that Asher Lev has a prodigious gift; he is an artist, a young man with an irresistible and insatiable desire/need to draw and paint. As he grows up in this fundamentalist Ladover community, his family is torn between dealing with Asher's gift (which, his father, especially, thinks is demonic in origin) and the desire to honor one another and Ladover Hasidism. Asher's Mother stands torn between her love for her Son and his gift, her love for her husband, her God and the Ladover tradition; she is a buffer for everyone's pain.

Eventually Asher is led to paint the story of his family's anguish. When Asher's Father travels Rivkeh, his wife, waits for his return and stands looking out the living room window, sometimes for hours; this becomes the basis for Asher's greatest paintings, two crucifixions. Each has his Mother framed in the living room window, tied there with the ties from the venetian blinds and stretched between her husband returning from his travels and her son (whose paint brush represents a spear which penetrates her heart). All are held together by love, but of course it is not an easy thing. It is an anguished, tortured love. Asher has drawn on crucifixion because it is the only aesthetic frame he knows as an artist which is sufficient to "hold" and express the torment, pain, and passion of his life. His family are bewildered by his art, offended, betrayed, torn by his gift and profoundly saddened by the way in which Asher has hurt them with it. Asher is exiled from the Brooklyn Ladover community. Cruciformity marks every life in this story. As Christians we know the profound anguish and today, to a lesser degree, the offense of the cross but for us it has primary notes of joy and triumph as well.

The second element which brought this dimension home to me especially was the fact that this is August, the month associated with entrance to religious life for many of us, the month of professions and jubilees, the month when we celebrate the commitments we and our Brothers and Sisters have made to life in Christ. It is the month when the appropriate refrain I have heard several times is: He is faithful and so are we!! This year is my pastor's 50th jubilee and I entered 50 years ago this month as well. All over the world stories of jubilees are shared: one I heard was about an IHM Sister who is 102 yo and celebrated her 85th jubilee last week; she processed into liturgy determined to walk the distance on her own two feet. She did it and was joyful and triumphant when she reached the altar as were those celebrating with her. This too was a symbol of her long and faithfully-formed cruciform life. Another Jubilarian at the same liturgy processed in with her niece, a young Sister who had just made her first profession. The two walked in hand in hand, the younger supporting the elder, both radiant with joy. When I shared this story with another Sister I was reminded then of a Franciscan from her congregation who died at 107 yo and who also celebrated 85 years of religious life; her niece is also a Franciscan (same congregation) and is alive, though quite elderly, today. Stories of lives dedicated to Christ and shaped over years in vulnerability to and in the service of Incarnate Love. Cruciformity. The shape of the faithful, sometimes anguished, joy-filled and persevering discipleship Jesus calls each of us to today.

carving1.jpgThe third element, of course, the element which brings all of this together for me, is the life and witness of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross whose feast we celebrate today. Edith Stein was a brilliant Jewish philosopher who studied for her doctorate under Edmund Hussurl. As a youth she ceased believing in God but as a young adult she read St Teresa of Avila's autobiography and recognized it as truth. She became Catholic. As her life experience and spirituality broadened she wrote a dissertation on Empathy. Prevented from taking a professorship first because she was a woman, and later because of her Jewishness, she continued her reading in philosophy and theology and eventually became a Carmelite Nun. At the center of her life was the cross; she called it "our only hope". Sister Teresa Benedicta's last significant work was on St John of the Cross.

That same year, on 02 August 1942, the Gestapo came to her convent to arrest Sister Teresa and her blood sister, Rosa, also a Catholic who served at the convent. They were moved to a transit camp, Westerborc, and on 07. August, were transported to Auschwitz. She and Rosa were gassed there two days later on 09. August. 1942. As she left the convent with her sister, she said, [[Come, we are going for our people.]] Meanwhile, a good friend said of Edith: [[She is a witness to God's presence in a world where God is absent.]] In the seemingly godless world of Nazi death camps, in the face of meaningless slaughter Sister Teresa Benedicta showed others the face of Love incarnate. Cruciformity, Jesus' call to embrace the cross with our lives was modeled by Edith Stein as John Paul II noted at her canonization, a "daughter of Israel" and a "daughter of Carmel."

Whether in anguish, joy, triumph, or all three at once and more besides --- we celebrate that we and our Brothers and Sisters in Christ are called to embrace a life of vulnerability and love empowered by our trust in the God who will be there both for and with us in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. That is what it means to take up our cross, to live truly in Christ. We are not victims but victors in him for the sake of creation. This is the shape of discipleship and all authentic humanity --- a life of transforming generosity, where self-centeredness is replaced by self-emptying, and our hearts are opened to others in compassion; a life of cruciformity.

07 August 2019

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman

If we're looking for a Gospel lection that breaks all stereotypes today's is one of these! This reading is sometimes categorized among the "difficult sayings of Jesus" because it has Jesus characterizing a Gentile woman as a dog (a typical epithet of his day when referring to Gentiles) and refusing to extend healing to her daughter because HIS mission is first of all to the lost of Israel, not to the Gentiles. And so, the woman, who has already silenced Jesus with a terrific act of faith, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David," answers Jesus' instruction on this point with a bit of instruction of her own: [[ Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the Master's table!]] Jesus, already silenced and now thoughtful, seems even to reconsider and expand the scope of his own ministry in light of it. If Jesus' can grow in grace and stature in this way, through the mediation of a completely disenfranchised woman, then is anyone in the Church really beyond being instructed by the women standing (at best) on the margins of power and authority or the Christ standing as their Master? I don't think so.

What happens to Jesus is as instructive for the contemporary Church as all of Jesus' words, all his parables, discourses, instructions, imprecations, and remonstrances. For (again) in today's gospel story Jesus hears and is silent! He is stopped, arrested by a woman's compelling act of faith. It is a pregnant silence because it is the result of truly listening and leads both to further listening and to a fundamental shift or variation in Jesus' ministry from the lost sheep of Israel to the lost of all the nations. It is the silence of a teacher who is truly effective not because he has all the answers but because he is willing to listen, reconsider the answer and ministry God has given him, and learn! It is the silence of a docile teacher who truly hears the commission of God coming from the least and the lost; it is the silence of one who can change his mind and even the direction of his ministry as a result of an encounter with the truth a woman and outsider carries! Certainly that is precisely the kind of teacher the Church itself is called to be! After all, the Church is not greater than her Master; instead she is called to embody and mediate him. In light of today's Gospel lection the challenge to embody and mediate the DOCILITY of Christ seems compelling!

All kinds of situations reduce us to silence but only sometimes do we really listen therein, only sometimes are we genuinely obedient. Ordinarily today silence is something that occurs momentarily while we plug in a different device or while we take a breath during a conversation in order to "let someone else have a turn". Rather than listening to that other person in the profound way Jesus listens in today's Gospel, too often our silences tend to be filled with mental machinations as we gauge where and how we can reenter the "conversation" and continue our own discourse or argument! Conversations with Church leaders can sometimes give us the sense that we are speaking to a clerically-clad wall. Nothing, especially the living God, is truly heard in these conversations, no minds or hearts are changed, connections and bonds of charity are not made, aliens do not become neighbors, neighbors do not become brothers and sisters, and brothers and sisters especially do not become colleagues in the service of the Gospel!


But Jesus' example condemns such an approach. In this lection one of the lowest and the least becomes the One by which Jesus truly hears the voice of his Father and comes to modify his own understanding of his mission. After his silence at her first words to him Jesus rehearses the standard Jewish arguments for her and for his disciples, arguments that make sense in THIS worldly terms and in terms of an Israel threatened by outsiders, but not in terms of the Kingdom of God: "I was sent only to the children of Israel; It is not just (right or fair) to take the food from the children (Israel) and throw it to the dogs (Gentiles)." (We might hear common arguments for excluding folks from Eucharist today --- arguments that make good sense in worldly terms: "We cannot pretend there is a unity that doesn't really exist. We cannot defile the Eucharist by giving it to public and obstinate sinners. It wouldn't be just to do these things!") But in Matthew's telling of the Gospel story, Jesus has already fed the five thousand (apparently mainly Jews) and found there was plenty left over. He has also just preached that it is what comes out of us that defiles, but to eat with unwashed hands does NOT defile. . . The Canaanite women's response is a reminder of Jesus' great Eucharistic miracle as well as the infinite value and power to heal of even the smallest crumb that comes to the most unworthy from God.

But it reminds us of much more as well. For those, for instance, who object that women cannot teach, we have an example of a Gentile woman teaching Jesus about the will of God and helping to reshape his mission. In so doing she reminds Jesus of a different "justice" in which all are therefore welcome at Christ's table; similarly she reveals that the way Israel is first may not be precisely the way the world (or Israel herself) sees or has seen such matters. Israel is to be first in including, ministering to, and serving the outsider and the unworthy, not in excluding them until some other day of the Lord is at hand. That day is here, NOW, and, with the Canaanite woman's intervention, Jesus too comes to see this more clearly and embrace it more fully. In some ways this shift in vision, a shift the Church herself is called upon to make, parallels the two different ways we have of understanding the term Catholic: the Latin sense of universalis which means universal and draws a huge circle representing the universal but inevitably leaves some outside the circle however large it is drawn, and the Greek sense of Katholicos which is universal in the sense of leaven in bread where no one and nothing is left excluded or untouched, unchanged, and no one is left unfed.

So, through the intervention of the faith of a woman and "outsider" or alien, Jesus' understanding of God's will and perhaps too, the nature of the People of God continues to grow; Jesus continues to grow in grace and stature.  A couple of years ago a friend gave me a card which read, Ït takes courage to grow up and become who you are called to be." So it was for Jesus; so it is for each of us. When we muster even the smallest bit of faith or courage we will be astounded at what comes from the seeds we plant. This courage and openness to growing is called obedience.  But we must speak our own truth, more and more truly, more and more courageously. Only in this way will our church and  world become the realities God calls them to be.