28 November 2019

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Thanksgiving is here and I celebrated a bit last night with my director. We worked for a couple of hours in the afternoon then went to the movies to see Harriet! Wow, what a powerful movie! Difficult to watch in places, suspenseful, scary, an appalling part of our American history with regard to slavery  and the way we have and still find it possible to treat others as though they are less than human!! But equally powerful was Harriet Tubman's drive to bring those she loved to freedom and a fullness of life slavery prevents. Freedom or death!! Sometimes Harriet's actions seemed reckless or at least imprudent, but at bottom Harriet would settle for nothing less than fullness of life -- for herself or for others! It is the impulse and commitment that drives Sister Marietta and my work together -- and I think, any authentic spiritual direction relationship. Afterward we went nearby to Zachery's for pizza and conversation -- it was actually my first Zachary pizza (we have no Zachery's in my town) and one of the best I have ever had (thin crust with an amazingly spiced chicken)! 

We had considered seeing the Mr Rogers movie; one comment I heard from Bro Mickey McGrath (he's staying here at St P's for a week of vacation and had seen both movies) was, "A lot of beautiful moments; reminded me of spiritual direction." In today's homily Fr John (also an Oblate of St Francis de Sales) recounted one of these: Mr Rogers is being interviewed by a journalist and is struck by the man's pessimism and cynicism. Rogers wonders what is behind it and then asks him to spend a minute of silence to get in touch with his gratitude for those who have "loved him into existence". The focus shifts from the journalist to the others in the room and then to all those sitting in the theatre. All are thus invited to spend a minute of silence getting in touch with their gratitude for those who have loved them into fullness of life. We did the same right there during the homily. It was very powerful.

Either movie would have been fitting for celebrations of life, freedom, and mutual gratitude. I do this rarely but going to the show was a perfect way to mark the Thanksgiving holiday and God's presence and love in our lives --- especially as it is mediated in and sustains Marietta and my work together. It also seemed perfect timing that I had just finished a twelve week series on Galatians, Paul's "magna carta" on Christian Freedom -- not to mention having just gotten news that someone I have assisted some over the past several years is being admitted to perpetual profession as a c 603 hermit in the next few months! The experience of synchronicity has been prevalent during the past several months  --- often in truly awesome ways; it is very clear that all things work together in the love of God. So much to be thankful for!! My sincerest wish and hope that each and all of us continue to be touched by God's love in ways that bring us to greater and greater gratitude and abundance of life! Happy Thanksgiving!!!

26 November 2019

Why I do not Remain Anonymous

[[Sister Laurel, why don't you insist on anonymity? I read where one Catholic Hermit says she wants to remain anonymous as part of her hiddenness, though she has at least a couple of blogs (she has dropped the pseudonym Joyful Hermit) and has made videos as well. She points out that some communities have hermits who publish anonymously so she sees this as common. I wondered how you think about this and your own blogging.]]

Thanks for your questions. Similar questions have been posed here a number of times so you might check the labels to the right. To repeat a lot of that, I am a  (solitary) Catholic Hermit which means I am publicly professed and consecrated to live eremitical life in the name of the Church. When my bishop presented me with my cowl he very specifically did so at the part of the liturgy that commissioned me to take this sign of my consecration and minister faithfully in the name of the Church. While I could certainly decide to remain anonymous I would at least need to identify myself as a "Hermit of  the Diocese of Oakland" (as, in addition to my name, I am identified in the affidavit given to attest to my public profession and consecration). Because my vocation is a public one it is associated with public rights and obligations, and also with expectations others have every right to hold in my regard. To claim to be a Catholic Hermit or a consecrated Catholic Hermit means to accept and even claim that others have the right to verify such claims. It seems to me that one needs either to remain entirely hidden (no blogging, no videos, no online participation) or to be open about who one is. As I have said before, the moment one claims to be a Catholic Hermit, one ceases to be able to remain entirely anonymous; at the very least one is obligated to provide (or indicate) the identity of one's legitimate superior and/or diocese as a necessary expression of the accountability associated with the vocation.

Note well that when Carthusian or Camaldolese hermits, for instance, publish anonymously, they also indicate their congregation or order. The congregation or order accepts responsibility for the book  or piece being published and add their name; often they will run the work past censors in the order before allowing it to be published (less common today than was once true). Whether censored or not, the fundamental point however remains, namely, anonymity for someone claiming to be a Catholic monk, nun, or hermit is linked to a very real accountability and thus, to canonical structures and relationships even when one's name is not used. If one ministers in the name of the Church (including contemplative lives of assiduous prayer and penance), then one is publicly accountable both for one's identity and for one's ministry. One cannot claim to be a Catholic hermit (not a Catholic and a hermit, but a Catholic hermit) without also taking on the accountability related to it. Yes, there are frauds or counterfeits out there (the author of A Catholic Hermit blog is one such counterfeit); in any case those who are truly Catholic Hermits living ecclesial vocations will be identifiable by name and/or in terms of the diocese or order which has admitted them canonically  to profession and consecration.

Thus, (and I sincerely hope some of this is new!) I do not remain anonymous because I am legally and morally accountable for what I  write here as part of a public ecclesial vocation and because I attempt to live a solitary eremitical life in a way which is edifying to others. My commitment is not a private one though it is essentially hidden. I write in the way I do because I believe it is a service for this vocation and for the Church more generally, and because, to the extent this is true, I am sometimes consulted on this vocation. I do it because God, through the whole of my life, has formed me for this while through the Church's own discernment God has entrusted me with such a unique call and the challenge to explore its depths, breadth, and contemporary shape. I also do it so folks can contend with, deepen. or correct my own insufficient understanding and misunderstandings. Canon 603 hermits are a new and relatively rare breed of hermit life; it is similar to all other forms of Catholic eremitical life but it also differs in the way accountability is established and exercised. People need to understand this --- especially those who have never heard of the vocation, those who might consider it for themselves, and those who might be taken in by those showing up at their parish claiming to be a Catholic Hermit who won't participate in the liturgical life of the community or even give their name because of claims regarding the demands of "eremitical hiddenness".

I don't think I approach your questions much differently than any other canonical hermit. We don't refuse to remain anonymous because of arrogance or "vainglory"; we do so because the way to this ecclesial vocation has been long, sometimes arduous and even traumatic, but always a rewarding journey to find our path to remain faithful to God, to our truest selves, and to the call to love one another in and as Christ loves. God takes improbable personal stories and transforms them into the rare but very real love stories of hermits. I and the other Catholic hermits I know exult in the gift God makes of our lives in this way. We embrace an essential hiddenness and witness to it as well. This paradox of our vocations (canonically public and responsible yet also hidden) matches the paradox of what God has done with our weakness and personal inadequacy, but also with our potential for covenantal life; it is an awesome thing we are called to, an awesome thing we live and witness to.

I hope this is helpful.

25 November 2019

On Eremitical Hiddenness: Crucified with Christ, Hidden With Christ in God

The question of eremitical hiddenness continues to be raised and some have wondered how it is I can be involved in a parish, much less be teaching Scripture there or being identifiable and known as both a nun and a canonical hermit when the Catechism describes eremitical life in terms of hiddenness. I wrote recently in Hiddenness as Derivative Value, that the hiddenness of the hermit is not primary but secondary to more fundamental values like stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance. What all of this has in common, what each of these terms from canon 603 share is their description of what it means to exist in Christ. Existence in Christ means being crucified with him and also being raised to new life in him. There is a dying to self and the world and a rising to new life in Christ involved in each of these canonical terms defining eremitical life in the Church. Another term describing each of these is being "Hidden with Christ in God" (Col 3:3).

It should be no surprise that a life lived more and more in Christ and less and less in terms of the world (that which is contrary to Christ, is resistant to Christ, or which seeks to be its own source of life and meaning) should also be described in terms of hiddenness. We are all called to be hidden with Christ in God. Our very humanity, to the extent it is authentic is, like Jesus' own, utterly transparent to God. Hiddenness in God is a way of saying truly human! Hermits are called to this in a way which accentuates not only its possibility but its truth. After all, the truth that we achieve authentic humanity in a way which involves dying to self and living a life which is transparent to God is a difficult thing to get our heads and hearts around. The paradox of living a public vocation of hiddenness in God is also something that sounds incoherent or nonsensical as does living a vocation in solidarity with others and ministry to others when we remind one another that that is actually also the shape of a solitary (eremitical) life hidden in God.

But of course the physical silence, external solitude, and "silence of solitude" which is the goal and charism of eremitical life work as powerful and paradigmatic symbols of this hiddenness. So do prayer and penance which are always so profoundly linked to dying to the self which is something less than our truest, deepest self. Because hermits say with their lives that God alone is sufficient for us ("(God's) grace is sufficient for you, my power is perfected in weakness,") so also do we speak of hiddenness with Christ in God through our commitment to prayer. We live our lives in a solitary and God-centered way so that in us others hear and see the life and consolation of God in Christ at work bringing us to wholeness and holiness. We are essentially freed from trying to make a name for ourselves, trying to live a life measured in terms of usual achievement and success, and live out lives in the name of God and -- for canonical (consecrated) hermits -- in the name of the Church. We will even mainly give many of our discrete gifts and talents over to a life relatively free of apostolic ministry so our witness to the Gospel of God's sufficiency and gratuitous love is as radical as we can make it.

However we define hiddenness in our individual Rule of Life, we must begin with Col 3:3 (or similar passages) and the theology underpinning these. We cannot start from Webster's dictionary and what it says of hiddenness. Still less can we use it as an excuse for misanthropy, social failure,  psychologically disordered withdrawal from others, or the other stereotypes so deeply connected to misunderstandings of hermit life. Neither can we treat hiddenness as a primary value that stands on its own; instead it must be seen as a derivative one stemming from more fundamental realities like participation in Christ, assiduous prayer, the silence of solitude, etc. These are the foundational realities which give hiddenness its true meaning; they are what allow us to understand it in terms of transparency to God and God's own revelation through us; they allow us to see hiddenness as profoundly allied with incarnation and authentic humanity. As I noted in the September post, hiddenness is a derivative reality, the result of death and resurrection with Christ in God which can only serve paradoxically as a form of witness.

Folks have asked about my own ministry and life in my parish. It should be noted that hermits have always been seen as living in the heart of the Church, and in some ways representing a dimension of that very heart. Solitary consecrated hermits today (c 603 hermits) are professed either in their Cathedral and/or parish church in the hands of their bishop; this marks the fact that they are called forth from the midst of the People of God, especially as embodied in this local faith community. The local church is responsible for assuring access to the Sacraments for the hermit just as the hermit is responsible for receiving these regularly and for sharing in the faith life of this Church. Eremitical hiddenness is not a sufficient reason for failing to be an integral part of one's faith community; if hiddenness enters the equation the hermit (along with her bishop and pastor) should find ways to simultaneously underscore her integral place in her parish. Since she has been commissioned to live this life in the name of the Church, her life really must be lived concretely in the heart of the Church.

My own limited ministry (including teaching Scripture or doing spiritual direction) is part of the very natural outgrowth or overflow of the way God has loved and acted to being me to completion in the silence of solitude, but also through the life of the Church. It is the celebration of who God and God's Messiah are for me and a way to share this. And, it is a way of thanking God and those people who are part of my parish family. At the same time it is an  important way I grow in Christ and in my capacity to love. It is the fruit of my solitude (a unique expression of community) with and in God and it calls me back to that. I have carefully discerned this with my director and it is something we both keep our eyes on. But some ask how I can do this or be known as a hermit and the answers include: 1) the Church, under whose specific authority I live this life allows limited ministry and requires self-support, 2) my Rule (approved with a Bishop's decree of approval) allows it and in fact, identifies it as important for my own well-being, 3) it enhances my life in Christ in solitude and is the fruit of that, and 4) limited ministry including teaching a bit of Scripture and doing direction is, again, carefully discerned with the assistance of those responsible for this.

16 November 2019

Faith makes Science Possible, Science Makes Faith Necessary

I did a homily yesterday on the first reading from Wisdom (Wis 13:1-9), a reading which, though written about 100 years before Christ, I found to be incredibly contemporary. The text reminds us of the wonders of nature and how they point beyond themselves to the One who created them; it also condemns those who cannot allow the revelation of nature to be what it really is in this way. What is incredibly contemporary is the way we find ourselves in continuing debates about the relation of science and faith, whether "nature is enough" to answer the profound questions we humans have and are or whether there must be something we call God. One of the authors I read regularly is John Haught and one of his books is entitled Is Nature Enough? Haught argues that nature alone is not enough to give our lives a sense of meaning or to provide an answer to our religious desires and needs. Others like Loyal Rue write direct responses to Haught entitled Nature is Enough and argue just the opposite; nature does not need to point beyond itself but is sufficient to account for our religious desires and need for meaning (and supposedly to answer these as well).

Theologians point out that faith or at least pre-faith is necessary to even engage in science. Scientists make a decision, they chose to trust that the world is intelligible, that it makes sense and hangs together enough to make science, the disciplined, ordered empirical exploration of nature possible and meaningful. Again, this decision that nature can be understood and explored in a meaningful way and that human beings are capable of doing this is the necessary pre-condition for doing science at all. Theologians understand that faith and the existence of God doesn't conflict with science but makes it possible. More, our belief in the infinite God who ultimately grounds the existence and meaningfulness of reality ensures that scientists can go on doing science without ever reaching a limit to reality's intelligibility. The idea that nature is enough to account for and satisfy our desires and needs for meaning, truth, or a God that is the source and ground of all being an meaning is new and naïve  -- though it is a better response to faith than simply vilifying those who believe as unintelligent or unreasonably credulous.

A related question theologians feel compelled to ask themselves and scientists is "why is there something and not nothing?" Everything that exists has a beginning and ultimately there must be something or someone that is the ground and source of everything that has existed. We cannot have infinite regress; if behind everything is nothing at all then order is chimerical at best and our world is essentially absurd. Nothing comes from nothing so the question about why there is anything at all throws scientists back upon an ultimate source or cause which must exist and itself be "uncreated" or infinite. When we combine this question about being and the former related question about the meaningfulness or intelligibility of all that exists, we have the question of God, the One theologians identify as the ground and source of being and meaning, the One we affirm is the source and ground of the order, truth, beauty, depth, diversity, energy, and power of all we know.

The author of Wisdom looked at the world around himself and felt awe as it revealed the existence of God to him. He felt denial of the existence of God was foolish but could understand where some could mistake nature for the creator of nature. After all, nature is profoundly beautiful and powerful; it has an order, scope, and energy beyond anything else we can point to. And today we find scientists and philosophers writing books like Nature is Enough. Most of us are not directly involved in doing science or theology in academic or professional ways but as believers we are called to be attentive to God's creation. For us yesterday's first reading calls us to cultivate a sense of wonder at all we see. We are called to stand in some awe at the incredible order of our world and at the fact that we can know this world, explore it scientifically, and come to see and understand ever greater depths of order and beauty, come to ever greater knowledge. Faith and Science are complementary realities, complementary, not opposing, ways of knowing. As we cultivate the wonder and awe creation inspires, I think we are called to recognize that while some degree of faith makes science possible, science actually makes faith necessary. That is the nature of the world Wisdom's author extols and what he urges us to truly appreciate.

11 November 2019

Seeking God: What does this Mean?


[[Dear Sister Laurel, I wondered what it means in monasticism to say one is "seeking God", I mean it's not like God is actually lost or something! Also one is entering a monastery where one is pretty sure God is present. Why do Benedictines define their lives or, I guess, the purpose of their lives as "seeking God"?]]

LOL! It's a serious question and yes, the phrase is a bit enigmatic isn't it? But you have actually implicitly answered the question in your own lightly poking fun at it. We can imagine someone wandering all over the place in search of God, and of course, we can imagine such a person eventually coming to the monastery to focus and deepen their search precisely because there is good reason to believe God may be found in a privileged way there. But once a search for God is narrowed in this way why would Benedictines define their lives in terms of "seeking God"?

As you say, it is true that God is not lost, but in some ways we and our world certainly are. The person we described earlier is looking for God and is thus simultaneously engaged in seeking her own truest self. She and we are each in search of a life which is meaningful; we are looking for a life that fulfills all the potential we carry (by the grace of God) deep within ourselves, a life that is purposeful and coherent; this is inherently wrapped up with the search for God. We find and embrace our truest selves only to the extent we find and are "found" and embraced by God. To commit to seeking God is to commit to finding, claiming, and thus becoming our truest selves in God; it is to commit to finding our way home to, with, and in God and it is to commit to living this "at-home-ness" wherever we are or go so that our lives are transparent to God's in the same way.

Another way of saying we are seeking God is to say we are seeking the best way possible for us to learn to love, to actually love, and to be loved into wholeness. These goals overlap and are dependent upon one another. Especially we cannot learn to love nor love without being loved; we cannot learn or be empowered to love as exhaustively as we are called to love without allowing ourselves to be loved in an analogous way. For this reason we are called first of all to be those who allow God to be God. Moreover, since God is Love-in-Act, this means allowing God to love us. Cistercian houses are known as "Schools of Love; their Benedictine nature "seeking God" and being a "School of Love" coincide. These two aims are the same.

There are more ways of saying this and other ways of thinking about "seeking God". While, as you say, it is true God is not lost, God is also not obvious to most of us nor can we find God in the way we find the keys we inadvertently left on the table earlier or someone in a gamer of "hide and seek". We have to understand that this commitment to seeking God is a commitment to allow God to be personally present to us; this in turn means making our very own those ways God is found by and finds us! We will travel all those pathways ordinarily supporting and guiding such a journey and make our own such things as lectio, Scripture study, prayer, journaling, community life, intellectual and physical work, liturgy, silence, solitude, ministry, time outdoors and with nature, etc --- all the privileged ways God speaks Godself to and is heard by human beings. We make these regular, familiar, and beloved parts of our everyday lives and (perhaps too) others which are special to us: music, art, writing, etc.

Gradually we learn to open ourselves to the extraordinary God of the ordinary so that we might walk through our days with the eyes and ears of our minds, hearts, and bodies wide open to the presence of God. We do all we can to cultivate this kind of openness and attentiveness, this kind of obedience to God and to our deepest selves. Remember that the very first line of the Rule is the imperative that we "hearken" or "listen" ("Ausculta!"); this focus on obedience is the key to any search for God and so, to the Benedictine way of life. After all, obedience is also the way we will allow God to claim us as God's own. With each choice we make to hearken in this way we also allow God to create the persons we are called to be.

Thanks for the good questions. I hope this is helpful.

09 November 2019

Always There

A Sister sent this to me yesterday knowing I would like the song, the singer, the violinist, and the deep truth of it. She and her Sisters had used it at an anointing for one of theirs who was having surgery later on that day. I admit I began crying the moment I heard the first words and continued throughout. This is what it is like to know and be known by God in Christ; it is what it is like to have a Director who lives from that same relationship and embodies the truth of it in her own life and work. It is the reason I can be a hermit and insist solitude is not isolation or do the deep inner work I have done over the past three years. It is the reason I can truly be myself and live ever more fully the life God gives me. He is always there for me; to come to know this deeply and unshakeably is such a tremendous grace! Thanks be to God! (The lyrics are also included below.)



Always There

When I'm less than I should be
And I just can't face the day
When darkness falls around me
And I just can't find my way
When my eyes don't clearly see
And I stumble through it all
You, I lean upon, you keep me strong
And you rise me when I fall
You are there when I most need you
You are there so constantly
You come shining through, you always do
You are always there for me
When life brings me to my knees
When my back's against the wall
You are standing there right with me
Just to keep me standing tall
Though a burden, I may be
You don't weary, you don't rest
You are reaching out to carry me
And I know I'm heaven blessed
You are there when I most need you
You are there so constantly
You come shining through, you always do
You are always there for me
You are there when I most need you
You are there so constantly
You come shining through, you always do
You are always there for me
There when I most need you
There so constantly
You come shining through, you always do
You are always there for me
Songwriters: Rolf Løvland
© BMG Rights Management

06 November 2019

On Prayer: Visions and Locutions?

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I wondered if it is unusual to have visions and locutions during prayer. Do these happen to you or to people you direct? Some people believe these kinds of experiences mean the one experiencing them is a mystic and exceptionally loved by God. Do only contemplatives have these kinds of experiences? I wondered if maybe I might have such experiences and I am not a contemplative.]]

Thanks for your questions. I need to parse the meaning of words like "unusual", vision, and locution to answer you. Visions ordinarily mean that God comes to one in a visual way, within one's own mind and often using the contents of one's own mind to "furnish" the vision. They are not ordinarily external to us as though we are looking at a scene standing entirely outside ourselves; at the same time they transcend us and do not find their source in us but in God. Locutions ordinarily mean that God comes to us in an audible way, though again within our minds. Such locutions tend to be fairly brief, a single sentence, couplet, or a couple/few words only. I have not had nor have I heard from people I know who have experienced long soliloquies or speeches, and personally, I tend to distrust accounts of such long-winded experiences as being truly of God.

Not everyone has such experiences and that makes them relatively unusual. They also tend to be vivid and memorable -- although I tend to write mine down (journal) immediately so I may return to them and pay greater attention to aspects I missed or may forget when recounting them -- say, for my director, for instance. This makes them stand out from the rest of my prayer so in that sense they are also unusual. Finally, they are occasional, not frequent because they are so rich and require time to be processed and appreciated; in this sense too they are unusual. `If, however, you mean do they indicate something unusual (aberrant) in the person's prayer life, that the person's prayer life is extraordinary or exceptional except in the ways I have already indicated, I would say no; they are a significant part of a serious prayer life but one doesn't need to be some sort of spiritual savant to have such occasional or fairly infrequent experiences.

It once was thought that contemplative prayer itself was only open to a privileged few and that experiences like those you ask about were open to only a very few among those. Today we know that anyone with sufficient leisure and commitment can learn to pray and live contemplatively and we encourage folks to learn to do so. Spiritual direction can be helpful here and is a ministry open to anyone desiring to take advantage of it. Similarly, visions and locutions as I have described them can be accessible to anyone who prays regularly, reads Scripture, and takes time to do lectio daily, or at least regularly. (These practices shape our minds and hearts  and prepare us for the kinds of experiences we are talking about. Such experiences, when they are genuine, are manifestations of God but ordinarily the ground needs to be prepared for this. I do not believe God loves those who have such experiences any more than God loves any other person; we are all exceptionally loved by God and thus, we all have the potential for such experiences of God's love.)

As noted regarding my own experiences, yes I have such. They are not necessarily frequent but they do tend to be pivotal and serve as moments of profound healing/reconciliation, sources of understanding and strength, and always they convey a sense of promise regarding my own life with God in Christ and often the life of others and our world more generally. I don't think they are more important than the rest of my prayer (in some ways they are less!) but they tend to function as significant markers along the way of that prayer. And regarding the possibility that you might have such experiences, please know that in prayer we ordinarily don't focus on or look for experiences. I know it is easy to desire such experiences; it can be problematical to expect such experiences and is certainly healthier spiritually if we approach prayer as God's work/active presence within us which we ordinarily do not immediately sense at all. God transcends what we can experience so we need to be cautious in regard to such things. I can only encourage you to pray regularly and give God time and space in your life to do whatever God wills to do. If you can do this and gradually become a contemplative you might well occasionally experience God in these less usual ways. Paradoxically, they may happen (if they happen at all) when you are least concerned with them. I hope this is helpful.

03 November 2019

Come Down and See Who I Really Am!

The Gospel reading today is the story of Zacchaeus and Jesus. Zacchaeus who is short in stature wants to know who this man Jesus really is and climbs a tree to get a good look at him as he comes by. Perhaps Zacchaeus had heard some fascinating stories about Jesus; perhaps he had seen him heal, teach, or preach, and wanted another good look at him. Maybe he was just a bit intrigued and curious, but it is more likely given his choice to climb a tree that he was in touch with his heart enough to know that in this man was an answer he had longed for his whole life; this man sensed that Jesus could address needs Zacchaeus' relative wealth and status just couldn't address. We don't know the details of his situation --- as we often don't with Bible stories --- But this makes it possible for us to can read ourselves right into the text and find ourselves in that tree overlooking Jesus' route waiting for him to come by.

Or would we be too embarrassed to find ourselves up a tree looking for some relatively grungy Galilean with his rag tag following --- even when this man might be God's Chosen One? After all, what Zacchaeus did in climbing a tree was akin to the Father in the parable of the Prodigals (both Sons and the Father are prodigal in their own ways) when he runs (runs!!) to meet his lost younger Son. No oriental man would have compromised his dignity and standing in such a way, any more than they would have climbed a tree to see a status-less itinerant Jewish preacher! Such an act would have been shameful and in a culture where honor was the currency that made everyday living meaningful, it would have been incredibly costly for Zacchaeus. I know today some folks shame others by calling them "fanatics" or "Jesus Freaks" (no, this term has not gone away!), or with their questions and comments. "Why do you pray that much?" "He is a failure in life so he turned to religion." "Why do you come early to Mass?" or "Why do you put your confidence in such fairy tales as the life, death and resurrection of a man called Jesus?" Our culture may not turn on honor and shame but we are not unaware of its influence!

So Zacchaeus the tax collector humbles himself (he was short in stature and certainly disliked but stood relatively tall in terms of wealth and power) in order to ask the question, "Who is this One called Jesus?" And the results are astounding! Jesus comes past, sees him, calls him by name, requires he come down from his perch, and invites himself into Zacchaeus' home for dinner that very night (a definite reversal of the normal "modus operandi" in this honor/shame society where invitations to dinner give honor and cannot merely be self-conferred!). The answer to Zacchaeus' implicit question is looking like it is way bigger and more challenging than Zacchaeus might ever have imagined! He wanted to know more about who this man was. Jesus shows us he is One who knows that the need for this revelation is immediate and makes clear the best context is an intimate meal setting.

The story is incredibly rich and, like Jesus' own parables, can take us in many directions. A few of these strike me: do we pay attention to our own hearts as Zacchaeus apparently did? Are we willing to act on the needs and desires we discover when we attend to our hearts and minds even if we look foolish in some peoples' eyes in doing so? Are we willing to let go of status or to humble ourselves so that God might be welcomed and embraced? Are we open to having Jesus call us by name and invite himself into our lives and homes or do we merely want to look on him from a remote vantage point? Do we want to know him and be known by him or is he just a curious historical figure we are satisfied knowing a little about about? Do we even know for sure that such a truly personal way of knowing and being known by the Risen Christ is possible? Will we open our homes to him whenever he calls or do we like to keep him in Church where encounters are more predictable and less likely to carry us outside liturgical recognizable (finite) boundaries?

 I suspect few of us would have immediately recognized, much less named Zacchaeus as a model of humility or profound wisdom but that is what he is in today's Gospel lection. For me Zacchaeus is a reminder to pay attention to all the movements of my heart and mind, and to open myself to the Christ who comes in the midst of ordinary life; he reminds me to take whatever steps I need to see, know, and be known by Christ a little better whether those around me understand their importance or not. And he reminds me that even my slightest efforts in this regard will be matched by God in Christ's love and attention. In fact, these will always outstrip my own ability to imagine what is possible. Jesus knows me and allows himself to be known by me in ways I could never have envisioned and even less expected! At the same time this part of Zacchaeus' story reminds me I must come down from any relatively remote perch I can sometimes occupy -- a perspective largely provided by personal woundedness and academic theology ---  and also allow Jesus, the One who truly knows my name (self) and desires to be truly known by me, to come home and dine with me this day and every day. Empowered by Jesus' invitation, I just have to come down to know who Jesus really is.

02 November 2019

Catching Up and Questions on Suffering Well

The latest Planned power outage is well over here in Lafayette and another one planned for early Wednesday morning into Thursday was put on hold. I am grateful because while I can manage many things without power some things are simply very difficult or impossible without it (hot showers, laundry, hot food). We actually had a couple of fires here in Lafayette and watched planes drop fire retardant and helicopters dropping water to prevent forward movement during wind events. There were some evacuations but they were short-lived, thanks be to God! Meanwhile, North of here the Kincaid fire continues with limited control (about 47%) and South of here (several hours) the Getty fire threatens museums, colleges, Motherhouses I know, and other institutions as well as many individual residences. 

I  have received some questions about a post I put up in June on the notion of suffering well (cf, Question on Suffering well). (Sorry but it took a couple of days to actually write an answer and there are other questions still waiting; I appreciate everyone's patience.) At this point in time, when so many people here in my state are suffering tragic losses, displacement, inability to work, etc., it is timely to be reminded of it. In that piece and the follow up (Followup on Suffering well: Suffering and the will of God) I wrote that for me the only way to suffer well was to live well in Christ in spite of suffering. I also wrote that it is important to distinguish between Jesus' suffering at the hands of humankind and what God willed for him.

Here I wrote that God wills Jesus to live a fully human life and death, but God did not specifically will Jesus' torture and suffering on the cross. It is true that if Jesus embraces authentic or genuine humanity in self-emptying and solidarity with God and others his life will entail profound suffering but what God wills for Jesus are those choices which bring greater and greater life, not choices simply for greater and greater suffering. Is there a difference? Yes. it is possible to will that a person lives fully and accepts the consequences of that life without willing the consequences per se. Think of parents who send their children to public schools. They will their children get all the benefits of a rich and diverse educational milieu; they do not will their children get bullied or run into teachers who are burned out but have tenure, for instance. Or think of the  Peace corps; it sends people all over the world to assist those in need. It does not will these workers become victims of mercenaries, etc. And yet, these unwilled consequences do occur.

So what were the follow up questions? They included: 1) Isn't our suffering reparational? Don't we make up for what is lacking in Jesus' suffering? 2) How do we distinguish between the suffering that comes as part of life and suffering that we can't let go of or that we take on rather than choosing life? and 3) why is it so hard to let go of suffering?

It is true that Colossians 1:24 speaks of making up for what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ but what does this mean? Does it mean, for instance, that Christ's own sufferings per se were insufficient and must be supplemented with our own --- as though Christ's passion was  objectively inadequate for the redemption of all creation? No, I don't think we can ever suggest such a thing. Objectively speaking Christ's passion, death, and descent were a perfect sacrifice marked by perfect obedience (perfect openness to and trust in God) and destroyed sin and death. But subjectively speaking the fruits of Jesus' passion, death, descent, and resurrection must become our own, that is we must embrace the life he brought to us as the Risen Christ in the Spirit of God, and we must do so as fully and faithfully as we can. This will mean learning to let go of a great deal (including a great deal of bad theology and spirituality), just as it will mean allowing the love of God to heal us of a great deal --- and both of these processes will entail suffering at the service of healing and selfless or generous life --- but it does not mean embracing suffering which, whether implicitly or explicitly, claims that the passion of Jesus was inadequate in some way.

Jesus' death allows the Love of God (the Love-in-act that IS God) to overcome all of those things which mark us as alienated from God. It does this with Jesus taking all of these things into himself while remaining open to God's presence and refusing to let these godless things separate him from God. This refusal to let sin and death separate him from God opens these realities to God. In absolute vulnerability Jesus took on sin and death (and thus every form of godlessness) and remained obedient to God (open and vulnerable to both suffering and the God who brings life out of nothingness) so that God might triumph over these things. Not only because of the weight of what he took on, but because of his openness and vulnerability, Jesus' suffering and death was more intense and deeper than anything you or I will ever know. But it also allowed God to enter into (or, from another perspective,  to take these things into himself) and transform them with his presence. Objectively speaking, sin and death were destroyed; they were transformed from godless realities into realities where God might be met face to face.

The result is the perspective we hear from Paul in tomorrow's reading from Romans 8 [[ If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all-how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died-more than that, who was raised to life-is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered." 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our LORD.]]

Does this sound like Paul (who only may have written Colossians) thought there was anything objectively lacking in Jesus' passion and death? No. At the same time, however, Paul knows that suffering continues and some must be embraced, not in reparation for sins (God in Christ is victorious over sin and death) but in order that we ourselves may embrace life and witness to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God's objective victory over sin and death must be appropriated subjectively so that one day God might be all in all. It is only in this sense that we can speak of our own suffering (and our own victories over suffering as life is more and more fully embraced!!) as reparative with the accent on repair not reparation.

Why is it so Hard to Let Go of Suffering? 

Suffering is a very difficult reality for us. It seems meaningless and it tends to make our lives seem meaningless as well as it cuts us off from work, recreation. relationships, and, more profoundly, a sense of self which seems truly valuable. While all of this seems like a great reason to let go of suffering for some this suffering becomes a part of their very identity. When that is exacerbated by flawed theodicies --- theologies of evil/suffering in light of the goodness of God --- that validate suffering even when this occurs at the expense of life and choices for health, it becomes especially difficult to let go of suffering. For instance, the notion of victim souls is one of these approaches that validates one's suffering despite the problem that it diminishes the degree and meaning of the suffering of others. Similarly, but in less dramatic interpretations our suffering can make us feel special; we don't feel like victim souls but we may be victims in some sense and that can make us feel special, something hard to let go of.

Likewise it can become hard to let go of suffering when one has chronic illness which makes it intimidating to live without the limitations it imposes; we have to learn how to live a fuller life than illness allowed and that can be frightening. Even without the secondary gain associated with our illness this can be true. I think there are many reasons letting go of suffering becomes difficult for us and I have only mentioned a couple, but my own concern is with interpretations of suffering and evil that make them the will of God in one way and another. The versions of these theologies I have seen (heard or read) make of God something abhorrent. This God is not a God of life, a God who takes on sin and suffering in order to destroy them ultimately. Neither in these theologies is suffering a symptom of our estrangement from God (i.e., sin) nor do they draw a sufficient distinction between the permissive and active wills of God. The "God" they give us is a "God" who torments his creation -- but then they dress it up in pious language --- the language of reparation, discipline, and atonement. (Suffering can be a source of discipline, but generally this is because grace transforms pain from being something merely intolerable or destructive into a suffering that can occasion growth.)

It feels wonderful to believe God has chosen us. On the other hand it feels awful to be different from others, especially when the difference is caused by something like chronic illness or the sense we are not special to anyone. Some of us learn that God loves us no matter what and that we have value because of this. When we come to know ourselves as loved by God so too can we know ourselves as the same as others and simultaneously special; we will cease to need our illness as something that sets us apart or makes us special. Others, however, learn somehow that their suffering is an expression of God's love or that they are only loved by God to the extent they suffer. When this happens it may be almost impossible to let go of suffering and the victim status that seems to me to be a form of bondage unworthy of the Son/Daughter of God. But the God of Jesus Christ is the God who asks us to live well and offers us opportunities for ever-fuller or more abundant life -- even in the face of chronic illness for which little can be done. We Christians are called to learn to embrace these opportunities first of all and only thereafter and secondarily the forms of suffering which are consequences of living well in Christ.

So how do we distinguish between suffering that is a consequence of living well and is embraced as a part of living well and that which is more primary and can lead to a life of victimhood? I think sometimes it is a fine line, but not always. A number of years ago I wrote about someone who had made a "vow of suffering". Part of that vow was a promise to extend or prolong a life of suffering and a related promise to choose whichever option provided greater suffering. I admit the entire idea was appalling to me. I think we have to ask ourselves what are we choosing first of all and what are its fruits in the here and now: does it lead us to greater human wholeness, love of others, generosity, ability to empty ourselves and embrace responsible freedom? Does it take advantage of opportunities which lead to greater human wholeness and the ability to participate in community (and yes, even hermits need to be cognizant and careful of this for isolation and solitude are not the same thing!!)? For instance, do we act to end what suffering isolates us and curtails our life and especially our life in community when this is possible using normal remedies or do we turn in on ourselves and create an idol who supposedly wills our suffering and our isolation and diminishment as human beings in some sort of propitiation for the sinful condition of humanity?

It is absolutely possible to choose life and the suffering that comes from that (i.e., all kinds of sacrifice and forms of self-emptying which serve life and wholeness in ourselves and others) without believing God wills our suffering. At the same time it will be necessary to embrace the God who has chosen to be with us in all things including our suffering so that life in and of God can be truly sovereign here and now in this world. Our task in Christ is to allow heaven to ever more fully penetrate our world so that in and through our lives the Kingdom of God is truly at hand! We are not to be focused on heaven in a way which orients our life toward escaping this world; we are focused on heaven (life in and with God shared with all) in a way which transforms everything we touch with the love and life of God. If the God we believe in does not call us to a life committed to the transformation of all creation and to the sacrifices necessary to make that truly possible (unnecessary suffering actually stands in the way of this), then we are not believing/trusting in the God of Jesus Christ.

I hope this is helpful. If you have questions about specific examples of suffering and whether they fall into one category of suffering or the other please get back to me. Discerning when we are choosing life and suffering as a consequence as opposed to choosing suffering which is really a rejection of life can be difficult in some instances but in this as in every other thing we choose , the gospel admonition, "it is by their fruits that you will know them" is our ultimate criterion.