30 December 2019

On Formerly-Married and Consecrated Hermits

[[ hi Sister Laurel, I was just wondering about something. You have written it is not possible for married persons to become hermits. I looked that up this morning. But how about a person who has been married and gotten divorced? Can they become a consecrated Catholic hermit? If so is this usual? What happens with their children if there are any?]]

 Thanks for your questions. Yes, it is entirely possible for a person who was married and divorced to become a hermit. There are two provisos: 1) their children must be grown and no longer need them in any substantial way (they, of course, always will need (and should have) their parent's love!), and 2) if the spouse is still alive the Church must have granted a declaration of nullity. You see, to make public profession under canon 603 or as part of a canonical community of hermits, a person must be free of life bonds in order to make her profession (that is, another life bond). Marriage is a life bond and in the eyes of the Church civil divorce by itself does not and cannot end this bond --- although the death of the spouse will do so.

The principle is simple, if we give ourselves entirely (and exclusively) to another in marriage (and to God through this marriage) we are not free to then give ourselves exclusively to God (and to others through God) in religious/eremitical profession. The reverse is equally true: if someone is professed (meaning publicly vowed and given entirely and exclusively to God in this way) they cannot give themselves to another in marriage; they are simply not free to do so until and unless the vows are dispensed (or expire if temporary). Until and unless a decree of nullity is granted (and the marriage bond declared void, null, or never to have truly occurred), the person is simply not free to make profession or be consecrated as either a diocesan (solitary) or religious (community) hermit. In religious life one must demonstrate one is free of other life commitments before one is even allowed to enter the community, much less to make even temporary vows/profession. Though c 603 has no equivalent formal or canonical stages of formation, the constraints on life commitments holds for one seeking admission to profession under this canon.

Again, as for children, a diocesan or canon 603 hermit can certainly have been married and had children but s/he cannot have minor children, nor can grown children require parental care. Such situations (minority or dependency) constitute another way in which the hermit is not truly free to give herself to profession in the way the vocation and profession require. A consecrated hermit may leave her inheritance to her children (or anyone else) just as is true for anyone. She will also arrange to remain in regular contact in whatever way works best for everyone. There will be limits, of course: young adults will not be able to come home to live with Mom (or Dad if he's the hermit), there will be no way to borrow money from the hermit (who is unlikely to have any!), and the hermit will not be able to babysit the grandchildren more than occasionally or spend much time away from the hermitage with her kids and grandkids. She will not be free for these things; her life is given over to God and structured in a new way which makes her unfree for what might have been usual otherwise.

Similarly, the family is unlikely to be able to visit the hermitage all that often -- though this is something I expect the hermit will work out with the assistance of her Director (delegate) and/or Bishop. (If it cannot be worked out to the satisfaction of the bishop, et  al, the person will not be admitted to eremitical profession. If, for instance, a hermit's family needs her in ways which make embracing eremitical solitude unloving or selfish, admission to profession is unlikely to be extended to her.) Otherwise, I think things will be pretty much as they are for any parent with grown children. I do believe the reality of the former marriage with children will add moments of poignancy and depth to the hermit's life and prayer. Separation from her family/children may well sharpen her solitude and add a dimension to her love of God and humankind that other hermits without such family may not have. Thus the person who becomes a hermit after divorce/annulment and raising her children will find her circumstances add both richness and suffering to her life as a hermit.

I don't think formerly married hermits with grown children are all that usual, but they are not unheard of. I know and/or know of several such hermits. In other faith traditions that also see eremitical life as a second-half-of-life vocation or which see solitude per se as a vocation for the elderly, it is quite common for folks to become hermits for the final stage of their lives. At this point they tend to have fewer responsibilities for their family, have often lost a spouse to death, have a mature faith life, and will really blossom themselves in solitude -- including beyond solitude as therapeutic or part of their grieving process. However, within the Roman Catholic eremitical tradition I would say it is relatively uncommon for there to be formerly-married hermits -- though with the provisos mentioned above it is perfectly fine.

I hope this is helpful.

Follow up Question: [[Sister, yes your answer was helpful so thank you. I thought you would deal with this question in your [original] answer so let me ask it directly. Would  someone in the same position be able to make private vows as a hermit? I mean, is there a difference with whether the hermit or wannabe hermit (no offense intended) wants to make private vows or public ones?]]

That's a great question and a good follow up since your earlier question referred only to consecrated hermits but not to those who are hermits with  private vows. Yes, there is a very great difference in this. When marriage is contracted the parties enter a new state of life, the married state -- though they remain laity. They become one flesh through the Sacrament of matrimony and, as noted in the earlier question, the bond effectuated in the Sacrament cannot be undone by civil divorce. Instead it must be found and declared to have never actually occurred in a declaration of nullity. Unless and until this occurs the Church would consider either member of this couple to be unfree to make another life commitment like religious life, consecrated eremitical life, priestly ordination, etc. in other words, profession is closed to such persons until and unless they receive an annulment.

But profession is a matter of public vows or other sacred bonds and consecration by the Church by which a person enters another state of life (a religious, or  consecrated state) with legal rights and obligations. Private vows however, are an entirely private matter which do not ever initiate a person into another state of life; they are an act of dedication with no corresponding ecclesial act of reception or consecration. Thus, neither do private vows ever convey the rights and obligations associated with religious life or consecrated eremitical life. For this reason, a person who has been divorced without benefit of annulment can make private vows at any time. Nothing in her state of life changes, there is no canonical life commitment to which one's remaining marriage bond would be an impediment.

If, however, such a person were to decide they wanted instead to become a consecrated hermit in the Roman Catholic Church, they would need to pursue the annulment (the declaration of nullity which says the Church finds there to have never been a marriage bond at all beyond a civil contract). The Declaration of nullity (or, again, the prior death of one's spouse) would therefore establish there is no impediment to profession or consecration and would thus establish a person as free to begin a mutual discernment process with their Diocese, something every person seeking to be admitted to public profession and consecration would need to do.

Again, good follow up question! It really helps to underscore the difference in Catholic theology between private vows and public profession as well as the necessity of  responsible freedom to make a life commitment which is truly binding in all the ways such a commitment should be within the Church.

Follow up Question #2: On the Need for a Declaration of Nullity:

Dear Sister,  another blogger in Married Hermits and Other Considerations has written that what you have written is your opinion and someone can be married and a consecrated or Catholic hermit. She claims you are making up Rules and regulations! I don't know who to believe in this. Help!

In many things here I post my own opinions based on lived experience as a hermit and my theological expertise; I always attempt to give the very best and most accurate opinion I can and I will always try equally diligently to reflect the Church's own practice. However, in the matter you first asked about regarding the need for ecclesiastical annulment if one has been divorced and is seeking to be admitted to public profession and the consecrated state as a hermit in community or a c 603 hermit, this is not an opinion; it is the way things work in the Church because matrimony effects the union of two people so they become "one flesh". I am merely stating the Church's theological and canonical position on the freedom necessary to make another life commitment.

Here is the way one religious congregation (Carmelite) states the need for canonical freedom for those seeking to enter them. The requirements are the same for profession under canon 603: [[Yes, we do accept women in our congregation who were formerly married. You would need to produce the necessary documents establishing that you are canonically free to enter religious life; death certificate of spouse, or civil divorce decree and [an ecclesiastical] decree of nullity.]] (Emphasis added.) The pertinent canons are 597 and 643 sec 1.2 and 2.

The author of the blog you referenced (also The Complete Hermit, Christ in the Present Moment, and several others) also once knew the truth of what I have written here, though perhaps she was unaware of the theological rationale for the Church's position. She and I once spoke about the necessity of establishing one's free status to become a canonical hermit; that was Summer 2007, just prior to my perpetual eremitical profession on 02. September. (Remember canon 603 hermits have to submit copies of their baptismal certificates -- which include records of other life commitments -- and prove free status in ways similar to the above if they are to undertake public profession.) After our email conversation, Ms McClure eventually spoke to someone in her own diocese and subsequently blogged about that. Here is what she wrote (the link to the relevant excerpt of the blog article, which I copied this morning is included at the end):

[[Friday, August 31, 2007

nullity of marriage

Yes, as a hermit of a different diocese informed me, and now verified by a canon lawyer, in order to be "canonically" consecrated, one must have nullity of marriage. However, private consecration does not require the annulment.

The next step, then, is for me to activate my annulment file at the Tribunal. I have made the call, and they are checking the file to make sure all information is up-to-date regarding witnesses. Sadly, the only witness who knew me before my marriage and during the marriage, knowing my ex-husband, is a woman with severe pain in her wrists and who cannot write without great difficulty. (She has pain elsewhere from a virus that settled years ago and caused permanent damage.) Hopefully she can do this writing required on whatever forms.

It is, at minimum, an act of charity for my ex-husband who has been remarried for years, in case he would ever desire to convert to Catholicism. He hates Catholicism, but in God all things are possible such as changes of heart and mind. . .]]The Complete Hermit :Nullity of Marriage

29 December 2019

Feast of the Holy Family


Of all the feasts I have come to love, the Feast of the Holy family is one which has grown to have most meaning for me. That is, naturally, due to my close connection with Sister Marietta and the ways in which she has shown me the heart, mission, and charism of the Sisters of the Holy Family. A few years ago, when I had given Marietta a copy of my newly revised eremitical Rule, she gave me a copy of the Constitutions of the Sisters of the Holy Family (Fremont, CA). In that set of constitutions is an image of the painting by Jean Francois Millet of Gleaners at work. These peasant women toil in the fields to garner all the bits of precious harvest that might otherwise be left behind to die or be raked together to be burned as waste/chaff. In the OT (see Ruth) the poor followed behind harvesters and were able to glean bits of wheat that had been dropped or otherwise abandoned as fruitless or without relative value.

So many were fed in this way and in many Christian kingdoms throughout the centuries "gleaning" came to be a legal right of the poor who followed behind the reapers. Millet's picture was made in 1857 and featured the lowest classes of French rural society in a sympathetic way. Apparently it was not well-received by the French upper classes. It is the charism of the Sisters of the Holy Family (1872-present)  to be present in our society to the weakest among us, especially families and children, in a way which allows the least and lost to be valued and nurtured in the way God does. 

Families are meant to be sanctuaries where the weakest and neediest among us, our children, are loved, fed, taught, nurtured, and protected from harm. It is the family which is the natural context in which human beings grow to maturity and begin to realize the potential that is given them by God. Every family is meant to be a network and context of loving and challenging relationships where an infant can become the kind of loving, trusting, and trustable human being who will one day go their own way in strength and integrity to change society and the world for the better with their presence. The potential for things to go awry in such a situation is huge of course, but it is on today's Feast that we celebrate one of those graced occasions when family was all it was meant to be. 

This tiny community of love gave us a savior, someone like us in all things yet without sinning! Yes, of course Jesus was the Son and gift of God entrusted immediately to Mary, Joseph, and their relations, but it was the family, this holy family that allowed Jesus to grow in his relationship with God, with God's People, and humankind as a whole --- and ultimately, to realize the potential of his identity and calling. When Luke recounts Jesus returning from Jerusalem with his family and says he "grew in wisdom and stature," this is what Luke (2:4) is speaking of. It was this Holy Family that was iconic of what every family is meant to be --- and too, what the Sisters of the Holy Family give their lives to help assure happens for every family and child to whom they minister.

Bro Mickey McGrath, osfs
My thanks to God this feast day for the Holy Family and to the Sisters of the Holy Family, their Associates all of whom renew vows and covenant bonds on this feast, and any and all who share in such an awesome ministry and mission! God comes to us in littleness and weakness; it is the Holy Family and those who act in their name who show us what it means to truly offer this God our hospitality, our love, and our commitment to (his) own enterprise of love. At a time in our own culture when children and families are being harmed at an alarmingly increased rate, I pray the image of the Holy Family, and the mission of the Sisters of the Holy Family to carefully glean so that nothing and no one might be lost or treated as inconsequential stubble and fruitless chaff, will be a prophetic image and mission we each and all make our own. 

On Being and Becoming a Religious

[[Dear Sister Laurel, when you speak of profession or being admitted to profession you also speak of undertaking and being entrusted with rights and obligations beyond those of baptism. In some ways this sounds sort of legalistic, but in other places you speak as though something changed in you at the moments of profession and consecration. Is there both internal and external change with profession and consecration? Because you have written about the difference between private and public commitments, between authentic and counterfeit Catholic hermits, and coming to act or live your vocation in the name of the Church as opposed to doing so in your own name I suppose, you seem again and again to be saying something changes within you as well as external to you in your relationship with the Church.

Is there such an internal change? Is this part of distinguishing as you do between hermits in the lay state and hermits in the consecrated state? I know that priests when they are ordained are somehow changed so that they can consecrate the Eucharist, and so forth. Is there something similar that actually happens to you and within you when you are perpetually professed and consecrated? Is this why you insist (or why the Church insisted at Vatican II) that the distinction between dedication and consecration be maintained?]]

Yes!!! Yes!! Yes!! You have understood me (and the church's theology of consecrated life) well I think. There are both external changes (the assumption of rights and obligations including the right to style oneself as a religious, the relationships necessary to live one's vows and be adequately guided and supervised in these via the ministry of authority, and the privilege, right, and obligation to live one's life in the name of the Church) along with internal changes (God sets one apart via consecration as a "sacred person" (I am not thrilled with this phrase, but I don't know a better one) and graces the person in ways (or constellations of ways) not necessarily found in the lay (vocational) state. It is traditionally referred to as a second consecration. This "second consecration" has sometimes been explained in terms of betrothal or espousal --- something that does not generally apply to baptism per se and which adds to one's baptismal consecration. While this is not the same as the "character" associated with priestly ordination, what is critical to understand here is that in the making of one's vows and the prayer of consecration associated with perpetual profession one becomes what one was not before, namely, one becomes a religious with a soul configured as that of a religious initiated into an external religious state to match.

When I write that we cannot consecrate but instead, can only dedicate ourselves I am saying the same thing: we cannot change ourselves, we cannot make ourselves into "sacred (divinely consecrated or set apart) persons", or give ourselves the rights and obligations which are intrinsic to the religious state. We cannot claim or assume on our own something only the Church has the right and ability to mediate to us on God's behalf. We can put ourselves in the position of those who desire to embrace these rights and obligations as well as the graces associated with this particular state of life, this identity within the Church (for this too is a reason we call religious or canonical eremitical life ecclesial vocations), but again, we cannot assume, much less claim to have such an identity unless and until the Church extends them to us and, through acts of mediation which are performative in nature, make us into that thing we so profoundly desired. The word performative is important here; it points to a kind of language in which the thing spoken comes to be in the very act of speaking. In religious life the vow formula is such a piece of performative language; so is the prayer of solemn consecration. In the praying of these forms of language the thing spoken is realized in space and time in the very speaking of the words.

A metaphorical way of saying this is that in the act of speech of profession we "say ourselves (an act of dedication) into" a state that stands ready for us; the Church receives this act of profession and extends God's own consecration to us in her own solemn consecration. According to Vatican II and traditionally, we dedicate ourselves but only God consecrates. Speech is the way truth is mediated, the powerful way in which reality is changed -- the significant or meaningful way in which we ourselves are changed and assume a NEW identity, a differently graced identity we did not have even an hour earlier. In religious profession and consecration, God is doing something new just as he was doing something brand new at our baptisms! Vocations are, it seems to me, not about us so much as they are about what God has done and continues to do within us through the mediation (of both call and response) of the Church. In any case, to be a religious, to have this identity means much more than to desire profoundly to be a religious; it means in ways which are both internal and external, to be made a new reality with public rights and responsibilities and the graces (both internal and external) that attend the state. These are not icing on the cake, so to speak, they are absolutely intrinsic to the reality of a religious or public vocation.

Yes, all of this is at issue when I speak of counterfeit hermits vs legitimately professed and consecrated hermits. Those, who, without benefit of public profession and consecration, claim the title Catholic Hermit, for instance, are, whether they realize it or not, claiming to be living eremitical life in the name of the Church. Whenever the word Catholic is appended to an enterprise, project, and so forth, someone is claiming that this reality is being lived, done, undertaken, or enacted in the name of the Church --- and that they have been extended and accepted all the rights and obligations thereto. A Catholic theologian is not a Catholic who is also a theologian but one given a Mandatum by the Church to do theology in her name. When someone claims to be a consecrated hermit they are claiming to have participated in a public rite of profession and consecration where God's own act of making sacred or uniquely blessed has been extended to the person through the formal and authoritative mediation of the Church. Not just any priest, for instance, can act in such a way, nor can just any person desiring this. One online hermit has said that in her belief "we are all religious" if we make (private) vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. But this is exactly wrong and fails to see especially that the making of a religious involves a divine/ecclesial act in which something that did not exist before comes to be!

Religious today rightly make a great deal of the fact that in a hierarchical sense they are lay persons and not clergy, that they do not stand in an intermediate state hierarchically between laity and clergy. This allows them to assume a rightful place with everyone else in the Church and serve, not from a position of superiority, but of equality. This is right and good and it is an important fruit of the second Vatican Council Sisters and Brothers are right to underscore. But at the same time Religious know that vocationally they are not lay persons and are no longer in the lay state. They have been changed exteriorly with the assumption of rights and obligations appropriate to this new state; but they have also been made new inside as well and become someone formed by new manifestations of the grace of God precisely so they are able to assume the rights and obligations associated with their new state of life.

These two changes, external and internal work together to shape, challenge, console, and shape the person some more, in an ever-ongoing interplay of grace  and nature which is distinct to this state of life. If one is consecrated but leaves the consecrated state of life in terms of the external rights and obligations, then one, despite one's consecration, is no longer a religious and cannot grow as a religious (though one can and likely will certainly grow as a person!). If one tries to take on the rights and obligations of the religious state as though grace and ecclesial admission granted and received through public profession and consecration were unnecessary, one will not and cannot be a religious. To be initiated by the Church into this distinct (not superior but distinct!) and formative stream of grace and challenge, this unique dialogue between nature and grace, and to respond in continued dedication to this ecclesial vocation is to become and be a religious. Personal potential and desire notwithstanding, before and apart from this initiation one simply is not and cannot be a religious.

28 December 2019

Feast of the Holy Innocents and other Feasts during the Octave of Christmas (reprised)

When I was an undergraduate at St Mary's College, CA, I worked with friends in campus ministry. One year, we planned the College Christmas Liturgy and, as theological students who were a little full of themselves we pressed the college chaplain to let us choose music that had nothing to do with little babies in mangers, etc. We wanted something less "sentimental", less marked by unhistorical Xmas Stars, angels, adorable lambs, charming shepherds, and so forth. Our instincts might have been good theologically, but to some extent we lacked a strong sense of the liturgies involved in the Church's celebration during the Octave of Christmas and the need to celebrate God now-present in the littlest and least! On Friday we celebrated the Feast of the Massacre or Martyrdom of the Holy Innocents --- Matthew's unique narrative which helps contextualize the Feast of the Nativity. Just as Mark's version of the Gospel led him to write "a passion narrative with a long introduction," Matthew's Gospel eased any tendency to sentimentality in the Christmas narrative by reminding us that the Christmas star is accompanied by significant shadow!

But is the story of the massacre about something that really happened? There are good reasons for believing Matt's account is historical and not "just" the Evangelizer's "theologoumenon" (a narrative construct created to convey theological truth). Herod, after all, was known as a cruel, paranoid man driven by a need for power and a strong obsession with conspiracy theories. He had been made "King of the Jews" by the Roman Senate in 40 BC, took over Jerusalem with a Roman army, and then maintained his hold on power by killing anyone who might have seemed the least threat. These people included not only a Hasmonean Prince, but 1 of 10 wives, his Mother-in-Law (also Hasmonean), 3 sons, a brother, 45 Jewish leaders and a handful of Pharisees, 300 military leaders, and any number of other folks Herod felt endangered his position or conspired against him. In general he was hated and after the death of his Sons Caesar Augustus noted, "I would rather be a pig than one of Herod's Sons!" When commentators describe Herod's typical pattern of behavior they would note he became fearful, killed whomever he feared, fell into a depression, and then as a response to this, shifted into a more active mode of "BUILD, BUILD, BUILD!!" All of this makes Herod's response to the birth of Christ and account from the Magi as believable; it does not strain credulity --- though it would also have made a powerful theologoumenon!

There is another reason we can believe in this event, however. Often students are told that because there is not multiple attestation in the other Gospels (this is Matthew's story alone!) and because we find no mention of it in Josephus (an ancient historian) or other extra-canonical sources we can't accept the story is historical; similarly they are taught that the huge numbers of children involved (variously, 3000, 16,000, or 64,000 in different Christian liturgical sources) without recognition by Josephus et. al., argues that such an event never happened. But archeologists now know that Bethlehem and immediate environs probably had a population of only 300 people; by extrapolation this means that the number of boys who were 2 years old or younger at this time was only @ 6-7. In a world where infanticide was accepted (or at least not remarked on!), the death of a handful of children by an established murderer and tyrant might well not occasion comment, much less be seen as historically significant. And finally, we ourselves have come to know how quickly people can become inured to stories of harm coming to the least and littlest in our society. Consider the atrocities in Syria and Yemen, or the cruelty now documented which happens to those seeking asylum from oppression daily on our Southern border by US government officials acting in our name  --- and as the Holy Family celebrated in today's Feast once needed to do as they fled to Egypt from Herod's machinations!

No, the massacre of the Holy Innocents and trek of the Holy Family into Egypt are credible as historical events and we trivialize and sentimentalize them at our peril --- and at the peril of our theology of the Nativity and Incarnation when we fail to appreciate the portrait of our world painted by various feasts of the Octave of Christmas. Today it is not uncommon to hear that our world is not as it should be because it is evolving toward the fulfillment God has willed for it; sin is sometimes left out of the equation altogether. But real as evolution is and hopeful as is the image of a world slowly evolving toward fulfillment as well, there are powers and principalities at work in our world which are evidence of sin --- that is, of the universal ratification of anti-Divine powers and principalities and the need for the intervention of God in our historical reality. I sincerely believe that the Christ Event would have occurred, sin or no, as a definitive step in the evolution of our world, but I also know that sin is real and the cosmic light of the Christmas star is bright in part because it stands against the backdrop of sin's darkness.

Christmas is a season of Joy not because there is no darkness, no sin, no oppression and death, but because it reminds us that God has made of our humanity a sacrament of (his) own life and light. History has become the sanctuary of the Transcendent and eternal God. Our God is now Emmanuel (God-with-us) and we, the littlest and the least have been ennobled beyond anything we might otherwise have imagined; in and through Christ we too are called to be Emmanuel for our world, in and through the Christ Event we are each made to be temples of the Holy Spirit. As Advent reminded us, we live in "in-between" times, a time of already but not-yet. There is work to be done, and suffering still to experience. But the light and joy of Christmas is real and something which will inspire and empower all that still needs to be done: caring for, loving (!) the least and littlest so they truly know they are the dwelling places of God; opposing the Herods of this world in whatever effective way we can so the Kingdom of God may be more fully realized by divine grace through time; allowing the joy and potential of the Christ's nativity in our world and ourselves to grow to fullness of grace and stature as we embrace authentic humanity and holiness.

My very best wishes to all on this Feast of the Holy Family and my special thanks to the Sisters of the Holy Family (Fremont, CA) for the charism embodied by the members of their congregation. As they mark the renewal of their vows on this feast we celebrate that they have been and remain a light to the littlest and the least amongst us, to the lost, abandoned, and rejected, the homeless or those who are otherwise without families, and to all those who have found in them a compassionate Presence capable in Christ of healing the wounds occasioned by sin and death. I personally locate them at the crossroads of Mercy and Grace and I am sure I am not alone in this.

Spending the Octave of Christmas in Tahoe!!

 Greetings from South Lake Tahoe!! Sister Sue and I drove up the day before yesterday. As some readers know, Sue's congregation has a retreat or vacation house there right on the lake. It is a small but lovely place and my favorite room is the sunroom, located at the back of the house (or maybe it's the front) which looks out directly on the lake. It is mainly made of windows and on one end (where I am sitting now) is a dining room table for 6-8 people where during the day I will work on Scripture, do some writing, and Sue will prepare her next courses for the University where she teaches maths and chemistry.

I have brought several things with me for this next week: 1) the books I need for a course on 2 Corinthians I will be doing at my parish (this includes a massive tome: NT Wright's new Introduction to the NT and its world which was "Santa's" gift to me from my pastor --- a book I believe will be used by introductory courses for undergraduate and maybe graduate studies in NT everywhere for some time), 2) When Silence Speaks, a book on Carthusian  spirituality by Tim Peeters, 3) Persons and their Growth, a comprehensive look at the nature of the methodology and process my Director and I are using together for personal formation, and 4) pencils and paints so I can color/paint both as part of this work, and for recreation and relaxation. (My Christmas present from Sue was a coloring book of Cats by B Kliban so I am completely set for this!)

There is no set schedule here but the rhythm of the days for me go something like this: middle of night (2:00-4:00) prayer, then back to sleep (my usual schedule has rising at 4:00 and that was true today); 8:00, morning prayer and breakfast. 9;00 or thereabouts --- to work on Scripture. The evenings Sister Sue and I will pray and celebrate communion together, fix dinner (Sue's a great cook, me -- not so much!), and then watch TV (Sue brings DVD's of PBS programs, concerts, etc) and just talk. Night prayer and bed is whenever we feel like it individually.  I brought the book on Carthusian thought because it ties in with what I have written here recently about the silence of solitude. Carthusians understand solitude in the positive way the Camaldolese and I do: it is about coming to wholeness and completion with/in God. They seem to understand silence in a correlative way as well: a kind of stilling of the passions, voices of anguish and yearning of our hearts as we draw closer to union with God who heals, comforts and completes us. At the same time they have a clear sense that one piece of stilling all of these is suffering from and in them as well. (It is impossible to satiate one's deepest hungers, needs and potentials unless, of course, we have allowed ourselves to feel these keenly and come to understand them right to their roots!)

I brought the PRH text,  Person's and their Growth,  because I am coming to a new place in my growth and need to reread the book from this new perspective. One question I have received from a reader recently (see below) has to do with my need to do this inner work/personal formation and whether it indicates that I was professed prematurely or was even unsuited to this vocation. The very cool thing about PRH is that it is about coming to wholeness and holiness in whatever call one has discerned. Yes, if a person has lived with profound woundedness from childhood or later in life, it is an excellent way to work with an accompanist and heal these wounds, but more profoundly (because deeper than this woundedness) the human person has a deep self, the one they are called to be and become over time and through the grace of God. PRH is focused on coming to live this deep true self in all of its fulness, so once one has done with the healing portion of things (or largely so) one continues on with the process.

What is especially astounding to me is the way the process works at all levels of the person's being and at whatever level of growth.  Though it rarely uses the word God, it is well conceived with God and the human potential which is God's eternal gift to us lying at our core at its heart. In-one-on one accompaniment (the kind my Director does with me) the work is explicitly Christian and faith-based --- because she and I are both Religious and bring the reality and language of grace and our personaly commitment to God into the entire process. Prayer and what occurs there is a regular feature of the work and the "process" and it is a joy to be able to speak of these things to someone who understands and lives them well --- indeed, far better than I do -- herself!

The question: [[Dear Sister, on the basis of what you recently wrote about the church's implicit commissioning of you to do the inner work you referred to, it seems to me that your need to do this work really could just mean you were professed prematurely or have no eremitical vocation at all. Shouldn't this kind of work be done before such important steps and decisions? You yourself have argued that it is best to have such personal work well in hand before seeking admission to profession as a hermit.]]

Response: It is possible that one's need for healing points to the fact that they have no call to eremitical life; they may well have embraced eremitical solitude because they can't live with themselves or others, because they have failed at life more generally and are seeking to escape all reminders of that, or done so prematurely because they are called to a more temporary period of therapeutic solitude during which they deal with whatever issues they have (bereavement, serious illness and other losses, etc.). But it is equally true that eremitical silence and solitude provide a proper context for undertaking the work of deep healing and reconciliation in an intense and focused way. Indeed, they are a very great gift of God in this undertaking. Each person with her Director's assistance will need to discern which is true --- and this means, of course, that it is possible to come to a point of healing where one also knows for certain that one is NOT called to eremitical life as a life vocation. But again, it is equally possible that one will find one is called to such ongoing and ever deepening work because one is called to holiness precisely as a hermit.

As I have written here before, in my  own work I have come to see the way God accompanied me my whole life and helped prepare the heart of a hermit. Physical solitude (not always voluntary or chosen) was almost always a part of that preparation as was my own awareness of God's presence. Thus, what has occurred is that I have found that with some fundamental healing accomplished, I am more certain than ever that eremitical solitude is meant to be the vocational context for the whole of my life and so I will also continue the personal formation through whatever comes next, and after that as well, and do so within the context of canon 603 profession and consecration. While, as you rightly note, I continue to believe that one's foundational healing needs to happen before admission to life profession the inner work I am speaking of is not merely about this kind of healing but about a deeper and deeper reconciliation of oneself with one's deepest self, with all of humanity and creation, and with God who is the very ground and source of one's being.

All of this is what I was referring to when I wrote in a recent post about the Church's act of professing me having implicitly commissioned me to undertake whatever healing and formative work was necessary, and to do so in an intense and focused way. My profession explicitly commissioned me to explore the depths and breadth of contemporary eremitical life under Canon 603. (Arch)bishop Vigneron explained this was so in his homily to me and to the assembly as a whole. What I am finding, what is affirmed again and again in many ways, is that it is eremitical solitude which is my vocation and which itself calls for something like PRH (some way of or approach to personal formation) and enables me to experience my call to ever greater depths and levels of personal wholeness --- beyond the healing of woundedness, beyond the relative comfort of life untroubled by such woundedness and fruitful in all of the ways one might live out this particular wholeness in parish ministry, the academy, hospital chaplaincy, or wherever --- and into a deeper call to genuine holiness in communion/union with God in and as an instance of the silence of solitude.

It is precisely my commitment and fidelity to my vocation which allows me to undertake this process of personal formation with the kind of depth and rigor it requires. As I began to do this work (and long before really), I realized freshly I was hungry for this kind of formation. I had had a sense of yearning for it in the Franciscans and later on as well. When I first began working with my spiritual director back in 1982 or so I fought her on this approach to personal growth, was resistant to it, distrusted it and was perhaps even frightened by it and the demands (and promises) it embodied. Sister Marietta didn't push, though she did offer bits and pieces that were helpful --- tools I could use without "buying the whole package," so to speak; she also continued to teach me whenever I needed her to, and kept encouraging me in ways which tacitly pointed to the power of PRH in spiritual/personal formation. I had no sense what a truly great gift she was offering me. And eventually I became capable of receiving it, and more eventually (within just the past few years, in fact), of seeing it as the great grace it is not just for personal healing of past wounds, but --- especially in conjunction with my eremitical life of assiduous prayer, Scripture, etc --- as a means to responding to God's invitation to genuine holiness and union.

Meanwhile, this early morning, here I am in the dark sunroom in the Dominican House (Our Lady of the Lake) at Tahoe. It is just 6 am, though I have been up for some time now, and the sun is beginning to show itself in the light pinkish brown aura and lightening sky above the mountains across the lake. I understand that somewhere in the sky beginning 28. December there will be a new celestial presence --- perhaps a comet which has never before made its appearance in this part of the universe. Christmastime is about newness of course, new birth, and it seems to me that this particular new celestial presence could well be prophetic -- as was true of the "star" that guided others to Jesus in Bethlehem. For me this presence will  mark a step into and along the deeper journey to personal holiness as I continue to explore the depth and breadth of my vocation in the constant presence of God and  with the support of my friends, parish, and the accompaniment of my Director. I hope the same sense of God's presence and accompaniment will be true for all of you in whatever way your journey takes you further and deeper into the great Mystery we call God! Merry Christmas!!

25 December 2019

Merry Christmas from Stillsong!!




All good wishes for a very Merry Christmas!! This feast of the Nativity of Jesus and the beginning of the Event we call Incarnation is a day for celebrating the God who would never leave us alone, never leave us to ourselves, never give up on us or allow sin and death the victory. I hope you all have a wonderful day with friends and family and that all whom you touch will be illuminated by the light that shines in the darkness -- the light of a Love that has chosen to dwell with us and make us its own! Peace and Joy to you and yours!!

24 December 2019

Followup to Whom is the Hermit Sent: On Eremitical Life and Chronic Illness


[[Thanks for your answer. I meant to ask you more specifically about how you view the relation of chronic illness and your eremitical vocation. I guess I let my questions get away from me. Do you see a vocation to chronic illness as prophetic? How does it fit with everything you wrote in your last post to me?]]

Thanks for following up. I should have made the linkage between chronic illness and eremitical life clear in my answer since it was there in your question. In any case, let me give you a brief answer now. 

I see chronic illness as something that sharpens everything else I said about allowing God to be God. Sometimes the love we know as God will heal us, sometimes not. But nonetheless God makes of our lives something meaningful and full if we allow this. Eremitical life is a call that allows us to serve others "simply" by being one who is completed by God, and by proclaiming the call to authentic humanity a covenantal reality. We are meant to be persons of hope, prophets embodying the Good News. To be prophetic is to speak God's Word into the present situation. We (those who are chronically ill) may or may not be able to minister in the ways most folks do and expect, but we are certainly able to allow God to love us and bring us to fulfillment through our weakness and in spite of our illness. That is the will of God we will proclaim with our lives -- and yes, in this we will be prophetic. I came to the notion of chronic illness as possible vocation before I came to an appreciation of eremitism. Only then did I see that the two could fit together with chronic illness sharpening the witness of eremitical life. I hope this is helpful.

22 December 2019

To What or Whom is the Hermit Called and Sent?

[[Dear Sister, you wrote recently about anointing as a prophetic sacrament and one which marks one's call or "commission" to be sick within the Church. How do you understand your own call to eremitical life? Do you feel called to be a prayer warrior or to teach Scripture? You were commissioned at your profession but what were you commissioned to do? Was it to pray? To do penance? Because you do some limited ministry in your parish do you see these things as part of your commissioning or mission? To what and to whom is the diocesan hermit sent?]]

Thanks for your questions and observations. Because of a conversation I had with a hermit living back East (soon to be perpetually professed under canon 603!), I think I may have written about this in the past two or three years but I can't find the post so I'll just start over. In that conversation we talked about the hermit being sent, but not being sent out to teach or nurse or do pastoral ministry as a chaplain might, but rather, being sent into the hermitage.  I want to enlarge on this idea; in doing so I will speak of the hermit's mission and the charism of her life which I identify as canon 603's "the silence of solitude".

Three and a half years ago, as some readers will know, I began a process of focused personal formation with my Director. It was a process of spiritual formation, but also of personal healing (the healing of memories, of trauma associated with chronic illness, etc) and  personal growth which supported my maturation as a theologian and hermit. The process was (and is) an intense one which demanded time taken from other things on my part and on the part of my Director as well. I remember saying to her, that the Church had professed me to live this vocation in her name and that if we discerned that this work was a piece of growing in this vocation then the Church had implicitly given me permission to undertake this work. I felt entirely free to undertake something which would demand time, energy, and certain limitations on writing, study, and limited ministry in my parish. What I did not say to Sister M (though I'm sure she knew this anyway) was that I thought this was actually part of the charism of an eremitical vocation, and part of what I was actually commissioned to undertake.

So what is the hermit called to and what is the charism (unique gift quality) of her vocation? More, what is she commissioned or missioned to do/live? Most simply put I think, a hermit is called to witness to the fact that human beings are completed by God, that God alone is sufficient for us ("My grace is sufficient for you, my power is perfected in weakness."), and that union with God is the goal and fulfillment of human life. I am not commissioned to go out into the world and teach or preach or do retreats, or even spiritual direction, etc --- at least I am not primarily called to these things! Hermits are not sent out into the larger world but into the silence and physical solitude of the hermitage so that in that desert environment -- with, in, and through Christ -- we may let God be God and be made into and be the human beings God calls us to be. If we succeed in this, then our lives will witness to Paul's affirmation about the sufficiency of grace in 2 Cor 12:9 and we will be a source of hope to those who need it most --- those estranged from God, themselves, and others, those who believe their lives are worthless or empty of meaning, those who have nothing to recommend them in terms of the powers and values of this world and who feel unloved and lost.

God alone is sufficient for us. No one and nothing else is. We are made for a love which is greater than anything we might have known or imagined apart from God. We are called to a life which transcends the limits and horizons of this entire world/cosmos. We are precious beyond saying, treasures in earthen vessels who are completed by the God who made all we know and summons it to fulfillment in Him. The love of/by others prepares us for this infinite, transcendent love but cannot replace it. Again, God alone is sufficient for us. Hermits are sent into the narrow confines of their hermitage in order to witness to the fact that this limited space (and this limited human life!) opens up onto eternity in God. They give themselves over to God in prayer and penance, study, spiritual direction and similar personal formation and, in every way they can, say yes to being God's counterpart, God's covenant partner. During this Advent season we prepare ourselves for a God called Emmanuel, a God who promises to be with us -- a healing, sanctifying, comforting and empowering Love-in-Act who will allow nothing to separate us from Him (Rom 8). Hermits say (and have been commissioned to say with their lives) that indeed God IS with us!!

The wholeness, peace, hope, and the cessation of all striving, fear, and anxiety in Christ, is what "the silence of solitude" refers to when it is seen as the goal of eremitical life. This "stillness" both leads to and is the result of eremitical solitude or communion with God. It is the essence of hesychasm. In a more immediate sense the silence of solitude is the environment of being alone with God, and in the more ultimate sense it is the gift (charism) which the hermit witnesses to/is for the whole church and world. We are each sent into the hermitage, a place of silence and solitude to allow God to make of us instances of "the silence of solitude" --- where solitude is defined in terms of wholeness and the fulfillment of individual truth/selfhood (holiness) in the Spirit of God.  Each person is a language event -- the embodiment or expression of the Word of God spoken within them to others. Hermits are a particular kind of language event, a contemplative instance of what canon 603 calls "the silence of solitude",  something formed in and ever so much richer than mere silence and solitude added together. The Church commissions her hermits to proclaim the Gospel to others in a way which allows them to hope in the promise of their own lives and look to God as the ground and source of all their truest potential and yearning.

Beyond this I personally do not feel called to be a prayer warrior --- though of course I pray for others and otherwise. I have written here in the past that the hermitage is a place where the hermit battles with demons, especially those of her own heart, so that God might be God exhaustively in space and time. However, the "warrior" description is something I personally dislike because it sounds too much like prayer is something I do rather than something God does within me. Because my education is in systematic theology with a foundation in Scripture I have discerned a call to do some Scripture/theology in my parish so the answer to this question is yes, I feel called to do this as well as spiritual direction and (perhaps) Communion Services once a week in our parish chapel on our pastor's day off. I also feel called to do this blog and to write more systematically re eremitical life, especially under canon 603. What seems clear to me is that these limited instances of apostolic ministry are the consequences of life in eremitical solitude. They come from it and they lead me back to it so that my prayer, study, lectio divina, and the work I do in personal formation become a direct gift to others. Let me be clear though: they could not function in this way unless they were expressions of who I am in Christ -- and so they lead me back to the hermitage cell where God and I speak, love, laugh, dance, sing, and cry together for the sake of the salvation of the whole cosmos.

To whom or what is the hermit sent, then? The hermit is sent to her hermitage in order to be there for God's own sake, that God might be God. This is true so that others might know themselves as made for God and fulfilled by God alone. She is sent into the hermitage for God's own sake so that the true measure of her humanity may be achieved in Him  and she may serve as a model for others. She lives from God in the solitary Christ so that others may know who God is, who we each are, and what God wants us and our world to be about. For this reason it is particularly important that hermits not be caricatures or stereotypes, and that their lives not be focused merely on their own salvation or perfection. Will they be perfected? Yes, but only as they give themselves over to God for God's own sake and the sake of a world in desparate need of God and all that God makes possible and dreams for us.

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Joseph as Icon of a Man Seeking to do Justice

As we approach Christmas during this season of Advent, it is a good time to consider the story of Joseph and his generosity with regard to Mary and Jesus.

[[. . .Especially poignant is the Matthean story of Joseph as the icon of one who struggles to allow God's own justice to be brought to birth as fully as possible. It is, in its own way, a companion story to Luke's account of Mary's annunciation and fiat. Both Mary (we are told explicitly) and Joseph (we are told implicitly) ponder things in their hearts, both are mystified and shaken by the great mystery which has taken hold of them and in which they have become pivotal characters. Both allow God's own power and presence to overshadow them so that God might do something absolutely new in their world. But  it is Joseph's more extended and profound struggle to truly do justice in mercy, and to be a righteous man who reveals God's own justice in love, God's salvation, that was at the heart of yesterday's Advent story.

The Situation:

I am a little ashamed to say I have never spent much time considering Joseph's predicament or the context of that predicament until this week. Instead I have always thought of him as a good man who chose the merciful legal solution rather than opting for the stricter one. I never saw him making any other choice nor did I understand the various ways he was pushed and pulled by his own faith and love. But Joseph's situation was far more demanding and frustrating than I had ever appreciated! Consider the background which weighed heavy on Joseph's heart. First, he is identified as a just or righteous man, a man faithful to God, to the Covenant, a keeper of the Law or Torah, an observant Jew who was well aware of Jeremiah's promise and the sometimes bitter history of his own Davidic line. All of this and more is implied here by the term "righteous man". In any case, this represents his most foundational and essential identity. Secondly, he was betrothed to Mary, wed (not just engaged!) to her though he had not yet taken her to his family home and would not for about a year. That marriage was a symbol of the covenant between God and his People Israel. Together he and Mary symbolized the Covenant; to betray or dishonor this relationship was to betray and profane the Covenant itself. This too was uppermost in Joseph's mind precisely because he was a righteous man.

Thirdly, he loved Mary and was entirely mystified by her pregnancy. Nothing in his tradition prepared him for a virgin birth. Mary could only have gotten pregnant through intercourse with another man so far as Joseph could have known --- and this despite Mary's protestations of innocence. (The OT passage referring to a virgin is more originally translated as "young woman". Only later as "almah" was translated into the Greek "parthenos" and even later was seen by Christians in light of Mary and Jesus' nativity did "young woman" firmly become "a virgin".) The history of Israel was fraught with all-too-human failures which betrayed the covenant and profaned Israel's high calling. While Joseph was open to God doing something new in history it is more than a little likely that he was torn between which of these possibilities was actually occurring here, just as he was torn between believing Mary and continuing the marriage and divorcing her and casting her and the child aside.

What Were Joseph's Options?

Under the Law Joseph had two options. The first involved a very public divorce. Joseph would bring the situation to the attention of the authorities, involve witnesses, repudiate the marriage and patrimony for the child and cast Mary aside. This would establish Joseph as a wronged man and allow him to continue to be seen as righteous or just. But Mary could have been stoned and the baby would also have died as a result. The second option was more private but also meant bringing his case to the authorities. In this solution Joseph would again have repudiated the marriage and patrimony but the whole matter would not have become public and Mary's life or that of the child would not have been put in immediate jeopardy. Still, in either instance Mary's shame and apparent transgressions would have become known and in either case the result would have been ostracization and eventual death. Under the law Joseph would have been called a righteous man but how would he have felt about himself in his heart of hearts? Would he have wondered if he was just under the Law but at the same time had refused to hear the message of an angel of God, refused to allow God to do something new and even greater than the Law?

Of course, Joseph might have simply done nothing at all and continued with the plans for the marriage's future. But in such a case many problems would have arisen. According to the Law he would have been falsely claiming paternity of the child --- a transgression of the Law and thus, the covenant. Had the real father shown up in the future and claimed paternity Joseph would then have been guilty of "conniving with Mary's own sin" (as Harold Buetow describes the matter). Again Law and covenant would have been transgressed and profaned. In his heart of hearts he might have believed this was the just thing to do but in terms of his People and their Covenant and Law he would have acted unjustly and offended the all-just God. Had he brought Mary to his family home he would have rendered them and their abode unclean as well. If Mary was guilty of adultery she would have been unclean --- hence the need for ostracizing her or even killing her!

Entering the Liminal Place Where God May Speak to Us:

All of this and so much more was roiling around in Joseph's heart and mind! In one of the most difficult situations we might imagine, Joseph struggled to discern what was just and what it would mean for him to do justice in our world! Every option was torturous; each was inadequate for a genuinely righteous man. Eventually he came to a conclusion which may have seemed the least problematical even if it was not wholly satisfactory, namely to put Mary away "quietly", to divorce her in a more private way and walk away from her. And at this moment, when Joseph's struggle to discern and do justice has reached it's most neuralgic point, at a place of terrible liminality symbolized in so much Scriptural literature by dreaming, God reveals to Joseph the same truth Mary has herself accepted: God is doing something unimaginably new here. He is giving the greatest gift yet. The Holy Spirit has overshadowed Mary and resulted in the conception of One who will be the very embodiment of God's justice in our world. Not only has a young woman come to be pregnant but a virgin will bear a child! The Law will be fulfilled in Him and true justice will have a human face as God comes to be Emmanuel in this new and definitive way.

Joseph's faith response to God's revelation has several parts or dimensions. He decides to consummate the marriage with Mary by bringing her to his family home but not as an act of doing nothing at all and certainly not as some kind of sentimental or cowardly evasion of real justice. Instead it is a way of embracing the whole truth and truly doing justice. He affirms the marriage and adopts the child as his own. He establishes him in the line of David even as he proclaims the child's true paternity. He does this by announcing this new Son's name to be Jesus, God saves.  Thus Joseph proclaims to the world that God has acted in this Son's birth in a new and way which transcends and relativizes the Law even as it completely respects it. He honors the Covenant with a faithfulness that leads to that covenant's perfection in the Christ Event. In all of this Joseph continues to show himself to be a just or righteous  man, a man whose humanity and honor we ourselves should regard profoundly.

Justice is the way to Genuine Future:

Besides being moved by Joseph's genuine righteousness, I am struck by a couple of things in light of all of this. First, discerning and doing justice is not easy. There are all kinds of solutions which are partial and somewhat satisfactory, but real justice takes work and, in the end, must be inspired by the love and wisdom of God. Secondly, Law per se can never really mediate justice. Instead, the doing of justice takes a human being who honors the Law, feels compassion, knows mercy, struggles in fear and trepidation with discerning what is right, and ultimately is open to allowing God to do something new and creative in the situation. Justice is never a system of laws, though it will include these. It is always a personal act of courage and even of worship, the act of one who struggles to mediate God's own plan and will for all those and that involved. Finally, I am struck by the fact that justice opens reality to a true future. Injustice closes off the future. In all of the partial and unsatisfactory solutions Joseph entertained and wrestled with, each brought some justice and some injustice. Future of some sort was assured for some and foreclosed to others; often both came together in what was merely a sad and tragic approximation of a "real future". Only God's own will and plan assures a genuine future for the whole of his creation. That too is something yesterday's Gospel witnessed to.

Another Look at Joseph:

Joseph is the star in Matt's account, the one who points to God and the justice only God can do. It is important, I think, to see all that he represents as Mary's counterpart in the nativity of Jesus (Son of David) who is Emmanuel (Son of the One who, especially in Jesus, is God With Us). Mary's fiat seems easy, graceful in more than one sense of that term. Joseph's fiat is hard-won but also graced or graceful. For Joseph, as for Mary, there is real labor involved as the categories of divinity and justice, law and covenant are burst asunder to bring the life and future of heaven to birth in our world. May we each be committed to mediating God's own justice and bringing God's future into being especially in this Advent-Christmas season. This is the time when we especially look ahead to Christ's coming and too, to his eventual coming to full stature when God will be all in all. May we never take refuge in partial and inadequate solutions to our world's problems and need for justice, especially out of shortsightedness, sentimentality, cowardice, evasion, or fear for our own reputations. And may we allow Joseph to be the model of discernment, humility, and courage in mediating the powerful presence and future of God we recognize as justice and so yearn for in this 21st Century.]]