23 November 2017

Happy Thanksgiving (partial reprise)

Personally speaking, I have had an amazing year and more, especially the past 18 months. For me, the work of those months is reaching some greater healing just at the end of the liturgical year and I can hardly say how grateful I am for it all. It has not been pleasant much of the time; it was downright painful for weeks on end, and at the same time it was a grace of God which healed, freed, and summoned to new life at every moment. Especially I experienced the consolation and challenge of a divine and humanly mediated love which has mainly supported me at every moment as it called me to leave behind ways of thinking, feeling, and being which had defined --- and sometimes crippled --- me and made me unable to respond adequately to God's call to abundant life. I think we are each called to know and to mediate this kind of love to others; it is the essence of any Christian vocation. For the hermit who is given time to focus on this kind of inner work as part of her growth in prayer and holiness it is especially an occasion of thanks.

Last year at this time my delegate sent me a copy of Nimo's song "Grateful". I had never heard it before (and I was a little surprised she would send me a "rap" song --- until I actually listened to it!) but it is truly wonderful and I want to share it here. Whether it is  because our liturgical year is coming to a close with thoughts of the creative act of God we know as judgment, because that same calendar is gifting us with Advent and the preparation for new beginnings, fresh commitment, and new birth or because some of us are US citizens celebrating Thanksgiving this week in the midst of national turmoil and anxiety, we have each been given today and the blessings it holds. Even in the midst of life's struggles and concerns, this day is a time to be grateful for all we have and are. Once again, as Dag Hammarskjöld wrote in Markings, "For all that has been, Thanks. For all that will be, Yes."

On Thomas Merton and Monastic Garb

Dear Sister Laurel, I read the following quotation from Thomas Merton which I thought was terrific. I wondered what you would say about it since you wear both cowl and other monastic garb. Would you mind commenting on it? I guess I also wonder if you agree or disagree with Merton's practice. [[I am deliberately discarding everything that can conjure up the artificial image of the monk in a cowl, dwelling in a medieval cloister. In this way I intend obviously, not to disparage or to reject the monastic institution, but to set aside all its accidentals and externals, so that they will not interfere with my view of what seems to me to be deepest and most essential.]] Thomas Merton, "Notes on a philosophy of solitude," Disputed Questions.

Thanks for a truly terrific question from one of the Merton texts I personally love the best. Let me say I agree completely with Merton's intention or aim. I also generally agree with the way he has chosen to live out this intention; insofar as this was the way that worked best to allow Merton so see clearly what is deepest and most essential about the eremitical vocation I agree 100% with his choice. However, I remember and have to remind readers that Merton remained a Trappist living on monastic grounds, supported by his Trappist community at Gethsemane. I think this strictly monastic context allows Merton to forego anything that struck him as artificial or a matter of mere "externals", especially in the portrait of contemporary eremitical life. But more than this, as I recall the entire discussion (a long note introducing the topic of a philosophy of solitude), what Merton wanted to do was point to the fact that solitaries need not be monks at all, but might be lay persons.

Thus his comments, when read in this specific context were not contributions to discussion of whether or not one should wear a habit and/or cowl. Instead Merton wanted to examine the essence of a call to solitude where the individual lives the most basic or essential existential isolation and loneliness common not only to every person but to God as well. More, he wanted to do so in a way which demonstrated its enormous and universal challenge and meaningfulness. To do this he did indeed eschew those things which are "accidentals" or mere externals and which pull the discussion in the direction of monastic life alone so that he might also include folks like Thoreau. Solitude as Merton portrayed it, is a fundamental existential characteristic of human and Divine life. To embrace it as vocation is to serve both God and Mankind in a radically significant way. Thus Merton stripped his discussion of artificial elements which would only speak to and of a monk in his cowl or a Medieval cloister.

But your question to me broadens the discussion some to include the notion of wearing monastic garb like a habit and/or cowl. Does doing so indicate one is more concerned with accidentals and externals than with those things which are most essential and of greatest import? Depends, of course. My own sense is that this is much more a problem at the beginning of vocations when wearing a habit is a novelty, when one is not really comfortable in it yet (and perhaps not even in one's own skin!), and before one has had the time to take seriously the essentials or that which is deepest. After all it takes time for one to begin living any vocation in a way which plumbs and reveals the depths of that call. Reflecting on what is deepest or essential  demands time and some intellectual formation and focused attention. One needs to become acquainted with the thought and lives of those who have gone before in whatever tradition is involved; additionally one needs to have lived and struggled with this same tradition enough to discover the depths of one's own faith and identity in Christ.

If you notice Merton's own practice you will see that he wore a habit at times and ordinary monastic work clothes at other times. I don't think he rejected monastic garb, nor do I think he was all that concerned with what he wore --- and this would include not eschewing the Trappist habit as something external as much as it might have included embracing it as something merely external. Merton was a Trappist and part of that tradition and life was the Trappist habit. Diocesan hermits today may or may not wear a habit and/or cowl. Those coming to c 603 life from some form of religious (cenobitical) life  will tend to wear a habit  which is a modification of what they already wore.

Those without any history in religious life may or may not wear a habit and if this is a first-time thing they will go through the same "stages" as anyone else: initial novelty and self-consciousness (often with a misplaced pride or sense of specialness), loss of self-consciousness and increasing identification with the tradition represented by the habit (often with an increased internalization of the values which transmute "specialness" into mission), and finally, the gradual or eventual making of the habit truly one's own (which may involve a sense that by the grace of God one's life embodies a special gift or charism to Church and world). Each of these "stages" represents a kind of deepening of one's appreciation of the vocation and the way one lives it. Each represents a shift to greater humility and communion.  The last stage (which is not really last but accompanies the other stages) emphasizes the way one's life imbues the habit with one's own story, while the penultimate stage (again not really a separate stage but a dimension present in each) emphasizes the way one's own story is shaped and sustained by a specific eremitical (or spiritual) tradition.

Eduard Schillebeeckx, a 20th C. Dominican theologian describes this same process in his essay entitled "Dominican Spirituality" in God Among Us.  [[For the most part people live by stories. I myself live by my own story. When I became a Dominican I linked my life story with the family Story of the Dominicans; as a result, my life story took on a new orientation and I picked up the thread of the story of the Order in my own way. So my own life has become part of the Dominican family story: a chapter in it. Through the story of the Order I have attained my own identity. Stories of the Dominican Order keep us together as Dominicans.
Without stories we should lose our memories, fail to find our own place in the present and remain without hope or expectation for the future. Thus as Dominicans we form a group by virtue of being our own storytelling community, which hands clown its own traditions within the wider story of the many religious communities, within the all embracing story of the great community of the church, and within the even greater community of humankind. This makes us our own special family, recognizable from all kinds of family characteristics. Some are major, some are minor, but none of them can be hidden.
In saying this, I have already said something about Dominican spirituality. The story of my life can be my own life story only in so far as it has become a chapter of the Dominican family story. The story of my own life extends and enriches the history of Dominican spirituality, while as a small almost infinitesimally small – almost infinitely small – chapter in it, it is at the same time relativized and criticized by the already older and wider story of the Dominican family. This makes me ask whether I really am not distorting this family story. So 1 am already others as a norm for Dominican spirituality. Furthermore, thank God, there are still Dominicans alive today. In other words, our story is not yet exhausted, completely told; there is still something to be said.]]

I understand the wearing of (and often, the well-considered choice to relinquish the habit in certain circumstances) part of this process of making a particular story one's own and assuming responsibility for being a living chapter in that story. It is only a part of the necessary deepening of an ecclesial vocation such as c 603 eremitical life, but in such a process when lived well it is certainly more than something which is merely an external and superficial element of living out one's call. For the solitary canonical hermit who must live "stricter separation from the world" in the midst of the world, the habit can be an especially challenging as well as indispensable piece of embracing both the mission and charism of her vocation. Those who choose not to wear a habit (and lay hermits who may not do so anyway) embrace characteristics like the call's hiddenness differently and  tell the eremitical story in a different way. So long as each hermit is acting in considered and prayerful ways they are an important part of the essence of the call and an expression of the depth such vocations demands.

I hope this helps as a start on this topic of habits.

17 November 2017

Pretense, Fraud, and the Transparency of Faith

I admit that I get a lot of questions by readers wondering about various online hermits and whether they are fakes or frauds. Recently my attention was drawn to a highly developed website constructed by a "hermit" who includes a similarly developed and self-serving philosophy of tithing allowing people to pay this person's living expenses, internet presence, "ministries", etc. Of course the person is dressed in a habit (he has never made canonical vows), has a number of "advanced degrees" listed all from a correspondence school he runs himself (listed at a residence he once used), etc. The immediate impression is weighty, especially given the liberal sprinkling of Latin phrases, papal symbols, references to canon law, and the included photo of a "doctorate" in Theology from his unaccredited "school"  --- but it all falls apart with a little bit of examination. Others call themselves "Catholic hermits" or "consecrated Catholic hermits" despite the fact that their only vows are private acts of dedication and the Church has not commissioned them to live eremitical life in the Church's name --- something only She can do. Some of these folks have worn a habit for so long and used titles so facilely that folks wonder how they can not be genuine (authorized canonically by the Church to live as hermits or religious). But they are not.

I remind myself that these people may be doing very good things with their lives. They may be splendid examples of God's power perfected in weakness and they may even be living exemplary eremitical lives in some senses. The problem for me is there is so much pretense involved that it is hard to excuse or even understand such lives as instances of grace winning out over weakness and incapacity. When there is outright deception and fraud it gets harder still to give the benefit of the doubt in this matter. And when I run into such persons or am asked questions about them, it is simply hard not to hear echoes of Jesus' warning about scandalizing the little ones and having a millstone hung around one's neck as one is thrown into the sea (cf Monday's Gospel lection). In any case I am reminded that pretense can give scandal and that it is a sure way to drown in a Christian life. However, there is a time and a place for me to answer queries and even to take appropriate action regarding such fraud. Generally speaking, my attention cannot be focused there except to hear these stories as cautionary tales about the danger of pretense and fraud in any eremitical (or Christian) life! And so should we all.

Our current lections from the Gospel of Luke have been challenging, especially to those unused to language designed to harpoon our complacency and outline what we are obligated to by our call from God. The Gospel lections from Monday and Tuesday were particularly challenging, as was last Friday's parable of the prudent Steward. In Monday's lection, as noted above, we are warned that we ought not give scandal to God's "little ones". Our faith is meant to be exemplary --- not a matter of show but of complete transparency to the life and power of God. When I was at St Mary's College (CA) in the 1970's I did my Major's senior project on Paul Tillich's Systematic Theology. In the process of reading Tillich I learned that he understood faith as, ". . .das Ergriffensein von dem, was uns unbedingt angeht,"**  or "A state of being grasped by an unconditional concern." (It is a sentence I still know better in German than I do the English!) In other words, faith is a matter of being taken hold of by a transcendent hope and need beyond all others. Pastorally speaking it means being grasped by God's own will and purposes, God's love and mercy; it means being shaken to our core by that which is ultimate rather than passing and superficial, and it means revealing this state and what makes it possible to others so that they too may be grasped in the same way. In such a life no pretense is possible much less outright fraud. Our lives are meant to be marked by miracles --- even if we are not aware of them ourselves. We are to live from a faith which moves mountains or pulls up densely rooted trees and tosses these into the sea.

In Tuesday's Gospel passage Luke's Jesus addresses any attitudes of self-congratulation or (again) complacency. Luke recounts the question of how his hearer would behave if a servant came in from the field and we were waiting for lunch. He has Jesus ask us if we wouldn't insist the servant get busy and fix and serve us our meal rather than allowing him to get washed up and rest a bit first --- and the text reads that of course we would insist in this way! It's on a par with the question about going off to save the lost sheep while leaving the 99 to fend for themselves! We are supposed to agree when Jesus asks us these kinds of  rhetorical questions but deep down we really think he's a bit crazy to think, much less ask us to think  like this. In this way Jesus manages to uncover our deepest selves; he troubles us and makes us reflect on who we are and how we believe and act. With Tuesday's lection the lesson cuts in a surprising way; we are asked to recognize that we are called to serve God in the same way a servant in Jesus' day was called to serve their Master. If we do this we are not doing anything worthy of congratulation or kudos. We are merely being the persons we are meant and made to be --- and made to be ceaselessly. (The fact that we are called unprofitable servants does not mean we are worthless; it means that what miraculous things we have done with our lives in light of our faith are only what we are made to do; there is no profit above and beyond that that we can bring to our account with God.)

Again, Luke's Gospel can be challenging and even downright difficult; the readings over the past week have certainly been that! What is true though is that Luke recognizes that we are each called to be afire with faith in a way which casts sparks in every direction and allows others to catch fire with that same faith (cf Tuesday's lection from Wisdom). Discipleship is a demanding reality; it has room for neither pretense nor fraud. It calls for  the gift of our entire life so that we might be the source of God's life to all we meet. But the life of real discipleship is also a life of joy and incredible satisfaction --- if only we will allow God to grasp and shake us to our very foundations, and remake us in the image, truth, and beauty of His Christ!

** Tillich, Paul, Wesen und Wandel des Glaubens (or Dynamics of Faith)

16 November 2017

The Parable of the Shrewd Steward

Awhile back I wrote that the evangelical counsels apply to all the baptized, though not in the same way. For instance religious men and women make vows of religious poverty and religious obedience while other Christians are responsible for a praxis of poverty and obedience appropriate to their state of life. Those not in the religious or consecrated state must live simply and attentively as befits a disciple of Christ but must also take on all those responsibilities the laity is expected to assume whether those of raising a family, building and running a business, participating in public office, etc etc. Especially they  must learn to handle material wealth of all sorts appropriately. The parable in last Friday's Gospel reiterates this lesson in the same language as we hear in the affirmation that we must be gentle as doves and shrewd as serpents. Because of the unlikeable nature of the characters in the story and a tendency to treat this as an analogy we might miss this fact.

The parable of the prodigal (and prudent) steward (sometimes called the dishonest steward) is known as one of the most difficult and "off-putting" parables in the entire corpus. Scholars note that more ink has been penned in regard to this parable than most all others. The situation it describes is seemingly straightforward. A property manager is accused of being prodigal with the wealth of his Master. He is found out and told by his Master that he will be sacked. Upon looking at his prospects he realizes that since he is too weak to work as a manual laborer ("too weak to dig") and too proud to beg he needs to do something to secure his future. In a culture where one who is done a favor by another is strictly indebted to the other to return the favor, the manager goes to each of the Master's client villages and has them cut the amount they owe the Master by a substantial degree. To the one owing  100 measures of wheat he has them cut it to 80. To the one owing 900 gal of oil he has them cut it to 450 gal. To his own prodigality it seems he has now added inciting to forgery and fraud. And yet, is this really the way things stand?

A few things we should pay attention to before we leap to judgments: First, the amounts "owed" have likely had a degree of interest added up front to skirt the legal prohibition against usury. Thus, if a village owed 83 measures of wheat and the Master wanted to gain 20% interest he (and his manager or steward) would have written the contract for @100 (99.6) measures and no interest in order to "honor" the Torah. Thus it may be (and a number of commentators assert) that the manager is only cutting off the interest on the principal. Secondly though, we need to understand that the steward (manager) has complete authority to act in the name of the Master, and that means that whatever he does is valid --- including cutting the amounts owed. (The furtiveness of his action belies this in this parable but it remains "the way things were" when one acted in the name of another.) Thirdly, while he has been accused of "scattering" the Master's property, there is nothing he does which makes him guilty of illegality from the get go. Structurally this parable mirrors Luke's parable of the merciful Father or prodigal Son; he is prodigal at first but no more or less. Fourthly, while we may not like to hear that God is like the Master or Jesus like the steward, we need to remember that the parable is not an allegory. Instead it is an analogy and compares at only one point, namely, what shrewdness the children of this world have and how like them the Children of Light should be but using the values of the Kingdom of God to guide and inspire!

Once these things have been considered and once we pay attention to the fact that the Master never applauds the steward's dishonesty but rather his shrewdness or prudence we may have a better sense of how the parable instructs us. If we look very carefully we must see that the Master may lose nothing because he regains a prudent steward with an "in" with the tenants or client villages. It is unclear he actually loses any of the principle (goods) owed him (commentators disagree on the matter). The steward has the same kind of "come-to-Jesus" moment the prodigal Son does. It is not a wholehearted conversion experience any more than is that of the prodigal Son, but he seeks to secure himself in a humbling way and may improve his lot with the Master as well. We simply don't know this but given the Master's praise for the steward's shrewdness it is a possibility. Finally the tenant farmers benefit by having a large amount of the property owed forgiven them. If the steward is taken back by the Master they are also unlikely to have to pay on the favor done them. In other words everyone wins!

If we Christians use a similar shrewdness but as driven or motivated and informed by the principles of the Gospel and Reign of God, we will be doing well indeed! We are told to be gentle as doves and clever as serpents in other texts. Here we are reminded to use our wealth prudently and to make friends of others so that we might have heavenly friends. In this regard I admit I am always stunned to see folks depend upon financial managers, go to school for MBA's, and so forth even while they tend to embrace a theology or approach moral theology and prayer in a way which is no more sophisticated than a grade school education allows. But in light of this "crisis parable" the steward's question, "What should I do?" must also be our own. Our Christian lives are meant to respond to this very same decision or "krisis (κρισις)" and reveal an even greater shrewdness in regard to possessions and the way we structure our world which is rooted in and reflects the reign of God. It is one of the primary ways the baptized Christian without a public vow of religious poverty is attentive to the evangelical counsel of "poverty".

03 November 2017

Apologies and Thanks!

[[Dear Sister Laurel, where are you??? No pressure. I just wondered if you are okay or have been on retreat or something. I miss your posts.]]

Thanks to a number of readers who asked after me in the past week or so. I have not been on retreat nor am I directly affected by the horrific wildfires in the North Bay; even so the past six weeks or so have still been difficult for me and writing is one of the things that suffers as a result. This last month is the first time I have been unable to put up at least a few posts. So please accept my apologies. I am certainly not abandoning this blog and plan to continue writing as I have done for more than ten years. Hopefully that will be in the very near future! Meanwhile if you have questions or if I have not yet posted a response on a question, could you be sure and email me again at SRLAUREL@aol.com? Also please keep me in your prayer as I will do with you. That would mean a lot to me. As St Francis would have closed, Pax et bonum!

04 October 2017

Feast of St Francis

Pax et bonum, peace and all good to all my Franciscan Sisters and Brothers on this Feast of St Francis!!

Divine Judgment as a Missed Opportunity for Receiving Grace (Reprised)

In tomorrow's readings, there is one of the most chilling images of judgment I have ever read. No, there is nothing about God's anger, or the fires of hell, or other dramatic and apocalyptic images of such scenes we so often imagine. Instead there is a picture of opportunities lost, of a word unheard, a response ungiven, an apostle unrecognized, and the brief ritual of someone looking on and shaking the dust from her sandals while saying, "The Kingdom of God is at hand for you." How often does the worst judgment against us come in terms of our simple failure to recognize and respond in the present moment to the God who comes to us in this person proclaiming the very best news we could ever be offered?

I imagine a village (or a city) full of people going about their work, restless in all the usual ways people are restless, concerned in all the normal ways people are concerned in everyday life, busy in all the varied ways people will and must be busy. Most are completely unaware of the apostle who has shown up on their "doorstep" so-to-speak. They will never hear the words, "The Kingdom of God is at hand for you today!" and they will not even be aware as the apostle leaves again, having shaken the dust from her sandals! Yet in that moment of unawareness, that "non-moment," judgment has come and gone, and indeed, even Sodom will not be in as much trouble as the one who has simply missed God's overture on this day. It is so easy to picture --- it is so simple, so quiet, so routine, so unremarkable --- yet, it is a moment of judgment (the Greek word KRISIS, or decision, fits SO well here). The image chilled me deep down precisely because of this complete ordinariness.

Contemplative life --- something we are each called to, I believe --- is essentially one of dwelling in the present moment (this is almost a cliche today but most of the time I think people confuse it for being focused on today's agenda or today's "to-do" list!). But really, it means being obedient (attentive and responsive) to reality in all the ways we can, and with all the levels of our being. We are ALL called to be contemplatives in this sense of the word (that is, we are all called to this kind of obedience, this kind of "hearkening"). Sometimes our attention can be drawn away from the Word being spoken in our midst by activity, worries, other voices we DO attend to. Sometimes, we refuse to dwell in the present moment because we are disproportionately concerned with past injuries or future hopes --- our own bitterness over how things have unfolded in our lives, and our own frantic efforts to cause something to unfold in the way we envision it! Sometimes we are afraid of the Word (or the silence it requires to be heard), and we have distanced ourselves from it with activities full of their own noise (reading, TV, music, computer, etc). Most often, our own hearts are simply so full and noisy that the apostle (and the One she heralds!) walks through unnoticed, her peace remaining unshared, leaving unrecognized footprints and small drifts of sand as tacit testimony to the awesome judgment passed on us in this moment.

In today's first reading the people of Israel (or was it Judah?) have to be urged to recognize that today (this very moment, in fact) is Holy, and they are commanded to turn from their sadness to rejoice in the Lord. Eventhough it was the reading of the Law itself which reduced them to grief, they were not really hearing what was being said, or at least not ALL of what was being said. Repentance for sin, grieving for the past, amendment of purpose, and planning for the future are important, and the Word of God certainly occasions these, but with God's Word comes real rest as well, genuine joy. It is a Word which allows us to rest in IT, a word which makes a Sabbath of our busy lives, and a place to be ourselves when we have been, and often seem unable to create, any other. Of course, sometimes such rest may never come, the place we so yearn for can be lost to us because of the preoccupations of our minds and hearts, the Word spoken within or from outside us goes unheeded --- empty of issue, void --- and becomes instead a Word of judgment against us.

What I think the lections from today suggest is that as momentous as such judgment is, it happens routinely, moment by moment, and in mainly undramatic ways. And that is what is so very chilling for me in today's image of this. I can imagine being addressed tonight (or right now!): "The Kingdom of God was at hand for you today, Laurel, and you were simply too busy to listen, too preoccupied to attend to it, too full of your own thoughts and concerns, too caught up in what was "important" (or frightening, or disappointing, or exciting, etc.) to even notice! I sent an apostle to you today --- poor, [ordinary], in every way someone just like you --- and you never even saw her, much less gave her a hearing! Neither did you notice when she simply shook the dust from her sandals in judgment against you while still proclaiming the coming of My Kingdom for you!" More likely, despite the truth of all that, what I will hear when I FINALLY hearken is simply, "Laurel, I Love you!" (or just, "Laurel," said with unimaginable love) and there will be an accompanying sense of great (indeed, infinite!) patience along with an unabashed Divine joy that I have finally managed even this single moment of attention! It is the very same Word I more typically do not hear, the same word which turned to judgment on God's lips, in the face of my more usual deafness.

No, contemplative life (all truly attentive and prayerful life, is not mainly about peak experiences, ecstasies, and awesome insights (though it may certainly be sprinkled with these). It is about being truly present to the present moment, to the inbreaking of God's Future and the One who is its source. Neither is judgment awesome in its imagery of anger, fire, and destruction; it is terrifying in its ordinariness, in coming silently to pass within us without notice, without drama, even without appreciable affect --- except over time, as death, chaos, and meaninglessness replace life, order, and meaning. Indeed, in light of such ever-present judgment --- as the psalmist reminds us --- "If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?"

01 October 2017

Everyone is called to the Evangelical Counsel of Poverty

In the readings from two Fridays** ago one of the themes which stood out was that of poverty especially expressed in the phrase "the poor in spirit" of the responsorial psalm. In my own life I have recently been reminded of the various ways this crucial value has been embodied in the life of the Church. For instance, a cloistered nun may have a solemn vow of poverty and this means she is unable to own anything at all; even more it means she must get permission for anything she needs in order to accept gifts, etc. I was reminded of this recently because I am in contact with a cloistered nun who is discerning a vocation to eremitical solitude and wishes to discern a vocation to canon 603 or solitary consecrated eremitical life. One of the things which will need to change significantly should Sister make the transition to exclaustration and then eventual profession as a diocesan hermit is her theology and vow of poverty; this is just one of the things which will take real discernment, prudence, and courage on her part. I say this because diocesan hermits are self-supporting, have no religious community with communal resources or others to administer our property, and must shape the content of our vows of poverty and the way we approach material wealth  accordingly.

Apostolic religious also vow poverty but generally speaking they have greater freedom than cloistered religious to do what they determine is needed in making purchases and so forth. Communities work out budgets and something akin to allowances for each Sister and most will have credit cards which allow them to buy what they need with appropriate discretion. The Sisters I know include what is called a cession of administration which cedes the administration of any property, inheritance, etc. they may receive or be given to another (usually the community or congregation). This is required by canon law and some diocesan hermits have been required by their dioceses to do the same despite the fact that poverty seen in this way is an essentially communally oriented vow. Meanwhile for apostolic religious the major expenses of each Sister are taken care of by the congregation. Still, such Sisters today will require Medicare or Medicaid and other assistance because congregations are increasingly poorer while their Sisters get older. Even so, these Sisters too vow a very real poverty and though it is shaped differently than that of the cloistered religious it is embraced with joy as one of the "Evangelical counsels" it is.

My own vow of poverty must reflect the fact that I, as a diocesan hermit, have much greater responsibility for money, bank accounts, possessions, insurance and other expenses than the average Apostolic Religious. At the same time it must be a vow of poverty that is recognizable as such. Thus, I defined poverty therein first of all in terms of my own radical human poverty and my complete dependence on the Life and presence of God. Everything else in my life and in my Rule flows from that. I affirm both poverty and great wealth in my vow but these have little to do with day to day finances. On the other hand to live this vow is to ensure that I do not turn to material goods for a sense of wealth or wellbeing. It asks that I see all of reality with a reverence for its sacramentality as God's creation and that I use it with appropriate care. Because I am self-supporting I could not vow the kind of poverty cloistered monastics do; neither could I embrace the kind of poverty my director does, for instance --- though my life is much closer to hers than to my friend who is a cloistered nun. As noted above some c 603 hermits do have a cession of administration, especially if they own property, a hermitage, hold inheritances, or become a 501c(3), but I do not (I do not own a hermitage or property, have not  become a 501c3, and because I am a solitary hermit my diocese did not require it).

The vow reads:  [[I recognize and accept the radical poverty to which I am called in allowing God to be the sole source of strength and validation in my life. The poverty to which my brokenness, fragility, and weakness attest, reveal that precisely in my fragility I am given the gift of God’s grace, and in accepting my insignificance apart from God, my life acquires the infinite significance of one who knows she has been regarded by Him. I affirm that my entire life has been given to me as gift and that it is demanded of me in service, and I vow Poverty, to live this life reverently as one acknowledging both poverty and giftedness in all things, whether these reveal themselves in strength or weakness, in resiliency or fragility, in wholeness or in brokenness.]] I wonder who among us could not embrace the values in or make such a vow in some way.

So why is all this important? It is important because the readings from two weeks ago were meant to give us all a strong sense that each of us is called to embrace some real and recognizable form of poverty. What may not be known particularly well is that every Christian is called to embrace poverty in some real sense. The Evangelical Counsels are just what they say they are: namely, Gospel counsels binding on every baptized person who is called to proclaim the Gospel with their lives. These Counsels are not just for religious but for every Christian! Now, granted, this does not mean that every person will make vows in the same sense that Religious men and women do. Those responsible for families could not possibly make a vow like my director or I much less like my cloistered nun friend. It would be irresponsible. Instead Such persons must earn money, buy property and pay for all the things involved in living a healthy family life which allows children to be adequately educated, clothed, etc. And yet at the same time such folks are responsible for living the Evangelical Counsel in some substantive way.

As I understand Christian poverty it means our affirmation that God is our treasure and the ONE who is necessary if we are to live reverently and treat all things, places, and persons as gifts and as sacred. I believe if we can accept our own very human poverty in light of the unconditional and gratuitous Love of God, we will use material wealth and goods with a similar reverence. We will hold these things lightly, use them carefully, and buy them only as needed. We will be generous with them as God is generous with us (remember the parable of the two servants we also heard recently). My own vow may be a kind of paradigm of a vow that allows individuals to shape what it means in concrete material terms. In a cloistered context the congregation's proper law as well as canon law will spell out what this means. In an apostolic Religious' congregational context the institute's constitutions will spell out the shape the Evangelical Counsel of poverty will take. In the life of a diocesan hermit, the hermit's own Rule of Life will include a theology of poverty and specific ways the counsel is shaped in order to honor both poverty and the need to be self-supporting. A family or a single person, a retired widow or widower will shape these things as they discern they are called to.

Again, as I have written here before, [[the heart of religious poverty for me is dependence upon God which issues in a reverence for all that is part of my life. This attitude shapes my approach to owning and spending, to using and having, to acquiring or giving back, but it also shapes the way I see myself and others. Because God is first and last in importance, because he is the source of my life's meaningfulness and richness, and because I am committed to allowing that to be more and more true as life goes on, this means that I really have less need to own things, less need for novelty instead of the real newness God brings to everything and less need to shore up my own poverty and brokenness with "stuff."]] We are each called to embrace the Evangelical Counsel of poverty and shape it as is appropriate for our state and form of life. We do this as persons who are rich in God, secure in Christ, and made capable of proclaiming this in the power of the Spirit.

N.B., I should note that there are a number of "Evangelical counsels" but the three we recognize immediately are poverty, chastity and obedience. While not everyone is called to  enter the consecrated state by making public profession of these with vows and are not called to chastity in celibacy, religious obedience with legitimate superiors, or religious poverty, every Christian is meant to live some version of these three Counsels as significant values.

** 1Tim 6:2-12, Ps 49:6-10, 17-20, Lk 8:1-3

25 September 2017

Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (reprise)

Yesterday's Gospel is one of my all-time favorite parables, that of the laborers in the vineyard. The story is simple --- deceptively so in fact: workers come to work in the vineyard at various parts of the day all having contracted with the master of the vineyard to work for a day's wages. Some therefore work the whole day, some are brought in to work only half a day, and some are hired only when the master comes for them at the end of the day. When time comes to pay everyone what they are owed those who came in to work last are paid first and receive a full day's wages. Those who came in to work first expect to be paid more than these, but are disappointed and begin complaining when they are given the same wage as those paid first. The response of the master reminds them that he has paid them what they contracted for, nothing less, and then asks if they are envious that he is generous with his own money. A saying is added: [in the Kingdom of God] the first shall be last and the last first.

Now, it is important to remember what the word parable means in appreciating what Jesus is actually doing with this story and seeing how it challenges us today. The word parable, as I have written before, comes from two Greek words, para meaning alongside of and balein, meaning to throw down. What Jesus does is to throw down first one set of values -- one well-understood or common-perspective --- and allow people to get comfortable with that. (It is one they understand best so often Jesus merely needs to suggest it while his hearers fill in the rest. For instance he mentions a sower, or a vineyard and people fill in the details. Today he might well speak of a a CEO in an office, or a mother on a run to pick up kids from a swim meet or soccer practice.) Then, he throws down a second set of values or a second way of seeing reality which disorients and gets his hearers off-balance. This second set of values or new perspective is that of the Kingdom of God. Those who listen have to make a decision. (The purpose of the parable is not only to present the choice, but to engage the reader/hearer and shake them up or disorient them a bit so that a choice for something new can (and hopefully will) be made.) Either Jesus' hearers will reaffirm the common values or perspective or they will choose the values and perspective of the Kingdom of God. The second perspective, that of the Kingdom is often counterintuitive, ostensibly foolish or offensive, and never a matter of "common sense". To choose it --- and therefore to choose Jesus and the God he reveals --- ordinarily puts one in a place which is countercultural and often apparently ridiculous.

So what happens in yesterday's Gospel? Again, Jesus tells a story about a vineyard and a master hiring workers. His readers know this world well and despite Jesus stating specifically that each man hired contracts for the same wage, common sense says that is unfair and the master MUST pay the later workers less than he pays those who came early to the fields and worked through the heat of the noonday sun. And of course, this is precisely what the early workers complain about to the master. It is precisely what most of US would complain about in our own workplaces if someone hired after us got more money, for instance, or if someone with a high school diploma got the same pay and benefit package as someone with a doctorate --- never mind that we agreed to this package! The same is true in terms of religion: "I spent my WHOLE life serving the Lord. I was baptized as an infant and went to Catholic schools from grade school through college and this upstart convert who has never done anything at all at the parish gets the Pastoral Associate job? No Way!! No FAIR!!" From our everyday perspective this would be a cogent objection and Jesus' insistence that all receive the same wage, not to mention that he seems to rub it in by calling the last hired to be paid first (i.e., the normal order of the Kingdom), is simply shocking.

And yet the master brings up two points which turn everything around: 1) he has paid everyone exactly what they contracted for --- a point which stops the complaints for the time being, and 2) he asks if they are envious that he is generous with his own gifts or money. He then reminds his hearers that the first shall be last, and the last first in the Kingdom of God. If someone was making these remarks to you in response to cries of "unfair" it would bring you up short, wouldn't it? If you were already a bit disoriented by a pay master who changed the rules of commonsense this would no doubt underscore the situation. It might also cause you to take a long look at yourself and the values by which you live your life. You might ask yourself if the values and standards of the Kingdom are really SO different than those you operate by everyday of your life, not to mention, do you really want to "buy into" this Kingdom if the rewards are really parcelled out in this way, even for people less "gifted" and less "committed" than you consider yourself! Of course, you might not phrase things so bluntly. If you are honest, you will begin to see more than your own brilliance, giftedness, or commitedness; You might begin to see these along with a deep neediness, a persistent and genuine fear at the cost involved in accepting this "Kingdom" instead of the world you know and have accommodated yourself to so well.

You might consider too, and carefully, that the Kingdom is not an otherwordly heaven, but that it is the realm of God's sovereignty which, especially in Christ, interpenetrates this world, and is actually the goal and perfection of this world; when you do, the dilemma before you gets even sharper. There is no real room for opting for this world's values now in the hope that those "other Kingdomly values" only kick in after death! All that render to Caesar stuff is actually a bit of a joke if we think we can divvy things up neatly and comfortably (I am sure Jesus was asking for the gift of one's whole self and nothing less when he made this statement!), because after all, what REALLY belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? No, no compromises are really allowed with today's parable, no easy blending of the vast discrepancy between the realm of God's sovereignty and the world which is ordered to greed, competition, self-aggrandizement and hypocrisy, nor therefore, to the choice Jesus puts before us.

So, what side will we come down on after all this disorientation and shaking up? I know that every time I hear this parable it touches a place in me (yet another one!!) that resents the values and standards of the Kingdom and that desires I measure things VERY differently indeed. It may be a part of me that resists the idea that everything I have and am is God's gift, even if I worked hard in cooperating with that (my very capacity and willingness to cooperate are ALSO gifts of God!). It may be a part of me that looks down my nose at this person or that and considers myself better in some way (smarter, more gifted, a harder worker, stronger, more faithful, born to a better class of parents, etc, etc). It may be part of me that resents another's wage or benefits despite the fact that I am not really in need of more myself. It may even be a part of me that resents my own weakness and inabilities, my own illness and incapacities which lead me to despise the preciousness and value of my life and his own way of valuing it which is God's gift to me and to the world. I am socialized in this first-world-culture and there is no doubt that it resides deeply and pervasively within me contending always for the Kingdom of God's sovereignty in my heart and living. I suspect this is true for most of us, and that today's Gospel challenges us to make a renewed choice for the Kingdom in yet another way or to another more profound or extensive degree.

For Christians every day is gift and we are given precisely what we need to live fully and with real integrity if only we will choose to accept it. We are precious to God, and this is often hard to really accept, but neither more nor less precious than the person standing in the grocery store line ahead of us or folded dirty and disheveled behind a begging sign on the street corner near our bank or outside our favorite coffee shop. The wage we have agreed to (or been offered) is the gift of God's very self along with his judgment that we are indeed precious, and so, the free and abundant but cruciform life of a shared history and destiny with that same God whose characteristic way of being is kenotic. He pours himself out with equal abandon for each of us whether we have served him our whole lives or only just met him this afternoon. He does so whether we are well and whole, or broken and feeble. And he asks us to do the same, to pour ourselves out similarly both for his own sake and for the sake of his creation-made-to-be God's Kingdom.

To do so means to decide for his reign now and tomorrow and the day after that; it means to accept his gift of Self as fully as he wills to give it, and it therefore means to listen to him and his Word so that we MAY be able to decide and order our lives appropriately in his gratuitous love and mercy. The parable in today's Gospel is a gift which makes this possible --- if only we would allow it to work as Jesus empowers and wills it!

15 September 2017

Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows (Our Lady of Compassion)

I think it is sometimes difficult for us to allow Mary to truly accompany us in our struggles. That is because we Catholics have the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception the affirmation that somehow, through the merits of Christ's own death and resurrection, Mary was preserved from the state of original sin and sometimes it has been suggested that she cannot, therefore, suffer. It is important to understand however, that theologians recognize four forms of suffering which are inherent in human life even apart from any situation of estrangement and alienation from God. Every one of us experiences these forms of suffering because they are part and parcel of human existence. They are necessary if we are to grow to maturity in our truest vocations, namely being authentically human with and from God. The Scriptures tell us Jesus grew in grace and stature; Mary did the same and shows us what it means not only to be a Woman of Sorrows but also a woman of great faith, hope, and compassion (this feast was originally named after Mary as Our Lady of Compassion). As such she is a model of our own vocations and one whom we trust to be with us in every difficulty.

The four forms of suffering which exist apart from any state of sin are 1) aloneness or loneliness, 2) limits, 3) anxiety, and 4) temptation. It is possible to look at the Creation and Garden of Eden narratives in Genesis and find each of these present before any sin enters the picture; again, they are necessary if we are to grow in grace and stature. Aloneness is necessary if we are to be moved to fellowship, to community or union with others. As Douglas John Hall** comments. [[love presupposes the element and experience of separation]] or again, [[Thus, loneliness which is certainly a cause of much human suffering, is at the same time a kind of prerequisite of what Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 names the "greatest" of all creaturely capacities, the capacity of love.]] The experience of limits is necessary if we are to experience transcendence or the reality of being gifted. Without limits we could not dream; we could not experience wonder, surprise, or gratitude. Anything and everything at anytime would be the rule and we neither would nor could significantly develop the capacity for self-control or sacrifice under such a rule. Everything would be ours; we would have a right to anything at anytime. Nothing would ever truly be a gift to us. We would never learn to prioritize our desires or needs, nor would there be any need to work towards something, share with others, or sacrifice our own needs for the needs of the other. Growth and transcendence as well as generosity and selflessness presuppose the experience of limits and though this experience causes us suffering, it is inherent in human life.

The third form of suffering which is similarly inherent even apart from sin is temptation. Since our humanity is a task set before us, something we must achieve in the decisions we take and the choices we make --- most particularly in the choices we make for God, for the good, loving, and true, we will also be faced constantly by alternative realities and the possibility of choosing other than that which is worthy of us. We create the persons we are called to be precisely by meeting the reality of temptation, discerning what calls us to greater wholeness and holiness, and choosing this reality. Our capacity for morality makes temptation necessary. Our capacity for freedom does the same. We must know temptation if we are to grow more deeply rooted in the God who calls us to love freely. Temptation is the presupposition for achieving integrity and even nobility as human persons. Temptation is clearly present in the Garden of Eden narrative in Genesis. Adam and Eve are told, "You may eat of every tree in the garden EXCEPT the tree of knowledge of good and evil (note the imposition of limits and the possibility of choices here)." And Eve is tempted. Her long dialogue with the serpent (an externalization of what she is thinking here) is thus an externalization of her temptation to do other than God wills; in fact this dialogue or bit of theologizing is a paradigm of what temptation looks like for us!

The fourth form of suffering inherent in the human life even apart from original sin is anxiety. At every moment we are threatened by death in all of its degrees and forms.**** We are threatened by non-being. Our capacity to act courageously and affirm life and God in the face of this threat; to choose these rather than other lesser (less ultimate), more immediate, and less mysterious forms of security, matures as we embrace our anxiety and trust the promises of God instead. To become people of genuine hope means to take on the threat of non-being, to believe in the God that is Being-itself and embrace more and more completely the Gospel in which sin and death are defeated precisely in weakness and kenosis (self-emptying). Today's readings, but especially the responsorial psalm, make clear the transcendence and ultimate security that comes only from affirming (trusting in) God in the face of death: [[I bless the LORD who counsels me; even in the night my heart exhorts me. I set the LORD ever before me; with him at my right hand I shall not be disturbed. R. You are my inheritance, O Lord. You will show me the path to life, fullness of joys in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever.]] Like temptation, anxiety in the face of death in all of its degrees and forms is essential if we are to grow as human beings who live in dialogue with God and look to Him for the peace nothing and no one else can give.

Mary, Our Lady of Compassion and also Our Lady of Sorrows knew all of these forms of suffering very well. If you look at the seven sorrows which marked her life it is easy to distinguish these forms. Mary knew genuine courage, had pondered in her heart the will of God which grounded her courage, and again and again chose to trust (him) who "brings good out of all things for those who believe". In every situation in spite of terror and pain and even personal "inadequacy" in the face of Sinful existence, Mary chooses to hang onto the God who promises to redeem all of reality by bringing it to fulfillment within himself. In other words, time and again Mary says yes to an ongoing, constant dialogue with God as she embraced the task of  becoming fully human. She does indeed grow in grace and stature to become the one we identify as a paradigm of authentically human faith, courage, hope, and compassion. Thanks be to God!

** Hall, Douglas John, God and Human Suffering I cannot recommend this book by Douglas John Hall more highly. Hall's work is generally focused on the Theology of the Cross, especially as it takes shape in a Northern American context. I first read this maybe 30 years ago and have reread it several times. It is a fine introduction to the nature and theology of suffering and a call to become people who can suffer with courage and faith.

***The painting at the top of the post is Brother Mickey McGrath's Madonna of the Holocaust. I used this painting today in a service I did for the parish as part of my reflection on the feast and readings. The second illustration is Mickey's painting of the fourth station of the cross and one of the seven sorrows. I love this image. Mary is mountain-like and immovable in faith and compassion. She is wounded by the same crown that encircles and pierces her Son's head, yet she consoles him. Jesus rests in her lap for the moment and the moment seems timeless. Jesus holds onto her as she hangs onto God and God's promises, tightly, desperately, in both peace, and terrible pain. Both paintings are perfect images for this feast of Our Lady of Sorrows/Compassion and are available in various forms and sizes from Trinity Stores.

**** While we are threatened by death in all of it's forms and degrees, the form and degree of death uniquely associated with sinful existence is "godless death" --- also known as eternal death or second death. It is death in which one is eternally separated from God and the life of God. Mary knew anxiety because she was threatened by natural (not sinful) death, a natural and transitional form of perishing.

14 September 2017

Feast of the Exaltation (Triumph) of the Cross (Reprise)

[[Dear Sister Laurel, Could you write something about [today's] feast of the Exaltation of the Cross? What is a truly healthy and yet deeply spiritual way to exalt the Cross in our personal lives, and in the world at large (that is, supporting those bearing their crosses while not supporting the evil that often causes the destruction and pain that our brothers and sisters are called to endure due to sinful social structures?]]

The above question which arrived by email was the result of reading some of my posts, mainly those on victim soul theology, the Pauline theology of the Cross, and some earlier ones having to do with the permissive will of God. For that reason my answer presupposes much of what I wrote in those and I will try not to be too repetitive. First of all, in answering the question, I think it is helpful to remember the alternative name of this feast, namely, the Triumph of the Cross. For me personally this is a "better" name, and yet, it is a deeply paradoxical one, just like its alternative.

(Crucifix in Ambo of Cathedral of Christ the Light; Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, or Cathedral Sunday in the Diocese of Oakland)

How many times have we heard it suggested that Christians ought not wear crosses around their necks as jewelry any more than they should wear tiny images of electric chairs, medieval racks or other symbols of torture and death? Similarly, how many times has it been said that making jewelry of the cross trivializes what happened there? There is a great deal of truth in these objections, and in similar ones! On the one hand the cross points to the slaughter by torture of hundreds of thousands of people by an oppressive state. More individually it points to the slaughter by torture of an innocent man in order to appease a rowdy religious crowd by an individual of troubled but dishonest conscience, one who put "the supposed greater good" before the innocence of this single victim.

And of course there were collaborators in this slaughter: the religious establishment, disciples who were either too cowardly to stand up for their beliefs, or those who actively betrayed this man who had loved them and called them to a life of greater abundance (and personal risk) than they had ever known before. If we are going to appreciate the triumph of the cross, if we are going to exalt it as Christians do and should, then we cannot forget this aspect of it. Especially we cannot forget that much that happened here was not the will of God, nor that generally the perpetrators were not cooperating with that will! The cross was the triumph of God over sin and sinful godless death, but it was also a sinful and godless human (and societal!) act of murder by torture. (In fact one could argue it was a true divine triumph only because it was also these all-too-human things.) Both aspects exist in tension with each other, as they do in all of God's victories in our world. It is this tension our jewelry and other crucifixes embody: they are miniature instruments of torture, yes, but also symbols of God's ultimate triumph over the powers of sin and death with which humans are so intimately entangled and complicit.

In our own lives there are crosses, burdens which are the result of societal and personal sin which we must bear responsibly and creatively. That means not only that we cannot shirk them, but also that we bear them with all the asistance that God puts into our hands. Especially it means allowing God to assist us in the carrying of this cross. To really exalt the cross of Christ is to honor all that God did with and made of the very worst that human beings could do to another human being. To exult in our own personal crosses means, at the very least, to allow God to transform them with his presence. That is the way we truly exalt the Cross: we allow it to become the way in which God enters our lives, the passion that breaks us open, makes us completely vulnerable, and urges us to embrace or let God embrace us in a way which comforts, sustains, and even transfigures the whole face of our lives.

If we are able to do this, then the Cross does indeed triumph. Suffering does not. Pain does not. Neither will our lives be defined in terms of these things despite their very real presence. What I think needs to be especially clear is that the exaltation of the cross has to do with what was made possible in light of the combination of awful and humanly engineered torment, and the grace of God. Sin abounded but grace abounded all the more. Does this mean we invite suffering so that "grace may abound all the more?" Well, Paul's clear answer to that question was, "By no means!" How about tolerating suffering when we can do something about it? What about remaining in an abusive relationship, or refusing medical treatment which would ease mental and physical pain, for instance? Do we treat these as crosses we must bear? Do we allow ourselves to become complicit in the abuse or the destructive effects of pain and physical or mental illness? I think the general answer is no, of course not.

That means we must look for ways to allow God's grace to triumph, while the triumph of grace always results in greater human freedom and authentic functioning. Discerning what is necessary and what will really be an exaltation of the cross in our own lives means determining and acting on the ways freedom from bondage and more authentic humanity can be achieved. Ordinarily this will mean medical treatment; or it will mean moving out of the abusive situation. In all cases it means remaining open to and dependent upon God and to what he desires for our lives in spite of the limitations and suffering inherent in them. This is what Jesus did, and what made his cross salvific. This openness and responsiveness to God and what he will do with our lives is, as I have said many times before, what the Scriptures called obedience. Let me be clear: the will of God in any situation is that we remain open to him and that authentic humanity be achieved. We must do whatever it is that allows us to not close off to God, and to remain open to growth as human. If our pain dehumanizes, then we must act in ways which changes that. If our lives cease to reflect the grace of God (and this means fails to be a joyfilled, free, fruitful, loving, genuinely human life) then we must act in ways which changes that.

The same is true in society more generally. We must act in ways which open others to the grace of God. Yes, suffering does this, but this hardly means we simply tell people to pray, grin, and bear it ---- much less allow the oppressive structures to stay in place! As the gospels tell us, "the poor you will always have with you" but this hardly means doing nothing to relieve poverty! Similarly we will always have suffering with us on this side of death, and especially the suffering that comes when human beings institutionalize their own sinful drives and actions. What is essential is that the Cross of Christ is exalted, that the Cross of Christ triumphs in our lives and society, not simply that individual crosses remain or that we exalt them (especially when they are the result of human engineering and sin)! And, as I have written before, to allow Christ's Cross to triumph is to allow the grace of God to transform all the dark and meaningless places with his presence, light and love. It is ONLY in this way that we truly "make up for what is lacking in the passion of Christ."

The paradox in today's feast is that the exaltation of the Cross implies suffering, and stresses that the cross empowers the ability to suffer well, but at the same time points to a freedom the world cannot grant --- a freedom in which we both transcend and transform suffering because of a victory Christ has won over the powers of sin and death which are built right into our lives and in the structures of this world. Thus, we cannot ever collude with the powers of this world; we must always be sure we are acting in complicity with the grace of God instead. Sometimes this means accepting the suffering that comes our way (or encouraging and supporting others in doing so of course), but never for its own sake. If our (or their) suffering does not result in greater human authenticity, greater freedom from bondage, greater joy and true peace, then it is not suffering which exalts the Cross of Christ. If it does not in some way transform and subvert the structures of this world which oppress and destroy, then it does not express the triumph of Jesus' Cross, nor are we really participating in that Cross in embracing our own.

10 September 2017

Treat Them Like Gentiles and Tax Collectors (Reprised)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

04 September 2017

God Alone is Enough (Reprise)

Because of recent posts and the phrase "God alone is enough" which I have used therein, I have been asked if this isn't misanthropic, anti-Christian, or downright isolationist --- all things I often and consistently write against. In Lent 2012 I posted the following piece which describes the meaning of this difficult affirmation. An added section (italicized) is included on the place of friendship and other significant relationships which, I hope, clarifies some of the brief comments in the original piece.

[[Hi Sister! What does it mean to say that God alone is enough? I need my family and friends and I wouldn't be the person I am without them. Does saying God Alone is Enough mean that we don't need others? Does it mean something different for you as a hermit than for me as a single teacher?]]

Wonderful questions! The phrase God Alone is Enough is an ambiguous one, meaning it has different and overlapping meanings which can also be misunderstood. So, for instance, the word "enough" can either basically mean we don't need anyone or anything else in our lives, or it can mean that God is the one reality which answers every fundamental or foundational need and completes us as persons. For most persons, the truth is that in adulthood we do not come to human wholeness apart from our relationships with other people and so it is ordinarily the case that the affirmation God alone is enough refers to the second sense: only God is sufficient to truly complete us, to empower us to the transcendence of genuine humanity, to serve as the source and ground of being and meaning in our lives.

This is especially true when one asks what the word "alone" means. Does it mean the person needs no one and nothing else besides God? Does it mean one can go one's own way motivated merely by individualism (what monastic life critically refers to as
singularitas) and even a form of narcissism? Does it mean that one can dismiss the world around them as unworthy of their spirituality and live a kind of falsely "spiritualized" isolation? Or, again, does it mean that only God can answer every human need and complete us as persons? In every case, that is, for every person [whether hermit or not] it means the latter. For most people their reliance on God as the foundation of their lives will actually lead to more -- and more healthy -- personal relationships, not to fewer much less to less healthy ones. Only in the case of hermits or anchorites does it mean that the hermit relies on God alone to the significant and lifelong limitation or relative exclusion of human relationships. We do this not only because we are called to do it for ourselves and for God who desires and wills our love, but again because it witnesses in a rather vivid way to that foundational relationship which stands at the core of every person.

So yes, my sense of the meaning of this phrase may be different than yours in some ways. The two senses I have spoken of also overlap to a significant degree though. By the way, as we approach Holy Week it is important to note that the church will be looking at a related way in which "God alone is enough." What we will hear proclaimed is the fact that only God can overcome sin and death: only God is that love which is stronger than death, only God is generous enough to empty himself completely and become subject to the powers and principalities of our world so that they might also be defeated. I will write about that a bit more though in the next weeks.
[Please note, when I spoke above of the relative exclusion of human relationships I really mean the accent to be on relative. Hermits are not misanthropes but at the same time they limit contact with others for the sake of the witness they are called to regarding the foundational place of God in every human life. Hermits, at least in my experience,  because again they are not usually recluses or ordinarily called to reclusion, must cultivate some few but quality relationships --- friends, directors, and those who accompany them in more "professional" or formal ways --- not only because there are real limits on the number of relationships in which the hermit can actually participate if their solitude is to be real, but because at the same time one's physical solitude requires such significant, even "sacramental," relationships if it is to be the rich and nourishing environment of the heart hermits require and commit to in the name of the Church.

It is hard to describe this paradox but it is linked to the distinction between being merely alone and living the silence of solitude. Consider that the ecclesial nature of this vocation provides a communal context for all authentic eremitical solitude; within this ecclesial context there will be the sustaining warmth, love, challenge, discipline, and consolation of the kinds of relationships I mentioned above --- limited though these will necessarily be. Each will mediate the presence and will of God in ways which supplement the way God comes to us in physical solitude and solitary prayer. Each will help shape the human heart in ways which allow it to embrace God fully -- and be more fully embraced by him -- in the rigors of solitude. They will thus also help the hermit maintain her commitment to all dimensions of the truth that "God alone is enough" for us --- but (and this is the sharpest form of the paradox) especially the solitary dimension she has freely embraced and is publicly responsible for.]

A Contemplative Moment: On Pilgrimage and Finding Ourselves

One day you realized that what you wanted
had already happened long ago and in a dwelling place
you had lived in before you began,
and that every step along the way, you had carried
the heart and the mind and the promise
that first set you off and drew you and that you were
more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way
than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach:
as if all along, you thought the end point might be a city
with golden towers, and cheering crowds,
and turning the corner at what you thought was the end
of the road, you found just a simple reflection
and a clear revelation beneath the face looking back
and beneath it another invitation, all in one glimpse:
like a person and a place you had sought forever,
like a broad field of freedom that beckoned you beyond;
like another life, and the road still stretching on.
David Whyte
from Pilgrim