18 May 2017

Questions When a Diocese Does not Respond as one Feels is Appropriate

[[Dear Sister, I have discerned a vocation to be a hermit. I want to be a diocesan hermit and I think that is what God is calling me to. The diocese doesn't seem willing to believe me or my discernment. They are putting me off. The Vicar has said it will be at least two years and maybe even five years before the diocese would let me make vows. Even then it would be temporary vows. Why won't the diocese trust me in this? They act as though the discernment I have done is not worth anything at all! I asked if I could be publicly recognized as a candidate to c 603 hermit life and they said no they don't do that. What does it take to convince them? Could you write them about this?]]

Thanks for your questions. I know personally that it is difficult to hear one has to wait, and more to wait for some years, before a diocese decides they will profess one as a diocesan hermit. Even then profession is not certain and a diocese can refuse for various good and legitimate reasons including coming to the conclusion that one is not suited to this vocation or even to eremitical silence and solitude lived in the name of the Church. It is important to remember two things:1) if you are called to this the process, so long as it is honest on all sides and not overly protracted**, will not do anything but assist your growth in this vocation. 2) Remember too that what you are seeking from the diocese is the right to represent the eremitical life as it is lived in the Church's name. You are seeking permission to live an ecclesial vocation, not just any form of hermit life (for there are many!), but hermit life as the church understands, defines, and puts it forth as a unique and very rare witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Church is therefore responsible for the eremitical vocation itself; it belongs to her and that means she must be as sure as she can be that the candidate is called by God to do this and more, that the hermit can, does, and will continue live this life for the rest of her days.

In the same way then, the solitary hermit must show that she  too is seeking to live eremitical life in a way which witnesses to it as an ecclesial reality. She must be seeking to live eremitical life as the Church understands, defines, and commissions people to live it; she must also show that she CAN do these things in a way which convinces others she does so by the power of the Holy Spirit. Her life must witness to the victory of God in Christ over the powers of the world --- not because she can speak piously or mouth "Lord, Lord," but because in Christ she has become someone who knows and lives "the silence of solitude" for the sake of God's Church and World. This witness, which itself is a gift to the Church, has some very specific qualities or characteristics. These are spelled out in canon 603 and is expressed as well as in the Church's own eremitical tradition and other canon law. The hermit cannot simply "go it alone" in proposing that the church profess and consecrate her; this is so because the hermit is claiming to be a gift of God living eremitical life, which is itself a gift to the church. For this reason the Church has the right, obligation. and need to examine everything. She has a right and obligation to determine the nature and quality of the vocation which sits in front of her and does so with the candidate in a process of mutual discernment.

** overly protracted: a reasonable period of preparation for temporary profession is probably anywhere up to 7 years or so, depending on the situation. It does not take a diocese this long to get up to speed on the vocation but the nature of the vocation and the candidate's situation --- so long as the candidate wishes to proceed -- may necessitate extended discernment. Beyond this the diocese needs to make a decision regarding admission to temporary vows or termination of the process of discernment.

Temporary Profession:

All of this points to a learning process. The Church (in the persons in charge of vocations, the Vicar for Religious, and finally, the Bishop) is now obligated to learning about eremitical life and what canon 603 life looks like today. Beyond that they have to discern the candidate's experience of and ability to live an eremitism which embodies the same values and qualities. This takes time, especially if the diocese is like most and have never professed, consecrated, or supervised a canon 603 vocation. But it also means the candidate has some learning to do. That is especially true if she has no background in religious life! The learning process usually occurs over time and once the Church determines the person is ready to make profession (public vows) it is usually prudent to require temporary profession several years (3-5 yrs is usual) before perpetual or solemn profession.

The vows, whether temporary or perpetual, require the candidate to give her entire self. One doesn't hold anything back because vows are temporary. At the same time even temporary profession changes the hermit's life in significant ways. Sometimes for instance, for the first time ever the life of the evangelical counsels is lived under the supervision of a legitimate superior. For the first time everything is seen and done within the lens of these counsels because the hermits is bound morally and legally to do so. For the first time the hermit takes on the Church's own eremitical tradition as her own; she assumes a place in this living stream in a conscious way because she is commissioned to do so by the Church.

With profession, and especially perpetual profession and consecration, she becomes a hermit OF the Diocese of (Name) rather than simply being a privately committed hermit living in that diocese. Invariably the professed hermit is challenged to integrate the new facts of her life and to assume a new way of seeing herself in light of a new and ecclesial identity. Living eremitical life in one's own name is a very different experience than it is to live that life in the name of  the Church as a Catholic hermit representing a place in the Church's eremitical tradition by virtue of moral and legal bonds. Despite strong similarities in eremitical praxis, an ecclesial vocation is not the same as one which is not ecclesial. One can live as a hermit for years without also having a vocation to c 603 eremitical life and without being prepared to live eremitism as an ecclesial vocation. Similarly one can also do so nominally without ever truly making the transition from lone person to hermit or without genuinely taking on the bonds and relationships that move one from hermit to canonical hermit.

The period of temporary vows allows one to grow in one's understanding of this vocation from the inside; one comes to embody it and as this commission is embraced, to discern whether one is called to live it for the rest of one's life. In almost every ecclesial vocation within the Church temporary commitments are understood as prudent and ordinarily, as essential. While they allow the Church to discern further re the vocation in front of them, they also allow the individual to grow and mature in what is a new reality, a new identity for them. In short, temporary vows are a good idea and an opportunity for all involved to grow in their understanding of this vocation in preparation for a definitive profession. Not least these periods of temporary profession allow the hermit to prepare to write a Rule of life which is ready for perpetual profession. It will be a Rule which appreciates the nature and importance of this new state of life, the relationships which are central to it, the evangelical counsels, the place of canon law in its regard, its ecclesial dimension and public responsibility. One cannot write a Rule which adequately treats these realities until one has lived them. Temporary profession is ordinarily the time one gets this specific experience.

If one decides during this time that one does not have this vocation or if the diocese decides this is the case, the person can still live eremitical life. They can continue to do so in the lay state with private vows or with no vows at all. Again, an eremitical vocation may not also be a call to live this life in the name of the Church in the consecrated state; even so,  these various forms of eremitism are all significant, all of similar value.

Public Recognition as a Candidate:

I believe I have written about this once before several years ago. In 2011 this question was posed in Questions on When to Approach One's Diocese. What I pointed out there was that neither Canon 603 nor things like The Guidebook to this vocation put out by the Diocese of La Crosse specify a formal period of candidature. Since each vocation is unique and develops according to a unique timetable it makes sense that this is so. These vocations also develop in hiddenness. Until one is admitted to public profession, whether to temporary or perpetual vows, one has made no commitment, accepted no additional ecclesial or canonical responsibilities or obligations, etc. This informal period I have referred to as candidature can end tomorrow or extend for a number of years. Because it is essentially undefined and entirely individual and because one has no additional rights in law during this time identifying it with public recognition makes little sense.

Writing your Diocese on your Behalf:

This is the third or fourth time I have been asked to write someone's diocese on their behalf. In a couple of those I was being asked to write to provide information on the c 603 vocation. What you and others may be unaware of is that dioceses reading about this vocation sometimes contact me if they desire assistance in some way. Sometimes that involves conversations on how the vocation is lived, what eremitical life is and is not, the content of Canon 603, how to approach the process of discernment and determining if an individual seems suitable as a candidate, major reservations in that regard, etc. I respond as asked and if I am asked to speak with a candidate, whether or not in an evaluative sense, I will do that. I will also do what I can when asked for assistance by someone who wishes to become a c 603 hermit. But I do not write dioceses without their first contacting me nor do I write letters of recommendation unless I know the person well and can do this in good conscience.

Please remember that the discernment your diocese must do takes time -- sometimes a long time. If you are called to this vocation then you are called to live eremitical life anyway --- no matter how long the diocesan process takes. Use the time to read and study and pray. Become knowledgeable about the history of eremitical life, the nature of the vows you propose to be allowed to make, the nature of consecrated life in the Church and so forth. Work regularly with your spiritual director and focus on growing as a human being and as a hermit. If you can do all these things while continuing to discern your vocation, the time it all takes will not be problematical; instead it will serve you and your diocese itself well by providing an example of the patience and perseverance of one called and committed to God and God's own in the silence of solitude. It will also serve c 603 well should you be admitted to public profession and consecration and perhaps even if you are not.

I hope this is helpful.

15 May 2017

"When We are Born We Start to Die": Embracing Death as Decision

[[ Hi Sister, what you write on death as decision makes me think of the kinds of things people say like, "When we are born we start to die." Except I always thought of this as something we moved towards like we might approach a terrible and destructive thing. I mean weren't we meant to be immortal? We aren't meant to die! But your posts made me see the saying about "When we are born we start to.die" as something positive. If we are saved from death and if we were originally immortal then how can this be?]]

Thanks for your questions. Some are easier than others! Let me begin with your observations about the old saying, "When we are born we start to die." In one sense, the one we all learned, this saying is a bit depressing and scary. Once we are born we begin the inexorable movement toward the complete end of the life we know here. We move toward the moment "when this world has neither time nor place for us" as my major theology professor used to say. This is death in the sense of dissolution, loss, impermanence, and the threat of nothingness. But, if death is a decision, and especially if it is, as Jesus shows us, an act of entrusting ourselves totally, exhaustively to the God whose love for us is eternal and stronger than death, then the saying, "When we are born we start to die," takes on an entirely new sense, something positive as you say, and immensely challenging. It defines the nature of being human, of maturing in that -- growing into wholeness and holiness; and it describes the task underlying Christian discipleship, namely, dying to self and living into God.

Remember that to say we are "meant to be immortal" means to say we are meant to exist in and from God, nothing less and nothing else. We live eternally in and from God. That has always been true. Our souls are immortal because God never ceases "breathing" them forth, not because they stand as immortal in and of themselves. Whether we are speaking about our own original condition or our destiny the idea of immortality or eternal life is based on our relationship with the God who is eternal source of life. Even the story of the Garden of Eden centers on the rupture of the relationship between mankind and God, and with that rupture comes the loss of eternal life. That is a central lesson of the narrative. It is also possible to read the narrative in what is sometimes called a "diachronic" sense -- that is, as an account of what lays ahead of us as well as an account of primordial origins.

At every moment, according to the Genesis accounts, we choose either life or death. That is, we choose to know (in the intimate Biblical sense) both good and evil or we choose to know only God and what is of and from God. And as we make those choices we either die to self and live unto God, or we reject that choice. With each decision we grow in our humanity or we reject it and all it entails. With each choice we prepare ourselves for the final choice, the definitive act of entrusting ourselves to God --- or we fail to do so. Either we mature towards death-as-decision and eternal life in and from God, or we do not.

When we understand death as a decision we have spent our entire lives preparing for, there is no question that we are meant to die. Death is then the most natural event of our lives, the fulfilment of faith -- of trust in God, the most human act we are called to. But only when we understand death as decision, and more specifically, as decision for God.  What we are not meant for is what the Scriptures know as sinful or godless death --- death unto loveless, empty, nothingness, meaninglessness, oblivion. This is the death that gains ascendency whenever we fail to choose life with and from God, whenever we choose false self over the true self, whenever we grasp at life rather than receiving it as gift, whenever greed overtakes gratitude and we fill our lives with the ultimately disappointing and empty. Ultimately this pattern of choices leads to the potential of grasping at self and choosing emptiness in an absolute or ultimate way. This is the death you rightly say we are not made for.

In each of these you can see the antithetical meanings of the saying, "When we are born we start to die." In actual fact the two forms of death: physical dissolution, and preparation for our definitive choice of God overlap or coincide throughout our lives. But it is up to us to decide which one of these primarily defines our understanding of the saying. When I was born I began the move towards physical dissolution, but at the same time I began to make choices for life in and from God, choices for eternal life which is experienced here and now in a proleptic and partial way and which can and is meant to be chosen in an ultimate and absolute sense --- the decision we know as death. If we let physical dissolution occasion the primary meaning of this saying, we might miss completely the real meaning --- the definitive choice for God and eternal life which we prepare and create a greater (or lesser) capacity for every day of our lives.

This latter sense of the saying is what we mean by "dying to self". It is the dynamic of prayer; when we learn to pray we learn to die and vice versa--- both mean saying yes to living in and from God. Both require a dying to (false) self and a living from the Spirit. Whatever helps us to say yes to living also helps us to say yes in death. It is what we are talking about when we speak of  seeking or doing the "will of God" or the process of kenosis (self-emptying) which is really the core dynamic of the selfless love of Christ. This is all a very different approach to dying than is common today. It asks us to learn to welcome it, to nurture our capacity for it rather than distracting ourselves from it, ignoring and evading it,  fighting it in every way we can, and otherwise treating it as an enemy. What once was an enemy is no longer that in Christ; instead it is the event we are meant for in which we give ourselves over entirely to God.. When Christians repeat the statement, "When we are born we start to die," they must also mean, "When we are born we start to [learn to] give ourselves over to Life itself."

Paul described this double movement or meaning in next Sunday's second reading: For Christ also suffered for sins once. . . Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit. Remember that "flesh" means the whole self under the sway of sin. Thus, this saying of Paul describes both Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection and the daily dynamic of kenosis we are each called to embrace as we prepare ourselves for the radical decision we call death.

12 May 2017

Becoming a Catholic Hermit: Canon 603 and the question of "other institutes"

[[Dear Sister, I have read the Catechism's paragraphs on eremitical life and canon 603. Where do I find the Church's other institutes on the eremitical life? I am asking because of the following statement in the Catholic Hermit blog: [[There are older posts that I've written in detail as to the Roman Catholic Church's institutes on the eremitic life--briefly stated in 920-921 of The Cathechism (sic) of the Catholic Church and further addition in the briefly stated CL 603.]] This was part of an article on becoming a Catholic Hermit, a kind of how-to article --- though I honestly don't think she really answers the question. Can I ask you the same question someone asked the other hermit, how does one become a Catholic hermit? Where do I find these other institutes on the eremitic life? No one I have asked seems to know. Do they refer to using private vows?. . .]]

Thank you for the question. And thanks too for your patience. I know it has been several weeks since you first wrote me. One term which seems to have been misunderstood by the writer you are referencing when she read canon 603 is "institutes". Unfortunately that misunderstanding has, in part, caused her to misinterpret the nature of canon 603 per se and some other things essential to understanding the Church's approach to contemporary eremitical life. It was a fatal misunderstanding so let me start with the term "institutes." Please understand this is important if one is to really answer the question, "How does one become a Catholic Hermit"?

A fatal Misunderstanding:

In the above cited sentence and in other similar blog pieces, "institutes" seems to mean a body of ordinances, laws, and norms other than the content of paragraphs 920-921 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) or c 603 of the revised Code of canon Law (CJC). This usage is sometimes found sprinkled variously throughout non-Catholic ecclesial groups (thus The Institutes of Calvin, for instance) but the Roman Catholic Church does not use the term in this sense. Instead, in canon law and elsewhere it refers to any and all societies of consecrated life as institutes. Thus when canon 603 says, "Besides institutes of consecrated life, the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life. . ." she means "Besides societies of consecrated life, the Church recognizes the (solitary) eremitic or anchoritic life. . ."  Canon 603 is universal in scope, that is, it applies to the entire Church; it is the only law or set of norms which specifically apply to eremitical life in the Roman Catholic Church except for the proper law of Institutes of Consecrated Life which are canonically established societies under the canons appropriate for all canonical religious congregations.

Excursus: Proper law is law which does not apply to the entire Church; it is not universal. All communities, congregations, Orders, Confederations, etc have their own proper Law, namely, Constitutions and Statutes which are approved by the Church (by Bishops or the Holy See) and pertains or is PROPER to them alone. For that matter, the c 603 hermit composes a Rule which is approved by the Church and constitutes the hermit's own "proper law". (Meanwhile, in order not to have to type or otherwise explain the important canonical and other distinctions between these Orders, congregations, communities, societies, etc., --- these various groups of religious, et al, --- the Church simply refers to all and each of these as "institutes" of consecrated life.) End Excursus.

To reiterate, canon 603 reads, "Besides institutes of consecrated life the Church recognizes the eremitical or anchorite [form of] life. . ." and means simply that besides Institutes of Consecrated Life (including Orders like the Camaldolese Benedictines, the Carthusians, and the Carmelites which are either composed of hermits or allow explicitly for hermits in their Proper Law the Church recognizes and provides for in Universal (canon) Law the [solitary] eremitical or anchoritic life. The meaning of the term "institutes" in this context does not refer to other sets of laws, ordinances, statutes, or norms besides the canon recognizing and providing for eremitical life under canon 603! It means societies of consecrated life not sets of norms in addition to canon 603, especially which predate canon 603.

So why is this important? Why does it matter that canon 603 is not one canon on the eremitical life among many other ordinances or statutes, for instance? It matters because unlike the paragraphs of the Catechism which describe in summary fashion something that is true in the Catholic Church, Canon 603 "recognizes" and establishes in law for the first time in universal or Canon law the eremitical life lived under the authority and in the name of the Church. This canon is somewhat analogous to what are referred to as speech acts, acts of performative language which make real what they say. Canon 603 recognizes, establishes, defines (meaning it sets the content and limits of this reality right here and right now) and makes real in universal law and Catholic life something which has never before existed in the Church, namely the possibility of a solitary person living eremitical life in the consecrated state (or in a "state of perfection" to use Bp Remi De Roo's original and older language) apart from membership in an institute of consecrated life --- AND to do so in the name of the Church. In other words, with Canon 603 the Church has broadened the category of "religious" to include THESE professed and consecrated hermits. It does so with and in THIS Canon and NOWHERE ELSE. (cf Handbook on Canons 573-746 for observation on the term "religious")

Most of the time we read the canon and attend to the central elements it includes. This is critical, of course; we need to know how the canon defines eremitical life in this paradigmatic norm. But we must also attend to what it makes real for the first time in universal law and to the fact that it acts by making something real in the entire Roman (or Western) Church, as I said above, the possibility of living solitary eremitical life in the consecrated state as well as in the name of the Church. In this it is absolutely new and unique.

Canon 603 does not "briefly state" the contents of "other institutes" on the eremitical life. It is not a summary or an added "proviso," as the author of the blog you cited has sometimes asserted. There are no other institutes except in the sense c 603 uses the term. Canon 603 especially then does not simply add a few additional conditions or options for more structure or provisions for those who like these kinds of things (public vows with public rights and obligations, legitimate superiors, "temporal involvement") instead of the purely "spiritual" concerns of most hermits whom, "the Lord prefers to keep. . .more to himself" --- as the author cited has also written. Canon 603 is the norm which makes real in ecclesiastical law the vocation of solitary Catholic Hermit. Moreover, it is universal; it is the way solitary hermits become Catholic Hermits in every diocese in the Roman Catholic Church. Again, there is no other way nor has there ever been. 

Becoming a Catholic Hermit:

As you will find I have said before, the term Catholic Hermit does not merely mean one who is Catholic and a hermit. It has a more technical or specific meaning than that. It means one who has publicly been entrusted by the Church with and embraced through vows (or other sacred bonds) the rights and obligations associated with living the eremitical life in the name of the Roman Catholic Church. This occurs through public profession and consecration whether this occurs as a member of an institute of consecrated life (Camaldolese, Carthusian, etc) making profession in the hands of a legitimate superior of this congregation or as a solitary hermit making profession in the hands of the local bishop under canon 603. There are no other ways to become a Catholic Hermit.

So how does one become a Catholic Hermit? One has two possibilities and only two. One either goes through the steps to enter and become formed and definitively professed in a canonical community of hermits or one works with one's diocese to discern and be admitted to profession (public vows) as a diocesan (canon 603) hermit. If one chooses the first option the community will supervise the candidate's admission process, formation, discernment throughout, eventual admission to temporary profession and, after a number of years, to perpetual or solemn profession. In either/any case one does NOT become a Catholic hermit via private vows and self-"consecration"  (dedication!). In contrast to private vows, both options described above are canonical forms of life and require mutual discernment (representatives of the church and the candidate discern together) as well as public profession and consecration. You can find other posts here which address times frames, preparation at various stages, discernment, and so forth, in other posts; please check the labels in the right hand column.

 Regarding private vows, let me reiterate here that these represent significant acts of self-dedication. As you will note in other posts here, I have said that we do not refer to private vows as an act of profession because they do not initiate one into the consecrated state of life nor, therefore, do they involve extending or embracing the public rights and obligations associated with initiation into the consecrated state of life. This includes identifying oneself as a Catholic hermit, which means one publicly professed and commissioned to live this life in the name of the Church. As a way of underscoring this those writing on this topic note that even when one has been finally professed and consecrated and then seeks to have their vows dispensed, while they remain consecrated (consecration per se cannot be undone) they are no longer in the consecrated state of life. Neither can they call themselves "religious" or a "consecrated hermit", for instance. This is because dispensation from public vows means release from the public bonds, rights, and obligations which constitute the heart of what the Church refers to as a stable state of life.

Private vows, significant as they are in their own way, are entirely private acts which do not change one's state of life or involve ecclesial rights and obligations beyond those conferred with baptism. I stress this first because the author of the Catholic Hermit blog consistently ignores, or misconstrues and misrepresents this fact. Secondly, that is important because you are (or were) reading her blog while you are discerning whether you have en eremitical vocation; as you continue this discernment, and if you believe you are called to eremitical life, you will also need to determine whether that will be as a Catholic Hermit living this life in the name of the Church (a discernment you must undertake with Chancery staff) or with private vows (or no vows at all beyond your baptismal commitment --- something which is also possible).

Whichever direction you choose (should you discern you are called to eremitical life) know that it has its own value and witness. If you choose private commitment to God in this vocation know that the history of the eremitical vocation in the Church has mainly been typified by such expressions. The Desert Fathers and Mothers were not only privately committed (there was no other option then), they chose the desert vocation because they were critical of the Church being co-opted by the State. Throughout the centuries the vocation has had a storied number of prophets, saints, holy men and women who revealed the compassion of the Gospel and the truth of a God who meets us in our weakness to allow that weakness to be transfigured to glorify and reveal the power of God. If you feel called to public profession either in an institute or as a solitary hermit under c 603 know that you are seeking to stand in this same tradition but now, are proposing to do so in the name of the Church --- a significant responsibility and calling which underscores the gift of God this vocation is to the Church and through the mediation of the Church, to the whole world.

08 May 2017

Alleluia! A Celebration of both the American Spirit and the Spirit of Easter

I was fortunate enough to reconnect with an old friend from High School the day before yesterday. It was one of those serendipity experiences which surprise and delight with their richness and promise. Beyond the initial contact she and I have talked via email a little about poetry and spirituality and some of the things we each are involved in today. We were not good friends in High School and are discovering just how much we now have in common. It is an amazing gift I think, and I am feeling grateful to the God who draws broken and separated threads together weaving them into an unimaginable future and Kingdom in which nothing and no one will ever be lost.

In the course of our emails Kathie recommended and sent me the link to a wonderful video of a choral version of Finlandia; I had never heard such a version. That link led me to another one featuring the same violinist playing the quintessentially American music of Aaron Copeland. In this arrangement Jenny Oaks Baker, a classically trained violinist plays fiddle as well (ironically, something I have also done); with those terrific fiddlers accompanying  her she manages to create a celebratory performance of sheer joy. It seems to me to capture the spirit of Easter without any overt religious "language" or imagery. This music cries out "Alleluia, Life wins out over death!" at every turn.

Postscript: Here is another version Jenny Oaks Baker has done with her four children, "Family Four". In the fiddling community it is not uncommon for the whole family to play together often learning several instruments to make this possible, and in some Mormon families this is true. Jenny Oaks Baker and Family Four combines both traditions:

05 May 2017

Followup on Death as Decision

[[Dear Sister, [in your last post] are you saying that dying is a decision? We decide to die? I don't think most people would agree with that. If today I just decided to die could I die? Why wouldn't that be suicide? Do you see what I mean?]]

Thanks for the questions. They open up some extremely important distinctions and nuances. Let me try to explain. If I am standing at the sink doing dishes or am vacuuming or something and "decide to die" despite being perfectly well physically, well no, that is not what I mean by calling death a decision. But if I am in the process of dying, of physical dissolution, or the moment of death has arrived because of illness or accident, for instance, then death itself has the quality of decision; it IS a decision, an act of entrusting ourselves first of all to the infinite uncertainty of death rather than holding onto the limited certainties of our life here and now. While other processes (physical, biological)  are also at work the essence, the fundamental nature of death is its quality as decision.

Secondly, and especially for the person of faith, this act of giving ourselves over to death is a decision to entrust ourselves entirely to God, the source of life --- even as we let go of self and mortal life with our own plans and dreams and visions of the future. (To be sure, every act of selflessness, every act of faith in God, every commitment we make to not live for self or to sacrifice the things we prefer for the sake of God and His Reign, is a kind of prefiguring of the more radical decision just described.) We see both dimensions of the act of dying most clearly in Jesus' passion and death. Jesus was faced with the terrible uncertainty of death (his cry of abandonment and complete aloneness was an instance of this I think) and yet he remained entirely vulnerable and open nonetheless. At the same time his openness was not without content; it was an openness to God, specifically to the One he knew as Love-in-Act and called by name as Abba, the One whose love was stronger than death. In spite of every cultural, religious and even every personal indication otherwise, Jesus trusted that his death, and so too his life, was not meaningless, or perhaps would not remain meaningless. Jesus gave himself over entirely to both dimensions of death but at bottom this "giving-over" was a radical and exhaustive decision for and on behalf of God.

This decision is implicit in every human act and activity. The task of faith is to make it explicit, to shape our lives according to choices for God (and this means all revelations or manifestations of God up to and including life itself). It means refusing to shape our lives in terms of selfishness but instead choosing selflessness. It means refusing to grasp at life as something we gain by our own efforts and skill, but instead receiving it as a gift of God. In the act of death (dying is a process, death the final event of decision) we make this choice as radically as possible because we finally and truly accept there is simply nothing we can do to make ourselves live. We want to live of course and we choose to live; even more we choose LIFE and especially therefore, life as gift, but at the same time we entrust ourselves both to the unbounded uncertainty of death and to the God who is greater than death, even --- if we believe the resurrection of Jesus --- sinful godless death.

The difference between this and suicide (and here I am only speaking generally about suicide) is that in suicide we do not accept life as a gift, as something we can and must only receive even when we are too weak or helpless to do anything else. In suicide, generally speaking, we cannot or do not see any possibility of God endowing our lives with meaning or beauty or rest (sabbath) or dignity, etc., despite our own frailty and helplessness. One's vision is limited, for whatever reasons, and one's capacity to trust in something larger than oneself is exhausted. One chooses to close oneself to anything larger and decides for the only apparent or putative act of control one has at hand. One acts to end everything --- as though that is ever possible.

In suicide one can convince oneself s/he is doing the selfless thing (and in some situations --- for instance, where death (and life!) is actually being forestalled by medical technology or treatment), this makes sense), but ordinarily one is deluding oneself. Generally speaking, in suicide one takes death into one's own hands and closes oneself to life-as-gift. In seeking to limit one's vulnerability one makes of death a small or calculable reality and, at least implicitly, judges that nothing more is possible. In so doing one does not give oneself over to the uncertainty of death. Instead one makes death the one certainty, the one reality one believes one can completely comprehend and control. One does not embrace a mystery in the act of suicide; one rejects that there is mystery --- whether in life or in death --- and affirms that one has the whole truth in one's own hands.

So, back to your question about death as a decision and dying simply because we decide to die. In some situations death is also something that occurs because we decide to allow that to happen. I am reminded of something I saw a number of times during my work as a hospital chaplain. In ministering to the dying it often occurred that a patient's family was unable to let the patient go. They urged the person to hang on, affirmed how they needed the person --- how they "could not live without" them sometimes --- and generally were unable or refused to accept the situation or to assist the patient in their need and task to embrace death with grace and peace! As a result the patients hung on, often days and sometimes weeks beyond what the hospital staff knew was normal or natural. (Sometimes they hung on for other reasons as well, sometimes in terror, but I am not speaking about those deaths here except to say once their terror was truly allayed -- something chaplains can and do assist with --- the dynamics were mainly the same as those described next.) When a patient's family could come to terms with the impending death, when they could reassure the patient they would be fine despite missing the patient, tell them they would live as fully as possible in memory of the patient, affirm that the patient's love would continue to empower them, continue to be a gift, and so forth (there were an infinite number of versions of the basic message), then, usually within hours, the patient would simply die quietly.

Often the death occurred soon after the family left the room. Many times it was when nursing staff had finished their tasks and the patient was alone for a few minutes. Again and again I saw evidence that the person was making a terribly intimate and private choice to give themselves over to death --- and perhaps more profoundly --- into the hands of the God Who transcends and conquers death. They left those they loved behind; they needed permission to do this in order to finally let go. They did not cease to love their families but something else was in front of them --- something they had, at least implicitly and often explicitly in faith, spent their entire lives coming to terms with in one way and another. (When we learn to receive life as gift, we are also learning to die and preparing for this final decision.) These patients illustrated for me the theological truth that death is a decision as they relinquished control in a final way and gave themselves over to a mystery that was unfathomable. This is part of what I mean when I say that death is a decision.

I hope this is of some help in clarifying my previous post.

03 May 2017

Dying as Ultimate or Definitive Decision for or Against God

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I wanted to thank you for posting your reflection from Wednesday of Holy Week. Also, I wanted to say thank you for posting the additional paragraphs you put there recently on death as "radical, definitive, and final decision". I wondered if you would consider posting these paragraphs separately though? I have never heard of death defined as "a definitive decision we make for or against God." It makes so much sense of saying "God willed Jesus' death!" --- something I guess I "took on faith" because I have always had trouble believing God could do such a thing. I mean, as you have written yourself, how could an infinitely loving God have willed the torture and death of his beloved one?]]

Yes, here are the paragraphs I added to the earlier blog post. Responses to your further comments or considerations are posted below these.

[[a central and defining dimension of death is the final decision one makes for or against God. It is possible to say that God willed this dimension of Jesus' death but not the circumstances that occasioned the death or the manner in which this whole event comes about. In Christian theology this decision is the very essence of death; it is a final and definitive decision for or against God. For this reason to speak of "willing one's death" is to speak of "willing one's final decision"; from this perspective the word "death" means "definitive decision". The two terms are interchangeable or synonymous. 

When we consider the question of "What did God will and what did God NOT will?" through this lens, what God willed was not Jesus' torture and crucifixion, but his exhaustive self-8emptying --- his definitive decision for God and the sovereignty of God. In Jesus' death this kenotic decision was realized in ultimate openness to whatever God would be and do ---even in abject godlessness. Understanding death in this way allows us to tease apart more satisfactorily what was and what was not the will of God with regard to Jesus' passion and death. In referring to this defining dimension of death we are allowed to say, "God willed Christ's death." It is also by forgetting this very specific definition of death (i.e., death as radical or definitive decision for or against God) that we have been led to tragically and mistakenly affirm the notion that the torture Jesus experienced at human hands and as the fruit of human cruelty and injustice was the will of God.]]

I was first introduced to the notion of death-as-decision during a course on Eschatology (c.1972 or 1973) as we read through Karl Rahner's book  On the Theology of Death.  At the same time we were reading through Ladislaus Boros' The Mystery of Death where Boros raises the philosophical question of "what happens to the whole [person] at the moment of death?" We can speak by observation about the person before death and after the separation of soul from body has occurred, but what happens "between" these two "moments"? What is the active dimension of death, that dimension marked by human agency and not simple passivity or "being done to?"  Boros goes on here to speak at length about "the hypothesis of a final decision." As I understand it it is the work of Boros and Rahner (primarily Rahner) that has provided cogent articulations of the notion of "death as final decision". 

Unfortunately, I never directly applied the theology of death-as-final-decision to the entire question of what is willed or not willed by God until this Easter. Specifically, I had never worked out in my own mind how it was possible to say, "God willed the death of Jesus" without at the same time making of God some sort of monster in whom it would be impossible to believe. (Some have decried the Christian God as one vindicating child abuse and therefore being a God whom they had to reject. This sense that death is a final decision is the key to disassociating God from the inhuman treatment Jesus received at the hands of so many Human beings and human institutions.) When I look at what made it both critical and possible for me to finally apply this definition of death to the question I realize it was the inner work I have been doing this past year. At every turn I was required to ask what was the will of God with regard to this or that event or series of events in my life --- and what was not! Again and again I saw that some things were the will of God and some things were emphatically not!

As Holy Week approached, these iterations of the distinction between human actions and Divinely-willed reality were especially raised again by the question of Jesus' death. Was this an exception? Was God "a monster" who willed inhuman cruelty and torture only in this case? I had "used" or at least suggested this limiting solution in an article I had published a decade or so earlier but had never been entirely comfortable with it. I had explained things to myself as analogous to a military commander who does not will the death of those under his command but who must put them in harms way to accomplish a mission; additionally I used the idea of a Peace Corps administer who must do something similar with volunteers but who does not will the injury of volunteers in accomplishing the mission of the Corps. Neither was entirely satisfactory but both were steps along the path to explaining how we could say that God willed Jesus' death.

It was the inner work I have been doing with my director that was decisive for my making the connection to what God did or did not will during Jesus' passion. This was because it was very clear that a number of things in my life were NOT the will of God but God DID will that I remain open to life and love (that is, to God) during these events (because there is no doubt that God accompanied me throughout them). Similarly God willed that I decide for and commit to Him in the healing work undertaken this year --- though God, I am sure, did not will the pain and suffering associated with this healing work. These decisions involved death --- all of them more and less "little deaths" to be sure, but forms of death nonetheless. They reminded me that ultimately dying or death itself, as Rahner says, is an act of radical and final decision for or against God. Dying is the  final and irrevocable decision we each make for the source of all reality as we choose either life or death. Lent made this choice explicit; it set the key in which the entire season was to be heard , "I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live." "Dying to self" in a final and definitive way (or refusing to do so) and thus similarly choosing God (or not) is the heart, the essential nature, of the event we know as death.

Death to self means opening ourselves to falling into and resting in the hands of God as opposed to clinging to the (limited) security of self; it means entrusting ourselves more and more wholly to God, living into God's love and thus, into the power and presence of God. We spend our entire lives learning to give ourselves over into God's hands more and more completely or radically. Death is the event in which we finalize the choices we have made throughout our lives for life, for truth, for love, for God. How ever death comes to us it never loses this quality of decision. While we may never accept a particular kind of death and dying as the will of God for us or for those we love, we must accept that the ultimate or definitive moment of decision for God this (or any) death represents is indeed the will of God.

In Jesus' passion we see the truth of this theological perspective worked out in ultimate clarity and depth. What Jesus revealed (showed and made real in history) on the cross is an authentic humanity which decides exhaustively for God even as Jesus enters into the profoundest depths of suffering, loneliness, and godlessness. Jesus dies a godless death but he remains open to God even when he cannot find or experience God's presence in the depths of sin and godless death. While Jesus made decisions to go to Jerusalem so that eventually he could not avoid execution, once he had fallen into the hands of those who would torture and kill him he made decision after decision to remain open to the presence of Love-in-Act, the same decisions we know as his "obedience unto death, even death on a cross", the same decisions to trust God even in the realm of sin and godless death where God had, by definition, no right to be. These decisions are the very essence of faith and prayer, of dying to self --- indeed, of dying per se.

At the same time we must recognize that everything Jesus was subjected to at the hands of human cruelty, venality, insecurity, will to power, and so forth --- none of this was, strictly speaking, the will of God. God in Christ brought incredible good out of them through Jesus' "Yes"; God in Christ through Jesus' decision for radical openness and trust in God was allowed to enter fully into the depths of sin and the consequences of sin and to transform these with his presence. In Christ God both entered into godless sinful death and destroyed it with His presence; God could also be said to have brought this reality into himself without being destroyed by it. He has made these realities a part of his own life, embraced them with --- as it proved in Jesus' death and resurrection --- a love that death cannot overcome.

20 April 2017

Thomas Called Didymus: What Was His Doubt About? (Reprised)

 [Sunday's] Gospel focuses, as readings all week have done, on the appearances of Jesus to the disciples, and one of the lessons one should draw from these stories is that we are indeed dealing with bodily resurrection, but therefore, with a kind of bodiliness which transcends the corporeality we know here and now. It is very clear that Jesus' presence among his disciples is not simply a spiritual one, in other words, and that part of Christian hope is the hope that we as embodied persons will come to perfection beyond the limits of death. It is not just our souls which are meant to be part of the new heaven and earth, but our whole selves, body and soul.

The scenario with Thomas continues this theme, but is contextualized in a way which often leads homilists to focus on the whole dynamic of faith with seeing, and faith despite not having seen. It also makes doubt the same as unbelief and plays these off against faith, as though faith cannot also be served by doubt. But doubt and unbelief are decidedly NOT the same things. We rarely see Thomas as the one whose doubt or whose demands SERVE true faith, and yet, that is what today's Gospel is about. Meanwhile, Thomas also tends to get a bad rap as the one who was separated from the community and doubted what he had not seen with his own eyes. The corollary here is that Thomas will not simply listen to his brother and sister disciples and believe that the Lord has appeared to or visited them. But I think there is something far more significant going on in Thomas' proclamation that unless he sees the wounds inflicted on Jesus in the crucifixion, and even puts his fingers in the very nail holes, he will not believe.

What Thomas, I think, wants to make very clear is that we Christians believe in a crucified Christ, and that the resurrection was God's act of validation of Jesus as scandalously and ignominiously Crucified. I think Thomas knows on some level anyway, that insofar as the resurrection really occured, it does not nullify what was achieved on the cross. Instead it renders permanently valid what was revealed (made manifest and made real) there. In other words, Thomas knows if the resurrection is really God's validation of Jesus' life and establishes him as God's Christ, the Lord he will meet is the one permanently established and marked as the crucified One. The crucifixion was not some great misunderstanding which could be wiped away by resurrection. Instead it was an integral part of the revelation of the nature of truly human and truly divine existence. Whether it is the Divine life, authentic human existence, or sinful human life --- all are marked and revealed in one way or another by the signs of Jesus' cross. For instance, ours is a God who has journeyed to the very darkest, godless places or realms human sin produces, and has become Lord of even those places. He does not disdain them even now but is marked by them and will journey with us there --- whether we are open to him doing so or not --- because Jesus has implicated God there and marked him with the wounds of an exhaustive kenosis.

Another piece of this is that Jesus is, as Paul tells us, the end of the Law and it was Law that crucified him. The nail holes and wounds in Jesus' side and head -- indeed every laceration which marked him -- are a sign of legal execution -- both in terms of Jewish and Roman law. We cannot forget this, and Thomas' insistence that he really be dealing with the Crucified One reminds us vividly of this fact as well. The Jewish and Roman leaders did not crucify Jesus because they misunderstood him, but because they understood all-too-clearly both Jesus and the immense power he wielded in his weakness and poverty. They understood that he could turn the values of this world, its notions of power, authority, justice, etc, on their heads. They knew that he could foment profound revolution (religious and otherwise) wherever he had followers. They chose to crucify him not only to put an end to his life, but to demonstrate he was a blasphemous fraud who could not possibly have come from God; they chose to crucify him to terrify those who might follow him into all the places discipleship might really lead them --- especially those places of human power and influence associated with religion and politics. The marks of the cross are a judgment (krisis) on this whole reality.

There are many gods and even manifestations of the real God available to us today, and so there were to Thomas and his brethren in those first days and weeks following the crucifixion of Jesus. When Thomas made his declaration about what he would and would not believe, none of these were crucified Gods or would be worthy of being believed in if they were associated with such shame and godlessness. Thomas knew how very easy it would be for his brother and sister disciples to latch onto one of these, or even to fall back on entirely traditional notions in reaction to the terribly devastating disappointment of Jesus' crucifixion. He knew, I think, how easy it might be to call the crucifixion and all it symbolized a terrible misunderstanding which God simply reversed or wiped away with the resurrection -- a distasteful chapter on which God has simply turned the page. Thomas knew that false prophets showed up all the time. He knew that a God who is distant and all-powerful is much easier to believe in (and follow) than one who walks with us even in our sinfulness or who empties himself to become subject to the powers of sin and death, especially in the awful scandal and ignominy of the cross --- and who expects us to do essentially the same.

In other words, Thomas' doubt may have had less to do with the FACT of a resurrection, than it had to do with his concern that the disciples, in their loss, grief, desperation, guilt, and the immense social pressure they faced to renounce Jesus and the God he revealed, had truly met and clung to the real Lord, the crucified One. In this way their own discipleship will come to be marked by the signs of the cross as they preach, suffer, and serve in the name (and so, in the paradoxical power) of THIS Lord and no other. Only he could inspire them; only he could sustain them; only he could accompany them wherever true discipleship led them.

Paul said, "I want to know Christ crucified and only Christ crucified" because only this Christ had transformed sinful, godless reality with his presence, only this Christ had redeemed even the realms of sin and death by remaining open to God even within these realities. Only this Christ would journey with us to the unexpected and unacceptable places, and in fact, only he would meet us there with the promise and presence of a God who would bring life out of them. Thomas, I believe, knew precisely what Paul would soon proclaim himself, and it is this, I think, which stands behind his insistence on seeing the wounds and put his fingers in the very nail holes. He wanted to be sure his brethren were putting their faith in the crucified One, the one who turned everything upside down and relativized every other picture of God we might believe in. He became the great doubter because of this, but I suspect that instead he was the most faithful and astute theologian among the original Apostles. He, like Paul, wanted to know Christ Crucified and ONLY Christ Crucified.

We should not trivialize Thomas' witness by transforming him into a run of the mill empiricist and doubter (though doubting is an important piece of growth in faith)!! Instead we should imitate his insistence: we are called upon to be followers of the Crucified God, and no other. Every version of God we meet should be closely examined for nail holes, and the lance wound. Every one should be checked for signs that this God is capable of and generous enough to assume such suffering on behalf of a creation he would reconcile and make whole. Only then do we know this IS the God proclaimed in the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul, the only one worthy of being followed even into the darkest reaches of human sin and death, the only One who meets us in the unexpected and even unacceptable place, the only one who loves us with an eternal love from which nothing can separate us.

Postscript, 12 April. 2015. Fr Bob O'Donnell, CSP, made a great point [today] which fits with the rest of this piece but which I had never really focused on, namely, that Jesus's disciples were still cowering in a locked room when Thomas is told the risen Christ has appeared to them. (Fr. Bob also reminded us that Thomas was an undoubted leader in faith before this. cf, Jn 11:16) How can he believe this is true when the disciples are still so very fearful and isolated? Resurrection is something which in part occurs within us as Christ assumes personal power and presence in our lives. As we begin to live and act in his name, the bodily resurrection is realized there as well as in the breaking of the bread or the breaking open of the Scriptures, for instance. A sign that Christ is risen then is our transformation from frightened disciples to those who speak the truth with boldness (parrhesia). It is, as Fr Bob said today, in the transformation of the "timid ten" (for Judas was gone too) that Thomas and we too meet convincing signs of the truth of the resurrection appearances.

16 April 2017

Defeating Godless Death: Why it could Not Happen by Divine Fiat

[[Sister, I know you might not be able to answer this until after Easter and that's okay. I can see why a lot of individual miracles would not have been enough, I think, but couldn't God have just have defeated sin and death with a word? Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead so why couldn't God not have done something similar for all of us? Thank you for your posts. I really enjoy them.]]

Thanks for your comments and questions. They are good and important ones. They arise for us especially around the Triduum. In fact, the question of what was possible for God came up in a discussion I had with a priest friend on Holy Thursday so it's pretty fresh for me. Your reference to Lazarus' being raised not only sharpens the question, but is actually also the key to answering it. You see, one of the things biblical scholars and theologians point out is that Lazarus was not resurrected in the way Jesus was. Lazarus was not raised to new or eternal life but to a mortal life in and of this world, a life which would one day end again in death. Sometimes they will point out the difference between resuscitation and resurrection in speaking of Jesus himself; the distinction works for what happened to Lazarus as well. What they are trying to point out in this is that there was something lacking in this event; the raising of Lazarus was somehow insufficient to deal definitively with death.

In Jesus' raising of Lazarus, godless death itself is not destroyed and until this happens the victory needed over sin is not accomplished in any life much less brought to completion in every life and the whole of creation. It is therefore possible to understand this particular miracle of Jesus as the climax of a history of acts of power --- healings, exorcisms, etc --- which are still insufficient to destroy godless death and death itself.  Even were Jesus to do this for every person he could have, it would simply not have been enough. Death itself must be transformed from the godless reality it is to a reality in which God is met face to face and one day, destroyed completely. This  entry into the realm of godless death (or, from another perspective, the taking up of godless death into God's own life so that it and the whole of reality is transformed and made sacramental) is the heart of what we understand as the reconciliation of the world on a cosmic level.

On a more personal but intimately related level it is important to remember that the death we die is understood theologically as a consequence of sin. There is a natural perishing which is intrinsic to the evolving, imperfect world we know. But human beings are broken and estranged by sin and this complicates the death we each will die. It is no longer a natural perishing but what I have referred to a number of times as godless death. Every time we make a choice for something other than God or for life in God, we effectively choose godless death as well. If we choose to live without God so then we choose to die without God --- and that means we choose death as emptiness without Love, without God. We not only choose it as a future reality, we build it into our lives and even into our very selves (body, etc.) so it affects every moment of our lives. Paul asks, "Who will save us from this body of death?" He is clear in his theology that the situation is more dire and intractable than a merely natural perishing. It is something from which we must  be saved.

When we are being saved from godlessness that occurs by God transforming this with his presence. And when the godlessness is a dimension of the death which dwells within us and which we ourselves loose in this world, we are speaking of a personal reality which God cannot simply destroy by fiat --- not without destroying us as well. God must be "given access" to this reality, and that access, which is achieved in a generous self-emptying motivated by love of God, must be more radical, more profound, than any sinner can manage. This is so because it can only occur through one's openness and attentiveness to God --- an openness and attentiveness which is deeper than human sinfulness, an openness to the will of God which can only be seen clearly by one whose selflessness and love are entirely uncompromised by human alienation and brokenness.

The NT word for this kind of openness is obedience; to express the radical or exhaustive quality of Jesus' own salvific obedience Paul says more;  namely, he defines it as [[obedience unto death, even death on a cross]]; Jesus' radical, exhaustive obedience, opens the way for God to enter the most godforsaken dimensions of our lives and world. But this is not a miracle he could have done "from the outside" or "without complete self-emptying" in the profoundly compassionate but still somewhat personally distanced way he healed illnesses or exorcised demons. It required he take on sinful death itself in an act of complete identification with out state and in an exhaustive helplessness and kenosis. In this way Jesus' obedience allows for "God's power [to become] perfected in weakness." In both his miracles and in his resurrection Jesus mediates the grace of God. In the miracles he has not yet relinquished the degree of agency or authority he yet possessed nor the distance from our sinful conditions or situation he entirely relinquishes on the cross.

This kind of relinquishment or self-emptying is only "learned" --- if it is ever "learned" or "achieved" in one's life --- through radical suffering. (Words are difficult at this point and in speaking about this "learning" and "achieving", "revealed" in the sense of  "being made real (realized) in space and time" may be the best word here.) The process is not automatic --- as though suffering alone produces the change; it does not. But through such suffering the person of faith gradually becomes entirely dependent on the grace of God; thus, self-emptying occurs. One moves from faith to deeper and deeper faith as human weakness is transformed and transfigured by Divine power. We have all experienced this process in our own lives in various ways and to various depths and degrees, but to remain open to God's presence and power even as one experiences God's complete absence (something I believe only Jesus has experienced) was necessary to destroy godless death. The bottom line in all of this is that God could not have destroyed godless or sinful death simply by fiat; human obedience (openness to God's power and presence) was necessary to allow God access to this essentially personal reality. In his exhaustive openness to God Jesus achieved this in and through his death by crucifixion; as a direct consequence he was raised from godless death to eternal life at the right hand of God.

And though this is a separate topic let me note that what remains is for us to be made sharers in THIS death of Jesus. Christians have had this happen through baptism where they are "baptized into (Christ's) death, and thus too, into his resurrection"; in this way we are literally made a new creation. Eternal life has broken into our temporal world and transformed it utterly; we become a people of hope --- trusting God for the ultimate meaning of our lives and empowered to love God's creation into greater and greater  wholeness as we live this new creation here and now in a conscious and explicit way. This is at the heart of our vocations and (com)missioning to embody and proclaim the Good News with our lives.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen; Indeed He is Risen!! Alleluia! (Reprised)

Christ is Risen, Alleluia, Alleluia!!! All good wishes for a wonderful Easter Season!!

For the next 50 days we have time to attend to what Jesus' death and resurrection changed. In light of these events we live in a different world than existed before them, and we ourselves, by virtue of our Baptism into Christ's death, are new creations as well. While all this makes beautiful poetry, and although as John Ciardi once reminded us poetry can save us in dark alleys, we do not base our lives on poetry alone. Objective reality was transformed with Jesus' passion and death; something astounding, universal, even cosmic in scope, happened in these events which had not only to do with our own salvation but with the recreation of all of reality. One of Paul's shorthand phrases for this transformation was "the death of death," something I hope to be able to look at a bit more as these 50 days unfold. We have already begun to see what happens in our Church as Christ's own life begins to shine forth more brightly in a myriad of small but significant ways.  . . .

But, it is probably good to recall that the early Church struggled to make sense of the cross, and that faith in resurrection took some time to take hold. Surprisingly, no single theology of the cross is held as official, and variations --- many quite destructive --- exist throughout the Church. Even today a number of these affirm that in various ways God was reconciled to us rather than the other way around. Only in time did the Church come to terms with the scandalous death of Jesus and embrace him as risen, and so, as the Christ who reveals God's power in weakness. Only in time did she come to understand how different the world was for those who had been baptized into Jesus' death. The Church offers us a period of time to come to understand and embrace all of this as well; the time from Easter Sunday through Pentecost is, in part, geared to this.

But, today is a day of celebration, and a day to simply allow the shock and sadness of the cross to be completely relieved for the moment. Lent is over, the Triduum has reached a joyful climax, the season of Easter has begun and we once again sing alleluia at our liturgies. Though it will take time to fully understand and embrace all this means, through the Church's liturgies and the readings we have heard we do sense that we now live in a world where death has a different character and meaning than it did before Christ's resurrection and so does life. On this day darkness has given way to light, and senselessness to meaning -- even though we may not really be able to explain to ourselves or others exactly why or how. On this day we proclaim that Christ is risen! Sinful death could not hold him and it cannot hold us as a result. Alleluia! Alleluia!!

On Eremitical Life and Honoring Creation

[[Hello Sister,  First, I wish you an happy easter in the joy of the risen Christ ! I have questions for you. You're an urban hermit, if I understand well. I was wondering if sometimes you missed contemplating the Creation ? As a lay cistercian. . . I need the nature to pray - walk in the woods, animals, etc... (See Laudato Si : When we can see God reflected in all that exists, our hearts are moved to praise the Lord for all his creatures and to worship him in union with them" n°87) Do you pray for the Creation, if yes, how ? Also, if there's urban hermit, are they hermits who are called to live closer to nature, in a rural setting ? Do you think it can be a part of the vocation of an hermit ?]]

Hi there. A wonderful Easter to you! Yes, I am an urban hermit but in my case I live in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. It is a relatively affluent town built in the East Bay hills. While I live in the middle of town there are lots of tress, walking and bike paths, creeks, a reservoir with lots of wildlife, as well as access to nearby State and other parks. However, if I was able to do this, I would enjoy living in the deeper silence of a more rural and even remote area. One place I go for retreat is Redwoods Abbey on the Lost Coast of California; you'll recognize it as a Trappistine Abbey. On those occasions I love the profound silence not only of the surroundings, but the silence cultivated by Sisters (and guests) for one another.

One of my fantasies is to live in a Tree house built by someone like "the Treehouse Master" in our Pacific Northwest so I would live in a canopy of trees and perhaps even feel the motion of the wind to some extent, etc. It would allow for a simplicity of dwelling, sufficient space for oratory, small library, and living area, as well as being ecofriendly. However, this is not really feasible so I am happy enough using my patio with redwood and other trees nearby in order to pray, read and write during the late Spring and Summer. I especially love doing this at night and early mornings. At these times there is significant solitude and silence. Living close to nature, especially in a silence which opens one to a world of natural sounds has always been seen as an ideal for hermits. God does not merely dwell in silence and the natural world, He is the abyss and ground of silence. The hermits I know build in as much access to the beauty and silence of nature as is possible for them; it is a privileged environment for meeting God and oneself without distraction or distortion.

Do I pray for creation? I am not exactly sure what you mean by this question. I try to honor creation. I think of our world as suffering serious depredations at the hands of human beings, as being God's own, and as requiring much better stewardship by all of us. I pray, as I pray for all things which concern me/the Church. In terms of theology I read and am reading more extensively as time goes by on the intersection of science and faith, evolution and the coming to be of a "new heaven and earth."  I completely reject the simplistic dichotomous treatment of the temporal and eternal, earth and heaven, and I write consistently about the interpenetration of heaven and earth, the bodiliness of resurrection, and the God who one day will be all in all. These are theological pieces of regarding the whole of God's creation as a sacramental reality and they are a significant part of the theological underpinnings which make honoring creation imperative and part of every person's calling.

Not sure I have answered your question but I hope this is helpful. If this raises more questions for you please get back to me. In the meantime all good wishes for the season!

15 April 2017

Madman or Messiah? We Wait in the Darkness (Reprise)

I admit that a pet peeve of mine associated with celebrating the Triduum in a parish setting is the inadequate way folks handle what should be periods of silence after Holy Thursday's Mass and reservation of the Eucharist and the stations and celebration of Jesus' passion on Good Friday. Unneces-sary conversations, hearty and premature  wishes of "Happy Easter" in the sacristy or upon leaving the Church and parking lot immediately after the Passion drive me more than a little crazy --- not only because we have only just celebrated the death of Jesus, but because there is a significant period of grief and uncertainty that we call Holy Saturday still standing between Jesus' death and his resurrection.

Silence is appropriate during these times; Easter is still distant. Allowing ourselves to live with the terrible disappointment and critical questions Jesus' disciples experienced as their entire world collapsed is a significant piece of coming to understand why we call today "Good" and tomorrow "Holy." It is important to appreciating the meaning of this three day liturgy we call Triduum. I have often thought the Church could do better with its celebration of Holy Saturday and her explanation of its theological meaning, but spending some time waiting and reflecting on who we would be (not to mention who God would be!) had Jesus stayed good and dead is something Good Friday (essentially beginning after Holy Thursday Mass) and Holy Saturday (beginning the evening after the passion) call for.

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In trying to explain the Cross, Paul once said, "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more." During Holy Week, the Gospel readings focus us on the first part of Paul's statement. Sin has increased to an extraordinary extent and the one people touted as the Son of God has been executed as a blaspheming godforsaken criminal. We watched the darkness and the threat to his life grow and cast the whole of Jesus' life into question.

In the Gospel for last Wednesday we heard John's version of the story of Judas' betrayal of Jesus and the prediction of Peter's denials as well. For weeks before this we had been hearing stories of a growing darkness and threat centered on the person of Jesus. Pharisees and Scribes were irritated and angry with Jesus at the facile way he broke Sabbath rules or his easy communion with and forgiveness of sinners. That he spoke with an authority the people recognized as new and surpassing theirs was also problematical. Family and disciples failed to understand him, thought him crazy, urged him to go to Jerusalem to work wonders and become famous.

Even his miracles were disquieting, not only because they increased the negative reaction of the religious leadership and the fear of the Romans as the darkness and threat continued to grow alongside them, but because Jesus himself seems to give us the sense that they are insufficient  and lead to misunderstandings and distortions of who he is or what he is really about. "Be silent!" we often hear him say. "Tell no one about this!" he instructs in the face of the increasing threat to his life. Futile instructions, of course, and, as those healed proclaim the wonders of God's grace in their lives, the darkness and threat to Jesus grows; The night comes ever nearer and we know that if evil is to be defeated, it must occur on a much more profound level than even thousands of such miracles.

In the last two weeks of Lent, the readings give us the sense that the last nine months of Jesus' life and active ministry was punctuated by retreat to a variety of safe houses as the priestly aristocracy actively looked for ways to kill him. He attended festivals in secret and the threat of stoning recurred again and again. Yet, inexplicably "He slipped away" we are told or, "They were unable to find an opening." The darkness is held at bay, barely. It is held in check by the love of the people surrounding Jesus. Barely. And in the last safe house on the eve of Passover as darkness closes in on every side Jesus celebrated a final Eucharist with his friends and disciples. He washed their feet, reclined at table with them like free men did. And yet, profoundly troubled, Jesus spoke of his impending betrayal by Judas. None of the disciples, not even the beloved disciple understood what was happening. There is one last chance for Judas to change his mind as Jesus hands him a morsel of bread in friendship and love. God's covenant faithfulness is maintained.

But Satan enters Judas' heart and a friend of Jesus becomes his accuser --- the meaning of the term Satan here --- and the darkness enters this last safe house of light and friendship, faith and fellowship. It was night, John says. It was night. Judas' heart is the opening needed for the threatening darkness to engulf this place and Jesus as well. The prediction of Peter's denials tells us this "night" will get darker and colder and more empty yet.  But in John's story, when everything is at its darkest and lowest, Jesus exclaims in a kind of victory cry: [[ Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in him!]] Here as darkness envelopes everything, Jesus exults that authentically human being is revealed, made known and made real in space and time; here, in the midst of  the deepening "Night" God too is revealed and made fully known and real in space and time. It is either the cry of a messiah who will overcome evil right at its heart --- or it is the cry of a madman who cannot recognize or admit the victory of evil as it swallows him up. In the midst of these days of death and vigil, we do not really know which. At the end of these three days we call Triduum we will see what the answer is.

Today, the Friday we call "Good," the darkness intensified. During the night Jesus was arrested and "tried" by the Sanhedrin with the help of false witnesses, desertion by his disciples, and Judas' betrayal. Today he was brought before the Romans, tried, found innocent, flogged in an attempt at political appeasement and then handed over anyway by a fearful self-absorbed leader whose greater concern was for his own position to those who would kill him. There was betrayal, of consciences, of friendships, of discipleship and covenantal bonds on every side but God's. The night continued to deepen and the threat could not be greater.  Jesus was crucified and eventually cried out his experience of abandonment even by God. He descended into the ultimate godlessness, loneliness, and powerlessness we call hell. The darkness became almost total. We ourselves can see nothing else. That is where Good Friday and Holy Saturday leave us.

And the question these events raises haunts the night and our own minds and hearts: namely, messiah or madman? Is Jesus simply another person crushed by the cold, emptiness, and darkness of evil --- good and wondrous though his own works were? (cf Gospel for last Friday: John 10:31-42.) Is this darkness and emptiness the whole of the reality in which we live? Is our God incapable of redeeming failure, sin and death --- even to the point of absolute lostness? Does he consign sinners to these without real hope because God's justice differs from his mercy? The questions associated with Jesus' death on the Cross multiply and we Christians wait in the darkness today and tomorrow. We fast and pray and try to hold onto hope that the one we called messiah, teacher, friend, beloved,  brother and Lord, was not simply deluded --- or worse --- and that we Christians are not, as Paul puts the matter, the greatest fools of all.

We have seen sin increase to immeasurable degrees; and though we do not see how it is possible we would like to think that Paul was right and that grace will abound all the more. But on this day we call "good" and on the Saturday we call "holy" we wait. Bereft, but hopeful, we wait.