31 October 2008

Carrying a Silent Cross

It's difficult to carry a contemplative nature in the secular world. I've never really found a mentor that I trust. I converted to Catholicism in my 30's, so I didn't have the example as a child to devote my lifetime to a religious model. By the time I realized I should have entered religious life, I was already married and had responsibilities. Prior to this awakening in early adulthood, I had no idea such an opportunity existed, or that such a world existed.

Now, I don't have so much responsibility, but it seems I'm too old. The vast majority of orders and houses wouldn't have me. Like most people of a certain age, I've had some health issues. That would be another reason for rejection . . .

I think about the saints of past centuries. So many struggled with illness, psychological troubles, even old age. Many joined or founded orders after 50. Why are we barring that now? Oh, to live in a time and place where serious or even terminal illness is seen as a special grace - an opportunity for spiritual development. (I dont know something about that - I faced death directly twice in the past, and would do it again for all it taught me.) I do understand that care of elderly members of a monastery is a great financial burden, made more difficult in this time when vocations to the religious life are few. I understand the practical reason for these boundaries. But at what cost have they been established?

I've lived a full life, and most of the time a good one. I've dabbled in sin, I've seen trouble and pain in others lives. I know worldly life thoroughly. I could come to a vocation with clear sight, no delusions or fantasies, with complete comprehension of the things I leave behind in the world. But in the current mode of thinking, that isn't worth much.

I recently saw the film Into Great Silence, made a few years ago, following daily life of the French Carthusian monastery, The Grand Chartreuse. I was surprised by my reaction to it. It is difficult to explain, but nothing surprised me in it. It was all strangely familiar. I was comforted by the silence, by the routine, and the isolation. In one scene, an airplane - barely heard - flies overhead; I felt the intrusion of this bit of modern machinery into the peace of the ancient routine. Reminded me of years ago, after a weekend's camp in the backcountry, driving back through the city: back then I would take that bombardment of city and noise very personally, feeling a defensive anger rise as I drove through the necessary transition time, toward my home back "in the world".

One thing struck me about the film: I was surprised to see little joy. I don't mean peace, contentment, even a smile - there was plenty of that. I mean JOY. These men have the grace of living every day - every day - in the seeking of God's presence. If I had that, I am certain that joy would radiate from me! I'd be grateful every day for the opportunity to live such a life!

For now, I take comfort in stories of tertiaries, anchorites, lay orders, and other historical manifestations of combining calling with life in the world. I find no one - although I've searched for years - to whom I can take questions, find guidance. I rely on my books. I have been blessed to know many a kind priest, but always had the feeling they would think me a bit crazy if they knew my heart - they'd think me fanatical. Once I befriended a person in a Carmelite order but correspondence abruptly stopped - I wonder if it was because connection with the secular world on such a level was frowned upon by a superior. I do understand the obedience, and the theory, and forgive. But for me, it was a shame.

Perhaps the point is my isolation. The outside world knows me as an extroverted, community-involved person. They would never guess what is behind that. . . I can only offer my loneliness up in prayer, hoping to give some purpose to it. The dichotomy between my true self and what I offer the world around me, is enormous. I have to wonder how many people live within a similar shell.

I'm not saying it's always bad. In my case, it offers me protection from those who wouldn't understand, and my outer shell is a good one - I know I put joy into other lives, lessen hardship in other lives. I try hard to live as an example of Christian love, even with never giving voice to it. (I do feel the example teaches as well or better than any preaching I could do.)

Lord, help me remember with every person I meet that the true heart will rarely present itself. If I am afraid - knowing your love and support - surely many are just as fearful, and remain hidden. Help me see the person Christ knows and loves, in each person, especially those most difficult to love. Show me how to embrace my own cross with more willingness, and patience, and remind me see it as a grace (I need a lot of reminding, by the way - I'm pretty slow). Amen.
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30 October 2008

Thoughts on a Hermitage

The facts we know: sometime in the late 6th century, an Irish monk called Fionan and his companions, rowed out eight miles from the western Ireland mainland to the rugged, pointed pinnacle of rock they later dubbed "Sceilig MhichÍl" (Rock of Michael). Skellig Michael was nearly impossible to access: its steep, rough crags offered few footholds and most of the terrain was vertical.

But in those early Middle Ages, Celtic Christianity was monastically based - some women and men lived austere, isolated lives in silence and physical hardship, alone or in small groups (forming the early monasteries), feeling that in losing themselves to the world they could approach the mystery of God. The common people and nobility alike looked to these men and women for wisdom, and often offered practical supplies and monetary support for the upkeep of their lifestyles - assuring that Christianity maintained a presence in everyone's lives. As long as someone was communing with God on mankind's behalf, all were better off; and the spiritual wisdom these hermit monks and nuns offered was truly valuable to secular spiritual lives . . .

At least 23 islands off Irelands coast contain monastic ruins from the early middle ages. Elsewhere in the world's remotest places - on mountaintops, in caves, at desert retreats, and on windswept islands, hermits of Christian and other faiths have established dwellings from where they could freely search for God's truth, away from the distraction of the outside world. Often, these places were less a refuge than a self-imposed Hell on Earth.

In the first days at the island, the boats of the monks - common fishermen's curraughs - could be turned upside down and covered with animal hides to make a warm, solid shelter from the fierce weather. Skellig Michael is violently windy in the best times, wet and slippery much of the time, and in winter cold and harsh. The eight miles between the mainland and the island make it near inaccessible even now - weather by boat or helicopter: all depends on the cooperation of the weather, which often stirs up waves too rough to brave. In 1994, when I was there in July and had the opportunity to visit Skellig Michael, a storm blew in for days, making it impossible. I couldn't even glimpse it from the mainland in the dark, misty air.

For some reason, the St. Fionan and his fellow monks had chosen this most remote and harshest of places to establish a retreat on the way to God. They spent months moving and piling rocks, builting rounded stone huts (beehive huts were common to early celtic monastic settlements), steep stairways, terraced gardens, chapel. For over two hundred years they lived in peace and prayer, gaining the respect and awe of much of western Europe. They grew herbs and plants, kept sheep and goats, caught seabirds and fish for food, seals for lampoil and hides. They made rare trips to the mainland for supplies such as firewood or other fuel, domestic equipment, writing supplies and books, cloth, and news of the rest of the monastic world.

In 812 A.D. the Vikings first raided the community. This occurred several times over that century, with the worst at the end. Finally, the Vikings - in addition to kidnapping and butchery (their special favorite was kidnapping and deliberately starving) - destoyed the boats of the monks, and without access to the mainland they eventually all died of exposure. But the spiritual lure of the place persisted, and not until the 13th century did monks leave the island for good, moving to a monastery nearby on the mainland within eyesight of the former haven.

Through the centuries the monastic ruin existed as an inspiration and historical record of the spiritual fervor of those who once spent their lives there. People went there for pilgrimage - to think on it, and perhaps to pray, staying for an afternoon's picnic or an overnight camp. In the nineteenth century two lighthouses were built, and even a road in 1820 - hanging on the cliff - to access one of them. Lightkeepers and families lived there full time, a few children born there. When the lighthouse was no longer needed, they left all quiet again.

The remoteness of Skellig Michael has ensured that the ruins - early stairways, beehive huts, graves, chapels, garden walls and oratories - have remained largely untouched, affected only by the wearing of the elements. A major archealogical dig occurred in the 1950's on the near mainland, uncovering artifacts which suggested some facts about the lives of the holy men. First in the 1960's and through the following decades, researchers began to explore the monastic site itself in earnest. With mountain climbing equipment for safety they climbed cliffs that early monks had daily climbed and built stone structures upon. A few particularly interesting things were discovered: the huts contained the remains of firepits for cooking, shelves for storage, hooks for hanging supplies. Walls and stairways were so well constructed that even the wind had left them intact for some 1500 years. One stairway of 14 steps led to nowhere but a rocky point and the sky.

Odder still, a hermitage for one monk had been built upon a rocky peak, away from the rest of the monastery and barely accessible at all. Archeologists have determined that it took several men to build it, all for the use of only one. First built likely in the ninth century, it was maintained for hundreds of years. It consisted of a shelter, terrace garden and plot. Horrified by the vertigo-inducing location and stupified by the technical feat of its creation, one modern researcher has suggested that perhaps this peak was the closest to the heavens that was possible on the island, and indeed in the nearby world with which such men would have been acquainted.

I feel something sick with fear in the very pit of my stomach, when I think of the danger of the heights, the real possibility of a misstep, the harshness of the elements, the loneliness of self-imposed isolation. Did the ones who lived in this hermitage find God? Did they hear a voice in the isolation - in the depths of their humanity-deprived souls - that one could never hear elsewhere? If so, what was it like to experience that grace? To live that life, to brave that journey?

As we scoff from the 'heights' of the 21st century, we might do well to consider: hundreds of them, through at least six centuries, thought that the reward was real enough that the risk of starving, falling, drowning, being slaughtered at the hands of invaders, freezing to death - paled in comparison to the chance to reach for and touch God. Thousands more sought the wisdom born of their sacrifice - and still look to it with awe today. Perhaps they understood something we don't?

To read more on Skellig Michael, its history, and in particular the study of the hermitage, see this excellent work, The Forgotten Hermitage of Skellig Michael offered online by University of California Press.

An excellent arial view of the monastic ruin on Skellig Michael; monastery ruins in the center right, showing the beehive huts. Note the stairs leading to entrance and the gate and walls surrounding the community; the narrow green plots served for grazing and crops. The separate hermitage is located atop the peak in the background, a precarious path leading up to it. (Photo from Office of Public Works, Ireland.)

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29 October 2008

Falling Short

Today's verse (see bottom of page) has particular meaning to me; how ironic that it would greet me here today (I have a set widget to provide it), like a taunt - although a well-earned one.

Ephesians 4:2-3 : Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

I spent the day with a person who was near impossible to tolerate. There was no malice in this person - a lot of good, in fact. But her social skills were so lacking that I found myself breathing deeply and biting my tongue . . .

I put myself in this position intentionally. She wanted to accompany me on a road trip, and I consented, knowing it would be difficult, but feeling that it was 1-an opportunity to practice some patience, which I lack severely, and some humility (it's too easy to feel superior to such a person) and 2-an opportunity to do a penance.

As I said, there is no malice in her. She is desperate to share herself, so desperate that during six hours of constant conversation she barely took a breath. I could count the times on one hand I was permitted to finish a sentence or thought. I half-listened to her prattle on about nothing, trying to learn something, trying to see Christ in her.

I am disappointed in my effort. I betrayed no outward hint of my frustration with her - I am sure of it. But inwardly I sighed and seethed and stifled laughter at her lack of discretion, propriety, and class. Not snapping at her, not hurting her, isn't enough. I should have been able to love her as God's child, to see a part of Jesus in her. I couldn't. I really have no idea how to begin, in a situation like that.

I think about the description of the "Illuminative Way" (see yesterday's post) and realize that in this, I cannot rely on my own tools and ambitions. I have nothing in me for this. Only God and the Holy Spirit can do this. I'm ashamed to learn that I fell so short of my own aspirations. . . that my pride runs deep, and worse that I am so lacking in Christian love.

The upside is that my challenge is crystal clear now: pray for help with these particular issues, and work hard on them. If I can't overcome this - if I can't begin to comprehend Christian love toward this person, the most harmless of all, how can I pretend to follow Christ's most basic commandments - that I love others as myself?

Others call me kind, and generous, and when they do I feel the color rise in my face - not from bashfulness (of which I possess little to none) but because of shame that they are wrong. My outward behavior is exemplary - I have trained myself to think of others' needs always, to treat every child of God with respect and kindness. But if I don't FEEL this respect, what is the kindness really worth? Surely I make their life on earth easier with a moment of kindness, but I that isn't enough. It isn't what Christ asked.

Lord, please forgive my shortcomings this day, which were many. Thank you for the challenge and lesson; surely you would sorely challenge only someone whose heart you wish to see grow. Thank you that she left my car in joy, feeling she had a wonderful day. Thank you that she, and anyone, thinks so highly of me - one who deserves the respect so little. Help me open my eyes and heart and know a path to loving others as I wish to be loved by others. Forgive the arrogance I have to judge anyone whom you have created and love. Please wrap my hard heart in your light, and help me learn a better way. Amen.
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Free Falling

I have given much thought to where I've traveled in the past twenty-odd years in the spiritual sense. Reading last night, I ran into descriptions of stages a soul passes through in seeking God. How strange - I know I've read the same years ago but it didn't move me or even make much sense; evidently I wasn't at a place where I could understand it. Now it moves me. How fascinating a journey of the soul is, and how interesting that each soul, searching alone for God, travels a road similar to those who have gone before...

Christian mystic tradition identifies several stages on the way of the interior journey. St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross gave descriptive language to them . . .

The Purgitive Way (also called the Way of Beginners or Ordinary Way)
The first stage which the soul passes through, where it completely comprehends itself as stained with original sin and as humanly imperfect. Through vocal prayer, penance, and self-denial it grows and consciously purifies itself. This is a conscious effort on the part of the contemplative person: vices and faults can to an extent be eliminated or lessened through sincere personal effort. This is called the Dark Night of the Senses.

The Illuminative Way (also called the Way of Proficients)
The second stage consists of the soul learning contemplative prayer, learning the value of silence in seeking God's presence, and one begins to know Christ more intimately. The Illuminative Way is different than the Purgative in that this second stage requires God's intervention. While a person may pass through the first stage by will alone, true illumination only happens through grace, with the Holy Spirit working to lead the soul and intellect. Thus, the second stage (like the third) is purely a gift from God to the individual.

The Unitive Way
This is a state of ecstatic union with God, the highest state of grace in an earthly life.

And where do I fall in the spectrum? I believe I am at the end of the Way of Beginners, where I have been since roughly 1985, and am just leaving it and moving into the Illuminative Way. I find myself continually in a state of amazement at the sudden change, and infusion of grace.

What did I do differently now, that suddenly that long road seems behind me? It was so often a lonely road - I never doubted God, honestly, but often doubted that I had any of his attention. I felt desolate, isolated, hopeless, for years. Suddenly now, I feel an energy, a transformation of some kind. . . as if I am on the brink of a new great awareness. I am excited by this, and afraid when I wonder if I will be adequate to the work required to achieve it. I

Even writing this, I feel some shame. . . who am I to speak of this grace, to announce its presence? But I feel strongly called to leave some record of this, as others greater than I in the past have done. Their voices have been there through centuries for us to learn from if we choose.

God keep me on a true path, guard my humility, chastise my pride, help me recognize fantasy and heresy whenever I might fall victim to them. Thank you for your intervention in my life - a life so ordinary and insignificant and commonplace. Amen. Read entire piece.