Tag Archives: solitude

The Catholic Thing

Being a Catholic means that you have a rich and complex heritage to draw on in order to understand the spiritual and mystical path. It’s only sad that so many Catholics don’t seem to realize that or else keep it “in the closet” as it were as if it were meant only for the formal religious, like monks. The “Catholic Thing” has too often been seen only in terms of works of charity and institutions that aid people and moral teachings. Even the Dalai Lama has pointed out how he admires Christians and Catholics for their emphasis on education. This is what stands out, not the mysticism. Abhishiktananda lamented that fact, and he said that the Church badly needed to rediscover its mystical teaching without of course throwing out the other stuff.

Given all that, however, I am going to take a look at another aspect of the “Catholic Thing,” a more problematic aspect. Being Catholic also means having to admit that Catholic leadership has not always been what it should be, to put it mildly. It has ranged from petty and cowardly all the way to corrupt and decadent. Futhermore, for some reason the “Catholic Thing” has almost always been to side with the most conservative/reactionary elements of every society. “Good citizenship” in this pseudo-Catholic view means not “rocking the boat,” not questioning what your government does, not questioning authority really, because if you start to question government authority you just might end up also questioning church authority. Oh yes, there are notable exceptions, but they are, alas, exceptions. And the present pope does seem to be a decent person but it remains to be seen how much of what he says is PR image-building and how much real change will take place.

Consider now this example. Three Catholic radicals—yes, there are such folk!—were so troubled by the presence of nuclear weapons that they took the time to trespass on military grounds, write peace graffiti or pour blood on something or other, and voice their total disapproval of this reality. This was a mild but prophetic action. The government was not amused by this action, and the lead person of this threesome, an 84-year-old nun, an old hand at nuclear protests, was sentenced to almost 3 years in prison. The absurdity of this is almost understandable when you look at our government, but the response of the rest of the Catholic community is just plain shameful. Here is a very succinct analysis of what is wrong by Michael Gallagher, a former soldier, a former Jesuit seminarian, and a peace activist:


I must add a personal note to this. I was doing my theology studies in Berkeley at the time when the Bishops’ peace pastoral came out, “The Challenge of Peace.” I was also working with a Pax Christi group at the time, and I remember the initial excitement of that moment when we saw a copy of the first draft that took the first little steps in really challenging the American government in its militarism. We thought our church had found its voice. But, alas, John Paul II was getting support from the Reagan Administration with regard to Poland, and JPII reciprocated with cracking down on Liberation Theology in Latin America and putting pressure on the American bishops not to challenge the Administration. So the subsequent drafts and the final edition was a very lukewarm, vague, inconsequential “tsk-tsk” on nuclear weapons. The bishops should have listened to that final address by former President Eisenhower on the “military-industrial complex” instead of to John Paul II, but, hey, he is going to get canonized, so what can you say. In any case, I don’t think Pax Christi ever recovered from that moment, and Catholic liberals are generally unable to “rock any boat” whatsoever. Note, since then, has there been ANY real vocal “Catholic Protest” against the first Gulf War, the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, the drone killings, the torture, etc? Is anybody out there!? Compare any bishop with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and see who is an example of moral leadership.

Now for something rather different. Here is a piece sent to me by a friend. Written by an active Jesuit living in a Jesuit community of theology students and professors—and Jesuits from all over the Third World.

Global Catholicism: The Church is Changing, But Not How We Might Think

The gist of this discussion is that “the church is changing.” Ok, I have been hearing this since the late 1960s, and of course there is a lot of truth in this latest version of that assertion. The current Pope is up to something, but it remains to be seen how really deep that “change” will be in the long run—or will it be more like the “change” that Obama talked about. In any case, let us hope that the “Catholic Thing” becomes a program of real change instead of that old Carthusian saying: “never reformed because never deformed.”

So this young Jesuit is suddenly surprised to discover that his fellow Jesuits from the Third World have different agendas and different concerns than the American ones. His conclusion is that there is a profound shift taking place that puts the concerns and dynamics of the Third World more at the center of the “Catholic Thing.” Actually some of what he said was a bit annoying in that I heard that same stuff way back in the 1980s when I was studying theology—we were always talking about the new presence of the Third World in the Church and how to respond to all its problems—thus the interest in Liberation Theology. So I am kind of surprised myself to see someone “discovering” this now. If this Jesuit is discovering this only now, what happened to obscure that fact from his eyes the last couple of decades. But anyway lets see what he means—there is definitely a discernible shift in emphasis on the part of the present Pope. And the shift is toward the Third World and toward a different kind of presence in the Third World. Now let me point out some problems in this article and also some key positive points:

a. It is perfectly ok that each area of the Church has its own concerns and problems because the different cultural and economic and social conditions will produce different problems and different solutions even if there may be a general theological unity underlying these problems. In any case the European Church and the American Church need not feel guilty about having very different issues than say the Church in Africa. Here poverty may not be the big issue(at least in comparison to the Third World kind of poverty) but rather women’s roles, contraception and sexual ethics, divorced Catholics—the kind of things that reveal our present situation. Of course there are also issues that are prevalent in both areas of the world, like the problem of clericalism and clergy-lay tensions. The main thing this article wants to say, I guess, is that the Euro/American issues should not dominate the Church’s vision and concerns. And considering the demographic changes in the Church’s composition, in the fact that by 2050 4 out of 5 Catholics will be “Third World Catholics,” well, that dominance is just about over.

b. One thing that bothers me about this piece is that this young Jesuit is too sanguine about this “turn toward the Third World” that the Church is engaging in. Actually that may introduce or bring up a whole new set of problems that are not “politically correct” to talk about. In too many places in the Third World the laity are much more conservative, more authority-oriented, less critical than their counterparts in Europe or the U.S. The priest is a real authority figure and they live within a framework of simple devotionalism and popular religiosity that is not always healthy or edifying or liberating. (You see this in many parishes in the U.S. where immigrants are becoming the dominant population. They give the priests and bishops the “numbers” and the congregation is much more tuned in to clerical authoritarianism.) When bishops started talking about the Third World as the “future” of the Church decades ago, I became suspicious that this was the real reason behind that—at least in some cases.—a more pliant and unquestioning laity. For example, the push for greater women’s roles in the Church would be unheard of in many Third World settings because culturally speaking women are more prone to be considered “second-class.” Another example: I heard from a Jesuit scholar of Hindu literature that the average Indian Catholic has no interest in dialoguing with Hinduism or in learning what treasures their Indian religious and spiritual heritage holds. More Westerners are interested in that than Indians! Too many Asian Catholics reject their ancient religious traditions with a certain zeal—often this is done because becoming Catholic means a step-up socially. So the “turn” to the Third World on the part of the Church needs to be done with a certain level of awareness, not embraced uncritically, and not as a way of avoiding the issues brought to the surface in the U.S. and in Europe.

c. Now for something very positive. Our Jesuit quotes a statement of the Japanese Bishops from 2 decades ago as they were trying to influence the heart and vision of John Paul II’s view of evangelization in Asia. Here is what they said:
“If we stress too much that ‘Jesus Christ is the one and only savior,’ we can have no dialogue, common living or solidarity with other religions. The church, learning from the ‘kenosis’ of Jesus Christ, should be humble and open its heart to other religions to deepen its understanding of the mystery of Christ.”

Of course they were rebuffed. But what’s interesting is that Abhishiktananda said very similar things back in the 1960s. And the key terms here are the “kenosis of Jesus Christ” and the “mystery of Christ.” If the Church believes it has a handle on the Mystery of Christ, then it will approach other religions only as a “teacher” and never as a “learner.” The Church coming to the great religious traditions of the Third World, and especially Asia, needs to become a “learner”—as Abhishiktananda often pointed out. India and Advaita had much to teach, and not just more concepts, but a profound experience of God. But for this to happen the Church also has to truly enter the kenosis of Christ, a true self-emptying of its privileged Western conceptual structures and social structures, to truly become “poor with the poor.” And here Pope Francis has some words that move in the right direction when he tells us that in the new evangelism “proselytism is solemn nonsense… we need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us.” With Good Friday right around the corner, it is good to reflect on the meaning and the significance of the kenosis of Christ both for ourselves as individuals and for our Church, which does claim to be the “Body of Christ.”


This is a story of two women hermits, separated by great geographical distance,  but fairly close in time, and very close in spirit and attitude and orientation.  This is also a story of two persons who overcame the misogyny of their cultures, secular and religious, and lived out their transcendent calling to light our path to the Absolute Reality which is the ground of our being.


The first one to be considered is Orgyan Chokyi, a Tibetan Buddhist nun and a hermitess.  The dates given for her are 1675 – 1729.  There are many remarkable facts about this person, but two just for starters: she actually wrote an autobiography—how unusual and amazing that is for a hermit and a woman in that setting to do so, and then most amazing of all the manuscript was lost until it was discovered in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery sometime around 1990 and recently translated.  Otherwise we would not know anything about her! The Life of Orgyan Chokyi is translated into English with commentary in Himalayan Hermitess: The Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Nun, by Kurtis R. Schaeffer


So she was born in 1675 in a remote area of the Himalayas, which today is in the North East part of Nepal.  It was a hard life in an arid and rocky terrain, depending on herding for a livelihood (she herded goats); and with the ever-present possibility of warfare, violence, famine, disease, and enforced labor.  The religious culture of the institutional lamas formed a kind of religious elite, but popular religiosity (as always and everywhere—including Christianity) was also very prevalent with its many “sacred figures”, magic, and varied superstitions.  But for our purposes the key characteristic was the misogyny of the culture, so true of many traditional cultures and carried over into modern society in many hidden ways.  This misogyny is then incorporated into religious doctrine and “poisons the well” of each and every religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc.  With both religion and culture telling women that they are in fact inferior, they then in turn internalize this and accept it as real and true.  In Buddhism there was a tendency to see liberation as for men only, and so a woman had to “become a man” as it were in order to achieve liberation.  The same kind of thing you saw happening in the Egyptian desert among the early Christian desert monks, for whom praise for a woman hermit consisted in claiming she had finally “become a man” or was equal now to a man.  Femaleness in and of itself was never regarded as a “divine manifestation” or a bearer of “absolute reality.”  It’s with this as a background that you need to come to this remarkable woman hermit.

This is from a description of the book by the publisher:

Himalayan Hermitess  is a vivid account of the life and times of a Buddhist nun living on the borderlands of Tibetan culture. Orgyan Chokyi  spent her life in Dolpo, the highest inhabited region of the Nepal Himalayas. Illiterate and expressly forbidden by her master to write her own life story, Orgyan Chokyi received divine inspiration, defied tradition, and composed one of the most engaging autobiographies of the Tibetan literary tradition.
The Life of Orgyan Chokyi is the oldest known autobiography authored by a Tibetan woman, and thus holds a critical place in both Tibetan and Buddhist literature. In it she tells of the sufferings of her youth, the struggle to escape menial labor and become a hermitess, her dreams and visionary experiences, her relationships with other nuns, the painstaking work of contemplative practice, and her hard-won social autonomy and high-mountain solitude. In process it develops a compelling vision of the relation between gender, the body, and suffering from a female Buddhist practitioner’s perspective.
Part One of Himalayan Hermitess presents a religious history of Orgyan Chokyi’s Himalayan world, the Life of Orgyan Chokyi as a work of literature, its portrayal of sorrow and joy, its perspectives on suffering and gender, as well as the diverse religious practices found throughout the work. Part Two offers a full translation of the Life of Orgyan Chokyi. Based almost entirely upon Tibetan documents never before translated, Himalayan Hermitess is an accessible introduction to Buddhism in the premodern Himalayas.”


There is also this review of the book in a journal of Tibetan Studies:




Now the book itself might not be everyone’s cup of tea in that it is a long and scholarly tome—the actual autobiography is only about 60 pages long while most of the book is about the Tibetan background and history of this period.  At least a couple of Amazon reviewers were disenchanted by what they found—too scholarly I guess.  But there is a lovely summary of the whole book and the Life part especially in Hermitary and here is the link to that:




I think the Hermitary summary at the end is just about perfect:

“The Life of Orgyan Chokyi testifies to an arduous path toward solitude. We witness the rigors of spiritual practice culminating in eremitism, a pattern analogous to early Christian practice. The translator points out other analogies with women spiritual figures in the West.  Regardless of doctrinal discouragement, Orgyan Chokyi persisted in the methods of meditation, fully conscious of her suffering and her status as a woman. The example of her perseverance encourages the reader to understand that our circumstances and environment, however strong their negative influence, are distinct from mind and consciousness. That any one person could overcome the circumstances of culture, society, family, and institutionalism is an inspiration to the human spirit.”


The other hermitess that we will discuss is Sarah Bishop.  She is closer to us in place and time, but actually probably more mysterious in that we have very little information about her.  She was born about two decades before the American Revolution in what is now the State of New York, Long Island I believe.  During the Revolutionary War British soldiers burned her house down, killed her family and kidnapped her and raped her.  She eventually escaped them but never returned to “normal” human society but lived in the woods as a hermitess somewhere on the border of New York and Connecticut.  At first, as you can well imagine, it was probably simply the trauma and nightmare of her experience with the British soldiers that drove her into this solitude, but eventually this solitude proved to be healing and it then  transformed her life into something transcending all the usual human categories and designations and limitations.  It must be remembered that rape is primarily a brutal crime of domination and degradation of the female by the male, and it is toward this wound that her solitude was a healing and an overcoming.


For almost three decades she lived in the woods with a shallow cave as her home.  People from the nearby town accepted her in her mysterious presence but had no explanation for what she was about.  Here we have several accounts from some contemporaries of hers who happened to have met her in the woods and later wrote about it:






There is a little-known essay by Thomas Merton, written in the late 1950s, and I believe it appears only in the collection Disputed Questions.  Its title is “Notes Toward a Philosophy of Solitude.”  It is probably his most profound thinking on solitude and the hermit life.  And what is striking is that he is not so much interested in the person who has a “clear” vocation to solitude and ends up in one of the recognized monastic orders or as a canonical hermit, etc. The life of these people is very clear and straightforward even if it does involve a lot of interior “difficulties.” No, it is not about these that Merton reflects on here, but rather he ponders those various individuals from various backgrounds who find themselves in an enigmatic solitude, almost inspite of themselves and not because of some clear idea of what they are called to live.  This is a solitude that one is thrown into, a solitude that is inexplicable, perhaps even anguish-riddled, perhaps totally unsought for.  It is not so much that a person chooses this solitude; rather it is Solitude itself that chooses this person.  And this person finds himself/herself immersed in a solitude that they cannot explain to anyone else, but their silence and peace is “telling”—for solitude here is the sacrament of the Deep Self where you are one with Absolute Reality and in communion with all.


But this is not a solitude that is socially approved even by a religious institution, nor by its very nature even understandable to anyone.  And the solitary one cannot look into a mirror and see his/her own solitariness as something approvable and commendable.  Its bare simplicity, perhaps its “shabbiness,” perhaps its countercultural aspects that make it “unacceptable” in “ordinary society,” perhaps its personal pain, all or any of these are a truly potent “veil” that hides even from the solitary one the true meaning of that solitude.  It breaks the bounds of what any society can “recognize.”  In a sense this solitude was prefigured by the Divine Cloud in the Old Testament, the mysterious Presence of the Divine.  In any case, for Sarah Bishop war and man had brutalized her, impoverished her totally, and dehumanized her completely; but in the subsequent solitude Sarah Bishop discovered something that far transcended both her and our limited humanity and feeble articulations.