I slept in this morning instead of attending Eucharist to give myself more recovery time. Perhaps Sister Sickness is beginning to think her job is done. Not quite, but we’re getting there in our negotiations.
Continuing my reflection on Clare’s form of life with Sister Diana Papa, and seeing that Clare never endorsed the papacy-imposed “rule of enclosure,” this morning I am thinking about the “extern sisters,” those who left (went in and out of) the enclosure. C. Gennaro (quoted yesterday) thinks they might have followed Francis’ Rule for Hermitages in which they alternated between serving outside and returning to live a more monastic rhythm of intense prayer with the others sisters acting as “mothers” to watch over them “so that they be not disturbed or distracted from their recollection.” Clare treated the “externs” as profoundly one with the other sisters, wearing the same clothes as the others, and sharing a single vocation with those who lived stability. C. Gennaro asks, “Could there not have been among them an alternating of function and role”? There is too little historical evidence to even know what the externs did outside the monastery, though apparently in the early days they, like the brothers, ministered to the lepers in the leprosarium between San Damiano and the Portiuncula. Perhaps, the original vision for the sisters living in poverty is that their monastery would always function the way the hermitage did for the friars, the sisters taking care of one another so that each other’s recollection could be undisturbed, and that there would always have been an option for any of the sisters to go out and serve as the “externs” did, according as the community was so led. It is an interesting consideration. Ecclesiastical authorities shut down this option by imposing the vow of enclosure on all the women communities. As it was, they continued to minister to their surrounding communities—and the communities ministered to them—through the grill. Neighbors brought them food and they in turn gave their food to the poor; their neighbors came to them for counselling and prayer; and they also brought to the sisters their sick and mentally ill.
I want to go back now to Matthew 6:1-18 and then to its connection to the Beatitudes as maybe a clue about how we might approach the entire Sermon on the Mount.
The problem in 6:1-18 is that we tend to measure ourselves according to how others see us, and this makes us strive to live the way they expect or at least want us to. By doing so we construct a false self, for we become to ourselves not what we are in the sight of God but what we want others to see, or are afraid that they do see. We begin by seeing ourselves as the one loved by our mothers. As we grow, we learn the importance of conforming to the standards of authorities or of our peers or of those who we want to be our peers. Jesus, however, is saying that it is only the reality of God that matters in this regard. We are what and who we are before God, and really nothing else.
Jesus is calling us to go to the core of our being, and to live out from this place of profound authenticity. There are so many layers of identity that we hide behind, even—or especially—when we go before God. Karl Barth spoke of religion existing for this very purpose: to hide behind so that we would not be exposed to the Divine. Jesus is asking us to be there in all our nakedness, to peel away all the incrustations of people’s approval and disapproval, even our own efforts and accomplishments, and to be before God in all our poverty. For a trans person, such as myself, it means even taking off the mask of gender, a gender identity put there by others, and to simply be in the sight of God nothing other than myself. This request for so much honesty cannot get answered all at once. Not only do we put on masks and acquire identities, but we also hide behind many denials. Our denials are defense measures. Sometimes we use them to defend ourselves again a projected image that we identify as “God,” perhaps it is our superego, or a societal (religious) construct. We probably need those defenses for a while. In all our denials, however, we are denial of our inner self; we deny the image of God that is at the core of who we are, the “I” that is looking back at the “I” of God who addresses it.
Jesus’ words are a call to profound recollection, to dwell not in our heads, where our concepts of others exists, but in the presence of the Divine where we are. It is not an introverted turn, denying our selves as bodies, but a being in our bodies, alive with the breath of the Divine. It is a return to the reality of flesh and spirit, our own created-ness with the Divine, and our entanglement and enmeshing with others. This is not a conceptual place but a way of being before God in the utter nakedness of our innate poverty—and openness and receptivity.
This, interestingly, is the place where Jesus himself is; only he proceeds us there—for we still have a long way to go. When the heavens opened and the Divine revealed itself by revealing who he (Jesus) was in relationship to it, Jesus was in this place of poverty of self, of penitence, of openness and receptivity. The loving divine Mother looked upon Jesus, as he looked back, as if in a mirror. On seeing him she saw the image of the Divine, her “Son,” and the Spirit revealed this to him (opened the heavens to him).
This place where he was, his interior landscape (inseparable from his body, his being in flesh, his physical creation!), was a place of beatitude, of blessedness. Here was the dominion of the heavens, here was the inheritance of the Promised Land, here was comfort, here satiety, here the place of mercy, here the “seeing” of the Divine, and divine majority (“sonship”).
And this was that to which Jesus bringing his disciples by their relationship of fidelity to him. That relationship is a two-way exchange, not something we do but something we are in, and the dynamic of the relationship is to bring us to that place before ourselves and before God where Jesus himself is. When Jesus calls us to penitence, to poverty before God, to do so by entering into a relationship of fidelity to him, he is calling us into a state of grace, a place where divine grace freely works in us through this relationship, the grace in which he lives, which as Son he lives eternally.
This, then is the place where I would like us to “enter” a reflection on the Sermon on the Mount.