By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
All of us live with some wounds, bad habits, addictions and temperamental flaws that are so deeply engrained and long-standing that it seems like they are part of our genetic make-up. And so we tend to give into a certain quiet despair in terms of ever being healed of them.
Experience teaches us this. There’s the realization at some point in our lives that the wounds and flaws which pull us down cannot be simply be turned off like a water-tap. Willpower and good resolutions alone are not up to the task. What good is it to make a resolution never to be angry again? Our anger will invariably return. What good is it to make a resolution to give up some addictive habit, however small or big? We will soon enough again be overcome by its lure.
And what good does it do to try to change some temperamental flaw we’ve inherited in our genes or inhaled in the air of our childhood? All the good resolutions and positive thinking in the world normally don’t change our make-up.
So what do we do? Just live with our wounds and flaws and the unhappiness and pettiness that this brings into our lives? Or, can we heal? How do we weed-out our weaknesses?
There are many approaches to healing: Psychology tells us that good counseling and therapy can help cure us of our wounds, flaws and addictions. Therapy and counseling can bring us to a better self-understanding and that can help us change our behavior. But psychology also admits that this has its limitations. Knowing why we do something doesn’t always empower us to change our behavior. Sociology too has insights to contribute: There is, as Parker Palmer puts it, the therapy of a public life. Healthy interaction with family, friends, community and church can be a wonderfully steadying thing in our lives and help take us beyond our lonely wounds and our congenital missteps.
Various recovery (12-Step) programs also contribute something valuable: These programs are predicated on the premise that self-understanding and willpower by themselves are often powerless to actually change our behavior. A higher power is needed, and that higher power is found in ritual, communal support, radical honesty, admittance of our helplessness and a turning over of ourselves to a someone or something beyond us that can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Recovery programs are invaluable, but they too aren’t the answer to all of our problems.
Finally, not least, there are various theories and practices of healing that ground themselves in spirituality. These range from emphasizing church-going itself as a healing, to emphasizing the sacrament of reconciliation, to recommending prayer and meditation, to counseling various ascetical practices, to sending people off to holy sites, to letting oneself be prayed-over by some group or faith-healer, to undergoing long periods of spiritual guidance under a trained director.
There’s value in all of these and perhaps the full healing of a temperamental flaw, a bad habit, an addiction or a deep wound depends upon drawing water from each of these wells. However, beyond this simple listing, I would like to offer an insight from the great mystic, John of the Cross, vis-à-vis coming to psychological, moral and spiritual healing.
In his last book, “The Living Flame of Love,” John proposes a theory of, and a process for, healing. In essence, it runs this way: For John, we heal of our wounds, moral flaws, addictions and bad habits by growing our virtues to the point where we become mature enough in our humanity so that there’s no more room left in our lives for the old behaviors that used to drag us down. In short, we get rid of the coldness, bitterness and pettiness in our hearts by lighting inside our hearts enough warm fires to burn out the coldness and bitterness.
The algebra works this way: The more we grow in maturity, generativity and generosity, the more our old wounds, bad habits, temperamental flaws and addictions will disappear because our deeper maturity will no longer leave room for them in our lives. Positive growth of our hearts, like a vigorous plant, eventually chokes-out the weeds. If you went to John of the Cross and asked him to help you deal with a certain bad habit in your life, his focus wouldn’t be on how to weed-out that habit. Instead the focus would be on growing your virtues: What are you doing well? What are your best qualities? What goodness in you needs to be fanned fan into fuller flame?
By growing what’s positive in us, we eventually become big-hearted enough so that there’s no room left for our former bad habits. The path to healing is to water our virtues so that these virtues themselves will be the fire that burns out the festering wounds, addictions, bad habits and temperamental flaws that have, for far too long, plagued our lives and kept us wallowing in weakness and pettiness rather than walking in maturity, generosity and generativity.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)