God’s Nature – Exuberance or the Cross?

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
It’s funny where you can learn a lesson and catch a glimpse of the divine. Recently, in a grocery store, I witnessed this incident:
A young girl, probably around 16 years of age, along with two other girls her own age, came into the store. She picked up a grocery basket and began to walk down the aisle, not knowing that a second basket was stuck onto the one she was carrying. At a point the inevitable happened, the basket stuck to hers released and crashed to the floor with a loud bang, startling her and all of us around her. What was her reaction? She burst into laughter, exuding a joy-filled delight at being so startled. For her the surprise of the falling basket was not an irritation but a gift, an unexpected humor happily fracturing dram routine.
If that had happened to me, given how I’m habitually in a hurry and easily irritated by anything that disrupts my agenda, I would probably have responded with a silent expletive rather than with laughter. Which made me think: Here’s a young girl who probably isn’t going to church and probably isn’t much concerned about matters of faith, but who, in this moment, is wonderfully radiating the energy of God, while, me, a vowed religious, over-serious priest, church-minister and spiritual writer, in such a moment, too often radiate the antithesis of God’s energy, irritation.
But is this true? Does God really burst in laughter at falling grocery baskets? Doesn’t God ever get irritated? What’s God’s real nature?
God is the unconditional love and forgiveness that Jesus reveals, but God is also the energy that lies at the base of everything that is. And that energy, as is evident in both creation and scripture, is, at its root, creative, prodigal, robust, joy-filled, playful, and exuberant. If you want to know what God is like look at the natural exuberance of children, look at the exuberance of a young puppy, look at the robust, playful energy of young people, and look at the spontaneous laughter of a 16-year-old when she is startled by a falling basket. And to see God’s prodigal character, we might look at billions and billions of planets that surround us. The energy of God is prodigal and exuberant.
Then what about the cross? Doesn’t it, more than anything else, reveal God’s nature? Isn’t it what shows us God? Isn’t suffering the innate and necessary route to maturity and sanctity? So isn’t there a contradiction between what Jesus reveals about the nature of God in his crucifixion and what scripture and nature reveal about God’s exuberance?
While there’s clearly a paradox here, there’s no contradiction. First, the tension we see between the cross and exuberance is already seen in the person and teachings of Jesus. Jesus scandalized his contemporaries in opposite ways: He scandalized them in his capacity to willingly give up his life and the things of this world, even as he scandalized them equally with his capacity to enjoy life and drink in its God-given pleasures. His contemporaries weren’t able to walk with him while he carried the cross and they weren’t able to walk with him either as he ate and drank without guilt and felt only gift and gratitude when a woman anointed his feet with expensive perfume.
Moreover, the joy and exuberance that lie at the root of God’s nature are not to be confused with the bravado we crank up at parties, carnival, and Mardi Gras. What’s experienced there is not actual delight but, instead, a numbing of the brain and senses induced by frenzied excess. This doesn’t radiate the exuberance of God, nor indeed does it radiate the powerful exuberance that sits inside us, waiting to burst forth. Carnival is mostly an attempt to keep depression at bay. As Charles Taylor astutely points out, we invented carnival because our natural exuberance doesn’t find enough outlets within our daily lives, so we ritualize certain occasions and seasons where we can, for a time, imprison our rationality and release our exuberance, as one would free a caged animal. But that, while serving as a certain release-valve, is not the ideal way to release our natural exuberance.
When I was a child, my parents would often warn me about false exuberance, the exuberance of wild partying, false laughter and carnival. They had this little axiom: After the laughter, come the tears! They were right, but only as this applies to the kind of laugher that we tend to crank up at parties to keep depression at bay. The cross however reverses my parents’ axiom and says this: After the tears, comes the laughter! Only after the cross, is our joy genuine. Only after the cross, will our exuberance express the genuine delight we once felt when we were little, and only then will our exuberance truly radiate the energy of God.
Jesus promises us that if we take up his cross, God will reward us with an exuberance that no one can ever take from us.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Placing ourselves in context

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
“I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece, but of the world.” Socrates wrote those words more than 24 hundred years ago. Today more than ever these are words which we would need to appropriate because, more and more, our world and we ourselves are sinking into some unhealthy forms of tribalism where we are concerned primarily with taking care of our own.
We see this everywhere today. We tend to think that this lives only in circles of extremism, but it is being advocated with an ever-intensifying moral fervor in virtually every place in the world.  It sounds like this:  America first! England first! My country first! My state first! My church first! My family first! Me first! More and more, we are making ourselves the priority and defining ourselves in ways that are not just against the Gospel but are also making us meaner in spirit and more miserly of heart. What’s to be said about this?
First of all, it’s against the Gospel, against most everything Jesus taught. If the Gospels are clear on anything, they are clear that all persons in this world are equal in the sight of God, that all persons in this world are our brothers and sisters, that we are asked to share the goods of this world fairly with everyone, especially the poor, and, most importantly, that we are not to put ourselves first, but are always to consider the needs of others before our own.
All slogans that somehow put “me,” “us,”  “my own,” “my group,” and “my country” first, deny this. Moreover, this doesn’t just apply at the micro-level, where we graciously step back in politeness to let someone else enter the room before us, it applies, and especially so, to us as whole nations. For us, as nations, there is a certain immorality and immaturity in thinking first of all, and primarily, of our own interests, as opposed to thinking as citizens of the world, concerned for everyone’s good.
And the truth of this is found not just in Jesus and the Gospels, but also in what’s highest and best in us. The very definition of being big-hearted is predicated on precisely rising above self-interest and being willing to sacrifice our own interests for the good of others and the good of the larger community. The same is true for being big-minded.
We are big-minded exactly to the extent that we are sensitive to the wider picture and can integrate into our thinking the needs, wounds, and ideologies of everyone, not just those of their own kind. That’s what it means to understand rather than simply be intelligent. When we are petty we cannot understand beyond our own needs, our own wounds, and our own ideologies.
We know this too from experience. On our best days our hearts and minds are more open, more willing to embrace widely, more willing to accept differences and more willing to sacrifice self-interest for the good of others. On our best days we are gracious, big-hearted, and understanding, and, on those days, it’s unthinkable for us to say: Me first! We only put ourselves first and let our concerns trump our own goodness of heart on days when our frustrations, wounds, tiredness and ideological infections overwhelm us.
And even when we do revert to pettiness, part of us knows that this isn’t us at our best, but that we are more than what our actions betray at that moment. Below our wounds and ideological sicknesses, we remain riveted to the truth that we are, first, citizens of the world. A healthy heart still beats below our wounded, infected one.
Sadly almost everything in our world today tempts us away for this. We are adult children of Rene Descartes, who helped shape the modern mind with his famous dictum: “I think, therefore, I am!”
Our own headaches and heartaches are what’s most real to us and we accord reality and value to others primarily in relationship to our own subjectivity. That’s why we can so easily say: “Me first! My country first! My heartaches first!”
But there can be no peace, no world community, no real brother and sisterhood and no real church community, as long as we do not define ourselves as, first, citizens of the world and only second as members of our own tribe.
Admittedly, we need to take care of our own families, our own countries and our own selves. Justice asks that we also treat ourselves fairly. But, ultimately, the tension here is a false one, that is, the needs of others and our own needs are not in competition.
Athens and the world are of one piece. We best serve our own when we serve others. We are most fair to ourselves when we are fair to others. Only by being good citizens of the world are we good citizens in our own countries.
Putting ourselves first goes against the Gospel. It’s also poor strategy: Jesus tells us that, in the end, the first will be last.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

We must struggle to love our neighbor

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
“The most damaging idolatry is not the golden calf but enmity against the other.” The renowned anthropologist, Rene Girard, wrote that and its truth is not easily admitted.  Most of us like to believe that we are mature and big-hearted and that we do love our neighbors and are free of enmity towards others. But is this so?
In our more honest — more accurately perhaps, in our more humble moments — I think that all of us admit that we don’t really love others in the way that Jesus asked. We don’t turn the other cheek. We don’t really love our enemies. We don’t wish good to those who wish us harm. We don’t bless those who curse us.
And we don’t genuinely forgive those who murder our loved ones. We are decent, good-hearted persons, but persons whose heaven is still too-predicated on needing an emotional vindication in the face of anyone or anything that opposes us. We can be fair, we can be just, but we don’t yet love the way Jesus asked us to; that is, so that our love goes out to both those who love us and to those who hate us. We still struggle, mightily, mostly unsuccessfully, to wish our enemies well.
But for most of us who like to believe ourselves mature that battle remains hidden, mostly from ourselves. We tend to feel that we are loving and forgiving because, essentially, we are well-intentioned, sincere, and able to believe and say all the right things; but there’s another part of us that isn’t nearly so noble.
The Irish Jesuit, Michael Paul Gallagher, (who died recently and will be dearly missed) puts this well when he writes (In Extra Time): “You probably don’t hate anyone, but you can be paralyzed by daily negatives. Mini-prejudices and knee-jerk judgements can produce a mood of undeclared war. Across barbed wire fences, invisible bullets fly.”  Loving the other as oneself, he submits, is for most of us an impossible uphill climb.
So where does that leave us? Serving out a life-sentence of mediocrity and hypocrisy? Professing to loving our enemies but not doing it? How can we profess to be Christians when, if we are honest, we have to admit that we are not measuring up to the litmus-test of Christian discipleship, namely, loving and forgiving our enemies?
Perhaps we are not as bad as we think we are. If we are still struggling, we are still healthy.  In making us, it seems, God factored in human complexity, human weakness and how growing into deeper love is a life-long journey. What can look like hypocrisy from the outside can in fact be a pilgrimage, a Camino walk, when seen within a fuller light of patience and understanding.
Thomas Aquinas, in speaking about union and intimacy, makes this important distinction. He distinguishes between being in union with something or somebody in actuality and being in union with that someone or something through desire.
This has many applications but, applied in this case; it means that sometimes the heart can only go somewhere through desire rather than in actuality. We can believe in the right things and want the right things and still not be able to bring our hearts onside.
One example of this is what the old catechisms (in their unique wisdom) used to call “imperfect contrition,” that is, the notion that if you have done something wrong that you know is wrong and that you know that you should feel sorry for, but you can’t in fact feel sorry for, then if you can wish that you could feel sorry, that’s contrition enough — not perfect, but enough.
It’s the best you can do and it puts you at the right place at the level of desire, not a perfect place, but one better than its alternative.
And that “imperfect” place does more for us than simply providing the minimal standard of contrition needed for forgiveness. More importantly it accords rightful dignity to whom and to what we have hurt.
Reflecting on our inability to genuinely love our neighbor, Marilynne Robinson submits that, even in our failure to live up to what Jesus asks of us, if we are struggling honestly, there is some virtue.
She argues this way: Freud said that we cannot love our neighbor as ourselves, and no doubt this is true. But since we accept the reality that lies behind the commandment, that our neighbor is as worthy of love as ourselves, then in our very attempt to act on Jesus’ demand we are acknowledging that our neighbor is worthy of love, even if at this point in our lives we are too weak to provide it.
And that’s the crucial point: In continuing to struggle, despite our failures, to live up to Jesus’ great commandment of love, we acknowledge the dignity inherent in our enemies, acknowledge that they are worthy of love, and acknowledge our own shortcoming. That’s “imperfect” of course, but, I suspect, Thomas Aquinas would say it’s a start!
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Ritual, prayer powerful comforters

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
In the movie based upon Jane Austen’s classic novel, “Sense and Sensibility,” there’s a very poignant scene where one of her young heroines, suffering from acute pneumonia, is lying in bed hovering between life and death. A young man, very much in love with her, is pacing back and forth, highly agitated, frustrated by his helplessness to do anything of use, and literally jumping out of his skin.
Unable to contain his agitation any longer, he goes to the girl’s mother and asks what he might do to be helpful. She replies that there’s nothing he can do, the situation is beyond them. Unable to live with that response he says to her: “Give me some task to do, or I shall go mad!”
We’ve all had the feeling at times when in the face of a dire situation we need to do something, but there’s nothing we can do, no magic wand we can wave to make things better. But there is something we can do.
I recall an event in my own life several years ago: I was teaching summer school in Belgium when, late one evening, just as I was getting ready for bed, I received an email saying that two friends of mine, a man and a woman recently engaged, had been involved that day in a fatal car accident. He was killed instantly and she was in serious condition in hospital. I was living by myself in a university dorm, thousands of miles from where this all happened, and thousands of miles from anyone with whom I could share this sorrow. Alone, agitated, panicked, and desperately needing to do something but being absolutely helpless to do anything, I was literally driven to my knees.
Not being able to do anything else, I picked up the prayer-book that contains the Office of the Church and prayed, by myself, the Vespers prayer for the dead. When I’d finished, my sorrow hadn’t gone away, my friend was still dead, but my panic had subsided, as had my desperate need to do something (when there was nothing I could do).
My prayer that night gave me some sense that the young man who’d died that day was alright, safe somewhere in a place beyond us, and it also relieved me of the agitation and panicked pressure of needing to do something in the face of agitated helplessness. I’d done the only thing I could do, the thing that’s been done in the face of helplessness and death since the beginning of time; I’d given myself over to prayer and to the rituals of the community and the faith of the community.
It’s these, prayer and ritual, which we have at our disposal at those times when, like the man in Sense and Sensibility, we need to do something or we will go mad. That’s not only true for heavy, sorrowful times when loved ones are sick or dying or killed in accidents and we need to do something but there’s nothing we can do.
We also need ritual to help us celebrate happy times properly. What should we do when our own children are getting married? Among other things, we need to celebrate the ritual of marriage because no wedding planner in the world can do for us what the ritual, especially the church-ritual, of marriage can do. Weddings, just like funerals, are a prime example of where we need ritual to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Sadly, today, we are a culture that for the most part is ritually tone-deaf. We don’t understand ritual and therefore mostly don’t know what to do when we need to be doing something but we don’t know what to do. That’s a fault, a painful poverty, in our understanding.
The Trappist monks who were martyred in Algeria in 1996 were first visited by the Islamic extremists who would later kidnap and kill them, on Christmas Eve, just as they were preparing to celebrate Christmas Mass. After some initial threats, their eventual murderers left. The monks were badly shaken. They huddled together as a group for a time to digest what had just happened.
Then, not knowing what else to do in the face of this threat and their fear, they sang the Christmas Mass. In the words of their Abbott: “It’s what we had to do. It’s all we could do! It was the right thing.” He shared too, as did a number of the other monks (in their diaries) that they found this, celebrating the ritual of Mass in the face of their fear and panic, something that calmed their fear and brought some steadiness and regularity back into their lives.
There’s a lesson to be learned here, one that can bring steadiness and calm into our lives at those times when we desperately need to do something, but there’s nothing to do.
Ritual: It’s what we have to do. It’s all we can do! It’s the right thing.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Overcoming power of life’s fear

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Fear is the heartbeat of the powerless. So writes Cor de Jonghe. That’s true. We can deal with most everything, except fear.
The late Belgium spiritual writer, Bieke Vandekerkehove, in a very fine book, “The Taste of Silence,” shared very honestly about the demons that beset her as she faced a terminal illness at age nineteen. She singled out three particular demons that tormented her as she faced the prospect of death, sadness, anger and fear, and she suggested that we can more easily cope with the first two, sadness and anger, than we can with the third, fear. Here’s her thought:
Sadness can be handled through tears, through grieving. Sadness fills us like a water glass, but a glass can be emptied. Tears can drain sadness of its bite. We have all, no doubt, experienced the release, the catharsis, that can come through tears. Tears can soften the heart and take away the bitterness of sadness, even while its heaviness remains. Sadness, no matter how heavy, has a release valve. So too does anger. Anger can be expressed and its very expression helps release it so that it flows out of us.
No doubt we, too, have experienced this. The caution, of course, is that in expressing anger and giving it release we need to be careful not to hurt others, which is the ever-present danger when dealing with anger. With anger we have many outlets: We can shout in rage, beat drum, punch a bag, use profanity, physically exercise until we’re exhausted, smash some furniture, utter murderous threats and rage away at countless things. This isn’t necessarily rational and some of these things aren’t necessarily moral, but they offer some release. We have means to cope with anger.
Fear, on the other hand, has no such release valves. Most often, there’s nothing we can do to lighten or release it. Fear paralyzes us, and this paralysis is the very thing what robs us of the strength we would need to combat it. We can beat a drum, rage in profanity, or cry tears, but fear remains. Moreover, unlike anger, fear cannot be taken out on someone else, even though we sometimes try, by scapegoating. But, in the end, it doesn’t work.
The object of our fear doesn’t go away simply because we wish it away. Fear can only be suffered. We have to live with it until it recedes on its own. Sometimes, as the Book of Lamentations suggests, all we can do is to put our mouth to the dust and wait. With fear, sometimes all we can do is endure.
What’s the lesson in this?
In her memoirs, the Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, recounts an encounter she once had with another woman, as the two of them waited outside a Russian prison. Both of their husbands had been imprisoned by Stalin and both of them were there to bring letters and packages to their husbands, as were a number of other women. But the scene was like something out of the existential literature of the absurd.
The situation was bizarre. First of all, the women were unsure of whether their husbands were even still alive and were equally uncertain as to whether the letters and packages they were delivering would ever be given to their loved ones by the guards. Moreover the guards would, without reason, make them wait for hours in the snow and cold before they would collect their letters and packages, and sometimes they wouldn’t meet the women at all.
Still, every week, despite the absurdity of it, the women would come, wait in the snow, accept this unfairness, do their vigil, and try to get letters and packages to their loved ones in prison. One morning, as they were waiting, seemingly with no end in sight, one of the women recognized Akhmatova and said to her: “Well, you’re a poet. Can you tell me what’s happening here?” Akhmatova looked at the woman and replied: “Yes, I can!” And then something like a smile passed between them.
Why the smile? Just to be able to name something, no matter how absurd or unfair, no matter our powerlessness to change it, is to be somehow free of it, above it, transcendent in some way. To name something correctly is to partly free ourselves of its dominance.
That’s why totalitarian regimes fear artists, writers, religious critics, journalists and prophets. They name things. That’s ultimately the function of prophecy. Prophets don’t foretell the future, they properly name the present. Richard Rohr is fond of saying: Not everything can be fixed or cured, but it should be named properly. James Hillman has his own way of casting this. He suggests that a symptom suffers most when it doesn’t know where it belongs.
This can be helpful in dealing with fear in our lives. Fear can render us impotent. But, naming that properly, recognizing where that symptom belongs and how powerless it leaves us, can help us to live with it, without sadness and anger.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Accepting limitations opens prayer paths

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
What most moves your heart? I was asked this question recently at a workshop. We were asked to respond to this question: When do you most naturally feel compassion in your heart? For me, the answer came easily. I am most moved when I see helplessness, when I see someone or something helpless to tend to its own needs and to protect its own dignity.
It might be baby, hungry and crying, too little to feed itself and to safeguard its own dignity. It might be a woman in a hospital, sick, in pain, dying, helpless to get better, also unable to attend to her own dignity. It might be an unemployed man, down on his luck, unable to find work, the odd man out when everyone else seems to be doing great. It might be a little girl on the playground, helpless as she is teased and bullied, suffering indignity. Or it might just be a baby kitten, hungry, helpless, pleading with its eyes, unable to speak or attend to its own need. Helplessness tugs at the heart. I am always touched in the softest place inside me by helplessness, by the pleading of finitude. I suspect we all are.
We’re in good company. This is what moved Mary, Jesus’ mother, at the Wedding Feast of Cana to go over to Jesus and say: “They have no wine!” Her request here has different layers of meaning. At one level, it is a very particular request at a particular occasion in history; she is trying to save her hosts at a wedding from embarrassment, from suffering an indignity.
No doubt the shortage of wine was due to some poverty on their part, either a shortage of money or a shortage of good planning, but, either way, they stood to be embarrassed before their guests. But, as with most things in the Gospels, this incident has a deeper meaning. Mary isn’t just speaking for a particular host on a particular occasion. She’s also speaking universally, as the mother of humanity, Eve, voicing for all of us what John Shea so aptly calls, “the cries of finitude.”
What is finitude? The finite, as we can see from the word itself, contrasts itself to the infinite, to what is not limited, to God. God, alone, is not finite. God, alone, is self-sufficient. God, alone, is never helpless, and God, alone, never needs help from anyone else. Only God is never subject to sickness, hunger, tiredness, irritation, fatigue, bodily and mental diminishment and death. God, alone, never has to suffer the indignity of need, of getting caught short, of inadequate self-expression, of not measuring up, of being embarrassed, of being bullied, of being unable to help Himself, and of having to beg silently with His eyes for someone to come and help.
Everything else is finite. Thus, as humans, we are subject to helplessness, illness, lameness, blindness, hunger, tiredness, irritation, diminishment and death. Moreover, within all these, we are also subject to indignity. So many of our words and actions are, in the end, cries of finitude, cries for assistance, the cries of a baby for food, for warmth, for protection and for a safeguard from indignity. Although we are infinitely more sophisticated in our humanity, we are all still, at one level, the baby kitten, pleading with our eyes for someone to feed us, and all the assertions of self-sufficiency of the rich, the strong, the healthy, the arrogant, and of those who seemingly need no help are in the end nothing other than attempts to keep helplessness at bay.
Not matter how strong and self-sufficient we might believe ourselves to be, finitude and mortality admit of no exemptions. Tiredness, illness, diminishment, death, and painful hungers will eventually find us all. Our wine too will eventually run out. Hopefully someone like the Mother of Jesus will speak for us: They have no wine!
What’s the lesson in this? A number of things:
First, recognizing our finitude can lead to a healthier self-understanding. Knowing and accepting our finitude can help quell a lot of frustration, restlessness and false guilt in our lives.
I once had a spiritual director, an elderly nun, who challenged me to live by this axiom: Fear not, you are inadequate. We need to forgive ourselves for our own limits, for the fact that we are human, finite, and are unable to provide ourselves and those around us all that we need. But inadequacy is a forgivable condition, not a moral fault.
Beyond forgiving ourselves for our helplessness, recognizing and accepting our finitude should challenge us too to hear more clearly the cries of finitude around us. And so whether it’s the cry of a baby, the humiliation in the eyes of someone looking for work, the ravaged eyes of the terminally ill patient or simply the pleading eyes of a young kitten, we need, like Mary, to take up their cause and ensure that someone spares them from indignity by changing their water into wine, by calling out: They have no wine!
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

One simple answer to life’s barrenness

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Several years ago, while teaching a summer course at Seattle University, I had as one of my students, a woman who, while happily married, was unable to conceive a child. She had no illusions about what this meant for her. It bothered her a great deal. She found Mother’s Day very difficult. Among other things, she wrote a well-researched thesis on the concept of barrenness in scripture and developed a retreat on that same theme which she offered at various renewal centers.
Being a celibate whose vows also conscript a certain biological barrenness, I went on one of her weekend retreats, the only male there. It was a powerful group experience, but it took most of the weekend for that to happen. Initially most everyone on the retreat was tentative and shy, not wanting to admit to themselves or others the kind of pain the loss of biological parenthood was creating in their lives. But things broke open on the Saturday night after the group watched a video of a 1990s British film, Secrets and Lies, a subtle but powerful drama about the pain of not having children.
The tears in the movie catalyzed tears within our group and the floodgates opened. Tears began to flow freely and one by one the women began to tell their stories. Then, after the tears and stories had stopped, the atmosphere changed, as if a fog had lifted and a weight had been removed. Lightness set in. Each person in the group had mourned her loss and now each felt a lightness in knowing that one might never have a child and still be a happy person, without denying the pain in that.
Barrenness is not just a term that describes a biological incapacity to have children or a life-choice to not have them. It’s wider. Barrenness describes the universal human condition in its incapacity to be generative in the way it would like and the vacuum and frustration that leaves inside lives. Karl Rahner summarizes that in these words: In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we ultimately learn that here, in this life, all symphonies must remain unfinished.
No matter if we have biological children of our own or not, we still all find ourselves barren in that for none of us is there a finished symphony here on earth. There’s always some barrenness left in our lives and biological barrenness is simply one analogate of that, though arguably the prime one.  None of us die having given birth to all we wanted to in this world.
What do we do in the face of this? Is there an answer? Is there a response that can take us beyond simply gritting our teeth and stoically getting on with it?
There is. The answer is tears. In mid-life and beyond, we need, as Alice Miller normatively suggests in her classic essay, The Drama of the Gifted Child, to mourn so that our very foundations are shaken. Many of our wounds are irreversible and many of our shortcomings are permanent. We will go to our deaths with this incompleteness. Our loss cannot be reversed. But it can be mourned, both what we lost and what we failed to achieve. In that mourning there is freedom.
I have always been struck by the powerful metaphor inside the story of Jephthah’s daughter in the biblical story in the Book of Judges, chapter 11. It captures in an archetypal image the only answer there is, this side of eternity, to barrenness. Condemned to death in the prime of her youth by a foolish vow her father made, she tells her father that she is willing to die on the altar of sacrifice, but only on one condition. She will now die without experiencing either the consummation of marriage or the birthing of children. So she asks her father to give her two months before her death to “mourn her virginity.” Properly mourned, an incomplete life can be both lived in peace and left in peace.
Tears are the answer to barrenness, to all loss and inadequacy.  Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, in her book, A Faithful Farewell, has this to say about tears: “Tears release me into honest sorrow. They release me from the strenuous business of finding words. They release me into a childlike place where I need to be held and find comfort in embrace – in the arms of others and in the arms of God.
Tears release me from the treadmill of anxious thoughts, and even from fear. They release me from the strain of holding them back. Tears are a consent to what is. They wash away, at least for a time, denial and resistance. They allow me to relinquish the self-deceptive notion that I’m in control. Tears dilute resentment and wash away the flotsam left by waves of anger.”
Not insignificantly, tears are salt water. Human life originated in the oceans. Tears connect us to the source of all life on this earth, within which prodigal fecundity trumps all barrenness.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Hope based on God’s promise, God’s power

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Many of us, I am sure, have been inspired by the movie, Of Gods and Men, which tells the story of a group of Trappist monks who, after making a painful decision not to flee from the violence in Algeria in the 1990s, are eventually martyred by Islamic extremists in 1996. Recently, I was much inspired by reading the diaries of one of those monks, Christophe Lebreton. Published under the title, “Born from the Gaze of God, The Tibhirine Journal of a Martyr Monk,” his diaries chronicle the last three years of his life and give us an insight into his, and his community’s, decision to remain in Algeria in the face almost certain death.
In one of his journal entries, Christophe shares how in this situation, caught between Islamic extremists on one side and a corrupt government on the other, in seeking ground for hope, he draws upon The Well, by French poet, Jean-Claude Renard:
But how can we affirm it’s already too late
to fulfill the desire-
so patient does the gift remain;
and when always, perhaps, something or
someone says, from the depth of silence and nakedness,
that an ineffable fire continues to dig in us
beneath wastelands peopled by thorns
a well that nothing exhausts.
A well that nothing exhausts. Perhaps that is the real basis for hope.
For all of us there are times in life when we seem to lose hope, when we look at the world or at ourselves and, consciously or unconsciously, think: “It’s too late! This has gone too far! Nothing can redeem this!”
But is this natural, depressive feeling in fact a loss of hope? Not necessarily. Indeed it is precisely when we feel this way, when we have succumbed to the feeling that we have exhausted all of our chances, it’s then that hope can arrive and replace its counterfeits, wishful thinking and natural optimism. What is hope?
We generally confuse hope with either wishful thinking or with natural optimism, both of which have little to do with hope. Wishful thinking has no foundation. We can wish to win a lottery or to have the body of a world-class athlete, but that wish has no reality upon which to draw. It’s pure fantasy. Optimism, for its part, is based upon natural temperament and also has little to do with hope.
Terry Eagleton, in a recent book, “Hope without Optimism,” suggests rather cynically that optimism is simply a natural temperament and an enslaving one at that: “The optimist is chained to cheerfulness.” Moreover, he asserts, that the optimist’s monochrome glaze over the world differs from pessimism only by being monochromatically rosy instead of monochromatically gray. Hope isn’t a wish or a mood; it is a perspective on life that needs to be grounded on a sufficient reality. What is that sufficient reality?
Jim Wallis, a salient figure of Christian hope in our time, says that our hope should not be grounded on what we see on the news of the world each night because that news constantly changes and, on any given night, can be so negative so as to give us little ground for hope. He’s right. Whether the world seems better or worse on a given evening is hardly sufficient cause for us to trust that in the end all will be well. Things might change drastically the next night.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who perennially protested that he was a man of hope rather than of optimism, in an answer to a question, once suggested that there are two sufficient reasons for hope. Asked what would happen if we blew up the world with an atomic bomb, he replied: That would set things back a few million years, but God’s plan for the earth would still come about. Because Christ promised it and, in the resurrection, God shows that God has the power to deliver on that promise. Hope is based on God’s promise and power.
But there is still another reason for our hope, something else that grounds our hope and gives us sufficient reason to live in trust that eventually all will be well, namely, God’s inexhaustibility. Underneath and beneath, our universe, there is a well that nothing exhausts.
God is a prodigal God, almost unimaginable in the scope of physical creation, a God who has created and is still creating billions upon billions of universes. Moreover, this prodigal God, so beyond our imagination in creativity, is, as has been revealed to us by Jesus, equally unimaginable in patience and mercy. There is never an end to our number of chances. There is no limit to God’s patience. There is nothing that can ever exhaust the divine well.
It’s never too late! God’s creativity and mercy are inexhaustible.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

On bowing and raising our heads

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
At end of every Roman Catholic liturgy, there is an invitation given to the people to receive a blessing. That invitation is worded this way: Bow your heads and pray for God’s blessing. The idea behind that, obviously, is that a blessing can only truly be received in reverence, in humility, with head bowed, with pride and arrogance subjugated and silent.
A bowed head is a sign of humility and is understood, almost universally, as our proper spiritual posture. Spiritual writers have rarely questioned or felt the need to nuance the notion that spiritual health means a head bowed in humility. But is it really that simple?
Admittedly there is a lot of wisdom in that. A head bowed in reverence is a sign of humility. Moreover pride heads the list of deadly sins. Human pride is congenital, deep, and impossible to uproot. It can be redeemed and it can be crushed, but it always remains in us, necessarily so. There is no health without pride, but pride can also derail health. There is something inside of human nature, inherent in our very individuality and freedom, which does not like to bend the knee before what is higher and superior. We guard our pride fiercely and it is no accident that the archetypal image of resistance to God is expressed in Lucifer’s inflexible, pride-anchored statement: I will not serve!
Moreover we do not like to admit weakness, finitude, dependence and interdependence. Thus all of us have to grow and mature to a place where we are no longer naive and arrogant enough to believe that we do not need God’s blessing. All spirituality is predicated on humility. Maturity, human and spiritual, is most evident in someone whom you see on his or her knees praying.
But, while pride can be bad, sometimes pride and arrogance are not the problem. Rather our struggle is with a wounded and broken spirit that no longer knows how to stand upright. It is one thing to be young, healthy, strong, arrogant, and unaware of how fragile and finite we are (and that illusion can survive and stay with us into old age); but it is quite another thing to have one’s heart broken, one’s spirit crushed and one’s pride taken away. When that happens, and it happens to all of us if we are half-sensitive and live long enough, wounded pride does some very negative things in us, it cripples us so that we can no longer truly get off our knees, stand upright, raise our heads and receive love and blessing.
I remember as a child, growing up on a farm, watching something that was then called “breaking a horse.” The men would catch a young colt which had until then run completely free and they would, through a rather brutal process, force the young colt to submit to halter, saddle and human commands. When the process was finished, the colt was now compliant to human commands. But the process of breaking the horse’s freedom and spirit was far from gentle, and thus yielded a mixed result. The horse was now compliant, but part of its spirit was broken.
That’s an apt image for the journey, both human and spiritual. Life, in ways that are far from gentle, eventually breaks our spirit, for good and for bad, and we end up humble, but we also end up somewhat wounded and unable to (metaphorically) stand upright. Conscripted humility has a double effect: On the one hand, we find that we more-naturally genuflect before what is higher; but, on the other hand, because the pain of our brokenness, as is so often the case with pain, we focus more upon ourselves than on others and we end up handicapped. Bruised and fragile, we are unable to properly give and receive and are stuttering and reticent in sharing the goodness and depth of our own persons.
Spirituality and religion have, for the most part, been too one-sided on this. They have perennially been vigilant about pride and arrogance (and, admittedly, these are real and are forever the deadly sins). But spirituality and religion have been too slow to lift up the fallen. We all know the dictum that the task of spirituality is to afflict the comforted and comfort the afflicted. Historically, religion and spirituality, while not always being very successful with the former, have been too-negligent of the latter.
Pride and arrogance are the deadliest of all vices. However wounded pride and a broken spirit can equally derail us.
So, perhaps when the church blesses its congregation at the end of a liturgy, it might, instead of saying: Bow your heads and pray for God’s blessing, say instead: Those of you who think you are not in need of this blessing: Please bow your heads and pray for God’s blessing. Meanwhile those of you who feel beaten, broken and unworthy of this blessing: Raise your heads to receive a love and gift that you have long despaired of ever again receiving.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Silence provides pathway to holiness

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
The Belgian spiritual writer, Bieke Vandekerckhove, comes by her wisdom honestly. She didn’t learn what she shares from a book or even primarily from the good example of others. She learned what she shares through the crucible of a unique suffering, being hit at the tender age of nineteen with a terminal disease that promised not just an early death but also a complete breakdown and humiliation of her body enroute to that death.
Her attempt to cope with her situation drove her in many directions, initially to anger and hopelessness but eventually to monasteries, to the wisdom of monasticism, and, under its direction, into the deep well of silence, that desert that lurks so threateningly inside each of us. Away from all the noises of the world, in the silence of her own soul, inside the chaos of her raging, restless insides she found the wisdom and strength not just to cope with her illness but to also find a deeper meaning and joy in her life.
There are, as John Updike poetically puts it, secrets that are hidden from health, though, as Vandekerckhove makes evident, they can be uncovered in silence. However uncovering the secrets that silence has to teach us is not easy.
Silence, until properly befriended, is scary and the process of befriending it is the soul’s equivalent of crossing a hot desert. Our insides don’t easily become calm, restlessness doesn’t easily turn into solitude and the temptation to turn to the outside world for consolation doesn’t easily give way to the idea of quiet. But there’s a peace and a meaning that can only be found inside the desert of our own chaotic and raging insides. The deep wells of consolation lie at the end of an inner journey through heat, thirst, and dead-ends that must be pushed through with dogged fidelity. And, as for any epic journey, the task is not for the faint of heart.
Here’s how Vandekerckhove describes one aspect of the journey: “Inner noise can be quite exhausting. That’s probably why so many flee to the seduction of exterior background noises. They prefer to have the noise just wash over them. But if you want to grow spiritually, you have to stay inside of the room of your spiritual raging and persevere.
You have to continue to sit silently and honestly in God’s presence until the raging quiets down and your heart gradually becomes cleansed and quieted. Silence forces us to take stock of our actual manner of being human. And then we hit a wall, a dead point. No matter what we do, no matter what we try, something in us continues to feel lost and estranged, despite the myriad ways of society to meet our human needs. Silence confronts us with an unbearable bottomlessness, and there appears no way out. We have no choice but to align ourselves with the religious depth in us.”
There’s a profound truth: Silence confronts us with an unbearable bottomlessness and we have no choice but to align ourselves with the religious depth inside us. Sadly, for most of us, we will learn this only by bitter conscription when we have to actually face our own death. In the abandonment of dying, stripped of all options and outlets we will, despite struggle and bitterness, have to, in the words of Karl Rahner, allow ourselves to sink into the incomprehensibility of God.
Moreover, before this surrender is made, our lives will always remain somewhat unstable and confusing and there will always be dark, inner corners of the soul that scare us.
But a journey into silence can take us beyond our dark fears and shine healing light into our darkest corners. But, as Vandekerckhove and other spiritual writers point out, that peace is usually found only after we have reached an impasse, a “dead point” where the only thing we can do is “to pierce the negative.”
In her book, The Taste of Silence, Vandekerckhove recounts how an idealistic friend of hers shared his dream of going off by himself into some desert to explore spirituality.
Her prompt reaction was not much to his liking: “A person is ready to go to any kind of desert. He’s willing to sit anywhere, as long as it’s not his own desert.” How true. We forever hanker after idealized deserts and avoid our own.
The spiritual journey, the pilgrimage, the Camino, we most need to make doesn’t require an airline ticket, though an experienced guide is recommended. The most spiritually rewarding trip we can make is an inner pilgrimage, into the desert of our own silence.
As human beings we are constitutively social. This means, as the bible so bluntly puts it, that it is not good for the human person to be alone. We are meant to be in community with others. Heaven will be a communal experience; but, on the road there, there’s a certain deep inner work that can only be done alone, in silence, away from the noise of the world.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)