Neutrality threatens our decency

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Father Ron Rolheiser

Jesus tells us that in the end we will be judged on how we dealt with the poor in our lives, but there are already dangers now, in this life, in not reaching out to the poor
Here’s how Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy, teases out that danger: “I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated and the condemned. We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we condemn others.”
What needs to be highlighted here is what we do to ourselves when we don’t reach out in compassion to the poor. We corrupt our own decency. As Stevenson puts it: An absence of compassion corrupts our decency – as a state, as a church, as family and as individuals. How so?
St. Augustine teaches that we can never be morally neutral, either we are growing in virtue or falling into vice. We never have the luxury of simply being in some neutral, holding state. There’s no moral neutrality. Either we are growing in virtue or sliding into virtue’s opposite. That’s true for all of life. A thing is either growing or it’s regressing.
So too with our attitude towards justice and the poor: Either we are actively reaching out to the poor and being more drawn into concern for them or we are unconsciously hardening our hearts against them and unknowingly sliding into attitudes that trivialize their issues and distance ourselves from them. If we are not actively advocating for justice and the poor, it is inevitable that at a point we will, with completely sincere hearts, downplay the issues of poverty, racism, inequality and injustice.
It’s interesting to note that in the famous text on the final judgment in the Gospel where Jesus describes how God will divide the sheep from the goats on the basis of how they treated the poor, neither group, those who did it correctly and those who didn’t, actually knew what they were doing. The group who did it right state that they didn’t know that in touching the poor they were touching Christ; and the group who got it wrong protest that had they known that Christ was in the poor, they would have reached out. Jesus assures us that it doesn’t matter. Mature discipleship lies simply in the doing, irrespective of our conscious attitude.
And so we need to be alert not just to our conscious attitudes but to what we are actually doing. We can, in all sincerity, in all good conscience, in all good heart, be blind towards justice and the poor. We can be moral men and women, pious church-goers, generous donors to those who ask help from us, warm to our own families and friends and yet, blind to ourselves, though not to the poor, be unhealthily elitist, subtle racists, callous towards the environment and protective of our own privilege. We are still good persons no doubt, but the absence of compassion in one area of our lives leaves us limping morally.
We can be good persons and yet fall into a certain hardness of heart because of kindred, ideological circles that falsely affirm us. Within any circle of friends, either we are talking about ways that we can more effectively lessen the gaps between rich and poor or we are talking, however unconsciously, about the need to defend the gaps that presently exist. One kind of conversation is stretching our hearts; the other is narrowing them. Lack of compassion for justice and the poor will inevitably work at turning a generous heart into a defensive one.
We all have friends who admire us and send us signals that we are good, big-hearted, virtuous persons. And no doubt this is substantially true. But the affirmation we receive from our own kind can be a false mirror. A truer mirror is how those who are politically, racially, religiously and temperamentally different from ourselves assess us. How do the poor feel about us? How do refugees assess our goodness? How do other races rate our compassion?
And what about the mirror that Jesus holds up for us when he tells us that our goodness will be judged by how we treat the poor and that the litmus test of goodness consists is how well we love our enemies?
An absence of compassion in even one area subtly corrupts the decency of a community, a state, a nation and that eventually turns our generosity into defensiveness.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Plea for the soul

IN EXILE

Father Ron Rolheiser

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
It’s hard to find your soulmate in someone who doesn’t believe you have a soul.
Recently on “The Moth Radio Hour” a young woman shared the story of her breakup with her boyfriend, a young man for whom she had deep feelings. The problem was that she, a person with a deep faith, a Mormon, struggled with the radical materialism of her boyfriend. For him, there were no souls; the physical world was real, and nothing else. She kept asking him if he believed he had a soul. He couldn’t make himself believe that. Eventually, not without a lot of heartache, they broke up. Why? In her words: It’s hard to find your soulmate in someone who doesn’t believe you have a soul.
Her frustration is becoming more universal. More and more our world is ignoring and denying the existence of soul, becoming soulless. It wasn’t always like this. Up until modern times, often it was the physical and the body that weren’t properly honored. But things have changed, radically.
It began with Darwin, who rooted our origins more in the history of our bodies than in the origins of our souls; it took more shape in the mechanistic philosophies of the last century, which understood both our universe and ourselves as physical machines; it became more firm as modern medicine and experimental psychology began more and more to explain the brain primarily in terms of carbon complexification and biochemical interactions; it seeped into our higher educational systems as we produced more and more technical schools rather than universities in the deeper sense; and it culminated in popular culture where love and sex are spoken of more in terms of chemistry than in terms of soul. It is not surprising that for most pop singers today the mantra is: I want your body! I want your body! We’re a long ways from Shakespeare’s marriage of true minds and Yeats’ love of the pilgrim soul in you.
Religion of course has always lodged its protests against this but often its understanding of the soul was itself too narrow to have much power to lure a materialistic culture back into wanting to rediscover and listen to the soul. Ironically, it took a non-religious figure, Carl Jung, to speak of soul again in a way that is intellectually intriguing. And it was in the sick, the insane, the suicidal and others whose lives were broken that Jung began to hear the cry of the soul (whose demands are sometimes very different from those of the body and whose needs are for much more than simple comfort and the prolonging of life).
Much of Jung’s teaching and that of his followers can be seen as a protest for the soul. We see this, for example, in the writing of James Hillman. It’s ironic that as an agnostic he was able to speak about the soul in ways that we, who are religious, might envy and emulate. Like Jung, he also drew many of his insights from listening to the soul cry out its meaning and pain through the voices of the sick, the insane, the broken, and the suicidal. Religion, medicine and psychology, he believes, are not hearing the soul’s cry. They’re forever trying to fix the soul, cure the soul or save the soul, rather than listening to the soul, which wants and needs neither to be fixed nor saved. It’s already eternal. The soul needs to be heard, and heard in all its godly goodness and earthy complexes. And sometimes what it tells us goes against all common sense, medical practice and the over-simplistic spiritualities we often present as religion.
To be more in touch with our souls we might examine an older language, the language that religion, poets, mythologists, and lovers used before today’s dominant materialism turned our language about the soul into the language of chemistry and mechanism. We cannot understand the soul through any scientific description but only by looking at its behavior, its insatiability, its dissatisfactions, and its protests. A soul isn’t explained, it’s experienced, and soul experience always comes soaked in depth, in longing, in eros, in limit, in the feeling of being pilgrim in need of a soulmate.
Happily, even today, we still do spontaneously connect the soul to things beyond chemistry and mechanism. As Hillman points out: “We associate the word ‘soul’ with: mind, spirit, heart, life, warmth, humanness, personality, individuality, intentionality, essence, innermost, purpose, emotion, quality, virtue, morality, sin, wisdom, death, God. As well, we speak of a soul as ‘troubled,’ ‘old,’ ‘disembodied,’ ‘immortal,’ ‘lost,’ ‘innocent,’ ‘inspired.’ Eyes are said to be ‘soulful,’ for the eyes are ‘the mirror of the soul;’ and one can be ‘soulless’ by showing no mercy.”
Soullessness: We understand the make-up of something best when we see it broken. So perhaps today we can best understand our soullessness in the growing acceptance of pornography and hook-up sex, where the soul is intentionally and necessarily excluded from what is meant to be the epitome of all soulful experience.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Close the distance not the gate

IN EXILE

Father Ron Rolheiser

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Nobel-prizing winning author, Toni Morrison, assessing the times, asks this question: “Why should we want to know a stranger when it is easier to estrange another? Why should we want to close the distance when we can close the gate?” Except this isn’t a question, it’s a judgment.
It’s a negative judgment on both our society and our churches. Where are our hearts really at? Are we trying more to close the distance between us and what’s foreign or are we into closing gates to keep strangers estranged?
In fairness, it might be pointed out that this has always been a struggle. There hasn’t been a golden age within which people wholeheartedly welcomed the stranger. There have been golden individuals and even golden communities who were welcoming, but never society or church as a whole.
Much as this issue is so front and center in our politics today, as countries everywhere struggle with their immigration policies and with what to do with millions of refugees and migrants wanting to enter their country, I want to take Morrison’s challenge, to close the distance rather than close the gate, to our churches: Are we inviting in the stranger? Or, are we content to let the estranged remain outside?
There is a challenging motif within Jesus’ parable of the over-generous vineyard owner which can easily be missed because of the overall lesson within the story. It concerns the question that the vineyard owner asks the last group of workers, those who will work for only one hour. Unlike the first group, he doesn’t ask them: “Do you want to work in my vineyard?”
Rather he asks them: “Why aren’t you working?” Their answer: “Because no one has hired us!” Notice they don’t answer by saying that their non-employment is because they are lazy, incompetent or disinterested. Neither does the vineyard owner’s question imply that. They aren’t working simply because no one has given them the invitation to work!
Sadly, I believe this is the case for so many people who are seemingly cold or indifferent to religion and our churches. Nobody has invited them in! And that was true too at the time of Jesus. Whole groups of people were seen as being indifferent and hostile to religion and were deemed simply as sinners. This included prostitutes, tax collectors, foreigners and criminals. Jesus invited them in and many of them responded with a sincerity, contrition and devotion that shamed those who considered themselves true believers. For the so-called sinners, all that stood between them and entry into the kingdom was a genuine invitation.
Why aren’t you practicing a faith? No one has invited us! Just in my own, admittedly limited, pastoral experience, I have seen a number of individuals who from childhood to early or late mid-life were indifferent to and even somewhat paranoid about, religion and church. It was a world from which they had always felt excluded. But, thanks to some gracious person or fortunate circumstance, at a moment, they felt invited in and they gave themselves over to their new religious family with a disarming warmth, fervor and gratitude, often taking a fierce pride in their new identity.
Witnessing this several times, I now understand why the prostitutes and tax collectors, more than the church people at the time, believed in Jesus. He was the first religious person to truly invite them in.
Sadly, too, there’s a reverse side to this is where, all too often, in all religious sincerity, we not only don’t invite certain others in, we positively close the gates on them. We see that, for example, a number of times in the Gospels where those around Jesus block others from having access to him, as is the case in that rather colorful story where some people are trying to bring a paralytic to Jesus but are blocked by the crowds surrounding him and consequently have to make a hole in the roof in order to lower the paralytic into Jesus’ presence.
Too frequently, unknowingly, sincerely, but blindly, we are that crowd around Jesus, blocking access to him by our presence. This is an occupational danger especially for all of us who are in ministry.
We so easily, in all sincerity, in the name of Christ, in the name of orthodox theology and in the name of sound pastoral practice set ourselves up as gatekeepers, as guardians of our churches, through whom others must pass in order to have access to God. We need to more clearly remember that Christ is the gatekeeper and the only gatekeeper and we need to refresh ourselves on what that means by looking at why Jesus chased the moneychangers out of the temple in John’s Gospel. They, the moneychangers, had set themselves up as a medium through which people has to pass in order to offer workshop to God. Jesus would have none of it.
Our mission as disciples of Jesus is not to be gatekeepers. We need instead to work at closing the distance rather than closing the gate.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

IN EXILE

Father Ron Rolheiser

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Be still and know that I am God. Scripture assures us that if we are still we will come to know God, but arriving at stillness is easier said than done. As Blaise Pascal once stated, “All the miseries of the human person come from the fact that no one can sit still for one hour.” Achieving stillness seems beyond us and this leaves us with a certain dilemma, we need stillness to find God, but we need God’s help to find stillness. With this in mind, I offer a prayer for stillness.
God of stillness and of quiet …
• Still the restlessness of my youth: still that hunger that would have me be everywhere, that hunger to be connected to everyone, that wants to see and taste all that is, that robs me of peace on a Friday night. Quiet those grandiose dreams that want me to stand out, to be special. Give me the grace to live more contentedly inside my own skin.
• Still the fever I inhale from all the energy that surrounds me, that makes my life feel small. Let me know that my own life is enough, that I need not make an assertion of myself, even as the whole world beckons this of me from a million electronic screens. Give me the grace to sit at peace inside my own life.
• Still my sexuality, order my promiscuous desires, my lusts, my polymorphous aching, my relentless need for more intimacy. Quiet and order my earthy desires without taking them away. Give me the grace to see others without a selfish sexual color.
• Still my anxiety, my heartaches, my worries, and stop me from always being outside the present moment. Let each day’s worries be sufficient onto themselves. Give me the grace to know that you have pronounced my name in love, that my name written in heaven, that I am free to live without anxiety.
• Still my unrelenting need to be busy all the time, to occupy myself, to be always planning for tomorrow, to fill every minute with some activity, to seek distraction rather than quiet. Give me the grace to sit in a quiet that lets me savor a sunset and actually taste the water I’m drinking.
• Still the disappointment that comes with age. Soothe the unacknowledged anger I feel from not achieving much of what I’ve wanted in life, the failure that I feel in the face of all that I’ve left untried and unfinished. Still in me the bitterness that comes from failure. Save me from the jealousy that comes unbidden as I begrudgingly accept the limits of my life. Give me the grace to accept what circumstance and failure have dealt me.
• Still in me the fear of my own shadow, the fear I feel in the face of the powerful, dark forces that unconsciously threaten me. Give me the courage to face my darkness as well as my luminosity. Give me the grace to not be fearful before my own complexity.
• Still in me the congenital fear that I’m unloved, that I’m unlovable, that love has to be earned, that I need to be more worthy. Silence in me the nagging suspicion that I’m forever missing out, that I’m odd, an outsider, that things are unfair, and that I’m not being respected and recognized for who I am. Give me the grace to know that I’m a beloved child of a God whose love need not be earned.
• Still in me my false fear of you, my propensity for a misguided piety, my need to treat you like a distant and feared dignitary rather than as a warm friend. Give me the grace to relate to you in a robust way, as a trusted friend with whom I can jest, wrestle, and relate to in humor and intimacy.
• Still my unforgiving thoughts, the grudges I nurse from my past, from the betrayals I’ve suffered, from the negativity and abuses I’ve been subject to. Quiet in me the guilt I carry from my own betrayals. Still in me all that’s wounded, unresolved, bitter, and unforgiving. Give the quiet that comes from forgiveness.
• Still in me my doubts, my anxieties about your existence, about your concern, and about your fidelity. Calm inside me the compulsion to leave a mark, to plant a tree, to have a child, to write a book, to create some form of immortality for myself. Give me the grace to trust, even in darkness and doubt, that you will give me immortality.
Still my heart so that I may know that you are God, that I may know that you create and sustain my every breath, that you breathe the whole universe into existence every second, that everyone, myself no less than everyone else, is your beloved, that you want our lives to flourish, that you desire our happiness, that nothing falls outside your love and care, and that everything and everybody is safe in your gentle, caring hands, in this world and the next.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Stuck in traffic

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Father Ron Rolheiser

There’s a famous billboard that hangs along a congested highway that reads: You aren’t stuck in traffic. You are traffic! Good wit, good insight! How glibly we distance ourselves from a problem, whether it is our politics, our churches, the ecological problems on our planet or most anything else.
We aren’t, as we want to think, stuck in a bad political climate wherein we can no longer talk to each other and live respectfully with each other. Rather we ourselves have become so rigid, arrogant and sure of ourselves that we can no longer respect those who think differently than we do. We are a bad political climate and not just stuck in one.
Likewise for our churches: We aren’t stuck in churches that are too self-serving and not faithful enough to the teachings of Jesus. Rather we are Christians who too often, ourselves, out of self-interest compromise the teachings of Jesus. We aren’t stuck in our churches, we comprise those churches.
The same is true apposite the ecological challenges we face on this planet: We aren’t stuck on a planet that’s becoming oxygen-starved and a junkyard for human wastage. Rather it’s we, not just others, who are too careless in how we are using up the earth’s resources and how we are leaving behind our waste.
Admittedly, this isn’t always true. Sometimes we are stuck in negative situations for which we bear no responsibility and within which, through no fault of our own, we are simply the unfortunate victim of circumstance and someone else’s carelessness, illness, dysfunction or sin. We can, for instance, be born into a dysfunctional situation which leaves us stuck in a family and an environment that don’t make for easy freedom. Or, sometimes simple circumstance can burden us with duties that take away our freedom. So, metaphorically speaking, we can be stuck in traffic and not ourselves be part of that traffic, though generally we are, at least partially, part of the traffic we’re stuck in.
Henri Nouwen often highlighted this in his writings. We are not, he tells us, separate from the events that make up the world news each day. Rather, what we see written large in the world news each night simply reflects what’s going on inside of us. When we see instances of injustice, bigotry, racism, greed, violence, murder and war on our newscasts we rightly feel a certain moral indignation. It’s healthy to feel that way, but it’s not healthy to naively think that it’s others, not us, who are the problem.
When we’re honest we have to admit that we’re complicit in all these things, perhaps not in their crasser forms, but in subtler, though very real, ways: The fear and paranoia that are at the root of so much conflict in our world are not foreign to us. We too, find it hard to accept those who are different from us. We too, cling to privilege and do most everything we can to secure and protect our comfort. We too, use up an unfair amount of the world’s resources in our hunger for comfort and experience.
As well, our negative judgments, jealousies, gossip and bitter words are, at the end of the day, genuine acts of violence since, as Henri Nouwen puts it: Nobody is shot by a gun that isn’t first shot by a word. And nobody is shot by a word before he or she is first shot by a murderous thought: Who does she thinks she is! The evening news just shows large what’s inside our hearts. What’s in the macrocosm is also in the microcosm.
And so we aren’t just viewers of the evening news, we’re complicit in it. The old catechisms were right when they told us that there’s no such a thing as a truly private act, that even our most private actions affect everyone else. The private is political. Everything affects everything.
The first take-away from this is obvious: When we find ourselves stuck in traffic, metaphorically and otherwise, we need to admit our own complicity and resist the temptation to simply blame others.
But there’s another important lesson here too: We are never healthier than when we are confessing our sins; in this case, confessing that we are traffic and not just stuck in traffic. After recognizing that we are complicit, hopefully we can forgive ourselves for the fact that, partially at least, we are helpless to not be complicit. No one can walk through life without leaving a footprint. To pretend otherwise is dishonest and to try to not leave a footprint is futile. The starting point to make things better is for us to admit and confess our complicity.
So the next time you’re stuck in traffic, irritated and impatient, muttering angrily about why there are so many people on the road, you might want to glance at yourself in rearview mirror, ask yourself why you are on the road at that time and then give yourself a forgiving wink as you utter the French word, touché.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

God Needs Better Press

IN EXILE

Father Ron Rolheiser

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
The word “Protestant” is generally misunderstood. Martin Luther’s protest that led to the Protestant reformation was not, in fact, a protest against the Roman Catholic Church; properly understood, it was a protest for God. God, in Luther’s view, was being manipulated to serve human and ecclesial self-interest. His protest was a plea to respect God’s transcendence.
We need a new protest today, a new plea, a strong one, to not connect God and our churches to intolerance, injustice, bigotry, violence, terrorism, racism, sexism, rigidity, dogmatism, anti-eroticism, homophobia, self-serving power, institutional self-protection, security for the rich, ideology of all kinds and just plain stupidity. God is getting a lot of bad press!
A simple example can be illustrative here: In a recent book that documents an extraordinary fifty-year friendship with his former coach, basketball legend (and present-day exceptional writer), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, shares why he became a Muslim. Raised a Roman Catholic, a graduate of Catholic schools, he eventually left Christianity to become a Muslim. Why?
In his own words: Because “the white people who were bombing churches and killing little girls, who were shooting unarmed black boys, who were beating black protestors with clubs loudly declared themselves to be proud Christians. The Ku Klux Klan were proud Christians. I felt no allegiance to a religion with so many evil followers. Yes, I was also aware that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was also a proud Christian, as were many of the civil rights leaders. Coach Wooden was a devout Christian. The civil rights movement was supported by many brave white Christians who marched side by side with blacks. When the KKK attacked, they often delivered even worse beatings to the whites, whom they considered to be race traitors. I didn’t condemn the religion, but I definitely felt removed from it.”
His story is only one story and by his own admission has another side to it, but it’s highly illustrative. It’s easy to connect God to the wrong things. Christianity, of course, isn’t the only culprit. Today, for instance, we see perhaps the worst examples of tying God to evil in the violence of ISIS and other such terrorist groups who are killing, randomly and brutally, in the name of God. You can be sure that the last words uttered, just as a suicide bomber randomly kills innocent people, is: God is great! What horrible thing to say as one is committing an act of murder! Doing the ungodly in the name of God!
And yet we so often do the same thing in subtler forms, namely, we justify the ungodly (violence, injustice, inequality, poverty, intolerance, bigotry, racism, sexism, the abuse of power and rich privilege) by appealing to our religion. Silently, unconsciously, blind to ourselves, grounded in a sense of right and wrong that’s colored by self-interest, we give ourselves divine permission to live and act in ways that are antithetical to most everything Jesus taught.
We can protest, saying that we’re sincere, but sincerity by itself is not a moral or religious criterion. Sincerity can and often does, tie God to the ungodly and justifies what’s evil in the name of God: The people conducting the Inquisition were sincere; the slave traitors were sincere; those who protected pedophile priests were sincere, racists are sincere; sexists are sincere; bigots are sincere; the rich defending their privilege are sincere; church offices making hurtful, gospel-defying pastoral decisions that deprive people of ecclesial access are very sincere and gospel-motivated; and all of us, as we make the kind of judgments of others that Jesus told us time and again not to make, are sincere. But we think that we’re doing this all for the good, for God.
However in so many of our actions we are connecting God and church to narrowness, intolerance, rigidity, racism, sexism, favoritism, legalism, dogmatism and stupidity. And we wonder why so many of our own children no longer go to church and struggle with religion.
The God whom Jesus reveals is the antithesis of much of religion, sad but true. The God whom Jesus reveals is a prodigal God, a God who isn’t stingy; a God who wills the salvation of everyone, who loves all races and all peoples equally; a God with a preferential love for the poor; a God who creates both genders equally; a God who strongly opposes worldly power and privilege. The God of Jesus Christ is a God of compassion, empathy and forgiveness, a God who demands that spirit take precedence over law, love over dogma and forgiveness over juridical justice. And very importantly, the God whom Jesus incarnates isn’t stupid, but is a God whose intelligence isn’t threatened by science and a God who doesn’t condemn and send people to hell according to our limited human judgments.
Sadly, too often that’s not the God of religion, of our churches, of our spirituality, or of our private consciences.
God isn’t narrow, stupid, legalistic, bigoted, racist, violent, or vengeful and it’s time we stopped connecting God to those things.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Understanding Grace more Deeply

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Father Ron Rolheiser

The mark of genuine contrition is not a sense of guilt, but a sense of sorrow, of regret for having taken a wrong turn; just as the mark of living in grace is not a sense of our own worth but a sense of being accepted and loved despite our unworthiness. We are spiritually healthy when our lives are marked by honest confession and honest praise.
Jean-Luc Marion highlights this in a commentary on St. Augustine’s famous Confessions. He sees Augustine’s confession as a work of a true moral conscience because it is both a confession of praise and a confession of sin. Gil Bailie suggests that this comment underlines an important criterion by which to judge whether or not we are living in grace: “If the confession of praise is not accompanied by the confession of sin it an empty and pompous gesture. If the confession of sins is not accompanied by a confession of praise, it is equally vacuous and barren, the stuff of trashy magazines and tabloid newspapers, a self-preening parody of repentance.”
Gil is right, but doing both confessions at one and the same time is not an easy task. We generally find ourselves falling into either a confession of praise where there is no real confession of our own sin; or into the “self-preening parody of repentance” of a still self-absorbed convert, where our confession rings hollow because it shows itself more as a badge of sophistication than as genuine sorrow for having strayed.
In neither case is there a true sense of grace. Piet Fransen, whose masterful book on grace served as a textbook in seminaries and theology schools for a generation, submits that neither the self-confident believer (who still secretly envies the pleasures of the amoral that he’s missing out on) nor the wayward person who converts but still feels grateful for his fling, has yet understood grace. We understand grace only when we grasp existentially what’s inside the Father’s words to his older son in the parable of the prodigal son: My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.
The older brother would not be bitter if he understood that everything his father owns is already his, just as he would not be envious of the pleasures his wayward brother tasted if he understood that, in real life, his brother had been dead. But it takes a deeper grasp of what grace is to intuit that, namely, to grasp that life inside God’s house dwarfs all other pleasures.
The same is true for the convert who has given up his wayward life but still secretly rejoices in the experience and sophistication it brought him and nurses a condescending pity for the less-experienced. He too has not yet really understood grace.
In his book, The Idea of the Holy, now considered a classic, Rudolf Otto submits that in the presence of the holy we will always have a double reaction: fear and attraction. Like Peter at the Transfiguration, we will want to build a tent and stay there forever; but, like him too before the miraculous catch of fish, we will also want to say: “Depart from me for I am a sinful man.” In the presence of the holy, we want to burst forth in praise even as we want to confess our sins.
That insight can help us to understand grace. Piet Fransen begins his signature book on grace, The New Life of Grace, by asking us to imagine this scene: Picture a man who lives his life in mindless hedonism. He simply drinks in the sensual pleasures of this world without a thought for God, responsibility or morality.
Then, after a long life of illicit pleasure, he has a genuine deathbed conversion, sincerely confesses his sins, receives the sacraments of the church, and dies in that happy state. If our spontaneous reaction to this story is: “Well, the lucky fellow! He had fling and still made it in the end!” we have not yet understood grace but instead are still embittered moralizers standing like the older brother in need of a further conversation with our God.
And the same holds true too for the convert who still feels that what he’s experienced in his waywardness, his fling, is a deeper joy than the one known by those who have not strayed. In this case, he’s come back to his father’s house not because he senses a deeper joy there but because he deems his return an unwanted duty, less exciting, less interesting and less joy-filled than a sinful life, but a necessary moral exit strategy. He too has yet to understand grace.
Only when we understand what the father of the prodigal son means when he says to the older brother: Everything I have is yours,” will we offer both a confession of praise and a confession of sin.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

To whom can we go?

IN EXILE

Father Ron Rolheiser

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
“To whom else shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.” Peter says these words to Jesus. But they are spoken in a very conflicted context: Jesus had just said something that upset and offended his audience and the gospels tell us that everyone walked away grumbling that what Jesus was teaching was “intolerable.” Jesus then turns to his apostles and asks them: “Do you want to walk away too?” Peter answers: “To whom else can we go?” But that’s more a statement of stoic resignation than an actual question.
His words function at two levels. On the surface, they express an unwanted humility and helplessness that sometimes beset us all: “I have no alternative! I’m so invested in this relationship that now I have no other options. I’m stuck with this!” That’s a humble place to stand and anyone who has ever given himself or herself over in an authentic commitment will eventually stand on that place, knowing that he or she no longer has another practical choice.
But those words also express a much deeper quandary, namely, where can I find meaning if I cannot find it in faith in God? All of us have at some point asked ourselves that question. If I didn’t believe in God and had no faith or religion, what would give meaning to my life?
Where can we go if we no longer have an explicit faith in God? A lot of places, it seems. I think immediately of so many attractive stoics who have wrestled with this question and found solace in various forms of what Albert Camus would call “metaphysical rebellion” or in the kind of Epicureanism that Nikos Kazantzakis advocates in Zorba, the Greek. There’s a stoicism which offers its own kind of salvation by drawing life and meaning simply from fighting chaos and disease for no other reason than that that these cause suffering and are an affront to life, just as there is an Epicureanism that meaningfully grounds life in elemental pleasure. There are, it would seem, different kinds of saints.
There are also different kinds of immortality. For some, meaning outside of an explicit faith, is found in leaving a lasting legacy on this earth, having children, achieving something monumental, or becoming a household name. We’re all familiar with the axiom: Plant a tree; write a book; have a child!
Poets, writers, artists, and artisans often have their own place to find meaning outside of explicit faith. For them, creativity and beauty can be ends in themselves. Art for art’s sake. Creativity itself can seem enough.
And there are still others for whom deep meaning is found simply in being good for its own sake and in being honest for its own sake. There’s also virtue for virtue’s sake and virtue is indeed its own reward. Simply living an honest and generous life can provide sufficient meaning with which to walk through life.
So, it appears that there are places to go outside of explicit faith where one can find deep meaning. But is this really so? Don’t we believe that true meaning can only be found in God? What about St. Augustine’s classic line? You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until the rest in you. Can anything other than faith and God really quiet the restless fires within us?
Yes, there are things that can do that, but all of them – fighting chaos, curing diseases, having children, living for others, building things, inventing things, achieving goals or simply living honest and generous lives – leave us, in an inchoate way, radiating the transcendental properties of God and working alongside God to bring life and order to the world. How so?
Christian theology tells us that God is One, True, Good, and Beautiful. And so, when an artist gives herself over to creating beauty, when a couple has a child, when scientists work to find cures for various diseases, when artisans make an artifact, when builders build, when teachers teach, when parents parent, when athletes play a game, when manual laborers labor, when administrators administrate, when people just for the sake integrity itself live in honesty and generosity, and, yes, even when hedonists drink deeply of earthily pleasure, they are, all of them, whether they have explicit faith or not, acting in some faith because they are putting their trust in either the Oneness, Truth, Goodness, or Beauty of God.
Lord, to whom else can we go? You have the message of eternal life. Well, it seems that there are places to go and many go there. But these aren’t necessarily, as is sometimes suggested by misguided spiritual literature, empty places that are wrong and self-destructive. There are, of course, such places, spiritual dead-ends; but, more generally, as we can see simply by looking at the amount of positive energy, love, creativity, generosity and honesty that still fill our world, those places where people are seeking God outside of explicit faith still has them meeting God.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Christianity’s ‘noon-day’ fatigue

IN EXILE

Father Ron Rolheiser

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
There’s a popular notion which suggests that it can be helpful to compare every century of Christianity’s existence to one year of life. That would make Christianity 21 years-old, a young 21, grown-up enough to exhibit a basic maturity but still far from a finished product. How insightful is this notion?
That’s a complex question because Christianity expresses itself in communities of worship and in spiritualities that vary greatly across the world. For instance, just to speak of churches, it is difficult to speak of the Christian church in any global way:. In Africa, for the most part, the churches are young, full of young life and exploding with growth, with all the strengths and problems that come with that.
In Eastern Europe the churches are still emerging from the long years of oppression under communism and are struggling now to find a new balance and new energy within an ever-intensifying secularity. Latin American churches have given us liberation theology for a reason. There the issues of social injustice and those advocating for it in Jesus’ name and those reacting against them have deeply colored how church and spirituality are lived and understood.
In Asia, the situation is even more complex. One might talk of four separate ecclesial expressions and corresponding spiritualities in Asia: There is Buddhist Asia, Hindu Asia, Moslem Asia and a seemingly post-Christian Asia. Churches and spiritualities express themselves quite differently in these different parts of Asia. Finally there is still Western Europe and North America, the so-called “West.” Here, it would seem, Christianity doesn’t radiate much in the way of either youth or vitality, but appears from most outward appearances to be aged, grey-haired and tired, an exhausted project.
How accurate is this as a picture of Christianity in Western Europe, North America and other highly secularized part of the world? Are we, as churches, old, tired, grey-haired and exhausted?
That’s one view, but the picture admits of other interpretations. Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, along with many Enlightenment figures, saw Christianity as a spent project, as a dying reality, its demise the inevitable death of childhood naiveté. But Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, looking at the same evidence, saw things in exactly the opposite way. For him, Christianity was still “in diapers”, struggling still to grow in maturity, a child still learning to walk; hence its occasional stumbles.
Contemporary spiritual writer, Tomas Halik, the recent winner of the prestigious Templeton Award, suggests still another picture. For Halik, Christianity in the West is undergoing a “noon-day fatigue,” a writer’s block, a crisis of imagination. In this, he is very much in agreement with what Charles Taylor suggests in his monumental study, “A Secular Age.” For Taylor, what we are experiencing today is not so much a crisis of faith as a crisis of imagination and integration. Older Christian writers called this a “dark night of the soul” and Halik suggests that it is happening to us not at the end of the day but at noontime.
My own sympathies are very much with Halik. Christianity, the churches and the spiritualities in Western Europe and North America aren’t old and dying, a spent project. Rather they are young, figuratively speaking only 21 years old, with still some growing up to do. But and here is where I agree with conservative critics, growth into that maturity is not guaranteed but is rather contingent upon us making some clear choices and hard commitments inside a genuine faith. As any parent can tell you, there are no guarantees that a 21 year old will grow to maturity. The opposite can also happen and that’s true too for Christianity and the churches today. There are no guarantees.
But, inside of faith and inside the choices and commitments we will have to make, it is important that we situate ourselves under the correct canopy so as to assign to ourselves the right task. We are not old and dying. We are young, with our historical afternoon still to come, even as we are presently suffering a certain “noon-day fatigue.” Our afternoon still lies ahead and the task of the afternoon is quite different than the task of the morning or the evening. As James Hillman puts it: “The early years must focus on getting things done, while the later years must consider what was done and how.”
But the afternoon years must focus on something else, namely, the task of deepening. Both spirituality and anthropology agree that the afternoon of life is meant to be an important time within which to mature, an important time for some deeper inner work and an important time to enter more deeply our own depth. Note that this is a task of deepening and not one of restoration.
Our noon-day fatigue will not be overcome by returning to the task of the morning in hope of refreshing ourselves or by retiring passively to the evening’s rocking chair. Noon-day fatigue will be overcome by finding new springs of refreshment buried at deeper places inside us.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Death as ‘going on ahead’

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

“I go on ahead to prepare a place for you!” Jesus speaks those words to his disciples on the eve of his death as he sits at table with them and senses their sadness as they grapple with his dying, his going away. His words are meant to console them and give them the assurance that they aren’t being abandoned. It’s just that he is going on ahead to prepare a place for them to come and join him later.
That story speaks to me very personally because of how one of my sisters died. She was young, the mother of a large family and seemingly too young to leave her young children behind. She was dying of a cancer that, while relentlessly doing its deadly work, mercifully left her relatively pain-free and clear in mind and heart to the very end. The cancer eventually took her to a point where she could no longer eat, but could still be nourished for a time by intravenous transfusions. But these too eventually no longer worked and, once unhooked from the intravenous needles, she was told that she had roughly a week still to live. She chose to spend those last days in a hospital rather than at home, with her family having easy, 24-hour, access to her hospice bed.
The days leading up to her death were a sacred time. I took her communion several days before she died and, with her head still very clear, she told me what I should say at her funeral liturgy. She had chosen that exact text where Jesus, on the night before he dies, tells his heavy-hearted disciples that he is going ahead, to prepare a place for them. She shared how, before every one of her children was born, before she went to the hospital to give birth, she had carefully prepared everything at home for the new arrival, the crib, the diapers, the clothing, the room. She brought each of her children home to a place she had carefully prepared. And now she was going on ahead of them again, to prepare another place for them.
I preached those words at her funeral and despite our grief and despite the fact that in moments like these there is nothing really that can be said that takes away the pain, her raw testimony of faith left us with an image that placed us all, not least her husband and children, inside a bigger story, a faith-narrative, that highlighted two things.
First, the image of her going on ahead of her children awakened our grieving faith to the truth that a mother can go on ahead to prepare a place for her children in much deeper ways than simply bringing a new-born home from a hospital. Second, her “going ahead” was also showing her children and the rest of us, how to die, how to do that act that we all someday must do. After you watch a good person die, you become less afraid to die yourself because you see how it can be done in an ordinary way, by an ordinary person, in a way that you can also do. In her dying, she prepared a place for us.
But this isn’t a lesson only about dying. This image, I go on ahead to prepare a place for you, is a metaphor which defines the essential task of our adult, mature years. Our task as “elders,” whether that be as a mother or father, an older brother or older sister, an uncle or an aunt, a teacher, a clergyman, a nurse, a worker, a colleague or a friend, is to live in such a way so as to create a place where the young can follow. Our task as adults is to show the young how to live at a place where they’ve never been as yet.
And it is both a noble and humble task. Most of us cannot live up to the lofty ideals we see lived out in the lives of the great saints, though their lives have created an ideal place for us. However, while not everyone can live as Mother Teresa did, perhaps they can live like you do and your life can be their exemplar for meaning, wholeness, anonymous sanctity and dying without unnecessary fear.
I’ve been graced to be at the deathbed of a goodly number of ordinary people who died very ordinary-looking deaths, with no choirs of angels silently chanting in the background, no alleluias on their lips, with pain and thirst dominating their concerns, with their hands being tightly grasped by loved ones and their hearts still very much focused on the pain of leaving this world. And that’s not a bad way to die. In how they managed their deaths they prepared a place for me. Looking at how they died, I am far less fearful and can more readily say: I can do this!
What a grace to have someone go on ahead to prepare a place for you!
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)