On true friendship

Father Ron Rolheiser

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
One of the richest experiences of grace that we can have this side of eternity is the experience of friendship.
Dictionaries define friendship as a relationship of mutual affection, a bond richer than mere association. They then go on to link friendship to a number of words: kindness, love, sympathy, empathy, honesty, altruism, loyalty, understanding, compassion, comfort and (not least) trust. Friends, the dictionaries assert, enjoy each other’s company, express their feelings to each other and make mistakes without fear of judgment from the other.
That basically covers things, but to better grasp the real grace in friendship a number of things inside that definition need explication.
First, as the Greek Stoics affirmed and as is evident in the Christian spirituality, true friendship is only possible among people who are practicing virtue. A gang is not a circle of friendship, nor are many ideological circles. Why? Because friendship needs to bring grace and grace is only found in virtue.
Next, friendship is more than merely human, though it is wonderfully human. When it is genuine, friendship is nothing less than a participation in the flow of life and love that’s inside of God. Scripture tells us that God is love, but the word it uses for love in this case is the Greek word agape, a term which might be rendered as “family,” “community” or “the sharing of life.” Hence the famous text (“God is Love”) might be transliterated to read: God is family, God is community, God is shared existence and whoever shares his or her existence inside of community and friendship is participating in the very flow of life and love that is inside the Trinity.
But this isn’t always true. Friendship and family can take different forms. Parker Palmer, the contemporary Quaker writer, submits: “If you come here faithfully, you bring great blessing.” Conversely, the great Sufi mystic, Rumi, writes: “If you are here unfaithfully, you bring great harm.” Family and community can bring grace or block it. Our circle can be one of love and grace or it can be a one of hatred and sin. Only the former merits the name friendship. Friendship, says St. Augustine, is the beauty of the soul.
Deep, life-giving friendship, as we all know, is as difficult as it is rare. Why? We all long for it in the depths of our soul, so why is it so difficult to find? We all know why: We’re different from each other, unique and rightly cautious as to whom we give entry into our soul. And so it isn’t easy to find a soulmate, to have that kind of affinity and trust. Nor is it easy to sustain a friendship once we have found one. Sustained friendship takes hard commitment and that’s not our strong point as our psyches and our world forever shift and turn. Moreover, today, virtual friendships don’t always translate into real friendships.
Finally, not least, friendship is often hindered or derailed by sex and sexual tension. This is simply a fact of nature and a fact within our culture and all other cultures. Sex and sexuality, while they ideally should be the basis for deep friendship, often are the major hindrance to friendship. Moreover, in our own culture (whose ethos prizes sex over friendship) friendship is often seen as a substitute and a second-best one at that, for sex.
But while that may be in our cultural ethos, it’s clearly not what’s deepest in our souls. There we long for something that’s ultimately deeper than sex–or is sex in a fuller flowering. There’s a deep desire in us all (be that a deeper form of sexual desire or a desire for something that’s beyond sex) for a soulmate, for someone to sleep with morally. More deeply than we ache for a sexual partner, we ache for a moral partner, though these desires aren’t mutually exclusive, just hard to combine.
Friendship, like love, is always partly a mystery, something beyond us. It’s a struggle in all cultures. Part of this is simply our humanity. The pearl of great price is not easily found nor easily retained. True friendship is an eschatological thing, found, though never perfectly, in this life. Cultural and religious factors always work against friendship, as does the omnipresence of sexual tension.
Sometimes poets can reach where academics cannot and so I offer these insights from a poet vis-à-vis the interrelationship between friendship and sex. Friendship, Rainer Marie Rilke suggests, is often one of the great taboos within a culture, but it remains always the endgame: “In a deep, felicitous love between two people you can eventually become the loving protectors of each other’s solitude. … Sex is, admittedly, very powerful, but no matter how powerful, beautiful and wondrous it may be. If you become the loving protectors of each other’s solitude, love gradually turns to friendship.”
And as Montaigne once affirmed: “The end of friendship may be more important than love. The epiphanies of youth are meant to blossom and ripen into something everlasting.”

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

On Suicide and Despair

Father Ron Rolheiser

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
For centuries, suicide was considered as an act of despair and despair itself was seen as the most grievous sin of all. In many religious circles, despair was seen as the most sinful of all acts and ultimately unforgivable.
Sadly, a strong residue of that remains, suicide is still seen by many as an act of despair, an affront to God and to life itself, an unforgivable relinquishing of hope. Many church people still see suicide as an act of despair and as the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. But this is a misunderstanding. Suicide is not an act of despair and is not an act which cannot be forgiven. That suicide is an act of despair is not what the Christian Churches and certainly not the Roman Catholic Church, believe or teach.
My purpose here is not to disparage what our churches teach about either suicide or despair, but rather to highlight with more accuracy what they do teach. The same holds true for people who still believe that suicide is an act of despair and an unforgiveable sin. I am not disparaging their belief but trying rather to free them from a false fear (based on a misunderstanding) which surely must cause them grief and anxiety vis-à-vis loved ones who have died by suicide.
Suicide is not despair. Dictionaries define despair as the complete lack or absence of hope. But that’s not what happens in most suicides. What does happen?
The person who is taking his or her own life is not intending that act as an insult or affront to God or to life (for that would be an act of strength and suicide is generally the antithesis of that). What happens in most suicides is the polar opposite. The suicide is the result of a mammoth defeat.
There’s a powerful scene in the musical adaption of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. A young woman, Fantine, lies dying. She tells of once being youthful and full of hopeful dreams; but now worn-down by a lifetime of poverty, crushed by a broken heart and overcome by physical illness, she is defeated and has to submit to the tearful fact that “there are storms we cannot weather.”
She’s right and anyone who does not accept that truth will one day come to a painful and bitter understanding of it. There are things in this life that will crush us and surrender isn’t an act of despair and indeed isn’t a free act at all. It’s a humbling, sad defeat.
And that’s the case with most people who die from suicide. For reasons ranging from mental illness to an infinite variety of overpowering storms that can break a person, there’s sometimes a point in people’s lives where they are overpowered, defeated and unable to continue to will their own living – parallel to one who dies as a victim of a drought, hurricane, cancer, heart disease, diabetes or Alzheimer’s. There’s no sin in being overpowered by a deadly storm. We can be overpowered and some people are, but that’s not despair (which can only be willful and an act of strength).
To begin with, we don’t understand mental illness, which can be just as a real and just as death-producing as any physical illness. We don’t blame someone for dying from cancer, a stroke or a physical accident, but we invariably cast moral shadows on someone who dies as a result of various mental illnesses which play a deadly role in many suicides. Happily, God is still in charge and our flawed understanding, while generally permanently tainting the way someone is remembered in this world, doesn’t effect salvation on the other side.
Beyond mental illness we can be defeated in life by many other things. Tragedy, heartbreaking loss, unrequited obsession and crippling shame can at times break a heart, crush a will, kill a spirit and bring death to a body. And our judgment on this should reflect our understanding of God: What all-loving, merciful God would condemn someone because he or she, like Victor Hugo’s, Fantine, could not weather the storm? Does God side with our own narrow notions where salvation is mostly reserved for the strong? Not if Jesus is to be believed.
Notice when Jesus points out sin he doesn’t point to where we are weak and defeated; rather he points to where we are strong, arrogant, indifferent and judgmental. Search the Gospels and ask this question: On whom is Jesus hardest? The answer is clear: Jesus is hardest on those who are strong, judgmental and have no feeling for those who are enduring the storm. Notice what he says about the rich man who ignores the poor man at his doorstep, what he says about the priest and scribe who ignore the man beaten in a ditch and how critical he is of the scribes and Pharisees who are quick to define who falls under God’s judgment and who doesn’t.
Only a faulty understanding of God can underwrite the unfortunate notion that being crushed in life constitutes despair.

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

Poverty, chastity and obedience in secular age

Father Ron Rolheiser

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Cardinal Francis George was once asked what he thought of the radical pacifism of people like Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan, SJ, prophetic figures who believed in absolute nonviolence. How can this be practical, he was asked, it’s utterly naïve to believe that we can live without police and without soldiers. This was his reply: The world needs pacifists in the same way as it needs vowed celibates: They’re not practical. They’re out of place in this world. But they point to the eschatological world, the world of heaven, a world within which there will be no guns, where relational exclusivities will not exist as they exist now, where family will not be based on biology, blood or marriage, where there will be no poor people, and where everything will belong to everyone.
I thought of that recently as I was conducting a workshop on religious life for a group of young people who were discerning whether or not to enter vowed religious life. My task was not to try to persuade them to join a religious community but to help them understand what that life, should they join it, would entail. That meant, of course, long discussions on the three vows that people take to be in religious life: poverty, chastity, and obedience (classically termed “the Evangelical Counsels”).
What’s to be said about poverty, chastity, and obedience in a world that, for the most part, places its hope in material riches, generally identifies chastity with frigidity, and values individual freedom above all else?
Well, no doubt, poverty, chastity, and obedience are seen as radically counter-cultural; but that’s mostly because they are generally not very well understood (sometimes even by those who are living them out). For the most part they are seen as a drastic renunciation, the sacrificing of a full life, the unnatural denial of one’s sexuality, and the adolescent signing over of one’s freedom and creativity. But that’s a misunderstanding.
Poverty, chastity, and obedience are not a missing out on riches, sexuality, and freedom. They are rather a genuine, rich, modality of riches, sexuality, and freedom.
The vow of poverty isn’t primarily about living with cheaper things, not having a dishwasher and doing your own housework. It’s also not about renouncing the kinds of riches that can make for the full flourishing of life. A life of voluntary poverty is a lived way of saying that all material possessions are gift, that the world belongs to everyone, that nobody owns a country, and that nobody’s needs are first. It’s a vow against consumerism and tribalism, and it brings its own wonderful riches in terms of meaning and in the happiness and joy of a shared life.
Likewise for the vow of chastity: Properly understood, it is not a missing out on the joys of sexuality. It’s a rich modality of sexuality itself, given that being sexual means more than having sex. Sexuality is a beautiful, God-given drive within us for lots of things: community, friendship, togetherness, wholeness, family, play, altruism, enjoyment, delight, creativity, genital consummation, and for everything that takes us beyond our aloneness and makes us generative. And so the very real joys that are found in community, friendship, and service of others are not a second-rate substitute for sex. They bring their own sexual flourishing in terms of leading us out of our aloneness.
The same holds true for obedience. Properly understood, it’s not a missing out on real freedom. Rather it’s a rich modality of freedom itself, one practiced by Jesus (who repeatedly says: “I do nothing on my own. I do only the Father’s will.”) Obedience, as a religious vow, is not an immature sacrificing of one’s freedom and adulthood.
It’s rather a radical submitting of one’s human ego (with all its wounds, desires, lusts, private ambitions, and envies) to something and Someone higher than oneself, as seen in the human and religious commitments in persons from Jesus, to Teilhard de Chardin, to Dag Hammarskjold, to Simone Weil, to Mother Teresa, to Jean Vanier, to Daniel Berrigan. In each of these we see a person who walked this earth in a freedom we can only envy but clearly too in a freedom that’s predicated on a genuflecting of one’s individual will to something higher than itself.
Our thoughts and our feelings are strongly influenced by the cultural software within which we find ourselves. Thus, given how our culture understands riches, sex, and freedom today, this may well be the most difficult time in many centuries to make the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and live them out. Small wonder religious communities are not over-flooded with applications. But because it is more difficult than ever, it is also more important than ever that a number of women and men choose, voluntarily, to prophetically live out these vows.
And their seeming sacrifice will be amply rewarded because, paradoxically, poverty brings its own riches, chastity brings its own flourishing, and obedience provides us with the deepest of all human freedoms.

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

Moral outrage becomes self-condemnation

Father Ron Rolheiser

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Moral outrage is the antithesis of morality. Yet it’s everywhere present in our world today and is everywhere rationalized on the basis of God and truth.
We live in a world awash in moral outrage. Everywhere individuals and groups are indignant and morally outraged, sometimes violently so, by opposing individuals, groups, ideologies, moral positions, ecclesiologies, interpretations of religion, interpretations of scripture and the like. We see this everywhere, television networks outraged at the news coverage of other networks, church groups bitterly demonizing each other, pro-life and pro-choice groups angrily shouting at each other and politics at its highest levels paralyzed as different sides feel so morally indignant that they are unwilling to contemplate any accommodation whatever with what opposes them.
And always, on both sides, there’s the righteous appeal to morality and divine authority (however explicit or implicit) in way that, in essence, says: I have a right to demonize you and to shut my ears to anything you have to say because you’re wrong and immoral and I, in the name of God and truth, am standing up to you. Moreover, you’re immorality gives me the legitimate right to bracket the essentials of human respect and treat you as a pariah to be eliminated – in the name of God and of truth.
And this this kind of attitude doesn’t just make for the angry divisions, bitter polarizations and the deep distrust we live with today within our society, it’s also what produces terrorists, mass shootings and the ugliest bigotry and racism. It produced Hitler – someone who was able to capitalize so powerfully on moral outrage that he was able to sway millions of people to turn against what was best inside themselves.
But moral outrage, however much it tries to justify itself on some lofty basis, religion, morality, patriotism, historical hurt, or personal injustice, remains always the opposite of genuine morality and genuine religious practice? Why? Because genuine morality and religious practice are always characterized by the opposite of what’s seen in moral outrage. Genuine morality and genuine religious practice are always marked by empathy, understanding, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, respect, charity and graciousness – all of which are glaringly absent in virtually every expression of moral outrage we see today.
In trying to draw us into a genuine morality and religiosity, Jesus says this: Unless your virtue goes deeper than that of the Scribes and the Pharisees you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. What was the virtue of the Scribes and Pharisees? On the surface, theirs was a very high virtue. To be a good Scribe or Pharisee meant keeping the Ten Commandments, being faithful to the prescribed religious practices of the time and being a man or woman who was always just and fair in your dealings with others. So what’s lacking in that?
What’s missing is that all of these things (keeping the commandments, faithful religious observance and being fair to others) can be done with a bitter, accusatory, unforgiving heart just as easily (and perhaps even more so) than with a warm, empathic, forgiving heart. Keeping the commandments, going to church and being a just person can all be done (as is only too clear sometimes) out of moral outrage. To paraphrase Jesus: Anyone can be gracious to those who are gracious to you. Anyone can love those who love you. And anyone can be good to those who do good to you … but can you be gracious to those who are bitter towards you? Can you be loving towards those who hate you? And can you forgive those who kill you? That’s the litmus test for Christian morality and religious practice – and nowhere inside of anyone who passes this test will you still find the kind of moral outrage where we believe that God and truth are asking us to demonize those who hate us, do us evil, or try to kill us.
Moreover what we do in moral outrage is deny that we are ourselves morally complicit in the very things we demonize and pour our hatred out on. As we watch the world news each day and see the anger, bitter divisions, violence, injustices, intolerance and wars that characterize our world, a deep, honest, courageous scrutiny should make us aware that we cannot fully separate ourselves from those things. We live in a world of longstanding and present injustice, of ever-widening economic inequality, of endemic racism and sexism, of countless people living as victims of plunder and rape in history, of millions of refugees with no place to go and in a society where various people are branded and ostracized as “losers” and “sickos.” Should we be surprised that our society produces terrorists? However sincere and innocent we might personally feel, how we’re living helps create the ground the breeds mass killers, terrorists, abortionists and playground bullies. We’re not as innocent as we think we are.
Our moral outrage is not an indicator that we are on the side of God and truth. More often than not, it suggests the opposite.

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

When time stands still

Father Ron Rolheiser

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
The theory of relativity tells us that space and time are not what they appear to be. They’re relative, meaning that don’t always function in the same way and they aren’t always experienced in the same way. Time can stand still.
Or can it? This side of eternity, it would seem not. Ever since the universe started with a mammoth explosion some 13.8 billion years ago the clock has been running non-stop, like a merciless meter, moving relentlessly forwards.
However, our faith suggests that time will be different in eternity, so different in fact that we cannot now even imagine how it will be in heaven. As St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Corinthians: Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him. How will time be experienced in heaven? As we’ve just affirmed, that cannot be imagined now.
Or can it? In a wonderful new book, Is This All There Is? On Resurrection and Eternal Life, the renowned German scripture scholar, Gerhard Lohfink, suggests that we can and sometimes do have an experience of time as it will be experienced in eternity. For Lohfink, we experience this whenever we’re in adoration.
For him, the highest form of prayer is adoration. But what does it mean to “adore” God and why is that the highest form of prayer? Lohfink answers: “In adoration we ask nothing more of God. When I lament before God it is usually my own suffering that is the starting point. Even when I petition God, the occasion is often my own problem. I need something from God. And even when I thank God, unfortunately I am usually thankful for something I have received. But when I adore, I let go of myself and look only to God.”
Admittedly, lament, petition and thanksgiving are high forms of prayer. An old, classical and very good, definition of prayer defines prayer as “lifting mind and heart to God” and what’s in our hearts virtually at all times is some form of lament, petition, or thanksgiving. Moreover, Jesus invites us to ask God for whatever is in our heart at a given moment: “Ask and you will receive.” Lament, petition and thanksgiving are good forms of prayer; but, in praying them, we’re still focused in some manner on ourselves, on our needs and our joys.
However in adoration we look to God or at some attribute of God (beauty, goodness, truth, or oneness) so strongly that everything else drops away. We stand in pure wonder, pure admiration, ecstatic awe, entirely stripped of our own heartaches, headaches and idiosyncratic focus. God’s person, beauty, goodness and truth overwhelm us so as to take our minds off of ourselves and leave us standing outside of ourselves.
And being free of our own selves is the very definition of ecstasy (from the Greek, EK STASIS, to stand outside oneself.) Thus, to be in adoration is to be in ecstasy – though, admittedly, that’s generally not how we imagine ecstasy today. For us, ecstasy is commonly imagined as an earthshaking standing inside of ourselves, idiosyncrasy in its peak expression. But true ecstasy is the opposite. It’s adoration.
Moreover, for Lohfink, not only is adoration the only true form of ecstasy, it’s also a way of being in heaven already right now and of experiencing time as it will be in heaven. Here’s how he puts it: “In the miracle of adoration we are already with God, entirely with God and the boundary between time and eternity is removed. It is true that we cannot now comprehend that adoring God will be endless bliss. We always want to be doing something. We want to criticize, intervene, change, improve, shape. And rightly so! That is our duty. But in death, when we come to God, that all ceases.
Then our existence will be pure astonishment, pure looking, pure praise, pure adoration – and unimaginable happiness. That is why there is also a form of adoration that uses no words. In it I hold out my own life to God, in silence and with it the whole world, knowing God as Creator, as Lord, as the one to whom belongs all honor and praise. Adoration is the oblation of one’s life to God. Adoration is surrender. Adoration means entrusting oneself entirely to God. As we dwell in adoration, eternity begins – an eternity that does not withdraw from the world but opens to it utterly.”
Time can stand still! And it stands still when we’re in pure admiration, in awe, in wonder, in adoration. In those moments we stand outside of ourselves, in the purest form of love that exists. At that moment too we are in heaven, not having a foretaste of heaven, but actually being in heaven. Eternity will be like that, one moment like a thousand years and a thousand years like one moment.
When we adore, time stands still – and we’re in heaven!

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

Faith includes ups and downs

Father Ron Rolheiser

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
The poet, Rumi, suggests that we live with a deep secret that sometimes we know, then not, and then know again. That’s a good description of faith. Faith isn’t something you nail down and possess once and for all. It goes this way: sometimes you walk on water and sometimes you sink like a stone.
The Gospels testify to this, most graphically, in the story of Peter walking on the water: Jesus asks Peter to step out of a boat and walk across the water to him. At first it works, Peter, unthinking, walks on the water, then becoming more conscious of what he is doing he sinks like a stone. We see this too in the massive fluctuations in belief that Jesus’ disciples experience during the “forty days” after the resurrection. Jesus would appear to them, they would trust he was alive, then he would disappear again, and they would lose their trust and go back to the lives they’d led before they met him, fishing and the sea. The post-resurrection narratives illustrate the dynamics of faith pretty clearly: You believe it. Then you distrust. Then you believe it again. At least, so it seems on the surface.
We see another example of this in the story of Peter betraying Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that there is a secret which separates those who have faith from those who don’t: To you is given the secret of the kingdom, but to those outside everything exists in parables. That sounds like Gnosticism, that is, the idea that there’s a secret code somewhere (e.g., the Di Vinci Code) that some know and some don’t and you are in or out depending upon whether you know it or not. But that’s not what Jesus is saying here. His secret is an open one, accessible to all: the meaning of the cross. Anyone who understands this will understand the rest of what Jesus means, and vice versa. We are in or out, depending upon whether or not we can grasp and accept the meaning of Jesus’ death.
But, being in or out isn’t a once and for all thing. Rather, we move in and out! After Peter denied Jesus, we’re told: “he went outside.” This is intended both literally and metaphorically. After his denial, Peter stepped outside a gate into the night to be away from the crowd, but he also stepped outside the meaning of his faith.
Our faith also bounces up and down for another reason, we misunderstand how it works: Take for example the Rich Young Man who approaches Jesus with this question: “Good master, what must I do to possess eternal life?” That’s an interesting choice of a verb: to possess. Eternal life as a possession? Jesus’ gentle correction of the young man’s verb teaches us something vital about faith. Jesus says to him: “Now if you wish to receive eternal life,” meaning that faith and eternal life are not something you possess so that they can be stored and guarded like grain in a barn, money in a bank, or jewelry in a box. They can only be received, like the air we breathe. Air is free, is everywhere, and our health doesn’t depend upon its presence, for it’s always there, but rather upon the state of our lungs (and mood) at any given moment. Sometimes we breathe deeply and appreciatively; but, sometimes, for various reasons, we breathe badly, gasp for breath, are out of breath or are choking for air. Like breathing, faith too has its modalities.
And so, we need to understand our faith not as a possession or as something we achieve once and for all, which can be lost only by some huge, dramatic, life-changing shift inside of us, where we move from belief to atheism. “Faith isn’t some constant state of belief,” suggests Abraham Heschel, “but rather a sort of faithfulness, a loyalty to the moments when we’ve had faith.”
And that teases out something else: To be real, faith need not be explicitly religious, but can express itself simply in faithfulness, loyalty and trust. For example, in a powerful memoir written as she as dying of cancer, The Bright Hour, Annie Riggs shares her strong, but implicit, faith as she calmly faces her death. Not given to explicit religious faith, she is challenged at one point by a nurse who says to her: “Faith, you gotta have it, and you’re gonna need it!” The comment triggers a reflection on her part about what she does or doesn’t believe in. She comes to peace with the question and her own stake in it with these words: “For me, faith involves staring into the abyss, seeing that it is dark and full of the unknown – and being okay with that.”
We need to trust the unknown, knowing that we will be okay, no matter that on a given day we might feel like we are walking on water or sinking like a stone. Faith is deeper than our feelings.

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

Our ache for Earthly immortality

Father Ron Rolheiser

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
We share the world with more than seven and a half billion people and each of us has the irrepressible, innate sense that we are special and uniquely destined. This isn’t surprising since each one of us is indeed unique and special. But how does one feel special among seven and half billion others?
We try to stand out. Generally we don’t succeed and so, as Allan Jones puts it, “We nurse within our hearts the hope that we are different, that we are special, that we are extraordinary. We long for the assurance that our birth was no accident, that a god had a hand in our coming to be, that we exist by divine fiat. We ache for a cure for the ultimate disease of mortality. Our madness comes when the pressure is too great and we fabricate a vital lie to cover up the fact that we are mediocre, accidental, mortal. We fail to see the glory of the Good News. The vital lie is unnecessary because all the things we truly long for have been freely given us.”
All of us know what those words mean: We sense that we are extraordinary, precious and significant, irrespective of our practical fortunes in life. Deep down we have the feeling that we are uniquely loved and specially called to a life of meaning and significance. We know too, though more in faith than in feeling, that we are precious not on the basis of what we accomplish but rather on the basis of having been created and loved by God.
But this intuition, however deep in our souls, invariably wilts in the face of trying to live a life that’s unique and special in a world in which billions of others are also trying to do the same thing. And so we can be overwhelmed by a sense of our own mediocrity, anonymity and mortality and begin to fear that we’re not precious but are merely another-among-many, nobody special, one of billions, living among billions. When we feel like this, we are tempted to believe that we are precious and unique only when we accomplish something which precisely sets us apart and ensures that we will be remembered. For most of us, the task of our lives then becomes that of guaranteeing our own preciousness, meaning and immortality because, at the end of the day, we believe that this is contingent upon our own accomplishments, on creating our own specialness.
And so we struggle to be content with ordinary lives of anonymity, hidden in God. Rather we try to stand out, to leave a mark, to accomplish something extraordinary and so ensure that we will be recognized and remembered. Few things impede our peace and happiness as does this effort. We set for ourselves the impossible, frustrating task of assuring for ourselves something which only God can give us, significance and immortality. Ordinary life then never seems enough for us and we live restless, competitive, driven lives. Why isn’t ordinary life enough for us? Why do our lives always seem too small and not exciting enough? Why do we habitually feel dissatisfied at not being special?
Why our need to leave a mark? Why does our own situation often feel so suffocating? Why can’t we more easily embrace each other as sisters and brothers and rejoice in each other’s gifts and each other’s existence? Why the perennial feeling that the other is a rival? Why the need for masks, for pretense, to project a certain image about ourselves?
The answer: We do all of these things to try to set ourselves apart because we are trying to give ourselves something that only God can give us, significance and immortality.
Scripture tells us that “faith alone saves.” That simple line reveals the secret: Only God gives eternal life. Preciousness, meaning, significance and immortality are free gifts from God and we would be a whole lot more restful, peaceful, humble, grateful, happy and less competitive if we could believe that. A humble ordinary life, shared with billions of others, would then contain enough to give us a sense of our preciousness, meaning and significance.
Thomas Merton, on one of his less restless days wrote: “It is enough to be, in an ordinary human mode, with one’s hunger and sleep, one’s cold and warmth, rising and going to bed. Putting on blankets and taking them off, making coffee and then drinking it. Defrosting the refrigerator, reading, meditating, working, praying. I live as my Fathers have lived on this earth, until eventually I die. Amen. There is no need to make an assertion of my life, especially so about it as mine, though doubtless it is not somebody else’s. I must learn to live so as to gradually forget program and artifice.”
Ordinary life is enough. There isn’t any need to make an assertion with our lives. Our preciousness and meaning lie within the preciousness and meaning of life itself, not in having to accomplish something special.

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

Overcoming the Divisions that Divide Us

Father Ron Rolheiser

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
We live in a world of deep divisions. Everywhere we see polarization, people bitterly divided from each other by ideology, politics, economic theory, moral beliefs, and theology. We tend to use over-simplistic categories within which to understand these divisions: the left and the right opposing each other, liberals and conservatives at odds, pro-life vying with pro-choice.
Virtually every social and moral issue is a war-zone: the status of women, climate change, gender roles, sexuality, marriage and family as institutions, the role of government, how the LGBTQ community is to be understood, among other issues. And our churches aren’t exempt; too often we cannot agree on anything. Civility has disappeared from public discourse even within our churches where there is now as much division and hostility within each denomination as there is between them. More and more, we cannot discuss openly any sensitive matter, even within our own families. Instead we discuss politics, religion, and values only within our own ideological circles; and there, rather than challenging each other, we mostly end up feeding each other in our biases and indignations thus becoming even more intolerant, bitter, and judgmental.
Scripture calls this enmity, hatred, and indeed that’s its proper name. We are becoming hate-filled people who both fuel and justify our hatred on religious and moral grounds. We need only to watch the news on any night to see this. How’s this to be overcome?
At the more macro level in politics and religion, it’s hard to see how these bitter divides will ever be bridged, especially when so much of our public discourse is feeding and widening the division. What’s needed is nothing short of religious conversion, a religious change of heart, and that’s contingent on the individual. The collective heart will change only when individual hearts first do. We help save the sanity of the world by first safeguarding our own sanity, but that’s no easy task.
It’s not as simple as everyone simply agreeing to think nicer thoughts. Nor, it seems, will we find much common ground in our public dialogues. The dialogue that’s needed isn’t easily come by; certainly we haven’t come by it yet. Many groups are trying for it, but without much success. Generally what happens is that the even most-well intended dialogue quickly degenerates into an attempt to by each side to score its own ideological points rather than in genuinely trying to understand each other. Where does that leave us?
The real answer, I believe, lies in an understanding of how the cross and death of Jesus brings about reconciliation. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians tells us that Jesus broke down the barrier of hostility that existed between communities by creating one person where formerly there had been two – and he did it this “by reconciling both [sides] in one body through his cross, which put that enmity to death.” (Ephesians 2, 16)
How does the cross of Christ put enmity to death? Not through some kind of magic. Jesus didn’t break down the divisions between us by mystically paying off some debt for our sins through his suffering, as if God needed to be appeased by blood to forgive us and open the gates of heaven. That image is simply the metaphor behind our icons and language about being washed clean of sin and saved by the blood of Christ. What happened in the cross and death of Jesus is something that asks for our imitation not simply our admiration. What happened in the cross and death of Jesus is an example for us to imitate. What are we to imitate?
What Jesus did in his passion and death was to transform bitterness and division rather than to retransmit them and give them back in kind. In the love which he showed in his passion and death Jesus did this: He took in hatred, held it inside himself, transformed it, and gave back love. He took in bitterness, held it, transformed it, and gave back graciousness. He took in curses, held them, transformed them, and gave back blessing. He took in paranoia, held it, transformed it, and gave back big-heartedness. He took in murder, held it, transformed it, and gave back forgiveness. And he took in enmity, bitter division, held it, transformed it, and through that revealed to us the deep secret for forming community, namely, we need to take away the hatred that divides us by absorbing and holding it within ourselves and thereby transforming it. Like a water purifier which holds within itself the toxins and the poisons and gives back only pure water, we must hold within ourselves the toxins that poison community and give back only graciousness and openness to everyone. That’s the only key to overcome division.
We live in bitterly divisive times, paralyzed in terms of meeting amicably on virtually every sensitive issue of politics, economics, morality, and religion. That stalemate will remain until one by one, we each transform rather than enflame and retransmit the hatred that divides us.

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

Can You Lose Your Vocation?

Father Ron Rolheiser

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Recently I received a letter from a man who shared that he was still deeply haunted by a story he’d heard in grade-school many years before. One of his religion teachers had read them a story about a priest who went to visit a childhood friend. While staying with his friend, the priest noticed that, while his friend was cheerful and affable enough, he seemed to be harboring some deep, residual sadness. When he asked his friend about it his friend confessed that he “had lost his salvation” because he had felt a call to priesthood when he was young but had chosen instead to marry. Now, he felt, there was no existential redemption from that. He had had a vocation and lost it and, with that, also lost for good his chance at happiness. Though happily enough married, he felt that he would bear forever the stigma of having been being unfaithful in not accepting his God-given vocation.
I was raised on stories like that. They were part of the Catholicism of my youth. We were taught to believe that God marked out a certain vocation for you, that is, to be a priest, a sister, a married person, or a single person in the world, and if you didn’t accept that, once you knew your calling, then you had “missed” or “lost” your vocation and the consequence would an abiding sadness and even the danger of missing heaven. Such were the vocation stories of my youth, and, truth be told, I went to the seminary to become a priest with that lingering as a shadow in my mind. But it was only a shadow. I didn’t enter religious life and priesthood out of fear, though some moral fears did play a part in it, as they should. Fear can also be a healthy thing.
But it can also be unhealthy. It’s not healthy to understand both God and your vocation in terms that can have you missing out on happiness and salvation on the basis on singular choice made while you are still young. God doesn’t work like that.
It’s true that we are called by God to a vocation which we are meant to discern through conscience, through community, through circumstance, and through the talents that we’ve been given. For a Christian, existence does not preceded essence. We’re born with a purpose, with a mission in life. There are many clear texts in scripture on this: Jesus, praying for entire nights to know his Father’s will; Peter, conscripted on a rock being led by a belt that took him where he did not want to go; Paul being led into Damascus and instructed by an elder as to his vocation; Moses being called to do a task because he saw the suffering of the people; and all of us being challenged to use our talents or be stripped of them. We’re all called to mission and so each of us has a vocation. We’re not morally free to live our lives simply for ourselves.
But God doesn’t give us just one chance which, if we miss it or turn down, will leave us sad forever. No. God opens a new door every time we close one. God gives us 77×7 chances and more after that, if needed. The question of vocation is not so much a question of guessing right (What very specifically was I predestined for?) but rather a question of giving oneself over in faith and love to the situation that we’ve chosen (or which more often than not has by circumstance chosen us). We should not live in unhealthy fear about this. God continues to love us and desires our happiness, even when we don’t always follow to where we are ideally called.
Recently I heard a homily in a church in which the priest compared God to a GPS, a Global Positioning System, that is, that computerized instrument, complete with human voice, that countless people have today in their cars and which gives them ongoing instructions on how to get to their destination. One of its features is this: No matter how many times you disregard or disobey its command, the voice never expresses impatience, yells at you, or gives up on you. It simply says “Recalculating”. Sooner or later, no matter how many times you disregard it, it gets you home.
Delightful as is that image, it’s still but a very weak analogy in terms of understanding God’s patience and forgiveness. None of us should be haunted, long-term, by sadness and fear because we feel that we’ve missed our vocation, unless we are living a selfish life. Selflessness rather than selfishness, a life in pursuit of service rather than a life in pursuit of comfort, not guessing correctly, constitutes one’s vocation. Our Christian vocation is to make what we are in fact living – married, priest, religious, single in the world – a life of selflessness and service to others. Happiness and salvation are contingent upon that, not upon guessing correctly.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

The Christ-Child of the Year

Father Ron Rolheiser

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Every year Time magazine recognizes someone as “Person of the Year.” The recognition isn’t necessarily an honor; it’s given to the person whom Time judges to have been the newsmaker of the year – for good or for bad. This year, instead of choosing an individual to recognize as newsmaker of the year, it recognized a category of persons, the Silence Breakers, namely, women who have spoken out about having experienced sexual harassment and sexual violence.
Part of the challenge of Christmas is to recognize where Christ is being born in our world today, where two thousand years after the birth of Jesus we can again visit the stable in Bethlehem, see the new-born child, and have our hearts moved by the power of divine innocence and powerlessness.
For Christmas this year, I suggest we honor refugee children as the “Christ-Child of the Year.” They bring as close to the original crib in Bethlehem as we can get within our world today because for them, as for Jesus two thousand years ago, there is no room at the inn.
Jesus’ birth, like his death, comes wrapped in paradox: He came as God’s answer to our deepest desire, badly wanted, and yet, both in birth and in death, the outsider. Notice that Jesus is born outside the city and he dies outside the city. That’s no accident. He wasn’t born a “wanted” child and he wasn’t an accepted child. Granted, his mother, Mary, and those with genuine religious hearts wanted him, but the world didn’t, at least not on the terms on which he came, as a powerless child. Had he come as a superstar, powerful, a figure so dominant that knees would automatically bend in his presence, a messiah tailored to our imagination, every inn door would have opened to him, not just at birth but throughout his whole life.
But Christ wasn’t the messiah of our expectations. He came as an infant, powerless, hidden in anonymity, without status, invited, unwanted. And so Thomas Merton describes his birth this way: Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet He must be in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room.
There was no room for him at the inn! Biblical scholars tell us that our homilies and imaginings about the heartlessness of the innkeepers who turned Mary and Joseph away on Christmas Eve miss the point of that narrative. The point that the Gospels want to make here is not that the innkeepers in Bethlehem were cruel and calloused and this singular, poor, peasant couple, Joseph and Mary, were treated unfairly. The motif of “no room at the inn” wants rather to make a much larger point, the one Thomas Merton just highlighted, namely, that there’s never room in our world for the real Christ, the one who doesn’t fit comfortably into our expectations and imaginings. The real Christ generally shocks our imagination, is a disappointment to our expectations, comes uninvited, is perennially here, but is forever on the outside, on the periphery, excluded by our imaginations and sent packing from our doors. The real Christ is forever seeking a home in a world within which there’s no room for him.
So who best fits that description best today? I suggest the following: Millions of refugee children. The Christ-Child can be seen most clearly today in the countless refugee children who, with their families, are being driven from their homes by violence, war, starvation, ethnic cleansing, poverty, tribalism, racism and religious persecution. They, and their families, best fit the picture of Joseph and Mary, searching for a room, outsiders, powerless, uninvited, no home, no one to take them in, on the periphery, strangers, labeled as “aliens.” But they are the present-day Holy Family and their children are the Christ-Child for us and our world.
Where is the crib of Bethlehem today? Where might we find the infant Christ to worship? In many places, admittedly in every delivery room and nursery in the world, but “preferentially” in refugee camps; in boats making perilous journeys across the Mediterranean; in migrants trekking endless miles in hunger, thirst and dangerous conditions; in people waiting in endless lines to be processed in hope of being accepted somewhere, in persons arriving at various borders after a long journey only to be sent back; in mothers in detention centers, holding their young and hoping; and most especially, preferentially, in the faces of countless refugee children.
The face of God at Christmas is seen more in the helplessness of children than in all the earthly and charismatic power in our world. And so today, if we want, like the shepherds and wise men, to find our way to the crib in Bethlehem we need to look at where, in this demented inn, the most helpless of the children dwell.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)