But where are the others?

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Most of us have been raised to believe that we have right to possess whatever comes to us honestly, either through our own work or through legitimate inheritance. No matter how large that wealth might be, it’s ours, as long as we didn’t cheat anyone along the way. By and large, this belief has been enshrined in the laws of our democratic countries and we generally believe that it is morally sanctioned by Christianity. That’s partially true, but a lot needs to be nuanced here.

Father Ron Rolheiser


This is not really the view of our Christian scriptures, nor of the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Not everything we acquire honestly through our own hard work is simply ours to have. We’re not islands and we don’t walk through life alone, as if being solicitous for the welfare of others is something that’s morally optional. The French poet and essayist, Charles Peguy, once suggested that when we come to the gates of heaven we will all be asked: “Mais ou sont les autres?” (“But where are the others?”) That question issues forth both from our humanity and our faith. But what about the others? It’s an illusion and a fault in our discipleship to think that everything we can possess by our own hard work is ours by right. To think this way is to live the partially examined life.
Bill Gates Sr., writing in Sojourners some fifteen years ago, challenges not only his famous son but the rest of us too with these words: “Society has an enormous claim upon the fortunes of the wealthy. This is rooted not only in most religious traditions, but also in an honest accounting of society’s substantial investment in creating fertile ground for wealth-creation. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all affirm the right of individual ownership and private property, but there are moral limits imposed on absolute private ownership of wealth and property. Each tradition affirms that we are not individuals alone but exist in community – a community that makes claims on us. The notion that ‘it is all mine’ is a violation of these teachings and traditions.” Society’s claim on individual accumulated wealth “is rooted in the recognition of society’s direct and indirect investment in the individual’s success. In other words, we didn’t get there on our own.” (Sojourners, Jan-Feb., 2003)
Nobody gets there on his own and so, once there, he needs to recognize that what he has accumulated is the result not just of his own work but also of the infrastructure of the whole society within which he lives. Accordingly, what he has accumulated is not fully his, as if his own hard work alone had brought this about.
Beyond that, there’s something else which Benjamin Hales calls “the veil of opulence” which lets us naively believe that each of us deserves everything we get. No so, says Hales. A lot of blind luck in involved in determining who gets to possess what: “The veil of opulence,” he says, “insists that people imagine that resources and opportunities and talents are freely available to all, that such goods are widely abundant, that there is no element of randomness or chance that may negatively impact those who struggle to succeed but sadly fail through no fault of their own. … It turns a blind eye to the adversity that some people, let’s face it, are born into. By insisting that we consider public policy from the perspective of the most-advantaged, the veil of opulence obscures the vagaries of brute luck. But wait, you may be thinking, what of merit? What of all those who have labored and toiled and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to make their lives better for themselves and their families? This is an important question indeed. Many people work hard for their money and deserve to keep what they earn. An answer is offered by both doctrines of fairness. The veil of opulence assumes that the playing field is level, that all gains are fairly gotten, that there is no cosmic adversity. In doing so, it is partial to the fortunate. … It is an illusion of prosperity to believe that each of us deserves everything we get.” (New York Times, August 12, 2012)
Scripture and the Catholic social teaching would summarize it this way: God intended the earth and everything in it for the sake of all human beings. Thus, in justice, created goods should flow fairly to all. All other rights are subordinated to this principle. We do have a right to private ownership and no one may ever deny us of this right but that right is subordinated to the common good, to the fact that goods are intended for everyone. Wealth and possessions must be understood as ours to steward rather than to possess absolutely. Finally, perhaps most challenging of all, no person may have surplus if others do not have the basic necessities.
In any accumulation of wealth and possessions we have to perennially face the question: “Mais ou sont les autres?”

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

Lessons through failure

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
What’s to be learned through failure, through being humbled by our own faults? Generally that’s the only way we grow. In being humbled by our own inadequacies we learn those lessons in life that we are deaf to when we are strutting in confidence and pride. There are secrets, says John Updike, which are hidden from health. This lesson is everywhere in scripture and permeates every spirituality in every religion worthy of the name.
Raymond E. Brown, offers an illustration of this from scripture: Reflecting on how at one point in its history, God’s chosen people, Israel, betrayed its faith and was consequently humiliated and thrown into a crisis about God’s love and concern for them, Brown points out that, long range, this seeming disaster ended up being a positive experience: “Israel learned more about God in the ashes of the Temple destroyed by the Babylonians than in the elegant period of the Temple under Solomon.”
What does he mean by that? Just prior to being conquered by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, Israel had just experienced what, to all outside appearances, looked like the high point of her history (politically, socially and religiously). She was in possession of the promised land, had subdued all her enemies, had a great king ruling over her and had a magnificent temple in Jerusalem as a place to worship and a center to hold all the people together. However, inside that apparent strength, perhaps because of it, she had become complacent about her faith and increasing lax in being faithful to it. That complacency and laxity led to her downfall. In 587 BCE, she was overrun by a foreign nation who, after taking the land, deported most of the people to Babylon, killed the king and knocked the temple down to its last stone. Israel spent the next nearly half-century in exile, without a temple, struggling to reconcile this with her belief that God loved her.
However, in terms of the bigger picture, this turned out to be a positive. The pain of being exiled and the doubts of faith that were triggered by the destruction of her temple were ultimately offset by what she learned through this humiliation and crisis, namely, that God is faithful even when we aren’t, that our failures open our eyes to us our own complacency and blindness and that what looks like success is often its opposite, just as what looks like failure is often its opposite. As Richard Rohr might phrase it, in our failures we have a chance to “fall upward.”
There’s no better image available, I believe, by which to understand what the church is now undergoing through the humiliation thrust on it through the clerical sexual abuse crisis within Roman Catholicism and within other churches as well. To recast Raymond Brown’s insight: The church can learn more about God in the ashes of the clerical sexual abuse crisis than it did during its elegant periods of grand cathedrals, burgeoning church growth and unquestioned acquiescence to ecclesial authority. It can also learn more about itself, its blindness to its own faults and its need for some structural change and personal conversion. Hopefully, like the Babylonian exile for Israel, this too will be for the churches something that’s positive in the end.
Moreover, what’s true institutionally for the church (and, not doubt, for other organizations) is also true for each of us in our personal lives. The humiliations that beset us because of our inadequacies, complacencies, failures, betrayals and blindness to our own faults can be occasions to “fall upward,” to learn in the ashes what we didn’t learn in the winner’s circle.
Almost without exception, our major successes in life, our grander achievements and the boost in status and adulation that come with that generally don’t deepen us in any way. To paraphrase James Hillman, success usually doesn’t bring a shred of depth into our lives. Conversely, if we reflect with courage and honesty on all the things that have brought depth and character into our lives we will have to admit that, in virtually every case, it would be something that has an element of shame to it – a feeling of inadequacy about our own body, some humiliating element in our upbringing, some shameful moral failure in our life or something in our character about which we feel some shame. These are the things that have given us depth.
Humiliation makes for depth; it drives us into the deeper parts of our soul. Unfortunately, however, that doesn’t always make for a positive result. The pain of humiliation makes us deep; but it can make us deep in two ways: in understanding and empathy but also in a bitterness of soul that would have us get even with the world.
But the positive point is this: Like Israel on the shores of Babylon, when our temple is damaged or destroyed, in the ashes of that exile we will have a chance to see some deeper things to which we are normally blind.

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

Struggling inside our own skin

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
I’ve been both blessed and cursed by a congenital restlessness that hasn’t always made my life easy. I remember as a young boy restlessly wandering the house, the yard, and then the open pastures of my family’s farm on the prairies. Our family was close, my life was protected and secure, and I was raised in a solid religious faith. That should have made for a peaceful and stable childhood and, for the most part, it did. I count myself lucky.
But all of this stability, at least for me, didn’t preclude an unsettling restlessness. More superficially, I felt this in the isolation of growing up in a rural community that seemed far removed from life in the big cities. The lives I saw on television and read about in the newspapers and magazines appeared to me to be much bigger, more exciting, and more significant than my own. My life, by comparison, paled, seemed small, insignificant, and second-best. I longed to live in a big city, away from what I felt to be the deprivations of rural life. My life, it seemed, was always away from everything that was important.
Beyond that, I tormented myself by comparing my life, my body, and my anonymity to the grace, attractiveness, and fame of the professional athletes, movie stars, and other celebrities I admired and whose names were household words. For me, they had real lives, ones I could only envy. Moreover, I felt a deeper restlessness that had to do with my soul. Despite the genuine intimacy of a close family and a close-knit community within which I had dozens of friends and relatives, I ached for a singular, erotic intimacy with a soulmate. Finally, I lived with an inchoate anxiety that I didn’t understand and which mostly translated itself into fear, fear of not measuring up and fear of how I was living life in face of the eternal.
That was the cursed part, but all of this also brought a blessing. Inside the cauldron of that disquiet I discerned (heard) a call to religious life which I fought for a long time because it seemed the antithesis of everything I longed for. How can a burning restlessness, filled with eros, be a call to celibacy? How can an egotistical desire for fame, fortune, and recognition be an invitation to join a religious order whose charism is to live with the poor? It didn’t make sense, and, paradoxically, that’s why, finally, it was the only thing that did made sense. I gave in to its nudging and it was right for me.
It landed me inside religious life and what I’ve lived and learned there has helped me, slowly through the years, to process my own restlessness and begin to live inside my own skin. Beyond prayer and spiritual guidance, two intellectual giants in particular helped me. As a student, aged 19, I began to study Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. My mind was still young and unformed but I grasped enough of what I was reading to begin to befriend the restless complexities inside my own soul – and inside the human soul in general. Even at age 19 (maybe particularly at 19) one can existentially understand Augustine’s dictum: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
And then there was Thomas Aquinas who asked: What is the adequate object of the human intellect and will? In short, what would we have to know and be in love with in order to satisfy every flame of restlessness within us? His answer: Everything! The adequate object of the human intellect and will is Being as such – God, all people, all nature. Only that would satisfy us.
Except … that’s not what we mostly think. The particular restlessness that I experienced in my youth is today in fact a near-universal disease. Virtually all of us believe that the good life is had only by those who live elsewhere, away from our own limited, ordinary, insignificant, and small-town lives. Our culture has colonized us to believe that wealth, celebrity, and comfort are the adequate object of the human intellect and will. They are, for us, “Being as such.” In our culture’s current perception, we look at the beautiful bodies, celebrity status, and wealth of our athletes, movie stars, television hosts, and successful entrepreneurs and believe that they have the good life and we don’t. We’re on the outside, looking in. We’re now, in effect, all farm kids in the outback envying life in the big city, a life accessible only to a highly select few, while we’re crucified by the false belief that life is only exciting elsewhere, not where we live.
But our problem is, as Rainer Marie Rilke once pointed out to an aspiring young poet who believed that his own humble surroundings didn’t provide him with the inspiration he needed for poetry, that if we can’t see the richness in the life we’re actually living then we aren’t poets.

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

Celibacy – a personal apologia

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
As a vowed, religious celibate I’m very conscious that today celibacy, whether lived out in a religious commitment or in other circumstances, is suspect, under siege, and is offering too little by way of a helpful apologia to its critics.
Do I believe in the value of consecrated celibacy? The only real answer I can give must come from my own life. What’s my response to a culture that, for the most part, believes celibacy is both a naiveté and a dualism that stands against the goodness of sexuality, renders its adherents less than fully human, and lies at the root of the clerical sexual abuse crisis within the Roman Catholic Church? What might I say in its defense?
First, that celibacy isn’t a basis for pedophilia. Virtually all empirical studies indicate that pedophilia is a diagnosis not linked to celibacy. But then let me acknowledge its downside: Celibacy is not the normal state for anyone. When God made the first man and woman, God said: “It is not good for the human being to be alone.” That isn’t just a statement about the constitutive place of community within our lives (though it is that); it’s a clear reference to sexuality, its fundamental goodness, and its God-intended place in our lives. From that it flows that to be a celibate, particularly to choose to be one, comes fraught with real dangers. Celibacy can, and sometimes does, lead to an unhealthy sense of one’s sexual and relational self and to a coldness that’s often judgmental. It can too, understandably, lead to an unhealthy sexual preoccupation within the celibate and it provides access to certain forms of intimacy within which a dangerous betrayal of trust can occur. Less recognized, but a huge danger, is that it can be a vehicle for selfishness. Simply put, without the conscription demands that come with marriage and child-raising there’s the ever-present danger that a celibate can, unconsciously, arrange his life too much to suit his own needs.
Thus celibacy is not for everyone; indeed it’s not for the many. It contains an inherent abnormality. Consecrated celibacy is not simply a different lifestyle. It’s anomalous, in terms of the unique sacrifice it asks of you, where, like Abraham going up the mountain to sacrifice Isaac, you’re asked to sacrifice what’s most precious to you. As Thomas Merton, speaking of his own celibacy, once said: The absence of woman is a fault in my chastity. But, for the celibate as for Abraham, that can have a rich purpose and contain its own potential for generativity.
As well, I believe that consecrated celibacy, like music or religion, needs to be judged by its best expressions and not by its aberrations. Celibacy should not be judged by those who have not given it a wholesome expression but by the many wonderful women and men, saints of the past and present, who have given it a wholesome and generative expression. One could name numerous saints of the past or wonderfully healthy and generative persons from our own generation as examples where vowed celibacy has made for a wholesome, happy life that inspires others: Mother Teresa, Jean Vanier, Oscar Romero, Raymond E. Brown, and Helen Prejean, to name just a few. Personally, I know many very generative, vowed celibates whose wholesomeness I envy and who make celibacy credible – and attractive.
Like marriage, though in a different way, celibacy offers a rich potential for intimacy and generativity. As a vowed celibate I am grateful for a vocation which has brought me intimately into the world of so many people. When I left home at a young age to enter the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, I confess, I didn’t want celibacy. Nobody should. I wanted to be a missionary and a priest and celibacy presented itself as the stumbling block. But once inside religious life, almost immediately, I loved the life, though not the celibacy part. Twice I delayed taking final vows, unsure about celibacy. Eventually I made the decision, a hard leap of trust, and took the vow for life. Full disclosure, celibacy has been for me singularly the hardest part of my more than fifty years in religious life … but, but, at the same time, it has helped create a special kind of entry into the world and into others’ lives that has wonderfully enriched my ministry.
The natural God-given desire for sexual intimacy, for exclusivity in affection, for the marriage bed, for children, for grandchildren, doesn’t leave you, and it shouldn’t. But celibacy has helped bring into my life a rich, consistent, deep intimacy. Reflecting on my celibate vocation, all I may legitimately feel is gratitude.
Celibacy isn’t for everyone. It excludes you from the normal; it seems brutally unfair at times; it’s fraught with dangers ranging from serious betrayal of trust to living a selfish life; and it’s a fault in your very chastity – but, if lived out in fidelity, it can be wonderfully generative and does not exclude you from either real intimacy or real happiness.

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

Snake-bitten …

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Everything is of one piece. Whenever we don’t take that seriously, we pay a price.
The renowned theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar gives an example of this. Beauty, he submits, is not some little “extra” that we can value or denigrate according to personal taste and temperament, like some luxury that we say we cannot afford. Like truth and goodness, it’s one of the properties of God and thus demands to be taken seriously as goodness and truth. If we neglect or denigrate beauty, he says, we will soon enough begin to neglect other areas of our lives. Here are his words:
“Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking then along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name, as if she were an ornament of a bourgeois past, whether he admits it or not, can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”
Here’s a simpler expression of that. There’s a delightful little African tale that highlights the interconnectedness of everything and illustrates how, if we separate a thing from its sisters, we soon pay a price. The tale goes this way:
Once upon a time, when animals still talked, the mice on a farm called a summit of all the other animals. They were worried, they lamented, because they had seen the mistress of the house buy a mousetrap. They were now in danger. But the other animals scoffed at their anxiety. The cow said that she had nothing to worry about. A tiny little contraption couldn’t harm her. She could crush it with her foot. The pig reacted in a similar way. What did he have to worry about in the face of a tiny trap? The chicken also announced that it had no fear of this gadget. “It’s your concern. No worry for me!” it told the mice.
But all things are interconnected and that soon became evident. The mistress set the mousetrap and, on the very first night, heard it snap. Getting out of her bed to look what it had caught and she saw that it had trapped a snake by its tail. In trying to free the snake she was bitten and the poison soon had her feeling sick and running a fever. She went to the doctor who gave her medicines to combat the poison and advised her: “What you need now to get better is chicken broth.” (You can guess where the rest of this is going.) They slaughtered the chicken, but her fever lingered. Relatives and neighbors came to visit. More food was needed. They slaughtered the pig. Eventually the poison killed her. A huge funeral ensued. A lot of food was needed. The slaughtered the cow.
The moral of the story is clear. Everything is interconnected and our failure to see that leaves us in peril. Blindness to our interdependence, willful or not, is dangerous. We are inextricably tied to each other and to everything in the world. We can protest to the contrary but reality will hold its ground. And so, we cannot truly value one thing while we disdain something else. We cannot really love one person while we hate someone else. And we cannot give ourselves an exemption in one moral area and hope to be morally healthy as a whole. Everything is of one piece. There are no exceptions. When we ignore that truth we are eventually be snake-bitten by it.
I emphasize this because today, virtually everywhere, a dangerous tribalism is setting in. Everywhere, not unlike the animals in that African tale, we see families, communities, churches and whole countries focusing more or less exclusively on their own needs without concern for other families, communities, churches and countries. Other people’s problems, we believe, are not our concern. From the narrowness in our churches, to identity politics, to whole nations setting their own needs first, we hear echoes of the cow, pig and chicken saying: “Not my concern! I’ll take care of myself. You take care of yourself!” This will come back to snake-bite us.
We will eventually pay the price for our blindness and non-concern and we will pay that price politically, socially and economically. But we will even pay a higher price personally. What that snake-bite will do is captured in Von Balthasar’s warning: Whoever ignores or denigrates beauty will, he asserts, eventually be unable to pray or to love. That’s true too in all cases when we ignore our interconnectedness with others. By ignoring the needs of others we eventually corrupt our own wholeness so that we are no longer be able to treat ourselves with respect and empathy and, when that happens, we lose respect and empathy for life itself – and for God – because whenever reality isn’t respected it bites back with a mysterious vengeance.

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

Wendy Beckett – RIP

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
No community should botch its deaths. The renowned anthropologist, Mircea Eliade, suggested this and its truth applies to communities at every level. No family should send off a member without proper reflection, ritual and blessings.
On December 26th, 2018, the family of art and the family of faith lost a cherished member. Sister Wendy Beckett, aged 88, famed art critic, committed woman of faith and nurturing friend to many, died. Since 1970, Sister Wendy had been living as a consecrated virgin and hermit on the grounds of a Carmelite convent in England, praying for several hours a day, translating religious tracts and going to daily Eucharist.
Early on, after choosing this way of life, she began to study art history, started writing articles for magazines and published the first of more than 30 books on art. In 1991, she did a short BBC documentary on television and was an immediate hit with a wide audience. She soon began to host her own BBC show, Sister Wendy’s Odyssey, which was so popular it sometimes attracted one quarter of the British television audience.
Anyone who watched her programs was soon taken by three things: The absolute joy that was present in her as she discussed a piece of art; her capacity to articulate in a simple and clear language the meaning of a particular work of art; and her earthy appreciation of sensuality and the nude human body which she, as a consecrated virgin, could describe with a disarming appreciation.
All of those qualities (her joy, her simplicity of language and her capacity to give the pure gaze of admiration to the nude human body) were what endeared her to her audience but also brought scorn from a number of critics. They mocked her simplicity of language, criticized her for not being more critical of the art she presented and were put off by that fact that she, a consecrated virgin, could so comfortably discuss sensuality and the nude human body. They found it difficult to digest that this pious woman, a consecrated virgin, clad in a traditional religious habit, sporting thick glasses and buck-teeth, could be so much at ease with sensuality. Robert Hughes, of Time magazine, once mocked her as a “relentlessly chatty pseudo-hermit with her signature teeth” whose observations were “pitched to a 15-year-old” audience. Germaine Greer challenged her competence to describe erotic art given the fact that she was a consecrated virgin.
Sister Wendy mostly smiled at these criticisms and countered them this way: “I’m not a critic,” she would say, “I am an appreciator.” As to her comfort with sensuality and the nude body, she would answer that just because she was committed to celibacy did not mean that she was not fully appreciative of human sensuality, sexuality and the beauty of the human body – all of it.
There are of course different ways in which the unclothed human body can be perceived and Sister Wendy was a smiling, unapologetic appreciator of one of them. An unclothed human body can be shown as “nude” or as “naked.” Good art uses nudity to honor the human body (surely one of God’s great masterpieces) while pornography uses nakedness to exploit the human body.
Sister Wendy was also unapologetic about the fact that her consecrated virginity did not disprivilege her from appreciating the erotic. She was right. Somewhere we have developed the false, debilitating notion that consecrated celibates must, like little children, be protected from the erotic so that even while they’re supposed to be doctors of the soul they should be shielded from the deep impulses and secrets of the soul. Sister Wendy didn’t buy that. Neither should we. Chastity is not intended to be that kind of naiveté.
Full disclosure: I had a personal link to Sister Wendy. Many years ago, when I was young and still searching for my own voice as a spiritual writer, she sent me a large, beautifully-framed, print of Paul Klee’s, famous 1923 painting, Eros. For the past 29 years it has hung on a wall behind my computer screen so that I see it every time I write and it has helped me understand that it’s God’s color, God’s light and God’s energy that inform erotic longing.
In 1993, while visiting the monastery where Sister Wendy lived, I had the opportunity to go out to a restaurant with her. Our waiter was initially taken aback by her traditional religious habit. With some trepidation he timidly asked her: “Sister, might I bring you some water?” She flashed her trademark smile and said: “No, water’s for washing. Bring me some wine!” The waiter relaxed and much enjoyed bantering with her for the rest of the meal.
And that was Sister Wendy, an anomaly to many: a consecrated virgin discoursing on eros, a hermit but famous art critic and an intellectually brilliant woman who befuddled critics with her simplicity. But, like all great minds, there was a remarkable consistency at a deeper level, at that place where the critic and the appreciator are one.

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

My top ten books in spirituality for 2018

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
This year I will restrict myself to focusing only on books that deal explicitly with spirituality, notwithstanding some very fine novels and books on social commentary that I read this year.
But first, an apologia: Taste is idiosyncratic. Keep that in mind as you read these recommendations. These are books that I liked, that spoke to me, and that I believe can be helpful for someone seeking guidance and inspiration on the journey. They may not speak to you in the same way.
Which spiritual books did I find most helpful this year?
• Veronica Mary Rolf, Julian’s Gospel, Illuminating the Life and Revelations of Julian of Norwich. Julian of Norwich is one of the great Christian mystics, but her thought is not easily accessible to most readers. This book gives a good introduction to her life and her writings and highlights as well how much of a spiritual oasis she was in a time when most parts of Christianity conceived of God in very harsh terms.
• John Shea, To Dare The Our Father, A Transformative Spiritual Practice. Shea takes up each article within the Lord’s Prayer to challenge us regarding various aspects of our lives, not least vis-à-vis our struggle to come to reconciliation with others. The section on Jesus’ own struggle in Gethsemane is especially insightful.
• Gerhard Lohfink, Is This All There Is? A world-class scripture scholar takes up the question of the afterlife as spoken of in scripture. This is first-rate scholarship rendered accessible to everyone. Lohfink is a gifted scholar and gifted teacher. This is a graduate course on the afterlife made available to everyone regardless of academic background.
• Benoit Standaert, Spirituality An Art of Living. Standaert is a Dutch Benedictine monk and this book (easy to read because it is broken up into short meditations) is gem of wisdom and challenge. Those of you with Protestant and Evangelical backgrounds schooled on Oswald Chambers’ classic will know what I mean when I say this book is a “My Utmost” for all Christians.
• Thomas Moore, Ageless Soul, The Lifelong Journey Toward Meaning and Joy. Moore is always brilliant and this book is no exception. He’s one of our generation’s best defenders of soul. But this book comes with a bit of a warning label: Some people may find it a bit too much of a stretch in terms of lacking religious boundaries. Be that as it may, it’s a brilliant book.
• Elizabeth Johnson, Creation and the Cross, The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril. One of the foremost Catholic theologians of our generation pushes her thought (and ours) a little further apposite the issue of how the incarnation of God, in Christ, is a “deep incarnation” that affects physical creation as well as humanity. Christ came not only to save the people on this earth, but also to save the earth itself. Christ also takes in nature. Johnson helps explain how that might be better understood. The book contains an expert theological synthesis on Christian views of why Christ came to earth.
• Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, An Antidote to Chaos. This is one of the most argued about books of this past year. It’s brilliant, a good read, even if you don’t agree with everything or even most of what Peterson says. Some conservatives have used the book very selectively to suit their own causes; just as some liberals have unfairly rejected the book because of some of its attacks on liberal excesses. Both these readings, to my mind, are unfair. Peterson’s overall depth and nuance doesn’t allow for the way it has been misused on the right and criticized on the left. In the end, Peterson lands where Jesus did, with the Sermon on the Mount. Its title is somewhat unfortunate in that it can give the impression that this is just another popular self-help book. It’s anything but that.
• Makoto Fujimura, Silence and Beauty. This is a beautiful book, written by an artist highly attuned to aesthetics. It’s a book about art, faith, and religion. Fujimura is a deeply committed Christian and an artist. For most people this would constitute a tension, but Fujimura not only shows how he holds faith and art together, he also makes a sophisticated apologia for religion.
• Pablo d’Ors, Biography of Silence. Ors is a Spanish author of both novels and spiritual essays. This book (small, short, and an easy read) can be a good shot in the arm for anyone who, however unconsciously, feels that prayer isn’t worth the time and the effort. Writing out of a long habit of silent meditation, Ors shows us what kind of gifts prayer can bring into our lives.
• Trevor Herriot, Towards a Prairie Atonement. Herriot is a Canadian writer and in this, his latest book, he submits that just as when we wound others reconciliation demands some kind of atonement, so too with our relationship with earth. We need to make some positive atonement to nature for our historical abuses.

Happy reading!

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

Outside the city

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
God, it seems, favors the powerless, the unnoticed, children, babies, outsiders and refugees with no resources or place to go.
That’s why Jesus was born outside the city, in a stable, unnoticed, outside all fanfare, away from all major media and away from all the persons and events that were deemed important at the time, humble and anonymous. God works like that. Why?
In the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, that question is asked of Jesus: Why’d you choose such a backward time in such a strange land? If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation. Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.
Scripture answers by telling us that God’s ways are not our ways and our ways are not God’s ways. That’s true here. We tend to understand power by how it works in our world. There it works through popularity, through mass media, through historical privilege, through financial clout, through higher education, through idiosyncratic genius, and, not infrequently, through raw aggression, greed and insensitivity to the needs of others and of nature.
But even a quick reading of scripture tells us that’s not how God works. The God that Jesus incarnates doesn’t enter into this world with a huge splash, as a royal birth eagerly anticipated and then announced by all the major media outlets, with photos of him and his parents on the cover of every popular magazine, with universal predictions as to his future greatness and influence, and then with privileged access to the best educational institutions and circles of power and influence.
Clearly, clearly, that’s not the story of Jesus’ birth, nor of how his life unfolded. God, as scripture shows, works more through anonymity than through the headlines, more through the poor than the powerful, and more through those outside the circles of power than those inside them. When we examine how God works, we see it’s no accident that Jesus was born outside the city and that after he was crucified he was also buried outside the city.
God’s work in our world generally does not make the headlines. God never breaks into our world or into our consciousness by showy displays of power. God works more discretely, in quiet, touching soul, touching conscience and touching that previously touched part inside of us where we still unconsciously bear the memory of once, long before birth, being touched, caressed,and loved by God. That’s why Christ was born into this world as a baby and not as superstar, as someone whose only power was the capacity to touch and soften the hearts of those around him. Babies overpower no one, physically, intellectually, or athletically. They lie helpless and cry for love and care. That’s why, paradoxically, at the end of the day, they’re more powerful than anyone else. No physical, intellectual or athletic power can ultimately touch the human conscience as can a baby – and similar sights of innocent helplessness, a wounded bird, an abandoned kitten, a young child alone and crying. What’s best in us enflames, healthily, in the presence of powerlessness and innocence.
That’s how God enters into us, gently, unnoticed. No big splash. That’s also why God tends to bypass circles of power to favor the abandoned and vulnerable. For example, when the Gospel of Luke records how John the Baptist came to be specially blessed, it takes a scathing swipe at both the civic and religious powers of its time. It names all the major civil and religious leaders of the time (the Roman rulers, the kings in Palestine, and the religious high priests) and then tells us plainly that the word of God bypassed them all and came instead to John, a solitary, living in the wilderness. (Luke 3, 1-3) According to the Gospels, the wilderness is where we’re most likely to find and experience God’s presence because God tends to bypasses the centers of power and influence to find a place instead in the hearts of those outside those circles.
You see this too, though admittedly without the same theological weight as is manifest in scripture, in the various apparitions of Mary, Jesus’ mother, that have been approved by the church. What’s common to all of them? Mary has never appeared to a president, a pope, a major religious leader, a Wall Street banker, the CEO of a major company or even to an academic theologian in his study. None of these. She’s appeared to children, to a young woman of no earthly importance, to an illiterate peasant and to various other persons of no worldly status.
We tend to understand power as residing in financial influence, political clout, charismatic talent, media influence, physical strength, athletic prowess, grace, health, wit, and attractiveness.
On the surface, that assessment is accurate enough, and indeed none of these are bad in themselves. But, looked at more deeply, as we see in the birth of Christ, God’s word bypasses the centers of power and gestates instead in the hearts and consciences of those outside the city.

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

When is our life fulfilled?

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
When is our life fulfilled? At what point in our lives do we say: “That’s it! That’s the climax! Nothing I can do from now on will outdo this. I’ve given what I have to give.”
When can we say this? After we’ve reached the peak of our physical health and strength? After giving birth to a child? After successfully raising our children? After we’ve published a best-seller? After we’re famous? After we’ve won a major championship? After we’re celebrated the 60th anniversary of our marriage? After we’ve found a soulmate? After we’re at peace after a long struggle with grief? When is it finally done? When has our growth reached its furthest place?
The medieval mystic, John of the Cross, says we reach this point in our lives when we have grown to what he calls “our deepest center.” But he doesn’t conceive of this the way we commonly picture it, namely, as the deepest center inside our soul. Rather, for John, our deepest center is the optimum point of our human growth, that is, the deepest maturity we can grow to before we begin to die. If this is true, then for a flower, its deepest center, its ultimate point of growth, would be not its bloom but the giving of its seed as it dies. That’s its further point of growth, its ultimate accomplishment.
What’s our ultimate point of growth? I suspect that we tend to think of this in terms of some concrete, positive accomplishment, like a successful career or some athletic, intellectual, or artistic achievement that’s brought us satisfaction, recognition, and popularity. Or, looked at from the point of view of depth of meaning, we might answer the question differently by saying that our ultimate achievement was a life-giving marriage, or being a good parent, or living a life that served others.
When, like a flower, do we give off our seed? Henri Nouwen suggests that people will answer this very differently: “For some it is when they are enjoying the full light of popularity; for others, when they have been totally forgotten; for some, when they have reached the peak of their strength; for others, when they feel powerless and weak; for some it is when their creativity is in full bloom, for others, when they have lost all confidence in their potential.”
When did Jesus give off his seed, the fullness of his spirit? For Jesus, it wasn’t immediately after his miracles when the crowds stood in awe, and it wasn’t after he had just walked on water, and it wasn’t when his popularity reached the point where his contemporaries wanted to make him king that he felt he had accomplished his purpose in life and that people began to be touched in their souls by his spirit. None of these. When did Jesus have nothing further to achieve?
It’s worth quoting Henri Nouwen again, in answering this question: “We know one thing, however, for the Son of Man the wheel stopped when he had lost everything: his power to speak and to heal, his sense of success and influence, his disciples and friends – even his God. When he was nailed against a tree, robbed of all human dignity, he knew that he had aged enough, and said: ‘It is fulfilled’ (John 19, 30).”
“It is fulfilled!” The Greek word here is Tetelesti. This was an expression used by artists to signify that a work was completely finished and that nothing more could be added to it. It was also used to express that something was complete. For example, Tetelesti was stamped on a document of charges against a criminal after he had served his full prison sentence; it was used by banks when a debt had been repaid; it was used by a servant to inform his master that a work had been completed; and it was used by athletes when, tired and exhausted, they successfully crossed the finish line in a race.
It is finished! A flower dies to give off its seed so it’s appropriate that these were Jesus’ last words. On the cross, faithful to the end, to his God, to his word, to the love he preached, and to his own integrity, he stopped living and began dying, and that’s when he gave off his seed and that’s when his spirit began to permeate the world. He had reached his deepest center, his life was fulfilled.
When does our living stop and our dying begin? When do we move from being in bloom to giving off our seed? Superficially, of course, it’s when our health, strength, popularity, and attractiveness begin to wane and we start to fade out, into the margins, and eventually into the sunset. But when this is seen in the light of Jesus’ life, we see that in our fading out, like a flower long past its bloom, we begin to give off something of more value than the attractiveness of the bloom. That’s when we can say: “It is fulfilled!”

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

Faith and levity

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Shusaku Endo, the Japanese author of the classic novel, Silence (upon which Martin Scorsese based his movie) was a Catholic who didn’t always find his native land, Japan,

sympathetic to his faith. He was misunderstood but kept his balance and good heart by placing a high value on levity. It was his way of integrating his faith with his own experience of occasional personal failure and his way of keeping his perspective on a culture which misunderstood him. Levity, he believed, makes faith livable.
He’s right. Levity is what makes faith livable because humor and irony give us the perspective we need to forgive ourselves and others for our weaknesses and mistakes. When we’re too serious there’s no forgiveness, least of all for ourselves.

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

What is humor? What’s its meaning? A generation ago, Peter Berger wrote a book, A Rumor of Angels, in which he looked at the question of humor philosophically. I like his conclusion. In humor, he submits, we touch the transcendent. To be able to laugh at a situation, no matter how dire or tragic, shows that we’re in some way above that situation, that there’s something in us that’s not imprisoned by that situation, or any situation.
There’s a wonderful example of this in the writings of the Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. During the purges of Stalin, her husband had been arrested, as had many others. She occasionally tried to visit the prison he was in to leave letters and packages for him. Standing in long lines outside of that prison in St. Petersburg, she waited alongside other women whose husbands or sons had also been arrested. The situation bordered on the absurd. None of them even knew whether their loved ones were even alive and the guards made them wait for hours without explanation, often in the cold of winter. One day, as she was standing in line waiting, another woman recognized her, approached her, and asked: “Can you describe this?” Akhmatova replied: “I can,” and when she said this something like a smile passed between them.
A smile passed between them. That smile contained some levity and that allowed them both to realize, however unconsciously, that they were transcendent to that situation. The smile that passed between them alerted them both to the fact that they were more than what they were in that moment. Awful as it was, they weren’t ultimately prisoners to that moment. Moreover that smile was a prophetic and political act of defiance, based upon faith. Levity is subversive.
This is true too not just for how we live inside our faith lives; it’s true too for how we live, healthily, inside our families. A family that’s too serious will not allow for forgiveness. Its heaviness will eventually drive its members either into depression or away from the family. Moreover it will make an idol out of itself. Conversely, a family that can take itself seriously but still laugh at itself will be a family where there is forgiveness because levity will give them a healthy perspective on their foibles. A family that’s healthy will sometimes look at itself honestly and with the kind of smile that passed between Anna Akhmatova and her friend, say of itself: “Aren’t we pathetic!”
That’s true too of nationalism. We need to take our nation seriously, even as a certain kind levity keeps this seriousness in perspective. I’m a Canadian. As Canadians, we love our country, are proud of it, and would, if push came to shove, die for it. But we have a wonderful levity about our patriotism. We make jokes about it and enjoy it when others make jokes about us. Consequently we don’t have any bitter controversies regarding who loves the country and who doesn’t. Our lightness keeps us in unity.
All of this, of course, is doubly true of faith and spirituality. Real faith is deep, an indelible brand inside the soul, a DNA that dictates behavior. Moreover, real faith does not sidestep the tragic within our lives but equips us to face the heaviness in life where we meet disappointment, personal failure, heartbreak, injustice, betrayal, the breakdown of cherished relationships, the death of loves ones, sickness, the diminishment of our own health, and ultimately our own death. This is not to be confused with any natural or contrived optimism that refuses to see the dark. Rather real faith, precisely because it is real and therefore keeps us inchoately aware of our identity and transcendence, will always allow us a discreet, knowing, smile, no matter the situation. Like the English martyr, Thomas More, we will be able to joke a bit with our executioner and we will also be able to forgive others and ourselves for not being perfect.
Our lives often are pathetic. But it’s okay. We can still laugh with each other! We’re in good hands. The God who made obviously has a sense of humor – and therefore understanding and forgiveness.
Too many books on Christian spirituality might more aptly be entitled: The Unbearable Heaviness of Faith.

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