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.)

Beyond criticism, anger lies invitation to deeper empathy

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Recently I attended a symposium where the keynote speaker was a man exactly my age. Since we had both lived through the same cultural and religious changes in our lives, I resonated with much of what he said and with how he felt about things. And in his assessment of both the state of affairs in our politics and our churches today, he was pretty critical, even angry. Not without reason. In both our governments and our churches today there isn’t just a bitter polarization and an absence of fundamental charity and respect, there’s also a lot of seemingly inexcusable blindness, lack of transparency and self-serving dishonesty. Our speaker was plenty eager to point these out.
And for the most part, I agreed with him. I feel the same way that he does. The current state of affairs, whether you’re looking at politics or the churches, is depressing, bitterly polarized and cannot but leave you feeling frustrated and accusatory at those whom you deem responsible for the blindness, dishonesty and injustice that seem inexcusable. But, while I shared much of his truth and his feelings, I didn’t share where he landed. He landed in pessimism and anger, seemingly unable to find anything other than indignation within which to stand. He also ended very negative in terms of his attitude towards those whom he blames for the problem.
I can’t fault his truth and I can’t fault his feelings. They’re understandable. But I’m not at ease with where he landed. Bitterness and anger, no matter how justified, are not a good place to stay. Both Jesus and what’s noble inside of us invite us to move beyond anger and indignation.
Beyond anger, beyond indignation and beyond justified criticism of all that’s dishonest and unjust, lies an invitation to a deeper empathy. This invitation doesn’t ask us to be stop being prophetic in the face of what’s wrong but it asks us to be prophetic in a deeper way. A prophet, as Daniel Berrigan so often said, makes a vow of love not of alienation.
But that’s not easy to do. In the face of injustice, dishonesty and willful blindness, all of our natural instincts militate against empathy. Up to a point, this is healthy and shows that we’re still morally robust. We should feel anger and indignation in the face of what’s wrong. It’s understandable too that we might also feel some hateful, judgmental, thoughts towards those whom we deem responsible. But that’s a beginning (a healthy enough starting point) but it’s not where we’re meant to stay. We’re called to move towards something deeper, namely, an empathy which previously we did not access. Deep anger invites deep empathy.
At the truly bitter moments of our lives, when we’re feeling overwhelmed by feelings of misunderstanding, slight, injustice and rightful indignation and we’re staring across at those whom we deem responsible for the situation, anger and hatred will naturally arise within us. It’s okay to dwell with them for a time (because anger is an important mode of grieving) but, after a time we need to move on. The challenge then is to ask ourselves: How do I love now, given all this hatred? What does love call me to now in this bitter situation? Where can I now find a common thread that can keep me in family with those at whom I’m angry? How do I reach through, reach through the space that now leaves me separated by my own justified feelings of anger? And, perhaps most important of all: “From where can I now find the strength to not give into hatred and self-serving indignation?
How am I called to love now? How do I love in this new situation? That’s the challenge. We’ve never before been called upon to love in a situation like this. Our understanding, empathy, forgiveness and love have never before been tested in this way. But that’s the ultimate moral challenge, the “test” that Jesus himself faced in Gethsemane. How do you love when everything around you invites you to the opposite?
Almost all of our natural instincts militate against this kind of empathy, as does most everything around us. In the face of injustice our natural instincts spontaneously begin, one by one, to shut the doors of trust and make us judgmental. They also invite us to feel indignation and hatred. Now those feelings do produce a certain catharsis in us. It feels good. But that kind of cathartic feeling is a drug that doesn’t do much for us long range. We need something beyond feelings of bitterness and hatred for our long range health. Empathy is that something.
While not denying what’s wrong, nor denying the need to be prophetic in the face of all that’s wrong, empathy still calls us to a post-anger, a post-indignation and a post-hatred. Jesus modeled that for us and today it’s singularly the most needed thing in our society, our churches and our families.

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

Search for indubitable faith

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

In a book, 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos, that’s justifiably making waves in many circles today, Jordan Peterson shares about his own journey towards truth and meaning. Here’s that story:
At one point in his life, while still young and finding his own path, he reached a stage where he felt agnostic, not just about the shallow Christianity he’d been raised on, but also about most everything else in terms of truth and trust. What really can we believe in? What’s ultimately to be trusted?
Too humble to compare himself to one of the great minds in history, Rene Descartes, who, five hundred years ago, struggled with a similar agnosticism, Peterson nonetheless could not help but employ Descartes’ approach in trying to find a truth that you could not doubt. So, like Descartes, he set off in search off an “indubitable” (Descartes’ term), that is, to find a premise that absolutely cannot be doubted. Descartes, as we know, found his “indubitable” in his famous dictum: I think, therefore, I am! Nobody can be deceived in believing that since even to be deceived would be indisputable proof that you exist. The philosophy that Descartes then built upon the indubitable premise is left for history to judge. But history doesn’t dispute the truth of his dictum.
So Peterson sets out with the same essential question: What single thing cannot be doubted? Is there something so evidently true that nobody can doubt it? For Peterson, it’s not the fact that we think which is indisputable, it’s the fact that we, all of us, suffer. That’s his indubitable truth, suffering is real. That cannot be doubted: “Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape its reality.” Suffering is real beyond all doubt.
Moreover, in Peterson’s understanding, the worst kind of suffering isn’t that which is inflicted upon us by the innate contingencies of our being and our mortality, nor by the sometimes blind brutality of nature. The worst kind of suffering is the kind that one person inflicts upon another, the kind that one part of humankind inflicts upon another part, the kind we see in the atrocities of the 20th century – Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and countless others responsible for the torture, rape, suffering and death of millions.
From this indubitable premise he submits something else that too cannot be disputed: This kind of suffering isn’t just real, it’s also wrong! We can all agree that this kind of suffering is not good and that there is something that is (beyond dispute) not good. And if there’s something that is not good, then there’s something that is good. His logic: “If the worst sin is the torment of others, merely for the sake of the suffering produced – then the good is whatever is diametrically opposed to that.”
What flows from this is clear: The good is whatever stops such things from happening. If this is true, and it is, then it is also clear as to what is good, and what is a good way of living: If the most terrible forms of suffering are produced by egotism, selfishness, untruthfulness, arrogance, greed, lust for power, willful cruelty and insensitivity to others, then we are evidently called to the opposite: selflessness, altruism, humility, truth-telling, tenderness and sacrificing for others.
Not incidentally, Peterson affirms all of this inside a chapter within which he highlights the importance of sacrifice, of delaying private gratification for a greater good long-range. His insight here parallels those of Rene Girard and other anthropologists who point out that the only way of stopping unconscious sacrifice to blind gods (which is what happened in the atrocities of Hitler and what happens in our own bitter slandering of others) is through self-sacrifice. Only when we accept at the cost of personal suffering our own contingencies, sin and mortality will we stop projecting these on to others so to make them suffer in order to feel better about ourselves.
Peterson writes as an agnostic or perhaps, more accurately, as an honest analyst, an observer of humanity, who for purposes of this book prefers to keep his faith private. Fair enough. Probably wise too. No reason to impute motives. It’s where he lands that’s important, and where he lands is on very solid ground. It’s where Jesus lands in the Sermon on the Mount, it’s where the Christian churches land when they’re at their best, it’s where the great religions of the world land when they’re at their best, and it’s where humanity lands when it’s at its best.
The medieval mystic, Theresa of Avila, wrote with great depth and challenge. Her treatise on the spiritual life is now a classic and forms part of the very canon of Christian spiritual writings. In the end, she submits that during our generative years the most important question we need to challenge ourselves with is: How can I be more helpful? Jordan Peterson, with a logic and language that can be understood by everyone today, offers the same challenge.

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

Bridging unbridgeable gaps

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
“Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so and no one can cross from there to us.”
Abraham speaks these words to a soul in hell in the famous parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16, 19-21) and they are generally understood to mean that there exists between heaven and hell a gap that’s impossible to bridge. Nobody passes from hell to heaven. Hell is forever and no amount of regret or repentance there will get you to heaven. Indeed, once in hell, nobody in heaven can help you either, the gap between the two is eternally fixed!
But that’s not what this parable is teaching.
Some years ago, Jean Vanier delivered the prestigious Massey Lectures and he took up this parable. The point he emphasized is that the “unbridgeable chasm” referred to here is not the gap between heaven and hell as this is understood in the popular mind. Rather, for Vanier, the unbridgeable gap exists already in this world in terms of the gap between the rich and the poor, a gap that we have forever been unable to bridge. Moreover it’s a gap with more dimensions than we first imagine.
What separates the rich from the poor so definitively with a chasm that, seemingly, can never be bridged? What would bridge that gap?
The prophet Isaiah offers us a helpful image here (Isaiah 65, 25). Drawing upon a messianic dream he tells us how that gap will finally be bridged. It will be bridged, he submits, in the Messianic age, when we’re in heaven because it’s there, in an age when God’s grace is finally able to affect universal reconciliation, that the “the wolf and lamb will feed together” (or, as this is commonly read, “the lion and the lamb will lie down together.”)
The lion and the lamb will lie down together. But lions kill lambs! How can this change? Well, that’s the unbridgeable gap between heaven and hell. That’s the gap between the victim and the killer, the powerless and the powerful, the bullied and the bully, the despised and the bigot, the oppressed and the oppressor, the victim and the racist, the hated and the hater, the older brother and his prodigal brother, the poor and the rich. That’s the gap between heaven and hell.
If this is what Isaiah intuits and I think it is, then this image contains a powerful challenge which goes both ways: It isn’t just the lion that needs to convert and become sensitive, understanding and non-violent enough to lie down with the lamb; the lamb too needs to convert and move to deeper levels of understanding, forgiveness and trust in order to lie down with the lion. Ironically, this may be a bigger challenge to the lamb than to the lion. Once wounded, once victimized, once hated, once spit on, once raped, once beaten-up by a bully, once discriminated against because of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation and it becomes very difficult, almost impossible existentially, to truly forgive, forget and move with trust towards the one who hurt us.
This is a tough saying, but life can be grossly unfair sometimes and perhaps the greatest unfairness of all is not the injustice of being victimized, violated, raped or murdered, but that, after all this has been done to us, we’re expected to forgive the one who did it to us while at the same time knowing that the one who hurt us probably has an easier time of it in terms of letting go of the incident and moving towards reconciliation. That’s perhaps the greatest unfairness of all. The lamb has to forgive the lion who killed it.
And yet this is the invitation to all of us who have ever been victimized. Parker Palmer suggests that violence is what happens when someone doesn’t know what else to do with his or her suffering and that domestic abuse, racism, sexism, homophobia and contempt for the poor are all cruel outcomes of this. What we need, he suggests, is a bigger “moral imagination”.
He’s right, I believe, on both scores: violence is what happens when people don’t know what to do with their sufferings and we do need a bigger moral imagination. But understanding that our abuser is in deep pain, that the bully himself was first bullied, doesn’t generally do much to ease our own pain and humiliation.
As well, imagining how ideally we should respond as Christians is helpful, but it doesn’t of itself give us the strength to forgive. Something else is needed, namely, a strength that’s presently beyond us.
This is a tough teaching, one that should not be glibly presented. How do you forgive someone who violated you? In this life, mostly, it’s impossible; but remember Isaiah is speaking about the messianic time, a time when, finally, with God’s help, we will be able to bridge that unbridgeable chasm.

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

How to Respond

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Sometimes all you can do is to put your mouth to the dust and wait. That’s a counsel from the Book of Lamentations and while perhaps not the best response to the recent revelations of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up in the Roman Catholic Church, it seems the only helpful response available to me as Roman Catholic priest today. Beyond prayer, I’ve been hesitant to respond otherwise to this current situation for three reasons.
My first hesitation has to do with the seeming futility of yet another apology and breast-beating. Since the report on sexual abuse and clerical cover-up was released in Pennsylvania a few weeks back, there have been apologies issued by virtually every diocese, every parish and every priest in America, including one from the Pope himself. While these apologies have been almost universally sincere, non-defensive, and rightly focused on the victims, they’ve also for the most part not been well-received. More generally the response has been: “What good does that do now! Where were you when this was all happening?” The apologies have generally met with more cynicism and anger than acceptance. And yet it’s important that they be made, though I’m not sure my adding another one will be helpful.
My second hesitancy stems from the fact that there’s so much anger and grief around this issue right now that words, even the right ones, generally don’t hit their mark, akin to telling someone freshly grieving the death of loved one that “she’s in a better place.” The words are true, but moment’s too raw for the words to be heard. They only become effective later. And that’s the situation now; we’re in a time of raw anger and dark grief. These are in fact the same emotion (just that one’s hard and the other soft) and so for many people dealing with the revelations of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up right now, apologies, while necessary, are not being heard. The moment is too raw.
And, one last hesitation: As a priest with a vow of celibacy I’m painfully aware that right now I’m at an understandable disadvantage to speak out on this. Victims speak from a position of moral privilege, rightly so, their voices carry extra authority; but those who stand symbolically connected to the perpetrators, and that’s me, are understandably heard with suspicion. I accept that. How could it be otherwise? At this particularly charged moment, what moral authority can my voice carry on this issue? What does my apology add?
But, for what it’s worth, even given those caveats, I do offer an apology: As Roman Catholic priest, I want to publicly say that what’s happened in the church in terms of sexual abuse by the clergy and cover-up by the hierarchy is inexcusable, deeply sinful, has harmed thousands of lives irrevocably and needs radical redress in terms of reaching out to the victims and of prompting structural change in the church to ensure that this will never happen again.
Let me add something else: First, as a Roman Catholic priest, I do not distance myself from this by morally separating myself from those who have done wrong by declaring: “They’re guilty and I’m not!” The cross of Jesus doesn’t allow such an escape. Jesus was crucified between two thieves. He was innocent, they weren’t; but he didn’t protest his innocence, and those looking at three crosses that day didn’t distinguish between who was innocent and who was guilty. The crosses were all painted with the same brush. There are times when one does not protest one’s innocence. Part of Jesus’ mission, as our liturgy puts it, was “to become sin for us,” to risk having his innocence mixed in with guilt and be perceived as sin so as to help carry darkness and sin for others.
Beyond our apologies, all of us, clergy and laity alike, are invited to do something for the church right now, namely, help carry this scandal as Jesus did. Indignantly separating ourselves morally from this sin is not the way of Jesus and the cross.
Like Mary standing under the cross, we must not replicate the anger and darkness of the moment so as to give it back in kind. Instead, like her, we must do the only thing possible sometimes when standing beneath the consequence of sin, that is, let our posture, like Mary’s, speak deeply through a voice that, unlike bitterness or collapse, says: “Today, I can’t stop this darkness, nobody can. Sometimes darkness just has its hour. But I can stop some of the sin and bitterness that’s in the moment by absorbing it, not distancing myself from it, and not giving it back in kind.” Sometimes darkness has its moment and we, followers of Jesus, may not self-servingly distance ourselves from the sin but need to help absorb it.
Sometimes all we can do is put our mouths to the dust … and pray … and wait. Knowing that, at some future time, the stone will again roll away from the tomb.

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

Power of compliments

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Thomas Aquinas once suggested that it’s a sin to not give a compliment to someone when it’s deserved because by withholding our praise we’re depriving that person of the food that he or she needs to live on. He’s right. Perhaps it’s not a sin to withhold a compliment but it’s a sad impoverishment, both for the person deserving the compliment and for the one withholding it.
We don’t live on bread alone. Jesus told us that. Our soul too needs to be fed and its food is affirmation, recognition and blessing. Every one of us needs to be healthily affirmed when we do something well so as to have resources within us with which to affirm others. We can’t give what we haven’t got! That’s self-evident. And so, for us to love and affirm others we must first be loved, first be blessed, and first be praised. Praise, recognition and blessing build up the soul.
But complimenting others isn’t just important for the person receiving the compliment, it’s equally important for the person giving it. In praising someone we give him or her some needed food for their soul; but, in doing this, we also feed our own soul. There’s a truth about philanthropy that holds true too for the soul: We need to give to others not just because they need it but because we cannot be healthy unless we are giving ourselves away. Healthy admiration is a philanthropy of the soul.
Moreover, admiring and praising others is a religious act. Benoit Standaert submits that “giving praise comes out of the roots our existence.” What does he mean by that?
In complimenting and praising others, we are tapping into what’s deepest inside us, namely, the image and likeness of God. When we praise someone else then, like God creating, we are breathing life into a person, breathing spirit into them. People need to be praised. We don’t live on bread alone, and we don’t live on oxygen alone either.
The image and likeness of God inside us is not an icon, but an energy, the energy that’s most real inside us. Beyond our ego, wounds, pride, sin and the pettiness of our hearts and minds on any given day, what’s most real within us is a magnanimity and graciousness which, like God, looks at the world and wants to say: “It is good! It is very good!” When we’re at our best, our truest, speaking and acting out of our maturity, we can admire. Indeed, our willingness to praise others is a sign of maturity, and vice versa. We become more mature by being generous in our praise.
But praise is not something we give out easily. Mostly we are so blocked by the disappointments and frustrations within our lives that we give in to cynicism and jealousy and operate out of these rather than out of our virtues. We rationalize this of course in different ways, either by claiming that what we’re supposed to admire is juvenile (and we’re too bright and sophisticated to be impressed) or that the admirable act was done for someone’s self-aggrandizement and we’re not going to feed another person’s ego. However, more often than not, our real reason for withholding praise is that fact that we ourselves have been insufficiently praised and, because of that, harbor jealousies and lack the strength to praise others. I say this sympathetically, all of us are wounded.
Then too in some of us there’s a hesitation to praise others because we believe that praise might spoil the person and inflate his or her ego. Spare the rod and spoil the child! If we offer praise it will go to that person’s head. Again, more often than not, that’s a rationalization. Legitimate praise never spoils a person. Praise that’s honest and proper works more at humbling its recipient than spoiling him or her. We can’t be loved too much, only loved wrongly.
But, you might ask, what about children who end up self-centered because they’re only praised and never disciplined? Real love and real maturity distinguish between praising those areas of another’s life that are praiseworthy and challenging those areas of another’s life that need correction. Praise should never be undeserved flattery, but challenge and correction are only effective if the recipient first knows that he or she is loved and properly recognized.
Genuine praise is never wrong. It simply acknowledges the truth that’s there. That’s a moral imperative. Love requires it. Refusing to admire when someone or something merits praise is, as Thomas Aquinas submits, a negligence, a fault, a selfishness, a pettiness, and a lack of maturity. Conversely, paying a compliment when one is due is a virtue and a sign of maturity.
Generosity is as much about giving praise as about giving money. We may not be stingy in our praise. The 14th century Flemish mystic, John of Ruusbroec, taught that “those who do not give praise here on earth shall be mute for all eternity.”

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

To friends I’ve known

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Recently, reading Commonweal magazine, I was struck by this line by Jerry Ryan, a Little Brother of Jesus: “I have lost contact with so many people who meant a lot to me at different stages of my life, people I loved dearly and really cared for and who had given me so much and made me what I am.”
That’s so true for me and, I suspect, for most of us. People enter our lives, friendships develop, and then some of those friends disappear from our lives. Sometimes we move away, sometimes they move away, sometimes things change and we drift apart or sometimes the affective bonds that held us together disintegrate and they, and we, move on. To the degree that we’re sensitive, there’s always some pain and guilt in this. It’s not an unhealthy thing to feel the loneliness of that loss, nor is it unhealthy to feel that somehow we’ve failed and been less than attentive.
Indeed sometimes we have been less than faithful, but mostly the blame for that (to the extent that some applies) lies inside our inculpable inadequacy. Only God is adequate. Only God has a heart big enough to be attentive to everyone personally and intimately at the same time. Only God never moves away or grows tired. And only God has the strength to forever be faithful. We cannot not be inadequate.
I struggle mightily with that inadequacy. Being a missionary, given the work I do, and given the quirks of my personality, I find myself perennially overwhelmed by my inadequacy in the area of staying close to family and friends, including very dear friends. The task isn’t easy.
First, I come from a very large family which through the generations has expanded into a virtual tribe. It could be a fulltime job just staying in touch with family. Next, I’ve been ministering for more than 40 years and during that time have lived inside various Oblate houses with almost 200 different people. Community is family and, again, it would be a fulltime task just staying in meaningful touch with them all. Then, during my years of doing graduate work, I had the privileged opportunity to develop long-lasting friendships with a number of classmates from different parts of the world. Finally, during all those years of ministry, I’ve met hundreds of students in classrooms and thousands of people doing workshops and retreats. Most of those encounters were temporary and casual, but through the years a good number of meaningful friendships developed there as well. And, while all this was happening, I’ve lived and worked in four different countries and made friends in each of those places.
Then today there’s the further struggle to stay in touch with all the contacts that one necessarily has to deal with on social media.
How does one keep meaningful contact with everyone? How does one not betray friends by simple neglect?
Even as I’m deeply thankful to have so rich a treasury of family and friends, not infrequently I’m overwhelmed with the task of staying in meaningful contact with them and at those times I feel some guilt about forever being out of touch with so many people I was once close to. Sometimes friends whom I have been out of touch with remind me, and not always delicately, of my neglect of our friendship. But as the years go by and the problem grows larger rather than smaller, I am making more peace with my inadequacy and guilt – if not always with some of my neglected friends.
What helps is to remind myself constantly of what a great grace it is to have so large a family and to have such a large number of friends. There are few things for which to be more grateful. Next, I do try to stay in meaningful touch with them to the extent that time, energy, and distance allow. Most importantly, though, given my inadequacy, I try to meet my family and friends at a place where time, energy, and distance are eclipsed by an immediate, intimate presence. There’s one place where we’re not inadequate, where we can be at more places than one at the same time and where we can love countless people individually and intimately, namely, inside the Body of Christ.
Scripture tells us that, as believers, we form together a body that, as much as any living body, is a true living organism, with all parts affecting all other parts. Inside that body we’re present to each other, not fully consciously of course, but deeply, truly, actually. And to the extent that we’re living our lives faithfully and sharing honest friendship and fellowship with those who are immediately around us, we’re not only healthy enzymes helping bring health to the body, we’re also present to each other, affectively, in a way that touches us at the deepest level of our souls There is a place where we are not neglecting each other.

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

Apologia : consecrated celibacy

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Huston Smith, the renowned commentator on world religions, submits that you should not judge a religion by its worst expressions, but by its best, its saints. That’s also true in terms of judging the merits of vowed, consecrated celibacy. It should be judged by its best, not perverse, examples, as is true too for the institution of marriage.
I write this apologia because today consecrated celibacy is under siege from critics in almost every circle. Celibacy is no longer understood or deemed realistic by a culture which basically refuses to accept any restrictions in the area of sexuality and in effect sees all celibacy, lived for whatever reason, as frigidity, naiveté or a misfortune of circumstance. Our culture constitutes a virtual conspiracy against celibacy.
More critical still is how consecrated celibacy is being judged in the wake of the clerical sexual abuse scandal. More and more, there’s a popular conception both within society and within church circles that sexual abuse in general and pedophilia in particular is more prevalent among priests and religious than in the population at large and that there’s something inherent in consecrated celibacy itself that makes priests and vowed religious more prone to sexual misconduct and emotional ill health.
How true is this? Are celibates more prone to sexual misconduct than their non-celibate contemporaries? Are celibates more likely to be less healthy and happy in general than those who are married or who are sexually active outside of marriage?
This must be adjudicated, I believe, by looking at the deepest intentions of sex itself and, from there, assessing where both married persons and celibates for the most part tend to end up. What’s the ultimate intention of sex? What is this powerful archetypal energy meant to do in us? Generically, the answer is clear: Sex is meant to lead us out of ourselves, out of aloneness, out of selfishness, into altruism, into family, into community, into generativity, into mellowness of heart, into delight, into happiness and ultimately (perhaps not always this side of eternity) into ecstasy.
Viewed through the prism of this criterion how do marriage and vowed celibacy compare? Mostly we see parallels: Some people get married, become healthily generous and generative, remain faithful to their spouses and age into wholesome, happy, forgiving persons. Others write a different chronicle. They get married (or are sexually active outside of marriage) but do not become more generous and generative, do not remain faithful to their commitments in love and age instead in sullenness, bitterness and unhappiness.
The same is true for vowed celibates: Some make the vow and become healthily generous and generative, remain faithful to the vow and age into wholesome, happy, forgiving persons. For some others, most everything in their lives belies the transparency and fruitfulness that should stem from their celibacy and they do not become more selfless, generative, mellow or happy. Instead, like some of their sexually active contemporaries, they also grow sullen, bitter and unhappy. Sometimes this is the result of breaking their vow and sometimes it’s the result of an unhealthily repressed sexuality. In either case, their vow isn’t fruitful and generally leads to unhealthy compensatory behaviors.
Celibacy, admittedly, comes fraught with some extra dangers because marriage and sex are the normal path that God intended for us. As Merton once put it, in celibacy we live inside a loneliness which God, himself, has condemned: It is not good for man (or woman) to be alone! Sex and marriage are the norm and celibacy deviates from that. But that doesn’t mean celibacy cannot be highly generative, meaningful and healthy and make for wholesomeness and happiness.
Some of the most generative and wholesome people that I know are vowed celibates, aging into an enviable mellowness and peace. Sadly, the reverse is also true for some celibates. Of course, all of this is equally true, both ways, for the married people that I know.
By their fruits you shall know them. Jesus offers us this as a criterion for judgment. But in judging celibacy and marriage (just in judging religions) we might add Huston Smith’s counsel that we should judge each by its best expressions, by its saints and not by its unhealthy expressions. Looking at marriage and celibacy, we see in each both healthy and unhealthy manifestations; and it doesn’t seem that either side trumps the other in terms of manifesting sanctity or dysfunction. That’s not surprising since, in the end, both choices demand the same thing, namely, a willingness to sacrifice and sweat blood for the sake of love and fidelity.
Some celibates are unfaithful and some are pedophiles, but some become Mother Teresa. It’s worth mentioning too that Jesus was a celibate. Some married persons are unfaithful, some are abusive and some murder their spouses, but some give tangible, embodied, holy expression to God’s unconditional love for the world and Christ’s unbreakable bond with his church.
Sexuality is a reality that can be lived out in different modalities and both marriage and celibacy are holy choices that can, sadly, go wrong.

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

Real miracles

Father Ron Rolheiser

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Ralph Waldo Emerson calls the stars in the night sky “envoys of beauty, lighting the universe with their astonishing smile” and submits that if they appeared for a single night only every thousand years, we’d be on our knees in worship and would cherish the memory for the rest of our lives. But since they come out every night, the miracle goes mostly unnoticed. We watch television instead.
But, their beauty notwithstanding, shining stars are not the most prominent miracle which goes unnoticed. The greatest miracles have to do with gratuity, with love, with unfreezing a soul, with forgiveness. Our great poverty is that these go mostly unnoticed. There are much more astonishing things than the stars for which to be down on our knees in gratitude and there are more profound things to cherish in memory than a starlit night.
The Belgium spirituality writer, Benoit Standaert, suggests that the greatest miracle is “that the freely given exists, that there is love that makes whole and that embraces what has been lost, that chooses what had been rejected, that forgives what has been found guilty beyond appeal, that unites what had seemingly been torn apart forever.”
The greatest miracle is that there’s redemption for all that’s wrong with us. There’s redemption from all we’ve failed to live up to because of our inadequacies. There’s redemption from our wounds, from all that’s left us physically, emotionally, and spiritually limping and cold. There’s redemption from injustice, from the unfairness we suffer ourselves and from the hurt which we inflict knowingly or unknowingly on others. There’s redemption from our mistakes, our moral failures, our infidelities, our sins. There’s redemption from relationships gone sour, from marriages, families, and friendships that have been torn apart by misunderstanding, hatred, selfishness, and violence. There’s redemption from suicide and murder. Nothing falls outside the scope of God’s power to forgive, to resurrect and make new, fresh, innocent, and joyful again.
Our lives, to a greater or lesser extent, all end up incomplete, broken, unfairly ripped away from us, and causing hurt to others because of our weaknesses, infidelities, sin, and malice; and still, ultimately, it can all wash clean again. There’s redemption, new life after all the ways we’ve gone wrong in this world. And that redemption comes through forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the greatest miracle, the pan-ultimate miracle, which, along with everlasting life, is the real meaning of the resurrection of Jesus. There’s nothing more godlike, or miraculous, than a moment of reconciliation, a moment of forgiveness.
It’s for this reason that when the Gospels write up the resurrection of Jesus their emphasis, again and again, is on forgiveness. Indeed, Luke’s Gospel does not distinguish the announcement of the resurrection from the announcement of the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness and resurrection are inextricably linked. Likewise, in the Gospel of John, in Jesus’ first resurrection appearance to the assembled community (with them all hiding behind locked doors in fear) he gives them the power to forgive sins. The message of the resurrection is that a dead body can be raised again from its grave. But this isn’t just true for our physical bodies, which die, but it’s also true, especially, for hearts that are frozen and dead from disappointment, bitterness, anger, separation and hatred. The miracle of the resurrection is as much about raising deadened souls to new life as it is about raising dead bodies to new life.
Despite being nearly overwhelmed by new inventions today, machines and gadgets that do everything including talking to us, in truth, we see very little that’s genuinely new, that’s not the norm. Sure, we see new innovations every day coming at us so rapidly that we have trouble coping with the changes they are bringing about. But, in the end, these innovations don’t genuinely surprise us, at least not at a deep level, at the level of the soul, morally. They’re simply more of what we already have, extensions of ordinary life, nothing really surprising.
But when you see a woman forgive another person who has genuinely hurt her, you are seeing something that’s not normal, that’s surprising. You are seeing something that is not simply another instance of how things naturally unfold. Likewise, when you see warmth and love break through to a man who has long been captive of a bitter and angry heart, you are seeing something that’s not just another instance of normal life, of ordinary unfolding. You’re seeing newness, redemption, resurrection, forgiveness. Forgiveness is the only thing that’s new on our planet, everything else is just more of the same.
And so, in the words of Benoit Standaert: “Whenever we strive to bring a little more peace through justice here on earth and, in whatever form, change sadness into happiness, heal broken hearts, or assist the sick and the weak, we arrive directly at God, the God of the resurrection.”
Forgiveness is the most astonishing miracle we will ever see or experience this side of eternity. It, alone, makes for the possibility of heaven – and happiness.

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

Mourning can heal

Father Ron Rolheiser

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Our culture doesn’t give us easy permission to mourn. Its underlying ethos is that we move on quickly from loss and hurt, keep our griefs quiet, remain strong always and get on with life.
But mourning is something that’s vital to our health, something we owe to ourselves. Without mourning our only choice is to grow hard and bitter in the face of disappointment, rejection and loss. And these will always make themselves felt.
We have many things to mourn in life: We are forever losing people and things. Loved ones die, relationships die, friends move away, a marriage falls apart, a love we want but can’t have obsesses us, a dream ends in disappointment, our children grow away from us, jobs are lost and so too one day our youth and our health.
Beyond these many losses that ask for our grief there’s the need to grieve the simple inadequacy of our lives, the perfect symphony and consummation that we could never have. Like Jephthah’s daughter, all of us have to mourn our inconsummation.
How? How do we mourn so that our mourning is not an unhealthy self-indulgence but a process that restores us to health and buoyancy?
There’s no simple formula and the formula is different for everyone. Grieving, like loving, has to respect our unique reticence, what we’re comfortable with and not comfortable with. But some things are the same for all of us.
First, there’s the need to accept and acknowledge both our loss and the pain which with we’re left. Denial of either, loss or pain, is never a friend. The frustration and helplessness within which we find ourselves must be accepted and accepted with the knowledge too that there’s no place to put the pain except, as Rilke says, to give it back to earth itself, to the heaviness of the oceans from which ultimately comes the saltwater which makes up our tears. Our tears connect us still to the oceans that spawned us.
Next, mourning is a process that takes time, sometimes a lot of time, rather than something we can achieve quickly by a simple decision. We cannot simply will our emotions back to health. They need to heal and healing is an organic process. What’s involved?
In many instances there’s the need to give ourselves permission to be angry, to rage for a time, to allow ourselves to feel the disappointment, loss, unfairness and anger. Loss can be bitter and that bitterness needs to be accepted with honesty, but also with the courage and discipline to not let it have us lash out at others. And for that to happen, for us not to lay blame and lash out at others, we need help. All pain can be borne if it can be shared and so we need people to listen to us and share our pain without trying to fix it. Pride is our enemy here. We need the humility to entrust others to see our wound.
Finally, not least, we need patience, long-suffering, perseverance. Mourning can’t be rushed. The healing of soul, like the healing of body, is an organic process with its own non-negotiable timetable for unfolding. But this can be a major test of our patience and hope. We can go through long periods of darkness and grief where nothing seems to be changing, the heaviness and the paralysis remain and we’re left with the feeling that things will never get better, that we will never find lightness of heart again.
But grief and mourning call for patience, patience to stay the course with the heaviness and the helplessness. The Book of Lamentations tells us that sometimes all we can do is put our mouths to the dust and wait. The healing is in the waiting.
Henri Nouwen was a man very familiar with mourning and loss. An over-sensitive soul, he sometimes suffered depressions and obsessions that left him emotionally paralyzed and seeking professional help. On one such occasion, while working through a major depression, he wrote his deeply insightful book, The Inner Voice of Love. There he gives us this advice: “The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to understand them, better to let them enter into your silence than to talk about them.
The choice you face constantly is whether you are taking your hurts to your head or to your heart. In your head you can analyze them, find their causes and consequences and coin words to speak and write about them. But no final healing is likely to come from that source. You need to let your wounds go down into your heart. Then you can live them through and discover that they will not destroy you. Your heart is greater than your wounds.”
We are greater than our wounds. Life is greater than death. God’s goodness is greater than all loss. But mourning our losses is the path to appropriating those truths.

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