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.)

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.)