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.)

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.)

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.)

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.)

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.)

Faith includes ups and downs

Father Ron Rolheiser

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

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

The Christ-Child of the Year

Father Ron Rolheiser

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

God’s closeness

IN EXILE

Father Ron Rolheiser

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
There’s a growing body of literature today that chronicles the experience of persons who were clinically dead for a period of time (minutes or hours) and were medically resuscitated and brought back to life. Many of us, for example, are familiar with Dr. Eben Alexander’s book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. More recently Hollywood produced a movie, Miracles from Heaven, which portrays the true story of a young Texas girl who was clinically dead, medically revived, and who shares what she experienced in the afterlife.
There are now hundreds of stories like this, gathered through dozens of years, published or simply shared with loved ones. What’s interesting (and consoling) is that virtually all these stories are wonderfully positive, irrespective of the person’s faith or religious background. In virtually every case their experience, while partially indescribable, was one in which they felt a warm, personal, overwhelming sense of love, light and welcome, and not a few of them found themselves meeting relatives of theirs that had passed on before them, sometimes even relatives that they didn’t know they had. As well, in virtually every case, they did not want to return to life here but, like Peter on the Mountain of the Transfiguration, wanted to stay there.
Recently while speaking at conference, I referenced this literature and pointed out that, among other things, it seems everyone goes to heaven when they die. This, of course, immediately sparked a spirited discussion: “What about hell? Aren’t we judged when we die? Doesn’t anyone go to hell?” My answer to those questions, which need far more nuance than are contained in a short soundbite, was that while we all go to heaven when we die, depending upon our moral and spiritual disposition, we might not want to stay there. Hell, as Jesus assures us, is a real option; though, as Jesus also assures us, we judge ourselves. God puts no one to hell. Hell is our choice.
However it was what happened after this discussion that I want to share here: A woman approached me as I was leaving and told me that she had had this exact experience. She had been clinically dead for some minutes and then revived through medical resuscitation. And, just like the experience of all the others in the literature around this issue, she too experienced a wonderful warmth, light, and welcome, and did not want to return to life here on earth.
Inside of all of this warmth and love however what she remembers most and most wants to share with others is this: “I learned that God is very close. We have no idea how close God is to us. God is closer to us than we ever imagine!” Her experience has left her forever branded with a sense of God’s warmth, love and welcome, but what’s left the deepest brand of all inside her is the sense of God’s closeness.
I was struck by this because, like millions of others, I generally don’t feel that closeness, or at least don’t feel it very affectively or imaginatively. God can seem pretty far away, abstract and impersonal, a Deity with millions of things to worry about without having to worry about the minutiae of my small life.
Moreover, as Christians, we believe that God is infinite and ineffable. This means that while we can know God, we can never imagine God. Given that truth, it makes it even harder for us to imagine that the infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things is intimately and personally present inside us, worrying with, sharing our heartaches, and knowing our most guarded feelings.
Compounding this is the fact that whenever we do try to imagine God’s person our imaginations come up against the unimaginable. For example, try to imagine this: There are billions of persons on this earth and billions more have lived on this earth before us. At this very minute, thousands of people are being born, thousands are dying, thousands are sinning, thousands are doing virtuous acts, thousands are making love, thousands are experiencing violence, thousands are feeling their hearts swelling with joy, all of this part of trillions upon trillions of phenomena. How can one heart, one mind, one person be consciously on top of all of this and so fully aware and empathetic that no hair falls from our heads or sparrow from the sky without this person taking notice? It’s impossible to imagine, pure and simple, and that’s part of the very definition of God.
How can God be as close to us as we are to ourselves? Partly this is mystery, and wisdom bids us befriend mystery because anything we can understand is not very deep! The mystery of God’s intimate, personal presence inside us is beyond our imaginations. But everything within our faith tradition and now most everything in the testimony of hundreds of people who have experienced the afterlife assure us that, while God may be infinite and ineffable, God is very close to us, closer than we imagine.

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