Theologian recommends books for 2017

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
So much of life, particularly today, constitutes an unconscious conspiracy against reading. Lack of time, the pressure of our jobs, and electronic technology, among other things, are more and more putting books out of reach and out of mind. There is never enough time to read. The upside of this is that when I do find time to pick up a book this becomes a precious, cherished time. And so I try to pick books that I read carefully: I read reviews, listen to colleagues, and keep track of my favorite authors.
I also try to make sure that my reading diet, each year, includes some spiritual books (including at least one historical classic), some biographies, some novels, and some essays.
Among the books that I read this year, these are the ones that touched me. I cannot promise that they will touch you, but each of them left me with something.
Among books in spirituality:
Gil Bailie, “God’s Gamble, The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love.” Bailie again takes up Rene Girard’s anthropology to shed some new light on how the cross of Christ is the most monumental moral and religious event in history. The text is very dense and (truthfully) a tough read, but its insights are exceptional.
Heather King, “Shirt of Flame, A Year with Saint Therese of Lisieux.” This book will make for a very good, private retreat for anyone struggling with an addiction or obsession, or just with mediocrity in his or her spiritual life.
Christophe Lebreton, “Born From the Gaze of God, The Tibhirine Journal of Martyr Monk, 1993-1996.” This is the diary of one of the Trappist monks who was martyred in Algeria in 1996. It is the intimate journal of a young man which chronicles how he moves from paralyzing fear to the strength for martyrdom.
Kathleen Dowling Singh, two books: “The Grace in Dying” and “The Grace in Aging.” According to Singh, the process of aging and dying is exquisitely calibrated to bring us into the realm of spirit. In these two remarkable books, she traces this out with the depth that, outside of the great classical mystics, I have not seen.
Christine M. Bochen, Editor, “The Way of Mercy.” This is a series of remarkable essays on mercy, including some by Pope Francis and Walter Kasper.
“The Cloud of Unknowing.” I finally had the chance to study this classic in some depth and it is, no doubt, the signature book on contemplation and centering prayer.
Among biographies and essays:
Marilynne Robinson, “The Givenness of Things, Essays.” These essays are dense, deep, robustly sane, and are Marilynne Robinson, the gifted novelist, at her religious best.
Michael N. McGregor, “Pure Act, The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax.” This is the biography of the man who was Thomas Merton’s closest soul-friend, lived out his life as a secular monk, and who carried his solitude at a very high and noble level. It will help re-awaken your idealism.
Fernando Cardenal, “Faith and Joy, Memoirs of a Revolutionary Priest.” This is a great read about an exceptional man, a priest and a Jesuit, who played a leading role in Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua and was commanded by John Paul to step down. It is a private journal that tells the other side of what much of history has one-sidedly recorded about the struggles for justice in Latin America.
“Daniel Berrigan, Essential Writings,” Edited by John Dear. Daniel Berrigan died in late April of this year. His writings set the compass for what it means to be a Christian prophet, and this is an excellent selection of his writings.
Three books that deal with facing aging and dying:
Michael Paul Gallagher, “Into Extra Time, Living Through the Final Stages of Cancer and Jottings along the Way.” A man of faith and letters, Gallagher shares the journal he kept during the last nine months of his life, when he already knew he was dying.
Katie Roiphe, “The Violet Hour, Great Writers at the End.” How did a number of great writers, including Sigmund Freud, John Updike and Susan Sontag face terminal illness? This book tells us how.
Paul Kalanithi, “When Breath Becomes Air.” This is a remarkable journal of a young doctor facing a terminal diagnosis that documents his courage, faith, and insight.
Three novels that I recommend:
Paula Hawkins, “The Girl on the Train.” This didn’t make for a great movie, but the book is a page-turner.
Ian McEwan, Nutshell and Edna O’Brien, “The Little Red Chairs.” The pedigree of these two authors alone is enough of a recommendation, but neither will disappoint you here.
A wildcard:
Kenneth Rolheiser, “Dreamland and Soulscapes, A Prairie Love Story.” Full disclosure, Kenneth is my brother and I lived through many of the stories he shares, so there is admittedly a huge bias here. But the book delivers on its title and will give you a more realistic sense of what it was like to grow up in a Little House on the Prairies. Happy reading!
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. He can be contacted through his website or on Facebook.)

Bear crosses without bitterness

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Among Jesus’ many teachings we find this, rather harsh-sounding, invitation: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
I suspect that each of us has a gut-sense of what this means and what it will cost us; but, I suspect too that many of us misunderstand what Jesus is asking here and struggle unhealthily with this invitation. What, concretely, does Jesus mean by this?
To answer that, I would like to lean on some insights offered by James Martin in his book, “Jesus, A Pilgrimage.” He suggests that taking up our cross daily and giving up life in order to find deeper life means six interpenetrating things:
First, it means accepting that suffering is a part of our lives. Accepting our cross and giving up our lives means that, at some point, we have to make peace with the unalterable fact that frustration, disappointment, pain, misfortune, illness, unfairness, sadness, and death are a part of our lives and they must ultimately be accepted without bitterness. As long as we nurse the notion that pain in our lives is something we need not accept, we will habitually find ourselves bitter – bitter for not having accepted the cross.
Second, taking up our cross and giving up our lives, means that we may not, in our suffering, pass on any bitterness to those around us. We have a strong inclination, almost as part of our natural instincts, to make others suffer when we are suffering. If I’m unhappy, I will make sure that others around me are unhappy too! This does not mean, as Martin points out, that we cannot share our pain with others. But there’s a healthy way of doing this, where our sharing leaves others free, as opposed to an unhealthy kind of sharing which subtly tries to make others unhappy because we are unhappy.
There’s a difference between healthily groaning under the weight of our pain and unhealthily whining in self-pity and bitterness under that weight. The cross gives us permission to do the former, but not the latter. Jesus groaned under the weight of his cross, but no self-pity, whining, or bitterness issued forth from his lips or his beaten body.
Third, walking in the footsteps of Jesus as he carries his cross means that we must accept some other deaths before our physical death, that we are invited to let some parts of ourselves die. When Jesus invites us to die in order to find life, he is not, first of all, talking about physical death. If we live in adulthood, there are a myriad of other deaths that we must undergo before we die physically.
Maturity and Christian discipleship are about perennially naming our deaths, claiming our births, mourning our losses, letting go of what’s died, and receiving new spirit for the new life that we are now living.  These are the stages of the paschal mystery, and the stages of growing up. There are daily deaths.
Fourth, it means that we must wait for the resurrection, that here in this life all symphonies must remain unfinished. The book of Proverbs tells us that sometimes in the midst of pain the best we can do is put our mouths to the dust and wait. Any real understanding of the cross agrees. So much of life and discipleship is about waiting, waiting in frustration, inside injustice, inside pain, in longing, battling bitterness, as we wait for something or someone to come and change our situation. We spend about 98 percent of our lives waiting for fulfillment, in small and big ways. Jesus’ invitation to us to follow him implies waiting, accepting to live inside an unfinished symphony.
Fifth, carrying our cross daily means accepting that God’s gift to us is often not what we expect. God always answers our prayers but, often times, by giving us what we really need rather than what we think we need. The Resurrection, says James Martin, does not come when we expect it and rarely fits our notion of how a resurrection should happen. To carry your cross is to be open to surprise.
Finally, taking up your cross and being willing to give up your life means living in a faith that believes that nothing is impossible for God. As James Martin puts it, this means accepting that God is greater than the human imagination. Indeed, whenever we succumb to the notion that God cannot offer us a way out of our pain into some kind of newness, it’s precisely because we have reduced God down to the size of our own limited imagination.
It’s only possible to accept our cross, to live in trust, and to not grow bitter inside pain if we believe in possibilities beyond what we can imagine, namely, if we believe in the Resurrection. We can take up our cross when we begin to believe in the Resurrection.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Perpetual distraction challenges us

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
There’s a story in the Hindu tradition that runs something like this: God and a man are walking down a road. The man asks God, “What is the world like?” God answers, “I’d like to tell you, but my throat is parched. I need a cup of cold water. If you can go and get me a cup of cold water, I’ll tell you what the world is like.” The man heads off to the nearest house to ask for a cup of cold water.
He knocks on the door and it is opened by a beautiful young woman. He asks for a cup of cold water. She answers: “I will gladly get it for you, but it’s just time for the noon meal, why don’t you come in first and eat.” He does.
Thirty years later, they’ve had five children, he’s a respected merchant, she’s a respected member of the community, they’re in their house one evening when a hurricane comes and uproots their house. The man cries out: “Help me, God!” And a voice comes from the center of the hurricane says: “Where’s my cup of cold water?”
This story is not so much a spiritual criticism as it is a fundamental lesson in anthropology and spirituality. To be a human being is to be perpetually distracted. We aren’t persons who live in habitual spiritual awareness who occasionally get distracted. We’re persons who live in habitual distraction who occasionally become spiritually aware. We tend to be so preoccupied with the ordinary business of living that it takes a hurricane of some sort for God to break through.
C.S. Lewis, commenting on why we tend to turn to God only during a hurricane once put it this way: God is always speaking to us, but normally we aren’t aware, aren’t listening. Accordingly pain is God’s microphone to a deaf world.
However none of us want that kind of pain; none of us want some disaster, some health breakdown, or some hurricane to shake us up. We prefer a powerful positive event, a miracle or mini-miracle, to happen to us to awaken God’s presence in us because we nurse the false daydream that, if God broke into our lives in some miraculous way, we would then move beyond our distracted spiritual state and get more serious about our spiritual lives.
But that’s the exact delusion inside the biblical character in the parable of Lazarus and Dives, where the rich man asks Abraham to send him back from the dead to warn his brothers that they must change their way of living or risk the fiery flames. His plea expresses exactly that false assumption: “If someone comes back from the dead, they will listen to him!” Abraham doesn’t buy the logic. He answers, “They have Moses and the Prophets.
“If they don’t listen to them, they won’t be convinced either, even if someone came back from the dead.” What lies unspoken but critically important in that reply, something easily missed by us, the reader, is that Jesus has already come back from the dead and we aren’t listening to him. Why should we suppose that we would listen to anyone else who comes back from the dead? Our preoccupation with the ordinary business of our lives is so strong that we are not attentive to the one who has already come back from the dead.
Given this truth, the Hindu tale just recounted is, in a way, more consoling than chiding. To be human is to be habitually distracted from spiritual things. Such is human nature. Such is our nature. But knowing that our endless proclivity for distraction is normal doesn’t give us permission to be comfortable with that fact. Great spiritual mentors, not least Jesus, strongly urge us to wake up, to move beyond our over-preoccupation with the affairs of everyday life.
Jesus challenges us to not be anxious about how we are to provide for ourselves. He also challenges us to read the signs of the times, namely, to see the finger of God, the spiritual dimension of things, in the everyday events of our lives. All great spiritual literature does the same. Today there is a rich literature in most spiritual traditions challenging us to mindfulness, to not be mindlessly absorbed in the everyday affairs of our lives.
But great spiritual literature also assures us that God understands us, that grace respects nature, that God didn’t make a mistake in designing human nature and that God didn’t make us in such a way that we find ourselves congenitally distracted and then facing God’s anger because we are following our nature.
Human nature naturally finds itself absorbed in the affairs of everyday life, and God designed human nature in just this way.
And so, I think, God must be akin to a loving parent or grandparent, looking at his or her children at the family gathering, happy that they have interesting lives that so absorb them, content not to be always the center of their conscious attention.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)