Becoming a holy beggar

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

With the exception of scripture and a few Christian mystics, Christian spirituality, up to now, has been weak in presenting us with a vision for our retirement years. It’s not a mystery as to why. Until recently, the majority of people died shortly after retirement and so there was no need for a highly developed spirituality of generativity after our active years.

What are our retirement years meant for, spiritually? What’s our vocation then? What might generativity mean for us, after our work’s been done?

Henri Nouwen, one of the first contemporary writers to take up this question, makes this suggestion: There comes a time in our lives when the question is no longer: What can I still do to make a contribution? Rather the question becomes: How can I live now so that my aging and dying will be my final great gift to my family, my community, my church and my country?

How do I stop writing my resume in order to begin writing my eulogy? Happily, spiritual writers today are beginning to develop a spirituality around these questions and, in doing that, I believe, we can be helped by some rich insights within Hindu spirituality.

In Hinduism, life is understood to have five natural stages: First, you are a Child. As a Child, you are initiated into life, you learn to speak, you learn how to interact with others, and are given time for play.
The second stage is that of being a Student. In Hinduism, you’re a Student until you get married, begin a family, and establish a career. As a Student, your primary focus is to enjoy your youth and to prepare for life.

Then you become a Householder. This, the third stage of life, begins with marriage and ends when your last child is grown-up, your mortgage is paid and you retire from your job. As a Householder, your task is family, business, and involvement with civic and religious affairs. These are your duty years.

The fourth stage is that of being a Forest-Dweller. This period should begin when you are free enough from family and business duties to do some deeper reflection. Forest-Dwelling is meant to be an extended period wherein you withdraw, partially or fully, from active life to study and meditate your religion and your future. Very practically, this might mean that you go back to school, perhaps study theology and spirituality, do some extensive retreats, engage in a meditative practice and take some spiritual direction from a guide.

Finally, once Forest-Dwelling has given you a vision, you return to the world as a Sannyasin, as a holy beggar, as someone who owns nothing except faith and wisdom. As a Sannyasin, you sit somewhere in public as a beggar, as someone with no significance, property, attachments or importance. You’re available to others for a smile, a chat, an exchange of faith or some act of charity. In effect, you’re a street-person, but with a difference. You’re not a street-person because you do not have other options (a comfortable retirement, a golf course, a cottage in the country), but rather because you have already made a success of your life. You’ve already been generative. You’ve already given what you have to give and you’re now looking to be generative in a new way, namely, to live in such a way that these last years of your life will give a different kind of gift to your loved ones, namely, a gift that will touch their lives in a way that in effect forces them to think about God and life more deeply.

A Sannyasin gives incarnational flesh to the words of Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I return.” We come into this world possessionless and possessionless we leave it. A holy beggar incarnates that truth.

Imagine what a witness it could be if very successful people, doctors, bank presidents, athletes, journalists, teachers, business people, tradespeople, farmers and happily married persons who had raised children successfully, people who have all kinds of comfortable options in life, would be sitting, as holy beggars, in coffee shops, in fast-food outlets, in malls, on street corners and in sporting arenas. Nobody could feel superior to them or treat them with pity, as we do with the street people who sit there now. Imagine the witness of someone becoming a voluntary beggar because he or she has been a success in life. What a witness and vocation that would be!

But this concept, being a holy beggar, is obviously an idealized image that each of us needs to think through in terms of what that might mean for us concretely.

In the early centuries of Christianity, spirituality saw martyrdom as the final expression of Christian life, the ideal way to cap off a faith-filled life. Justin, Polycarp, Cyprian, and countless others “retired” into martyrdom. Later, Christians used to retire into monasteries and convents.

But martyrdom and monasteries are also, at a certain place, idealized images. What, concretely, might we retire into?

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

Taking our wounds to the Eucharist

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Recently a man came to me, asking for help. He carried some deep wounds, not physical wounds, but emotional wounds to his soul. What surprised me initially was that, while he was deeply wounded, he had not been severely traumatized either in childhood or adulthood. He seemed to have just had to absorb the normal bumps and bruises that everyone has to absorb: some belittling, some bullying, never being the favorite, dissatisfaction with his own body, unfairness within his family and siblings, career frustration, unfairness in his workplace, the sense of being chronically ignored, the sense of never being understood and appreciated and the self-pity and lack of self-confidence that results from this.
But he was a sensitive man and the combination of all these seemingly little things left him, now in late mid-life, unable to be the gracious, happy Elder he wanted to be. Instead, by his own admission, he was chronically caught-up in a certain wounded self-absorption, namely, in a self-centered anxiety that brought with it the sense that life had not been fair to him.
Consequently he was forever somewhat focused on self-protection and was resentful of those who could step forward openly in self-confidence and love. “I hate it,” he shared, “when I see persons like Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul speak so with such easy self-confidence about how big their hearts are. I always fill with resentment and think: ‘Lucky you!’ You haven’t had to put up with what I’ve had to put up with in life!”
This man had been through some professional therapy that had helped bring him to a deeper self-understanding, but still left him paralyzed in terms of moving beyond his wounds. “What can I do with these wounds?” he asked.
My answer to him, as for all of us who are wounded, is: Take those wounds to the Eucharist. Every time you go to a Eucharist, stand by an altar, and receive communion, bring your helplessness and paralysis to God, ask him to touch your body, your heart, your memory, your bitterness, your lack of self-confidence, your self-absorption, your weaknesses, your impotence. Bring your aching body and heart to God. Express your helplessness in simple, humble words: Touch me. Take my wounds. Take my paranoia. Make me whole. Give me forgiveness. Warm my heart. Give me the strength that I cannot give myself.
Pray this prayer, not just when you are receiving communion and being physically touched by the body of Christ, but especially during the Eucharistic prayer because it is there that we are not just being touched and healed by a person, Jesus, but we are also being touched and healed by a sacred event. This is the part of the Eucharist we generally do not understand but it is the part of the Eucharist that celebrates transformation and healing from wound and sin. In the Eucharist prayer we commemorate the “sacrifice” of Jesus, that is, that event where, as Christian tradition so enigmatically puts it, Jesus was made sin for us. There is a lot in that cryptic phrase. In essence, in his suffering and death, Jesus took on our wounds, our weaknesses, our infidelities and our sins, died in them, and then through love and trust brought them to wholeness.
Every time we go to Eucharist we are meant to let that transforming event touch us, touch our wounds, our weaknesses, our infidelities, our sin and our emotional paralysis and bring us to a transformation in wholeness, energy, joy, and love.
The Eucharist is the ultimate healer. There is, I believe, a lot of value in various kinds of physical and emotional therapies, just there is immeasurable value in 12-Step programs and in simply honestly sharing our wounded selves with people we trust. There is too, I believe, value in a certain willful self-effort, in the challenge contained in Jesus’ admonition to a paralyzed man: Take up your couch and walk! We should not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by hyper-sensitivity and self-pity. God has given us skin to cover our rawest nerves.
But, with that being admitted, we still cannot heal ourselves. Therapy, self-understanding, loving friendsand disciplined self-effort can take us only so far, and it is not into full healing.
Full healing comes from touching and being touched by the sacred. More particularly, as Christians, we believe that this touching involves a touching of the sacred at that place where it has most particularly touched our own wounds, helplessness, weaknesses, and sin, that place, where God “was made sin for us”. That place is the event of the death and rising of Jesus and that event is made available to us, to touch and enter into, in the Eucharistic prayer and in receiving the body of Christ in communion.
We need to bring our wounds to the Eucharist because it is there that the sacred love and energy that lie at the ground of all that breathes can cauterize and heal all that is not whole within us.
(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