RonRolheiser,OMI

Fatherless at the Depth of our Being

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Anthropologists tell us that father-hunger, a frustrated desire to be blessed by our own fathers, is one of the deepest hungers in the world today, especially among men. Millions of people sense that they have not received their father’s blessing. Robert Bly, Robert Moore, Richard Rohr, and James Hillman, among others, offer some rich insights into this.

We suffer from being fatherless. However, in its deepest root, this suffering is something far beyond the mere absence of a blessing from our biological fathers. We tend to be fatherless in a much deeper way. How so?

Some 25 years ago, a French philosopher, Jean-Luc Marion wrote a book entitled, God Without Being, within which he offers a very challenging interpretation of the famous parable of the Prodigal Son.

We’re all familiar with the parable: A father had two sons. The younger comes to him and says: ‘Father give me the share of the property that’s coming to me.’ His father shares out his goods. The younger son takes his share, leaves for a distant country, and squanders his property on a life of debauchery. When he has spent everything, he finds himself hungry and humiliated and sets off to return to his father’s house, where he is undeservedly greeted, embraced, and taken back by his father.

At one level, the lesson is clear: God’s mercy is so wide and compassionate that nothing we can do will ever stop God from loving us. Many wonderful books have been written to highlight this, not least Henri Nouwen’s classic, The Return of the Prodigal Son.

But Jean-Luc Marion, drawing upon the specific wording of the Greek text, emphasizes another element in this story.  The Greek text implies that the son went to his father and asked for something more than property and money. It says that he asked his father for his share of the property (ousia).  Ousia, in Greek, means “substance”. He’s asking for his life, as independent of his father. Moreover, as a son and an heir, he already has use of his share of what is rightfully his; but he wants to own it and not owe it to anyone. He wants what is rightly his but he wants to have it as independent of his father, as cut off from his father, and as his own in a way that he no longer has to acknowledge his father in the way he receives his life and freedom and uses them. And the consequence of that, as this parable makes clear, is that a gift no longer sensed or acknowledged as gift always leads to the misuse of that gift, to the loss of integrity, and to personal humiliation.

With an apology for the abstractness of Marion’s language, here’s what he sees as the deepest issue inside this story: “The son requests that he no longer have to request, or rather, that he no longer have to receive the ousia.  … He asks to possess it, dispose of it, enjoy it without passing through the gift and the reception of the gift. The son wants to owe nothing to his father, and above all not owe him a gift; he asks to have a father no longer- the ousia without the father or the gift. … [And] the ousia becomes the full possession of the son only to the extent that it is fully dispossessed of the father: dispossession of the father, annulment of the gift, this is what the possession of the ousia implies. Hence an immediate consequence: in being dispossessed of the father, the possession that censures the gift integrates within itself, indissolubly, the waste of the gift: possessed without gift, possession cannot but continue to dispossess itself. Henceforth orphan of the paternal gift, ousia finds itself possessed in the mode of dissipation.”

The prodigal son’s real issue was not so much his hunger for pleasure as his hunger for the wrong kind of independence. He wanted his life and the freedom to enjoy life completely on his own terms and, for him, that meant he had to take them outside his father’s house. In doing that, he lost his father and he also lost genuine life and freedom because these can only be had inside the acceptance a certain dependence. That’s why Jesus repeated again and again, that he could do nothing on his own. Everything he was and everything he did came from his Father.

Our lives are not our own. Our lives are a gift and always need to be received as gift. Our substance is not our own and so it may never be severed from its source, God, our Father. We can enter our lives and freedom and enjoy them and their pleasures, but as soon as we cut them off from their source, take them as our own and head off on our own, dissipation, hunger, and humiliation will follow.

There’s life only in the Father’s house and when we are outside that house we are fatherless and wasting our ousia.

On How We React to Criticism and Opposition

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Have you ever noted how we spontaneously react to a perceived threat? Faced with a threat, our primal instincts tend to take over and we instantly freeze over and begin to shut all the doors opening to warmth, gentleness, and empathy inside us.

That’s a natural reaction, deeply rooted inside our nature. Biologists tell us that, whenever we perceive something or someone as threatening us, paranoia instinctually arises inside us and has the effect of driving us back towards a more primitive place inside our bodies, namely, the reptile part our brain, that remnant still inside us from our evolutionary origins millions of years ago. And reptiles are cold-blooded. So too, it seems, are we when we’re threatened.

This, I believe, helps explain much of the paranoia and violence in our world today as well as the bitter rhetoric that, almost universally, is blocking any real possibility of meaningful discussion apposite our tensions today within politics, economics, and our churches.

We live in a bitterly polarized world.  All of us recognize this, and all of us see a lot of cold-bloodedness inside world politics, inside the politics within our own countries and communities, and, sadly, not least, inside our churches. What we see in nearly every discussion today where there is disagreement is a cold, hard rhetoric that is not really open to genuine dialogue and is, invariably, the antithesis of charity, graciousness, and respect. What we see instead is paranoia, demonization of those who disagree with us, ridicule of our opponents’ sincerity and values, and blind self-defensiveness.

Moreover this bitterness and disrespect, so contrary to all that’s in the Gospels and to all that’s noble inside us, is invariably “sacralized”, that is, it is rationalized as demanded by “God” because we believe that what we are doing is for God, or for truth, or for country, or for the poor, or for mother-nature, or for art, or for something whose transcendent value, we believe, justifies our bracketing both Jesus and common courtesy. If you doubt this, simply turn on any radio or television station that does commentary on politics or religion or listen to any political or religious debate today. We are, as John Shea puts it, more skilled in justification than in self-examination; but, then, we can sacralize our disrespect and lack of elemental charity.

But, in doing this we are far from the Gospel, far from Jesus, and far from what’s best inside us. We’re meant to be more than the reptile part of our brains and more than the instincts we inherited from our ancient ancestors, the beasts of prey. We’re called to something higher, called to respond to threat beyond the blind response of instinct.

St. Paul’s own reaction to threat can serve as a template for what our ideal response should be. He writes: When we are ridiculed, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we respond gently.  (1 Corinthians 4, 12-13) Earlier, in the same Letter, he had already given another counsel in regards to dealing with opposition. His counsel: Live with enough patience inside opposition so as not have to defend yourself, let God and history do that for you: “It does not concern me in the least that I be judged by you or any human tribunal; I do not even pass judgment on myself; I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not hereby stand acquitted; the one who judges me is the Lord. Therefore, do not make any judgment before the appointed time.”

Admittedly, this is difficult. Our instinctual self is not easily subdued. Like everyone else, I struggle a lot with this. Every time I hear or read someone who dismisses my preaching and writing as heretical, or dangerous, or (even more biting) as light-weight fluff, the reptile part of my brain stirs to do its ancient job and my natural instincts bitterly resist the high road that St. Paul so wisely counsels. Natural instinct does not want to try to understand the position of the one who has belittled us, nor does it does not want to bless and endure and respond gently. It wants blood. I suspect that everyone’s instincts work in the same way. Natural instinct doesn’t easily honor the Gospel.

But, that’s the test; indeed one of the litmus tests of Christian discipleship. When we look at the core of Jesus’ moral teachings and ask ourselves, what more than anything else sets Jesus apart from other moral teachers? What particular challenge of his might serve as a litmus test for genuine discipleship?

I submit that at the core of Jesus’ teaching lies this challenge: Can I love an enemy? Can I bless someone who curses me? Can I wish good to someone who wishes me evil? Can I genuinely forgive someone who’s been unfair to me?  And, perhaps even more importantly, can I live in patience when I’m in tension, not rushing to defend myself, but leaving that defense to history and to God?

Our Timidity in the Face of God’s Abundance

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My youth had both its strengths and its weaknesses. I grew up on a farm in heart of the Canadian prairies, a second-generation immigrant. Our family was a large one and the small farm we lived on gave us enough to live on, though just enough. There were never any extras. We were never hungry or genuinely poor, but we lived in a conscriptive frugality. You were given what you needed, but rarely anything extra. You got just one portion of the main course at a meal and one dessert because these had to be measured out in a way that left enough for everyone. And I lived happily inside that, taking for granted that this was the way life was meant to be, assuming that all resources are limited and you shouldn’t ever be asking for or taking more than what’s necessary.

And such a background has its strengths: You grow into adulthood with the sense that there’s no free lunch, you need to earn what you eat.  You know too that you shouldn’t be taking more than your share because the goods of this world are limited and meant to be shared with everyone. If you take more than your share, than there won’t be enough for everyone. Resources are limited, so if anyone gets too much, someone gets too little.

But such an upbringing also has its downside: When everything has to be measured-out to ensure that there’s enough for everyone and you live with the underlying fear that there might not be enough, you can easily end-up with a sense of scarcity rather than of abundance and an inclination towards stinginess rather than generosity.

A mindset of scarcity rather than of abundance debilitates us in several ways: First, it tends to leave us standing before life’s abundance too timid to celebrate life with any exuberance. Life is too equated with frugality and you are forever haunted by guilt in the face of life’s goodness and especially before any experience of luxury, not unlike the discomfort felt by Jesus’ disciples when they are face to face with a prodigal woman lavishly anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. Inside a mindset of scarcity there’s the perennial temptation to falsely idealize suffering and poverty and have them replace grace and abundance as God’s real gift to us. More crippling still is the fact that a sense of scarcity too often gives us a concept of a God who is limited and who is frugal rather than prodigal. But that isn’t the God of Jesus.

Allow me just one, rather pointed, illustration: A seminary professor whom I know shares this story. He’s been teaching seminarians for many years and in recent years, when teaching about the sacrament of penance, is frequently asked this question, often as the first question in the class: “When can I refuse absolution? When do I not grant forgiveness?” The anxiety expressed here is not, I believe, triggered by a need for power but by a very sincere fear that we have to be rather scrupulous in handing out God’s mercy, that we shouldn’t be handing out cheap grace. And, undergirding that fear, I believe, is the unconscious notion that God too works out of a sense of scarcity rather than of abundance, and that God’s mercies, like our own resources, are limited and need to be measured out very sparingly.

But that’s not the God whom Jesus incarnated and revealed. The Gospels rather reveal a God who is prodigal beyond all our standards and beyond our imagination. The God of the Gospels is the Sower who, because he has unlimited seeds, scatters those seeds everywhere without discrimination: on the road, in the ditches, in the thorn bushes, in bad soil, and in good soil. Moreover that prodigal Sower is also the God of creation, that is, the God who has created and continues to create hundreds of billions of galaxies and billions and billions of human beings. And this prodigal God gives us this perennial invitation: Come to the waters, come without money, come without merit because God’s gift is as plentiful, available, and as free as the air we breathe.

The Gospel of Luke recounts an incident where Peter, just after he had spent an entire night fishing and had caught nothing, is told to cast out his net one more time and, this time, Peter’s net catches so many fish that the weight of the catch threatens to sink two boats. Peter reacts by falling on his knees and confessing his sinfulness. But, as the text makes clear, that’s not the proper reaction in the face of over-abundance. Peter is wrongly fearful, in effect, wanting that over-abundance to go away; when what Jesus wants from him in the face of that over-abundance is to go out to the world and share with others that unimaginable grace.

What God’s over-abundance is meant to teach us is that, in the face of limitless grace, we may never refuse anyone absolution.