RonRolheiser,OMI

Divine Understanding

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A number of years ago at a symposium on faith and evangelization, one of the speakers made a rather startling statement. She, a Christian activist, ended her presentation with words to this effect: I work for the poor and I do it out of my Christian faith. I’m committed to this because of Jesus, but I can go for three years on the streets without ever mentioning his name because I believe that God is mature enough that he doesn’t demand to be the center of our conscious attention all the time.

Like many others in the audience, I’d never heard a spiritual writer or preacher ever say this so bluntly. I’d heard biblical scholars speak of God’s self-emptying in the incarnation, of Christ’s burying himself into anonymity, and of God’s patience in being ignored, but I’d never heard anyone say so plainly that God doesn’t mind that we don’t give him explicit attention for long periods of time.

But is this true? Is God okay with this kind of neglect?

There’s an important truth here, though only if it’s sufficiently qualified. Taken as it stands this can be used to justify too many things (spiritual laziness, selfishness, excessive self-preoccupation, culpable resistance to deeper thought, excessive procrastination with what’s important, and countless other things) that are not good. But here’s its truth: God understands! God is a loving parent who understands the inattentiveness and self-preoccupation of his children.

God has not put us into this life primarily to see if we can keep our attention focused on him all the time. God intended for us to immerse ourselves in the things of this world without, of course, forgetting that these things are, at the end of the day, passing and that we’re destined for a life beyond this world. We’re not on this earth to be always thinking of the eternal, though we’re not on earth either to forget about the eternal.

However, because the unexamined life is less than human, we also need to have moments where we try to make God the center of our conscious awareness. We need regular moments of explicit prayer, of meditation, of contemplation, of worship, of Sabbath, of explicit acknowledgement of God and of explicit gratitude to God. We do need moments when we make ourselves consciously aware that there is a next life, an eternal one, beyond this present one. 

But, in the end, that’s not in competition with or in contradiction to our natural focus on the things of this life, namely, our day-to-day relationships, our families, our work, our concerns for health, and our natural focus on news, sports, entertainment, and enjoyment. These are what naturally draw our attention and, done in good will and honesty, will in the end help push our attention towards the deeper things and eventually towards God. The great mystic, John of the Cross, tells us that if we’re sincere and honest as we focus on the mundane things in our lives, deeper things will happen, unconsciously, under the surface and we will grow closer to God.

For example, the famed monk, Carlo Carretto, shares this story: After living many years alone as a hermit in the Sahara desert and spending countless hours in prayer and meditation, he went back to Italy to visit his mother. She was a woman who had raised a large family and who had gone through years of her life when she was too burdened with responsibility and duty to spend much time in explicit prayer. What Carretto discovered to his surprise was that she was more contemplative than he was, not because all those hours of explicit prayer as a monk weren’t good, but because all those selfless tasks his mother did in raising her family  and caring for others were very good.

 And God understands this. God understands that we’re human, spiritually frail, busy, and instinctually geared towards the things of this world so that we don’t naturally move towards prayer and church, and that even when we are at prayer or in church, we’re generally still distracted, tired, bored, impatient, thinking of other things, and longing for prayer and church to be over with.

It’s not easy to keep God as the center of our conscious attention; but God both knows this and is not unsympathetic.

Kate Bowler, coming at this from the Mennonite tradition, comments on what the Church calls “Ordinary time”, that is, those times during the year when, unlike the Advent, Lenten, Christmas, or Easter seasons, there is nothing special to celebrate. What happens then? Well, what happens then is that things get “ordinary”: “There is no birth at the manger or death on the cross, just the ponderous pace of people singing, praying, and keeping their kids quiet during the sermon. The magic fades and reveals the church for what it is: a plain people in a boring building who meet until kickoff.” 

Yes, most of the time that’s us, plain people in boring buildings waiting for the kickoff. And God understands perfectly.

Our Grandiosity and Our Wounds

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We wake up into life with the incurable sense that we’re special, that we’re the center of the universe. And, subjectively, we are! In our awareness we’re the center of the universe and life does revolve around us. Our own being is what’s most massively real to us. As Descartes famously said, the only thing that we know for sure is real is our own selves; I think, therefore, I am. We may be dreaming everything else.

Spirituality has perennially judged this negatively. Egocentricity, feelings of grandiosity, self-centeredness, and pride were seen as the result of the corruption of human nature through original sin. We called it, The Fall. Our first parents attempted to overreach, to be more than God intended them to be, and this irrevocably corrupted their nature and we, their children, inherit this.  So we, adult children of Adam and Eve, too instinctually tend to overreach, to puff up in self-importance, to fill with pride, and think first about ourselves.

That doctrine of original sin has something important to say, but it isn’t first of all to shame us in our natural pride and sense of specialness. The real reason why pride and grandiosity are incurably ingrained inside us is because God built us that way, and that, of itself, is not a fault or a corruption but instead constitutes what’s highest and most precious inside us. Both Christianity and Judaism take as dogma that we’re born, every one of us, in the image and likeness of God. That’s not to be imagined piously as some beautiful icon stamped inside our souls but rather as fire, divine fire, which because it is godly brings with it a sense of the preciousness, dignity, and uniqueness, of our lives.  But with that too comes (as part of the same package) pride and grandiosity.  Simply put, we can’t have Godliness inside us and not feel ourselves as special.

And that makes for a less-than-serene situation for the planet. We’re now seven and half billion people on this earth, each one with the same innate sense that he or she is the center of the universe and that his or her own reality is what’s most real. That’s the real cause behind what you see happening on the world news each night, for worse and for better. Grandiosity is the source of human strife, but equally the source of human greatness.

Important in our understanding of this is that our innate sense of godliness is also the place where we suffer our deepest wounds. What most wounds the image and likeness of God inside us? These things: humiliation, lack of adequate self-expression, the perennial frustration of bumping up against the limits of life, and the martyrdom of obscurity.

Each of us, by our nature, possesses a divinely-given uniqueness and dignity and thus nothing wounds us more than being humiliated and shamed in our struggle to live this out. A shameful humiliation, even as a very young child, can scar us for the rest of our lives. It’s one of the reasons why we have mass killings. Likewise, as Iris Murdoch once said, the greatest human pain is the pain of inadequate self-expression. There’s a great artist, composer, teacher, athlete, and performer inside each of us, but few people can ever give that satisfying expression. The rest of us have to live with perennial frustration because what’s deepest in us lies unexpressed. As well, we’re forever bumping up against the real limits of our own lives and limits of life itself. In Karl Rahner words: In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we ultimately learn that here in this life there is no finished symphony.  In the end, all of us die with a life that was never fully consummated. And that isn’t easily accepted! Everything inside us militates against this. Finally, almost all of us live a certain martyrdom of obscurity, recognized and famous only inside our own daydreams, our greatness hidden from the world. That too isn’t easily accepted.

What’s to be taken away from this? Since we secretly nurse thoughts of specialness should we also nurse a secret shame? Is our innate pride something that sets us against holiness? Is our grandiosity a bad thing? Is our frustration with the limits and inadequacy of our lives something that displeases God? Are our daydreams of uniqueness and greatness something which taints our contemplation and prayer? Is our nature, of itself, somehow corrupt? Must we somehow step outside of our own skin to be saints?

Each of these questions can be answered in two ways. Grandiosity, pride, shame, frustration, and daydreams of greatness, can indeed be our downfall and turn us into awful persons, selfish, jealous, spiteful, and murderous. But they can also be the source of greatness, of nobility of soul, of generosity, of selflessness, of generativity, of true prayer, and can turn us into selfless martyrs of faith, hope, and charity. Our godliness is very mixed blessing; but it is, no doubt, our greatest blessing.

What Does it Mean “To Be Born Again”?

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What does it mean to “be born again, to “be born from above”? If you’re an Evangelical or Baptist, you’ve probably already answered that for yourself. However, if you’re a Roman Catholic or a mainline Protestant then the phrase probably isn’t a normal part of your spiritual vocabulary and, indeed, might connote for you a biblical fundamentalism which confuses you.

What does it mean to “be born again”?  The expression appears in John’s Gospel in a conversation Jesus has with a man named, Nicodemus. Jesus tells him that he “must be born again from above”.  Nicodemus takes this literally and protests that it’s impossible for a grown man to re-enter his mother’s womb so as to be born a second time. So Jesus recasts the phrase metaphorically, telling Nicodemus that one’s second birth, unlike the first, is not from the flesh, but “from water and the Spirit”.  Well … that doesn’t clarify things much for Nicodemus, or for us. What does it mean to be born again from above?

Perhaps there are as many answers to that as there are people in the world. Spiritual birth, unlike physical birth, doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. I have Evangelical friends who share that for them this refers to a particularly powerful affective moment within their lives when, like Mary Magdala in the Garden with Jesus on Easter Sunday, they had a deep personal encounter with Jesus that indelibly affirmed his intimate love for them. In that moment, in their words, “they met Jesus Christ” and “were born again”, even though from their very childhood they had always known about Jesus Christ and been Christians.

Most Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants do not identify “knowing Jesus Christ” with one such personal affective experience. But then they’re left wondering what Jesus meant exactly when he challenges us “to be born again, from above”.

A priest that I know shares this story regarding his understanding of this. His mother, widowed sometime before his ordination, lived in the same parish where he had been assigned to minister. It was a mixed blessing, nice to see her every day in church but she, widowed and alone, began to lean pretty heavily upon him in terms of wanting his time and he, the dutiful son, now had to spend all his free time with his mother, taking her for meals, taking her for drives, and being her one vital contact with the world outside the narrow confines of the seniors’ home within which she lived. During their time together she reminisced a lot and not infrequently complained about being alone and lonely. But one day, on a drive with her, after a period of silence, she said something that surprised him and caught his deeper attention: “I’ve given up on fear!” she said, “I’m no longer afraid of anything. I’ve spent my whole life living in fear. But now, I’ve given up on it because I’ve nothing to lose! I’ve already lost everything, my husband, my youthful body, my health, my place in the world, and much of my pride and dignity. Now I’m free! I’m no longer afraid!”

Her son, who had only been half-listening to her for a long time, now began to listen. He began to spend longer hours with her, recognizing that she had something important to teach him.  After a couple of more years, she died. But, by then, she had been able to impart to her son some things that helped him understand his life more deeply. “My mother gave me birth twice; once from below, and once from above,” he says. He now understands something that Nicodemus couldn’t quite grasp.

We all, no doubt, have our own stories.

And what do the biblical scholars teach about this?  The Synoptic Gospels, scholars say, tell us that we can only enter the kingdom of God if we become like little children, meaning that we must, in our very way of living, acknowledge our dependence upon God and others. We are not self-sufficient and that means truly recognizing and living out our human dependence upon the gratuitous providence of God. To do that, is to be born from above.

John’s Gospel adds something to this. Raymond E Brown, commenting on John’s Gospel, puts it this way: To be born again from above means we must, at some point in our lives, come to understand that our life comes from beyond this world, from a place and source beyond out mother’s womb, and that deeper life and deeper meaning lie there. And so we must have two births, one that gives us biological life (births us into this world) and another that gives us eschatological life (births us into the world of faith, soul, love, and spirit). And sometimes, as was the case with my friend, it can be your own birthmother who does the major midwifing in that second birth. Nicodemus couldn’t quite get past his instinctual empiricism. In the end, he didn’t get it. Do we?