RonRolheiser,OMI

Searching for the Right Fuel

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Sometimes everything can seem right on the surface while, deep down, nothing is right at all. We see this, for example, in the famous parable in the gospels about the Prodigal Son and his Older Brother. By every outward appearance the Older Brother is doing everything right: He’s perfectly obedient to his father, is at home, and is doing everything his father asks of him. And, unlike his younger brother, he’s not wasting his father’s property on prostitutes and partying. He seems a model of generosity and morality.

However, as soon becomes obvious in the story, things are far from right. While his life looks so good on the outside, he is full of resentment and bitter moralizing inside and is, in fact, envious of his brother’s amorality. What’s happening? In essence, his actions are right, but his energy is wrong.

But, lest we judge him too harshly, we need to have the honesty to acknowledge that we all struggle in this way, at least if we are moral and generous. What is played out in the bitterness of the Older Brother is, in the astute words of Alice Miller, “the drama of the gifted child”, namely, the resentment, self-pity, and propensity for bitter moralizing that inevitably besets those of us who don’t stray from our duties, who do stay home, and who carry the brunt of the load for our families, churches, and communities. Sadly, often, the feeling we are left with when we give our lives over in sacrifice is not joy and gratitude for having been given the grace, opportunity, and good sense to stay home and serve but rather resentment that the load fell on our shoulders, that so many others dodged it, and that so many in the world are having a fling while we are on the straight and narrow. Too often, among us, good and honest people who are fighting for truth and God’s cause, we find a spirit of bitter moralizing that colors and compromises both our generosity and our sacrifice. But I say this with sympathy: It’s not easy to give oneself over, to forego one’s dreams, ambitions, comfort, and pleasure for the sake of God, truth, duty, family, and community.

How might we do it? How might we imitate the fidelity of the Older Brother without falling into his envy, self-pity, and bitterness? Where can we access the right fuel to live out the Gospel?

As Christians, of course, we need to look at Jesus. He lived a life of radical generosity and self-surrender and yet never fell into the kind of self-pity that emanates from the sense of having missed out on something. He was never disappointed or bitter that he had given his life over. Nor indeed did he, like Hamlet, turn his renunciation into an existential tragedy, that of the lonely, alienated hero who is outwardly intriguing but not generative. Jesus remained always free, warm, forgiving, non-judgmental, and generative. Moreover, throughout this entire life of self-sacrifice, he always radiated a joy that shocked his contemporaries. What was his secret?

The answer, the gospels tell us, lies in the parable of the man who is ploughing a field and finds a buried treasure and in the parable of the merchant who after years of searching finds the pearl of great price. In each case, the man gives away everything he owns so that he can buy the treasure or the pearl. And what must be highlighted in each of these parables is that neither man regrets for a second what he had to give up but instead each acts out of the unspeakable joy of what he has discovered and what riches this is now going to bring into his life. Each man is so fuelled by the joy of what he has discovered that he is not focused on what he has given up.

Only in this kind of context can self-sacrifice make sense and be truly generative. If the pain of what is sacrificed overshadows the joy of what is discovered, that is, if the focus is more on what we have lost and given up rather than on what we have found, we will end up doing the right actions but with the wrong energy, carrying other people’s crosses and sending them the bill. And we will be unable to stop ourselves from being judgmental, bitter, and secretly envious of the amoral.

To the very extent that we die to ourselves in order to live for others, we run the perennial risk of falling into the kind of bitterness that besets us whenever we feel we have missed out on something. That’s an occupational hazard, a very serious one, inside Christian discipleship and the spiritual life in general. And so, our focus must always be on the treasure, the pearl of great price, the rich meaning, the self-authenticating joy that is the natural fruit of any real self-sacrifice. And that joyful energy will take us beyond self-pity and envy of the amoral.

Suicide – Reclaiming the Memory of our Loved One

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Each year I write a column on suicide. Mostly I say the same thing over and over again, simply because it needs to be said. I don’t claim any originality or special insight, I only write about suicide because there is such a desperate need for anyone to address the question. Moreover, in my case, as a Catholic priest and spiritual writer, I feel it important to offer something to try to help dispel the false perception which so many people, not least many inside the church itself, have of the church’s understanding of suicide. Simply put, I’m no expert, not anyone’s savior, there’s just so little out there.

And, each year, that column finds its audience. I am constantly surprised and occasionally overwhelmed by the feedback. For the last ten years, I don’t think a single week has gone by when I did not receive an email, a letter, or phone call from someone who has lost a loved one to suicide.

When talking about suicide, at least to those who are left behind when a loved one succumbs to this, the same themes must be emphasized over and over again. As Margaret Atwood puts it, sometimes something needs to be said and said until it doesn’t need to be said anymore. What needs to be said over and over again about suicide? That, in most cases, suicide is a disease; that it takes people out of life against their will; that it is the emotional equivalent of a stroke, heart attack, or cancer; that people who fall victim to this disease, almost invariably, are very sensitive persons who end up for a myriad of reasons being too bruised to be touched; that those of us left behind should not spend a lot of time second-guessing, wondering whether we failed in some way; and, finally, that given God’s mercy, the particular anatomy of suicide, and the sensitive souls of those who fall prey to it, we should not be unduly anxious about the eternal salvation of those who fall prey to it.

This year, prompted by particularly moving book by Harvard psychiatrist, Nancy Rappaport, I would like to add another thing that needs to be said about suicide, namely, that it is incumbent on those of us who are left behind to work at redeeming the life and memory of a loved one who died by suicide. What’s implied in this?

There is still a huge stigma surrounding suicide. For many reasons, we find it hard both to understand suicide and to come to peace with it. Obituaries rarely name it, opting instead for a euphemism of some kind to name the cause of death. Moreover and more troubling, we, the ones left behind, tend to bury not only the one who dies by suicide but his or her memory as well. Pictures come off the walls, scrapbooks and photos are excised, and there is forever a discreet hush around the cause of their deaths. Ultimately neither their deaths nor their persons are genuinely dealt with. There is no healthy closure, only a certain closing of the book, a cold closing, one that leaves a lot of business unfinished. This is unfortunate, a form of denial. We must work at redeeming the life and memory of our loved ones who have died by suicide.

This is what Nancy Rappaport does with the life and memory of her own mother, who died by suicide when Nancy was still a child. ((In Her Wake, A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother’s Suicide (Basic Book, N.Y., c2009) After her mother’s suicide, Nancy lived, as do so many of us who have lost a loved one to suicide, with a haunting shadow surrounding her mother’s death.  And that shadow then colored everything else about her mother. It ricocheted backwards so as to have the suicide too much define her mother’s character, her integrity, and her love for those around her.  A suicide, that’s botched in our understanding, in effect, does that, it functions like the antithesis of a canonization.

With this as a background, Nancy Rappaport sets off to make sense of her mother’s suicide, to redeem her bond to her mother, and, in essence, to redeem her mother’s memory in the wake of her suicide.  Her effort mirrors that of novelist, Mary Gordon, whose book, Circling my Mother, attempts to come to grips with her mother’s Alzheimer’s and her death. Gordon, like Rappaport, is too trying to put a proper face on the diminishment and death of a loved one, redeeming the memory both for herself and for others. The difference is that, for most people, suicide trumps Alzheimer’s in terms of stigma and loss.

Few things stigmatize someone’s life and meaning as does a death by suicide, and so there is something truly redemptive in properly coming to grips with this kind of stigma. We must do for our loved ones what Nancy Rappaport did for her mother, namely, redeem their lives and their memory.

A Visit from the Goddess of Night

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There are few more insightful studies into the spirituality of aging than the late James Hillman’s book, The Force of Character.  Ironically Hillman was more critical of Christian spirituality than sympathetic to it; yet his brilliant insights into nature’s design and intent offer perspectives on the spirituality of aging that often eclipse what is found in explicitly Christian writings.

Hillman begins this book, a discourse on the nature of aging, with a question: Why would nature design things so that, as humans, just as we reach the pinnacle of our maturity and finally get more of a genuine grip on our lives, our bodies begin to fall apart?  Why do we suffer such a bevy of physical ailments as we age? Is this a cruel trick or does nature have a specific intent in mind when it does this? What might nature have in mind when the ailments and physical foibles of age begin to play some havoc with our days and nights?

He answers these questions with a metaphor: The best wines have to be aged and mellowed in cracked old barrels. This image of course needs little explication. We all know the difference between a mellow old wine and a tart young one that could still use some maturation. What we don’t grasp as immediately is how that old wine became so mellow, what processes it had to endure to give up the sharp tang of its youth.

Thus, Hillman’s metaphor speaks brilliantly: Our physical bodies are the containers within which our souls mellow and mature; and our souls mellow and mature more deeply when our bodies begin to show cracks than they do when we are physically strong and whole, akin to what John Updike wrote after undergoing a death-threatening illness. For Updike, there are some secrets that are hidden from health. For Hillman there is a depth of maturity that is also hidden from health.

With that fundamental insight as his ground, Hillman then goes on in each chapter of the book to take up one aspect of aging, one aspect of the loss of the wholeness of our youth, and show how it is designed to help mellow and mature the soul. And since he is dealing with various lapses in our bodies and our health, we can expect that what follows will be pretty earthy and far from glamorous.

Thus, for instance, he begins one chapter with the question: Why does it happen that, as we age, we find it more difficult to sleep uninterrupted through the night but instead are awakened with the need to go to the bathroom and heed a call of nature? What is nature’s wisdom and intent in that?

Hillman answers with another insightful analogy: In monasteries, monks get up each night while it is still dark and do an exercise they call “Vigils”. If you asked them why they don’t do this prayer during the day so as to save themselves getting up in the middle of the night, they would tell you that this particular exercise can only be done at night, in the dark, in the particular mood that the night brings. The night, the dark, and the more somber angels this brings cannot be artificially replicated during the day, in the light. Light brings a sunnier mood and there are certain things we will not face in the light of day, but only when the dark besets us.

So what happens when our aging bodies make us get up at night to heed nature’s call? We heed nature’s call but then often are unable to fall back into sleep immediately. Instead we lie in our beds trying to will ourselves back to sleep when something unwanted and unintended happens. We receive a visit from the mythical goddess of night, Nyx. And she doesn’t come alone; she brings along her children: unresolved bitterness, lingering grudges, unwanted paranoia, frightening shadows, and a bevy of other dark spirits whom we can normally avoid and whom we refuse to face when the lights are on. But now, in the dark, unable to sleep, we must deal with them, and dealing with them, making our peace with Nyx and her children, helps mellow our souls and helps us grow to a deeper maturity.

Monks already know this and so, each night, they schedule a session with the goddess of night. They don’t call it that of course and might even be offended by the reference to their Vigil prayer as a visit with this mythical goddess, but their spiritual wisdom mirrors that of nature. Both nature and monks know that a certain work inside the soul can only be done in the darkness of night.

Monks have secrets worth knowing and nature eventually teaches them to us, whether we want the lesson or not. Nature eventually turns us all into monks: Our aging bodies eventually become a monastic cell within which our souls deepen, mellow, and mature, like wines being seasoned in cracked old barrels.