RonRolheiser,OMI

Angels and the City 

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Several years ago Hollywood made a movie, City of Angels, about an angel named Seth whose job it was to accompany the spirits of the recently deceased to the afterlife. On one such mission, waiting in a hospital, he fell in love with a brilliant young woman surgeon. As an angel, Seth has never experienced touch or taste and now, deeply in love, he longs to physically touch and make love to his beloved. But this is his dilemma: As an angel with free will he has the option to let go of his angelic status and become a human person, but only at the cost of renouncing his present immortality as an angel.

It’s a tough choice: Immortality, but no sensual experience, or, sensual experience, but with all the contingencies that earthily morality brings – diminishment, aging, sickness, eventual death? He chooses the latter, renouncing his status as an immortal angel for the pleasure that earthly senses can bring.

The vast majority of people watching this movie, I suspect, will laud his choice. Most everything in our hearts moves us to believe that it’s cold and inhuman not to make this choice. The overpowering reality of the senses, especially when in love, can make everything else seem unreal, ethereal, and second best. What we experience through our senses, what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell is what’s real for us. We have our own version of Descartes. For us, the indubitable is: I feel, therefore, I am! 

Spirituality, in virtually every major religious tradition, at least in its popular conception, has seemingly said the opposite. Spirit has classically (and sometimes almost dogmatically) been affirmed as above the senses, as higher, superior, a needed guard against the senses. Sensual pleasure, except for how it was occasionally honored in the realm of aesthetics, was perennially denigrated as furtive, superficial, and a hindrance to the spiritual life. We took St. Paul’s admonition that the “flesh lusts against the spirit” in the Greek, dualistic sense where body is bad and spirit is good.

Today, in the secularized world, the opposite seems true. The senses resoundingly trump the spirit. Secularized angels, unlike the religious angels of old, make the same option as Seth. The seeming vagueness of the spirit is no match for the reality of the senses.

So which is more real?

At the end of the day, it’s a false dichotomy.  Our senses and our spirit both offer life, both are very important, and neither operates without the other.

As Christians, we believe that we’re both body and soul, flesh and spirit, and that neither can be separated from the other. We’re both mammal and angel, and in our search for life, meaning, happiness, and God, we should not forget that we are both. Our spirit is open to life only through our senses, and our senses provide depth and meaning only because they are animated by spirit.

We all know the few things that man, as mammal, can do, William Auden once wrote. He’s right, but we’re not just mammal we’re equally part angel and once we add that to the equation then the very limited joys that mammals can enjoy (animal pleasure) can become unlimited joys for us as human in what we can experience in love, friendship, altruism, aesthetics, sexuality, mysticism, food, drink, humor. Our senses make these real, even as our spirit gives them meaning.

And so a healthy spirituality needs to honor both the senses and the spirit. The ordinary pleasures of life can be deep or shallow, more mystical or more mammal, depending upon how much we honor what’s spirit and what’s angel within us. Conversely, our spirituality and our prayer lives can be real or more of a fantasy, depending upon how much we incarnate them in what’s sensual and what’s mammal within us.

This holds true in every realm of our lives. For example, sexuality can be deep or shallow, more mystical or more mammal, contingent upon how much of it is soul and how much of it is merely sensual; just as it can be disembodied, sterile, and merely fantasy, contingent upon it also being body and not just soul. The same is true of our experience of beauty, be that in our seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or smelling. Any sensual experience can be deep or shallow; depending upon how much soul is in it, just as any experience of beauty can seem unreal and imaginary if it is too divorced from the senses.

Some years ago, I was attending a seminar in anthropology. At one point, the lecturer said this: “What psychology and spirituality keep forgetting is that we are mammals.” As a theologian and spiritual writer (and celibate) the truth of his words hit me hard. He’s right! How easily do we forget this in religious circles. But religious circles are right too in consistently reminding us that we are also an angel.

Poor Seth, the tormented angel of City of Angels, he shouldn’t have had to make that choice.

The Gospel Challenge to Enjoy our Lives

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Joy is an infallible indication of God’s presence, just as the cross is an infallible indication of Christian discipleship. What a paradox! And Jesus is to blame.

When we look at the Gospels we see that Jesus shocked his contemporaries in seemingly opposite ways. On the one hand, they saw in him a capacity to renounce the things of this world and give up his life in love and self-sacrifice in a way that seemed to them almost inhuman and not something that a normal, full-blooded person should be expected to do. Moreover he challenged them to do the same: Take up your cross daily! If you seek your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life, you will find it.

On the other hand, perhaps more surprisingly since we tend to identify serious religion with self-sacrifice, Jesus challenged his contemporaries to more fully enjoy their lives, their health, their youth, their relationships, their meals, their wine drinking, and all the ordinary and deep pleasures of life. In fact he scandalized them with his own capacity to enjoy pleasure.

We see, for example, a famous incident in the Gospels of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet at a banquet.  All four Gospel accounts of this emphasize a certain raw character to the event that disturbs any easy religious propriety. The woman breaks an expensive jar of very costly perfume on his feet, lets the aroma permeate the whole room, lets her tears fall on his feet, and then dries them with her hair. All that lavishness, extravagance, intimation of sexuality, and raw human affection is understandably unsettling for most everyone in the room, except for Jesus. He’s drinking it in, unapologetically, without dis-ease, without any guilt or neurosis: Leave her alone, he says, she has just anointed me for my impending death. In essence, Jesus is saying: When I come to die, I will be more ready because tonight, in receiving this lavish affection, I’m truly alive and hence more ready to die.

In essence, this is the lesson for us: Don’t feel guilty about enjoying life’s pleasures. The best way to thank a gift-giver is to thoroughly enjoy the gift. We are not put on this earth primarily as a test, to renounce the good things of creation so as to win joy in the life hereafter. Like any loving parent, God wants his children to flourish in their lives, to make the sacrifices necessary to be responsible and altruistic, but not to see those sacrifices themselves as the real reason for being given life.

Jesus highlights this further when he’s asked why his disciples don’t fast, whereas the disciples of John the Baptist do fast. His answer: Why should they fast? The bridegroom is still with them. Someday the bridegroom will be taken away and they will have lots of time to fast. His counsel here speaks in a double way: More obviously, the bridegroom refers to his own physical presence here on earth which, at a point, will end. But this also has a second meaning: The bridegroom refers to the season of health, youth, joy, friendship, and love in our lives. We need to enjoy those things because, all too soon, accidents, ill health, cold lonely seasons, and death will deprive us of them. We may not let the inevitable prospect of cold lonely seasons, diminishment, ill health, and death deprive us of fully enjoying the legitimate joys that life offers.

This challenge, I believe, has not been sufficiently preached from our pulpits, taught in our churches, or had a proper place in our spirituality. When have you last heard a homily or sermon challenging you, on the basis of the Gospels, to enjoy your life more? When have you last heard a preacher asking, in Jesus name: Are you enjoying your health, your youth, your life, your meals, your wine drinking, sufficiently?

Granted that this challenge, which seems to go against the conventional spiritual grain, can sound like an invitation to hedonism, mindless pleasure, excessive personal comfort, and a spiritual flabbiness that can be the antithesis of the Christian message at whose center lies the cross and self-renunciation.  Admittedly there’s that risk, but the opposite danger also looms, namely, a bitter, unhealthily stoic life. If the challenge to enjoy life is done wrongly, without the necessary accompanying asceticism and self-renunciation, it carries those dangers; but, as we see from the life of Jesus, self-renunciation and the capacity to thoroughly enjoy the gift of life, love, and creation are integrally connected. They depend on each other.

Excess and hedonism are, in the end, a bad functional substitute for genuine enjoyment. Genuine enjoyment, as Jesus taught and embodied, is integrally tied to renunciation and self-sacrifice.

And so, it’s only when we can give our lives away in self-renunciation that we can thoroughly enjoy the pleasures of this life, just as it is only when we can genuinely enjoy the legitimate pleasures of this life that we can give our lives away in self-sacrifice.

Understanding Grace more Deeply

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The mark of genuine contrition is not a sense of guilt, but a sense of sorrow, of regret for having taken a wrong turn; just as the mark of living in grace is not a sense of our own worth but a sense of being accepted and loved despite our unworthiness. We are spiritually healthy when our lives are marked by honest confession and honest praise.

Jean-Luc Marion highlights this in a commentary on St. Augustine’s famous Confessions. He sees Augustine’s confession as a work of a true moral conscience because it is both a confession of praise and a confession of sin. Gil Bailie suggests that this comment underlines an important criterion by which to judge whether or not we are living in grace: “If the confession of praise is not accompanied by the confession of sin it an empty and pompous gesture. If the confession of sins is not accompanied by a confession of praise, it is equally vacuous and barren, the stuff of trashy magazines and tabloid newspapers, a self-preening parody of repentance.”

Gil is right, but doing both confessions at one and the same time is not an easy task. We generally find ourselves falling into either a confession of praise where there is no real confession of our own sin; or into the “self-preening parody of repentance” of a still self-absorbed convert, where our confession rings hollow because it shows itself more as a badge of sophistication than as genuine sorrow for having strayed.

In neither case is there a true sense of grace. Piet Fransen, whose masterful book on grace served as a textbook in seminaries and theology schools for a generation, submits that neither the self-confident believer (who still secretly envies the pleasures of the amoral that he’s missing out on) nor the wayward person who converts but still feels grateful for his fling, has yet understood grace.  We understand grace only when we grasp existentially what’s inside the Father’s words to his older son in the parable of the prodigal son: My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.

The older brother would not be bitter if he understood that everything his father owns is already his, just as he would not be envious of the pleasures his wayward brother tasted if he understood that, in real life, his brother had been dead. But it takes a deeper grasp of what grace is to intuit that, namely, to grasp that life inside God’s house dwarfs all other pleasures.  The same is true for the convert who has given up his wayward life but still secretly rejoices in the experience and sophistication it brought him and nurses a condescending pity for the less-experienced.  He too has not yet really understood grace.

In his book, The Idea of the Holy, now considered a classic, Rudolf Otto submits that in the presence of the holy we will always have a double reaction: fear and attraction. Like Peter at the Transfiguration, we will want to build a tent and stay there forever; but, like him too before the miraculous catch of fish, we will also want to say: “Depart from me for I am a sinful man.” In the presence of the holy, we want to burst forth in praise even as we want to confess our sins.

That insight can help us to understand grace. Piet Fransen begins his signature book on grace, The New Life of Grace, by asking us to imagine this scene: Picture a man who lives his life in mindless hedonism. He simply drinks in the sensual pleasures of this world without a thought for God, responsibility, or morality. Then, after a long life of illicit pleasure, he has a genuine deathbed conversion, sincerely confesses his sins, receives the sacraments of the church, and dies in that happy state. If our spontaneous reaction to this story is: “Well, the lucky fellow! He had fling and still made it in the end!” we have not yet understood grace but instead are still embittered moralizers standing like the older brother in need of a further conversation with our God.

And the same holds true too for the convert who still feels that what he’s experienced in his waywardness, his fling, is a deeper joy than the one known by those who have not strayed. In this case, he’s come back to his father’s house not because he senses a deeper joy there but because he deems his return an unwanted duty, less exciting, less interesting, and less joy-filled than a sinful life, but a necessary moral exit strategy. He too has yet to understand grace.

Only when we understand what the father of the prodigal son means when he says to the older brother: Everything I have is yours”, will we offer both a confession of praise and a confession of sin.