RonRolheiser,OMI

God’s Nature – Exuberance or the Cross?

A A A

It’s funny where you can learn a lesson and catch a glimpse of the divine. Recently, in a grocery store, I witnessed this incident:

A young girl, probably around 16 years of age, along with two other girls her own age, came into the store. She picked up a grocery basket and began to walk down the aisle, not knowing that a second basket was stuck onto the one she was carrying.  At a point the inevitable happened, the basket stuck to hers released and crashed to the floor with a loud bang, startling her and all of us around her. What was her reaction?  She burst into laughter, exuding a joy-filled delight at being so startled. For her the surprise of the falling basket was not an irritation but a gift, an unexpected humor happily fracturing dram routine.

If that had happened to me, given how I’m habitually in a hurry and easily irritated by anything that disrupts my agenda, I would probably have responded with a silent expletive rather than with laughter. Which made me think: Here’s a young girl who probably isn’t going to church and probably isn’t much concerned about matters of faith, but who, in this moment, is wonderfully radiating the energy of God, while, me, a vowed religious, over-serious priest, church-minister and spiritual writer, in such a moment, too often radiate the antithesis of God’s energy, irritation.

But is this true? Does God really burst in laughter at falling grocery baskets? Doesn’t God ever get irritated? What’s God’s real nature?

God is the unconditional love and forgiveness that Jesus reveals, but God is also the energy that lies at the base of everything that is. And that energy, as is evident in both creation and scripture, is, at its root, creative, prodigal, robust, joy-filled, playful, and exuberant. If you want to know that God is like look at the natural exuberance of children, look at the exuberance of a young puppy, look at the robust, playful energy of young people, and look at the spontaneous laughter of sixteen-year-old when she is startled by a falling basket.  And to see God’s prodigal character, we might look at billions and billions of planets that surround us. The energy of God is prodigal and exuberant.

Then what about the Cross? Doesn’t it, more than anything else, reveal God’s nature? Isn’t it what shows us God? Isn’t suffering the innate and necessary route to maturity and sanctity? So isn’t there a contradiction between what Jesus reveals about the nature of God in his crucifixion and what scripture and nature reveal about God’s exuberance?

While there’s clearly a paradox here, there’s no contradiction.  First, the tension we see between the cross and exuberance is already seen in the person and teachings of Jesus. Jesus scandalized his contemporaries in opposite ways: He scandalized them in his capacity to willingly give up his life and the things of this world, even as he scandalized them equally with his capacity to enjoy life and drink in its God-given pleasures. His contemporaries weren’t able to walk with him while he carried the cross and they weren’t able to walk with him either as he ate and drank without guilt and felt only gift and gratitude when a woman anointed his feet with expensive perfume.

Moreover, the joy and exuberance that lie at the root of God’s nature are not to be confused with the bravado we crank up at parties, carnival, and Mardi Gras. What’s experienced there is not actual delight but, instead, a numbing of the brain and senses induced by frenzied excess. This doesn’t radiate the exuberance of God, nor indeed does it radiate the powerful exuberance that sits inside us, waiting to burst forth. Carnival is mostly an attempt to keep depression at bay. As Charles Taylor astutely points out, we invented carnival because our natural exuberance doesn’t find enough outlets within our daily lives, so we ritualize certain occasions and seasons where we can, for a time, imprison our rationality and release our exuberance, as one would free a caged animal. But that, while serving as a certain release-valve, is not the ideal way to release our natural exuberance.

When I was a child, my parents would often warn me about false exuberance, the exuberance of wild partying, false laughter, and carnival. They had this little axiom: After the laughter, come the tears! They were right, but only as this applies to the kind of laugher that we tend to crank up at parties to keep depression at bay. The cross however reverses my parents’ axiom and says this:  After the tears, comes the laughter! Only after the cross, is our joy genuine. Only after the cross, will our exuberance express the genuine delight we once felt when we were little, and only then will our exuberance truly radiate the energy of God.

Jesus promises us that if we take up his cross, God will reward us with an exuberance that no one can ever take from us.

A Happy Death

A A A

In the Roman Catholic culture within which I grew up, we were taught to pray for a happy death. For many Catholics at the time, this was a standard petition within their daily prayer: “I pray for a happy death.”

But how can one die happy? Isn’t the death-process itself excruciating? What about the pain involved in dying, in letting go of this life, in saying our last goodbyes? Can one die happy?

But the vision here, of course, was religious. A happy death meant that one died in good moral and religious circumstances. That meant that you didn’t die in some morally-compromised situation, you didn’t die alienated from your church, you didn’t die bitter or angry at your family, and, not least, you didn’t die from suicide, drug or alcohol overdose, or engaged in some criminal activity.

The catechetical picture of a happy death most often was an anecdotal story of some person who grows up in a good Christian family, is an honest, faith-filled, chaste, church-going person, but for a period of time drifts from God, from church-going, and from observance of the commandments so that, at a point, he no longer thinks much about God, no longer goes to church, and no longer takes Christian morality seriously. But, shortly before his death, some chance circumstance becomes for him a moment of grace, and he repents of his laxity, his immorality, and his negligence of church practice, returns to church, makes a sincere confession, goes to communion, and, shortly after, is struck down by a heart attack or an accident. But grace has done its work: After years of moral and religious drifting, he has returned to the fold and dies a happy death.

Indeed we all know stories that fit that description; but, sadly, we also all know stories where this is not the case, where the opposite happens, where good people die in very unfortunate, sad, and tragic situations. We have all lost loved ones to suicide, alcoholism, and other ways of dying that are far from ideal. We also all know of people, good people, who have died in morally-compromised situations or who died in bitterness, not able to let their hearts soften in forgiveness. Did they die unhappy deaths?

Admittedly they died in an unfortunate way, but a happy or unhappy death is not judged by whether death catches us on an up-bounce or a down-bounce. For every person that fits the picture of a happy death, as described above, where death catches us on an up-bounce, there are others whose lives were marked by honesty, goodness, and love, but who then had the misfortune of being struck down in moment of anger, in a moment of weakness, in a moment of depression, or who ended up dying from an addiction or suicide. Death caught them on a down-bounce.  Did they die an unhappy death? Who is to judge?

What is a happy death? I like Ruth Burrows’ description: Burrows, a Carmelite nun, shares the story of a fellow-nun with whom she once lived. This sister, Burrows tells us, was a good-hearted, but weak, woman. She had entered a contemplative convent to pray, but she could never quite muster the discipline for the task. And so she lived for years in that state: good-hearted, but mediocre. Later in life, she was diagnosed with a terminal disease which frightened her enough so that she began to make new efforts at becoming what she was supposed to be her whole life, a woman of prayer. But a half century of bad habits are not so easily changed. Despite new resolutions, the woman never succeeded in turning her life around. She died in her weakness. But, Burrows asserts, she died a happy death.  She died the death of a weak person, asking God to forgive her for a lifetime of weakness.

To die a happy death is to die in honesty, irrespective of whether the particular circumstances of our death look good religiously or not. Dying in right circumstances is, of course, a wonderful consolation to our families and loved ones, just as dying in sad circumstances can be heartbreaking for them. But dying in circumstances which don’t look good, humanly or religiously, doesn’t necessarily equate with an unhappy death.  We die a happy death when we die in honesty, irrespective of circumstance or weakness.

And this truth offers another challenge: The circumstances of someone’s death, when those circumstances are sad or tragic, should not become a prism through which we then see that person’s whole life. What this means is that if someone dies in a morally-compromised situation, in a moment or season of weakness, away from his or her church, in bitterness, by suicide, or by an addiction, the goodness of that life and heart should not be judged by the circumstances that death. Death caught that person on a down-bounce, which can make for a more guarded obituary, but not for a true judgment as to the goodness of his or her heart.

Fear

A A A

Unless you are already a full saint or a mystic, you will always live in some fear of death and the afterlife. That’s simply part of being human. But we can, and must, move beyond our fear of God.

As a child, I lived with a lot of fear. I had a very active imagination and too-frequently imagined murderers under my bed, poisonous snakes slithering up my leg, deadly germs in my food, playground bullies looking for a victim, a hundred ways in which I could meet an accidental death, and threats of every kind lurking in the dark. As a child, I was often afraid: afraid of the dark, afraid of death, afraid of the afterlife, and afraid of God.

As I matured, so too did my imagination; it no longer pictured snakes hiding everywhere or murderers under my bed. I began to feel strong, in control, imagining the unknown, with its dark corners, more as opportunity for growth than as threat to life. But it was one thing to block out fear of snakes, murderers, and the dark. Not so easily did I overcome my fear of death, fear of the afterlife, and fear of God. These fears are the last demons to be exorcised, and that exorcism is never final, never completely done with. Jesus, himself, trembled in fear before death, before the unknown that faces us in death. But he didn’t tremble in fear before God, the opposite in fact. As he faced death and the unknown, he was able give himself over to God, in childlike trust, like a child clinging to a loving parent, and that gave him the strength and courage to undergo an anonymous, lonely, and misunderstood death with dignity, grace, and forgiveness.

We need never be afraid of God. God can be trusted. But trust in God does include a healthy fear of God because one particular fear is part of the anatomy of love itself.  Scripture says: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But that fear, healthy fear, must be understood as a reverence, a loving awe, a love that fears disappointing. Healthy fear is love’s fear, a fear of betraying, of not being faithful to what love asks of us in return for its gratuity. We aren’t afraid of someone we trust, fearing that he or she will suddenly turn arbitrary, unfair, cruel, incomprehensible, vicious, unloving.  Rather we are afraid about our own being worthy of the trust that’s given us, not least from God.

But we must trust that God understands our humanity: God doesn’t demand that we give him our conscious attention all of the time. God accepts the natural wanderings of our hearts. God accepts our tiredness and fatigue. God accepts our need for distraction and escape. God accepts that we usually find it easier to immerse ourselves in entertainment than to pray. And God even accepts our resistances to him and our need to assert, with pride, our own independence. Like a loving mother embracing a child that’s kicking and screaming but needs to be picked up and held, God can handle our anger, self-pity, and resistance. God understands our humanity, but we struggle to understand what it means to be human before God.

For many years, I feared that I was too immersed in the things of this world to consider myself a spiritual person, always fearing that God wanted more from me. I felt that I should be spending more time in prayer, but, too often, I’d end up too tired to pray, more interested in watching a sports event on television or more interested in sitting around with family, colleagues, or friends, talking about everything except spiritual things. For years, I feared that God wanted me to be more explicitly spiritual. He probably did! But, as I’ve aged, I’ve come to realize that being with God in prayer and being with God in heart is like being with a trusted friend. In an easeful friendship, friends don’t spend most of their time talking about their mutual friendship. Rather they talk about everything: local gossip, the weather, their work, their children, their headaches, their heartaches, their tiredness, what they saw on television the night before, their favorite sports teams, what’s happening in politics, and the jokes they’ve heard recently – though they occasionally lament that they should ideally be talking more about deeper things. Should they?

John of the Cross teaches that, in any longer-term friendship, eventually the important things begin to happen under the surface, and surface conversation becomes secondary. Togetherness, ease with each other, comfort, and the sense of being at home, is what we give each other then.

That’s also true for our relationship with God. God made us to be human and God wants us, with all of our wandering weaknesses, to be in his presence, with ease, with comfort, and with the feeling that we are at home. Our fear of God can be reverence or timidity; the former is healthy, the latter is neurotic.