RonRolheiser,OMI

Five People Who Helped Give Me Some Self-Understanding

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Although I grew up in a loving, safe, and nurturing family and community, one of the dominant memories of my childhood and teenage years is that of being restless and somehow discontent. My life always seemed too small, too confined, a life away from what was important in the world. I was forever longing to be more connected to life and I feared that other people didn’t feel that way and that I was somehow singular and unhealthy in my restlessness.

I entered the Oblate seminary immediately after high school and carried that restlessness with me, except that now, entering religious life, I felt even more worry and shame in carrying this disquiet. However, midway through that first year of training, a year which religious congregations call novitiate, we received a visit from an extraordinary Oblate missionary named Noah Warnke, a man who had received numerous civic and church awards for his achievements and who was widely respected. He began his address to us, the novices, by asking us these questions: “Are you restless? Feeling isolated in this religious house? Feeling lonely and cut off from the world?” We all nodded, yes, he’d clearly struck a live-chord. “Good,” he replied, “you should be feeling restless. My God, you should be jumping out of your skins, you’ve all that red-blood, and fire, and energy and you’re holed-up here away from everything! But that’s good, that restlessness is a good feeling, you’re healthy!  Tough it out with the restlessness, it’ll be worth it in the long run!” It was the first time in my life that someone had legitimatized how I was feeling. I felt like I had just been introduced to myself: “Are you jumping out of your skin? Good, you’re healthy!”

Immediately after that novitiate year, I began my theological training and one of the persons we studied in depth was Thomas Aquinas. He was the second person who helped introduce me to myself.  I was nineteen years old when I first met his thought and, although some of his insights were a bit beyond my young mind, I understood enough to find in him not just some legitimization for how I was feeling but also, more importantly, a meta-narrative within which to understand why I was feeling the way I did. Aquinas asks: “What is the adequate object of the human mind and heart?” In other words, what would we have to experience in order to be fully satisfied? His answer: All being, everything! What would we have to experience to be fully satisfied is everything. We would have to know everything and be known by everybody, a human impossibility in this life, and so it shouldn’t be a mystery as to why we live in perpetual disquiet and why, as Pascal says, all the miseries of the human being come from the fact that we can’t sit still in a room for one hour.

The third person that helped introduce me to myself was Sidney Callahan. Reading her book on sexuality as a young seminarian, I was struck by how she linked sex to soul, and how desire, not least sexual desire, has deep roots in the soul. At one point she makes this simple statement. I don’t have the exact quote, but it is words to this effect: If you look at yourself and your insatiability and worry that you are too-restless, over-sexed, and somehow pathological in your dissatisfactions, it doesn’t mean that you are sick, it just means that you are healthy and not in need of any hormone shots! These were liberating words for a restless, over-sensitive twenty year-old.

A couple of years later, I was introduced to the writings of Henri Nouwen and he, perhaps more than anyone else, gave me permission to feel what I feel. Nouwen, as we know, was such a powerful writer because he was so honest in sharing his own neediness, restlessness, and disquiet. He had a singular talent for tracing out the restless movements within our souls. For instance, in describing his own struggles, he writes: “I want to be a saint, but I also want to experience all the sensations that sinners experience. Small wonder, that life is a struggle.”

Finally, of course, there’s St. Augustine and his famed opening to the Confessions wherein he summarizes his life-long struggle in the words: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  We carry infinity inside us and thus should not be surprised that we will never find full consummation and peace within the finite. Augustine also gave us that wonderful rationalization that we all use to put off into the indefinite future some of the things that we need to do now: Lord, make me a chaste Christian, but not yet!

Some people talk about the five people they would like to meet in heaven. These are the five people who have helped me understand what it means to walk on this earth.

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?