RonRolheiser,OMI

Becoming a Holy Beggar

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With the exception of scripture and a few Christian mystics, Christian spirituality, up to now, has been weak in presenting us with a vision for our retirement years. It’s not a mystery as to why. Until recently, the majority of people died shortly after retirement and so there was no need for a highly developed spirituality of generativity after our active years.

What are our retirement years meant for, spiritually? What’s our vocation then? What might generativity mean for us, after our work’s been done?

Henri Nouwen, one of the first contemporary writers to take up this question, makes this suggestion: There comes a time in our lives when the question is no longer: What can I still do to make a contribution? Rather the question becomes: How can I live now so that my aging and dying will be my final great gift to my family, my community, my church, and my country?

How do I stop writing my resume in order to begin writing my eulogy? Happily, spiritual writers today are beginning to develop a spirituality around these questions and, in doing that, I believe, we can be helped by some rich insights within Hindu spirituality.

In Hinduism, life is understood to have five natural stages: First, you are a Child. As a Child, you are initiated into life, you learn to speak, you learn how to interact with others, and are given time for play.

The second stage is that of being a Student. In Hinduism, you’re a Student until you get married, begin a family, and establish a career. As a Student, your primary focus is to enjoy your youth and to prepare for life.

Then you become a Householder. This, the third stage of life, begins with marriage and ends when your last child is grown-up, your mortgage is paid, and you retire from your job. As a Householder, your task is family, business, and involvement with civic and religious affairs. These are your duty years.

The fourth stage is that of being a Forest-Dweller. This period should begin when you are free enough from family and business duties to do some deeper reflection. Forest-Dwelling is meant to be an extended period wherein you withdraw, partially or fully, from active life to study and meditate your religion and your future. Very practically, this might mean that you go back to school, perhaps study theology and spirituality, do some extensive retreats, engage in a meditative practice, and take some spiritual direction from a guide.

Finally, once Forest-Dwelling has given you a vision, you return to the world as a Sannyasin, as a holy beggar, as someone who owns nothing except faith and wisdom. As a Sannyasin, you sit somewhere in public as a beggar, as someone with no significance, property, attachments, or importance. You’re available to others for a smile, a chat, an exchange of faith, or some act of charity. In effect, you’re a street-person, but with a difference. You’re not a street-person because you do not have other options (a comfortable retirement, a golf course, a cottage in the country), but rather because you have already made a success of your life. You’ve already been generative. You’ve already given what you have to give and you’re now looking to be generative in a new way, namely, to live in such a way that these last years of your life will give a different kind of gift to your loved ones, namely, a gift that will touch their lives in a way that in effect forces them to think about God and life more deeply.

Sannyasin gives incarnational flesh to the words of Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I return.”  We come into this world possessionless and possessionless we leave it. A holy beggar incarnates that truth.

Imagine what a witness it could be if very successful people, doctors, bank presidents, athletes, journalists, teachers, business people, tradespeople, farmers, and happily married persons who had raised children successfully, people who have all kinds of comfortable options in life, would be sitting, as holy beggars, in coffee shops, in fast-food outlets, in malls, on street corners, and in sporting arenas. Nobody could feel superior to them or treat them with pity, as we do with the street people who sit there now. Imagine the witness of someone becoming a voluntary beggar because he or she has been a success in life. What a witness and vocation that would be!

But this concept, being a holy beggar, is obviously an idealized image that each of us needs to think through in terms of what that might mean for us concretely.

In the early centuries of Christianity, spirituality saw martyrdom as the final expression of Christian life, the ideal way to cap off a faith-filled life. Justin, Polycarp, Cyprian, and countless others “retired” into martyrdom. Later, Christians used to retire into monasteries and convents.

But martyrdom and monasteries are also, at a certain place, idealized images. What, concretely, might we retire into?

Five Hundred Years of Misunderstanding

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The heart has its reasons, says Pascal, and sometimes those reasons have a long history.

Recently I signed a card for a friend, a devout Baptist, who was raised to have a suspicion of Roman Catholics. It’s something he still struggles with; but, don’t we all!  History eventually infects our DNA. Who of us is entirely free from suspicion of what’s religiously different from us? And what’s the cure? Personal contact, friendship, and theological dialogue with those of other denominations and other faiths does help open our minds and hearts, but the fruit of centuries of bitter misunderstanding doesn’t disappear so easily, especially when it’s institutionally entrenched and nurtured as a prophetic protection of God and truth. And so in regards to Christians of other denominations there remains in most of us an emotional dis-ease, an inability to see the other fully as one of our own.

And so in signing this card for my separated Christian friend, I wrote: “To a fellow Christian, a brother in the Body of Christ, a good friend, from whom I’m separated by 500 years of misunderstanding.”

Five hundred years of misunderstanding, of separation, of suspicion, of defensiveness, that’s not something that’s easily overcome, especially when at its core there sit issues about God, truth, and religion. Granted, there has been much positive progress made in the past fifty years and many of the original, more-blatant misunderstandings have been overcome. But the effects of the historical break with Christianity and the reaction to it are present today and are still seen everywhere, from high church offices, to debates within the academy of theology, to suspicions inside the popular mind.

Sad how we’ve focused so much on our differences, when at the center, at the heart, we share the same essential faith, the same essential beliefs, the same basic moral codes, the same Scriptures, the same belief in afterlife, and the same fundamental tenet that intimacy with Jesus Christ is the aim of our faith. As well, not insignificantly, today we also share the same prejudices and biases against us, whether these come from fundamentalists within other religions or whether these come from over-zealous, over-secularized, post-Christians within our own society. To someone looking at us from the outside we, all the different Christian denominations, look like a monolith, one faith, one church, a single religion, our differences far overshadowed by our commonality.  Sadly we tend not to see ourselves like this from within, where our differences, more often than not based upon a misunderstanding, are seen to dwarf our common discipleship.

Yet, the Epistle to the Ephesians tells us that, as Christians, we share one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God who is Father of all of us. At its most essential level, that’s true of all of us as Christians, despite our denominational differences. We are one at our core. 

Granted, there are some real differences among us, mostly though in terms of how we understand certain aspects of the church and certain issues within morality, rather than on how we understand the deeper truths about the nature of God, the divinity of Christ, the gift of God’s Word, the gift of the Eucharist, and the inalienable dignity and destiny of all human beings. Within the hierarchy of truth this essential core is what’s most important, and on this essential core we essentially agree. That’s the real basis of our common discipleship.

Ecclesially, the issues that divide us focus mostly on church authority, on ordination to ministry, on whether to emphasize word or sacrament, on how to understand the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, on the number of sacraments, on the place of sacramentals and devotions within discipleship, and on how scripture and tradition interplay with each other.  In terms of moral issues, the issues that divide us are also the “red button” issues within our society as a whole:  abortion, gay marriage, birth control, and the place of social justice within discipleship.  But, even on these, there’s more commonality than difference among the churches.

Moreover, today, the differences on how we understand many of the ecclesial and moral issues that divide us are more temperamental than denominational, that is, they tend to be more a question of one’s theology than of one’s denominational affiliation.  Granted, classical denominational theology still plays in, but the divisions today regarding how we see certain ecclesial and moral issues, be that ordination, gay marriage, abortion, or social justice, are less a tension between Roman Catholics and Protestants (and Evangelicals) than they are between those who lean temperamentally and theologically in one direction rather than the other. It’s perhaps too simplistic to draw this up in terms of liberal versus conservative, but this much at least is true, the fault-line on these issues today is becoming less and less denominational.

The earliest Christian Creed had but a single line: Jesus is Lord! All Christians still agree on that and so we remain brothers and sisters, separated only by five hundred years of misunderstanding.

The Empty Tomb

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Easter 2017

Believers and non-believers alike have been arguing about the resurrection since the day Jesus rose. What really happened? How was he raised from the dead? Did an actual dead body really come back to life and step out of the grave or was the resurrection a monumental life-changing event inside the consciousness of Jesus’ followers? Or was the resurrection both, a real physical event and an event inside the consciousness of believers?

Obviously nobody was there to see what actually happened. Those who claimed Jesus was alive again didn’t see him rise and emerge from the tomb, they met him only after he had already risen and, immediately, believers and sceptics began to divide from each other, persons who claimed to have touched him and persons who doubted that testimony.

There have been sceptics and believers ever since and no shortage of persons, professional theologians and non-scholarly Christians alike, who believe in the resurrection of Jesus as a faith event but not as a physical event, where an actual body came out of a grave. The faith event is what’s important, they claim, and it is incidental whether or not Jesus’ actual body came out of the grave.

Was Jesus’ resurrection a faith event or a physical event? It was both. For Christians it is the most monumental event, faith and otherwise, in history. Two thousand subsequent years cannot be explained, except by the reality of the resurrection. To understand the resurrection of Jesus only as a literal fact, that his body rose from the grave, is to cut the resurrection off from much of its meaning. However, that being admitted, for Christians, the resurrection must also be a radically physical event. Why?

First, because the Gospels are pretty clear in emphasizing that the tomb was empty and that the resurrected Jesus was more than a spirit or ghost. We see, for instance, in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus invites a doubting Thomas to verify his physicality: “Look at my hands and my feet. It’s really me. Touch me. You can see that I have a living body; a ghost does not have a body like this.”

As well, and very importantly, to cut the resurrection off from the literal fact that there was real physical transformation of a once dead corpse is to rob it of some of its important meanings and perhaps of the deepest root of its credibility. For the resurrection of Christ to have full meaning it must, among other things, have been a brute physical fact. There needs to be an empty tomb and a dead body returned to life.  Why?

Not as some kind of miracle proof, but because of the incarnation. To believe in the incarnation and not to believe in the radical physical character of the resurrection is a contradiction. We believe that in the incarnation the Word was made flesh. This takes the mystery of Christ and the reality of the resurrection out of the realm of pure spirit. The incarnation always connotes a reality that’s radically physical, tangible, and touchable, like the old dictionary definition of matter as “something extended in space and having weight.”

To believe in the incarnation is to believe that God was born into real physical flesh, lived in real physical flesh, died in real physical flesh, and rose in real physical flesh. To believe that the resurrection was only an event in the faith consciousness of the disciples, however real, rich, and radical that might be imagined, is to rob the incarnation of its radical physical character and to fall into the kind of dualism that values spirit and denigrates the physical. Such a dualism devalues the incarnation and this impoverishes the meaning of the resurrection. If the resurrection is only a spiritual event then it is also only an anthropological one and not also a cosmic one. That’s a way of saying that it’s then an event only about human consciousness and not also about the cosmos.

But Jesus’ resurrection isn’t just something radically new in terms of human consciousness; it’s also something that’s radically new in terms of atoms and molecules. The resurrection rearranged hearts and minds, but it also rearranged atoms. Until Jesus’ resurrection, dead bodies did not come back to life; they stayed dead, so when his came back to life there was something radically new both at the level of faith and at the level of the atoms and molecules. Precisely because of its brute physicality, Jesus’ resurrection offers new hope to atoms as well as to people.

I believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, literally. I believe too that this event was, as the rich insights within contemporary theology point out, highly spiritual: an event of faith, of changed consciousness, of new hope empowering a new charity and a new forgiveness. But it was also an event of changed atoms and of a changed dead body. It was radically physical, just as are all events that are part of the incarnation wherein God takes on real flesh.