RonRolheiser,OMI

Inadequacy, Hurt, and Reconciliation

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Even with the best intentions, even with no malice inside us, even when we are faithful, we sometimes cannot not hurt each other. Our human situation is simply too complex at times for us not to wound each other.

Here’s an example: Soren Kierkegaard, who spent his whole life trying to be scrupulously faithful to what God was calling him to, once hurt a woman very deeply. As a young man, he had fallen in love with a woman, Regine, who, in return, loved him deeply. But as their marriage date approached, Kierkegaard was beset with an internal crisis, one both psychological and moral, within which he discerned that their marriage would, long range, be the cause for deep unhappiness for both of them and he called off the engagement. That decision hurt Regine, deeply and permanently. She never forgave him and he, for his part, was haunted for the rest of his life by the fact that he had hurt her so badly. Initially, he wrote her a number of letters trying to explain his decision and apologizing for hurting her, hoping for her understanding and forgiveness. Eventually, he gave up, even as he wrote page after page in his private journals second-guessing himself, castigating himself, and then, conversely, trying to justify himself again and again in his decision not to marry her.

Nearly ten years after that fateful decision, with Regine now married to someone else, he spent weeks trying to draft the right letter to her – asking for forgiveness, offering new explanations for his actions, and begging for another chance to talk with her. He struggled to find the right words, something that might bring about an understanding. He finally settled on this letter:

Cruel I was, that is true. Why? Indeed, you do not know that.

Silent I have been, that is certain. Only God knows what I have suffered – may God grant that I do not, even now, speak too soon after all!

Marry I could not. Even if you were still free, I could not.

However, you have loved me, as I have you. I owe you much – and now you are married. All right, I offer you for the second time what I can and dare and ought to offer you: reconciliation.

I do this in writing in order not to surprise or overwhelm you. Perhaps my personality did once have too strong an effect; that must not happen again. But for the sake of God in heaven, please give serious consideration to whether you dare become involved in this, and if so, whether you prefer to speak with me at once or would rather exchange some letters first.

If the answer is ‘No’ – would you then please remember for the sake of a better world that I took this step as well.

            In any case, as in the beginning

            so until now, sincerely and completely

devotedly, your S.K. 

(Clare Carlisle, The Heart of a Philosopher, Penguin Book, c2019, p. 215)

Well, the answer was “no”. He had enclosed his letter in another letter which he sent to her husband, asking him to decide whether or not to give it to his wife. It was returned unopened, accompanied by an angry note, his offer of reconciliation was bitterly rejected.

What’s the moral here? Simply this: We hurt each other; sometimes through selfishness, sometimes through carelessness, sometimes through infidelity, sometimes through cruel intention, but sometimes too when there is no selfishness, no carelessness, no betrayal, no cruelty of intention – but only the cruelty of circumstance, inadequacy, and human limit.  We sometimes hurt each other as deeply through being faithful as through being unfaithful, albeit in a different way. But irrespective of whether there’s moral fault, betrayal, or an intended cruelty, there’s still deep hurt, sometimes so deep that, this side of eternity, no healing will take place.

Would that it be otherwise. Would that Kierkegaard could have explained himself so fully that Regine would have understood and forgiven him, would that each of us could explain ourselves so fully that we would be always understood and forgiven, and would that all of our lives could end like a warm-hearted movie where, before the closing credits, everything is understood and reconciled.  

But that’s not the way it always ends; indeed, that’s not even the way it ended for Jesus. He died being looked at as a criminal, as a religious blasphemer, as someone who had done wrong. His offer of reconciliation was also returned unopened, accompanied by a bitter note.

I once visited a young man in who was dying of cancer at age 56.  Already bedridden and in hospice care, but with his mind still clear, he shared this: “I am dying with this consolation: If I have an enemy in this world, I don’t know who it is. I can’t think of a single person that I need to be reconciled with.”

Few of us are that lucky. Most of us are still looking at some envelopes that have been returned unopened.

The Little Way

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Most of us have heard of St. Therese of Lisieux, a French mystic who died at age 24 in 1897 and who is perhaps the most popular saint of the last two centuries. She’s famous for many things, not least for a spirituality she called her “little way”.  What’s her “little way”?

Popular thought has often encrusted both Therese and her “little way” within a simple piety which doesn’t do justice to the depth of her person or her spirituality. Too often her “little way” is understood simply to mean that we do little, hidden, humble, acts of charity for others in the name of Jesus, without expecting anything in return. In this popular interpretation we do the laundry, peel potatoes, and smile at unpleasant people to please Jesus. In some ways, of course, this is true; however her “little way” merits a deeper understanding.

Yes, it does ask us to do humble chores and be nice to each other in the name of Jesus but there are deeper dimensions to it. Her “little way” is a path to sanctity based on three things: Littleness, Anonymity, and a Particular Motivation. 

Littleness: For Therese “littleness” does not refer first of all to the littleness of the act that we are doing, like the humble tasks of doing the laundry, peeling potatoes, or giving a simple smile to someone who’s unpleasant.  It refers to our own littleness, to our own radical poverty before God. Before God, we are little. To accept and act out of that constitutes humility. We move towards God and others in her “little way” when we do small acts of charity for others, not out of our strength and the virtue we feel at that moment, but rather out of a poverty, powerlessness, and emptiness that allows God’s grace to work through us so that in doing what we’re doing we’re drawing others to God and not to ourselves.  

As well, our littleness makes us aware that, for the most part, we cannot do the big things that shape world history. But we can change the world more humbly, by sowing a hidden seed, by being a hidden antibiotic of health inside the soul of humanity, and by splitting the atom of love inside our own selves. And yes, too, the “little way” is about doing little, humble, hidden things.

Anonymity: Therese’s “little way” refers to what’s hidden, to what’s done in secret, so that what the Father sees in secret will be rewarded in secret. And what’s hidden is not our act of charity, but we, ourselves, who are doing the act. In Therese’s “little way” our little acts of charity will go mostly unnoticed, will seemingly have no real impact on world history, and won’t bring us any recognition. They’ll remain hidden and unnoticed; but inside the Body of Christ what’s hidden, selfless, unnoticed, self-effacing, and seemingly insignificant and unimportant is the most vital vehicle of all for grace at a deeper level. Just as Jesus did not save us through sensational miracles and headline-making deeds but through selfless obedience to his Father and quiet martyrdom, our deeds too can remain unknown so that our deaths and the spirit we leave behind can become our real fruitfulness.

Finally, her “little way” is predicated on a Particular Motivation. We are invited to act out of our littleness and anonymity and do small acts of love and service to others for a particular reason, that is, to, metaphorically, wipe the face of the suffering Christ. How so?

Therese of Lisieux was an extremely blessed and gifted person. Despite a lot of tragedy in her early life, she was (by her own admission and testimony of others) loved in a way that was so pure, so deep, and so wonderfully affectionate that it leaves most people in envy. She was also a very attractive child and was bathed in love and security inside an extended family within which her every smile and tear were noticed, honored, (and often photographed).  But as she grew in maturity it didn’t take her long to notice that what was true in her life wasn’t true of most others. Their smiles and tears went mostly unnoticed and were not honored. Her “little way” is therefore predicated on this particular motivation. In her own words:  

One Sunday, looking at a picture of Our Lord on the Cross, I was struck by the blood flowing from one of his divine hands. I felt a pang of great sorrow when thinking this blood was falling on the ground without anyone’s hastening to gather it up. I was resolved to remain in spirit at the foot of the Cross and to receive its dew. …   Oh, I don’t want this precious blood to be lost. I shall spend my life gathering it up for the good of souls. …  To live from love is to dry Your Face.”

To live her “little way” is to notice and honor the unnoticed tears falling from the suffering faces of others.

The Best Ten Books That Found Me in 2019

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There’s a Latin axiom which argues that there’s no accounting for taste, de gustibus non est disputandum. I reference it as to preamble to my annual list of the ten books I most enjoyed this past year because, admittedly, taste is somewhat subjective. I chose these particular books because they’re the ones that spoke most deeply to me. Perhaps they won’t speak to you in the same way. Fair enough. There’s no accounting for taste.

So, here are the authors and the books that spoke to me most deeply during this past year …

  1. Bernardo Olivera, How Far to Follow? The Martyrs of Atlas. This bookhelps tell the inside story of the Trappist monks who were martyred by Islamic extremists in Algeria in 1996. Similar to the movie, Of Gods and Men, it focuses on the deep struggles these men underwent in making the decision not to leave their monastery and, instead, face martyrdom.
  2. Donald Senior, Raymond E. Brown and the Catholic Biblical Renewal. Well-researched and well-written, this is a biography of the renowned scripture scholar, Raymond E. Brown, who stood out both for his scholarship and for his exemplary discipleship and priesthood. The book is more of an intellectual history of Brown than a chronicle of his life. It’s interesting too because, by sharing Brown’s intellectual history, Senior also highlights the particular theological and ecclesial struggles of Brown’s generation. For many of us this will be hauntingly familiar.
  3. Rachel Held Evans: This past year, scanning book reviews, I discovered the writings of Rachel Held Evans. I cite three of her works here that spoke to me very deeply: Searching for Sunday, Loving, Leaving, and Finding Church; Inspired, Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again; and A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Rachel grew up a cradle Evangelical with a deep and solid faith, but adulthood brought its own challenges, particularly for someone of her courage and honesty. These books chronicle Rachel’s struggle with her religious mother-tongue, her falling out of her faith story, and her particular way of finding her way back in. Her story articulates the struggle of millions. It’s an invaluable read, irrespective of one’s religious mother-tongue. She’s also an exceptionally gifted writer. Sadly, she died in May at the age of 37. We lost a needed religious voice, but what she left us can help many a person sort through his or her religious struggles.
  4. Jean Bosco Rutagengwa, Love Prevails, One Couple’s Story of Faith and Survival in the Rwandan Genocide.  Someone once said that if you want to understand the tragedy of the Second World War you can read a thousand books about it and watch a thousand hours of film – or you can read the Diary of Anne Frank. This is such a “diary”, written inside the horrors of the Rwandan Genocide.
  5. Robert Ellsberg, A Living Gospel, Reading God’s Story in Holy Lives. The lives of the saints are our living gospel and Robert Ellsberg is the foremost hagiographer in the English language today. This, wonderfully readable, book teaches us both what hagiography is and why it’s important.
  6. Margaret Renkl, Late Migrations, A Natural History of Love and Loss. This is a unique kind of book, a poetics of sorts on love, nature, adoration, family life, death, dying, and human resiliency. This is a piece of art.
  7. Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ. This book will challenge you and will, with a sound scriptural theology, challenge mainline theology in its popular conception of both the intent and the scope of the incarnation. An important read.
  8. Ruth Burrows, Before the Living God. This is Ruth Burrows’ autobiography. I first read it thirty-two years ago. It moved me then and it moved me even more thirty-two years later. In her story, you will better understand your own story and the movement of God in your life.
  9. David Brooks, The Second Mountain, The Quest for a Moral Life. Brooks’ Second Mountain very much corresponds to what spiritual writers like Richard Rohr call the Second-Half of Life. Drawing upon his own story and creatively mixing secular and religious perspectives, Brooks lays out a challenging vision of what it means to mature, to move from being the hungry child to becoming the blessing adult. An excellent read.
  10. Mary Jo Leddy, Why Are We Here, A Meditation on Canada. Not least, a book from a Canadian. Mary Jo Leddy, the Founder and Director of Romero House for refugees in Toronto has always been a prophetic voice. In this book, she submits that every country has its “original sin”, some primal fault in its origins that now taints its present. For Canada, she argues, it was how it treated its indigenous peoples as it formed itself into a nation. Canada is not unique in having such an “original sin”. Every country has it.  Everyone should read this book.

I apologize that this year’s list, again, does not include any novels.