RonRolheiser,OMI

Fearing Our Own Maturity

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Our bodies and our souls each have their separate aging process, and they aren’t always in harmony. Thus, T.E. Laurence, in, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, makes this comment about someone: “He feared his maturity as it grew upon him, with its ripe thought and finished art, but which lacked the poetry of boyhood to make living a full end of life … his rangeful, mortal soul was aging faster than his body, was going to die before it, like most of ours.”

I suspect that all of us, at some level, fear growing into maturity. It’s not so much that we don’t want to give up the habits of our youth or that we fear that the joys of maturity are second-best to the pleasures of youth. There is, I believe, a deeper reason: We fear, as Laurence puts it, that our maturity will strip us of the poetry of our youth and make us old before time. What’s meant by that?

We sometimes speak of an old soul inside a young person, and this is meant both as a compliment and a criticism, perhaps more the latter. We sometimes look at a young person whose body is full of life and overfull with energy and see a precociousness of soul that belies that youth and energy and we can’t help wondering whether that premature maturity isn’t inhibiting the life-principle. And so we have a mixed reaction: What a mature young person! But is his or her life too-grey and sterile before its time?

Reflecting on this, I was reminded of a comment that Raymond Brown once made in a class. The context of his remark is important: This was not the comment of a young man still looking to leave a mark on life, but rather the comment of a very mature, successful, and respected man who was the envy of his peers. Nearly 70 years old, wonderfully mature, universally respected for everything from his scholarship to his personal integrity, he was a mature soul. And still his comment betrayed the subtle fear that perhaps his maturity had stripped him of some of the poetry of his boyhood. His comment was something to this effect:

You know when you reach a certain age, as I have now, and you look back on what you’ve done, you’re sometimes embarrassed by some of the things you did in your youth, not immoral things, just things that now, from your present perspective, seem immature and ill thought-out, things that you are now too wise to ever risk doing. Recalling them, initially you are a little embarrassed. But then, in those moments where you feel your age and your present reticence, you sometimes look back and say: “That’s bravest thing I ever did! Wow, I had nerve then! I’m much more afraid of things now!”

Jane Urquhart, the Canadian novelist, echoes this sentiment. Rereading one of her own books which she had written twenty years before, she comments: “It is tremendously satisfying to be able to reacquaint myself with the young woman who wrote these tales, and to know that what was going on in her mind intrigues me still.” What’s unspoken in her comment is her present admiration (and dare I say, envy) for the poetry that once infused her younger self.

I had a similar feeling some years ago when, for a new release of my book, The Restless Heart, I was asked to update it. I’d written the book when I was still in my twenties, a lonely and restless young man then, partly looking for my place in life. Now, nearly 25 years later and somewhat more mature, I was sometimes embarrassed by some of the things I’d written all those years back; but, like Raymond Brown, I marvelled at my nerve back then, and, like Jane Urquhart, it was refreshing to reacquaint myself with the young man who had written that book, sensing that he had a livelier poetry and more verve in him than the older person who was rereading that text.

Some of us never grow-up. The body ages, but the soul remains immature, clinging to adolescence, fearful of responsibility, fearful of commitment, fearful of opportunity slipping away, fearful of aging, fearful of own maturity, and, not least, fearful of death. This is not a formula for happiness, but one for an ever-increasing fear, disappointment, and bitterness in life. Not growing-up eventually catches up with everyone, and what judged as cute at twenty, colorful at 30, and eccentric at 40, becomes intolerable at 50. At a certain age, even poetry and verve don’t compensate for immaturity. The soul too must grow-up.

But, for some of us, the danger is the opposite, we grow old before our time, becoming old souls in still young bodies, mature, responsible, committed, able to look age, diminishment, and mortality square in the eye, but devoid of the poetry, verve, color, and humor which are meant to make a mature person mellow and alive, like a finely-aged old wine.

Ten Secrets to Happiness

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The past five years have seen a growth in interest in studies on human happiness. Numerous books have been published on the topic, not least Sonja Lyubomirsky’s, The Myths of Happiness, which has become for many a secular bible for happiness and meaning. In a recent book, Called to Happiness, Sidney Callahan critically evaluates many of these studies. Whatever the merit of these studies, all of us nurse our own secret dream of what will bring us happiness and often that fantasy is at odds with what we know to be true at a deeper level. What will make us happy?

In a recent interview (July 29, 2014) for the Argentine weekly, Viva, Pope Francis weighs in on this topic, submitting his own “Top 10 Tips” for happiness. What are Pope Francis’ tips for happiness or, as he puts it, “for bringing greater joy to one’s life”?

In presenting these, I will be faithful to his captions but, because his commentary on each one was rather lengthy, I will risk synthesizing his central point in my own words:

1. Live and let live.

All of us will live longer and more happily if we stop trying to arrange other peoples’ lives. Jesus challenged us not to judge but to live with the tension and let God and history make the judgments. So live we need to live by own convictions and let others do the same.

2. Be giving of yourself to others.

Happiness lies in giving ourselves away. We need to be open and generous because if we withdraw into ourselves we run the risk of becoming self-centered and no happiness will be found there since “stagnant water becomes putrid.”

3. Proceed calmly.

Move with kindness, humility, and calm. These are the antithesis of anxiety and distress. Calm never causes high blood pressure. We need to make conscious efforts to never let the moment cause panic and excessive hurry. Rather be late than stressed.

4. A healthy sense of leisure.

Never lose the pleasures of art, literature, and playing with children. Remember that Jesus scandalized others with his capacity to enjoy life in all its sensuousness. We don’t live by work alone, no matter how important and meaningful it might be. In heaven there will be no work, only leisure, we need to learn the art and joy of leisure not just to prepare for heaven but to enjoy some of heaven already now.

5. Sundays should be holidays.

Workers should have Sundays off because Sunday is for family. Accomplishment, productivity, and speed may not become our most valued commodities or we will begin to take everything for granted, our lives, our health, our families, our friends, those around us, and all the good things in life. That is why God gave us a commandment to keep the Sabbath holy. This is not a lifestyle suggestion, but a commandment as binding as not killing. Moreover, if we are employers, the commandment demands too that we give our employees proper Sabbath-time.

6. Find innovative ways to create dignified jobs for young people.

If you want to bless a young person, don’t just tell that person that he or she is wonderful. Don’t just admire youthful beauty and energy. Give a young person your job! Or, at least, work actively to help him or her find meaningful work. This will both bless that young person and bring a special happiness to your own life.

7. Respect and take care of nature.

The air we breathe out is the air we will re-inhale. This is true spiritually, psychologically, and ecologically. We can’t be whole and happy when Mother Earth is being stripped of her wholeness. Christ came to save the world, not just the people in the world. Our salvation, like our happiness, is tied to the way we treat the earth. It is immoral to slap another person in the face and so it is immoral too to throw our garbage into the face of Mother Earth.

8. Stop being negative.

Needing to talk badly about others indicates low self-esteem. Negative thoughts feed unhappiness and a bad self-image. Positive thoughts feed happiness and healthy self-esteem.

9. Don’t proselyte, respect others’ beliefs.

What we cherish and put our faith into grows “by attraction, not by proselytizing.”  Beauty is the one thing that no one can argue with. Cherish your values, but always act towards others with graciousness, charity, and respect.

10. Work for peace.

Peace is more than the absence of war and working for peace means more than not causing disharmony.  Peace, like war, must be waged actively by working for justice, equality, and an ever-wider inclusivity in terms of what makes up our family. Waging peace is the perennial struggle to stretch hearts, our own and others, to accept that in God’s house there are many rooms and that all faiths, not least our own, are meant to be a house of prayer for all peoples.

Offered with apologies for whenever my own thinking replaced that of Pope Francis.

Walking on Water and Sinking Like a Stone

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Faith isn’t something you ever simply achieve. It’s not something that you ever nail down as a fait accompli. Faith works this way: Some days you walk on water and other days you sink like a stone.  Faith invariably gives way to doubt before it again recovers its confidence, then it loses it again.

We see this graphically illustrated in the famous story in the gospels of Peter walking on water. The story goes this way: The disciples had just witnessed a major miracle, Jesus feeding more than 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fishes. Having just witnessed a miracle, their faith was strong. Soon afterwards they get into a boat to cross a lake. Jesus is not with them. A few miles out they run into a fierce storm and begin to panic. Jesus comes walking towards them on the water. Initially they’re frightened and take him for a ghost. But he calms their fear by telling them, right from the center of the storm, that he is not just Jesus but that he is God’s very presence.

Peter is immediately buoyed up in his faith and asks Jesus to let him too walk on the water. Jesus invites him to do so and Peter gets out of the boat confidently and begins to walk on the water. But then, realizing what he was doing and the incredulous nature of it, he immediately starts to sink, cries out for help, and Jesus has to reach out and rescue him from drowning.

What we see illustrated here are two things that lie at the heart of our experience of faith, namely, that faith (literally) has its ups and downs and that it works best when we don’t confuse it with our own powers.

Faith has its ups and downs: We see this, almost pictorially illustrated, in the incident of Peter walking on the water. Initially his faith feels strong and he confidently steps onto the sea and begins to walk. But, almost immediately upon realizing what he was doing, he starts to sink. Our own faith works exactly like that, at times it lets us walk on water and at other times we sink like a stone. The gospel-image of Peter walking on the sea speaks for itself.

However if we feel discouraged because our faith vacillates in this way, we can take consolation from these words from Julian of Norwich. Describing one of her visions, she writes: “After this He [Jesus] showed a most excellent spiritual pleasure in my soul: I was completely filled with everlasting certainty, powerfully sustained without any painful fear. This feeling was so joyful and so spiritual that I was wholly in peace and in repose and there was nothing on earth that would have grieved me. This lasted only a while, and I was changed and left to myself in such sadness and weariness of my life, and annoyance with myself that scarcely was I able to have patience to live.  … And immediately after this, our Blessed Lord gave me again the comfort and the rest in my soul, in delight and in security so blissful and so powerful that no fear, no sorrow, no bodily pain that could be suffered would have distressed me. And then pain showed again to my feeling, and then the joy and delight, and now the one, and now the other, various times.” (Showings 15)

Julian of Norwich was a renowned mystic with an exceptional faith and, yet, like Peter, she too vacillated between walking on water and sinking like a stone. Her confident feelings came – but they also left.

As well, faith works best when we don’t confuse it with our own efforts. For example, Donald Nichol, in his book, Holiness, shares a story of a British missionary working in Africa. At one point, early on in his stay there, the missionary was called upon to mediate a dispute between two tribes. He had no preparation for this, was naïve, and totally out of his depth. But he gave himself over to the task in faith and, surprisingly, reconciled the two tribes. Afterwards, buoyed by this success, he began to fancy himself as mediator and began to present himself as an arbiter of disputes. But now, however, his efforts were invariably unhelpful. Here’s the irony: when he didn’t know what he was doing, but trusted solely in God, he was able to walk on water; as soon as he began to wrap himself in the process, he sank like a stone. Faith works like that: We can walk on water only as long as we don’t think that we are doing it with our own strength.

The Sufi mystic, Rumi, once wrote that we live with a deep secret that sometimes we know, and then not, and then we know it again.  Faith works like that, some days we walk on water, other days we sink like a stone, and then later we walk on water again.