RonRolheiser,OMI

God’s Finger in our Lives

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The problem in the world and in the churches, Jim Wallis suggests, is that, perennially, conservatives get it wrong and liberals (over-reacting to conservatives) then don’t get it at all. Nowhere is this truer, I believe, than in how we discern the finger of God in the events of our lives.

Jesus tells us to discern the finger of God in our lives by reading the signs of the times. What’s meant by that? The idea isn’t so much that we look to every kind of social, political, and religious analysis to try to understand what’s going on in the world, but rather that we look at every event in our lives, personal or global, and ask ourselves: What’s God saying to me this event? What’s God saying to us in this event?

An older generation understood this as trying to attune itself to the workings of “divine providence”.  That practice goes back to biblical times. When we read the bible, we see that for God’s people nothing happened that was understood as being purely secular or religiously neutral. Rather in every event, be it ever so accidental and secular, they saw the finger of God. For example, they believed that if they lost a war, it wasn’t because the other side had superior soldiers, but rather that God had somehow engineered this to teach them a lesson. Or if they were hit by drought it was because God had actively stopped the heavens from raining, again to teach them a lesson.

Now it’s easy to misunderstand this because, frequently, in writing this up, the sacred authors give the impression that God actively caused the event. That’s their wording, though not their intent or meaning. The bible does not intend to teach us that God causes wars or stops the heavens from raining; it accepts that they’re the result of natural contingency. The lesson is only that God speaks through them.

And it’s here where conservatives tend to get it wrong and liberals tend to miss the point.  A recent example of this is the reaction of certain religious circles, conservative and liberal, to the outbreak of AIDS. When AIDS first broke out, a number of strong conservative religious voices spoke out saying that AIDS was God’s punishment on us for our sexual promiscuity, particularly for homosexuality. Liberal religious voices, for their part, were so turned off by this that their response was: God has nothing to do with this!

Both need a lesson on the workings of divine providence. Religious conservatives are wrong in their interpretation: God does not cause AIDS to punish us for sexual promiscuity. Conversely, religious liberals are also wrong in saying that this has nothing to do with God. God doesn’t cause AIDS (or any other disease) but God speaks through AIDS and every other disease. Our religious task is to discern the message. What’s God saying to us through this?

James Mackey teaches that divine providence is a conspiracy of accidents through which God speaks. Frederick Buechner teases this out a little further by saying: “This does not mean that God makes events happen to us which move us in certain directions like chessmen. Instead, events happen under their own steam as random as rain, which means that God is present in them not as their cause but as the one who even in the hardest and most hair-raising of them offers us the possibility of that new life and healing which I believe is what salvation is.”  

God is always speaking to us in every event in our lives. For a Christian, there’s no such a thing as a purely secular experience. The event may be the result of purely secular and contingent forces but it contains a religious message for us, always. Our task is to read that message.

And one further note: Mostly, it seems that we hear God’s voice only in experiences that are deeply painful for us rather than in events that bring us joy and pleasure. But we shouldn’t misread this. It’s not that God speaks only through pain and is silent when things go right. Rather, in the words of C.S. Lewis, pain is God’s microphone to a deaf world. God is always speaking, mostly we aren’t listening. It’s only when our hearts start breaking that we begin to attune ourselves to the voice of God.

Divine providence is a conspiracy of accidents through which God speaks and we must be careful to get both parts of the equation right. God doesn’t cause AIDS, global warming, the refugee situation in the world, a cancer diagnosis, world hunger, hurricanes, tornadoes, or any other such thing in order to teach us a lesson; but something in all of these invites us to try to discern what God is saying through them. Likewise, God doesn’t cause your favorite sports team to win a championship; that too is the result of a conspiracy of accidents. But God speaks through all of these things – even your favorite team’s championship win!

Needed – Particular Kinds of Saints

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Simone Weil once commented that it’s not enough today to be merely a saint; rather “we must have the saintliness demanded by the present moment.”

She’s surely right on that second premise; we need saints whose virtues speak to the times.

What kind of saint is needed today? Someone who can show us how we can actually forgive an enemy? Someone who can help us come together across the bitter divide within our communities and churches? Someone who can show us how to reach out to the poor?  Someone who can teach us how to actually pray? Someone who can show us how to find “Sabbath” inside the bombardment of ten thousand television channels, a million blogs, and a billion tweets? Someone who can show us how to sustain our childhood faith amidst the sophistication, complexity, and agnosticism of our adult lives?  Someone who, like Jesus, can go into singles’ bars and not sin? Someone who radiates a full-bodied humanity, even as he or she is, by faith, set apart? Someone who’s a mystic, but with a robust sense of humor? Someone who can be both chaste and healthily sexual at the same time?

The list could go on. We’re in pioneer territory. The saints of old didn’t face our issues. They had their own demons to conquer and aren’t rolling over in their graves, shaking their fingers in disgust at us in our struggles and infidelities. They know the struggle, know that ours is new territory with new demons to conquer and new virtues asked for. The saints of old remain, of course, as essential templates of Christian discipleship, living gospels, but they walked in different times.

So what kind of saints do we need today?

We need saints who can honor the goodness of the world, even as they honor God. We need women and men who can show us how to walk with a living faith inside a culture which believes that world here is enough and that the issues of God and the next life are peripheral. We need saints who can walk with a steady, adult faith in the face of the world’s sophistication, its pathological restlessness, its over-stimulated grandiosity, its numbing distractions, and its overpowering temptations. We need saints who can empathize with those who have drifted away from the church, even as they themselves, without compromise, hold their own moral and religious ground. We need young saints who can romantically re-enflame the religious imagination of the world, as once did Francis and Clare. And we need old saints, who have walked the gamut and can show us how to meet all the challenges of today and yet retain our childhood faith.

As well, we need what Sarah Coakley calls “erotic saints”, women and men who can bring chastity and eros together in a way that speaks of the importance of both. We need saints who can model for us the goodness of sexuality, who can delight in its human joys and honor its God-given place within the spiritual journey, even as they never denigrate it by setting it against spirituality or cheapen it by making it simply another form of recreation.

Then too we need saints today who can, with compassion, help us to see our blind complicity with systems of all kinds which victimize the vulnerable in order to safeguard our own comfort, security, and historical privilege. We need saints who can speak prophetically for the poor, for the environment, for women, for refugees, for those with inadequate access to medical care and education, and for all who are stigmatized because of race, color, or creed.  We need saints, lonely prophets, who can stand as unanimity-minus one, and who can wage peace and who can point our eyes to a reality beyond our own shortsightedness.

And these saints need not be formally canonized; their lives need simply be lamps for our eyes and leaven for our lives. I don’t know who your present-day saints are, but I find have found mine among a very wide range of persons, old, young, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, liberal, conservative, religious, lay, clerical, secular, faith-filled, and agnostic. Full disclosure, the names I mention here are not persons whose lives I know in any detail. Mostly, I know what they’ve written, but their writings are a lamp which lights my path.  

Among those of my own generation, I’m indebted to are Raymond E. Brown, Charles Taylor, Daniel Berrigan, Jean Vanier, Mary Jo Leddy, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Keating, Jim Wallis, Richard Rohr, Elizabeth Johnson, Parker Palmer, Barbara Brown Taylor, Wendy Wright, Gerhard Lohfink, Kathleen Dowling Singh, Jim Forest, John Shea, James Hillman, Thomas Moore, and Marilynne Robinson.

Among the younger voices whose lives and writings speak as well to a generation younger than mine, I would mention Shane Claiborne, Rachel Held Evans, James Martin, Kerry Weber, Trevor Herriot, Macy Halford, Robert Barron, Bryan Stevenson, Robert Ellsberg, Bieke Vandekerckhove, and Annie Riggs.

Maybe these aren’t your saints, fair enough. So lean on those who help light your path.

An Important New Book

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Each year, I write a column sharing with readers the title and a brief synopsis of the ten books that touched me most that year. Occasionally, however, I judge a book to be exceptional enough to merit its own column. Robert Ellsberg’s new book, A Living Gospel – Reading God’s Story in Holy Lives, is such a book.

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and in that role has shepherded into print some of the more challenging spiritual writings of our generation. Among others things, he has edited the selected writings, diaries, and letters of Dorothy Day (whom he had the privilege of being in community with during the last five years of her life). But beyond publishing the thoughts of others, Ellsberg has himself, quietly, produced a huge treasury of writings on the lives of the saints. He has three major books on the lives of the saints (All Saints; The Saints’ Guide to Happiness; and Blessed Among Women) and, each day, writes an account of the life of a saint for the booklet, Give Us This Day.

Ellsberg is what’s technically termed a hagiographer, namely, someone who writes up the lives of various saints so that they may serve as inspirations for the rest of us. Anyone familiar with the history of Christian spirituality knows how important this has been. The Gospels themselves are, in a manner of speaking, hagiography, the life of Jesus written up for our inspiration and imitation.  Then, in the early church, we have the lives of the martyrs and after that a parade of saints through medieval and modern times down to our own age. We’ve always been told the stories of the saints.

Many of us, I suspect, are familiar with Alban Butler’s classic, four-volume series, Lives of the Saints. These famous mini-biographies were published 200 years ago but they employed the literary genre of the time apposite to writing up the lives of saints. That genre, hagiography, on principle, distorted somewhat the literal reality so as to highlight essence and this often left the reader with the impression that the saints being described were devoid of normal human weakness and limitation. Our age no longer understands this and so a new kind of hagiography is needed, one that brings out essence without sacrificing the literal facts. Robert Ellsberg is that new kind of hagiographer and we need such hagiography today.

When I was young, the lives of the saints were one of the major ways within which spirituality was taught. We each had a patron saint, every city had a patron saint, every parish had a patron saint, we all read the lives of the saints and were inspired to higher ideals by the likes of saints such as Tarcisius, stoned to death for protecting the Blessed Sacrament; Marie Goretti, willing to die rather than sacrifice her personal integrity; St. George, who by the power of faith could slay dragons; and St. Christopher, whose providential eye could you keep you safe while traveling.

Of course, looking back, one can see now where those who wrote up these stories often took liberties with historical fact to highlight essence. Indeed, both St. George and St. Christopher are now relegated more to the realm of fable than fact.  No matter, their stories, like those of the other saints we read, lifted our eyes a little higher, put a bit more courage in our hearts, gave us real life examples of Christian discipleship, and helped fix our eyes on what’s more noble.

Today we have a different version of the lives of the saints. The rich, famous, and successful have effectively replaced the saints of old. Butler’s Lives of the Saints has been replaced by People Magazine, biographies, television programs, and websites that picture and detail for us the lives of the rich and the famous. And these lives, notwithstanding the goodness you often see there, don’t exactly focus our eyes and hearts in the same direction as do the lives of Tarcisius, Marie Goretti, St. George, or St. Christopher.  In a culture which deifies celebrity, we need some different celebrities to envy. Robert Ellsberg is pointing them out.

In this book, among other things, Ellsberg chronicles the lives of four contemporary “saints”, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Charles de Foucault (none of whom are yet canonized or might ever be.)  But, their lives, he believes, can help us define what following Jesus might mean inside the complexities of our own generation.

And this is true too for the Church as a whole. Commenting on the life of Charles de Foucauld, Ellsberg writes: “In an age when Christianity is no longer synonymous with the outreach of Western civilization and colonial power, the witness of Foucauld – poor, unarmed, stripped of everything, relying on no greater authority than the power of love – may well represent the future of the church, a church rooted in the memory of its origins and of its poor founder.”

The saints have something for everyone!