RonRolheiser,OMI

Letting go of False Fear

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Recently in a radio interview, I was asked this question: “If you were on your deathbed, what would you want to leave behind as your parting words?” The question momentarily took me aback. What would I want to leave behind as my last words? Not having time for much reflection, I settled on this. I would want to say: Don’t be afraid. Live without fear. Don’t be afraid of death. Most of all, don’t be afraid of God!”

I’m a cradle Catholic, born to wonderful parents, catechized by some very dedicated teachers, and I’ve had the privilege of studying theology in some of the best classrooms in the world. Still it took me fifty years to rid myself of a number of crippling religious fears and to realize that God is the one person of whom you need not be afraid. It’s taken me most of my life to believe the words that come from God’s mouth over three hundred times in scripture and are the initial words out of the mouth of Jesus whenever he meets someone for the first time after his resurrection: Do not be afraid!

It has been a fifty-year journey for me to believe that, to trust it. For most of my life I’ve lived in a false fear of God, and of many other things. As a young boy, I had a particular fear of lightning storms which in my young mind demonstrated how fierce and threatening God could be. Thunder and lightning were portents which warned us, religiously, to be fearful. I nursed the same fears about death, wondering where souls went after they died, sometimes looking at a dark horizon after the sun had set and wondering whether people who had died were out there somewhere, haunted in that endless darkness, still suffering for what they’d had not gotten right in life. I knew that God was love, but that love also held a fierce, frightening, exacting justice.

Those fears went partially underground during my teenage years. I made my decision to enter religious life at the age of seventeen and have sometimes wondered whether that decision was made freely and not out of false fear. Looking back on it now however, with fifty years of hindsight, I know that it wasn’t fear that compelled me, but a genuine sense of being called, of knowing from the influence of my parents and the Ursuline nuns who catechized me, that one’s life is not one’s own, that one is called to serve. But religious fear remained unhealthily strong within me.

So, what helped me let go of that? This doesn’t happen in a day or year; it is the cumulative effect of fifty years of bits and pieces conspiring together. It started with my parents’ deaths when I was twenty-two. After watching both my mother and father die, I was no longer afraid of death. It was the first time I wasn’t afraid of a dead body since these bodies were my mother and father of whom I was not afraid. My fears of God eased gradually every time I tried to meet God with my soul naked in prayer and came to realize that your hair doesn’t turn white when you are completely exposed before God; instead you become unafraid. My fears lessened too as I ministered to others and learned what divine compassion should be, as I studied and taught theology, as two cancer diagnoses forced me to contemplate for real my own mortality, and as a number of colleagues, family, and friends modeled how one can live more freely.

Intellectually, a number of persons particularly helped me: John Shea helped me realize that God is not a law to be obeyed, but an infinitely empathic energy that wants us to be happy; Robert Moore helped me to believe that God is still looking on us with delight; Charles Taylor helped me to understand that God wants us to flourish; the bitter anti-religious criticism of atheists like Frederick Nietzsche helped me see where my own concept of God and religion needed a massive purification; and an older brother, a missionary priest, kept unsettling my theology with irreverent questions like, what kind of God would want us to be frightened of him? A lot of bits and pieces conspired together.

What’s the importance of last words? They can mean a lot or a little. My dad’s last words to us were “be careful”, but he was referring to our drive home from the hospital in snow and ice. Last words aren’t always intended to leave a message; they can be focused on saying goodbye or simply be inaudible sighs of pain and exhaustion; but sometimes they can be your legacy.

Given the opportunity to leave family and friends a few last words, I think that after I first tried to say a proper goodbye, I’d say this: Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of living or of dying. Especially don’t be afraid of God.

On Not Locking our Doors

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In his book The Secret, Rene Fumoleau has a poem entitled Sins. Fumoleau, who was a missionary priest with the Dene People in Northern Canada, once asked a group of Elders to name what they considered the worst sin of all. Their answer:

            The ten Dene discussed together,

                  And after a while Radisca explained to me:

            “We talked it over, and we all agree:

            The worst sin people can make

                 is to lock their door.”

Perhaps at the time this incident took place and in that particular Dene village, you could still safely leave your door unlocked, but that’s hardly sound advice for most of us who are safe only when we have double locks and electronic security systems securing our doors. Still these Dene Elders are right because at the end of the day, they’re speaking of something deeper than a security bolt on our outside door. What does it really mean to lock your door?

As we know, there are many kinds of doors we lock and unlock to let others in and out. Jean-Paul Sartre, the famed French existentialist, once wrote: Hell is the other person. While this may feel very true emotionally on a given day, it is the antithesis of any religious truth, particularly Christian truth. In all the great religions of the world, in the end being with others is heaven; ending up eternally alone is hell.

That’s a truth built into our very nature. As human persons we are constitutively social; meaning we’re built in such a way that while we’re always individual, private, and idiosyncratic at the same time we’re always social, communitarian, and interdependent. We’re built to be with others and there’s no ultimate meaning or fulfillment to be found alone. Indeed, we need each other simply to survive and remain sane. Still more, we need each other for love and meaning because without these there’s no purpose to us. To end up alone is death of the worst kind.

This needs to be highlighted today because both in society and in our churches too many of us are locking a select number of our doors in ways that are both destructive and genuinely unchristian. What’s our issue?

Twenty years ago, Robert Putnam looked at the breakdown of community within our culture and named it with a catchy phrase, Bowling Alone.  For Putnam, our families, neighborhoods, and wider communities are breaking down because of an excessive individualism within the culture. More and more, we’re doing things alone, walking within our own idiosyncratic rhythms rather than within community rhythms. Few would dispute this assessment.  

However, what we’re struggling with today goes further than the individualism Putnam so playfully names. In the excessive individualism Putnam describes, we end up bowling alone but mostly still inside the same bowling alley, separate from each other but not locked out. Our problem goes deeper. Metaphorically, we’re locking each other out of our common bowling alley. What’s meant here?

Beyond an isolating individualism, we’re struggling today in our families, communities, countries, and churches with a demon of a different sort, that is, with doors locked in bitterness. Politically, in many of our countries we’re now so polarized that the various sides are unable to even have a respectful, civil conversation with each other. The other is “hell”.  This is true too inside our families where conversation at the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner has to carefully avoid all references to what’s going on in the country and we can only be at the same table with each other if we keep our political views locked away.

Sadly, this is now mirrored in our churches where different visions of theology, ecclesiology, and morality have led to a polarization of such intensity that each theological and ecclesial group now stays behind its own solidly locked door. There’s no openness to what’s other and all real dialogue has been replaced by mutual demonization. This lack of openness is ultimately what the Dene refer to as the worst sin of all, our locked doors. Hell then really is the other person. Sartre must be smiling.

It’s interesting how evil works.  The Gospels give us two separate words for the evil one. Sometimes the evil one is called “the devil” (Diabolos) and sometimes the evil one is called “satan” (Satanas). Both describe the evil power that works against God, goodness, and love within a community. The “Devil” works by dividing us, one from another, breaking down community through jealousy, pride, and false freedom; whereas “Satan” works in the reverse way. Satan unites us in sick ways so as to have us, as groups, demonize each other, carry out crucifixions, and cling to each other feverishly through sick kinds of hysteria and ideologies that make for scapegoating, racism, sexism, and group-hatred of every kind. Either way, whether it’s satan or the devil, we end up behind locked doors where those outside of ourselves are seen as hell.

So it’s true, “the worst sin we can make is to lock our doors.”

Sacred Permission to Feel Human

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It is normal to feel restless as a child, lonely as a teenager, and frustrated by lack of intimacy as an adult; after all we live with insatiable desires of every kind, none of which will ever find full fulfillment this side of eternity.

Where do these desires come from? Why are they so insatiable? What is their meaning?

As a young boy, the Catholic catechisms I was instructed from and sermons I heard from the pulpit in fact answered those questions, but in a vocabulary far too abstract, theological, and churchy to do much for me existentially. They left me sensing there was an answer, but not one that was of help to me. So I quietly suffered the loneliness and the restlessness. Moreover, I agonized because I felt that it was unholy to feel the way I did. My religious instruction, rich as it was, did not offer any benevolent smile from God on my restlessness and dissatisfaction. Puberty and the conscious stirring of sexuality made things worse. Now not only was I restless and dissatisfied, but the raw feelings and fantasies that were besetting me were considered positively sinful.

That was my state of mind when I entered religious life and the seminary immediately after high school. Of course, the restlessness continued, but my philosophical and theological studies gave me an understanding of what was so relentlessly stirring inside me and gave me sacred permission to be okay with that.

It started in my novitiate year with a talk one day from a visiting priest. We were novices, most of us in our late teens, and despite our commitment to religious life we were understandably restless, lonely, and fraught with sexual tension. Our visitor began his conference with a question: “Are you guys a little restless? Feeling a bit cooped up here?” We nodded. He went on: “Well you should be! You must be jumping out of your skins! All that young energy, boiling inside you! You must be going crazy! But it’s okay, that’s what you should be feeling if you’re healthy! It’s normal, it’s good. You’re young; this gets better!”

Hearing this, freed up something inside me. For the first time, in a language that genuinely spoke to me, someone had given me sacred permission to be at home inside my own skin.

My studies in literature, theology, and spirituality, continued to give me that permission, even as they helped me form a vision as to why these feelings were inside me, how they took their origins and meaning in God, and how they were far from impure and unholy.

Looking back on my studies, a number of salient persons stand out in helping me understand the wildness, insatiability, meaning, and ultimate goodness of human desire. The first was St. Augustine. The now famous quote with which he begins his Confessions: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you, has forever served me as the key to tie everything else together.With that as my secret for synthesis, I met this axiom in Thomas Aquinas: The adequate object of the intellect and will is all being as such. That might sound abstract but even as a twenty-year-old, I grasped its meaning: In brief, what would you need to experience to finally say ‘enough’, I am satisfied? Aquinas’ answer: Everything! Later in my studies I read Karl Rahner. Like Aquinas, he too can seem hopelessly abstract when, for instance, he defines the human person as Obediential potency living inside a supernatural existential. Really? Well, essentially what he means by that can be translated into a single counsel he once offered a friend: In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we ultimately learn that here, in this life, there is no finished symphony.

Finally, in my studies, I met the person and thought of Henri Nouwen. He continued to teach me what it means to live without ever getting to enjoy the finished symphony, and he articulated this with a unique genius and in a fresh vocabulary. Reading Nouwen is like being introduced to yourself, while still standing inside all your shadows. He also helps give you the sense that it is normal, healthy, and not impure or unholy to feel all those wild stirrings with their concomitant temptations inside yourself.

Each of us is a bundle of much untamed eros, of wild desire, longing, restlessness, loneliness, dissatisfaction, sexuality, and insatiability. We need to be given sacred permission to know this is normal and good because it is what we all feel, unless we are in a clinical depression or have for so long repressed these feelings that now they are expressed only negatively in destructive ways.

We all need to have someone to come visit us inside our particular “novitiate”, ask us if we are painfully restless, and when we nod our heads, say: “Good! You’re supposed to feel like that way! It means you’re healthy! Know too that God is smiling on this!”