RonRolheiser,OMI

Where is Home?

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During the years that I served as a Religious Superior for a province of Oblate Priests and Brothers in Western Canada, I tried to keep my foot inside the academic world by doing some adjunct teaching at the University of Saskatchewan. It was always a once-a-week, night course, advertised as a primer on Christian theology, and drew a variety of students.

One of the assigned readings for that course was Christopher de Vinck’s book, Only the Heart Knows How to Find Them: Precious Memories for a Faithless Time.  The book is a series of autobiographical essays most of which focus on his home life and his relationship to his wife and children. The essays describing his relationship to his wife don’t overplay the romantic, but are wonderfully heart-warming and set sex into a context of marriage, safety, and fidelity.

At the end of the semester a young woman, 30 years old, said this to me as she handed in her term paper, a reflection on de Vinck’s book: “This is the best book I’ve ever read. I didn’t have a lot of moral guidance growing up and so I wasn’t always careful with my heart and was pretty free and existential about sex. I’ve basically slept my way through two Canadian provinces; but now I know that what I really want is what his man (de Vinck) has. I’m looking for the marriage bed!” Her eyes teared as she shared this.

I’m looking for the marriage bed! That’s a great image for what the heart calls home.

At the end of the day, what is home? Is it an ethnic identity, a gender, a citizenship, a house somewhere, the place where we were born, or is it a place in the heart?

It’s a place in the heart and the image of the marriage bed situates it well. Home is where you are comfortable, physically, psychologically, and morally. Home is where you feel safe. Home is where your heart doesn’t feel out of place, compromised, violated, denigrated, trivialized, or pushed aside (even if it is sometimes taken for granted). Home is a place which you don’t have go away from to be yourself. Home is where you can be fully yourself without the need to posture that you are anything other than who you are. Home is where you are at ease.

There are various lessons couched inside that concept of home, not least, as this young woman came to realize, some valuable insights apposite how we think about love and sex. Some of what’s at stake here is captured in the popular notion of longing for a soulmate. The trouble though is that generally we tend to think of a soulmate in very charged romantic terms. But, as de Vinck’s books illustrates, finding a soulmate has more to do with finding the moral comfort and psychological safety of a monogamous marriage bed than it has to do with the stuff of romantic novels. In terms of our sexuality, what lies deepest inside our erotic longings is the desire to find someone to take us home. Any sex from which you have to go home is still something which is not delivering what you most long for and is, at best, a temporary tonic which leaves you searching still for something further and more real.

The phrase, I’m looking for the marriage bed, also contains some insights vis-a-vis discerning among the various kinds of love, infatuation, and attractions we fall into. Most people are by nature temperamentally promiscuous, meaning that we experience strong feelings of attraction, infatuation, and love for all kinds of others, irrespective of the fact that often what we are attracted to in another is not something we could ever be at home with. We can fall in love with a lot of different kinds of people, but what kind of love makes for a marriage and a home? Marriage and home are predicated on the kind of love that takes you home, on the kind of love that gives you the sense that with this person you can be at home and can build a home.

And, obviously, this concept doesn’t just apply to a husband and wife in marriage. It’s an image for what constitutes home – for everyone, married and celibate alike. The marriage bed is a metaphor for what puts one’s psychological and moral center at ease.

T.S. Eliot once wrote: Home is where we start from. It’s also where we want to end up. At birth our parents bring us home. That’s where we start from and where we are at ease until puberty drives us out in search of another home. Lots of pitfalls potentially await us in that search, but if we listen to that deep counsel inside us, that irrepressible longing to get home again, then like the wise magi who followed a special star to the manger, we too will find the marriage bed – or, at least, we won’t be looking for it at all the wrong places.

Language, Symbols, and Self-Understanding

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A reporter once asked two men at the construction site where a church was being built what each did for a living. The first man replied: “I’m a bricklayer.” The second said: “I’m building a cathedral!”  How we name an experience largely determines its meaning.

There are various languages within a language, and some speak more deeply than others.

Thirty years ago, the American Educator, Allan Bloom, wrote a book entitled, The Closing of the American Mind. This was his thesis: Our language today is becoming ever more empirical, one-dimensional, and devoid of depth.  This, he submits, is closing our minds by trivializing our experiences.

Twenty years earlier, in rather provocative essay, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Philip Rieff had already suggested the same thing. For Rieff, we live our lives under a certain “symbolic hedge”, that is, within a language and set of concepts by which we interpret our experience.  And that hedge can be high or low. We can understand our experience within a language and set of concepts that has us believe that things are very meaningful or that they are quite shallow and not very meaningful at all. Experience is rich or shallow, depending upon the language within which we interpret it.

For example: Imagine a man with a backache who sees his doctor. The doctor tells him that he’s suffering from arthritis. This brings some calm. He now knows what ails him. But he isn’t satisfied and sees a psychologist. The psychologist tells him that his symptoms are not just physical but that he’s also suffering from mid-life crisis. This affords him a richer understanding of his pain. But he’s still dissatisfied and sees a spiritual director. The spiritual director, while not denying him arthritis and mid-life crisis, tells him that this pain is really his Gethsemane, his cross to bear. Notice all three diagnoses speak of the same pain but that each places it under a different symbolic hedge.

The work of persons such as Carl Jung, James Hillman, and Thomas Moore have helped us understand more explicitly how there is a language which more deeply touches the soul.

For instance: We see the language of soul, among other places, in some of our great myths and fairy tales, many of them centuries old. Their seeming simplicity masks a disarming depth. To offer just one example, take the story of Cinderella: The first thing to notice is that the name, Cinderella, is not an actual name but a composite of two words: Cinder, meaning ashes; and Puella, meaning young girl. This is not a simple fairy tale about a lonely, beaten-down, young girl. It’s a myth that highlights a universal, paradoxical, paschal dynamic which we experience in our lives, where, before you are ready to wear the glass slipper, be the belle of the ball, marry the prince, and live happily ever after, you must first spend some prerequisite time sitting in the ashes, suffering humiliation, and being purified by that time in the dust.

Notice how this story speaks in its own way of what in Christian spirituality we call “lent”, a season of penance, wherein we mark ourselves with ashes in order to enter an ascetical space in order to prepare ourselves for the kind of joy which (for reasons we only know intuitively) can only be had after a time of renunciation and sublimation. Cinderella is a story that shines a certain light into the depth of our souls. Many of our famous myths do that.

However no myth shines a light into the soul more deeply than does scripture. Its language and symbols name our experience in a way that helps us grasp the genuine depth inside our own experiences.

Thus, there are two ways of understanding ourselves: We can be confused or we can be inside the belly of the whale. We can be helpless before an addiction or we can be possessed by a demon. We can vacillate between joy and depression or we can alternate between being with Jesus ‘in Galilee’ or with him ‘in Jerusalem’. We can be paralyzed as we stand before globalization or we can be standing with Jesus on the borders of Samaria in a new conversation with a pagan woman. We can be struggling with fidelity in keeping our commitments or we can be standing with Joshua before God, receiving instructions to kill off the Canaanites so as to sustain ourselves in the Promised Land. We can be suffering from arthritis or we can be sweating blood in the garden of Gethsemane.  The language we use to understand an experience defines what the experience means to us.

In the end, we can have a job or we can have a vocation; we can be lost or we can be spending our 40 days in the desert; we can be bitterly frustrated or we can be pondering with Mary; or we can be slaving away for a pay check or we can be building a cathedral. Meaning depends a lot on language.

Who Goes to Hell and Who Doesn’t?

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Hell is never a nasty surprise waiting for a basically happy person.  Nor is it necessarily a predicable ending for an unhappy, bitter person. Can a happy, warm-hearted person go to hell? Can an unhappy, bitter person go to heaven? That’s all contingent upon how we understand hell and how we read the human heart.

A person who is struggling honestly to be happy cannot go to hell since hell is the antithesis of an honest struggle to be happy. Hell, in Pope Francis’ words, “is wanting to be distant from God’s love.”  Anyone who sincerely wants love and happiness will never be condemned to an eternity of alienation, emptiness, bitterness, anger, and hatred (which are what constitute the fires of hell) because hell is wanting not to be in heaven. Thus there’s no one in hell who’s sincerely longing for another chance to mend things so as to go to heaven. If there’s anyone in hell, it’s because that person truly wants to be distant from love.

But can someone really want to be distant from God’s love and from human love? The answer is complex because we’re complex: What does it mean to want something? Can we want something and not want it all at the same time? Yes, because there are different levels to the human psyche and consequently the same desire can be in conflict with itself.

We can want something and not want it all at the same time. That’s a common experience. For instance, take a young child who has just been disciplined by his mother. At that moment, the child can bitterly hate his mother, even as at another, more inchoate, level what he most desperately wants is in fact his mother’s embrace. But until his sulk ends he wants to be distant from his mother, even as his deepest want is to be with his mother. We know the feeling.

Hatred, as we know, is not opposite of love but simply one modality of love’s grieving and so this type of dynamic perennially plays itself out in the befuddling, complex, paradoxical relationship that millions of us have with God, the church, with each other, and with love itself. Our wounds are mostly not our own fault but the result of an abuse, a violation, a betrayal, or some traumatic negligence within the circle of love. However this doesn’t preclude them doing funny things to us. When we’re wounded in love, then, like a reprimanded, sulking child who wants distance from his mother, we too can for a time, perhaps for a lifetime, not want heaven because we feel that we’ve been unfairly treated by it. It’s natural for many people to want to be distant from God. The child bullied on the playground who identifies his or her bullies with the inner circle of “the accepted ones” will understandably want to be distant from that circle – or perhaps even do violence to it.

However that’s at one level of soul. At a deeper level, our ultimate longing is still to be inside of that circle of love which we at that moment seemingly hate, hate because we feel that we’ve been unfairly excluded from it or violated by it and hence deem it to be something we want no part of. Thus someone can be very sincere of soul and yet because of deep wounds to her soul go through life and die wanting to be distant what she perceives as God, love, and heaven. But we may not make a simplistic judgment here.

We need to distinguish between what at a given moment we explicitly want and what, at that same moment, we implicitly (really) want. They’re often not the same. The reprimanded child seemingly wants distance from his mother, even as at another level he desperately wants it.

Many people want distance from God and the churches, even as at another level they don’t. But God reads the heart, recognizes the untruth hiding inside a sulk or a pout, and judges accordingly. That’s why we shouldn’t be so quick to fill up hell with everyone who appears to want distance from love, faith, church, and God. God’s love can encompass, empathize with, melt down, and heal that hatred. Our love should too.

Christian hope asks us to believe things that go against our natural instincts and emotions and one of these is that God’s love is so powerful that, just as it did at Jesus’ death, it can descend into hell itself and there breathe love and forgiveness into both the most wounded and most hardened of souls. Hope asks us to believe that the final triumph of God’s love will be when the Lucifer himself converts, returns to heaven, and hell is finally empty.

Fanciful? No. That’s Christian hope; it’s what many of our great saints believed.

Yes, there’s a hell and, given human freedom, it’s always a radical possibility for everyone; but, given God’s love, perhaps sometime it will be completely empty.