RonRolheiser,OMI

God’s Closeness

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There’s a growing body of literature today that chronicles the experience of persons who were clinically dead for a period of time (minutes or hours) and were medically resuscitated and brought back to life.  Many of us, for example, are familiar with Dr. Eben Alexander’s book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. More recently Hollywood produced a movie, Miracles from Heaven, which portrays the true story of a young Texas girl who was clinically dead, medically revived, and who shares what she experienced in the afterlife.

There are now hundreds of stories like this, gathered through dozens of years, published or simply shared with loved ones. What’s interesting (and consoling) is that virtually all these stories are wonderfully positive, irrespective of the person’s faith or religious background. In virtually every case their experience, while partially indescribable, was one in which they felt a warm, personal, overwhelming sense of love, light, and welcome, and not a few of them found themselves meeting relatives of theirs that had passed on before them, sometimes even relatives that they didn’t know they had. As well, in virtually every case, they did not want to return to life here but, like Peter on the Mountain of the Transfiguration, wanted to stay there.

Recently while speaking at conference, I referenced this literature and pointed out that, among other things, it seems everyone goes to heaven when they die. This, of course, immediately sparked a spirited discussion: “What about hell? Aren’t we judged when we die? Doesn’t anyone go to hell?” My answer to those questions, which need far more nuance than are contained in a short soundbite, was that while we all go to heaven when we die, depending upon our moral and spiritual disposition, we might not want to stay there. Hell, as Jesus assures us, is a real option; though, as Jesus also assures us, we judge ourselves. God puts no one to hell. Hell is our choice.

However it was what happened after this discussion that I want to share here: A woman approached me as I was leaving and told me that she had had this exact experience. She had been clinically dead for some minutes and then revived through medical resuscitation. And, just like the experience of all the others in the literature around this issue, she too experienced a wonderful warmth, light, and welcome, and did not want to return to life here on earth. Inside of all of this warmth and love however what she remembers most and most wants to share with others is this: I learned that God is very close. We have no idea how close God is to us. God is closer to us than we ever imagine! Her experience has left her forever branded with a sense of God’s warmth, love, and welcome, but what’s left the deepest brand of all inside her is the sense of God’s closeness.

I was struck by this because, like millions of others, I generally don’t feel that closeness, or at least don’t feel it very affectively or imaginatively. God can seem pretty far away, abstract and impersonal, a Deity with millions of things to worry about without having to worry about the minutiae of my small life.

Moreover, as Christians, we believe that God is infinite and ineffable. This means that while we can know God, we can never imagine God. Given that truth, it makes it even harder for us to imagine that the infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things is intimately and personally present inside us, worrying with, sharing our heartaches, and knowing our most guarded feelings.

Compounding this is the fact that whenever we do try to imagine God’s person our imaginations come up against the unimaginable. For example, try to imagine this: There are billions of persons on this earth and billions more have lived on this earth before us. At this very minute, thousands of people are being born, thousands are dying, thousands are sinning, thousands are doing virtuous acts, thousands are making love, thousands are experiencing violence, thousands are feeling their hearts swelling with joy, all of this part of trillions upon trillions of phenomena. How can one heart, one mind, one person be consciously on top of all of this and so fully aware and empathetic that no hair falls from our heads or sparrow from the sky without this person taking notice? It’s impossible to imagine, pure and simple, and that’s part of the very definition of God.

How can God be as close to us as we are to ourselves?  Partly this is mystery, and wisdom bids us befriend mystery because anything we can understand is not very deep! The mystery of God’s intimate, personal presence inside us is beyond our imaginations. But everything within our faith tradition and now most everything in the testimony of hundreds of people who have experienced the afterlife assure us that, while God may be infinite and ineffable, God is very close to us, closer than we imagine.

A Threat to our Decency

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Jesus tells us that in the end we will be judged on how we dealt with the poor in our lives, but there are already dangers now, in this life, in not reaching out to the poor

Here’s how Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy, teases out that danger: “I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned. We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we condemn others.”

What needs to be highlighted here is what we do to ourselves when we don’t reach out in compassion to the poor.  We corrupt our own decency. As Stevenson puts it: An absence of compassion corrupts our decency – as a state, as a church, as family, and as individuals. How so?

St. Augustine teaches that we can never be morally neutral, either we are growing in virtue or falling into vice.  We never have the luxury of simply being in some neutral, holding state. There’s no moral neutrality.  Either we are growing in virtue or sliding into virtue’s opposite. That’s true for all of life. A thing is either growing or it’s regressing.

So too with our attitude towards justice and the poor: Either we are actively reaching out to the poor and being more drawn into concern for them or we are unconsciously hardening our hearts against them and unknowingly sliding into attitudes that trivialize their issues and distance ourselves from them. If we are not actively advocating for justice and the poor, it is inevitable that at a point we will, with completely sincere hearts, downplay the issues of poverty, racism, inequality, and injustice.

It’s interesting to note that in the famous text on the final judgment in the Gospel where Jesus describes how God will divide the sheep from the goats on the basis of how they treated the poor, neither group, those who did it correctly and those who didn’t, actually knew what they were doing. The group who did it right state that they didn’t know that in touching the poor they were touching Christ; and the group who got it wrong protest that had they known that Christ was in the poor, they would have reached out. Jesus assures us that it doesn’t matter. Mature discipleship lies simply in the doing, irrespective of our conscious attitude.

And so we need to be alert not just to our conscious attitudes but to what we are actually doing. We can, in all sincerity, in all good conscience, in all good heart, be blind towards justice and the poor. We can be moral men and women, pious church-goers, generous donors to those who ask help from us, warm to our own families and friends, and yet, blind to ourselves, though not to the poor, be unhealthily elitist, subtle racists, callous towards the environment, and protective of our own privilege. We are still good persons no doubt, but the absence of compassion in one area of our lives leaves us limping morally.

We can be good persons and yet fall into a certain hardness of heart because of kindred, ideological circles that falsely affirm us. Within any circle of friends, either we are talking about ways that we can more effectively lessen the gaps between rich and poor or we are talking, however unconsciously, about the need to defend the gaps that presently exist. One kind of conversation is stretching our hearts; the other is narrowing them. Lack of compassion for justice and the poor will inevitably work at turning a generous heart into a defensive one.

We all have friends who admire us and send us signals that we are good, big-hearted, virtuous persons. And no doubt this is substantially true. But the affirmation we receive from our own kind can be a false mirror. A truer mirror is how those who are politically, racially, religiously, and temperamentally different from ourselves assess us. How do the poor feel about us? How do refugees assess our goodness? How do other races rate our compassion?

And what about the mirror that Jesus holds up for us when he tells us that our goodness will be judged by how we treat the poor and that the litmus test of goodness consists is how well we love our enemies?

An absence of compassion in even one area subtly corrupts the decency of a community, a state, a nation, and that eventually turns our generosity into defensiveness.

Paralysis, Exasperation, and Helplessness as Prayer

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Several years ago I received an email that literally stopped my breath. A man who had been for many years an intellectual and faith mentor to me, a man whom I thoroughly trusted, and a man with whom I had developed a life-giving friendship, had killed both his wife and himself in a murder-suicide. The news left me gasping for air, paralyzed in terms of how to understand and accept this as well as how to pray in the face of this.

I had neither words of explanation nor words for prayer. My heart and my head were like two water pumps working a dry well, useless and frustrated. Whatever consolation I had was drawn from an assurance from persons who knew him more intimately that there had been major signs of mental deterioration in the time leading up to this horrible event and they were morally certain that this was the result of an organic dysfunction in his brain, not an indication of his person. Yet … how does one pray in a situation like this? There aren’t any words.

And we have all experienced situations like this: the tragic death of someone we love by murder, suicide, overdose, or accident. Or, the exasperation and helplessness we feel in the face of the many seemingly senseless events we see daily in our world: Terrorists killing thousands of innocent people; natural disasters leaving countless persons dead or homeless; mass killings by deranged individuals in New York, Paris, Las Vegas, Florida, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, among other places; and millions of refugees having to flee their homelands because of war or poverty. And we all we know people who have received terminal sentences in medical clinics and had to face what seems as an unfair death: young children whose lives are just starting and who shouldn’t be asked at so tender an age to have to process mortality and young mothers dying whose children still desperately need them.

In the face of these things, we aren’t just exasperated by the senselessness of the situation we struggle too to find both heart and words with which to pray. How do we pray when we are paralyzed by senselessness and tragedy? How do we pray when we no longer have the heart for it?

St. Paul tells us that when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit in groans too deep for words prays through us. What an extraordinary text! Paul tells us that when we can still find the words with which to pray this is not our deepest prayer. Likewise when we still have the heart to pray, this too is not our deepest prayer. Our deepest prayer is when we are rendered mute and groaning in exasperation, in frustration, in helplessness. Wordless exasperation is often our deepest prayer. We pray most deeply when we are so driven to our knees so as to be unable to do anything except surrender to helplessness. Our groaning, wordless, seemingly the antithesis of prayer, is indeed our prayer. It is the Spirit praying through us. How so?

The Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, is, as scripture assures us, the spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, longsuffering, fidelity, mildness, faith, and chastity. And that Spirit lives deep within us, placed there by God in our very make-up and put into us even more deeply by our baptism. When we are exasperated and driven to our knees by a tragedy which is too painful and senseless to accept and absorb our groans of helplessness are in fact the Spirit of God groaning in us, suffering all that it isn’t, yearning for goodness, beseeching God in a language beyond words.

Sometimes we can find the heart and the words with which to pray, but there are other times when, in the words of the Book of Lamentation, all we can do is put our mouths to the dust and wait. The poet, Rainer Marie Rilke, once gave this advice to a person who had written him, lamenting that in the face of a devastating loss he was so paralyzed that he did not know what he could possibly do with the pain he was experiencing. Rilke’s advice: Give that heaviness back to the earth itself, the earth is heavy, mountains are heavy, the seas are heavy. In effect: Let your groaning be your prayer!

When we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit in groans too deep for words prays through us. So every time we are face-to-face with a tragic situation that leaves us stuttering, mute, and so without heart that all we can do is say, I can’t explain this! I can’t accept this! I can’t deal with this! This is senseless! I am paralyzed in my emotions! I am paralyzed in my faith!  I no longer have the heart to pray, it can be consoling to know that this paralyzing exasperation is our prayer – and perhaps the deepest and most sincere prayer we have ever offered.