RonRolheiser,OMI

Some Counsels on Faith and Religion for our Present Generation

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It’s no secret that today we’re witnessing a massive decline in church attendance and, seemingly, a parallel loss of interest in religion. The former mindset, within which we worried, sometimes obsessively, about sin, church-going, and heaven and hell no longer holds sway for millions of people. As one parent, worried about the religious state of his children, shared with me recently, “our old religious concerns never ever darken their minds.”  What’s to be said in the face of this?

Admittedly, I may not be the person best-suited to offer that advice. I’m over 70 years old, a spiritual writer whose main focus of research and teaching right now is on the spirituality of aging, and I’m a Roman Catholic priest, a religious insider, who can be perceived as simply a salesman for religion and the churches.

But, despite that, here are some counsels on faith and religion for today’s generation.

First: Search honestly. God’s first concern is not whether you’re going to church or not, but whether you are staying honest in your search for truth and meaning. When the Apostle Thomas, doubts the reality of the resurrection, Jesus doesn’t scold him, but simply asks him to stretch out his hand and continuing searching, trusting that if he searches honestly he will eventually find the truth. The same is true for us. All we have to do is be honest, to not lie, to acknowledge truth as it meets us. In John’s Gospel, Jesus sets out only one condition to come to God: Be honest and never refuse to acknowledge what’s true, no matter how inconvenient. But the key is to be honest! If we’re honest we will eventually find meaning and that will lead us where we need to go – perhaps even to a church door somewhere. But even if it doesn’t, God will find us. The mystery of Christ is bigger than we imagine.

Second: Listen to what’s deepest inside you. Soul is a precious commodity. Make sure you honor yours. Honor the voice inside your soul. Deeper than the many enticing voices you hear in world inviting you in every direction is a voice inside you which, like an insatiable thirst, reminds you always of the truth of this prayer from Saint Augustine: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Stay in touch with that voice. You will hear it in your restlessness and it will, in the words of Karl Rahner, teach you something that’s initially is hard to bear but eventually sets you free: In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we eventually learn that here in this life there is no finished symphony.

Third: Beware the crowd! In the Gospels the word “crowd” is almost always pejorative. For good reason: Crowds don’t have a mind and the energy of a crowd is often dangerous. So beware of what Milan Kundera calls “the great march”, namely, the propensity to be led by ideology, group-think, the latest trend, the popular person or thing, the false feeling of being right because the majority of people feel that way, and the social pressures coming from both the right and the left.  Be true to yourself. Be the lonely prophet who’s not afraid to be alone on the outside. Dream. Be idealistic. Protect your soul. Don’t give it away cheaply.

Fourth: Don’t confuse faith with the churches – but don’t write off the churches too quickly. When they ask those without religious affiliation today why they aren’t religious invariably their answer is: “I just don’t believe it anymore.” But what’s the “it” which they no longer believe? What they don’t believe anymore isn’t in fact the truth about God, faith, and religion, but rather what they’ve heard about God, faith, and religion. Sort that out and you will find that you do have faith. Moreover, don’t write off the churches too quickly. They have real faults; you’re not wrong about that, but they’re still the best GPS available to help you find your way to meaning. They’re a roadmap drawn up by millions of explorers who have walked the road before you. You can ignore them, but then be alert to God’s gentle voice often saying: “Recalculating”. God will get you home, but the churches can help.

Fourth: Don’t forget about the poor. When you touch the poor, you’re touching God and, as Jesus says, at the judgment day we will be judged by how we served the poor. Give yourself away in some form of altruism, knowing, as Jesus puts it, that it’s not those who say Lord, Lord, who go to heaven but those who serve others.  In your search, you need to get a letter of reference from the poor.

Fifth: Look among your contemporaries for a patron to inspire you. Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Etty Hillesum, and Dag Hammarskjold, among others – they’ve all navigated your issues.

The Scent of Humility

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According to Isaac the Syrian, a famous 7th Century bishop and theologian, a person who’s genuinely humble gives off a certain scent that other people will sense and that even animals will pick up, so that wild animals, including snakes, will fall under its spell and never harm that person.

Here’s his logic: A humble person, he believes, has recovered the smell of paradise and in the presence of such a person one does not feel judged and has nothing to fear, and this holds true even for animals. They feel safe around a humble person and are drawn to him or her.  No wonder people like Francis of Assisi could talk to birds and befriend wolves.

But, beautiful as this all sounds, is this a pious fairytale or is it a rich, archetypal metaphor?  I like to think it’s the latter, this is a rich metaphor, and perhaps even something more. Humility, indeed, does have a smell, the smell of the earth, of the soil, and of paradise.

But how? How can a spiritual quality give off a physical scent?

Well, we’re psychosomatic, creatures of both body and soul. Thus, in us, the physical and the spiritual are so much part of one and the same substance that it’s impossible to separate them out from each other. To say that we’re body and soul is like saying sugar is white and sweet and that whiteness and sweetness can never be put into separate piles. They’re both inside the sugar. We’re one substance, inseparable, body and soul, and so we’re always both physical and spiritual. So, in fact, we do feel physical things spiritually, just as we smell spiritual things through our physical senses. If this is true, and it is, then, yes, humility does give off a scent that can be sensed physically and Isaac the Syrian’s concept is more than just a metaphor.

But it’s also a metaphor:  The word humility takes its root in the Latin word, humus, meaning soil, ground, and earth. If one goes with this definition then the most humble person you know is the most-earthy and most-grounded person you know. To be humble is to have one’s feet firmly planted on the ground, to be in touch with the earth, and to carry the smell of the earth. Further still, to be humble is to take one’s rightful place as a piece of the earth and not as someone or something separate from it.

The renowned mystic and scientist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, expressed this sometimes in his prayers. During the years when, as paleontologist, he worked for long stretches in the isolated deserts of China he would sometimes compose prayers to God in a form he called, A Mass for the World. Speaking to God, as a priest, he would identify his voice with that of the earth itself, as that place within physical creation where the earth itself, the soil of the earth, could open itself and speak to God. As a priest, he didn’t speak for the earth; he spoke as the earth, giving it voice, in words to this effect:

Lord, God, I stand before you as a microcosm of the earth itself, to give it voice: See in my openness, the world’s openness, in my infidelity, the world’s infidelity; in my sincerity, the world’s sincerity, in my hypocrisy, the world’s hypocrisy; in my generosity, the world’s generosity in my attentiveness, the world’s attentiveness, in my distraction, the world’s distraction; in my desire to praise you, the world’s desire to praise you, and in my self-preoccupation, the world’s forgetfulness of you. For I am of the earth, a piece of earth, and the earth opens or closes to you through my body, my soul, and my voice.

This is humility, an expression of genuine humility. Humility should never be confused, as it often is, with a wounded self-image, with an excessive reticence, with timidity and fear, or with an overly sensitive self-awareness. Too common is the notion that a humble person is one who is self-effacing to a fault, who deflects praise (even when it’s deserved), who is too shy to trust opening himself or herself in intimacy, or who is so fearful or self-conscious and worried about being shamed so as to never step forward and offer his or her gifts to the community. These can make for a gentle and self-effacing person, but because we are denigrating ourselves when to deny our own giftedness, our humility is false, and deep-down we know it, and so this often makes for someone who nurses some not-so-hidden angers and is prone to being passive aggressive.

The most humble person you know is the person who’s the most-grounded, that is, the person who knows she’s not the center of the earth but also knows that she isn’t a second-rate piece of dirt either. And that person will give off a scent that carries both the fragrance of paradise (of divine gift) as well as the smell of the earth.

Late Migrations

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Jesus says that if we follow him, the cross, pain, will find us.

That message is chronically misunderstood. Maybe we would understand it better if Jesus had worded it this way: The more sensitive you become, the more pain will seep into your life. We catch the connection then. Sensitive person suffer more deeply, just as they also drink in more deeply the joys and beauties of life. Pain enters them more deeply for the same reason that meaning does. They’re open to it. The calloused (by definition) are spared of both, deep pain and deep joy.

With this as a backdrop I would like to introduce readers to a new book by Margaret Renkl, Late Migrations – A Natural History of Love and Loss.

This book manifests a rare sensitivity. Some people are gifted intellectually, others artistically, others romantically, and still others emotionally. Renkl is gifted with all of these; particularly with an emotional intelligence which she combines with the refined aesthetics of an artist and then further combines those two with the skill of a gifted, natural writer. It makes for a good package.  Content is only part of the gift of this book. Beyond its message, it’s a great piece of writing and a nice piece of art as well.

It’s also a book about faith, though Renkl does not express this very explicitly. She writes primarily as a naturalist, an urban Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, someone who admires nature, spends a lot of time with it, understands well its prodigal character and its innate cruelties, and understands too how those cruelties (where, within nature, life can seem cheap and easily taken) are connected to the deepest forces undergirding all life, including our own. She shares a certain complexity of character with the great paleontologist, mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was fond of saying that he was born with two incurable loves, a natural love of the pagan world and all its beauties and an equally strong love for the mystical, the other world, that is, the God behind this world. However, unlike Teilhard who is very explicit about his sense of God and the centrality of faith, Renkl’s faith is more inchoate, though clearly manifest in her understanding of nature and in how she intuits the finger of God working inside the stories she shares.

The book is a compilation of short essays, alternating between wonderfully aesthetic descriptions of the life of the birds she feeds and the gardens she tends to equally sensitive descriptions of her own life and that of her family, particularly in terms of loss and grief as inextricably intertwined with love. A few examples:

On our shortcomings in life: “Human beings are creatures made for joy. Against all evidence, we tell ourselves that grief and loneliness and despair are tragedies, unwelcome variations from the pleasure and calm and safety that in the right way of the world would form the firm ground of our being.”

On the lessons to be learned from observing nature: “Every day the world is teaching me what I need to know to be in the world.”

On how sentimentality makes for a one-sided compassion: “The story of one drowned Syrian boy washed up in the surf keeps us awake at night with grief. The story of four million refugees streaming out of Syria seems more like a math problem.”

On nature’s beauty and its cruelty: “Inside the nest box, the baby birds are safe from the hawks, sheltered from the wind, protected from the sharp eye of the crow and the terrible tongue of the red-bellied woodpecker. [But …] Inside the nest box, the baby birds are powerless, vulnerable to the fury of the pitched summer sun, of the house sparrow’s beak. Bounded on all sides by their sheltering home, they are a meal the rat snake eats at its leisure.”

On taking care of our aging loved ones until they die: “The end of caregiving is freedom. The end of caregiving is [also] grief.”

On responding to a woman who insinuated that she, Renkl, was a coward because she much feared the loss of loved ones: “It occurred to me to wonder if she had ever, even once, loved anyone enough to fear the possibility of loss, but that thought was as ugly as her own, and in any case she was not wrong.”

Richard Rohr suggests that we are forever dealing with the twin truths of great suffering and great love. During the course of this book, Renkl shares how her mother, a woman who could in certain areas of her life exhibit extraordinary energy and zest, would sometimes suffer through periods of paralyzing depression and how she herself is not immune to that same experience. There’s a logic to that since, as Jesus says, sensitive persons drink in things very deeply, both suffering and love and the former can paralyze you in grief, even as the latter can give you extraordinary energy and zest.

This book deserves to be read.