RonRolheiser,OMI

Ordinary Goodness and our Spiritual Journey 

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The spirituality writer, Tom Stella, tells a story about three monks at prayer in their monastery chapel. The first monk imagines himself being carried up to heaven by the angels. The second monk imagines himself already in heaven, chanting God’s praises with the angels and saints. The third monk cannot focus on any holy thoughts but can only think about the great hamburger he had eaten just before coming to chapel. That night, when the devil was filing his report for the day, he wrote: “Today I tried to tempt three monks, but I only succeeded with two of them.”

There’s more depth to this story that initially meets the eye. I wish that, years ago, I had grasped how both angels and great hamburgers play a role in our spiritual journey.  You see, for too many years, I identified the spiritual quest with only explicit religious thoughts, prayers, and actions. If I was in church, I was spiritual, whereas if I was enjoying a good meal with friends, I was merely human. If I was praying and could concentrate my thoughts and feelings on some holy or inspiring thing, I felt I was praying and was, for that time, spiritual and religious; whereas if I was distracted, fatigued, or too sleepy to concentrate, I felt I had prayed poorly. When I was doing explicitly religious things or making more-obvious moral decisions, I felt religious, everything else was, to my mind, mere humanism.

While I was not particularly Manichaean or negative on the things of this world, nonetheless the good things of creation (of life, of family and friendship, of the human body, of sexuality, of food and drink) were never understood as spiritual, as religious. In my mind, there was a pretty sharp distinction heaven and earth, the holy and the profane, the divine and the human, between the spiritual and the earthly. This was especially true for the more earthy aspects of life, namely, food, drink, sex, and bodily pleasures of any kind. At best, these were distractions from the spiritual; at worst, they were negative temptations tripping me up, obstacles to spirituality.

But, by stumbling often enough, we eventually learn: I tried to live like the first two monks, with my mind on spiritual things, but the third monk kept tripping me up, ironically not least when I was in church or at prayer. While in church or at prayer and trying to force mind and heart onto the things of the spirit, I would forever find myself assailed by things that, supposedly, had no place in church: memories and anticipations of gatherings with friends, anxieties about relationships, anxieties about unfinished tasks, thoughts about my favorite sports teams, thoughts of wonderful meals with pasta and wine, of grilled steaks and bacon-burgers, and, most pagan of all, sexual fantasies that seemed the very antithesis of all that’s spiritual.

It took some years and better spiritual guidance to learn that a many of these tensions were predicated on a poor and faulty understanding of Christian spirituality and of the real dynamics of prayer.

The first faulty understanding had to do with misunderstanding God’s intent and design in creating us.  God did not design our nature in one way, that is, to be sensual and to be so rooted deeply in the things of this earth, and then demand that we live as if we were not corporeal and as if the good things of this earth were only sham and obstacles to salvation, as opposed to being an integral part of salvation.  Moreover, the incarnation, the mystery of God becoming corporeal, sensual, taking on human flesh, teaches unequivocally that we find salvation not by escaping the body and the things of this earth but by entering them more deeply and correctly. Jesus affirmed the resurrection of the bodily, not the flight of the soul.

The second misunderstanding had to do with the dynamics of prayer. Initially, in its early stages, prayer is about focus and concentration on the sacred, on conversations with God, on trying to leave aside, for a time, the things of this world to enter into the realm of the sacred. But that’s the early stage of prayer. Eventually, as prayer deepens and matures, in the words of John of the Cross, the important things begin to happen under the surface and sitting in chapel with God is not unlike sitting down with someone you sit down with regularly. If you visit someone on a daily basis you won’t each day have deep, intense conversations; mostly you will talk about everyday things, family concerns, the weather, sports, politics, the latest TV programs, food, and so on – and you’ll find yourself looking at your watch occasionally. It’s the same with our relationship to God. If you pray regularly, daily, you don’t have to agonize about concentrating and keeping the conversation focused on deep, spiritual things.  You only have to be there, at ease with a friend. The deep things are happening under the surface.

Faith and Fear

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A common soldier dies without fear, yet Jesus died afraid. Iris Murdoch wrote this and that truth can be somewhat disconcerting. Why? If someone dies with deep faith, shouldn’t he or she die within a certain calm and trust drawn from that faith? Wouldn’t the opposite seem more logical, that is, if someone dies without faith shouldn’t he or she die with more fear? And perhaps the most confusing of all: Why did Jesus, the paragon of faith, die afraid, crying out in a pain that can seem like a loss of faith?

The problem lies in our understanding. Sometimes we can be very naïve about faith and its dynamics, thinking that faith in God is a ticket to earthly peace and joy. But faith isn’t a path to easy calm, nor does it assure us that we will exit this life in calm, and that can be pretty unsettling and perplexing at times. Here’s an example:

The renowned spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, in a book entitled, In Memoriam, shares this story around his mother’s death: Nouwen, a native of the Netherlands, was teaching in the USA when he received a call that his mother was dying back home in the Netherlands. On his flight home, from New York to Amsterdam, he reflected on his mother’s faith and virtue and concluded that she was the most Christian woman he had ever known. With that as a wonderfully consoling thought, he fantasied about how she would die, how her last hours would be filled with faith and calm, and how that faith and calm would be her final, faith-filled witness to her family.

But that’s not the way it played out. Far from being calm and unafraid, his mother, in the final hours leading up to her death, was seemingly in the grip of some inexplicable darkness, of some deep inner disquiet, and of something that looked like the antithesis of faith. For Nouwen this was very disconcerting. Why? Why would his mother be undergoing this disquiet when for all her life she had been a woman of such strong faith?

Initially this unsettled him deeply, until a deeper understanding of faith broke through: His mother had been a woman who every day of her adult life had prayed to Jesus, asking him to empower her to live as he lived and to die as he died. Well, seemingly, her prayer was heard. She did die like Jesus who, though having a rock-solid faith, sweated blood while contemplating his own death and then cried out on the cross, anguished with the feeling that God had forsaken him. In brief, her prayer had been answered. She had asked Jesus to let her die as he did and, given her openness to it, her prayer was granted, to the confusion of her family and friends who had expected a very different scene. That is also true for the manner of Jesus’ death and the reaction of his family and disciples. This isn’t the way anyone naturally fantasizes the death of a faith-filled person.

But a deeper understanding of faith reverses that logic: Looking at the death of Henri Nouwen’s mother, the question is not, how could this happen to her? The question is rather: Why wouldn’t this happen to her? It’s what she asked for and, being a spiritual athlete who asked God to send her the ultimate test, why wouldn’t God oblige?

There’s a certain parallel to this in the seeming doubts suffered by Mother Teresa. When her diaries were published and revealed her dark night of the soul, many people were shocked and asked: How could this happen to her? A deeper understanding of faith would, I believe, ask instead: Why wouldn’t this happen to her, given her faith and her openness to enter into Jesus’ full experience?

But, this has still a further complication: Sometimes for person of deep faith it doesn’t happen this way and instead he or she dies calm and unafraid, buoyed up by faith like a safe ship on stormy waters. Why does this happen to some and not to others? We have no answer. Faith doesn’t put us all one the same conveyor-belt where one dynamic fits all.  Sometimes people with deep faith die, as Jesus did, in darkness and fear; and sometimes people with deep faith they die in calm and peace.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross submits that each of us goes through five clear stages in dying, namely, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Kathleen Dowling Singh suggests that what Kubler-Ross defines as acceptance needs some further nuance.  According to Singh, the toughest part of that acceptance is full surrender and, prior to that surrender, some people, though not everyone, will undergo a deep interior darkness that, on the surface, can look like despair. Only after that, do they experience joy and ecstasy.

All of us need to learn the lesson that Nouwen learned at his mother’s deathbed:  Faith, like love, admits of various modalities and may not be judged simplistically from the outside.

Youth Today – Who are They Really?

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A seminarian I know recently went to a party on a Friday evening at a local university campus. The group was a crowd of young, college students and when he was introduced as a seminarian, as someone who was trying to become a priest and who had taken a vow of celibacy, the mention of celibacy evoked some giggles in the room, some banter, and a number of jokes about how much he must be missing out on in life. Poor, naïve fellow! Initially, within this group of millenniums, his religious beliefs and what this had led to in his life was regarded as something between amusing and pitiful. But, before the evening was out, several young women had come, cried on his shoulder, and shared about their frustration with their boyfriends’ inability to commit fully to their relationship.

This incident might serve as a parable describing today’s young people in our secularized world. They exhibit what might aptly be called a bi-polar character about faith, church, family, sexual ethos, and many other things that are important to them.

They present an inconsistent picture: On the one hand, by and large, they are not going to church, at least with any regularity; they are not following the Christian ethos on sexuality; they seem indifferent to and even sometimes hostile to many cherished religious traditions; and they can appear unbelievably shallow in their addiction and enslavement to what’s trending in the world of entertainment, fashion, and information technology. Looked at from one perspective, our kids today can appear irreligious, morally blasé, and on a heavy diet of the kind of superficiality that characterizes reality television and video games.  More seriously still, they can also appear myopic, greedy, pampered, and excessively self-interested. Not a pretty picture.

But this isn’t exactly the picture. Beneath that surface, in most cases, you will find someone who is very likeable, sincere, soft, good-hearted, gracious, moral, warm, generous, and searching for all the right things (without much help from a culture that lacks clear moral guidance and is fraught with over-choice). The good news is that most young people, at the level of their real desires, are not at odds at all with God, faith, church, and family. For the most part, youth today are still very good people and want all the right things.

But, that isn’t always so evident. Sometimes their surface seems to trump their depth so that who they really are and what they really want is not so evident. We see the surface and, seen there, our youth can appear more self-interested than generous, more shallow than deep, more blasé than morally sensitive, and more religiously indifferent than faith-filled. They can also manifest a smugness and self-sufficiency that suggests little vulnerability and no need for guidance from anyone beyond themselves.

Hence their bi-polarity: Mostly they want all the right things, but, too often, because of a lack of genuine guidance and their addiction to the culture, they aren’t making the kinds of choices that will bring them what they more-deeply desire. Sexuality is a prime example here: Studies done on millenniums indicate that most of them want, at the end of the day, to be inside a monogamous, faithful marriage. The problem is that they also believe that they can first allow themselves ten to fifteen years of sexual promiscuity, without having to accept that practicing ten to fifteen years of infidelity is not a good preparation for the kind of fidelity needed to a sustain marriage and family. In this, as in many other things, they are caught between their cultural ethos and their own fragile securities. The culture trumpets a certain ethos, liberation from the timidities of the past, complete with a smugness that belittles whatever questions it. But much of that smugness is actually whistling in the dark. Deep down, our youth are pretty insecure and, happily, this keeps them vulnerable and likeable.

Maybe Louis Dupre, the retired philosopher who taught for some many years at Yale, captures it best when he says that today’s young people are not bad, they’re just not finished.  That’s a simple insight that captures a lot. Someone can be wonderful and very likeable, but still immature. Moreover, if you’re young enough, that can even be attractive, the very definition of cool. The reverse is also, often times, true: More than a few of us, adults, suffer from our own bi-polarity: we are mature, but far from wonderful and likeable. This makes for some strange, paradoxical binaries.

So who is the actual young person of today? Is it the person who is wrapped up in his or her own world, obsessive about physical appearance, addicted to social media, living outside marriage with his or her partner, smug in his or her own non-traditional moral and religious views? That, I believe, is the surface appearance. The actual young person of today is warm, good-hearted, generous, and waiting, waiting consciously for love and affirmation, and waiting unconsciously for God’s embrace.