RonRolheiser,OMI

Children of both Heaven and Earth

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“Because, my God, though I lack the soul-zeal and the sublime integrity of your saints, I yet have received from you an overwhelming sympathy for all that stirs within the dark mass of matter; because I know myself to be irremediably less a child of heaven and a son of earth.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote those words and they, like St. Augustine’s famous opening in his Confessions, not only describe a life-long tension inside its author, they name as well the foundational pieces for an entire spirituality. For everyone who is emotionally healthy and honest, there will be a life-long tension between the seductive attractions of this world and the lure of God. The earth, with its beauties, its pleasures, and its physicality can take our breath away and have us believe that this world is all there is, and that this world is all that needs to be. Who needs anything further? Isn’t life here on earth enough? Besides, what proof is there for any reality and meaning beyond our lives here?

But even as we are so powerfully, and rightly, drawn to the world and what if offers, another part of us finds itself also caught in the embrace and the grip of another reality, the divine, which though more inchoate is not-less unrelenting. It too tells us that it is real, that its reality ultimately offers life, that it also should be honored, and that it also may not be ignored. And, just like the reality of the world, it too presents itself as both promise and threat. Sometimes it’s felt as a warm cocoon in which we sense ultimate shelter and sometimes we feel its power as a threatening judgment on our superficiality, mediocrity, and sin. Sometimes it blesses our fixation on earthly life and its pleasures, and sometimes it frightens us and relativizes both our world and our lives. We can push it away by distraction or denial, but it stays, creating always a powerful tension inside us: We are irremediably children of both heaven and earth; both God and the world have a right to our attention.

That’s how it’s meant to be. God made us irremediably physical, fleshy, earth-oriented, with virtually every instinct inside us reaching for the things of this earth. We shouldn’t then expect that God wants us to shun this earth, deny its genuine beauty, and attempt step out of our bodies, our natural instincts, and our physicality to fix our eyes only on the things of heaven. God did not build this world as testing-place, a place where our obedience and piety is to be tested against the lure of earthly pleasure, to see if we’re worthy of heaven. This world is its own mystery and has its own meaning, a God-given one. It’s not simply a stage upon which we, as humans, play out our individual dramas of salvation and then close the curtain. It’s a place for all of us, humans, animals, insects, plants, water, rocks, and soil to enjoy a home together.

But that’s the root of a great tension inside us: Unless we deny either our most powerful human instincts or our most powerful religious sensibilities we will find ourselves forever torn between two worlds, with seemingly conflicting loyalties, caught between the lure of this world and the lure of God. I know how true this is in my own life. I was born into this world with two incurable loves and have spent my life and ministry caught and torn between the two: I have always loved the pagan world for its honoring of this life and for its celebration of the wonders of the human body and the beauty and pleasure that our five senses bring us. With my pagan brothers and sisters, I too honor the lure of sexuality, the comfort of human community, the delight of humor and irony, and the remarkable gifts given us by the arts and the sciences. But, at the same time, I have always found myself in the grip of another reality, the divine, faith, religion. Its reality too has always commanded my attention – and, more importantly, dictated the important choices in my life.

My major choices in life incarnate and radiate a great tension because they’ve tried to be true to a double primordial branding inside me, the pagan and the divine. I can’t deny the reality, lure, and goodness of either of them. It’s for this reason that I can live as a consecrated, life-long celibate, doing religious ministry, even as I deeply love the pagan world, bless its pleasures, and bless the goodness of sex even as, because of other loyalties, I renounce it. That’s also the reason why I’m chronically apologizing to God for the world’s pagan resistance, even as I’m trying to make an apologia for God to the world.  I’ve live with torn loyalties.

That’s as it should be. The world is meant to take our breath away, even as we genuflect to the author of that breath.

The Healing Place of Silence

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A recent book, by Robyn Cadwallander, The Anchoress, tells the story of young woman, Sarah, who chooses to shut herself off from the world and lives as an Anchoress (like Julian of Norwich). It’s not an easy life and she soon finds herself struggling with her choice. Her confessor is a young, inexperienced, monk named Father Ranaulf. Their relationship isn’t easy. Ranaulf is a shy man, of few words, and so Sarah is often frustrated with him, wanting him to say more, to be more empathic, and simply to be more present to her. They often argue, or, at least, Sarah tries to coax more words and sympathy out of Ranaulf. But whenever she does this he cuts short the visit and leaves.

One day, after a particularly frustrating meeting that leaves Ranaulf tongue-tied and Sarah in hot anger, Ranaulf is just about to close the shutter-window between them and leave, his normal response to tension, when something inside him stops him from leaving. He knows that he must offer Sarah something, but he has no words. And so, having nothing to say but feeling obliged to not leave, he simply sits there in silence. Paradoxically his mute helplessness achieves something that his words don’t, a breakthrough. Sarah, for the first time, feels his concern and sympathy and he, for his part, finally feels present to her.

Here’s how Cadwallander describes the scene: “He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. There was no more he could say, but he would not leave her alone with such bitterness. And so he remained on his stool, feeling the emptiness of the room around him, the failure of his learning, the words he had stacked up in his mind, page upon page, shelf upon shelf. He could not speak, but he could stay; he would do that. He began to silently pray, but did not know how to go on, what to ask for. He gave up, his breath slowed.

The silence began as a small and frightened thing, perched on the ledge of his window, but as Ranaulf sat in stillness, it grew, very slowly, and filled up the parlor, wrapped itself around his neck and warmed his back, curled under his knees and around his feet, floated along the walls, tucked into the corners, nestled in the crevices of stone. … The silence slipped through the gaps under the curtain and into the cell beyond. A velvet thing, it seemed. It swelled and settled, gathering every space into itself. He did not stir; he lost all sense of time. All he knew was the woman but an arm’s length away in the dark, breathing. That was enough.

When the candle in the parlor guttered, he stirred, looked into the darkness. ‘God be with you, Sarah.’  ‘And with you, Father.’ Her voice was lighter, more familiar.”

There’s a language beyond words. Silence creates the space for it. Sometimes when we feel powerless to speak words that are meaningful, when we have to back off into unknowing and helplessness, but remain in the situation, silence creates the space that’s needed for a deeper happening to occur. But often, initially, that silence is uneasy. It begins “as a small frightened thing” and only slowly grows into the kind of warmth that dissolves tension.

There are many times when we have no helpful words to speak. We’ve all had the experience of standing by the bedside of someone who is dying, of being at a funeral or wake, of sitting across from someone who is dealing with a broken heart, or of reaching a stalemate in trying to talk through a tension in a relationship, and finding ourselves tongue-tied, with no words to offer, finally reduced to silence, knowing that anything we say might aggravate the pain. In that helplessness, muted by circumstance, we learn something:  We don’t need to say anything; we only need to be there. Our silent, helpless presence is what’s needed.

And I must admit that this is not something I’ve learned easily, have a natural aptitude for, or in fact do most times when I should. No matter the situation, I invariably feel the need to try to say something useful, something helpful that will resolve the tension. But I’m learning, both to let helplessness speak and how powerfully it can speak.

I remember once, as a young priest, full of seminary learning and anxious to share that learning, sitting across from someone whose heart had just been broken, searching through answers and insights in my head, coming up empty, and finally confessing, by way of apology, my helplessness to the person across from me. Her response surprised me and taught me something I’d didn’t know before. She said simply: Your helplessness is the most precious gift you could share with me right now. Thanks for that. Nobody expects you to have a magic wand to cure their troubles.

Sometimes silence does become a velvet thing that swells and settles, gathering every space into itself.

Healing – A Theory

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All of us live with some wounds, bad habits, addictions, and temperamental flaws that are so deeply engrained and long-standing that it seems like they are part of our genetic make-up. And so we tend to give into a certain quiet despair in terms of ever being healed of them.

Experience teaches us this. There’s the realization at some point in our lives that the wounds and flaws which pull us down cannot be simply be turned off like a water-tap. Willpower and good resolutions alone are not up to the task. What good is it to make a resolution never to be angry again? Our anger will invariably return. What good is it to make a resolution to give up some addictive habit, however small or big? We will soon enough again be overcome by its lure. And what good does it do to try to change some temperamental flaw we’ve inherited in our genes or inhaled in the air of our childhood? All the good resolutions and positive thinking in the world normally don’t change our make-up.

So what do we do? Just live with our wounds and flaws and the unhappiness and pettiness that this brings into our lives? Or, can we heal? How do we weed-out our weaknesses?

There are many approaches to healing: Psychology tells us that good counselling and therapy can help cure us of our wounds, flaws, and addictions. Therapy and counselling can bring us to a better self-understanding and that can help us change our behavior. But psychology also admits that this has its limitations. Knowing why we do something doesn’t always empower us to change our behavior. Sociology too has insights to contribute: There is, as Parker Palmer puts it, the therapy of a public life. Healthy interaction with family, friends, community, and church can be a wonderfully steadying thing in our lives and help take us beyond our lonely wounds and our congenital missteps.

Various Recovery (12-Step) programs also contribute something valuable: These programs are predicated on the premise that self-understanding and willpower by themselves are often powerless to actually change our behavior.  A higher power is needed, and that higher power is found in ritual, communal support, radical honesty, admittance of our helplessness, and a turning over of ourselves to a Someone or Something beyond us that can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Recovery programs are invaluable, but they too aren’t the answer to all of our problems.

Finally, not least, there are various theories and practices of healing that ground themselves in spirituality. These range from emphasizing church-going itself as a healing, to emphasizing the sacrament of reconciliation, to recommending prayer and meditation, to counseling various ascetical practices, to sending people off to holy sites, to letting oneself be prayed-over by some group or faith-healer, to undergoing long periods of spiritual guidance under a trained director.

There’s value in all of these and perhaps the full healing of a temperamental flaw, a bad habit, an addiction, or a deep wound depends upon drawing water from each of these wells. However, beyond this simple listing, I would like to offer an insight from the great mystic, John of the Cross vis-à-vis coming to psychological, moral, and spiritual healing.

In his last book, The Living Flame of Love, John proposes a theory of, and a process for, healing. In essence, it runs this way: For John, we heal of our wounds, moral flaws, addictions, and bad habits by growing our virtues to the point where we become mature enough in our humanity so that there’s no more room left in our lives for the old behaviors that used to drag us down. In short, we get rid of the coldness, bitterness, and pettiness in our hearts by lighting inside our hearts enough warm fires to burn out the coldness and bitterness. The algebra works this way: The more we grow in maturity, generativity, and generosity, the more our old wounds, bad habits, temperamental flaws, and addictions will disappear because our deeper maturity will no longer leave room for them in our lives. Positive growth of our hearts, like a vigorous plant, eventually chokes-out the weeds. If you went to John of the Cross and asked him to help you deal with a certain bad habit in your life, his focus wouldn’t be on how to weed-out that habit. Instead the focus would be on growing your virtues: What are you doing well? What are your best qualities? What goodness in you needs to be fanned fan into fuller flame?

By growing what’s positive in us, we eventually become big-hearted enough so that there’s no room left for our former bad habits. The path to healing is to water our virtues so that these virtues themselves will be the fire that burns out the festering wounds, addictions, bad habits, and temperamental flaws that have, for far too long, plagued our lives and kept us wallowing in weakness and pettiness rather than walking in maturity, generosity, and generativity.