RonRolheiser,OMI

Saints for a New Situation

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Everywhere in church circles today you hear a lament: Our churches are emptying. We’ve lost our youth. This generation no longer knows or understands the classical theological language. We need to announce Jesus again, as if for the first time, but how? The church is becoming evermore marginalized. 

That’s the situation pretty much everywhere within the secularized world today. Why is this happening? Faith as a spent project? Secularity’s adolescent grandiosity before the parent who gave it birth, Judeo-Christianity?  The “buffered self” that Charles Taylor describes? Affluence? Or is the problem mainly with the churches themselves? Sexual abuse? Cover-up? Poor liturgies? Poor preaching? Churches too liberal? Churches too conservative?

I suspect it’s some combination of all of these, but single out one issue here to highlight, affluence. Jesus told us that it’s difficult (impossible, he says) for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. No doubt, that’s a huge part of our present struggle. We’re good at being Christians when we’re poor, less-educated, and on the margins of mainstream society. We’ve had centuries of practice at this. What we haven’t had any practice at, and aren’t any good at, is how to be Christians when we’re affluent, sophisticated, and constitute the cultural mainstream.

So, I’m suggesting that what we need today is not so much a new pastoral approach as a new kind of saint, an individual man or woman who can model for us practically what it means to live out the Gospel in a context of affluence and secularity.  Why this?

One of the lessons of history is that often genuine religious renewal, the type that actually reshapes the religious imagination, does not come from think-tanks, conferences, and church synods, but from graced individuals – saints, wild men and women who, like Saint Augustine, Saint Francis, Saint Clare, Saint Dominic, Saint Ignatius, or other such religious figures can reshape our religious imagination. They show us that the new lies elsewhere, that what needs fixing in the church will not be mended simply by patching the old. What’s needed is a new religious and ecclesial imagination. Charles Taylor, in his highly-respected study of secularity, suggests that what we’re undergoing today is not so much a crisis of faith as a crisis of imagination. No Christians before us have ever lived within this kind of world.

What will this new kind of saint, this new St. Francis, look like?  I honestly don’t know. Neither, it seems, does anyone else.  We have no answer yet, at least not one that’s been able to bear much fruit in the mainstream culture.  That’s not surprising. The type of imagination that reshapes history isn’t easily found. In the meantime we’ve come about as far as we can along the road that used to take us there, but which for many of our children no longer does.

Here’s our quandary: We’re better at knowing what to do once we get people into a church than we are at knowing how to get them there. Why? Our weakness, I believe, lies not in our theological imagination where we have rich theological and biblical insights aplenty. What we lack are saints on the ground, men and women who, in a passion and fidelity that’s at once radically faithful to God and fiercely empathic to our secular world, can incarnate their faith into a way of living that can show us, practically, how we can be poor and humble disciples of Jesus even as we walk in an affluent and highly secularized world.  

And such new persons will appear. We’ve been at this spot before in history and have always found our way forward. Every time the world believes it has buried Christ, the stone rolls back from the tomb; every time the cultural ethos declares that the churches are on an irrevocable downward slide, the Spirit intervenes and there’s soon an about face; every time we despair, thinking that our age can now longer produce saints and prophets, some Augustine or Francis comes along and shows that our age, like times of old, can too produce its saints; and every time our imaginations run dry, as they have now, we find that our scriptures are still full of fresh insight. We may lack imagination, but we don’t lack hope.

Christ promised we will not be orphaned, and that promise is sure. God is still with us and our age will produce its own prophets and saints. What’s asked of us in the moment is biblical patience, to wait on God. Christianity may look tired, tried, and spent to a culture within which affluence and sophistication are its current gods, but hope is already beginning to show its face: As secularization, with its affluence and sophistication, marches unswervingly forward we’re already beginning to see a number of men and women who have found ways to become post-affluent and post-sophisticated. These will be the new religious leaders who will teach us, and our children, how to live as Christians in this new situation.

Living out a Vocation

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What does it mean to have a vocation? The term gets batted around both in religious and secular circles and everyone assumes its meaning is clear. Is it? What’s a vocation?

Karl Jung defined it this way: “A vocation is an irrational factor that destines a man to emancipate himself from the herd and from its well-worn paths.”  Frederick Buechner, a famed preacher, says: “A vocation is where your deep gladness meets the world’s hunger.”

David Brooks, a renowned journalist, reflecting on vocation in his recent book, The Second Mountain, gives us these quotes from Jung and Buechner and then writes:  A vocation is not something you choose. It chooses you. When you sense it as a possibility in your life you also sense that you don’t have a choice but can only ask yourself: What’s my responsibility here? It’s not a matter of what you expect from life but rather what life expects from you.  Moreover, for Brooks, once you have a sense of your vocation it becomes unthinkable to turn away and you realize you would be morally culpable if you did.  He quotes William Wordsworth in support of this:

My heart was full; I made no vows, but vows

Were then made for me; bond unknown to me

Was given, that I should be, else sinning greatly

Brooks suggests that any number of things can help awaken your soul to its vocation: music, drama, art, friendship, being around children, being around beauty, and, paradoxically, being around injustice. To this he adds two further observations: First, that usually we only see and understand all this clearly when we’re older and looking back on life and our choices; and, second, that while the summons to a vocation is a holy thing, something mystical, the way we actually end up living it out is often messy, confusing, and screwed up and generally doesn’t feel very holy at all.

Well, I am older and am looking back on things. Does my vocational story fit these descriptions? Mostly, yes.

As a child growing up in the Roman Catholic subculture of the 1950s and early 1960s, I was part of that generation of Catholics within which every Catholic boy or girl was asked to consider, with considerable gravity, the question: “Do I have a vocation?” But back then mostly that meant: “Am I called to be a priest, a religious brother, or a religious sister?” Marriage and single life were, in fact, also considered vocations, but they took a back seat to what was considered the higher vocation, consecrated religious commitment.

So as a boy growing up in that milieu I did, with all gravity, ask myself that question: “Do I have a vocation to be a priest?” And the answer came to me, not in a flashing insight, or in some generous movement of heart, or in an attraction to a certain way of life. None of these. The answer came to me as hook in my conscience, as something that was being asked of me, as something I couldn’t morally or religiously turn away from. It came to me as an obligation, a responsibility. And initially I fought against and resisted that answer. This wasn’t what I wanted.

But it was what I felt called to. This was something that was being asked of me beyond my own dreams for my life. It was a call. So at the tender age of seventeen I made the decision to enter a religious order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and train to become a priest. I suspect that few counsellors or psychologists today would put much trust in such a decision, given my age at the time; but, looking back on it now, more than fifty years later, in hindsight, I believe this is the purest and most unselfish decision I’ve ever made in my life.

And I’ve never looked back. I’ve never seriously considered leaving that commitment, even though every kind of unsettling emotion, obsession, restlessness, depression, and self-pity have at times haunted and tormented me. I’ve never regretted the decision. I know this is what I’ve been called to do and I’m happy enough with the way it’s turned out.  It’s brought me life and helped me serve others. And given my personal idiosyncrasies, wounds, and weaknesses, I doubt I would have found as deep a path into life and community as this vocation afforded me, though that admittedly can be self-serving.

I share my personal story here only because it might be helpful in illustrating the concept of a vocation.  But religious life and priesthood are merely one vocation. There are countless others, equally as holy and important.  One’s vocation can be to be an artist, a farmer, a writer, a doctor, a parent, a wife, a teacher, a salesman, or countless other things.  The vocation chooses you and makes the vows for you – and those vows put you at that place in the world where you’re best placed to serve others and to find happiness.

Faith and Dying

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We tend to nurse a certain naiveté about what faith means in the face of death. The common notion among us as Christians is that if someone has a genuine faith she should be able to face death without fear or doubt. The implication then of course is that having fear and doubt when one is dying is an indication of a weak faith. While it’s true that many people with a strong faith do face death calmly and without fear, that’s not always the case, nor necessarily the norm.

We can begin with Jesus. Surely he had real faith and yet, in the moments just before his death, he called out in both fear and doubt. His cry of anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”, came from a genuine anguish that was not, as we sometimes piously postulate, uttered for divine effect, not really meant, but something for us to hear. Moments before he died, Jesus suffered real fear and real doubt. Where was his faith? Well, that depends upon how we understand faith and the specific modality it can take on in our dying.

In her famous study of the stages of dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, suggests there are five stages we undergo in the dying process: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. Our first response to receiving a terminal diagnosis is denial – This is not happening!  Then when we have to accept that it is happening our reaction is anger – Why me! Eventually anger gives way to bargaining – How much time can I still draw out of this? This is followed by depression andfinally, when nothing serves us any longer, there’s acceptance – I’m going to die. This is all very true.

But in a deeply insightful book, The Grace in Dying, Kathleen Dowling Singh, basing her insights upon the experience of sitting at the bedside of many dying people, suggests there are additional stages: Doubt, Resignation, and Ecstasy. Those stages help shed light on how Jesus faced his death.

The night before he died, in Gethsemane, Jesus accepted his death, clearly. But that acceptance was not yet full resignation. That only took place the next day on the cross in a final surrender when, as the Gospels put it, he bowed his head and gave over his spirit. And, just before that, he experienced an awful fear that what he had always believed in and taught about God was perhaps not so. Maybe the heavens were empty and maybe what we deem as God’s promises amount only to wishful thinking.

But, as we know, he didn’t give into that doubt, but rather, inside of its darkness, gave himself over in trust. Jesus died in faith – though not in what we often naively believe faith to be. To die in faith does not always mean that we die calmly, without fear and doubt.

For instance, the renowned biblical scholar, Raymond E. Brown, commenting on the fear of death inside the community of the Beloved disciple, writes: “The finality of death and the uncertainties it creates causes trembling among those who have spent their lives professing Christ. Indeed, among the small community of Johannine disciples, it was not unusual for people to confess that doubts had come into their minds as they encountered death. …The Lazarus story is placed at the end of Jesus’ public ministry in John to teach us that when confronted with the visible reality of the grave, all need to hear and embrace the bold message that Jesus proclaimed: ‘I am the life.’ … For John, no matter how often we renew our faith, there is the supreme testing by death. Whether the death of a loved one or one’s own death, it is the moment when one realizes that it all depends on God. During our lives we have been able to shield ourselves from having to face this in a raw way. Confronted by death, mortality, all defenses fall away.”

Sometimes people with a deep faith face death in calm and peace. But sometimes they don’t and the fear and doubt that threatens them then is not necessarily a sign of a weak or faltering faith. It can be the opposite, as we see in Jesus. Inside a person of faith, fear and doubt in the face of death is what the mystics call ‘the dark night of the spirit” … and this is what’s going on inside that experience:  The raw fear and doubt we are experiencing at that time make it impossible for us to mistake our own selves and our own life-force for God. When we have to accept to die in trust inside of what seems like absolute negation and can only cry out in anguish to an apparent emptiness then it is no longer possible to confuse God with our own feelings and ego. In that, we experience the ultimate purification of soul. We can have a deep faith and still find ourselves with doubt and fear in the face of death.  Just look at Jesus.