RonRolheiser,OMI

Three Kinds of Spiritualities

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All of us struggle, and we struggle in three ways. First, sometimes we struggle simply to maintain ourselves, to stay healthy and stable, to stay normal, to not fall apart, to not have our lives unravel into chaos and depression. It takes real effort just to maintain our ordinary health, stability, and happiness.

But, even as this is going on, another part of us is forever reaching upwards, struggling to grow, to achieve higher things, to not waste our riches and gifts, to live a life that is more admirable, noble, and altruistic.

Then, at another level, we struggle with a threatening darkness that surrounds and undergirds us. The complexities of life can overwhelm us leaving us feeling threatened, small, excluded, and insignificant. For this reason, a part of us is forever conscious that we stand one season, one breakdown, one lost relationship, one lost job, one death of a loved one, or one thing that we cannot even foresee, away from a descent into paralyzing depression, an illness, or a dark chaos that we cannot control.

In short, we struggle to maintain ourselves, struggle to grow, and struggle to keep depression and death at bay. Because we struggle at these three levels, we need three kinds of spiritualities in our lives.

At one level, we need a spirituality of maintenance, that is, a spirituality that helps us to maintain our normal health, stability, and ordinariness. Too often spiritual teachings neglect this vital aspect of spirituality. Rather we are forever being challenged to grow, be better persons, to be better Christians, to simply be better than we are at present. That’s good, but it naively takes for granted that we are already healthy, stable, and strong enough to be challenged. And, as we know, many times this isn’t the case. There are times in our lives, when the best we can do is to hang on, not fall apart, and fight to regain again some health, stability, and strength in our lives, to simply get one foot in front of the next. At these times in our lives, challenge isn’t exactly what we need, rather we need to be given divine permission to feel what we’re feeling and we need to be given a warm hand to help draw us back towards health and strength. The challenge to grow comes later.

And that challenge comes with an invitation that invites us upwards, towards a spirituality of the ascent. All spiritualities worthy of the name, stress the need to make a certain ascent, to grow beyond our immaturities, our laziness, our wounds, and the perennial hedonism and shallowness of our culture. The emphasis here is always to reach upward, beyond, towards the heavens, and towards all that is more noble, altruistic, compassionate, loving, admirable, and saintly. Much of classical Christian spirituality is a spirituality of the ascent, an invitation to something higher, an invitation to be true to what is deepest inside of us, namely, the Image and Likeness of God. Much of Jesus’ preaching invites us precisely to something higher. Confucius, one of the great moral teachers of all time, had a similar pedagogy, inviting people to look to beauty and goodness and to forever reach in that direction. In our own time, John Paul II used this very effectively in his appeal to young people, challenging them always to not settle for compromise or second-best, but to look always for something higher and more noble to give their lives to.

But the challenge to growth also needs a spirituality of descent, a vision and a set of disciplines that point us not just towards the rising sun, but also towards the setting sun. We need a spirituality that doesn’t avoid or deny the complexities of life, the mad conspiracy of forces beyond us, the paralyzing losses and depressions in life, and the looming reality of sickness, diminishment, and death. Sometimes we can only grow by descending into that frightening underworld, where, like Jesus, we undergo a transformation by facing chaos, diminishment, darkness, satanic forces (whatever these may be), and death itself. In some ancient cultures this was called “sitting in the ashes” or “being a child of Saturn” (the archetypal planet of depression). As Christians we call this undergoing the paschal mystery. Whatever the name, all spiritualities worthy of the name will, at some time in your life, invite you to make a painful descent into the frightening underworld of chaos, depression, loss, insignificance, darkness, satanic forces, and death itself.

Life reveals itself above us and below us and on the flat plain of ordinariness. None of these may be ignored. And so we need always to maintain and steady ourselves, even as we reach upwards and sometimes allow ourselves to descent into darkness.

And there’s still time to do all of this. As Rainer Marie Rilke once wrote:

You are not dead yet. It is not too late

To open your depths by plunging into them

And drink in the life

That reveals itself quietly there.

The Goddess of Chastity

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Ancient Greece expressed much of its psychological and spiritual wisdom inside their myths. They didn’t intend these to be taken literally or as historical, but as metaphor and as an archetypal illustration of why life is as it is and how people engage life both generatively and destructively.

And many of these myths are centered on gods and goddesses. They had gods and goddesses to mirror virtually every aspect of life, every aspect of human behavior, and every innate human propensity. Moreover, many of these gods and goddesses were far from moral in their behavior, especially in their sexual lives. They had messy affairs with each other and with human beings. However, despite the messiness and amorality of their sexual behavior, one of the positive features inside these myths was that, for Ancient Greece, sex was always, somehow, connected to the divine. Even temple prostitution was somehow related to accessing the fertility that emanated from the divine realm.

Within this pantheon of gods and goddesses there was a particular goddess name Artemis. Unlike most of their other goddesses, who were sexually promiscuous, she was chaste and celibate.  Her sexual abstinence represented the place and the value of chastity and celibacy. She was pictured as a tall, graceful figure, attractive sexually, but with a beauty that, while sexual, was different from the seductive sexuality of goddesses like Aphrodite and Hera. In the figure of Artemis, sex is pictured as an attractive blend of solitude and integrity. She is frequently pictured as surrounded by members of her own sex or by members of the opposite sex who appear as friends and intimates, but never as lovers.

What’s implied here is that sexual desire can remain healthy and generative even while abstaining from sex.  Artemis represents a chaste way of being sexual. She tells us that, in the midst of a sexually-soaked world, one can be generative and happy inside of chastity and even inside celibacy. Perhaps even more importantly, Artemis shows us that chastity need not render one anti-sexual and sterile. Rather she shows that sexuality is wider than sex and that sex itself will be richer and more meaningful if it is also connected to chastity. Artemis declares that claiming your solitude and experiencing friendship and other forms of intimacy are not a substitute for sex but one of the rich modalities of sex itself.

Thomas Moore, in describing Artemis, writes: “Although she is the most virginal of the goddesses, Artemis is not asexual. She embodies a special kind of sexuality where the accent is on individuality, integrity, and solitude.” As such, she is a model not just for celibates but also for people who are sexually active. For sexually active person, Artemis is the cautionary flag that says: I want to be taken seriously, with my integrity and independence assured.

As well, Moore suggests that, irrespective of whether we are celibate or sexually active, we all “have periods in life or just moments in a day when we need to be alone, disconnected from love and sex, devoted to an interest of our own, withdrawn and remote. [Artemis] tells us that this preference may not be an antisocial rejection of people but simply a deep, positive, even sexual focusing of oneself and one’s world.”

What’s taught by this mythical goddess is a much needed lesson for our world today. Our age has turned sex into a soteriology, namely, for us, sex isn’t perceived as a means towards heaven, it is identified with heaven itself. It’s what we’re supposed to be living for. One of the consequences of this is that we can no longer blend our adult awareness with chastity, nor with the genuine complexity and richness of sex. Rather, for many of us, chastity and celibacy are seen as a fearful self-protection, which leave one dry, sterile, moralistic, anti-erotic, sexually-uptight, and on the periphery of life’s joys. Tied to this too is the notion that all those rich realities so positively highlighted by Artemis (as well as by the classical Christian notion of chastity), namely, friendship, non-sexual forms of intimacy, non- sexual pleasures, and the need for integrity and fidelity within sex, are seen as a substitute for sex, and a second-best one at that, rather than as rich modality of sex itself.

We are psychologically and spiritually impoverished by that notion and it puts undue pressure on our sexual lives. When sex is asked to carry the primary load in terms of human generativity and happiness it cannot help but come up short. And we are seeing that in our world today.

Of course, as Christians, we have our own goddesses of chastity, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and many women saints. Why not draw our spirituality of chastity from these women, rather than looking towards some pagan, mythical goddess? Well, for the most part, we do look to Christian models here.  Moreover, I suspect that both the Virgin Mary and all of our revered virgin saints would, were she actually a real person, very much befriend Artemis.

The Unhappy Cost of Resentment

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It’s not only love that makes the world go round. Resentment too is prominent in stirring the drink. In so many ways our world is drowning in resentment. Everywhere you look, it seems, someone is bitter about something and breathing out resentment. What is resentment? Why is this feeling so prevalent in our lives? How do we move beyond it?

Soren Kierkegaard once defined resentment in this way. Resentment, he suggested, happens when we move from the happy feeling of admiration to the unhappy feeling of jealousy. And this, sadly, happens all too frequently in our lives and we are dangerously blind to its occurrence. Me resentful? How dare you make that accusation!

Yet it’s hard to deny that resentment and its concomitant unhappiness color our world. At every level of life, from what we see playing out in the grievances and wars among nations to what we see playing out in the bickering in our board rooms, class rooms, living rooms, and bedrooms, there is evidence of resentment and bitterness. Our world is full of resentment. Everyone, it seems, is bitter about something, and, of course, not without cause.  Few are the persons who do not secretly nurse the feeling that they have been ignored, wounded, cheated, treated unfairly, and have drawn too many short straws in life; and so many of us feel that we have every right to protest our right to be resentful and unhappy.  We’re not happy, but with good reason.

Yes, there’s always good reason to be resentful; but, and this is the point of this column, according to a number of insightful analysts, both old and new, we are rarely in touch with the real reason why we are so spontaneously bitter. For persons such as Thomas Aquinas, Soren Kierkegaard, Robert Moore, Gil Bailie, Robert Bly, and Richard Rohr, among others, the deep root of our resentment and unhappiness lies in our inability to admire, our inability to praise others, and our inability to give others and the world a simple gaze of admiration.

We’re a society that, for the most part, can’t admire. Admiration is, for us, a lost virtue. Indeed in the many circles today, both in the world and in the churches, admiration is seen as something juvenile and immature, the frenzied, mindless shrieking of teenage girls chasing a rock star. Maturity and sophistication are identified today with the kind of intelligence, wit, and reticence, which don’t easily admire, which don’t easily compliment. Learning and maturity, we believe, need to be picking things apart, suspicious of others’ virtues, distrustful of their motives, on hyper-alert for hypocrisy, and articulating every reason not to admire. Such is the view today.

But what we don’t admit in this view of maturity and learning is how we feel threatened by those whose graces or virtues exceed our own. What we don’t admit is our own jealousy.  What we don’t admit is our own resentment. What we don’t admit, and never will admit, is how our need to cut down someone else is an infallible sign of our own jealousy and bad self-image. And what helps us in our denial is this: Cynicism and cold judgment make for a perfect camouflage; we don’t need to admire because we’re bright enough to see that there’s nothing really to admire.

That, too often, is our sophisticated, unhappy state: We can no longer truly admire anybody. We can no longer truly praise anybody. We can no longer look at the world with any praise or admiration. Rather our gaze is perennially soured by resentment, cynicism, judgment, and jealousy.

We can test ourselves on this: Robert Moore often challenges his audiences to ask themselves this question: When was the last time you walked across a room and told a person, especially a younger person or a person whose talents dwarf yours, that you admire her, that you admire what she’s doing, that her gifts enrich your life, and that you are happy that her path has crossed yours? When was the last time you gave someone a heartfelt compliment? Or, to reverse the question: When was the last time that someone, especially someone who is threatened by your talents, gave you a sincere compliment?

We don’t compliment each other easily, or often, and this betrays a secret jealousy. It also reveals a genuine moral flaw in our lives. Thomas Aquinas one submitted that to withhold a compliment from someone who deserves it is a sin because we are withholding from him or her some of the food that he or she needs to live. To not admire, to not praise, to not compliment, is not a sign of sophistication but a sign moral immaturity and personal insecurity. It is also one of the deeper reasons why we so often fill with bitter feelings of resentment and unhappiness.

Why do we so often feel bitter and resentful? We fill with resentment for many reasons, though, not least, because we have lost the virtues of admiration and praise.