RonRolheiser,OMI

Grieving Death

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Most of us are familiar with the story of Zorba the Greek, either through Nikos Kazantzakis’ famous book or through the movie. Well, Zorba was not a fictional character. He was a real person, Alexis Zorba, who had such a larger-than-life personality and energy that when he died, Kazantzakis found his death very difficult to accept, incredulous that such energy, verve, and color were mortal.

On learning of Zorba’s death, this was Kazantzakis’ reaction: “I closed my eyes and felt tears rolling slowly, warmly down my cheeks. He’s dead, dead, dead. Zorba is gone, gone forever. The laughter is dead, the song cut off, the santir broken, the dance on the seaside pebbles has halted, the insatiable mouth that questioned with such incurable thirst is filled now with clay. … Such souls should not die. Will earth, water, fire, and chance ever be able to fashion a Zorba again? … It was as though I believed him to be immortal.”

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that a certain person can die because of the life and energy that he or she incarnated. We simply cannot imagine that life-pulse dead, stilled, forever gone from this planet. Certain people seem exempt from death because we cannot imagine such energy, color, generosity, and goodness dying.  How can such wonderful energy just die?

I have felt that many times in my life; most recently this past week when two former colleagues, both specially spirited, colorful, witty, and generous men, died. Kazantzakis came to mind, and his struggle to accept Zorba’s death, along with the way he tried to deal with that death. He decided he would try to “resurrect” Zorba, bring him back to life, by taking his story to the world in such a way so as to transform his life into a myth, a dance, and a religion.

Kazantzakis believed this is what Mary Magdala did in the wake of Jesus’ death, when she left his tomb and went back to the world. She resurrected Jesus by telling his story, creating a myth, a dance, and a religion. So, in the wake of Zorba’s death, Kazantzakis said to himself: “Let us give him our blood so that he can be brought back to life, let us do what we can to make this extraordinary eater, drinker, workhorse, woman-chaser, and vagabond live a little longer – this dancer and warrior, the broadest soul, surest body, freest cry I ever knew in my life.”

Bless his effort! It made for a great story, a gripping myth, but it never made for a religion or an eternal dance because that’s not what Mary Magdala did with Jesus. Nonetheless, there’s still something to be learned here about how to deal with a death that seemingly takes some oxygen out of the planet. We must not let that wonderful energy disappear, but keep it alive. However, as Christians, we do this in a different way.

We read the Mary Magdala story quite differently. Mary went to Jesus’ tomb, found it empty, and went away crying; but … but, before she got to tell anyone any story, she met a resurrected Jesus who shared with her how his energy, color, love, person would now be found, namely, in a radically new modality, inside his spirit. That contains the secret of how we are to give life to our loved ones after they have died.

How do we keep our loved ones and the wonderful energy they brought to the planet alive after they have died? First, by recognizing that their energy doesn’t die with their bodies, that it doesn’t depart the planet. Their energy remains, alive, still with us, but now inside us, through the spirit they leave behind (just as Jesus left his spirit behind). Further still, their energy infuses us whenever we enter into their “Galilee”, namely, into those places where their spirits thrived and breathed out generative oxygen.

What’s meant by that? What’s someone’s “Galilee”? A person’s “Galilee” is that special energy, that special oxygen, which he or she breathes out. For Zorba, it was his fearlessness and zest for life; for my dad, it was his moral stubbornness; for my mom, it was her generosity. In that energy, they breathed out something of God. Whenever we go to those places where their spirits breathed out God’s life, we breathe in again their oxygen, their dance, their life.

Like all of you, I have sometimes been stunned, saddened, and incredulous at the death of a certain person. How could that special energy just die? Sometimes that special energy was manifest in physical beauty, human grace, fearlessness, zest, color, moral steadiness, compassion, graciousness, warmth, wit, or humor. It can be hard to accept that beauty and live-giving oxygen can seemingly leave the planet.

In the end, nothing is lost. Sometime, in God’s time, at the right time, the stone will roll back and like Mary Magdala walking away from the grave, we will know that we can breathe in that wonderful energy again in “Galilee”.

What is Love Asking of Us Now?

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“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Anne Lamott

Those are words worth contemplating, on all sides of the political and religious divide today. We live in a time of bitter division. From our government offices down to our kitchen tables there are tensions and divisions about politics, religion, and versions of truth that seem irreparable.  Sadly, these divisions have brought out the worst in us, in all of us. Common civility has broken down and brought with it something that effectively illustrates the biblical definition of the “diabolic” – widespread lack of common courtesy, disrespect, demonization and hatred of each other. All of us now smugly assume that God hates all the same people we do. The polarization around the recent USA elections, the storming of the USA Capitol buildings by a riotous mob, the bitter ethical and religious debates about abortion, and the loss of a common notion of truth, have made clear that incivility, hatred, disrespect, and different notions of truth rule the day.

Where do we go with that? I am a theologian and not a politician or social analyst so what I say here has more to do with living out Christian discipleship and basic human maturity than with any political response. Where do we go religiously with this?

Perhaps a helpful way to probe for a Christian response is to pose the question this way: what does it mean to love in a time like this?  What does it mean to love in a time when people can no longer agree on what is true? How do we remain civil and respectful when it feels impossible to respect those who disagree with us?

In struggling for clarity with an issue so complex, sometimes it can be good to proceed via the Via Negativa, that is, by first asking what should we avoid doing. What should we not do today?

First, we should not bracket civility and legitimize disrespect and demonization; but we should also not be unhealthily passive, fearful that speaking our truth will upset others. We may not disregard truth and let lies and injustices lie comfortable and unexposed. It is too simple to say that there are good people on both sides in order to avoid having to make real adjudications vis-à-vis the truth. There are sincere people on both sides, but sincerity can also be very misguided. Lies and injustice need to be named. Finally, we must resist the subtle (almost impossible to resist) temptation to allow our righteousness morph into self-righteousness, one of pride’s most divisive modalities. 

What do we need to do in the name of love? Fyodor Dostoevsky famously wrote that love is a harsh and fearful thing, and our first response should be to accept that. Love is a harsh thing and that harshness is not just the discomfort we feel when we confront others or find ourselves confronted by them. Love’s harshness is felt most acutely in the (almost indigestible) self-righteousness we have to swallow in order to rise to a higher level of maturity where we can accept that God loves those we hate just as much as God loves us – and those we hate are just as precious and important in God’s eyes as we are.

Once we accept this, then we can speak for truth and justice. Then truth can speak to power, to “alternative truth”, and to the denial of truth.  That is the task. Lies must be exposed, and this needs to occur inside our political debates, inside our churches, and at our dinner tables. That struggle will sometimes call us beyond niceness (which can be its own mammoth struggle for sensitive persons). However, while we cannot always be nice, we can always be civil and respectful.

One of our contemporary prophetic figures, Daniel Berrigan, despite numerous arrests for civil disobedience, steadfastly affirmed that a prophet makes a vow of love, not of alienation. Hence, in our every attempt to defend truth, to speak for justice, and to speak truth to power, our dominant tone must be one of love, not anger or hatred. Moreover, whether we are acting in love or alienation will always be manifest – in our civility or lack of it. No matter our anger, love still has some non-negotiables, civility and respect. Whenever we find ourselves descending to adolescent name-calling, we can be sure we have fallen out of discipleship, out of prophecy, and out of what is best inside us.

Finally, how we will respond to the times remains a deeply personal thing. Not all of us are called to do the same thing. God has given each of us unique gifts and a unique calling; some are called to loud protest, others to quiet prophecy. However, we are all called to ask ourselves the same question: given what is happening, what is love asking of me now?

What is Your Practice?

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Today, the common question in spiritual circles is not, “What is your church or your religion?” But, “what is your practice?”

What is your practice? What is your particular explicit prayer practice? Is it Christian? Buddhist? Islamic? Secular?  Do you meditate? Do you do Centering prayer? Do you practice Mindfulness? For how long do you do this each day?

These are good questions and the prayer practices they refer to are good practices; but I take issue with one thing. The tendency here is to identify the essence of one’s discipleship and religious observance with a single explicit prayer practice, and that can be reductionist and simplistic. Discipleship is about more than one prayer practice.

A friend of mine shares this story. He was at a spirituality gathering where the question most asked of everyone was this: what is your practice? One woman replied, “My practice is raising my kids!” She may have meant it in jest, but her quip contains an insight that can serve as an important corrective to the tendency to identify the essence of one’s discipleship with a single explicit prayer practice.

Monks have secrets worth knowing. One of these is the truth that for any single prayer practice to be transformative it must be embedded in a larger set of practices, a much larger “monastic routine”, which commits one to a lot more than a single prayer practice. For a monk, each prayer practice is embedded inside a monastic routine and that routine, rather than any one single prayer practice, becomes the monk’s practice. Further still, that monastic routine, to have real value, must be itself predicated on fidelity to one’s vows.

Hence, the question “what is your practice?” is a good one if it refers to more than just a single explicit prayer practice. It must also ask whether you are keeping the commandments. Are you faithful to your vows and commitments? Are you raising your kids well? Are you staying within Christian community? Do you reach out to the poor? And, yes, do you have some regular, explicit, habitual prayer practice?

What is my own practice?

I lean heavily on regularity and ritual, on a “monastic routine”. Here is my normal routine: Each morning I pray the Office of Lauds (usually in community). Then, before going to my office, I read a spiritual book for at least 20 minutes.  At noon, I participate in the Eucharist, and sometime during the day, I go for a long walk and pray for an hour (mostly using the rosary as a mantra and praying for a lot of people by name).  On days when I do not take a walk, I sit in meditation or Centering prayer for about fifteen minutes. Each evening, I pray Vespers (again, usually in community). Once a week, I spend the evening writing a column on some aspect of spirituality. Once a month I celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, always with the same confessor; and, when possible, I try to carve out a week each year to do a retreat. My practice survives on routine, rhythm, and ritual. These hold me and keep me inside my discipleship and my vows. They hold me more than I hold them. No matter how busy I am, no matter how distracted I am, and no matter whether or not I feel like praying on any given day, these rituals draw me into prayer and fidelity.

To be a disciple is to put yourself under a discipline.  Thus, the bigger part of my practice is my ministry and the chronic discipline this demands of me. Full disclosure, ministry is often more stimulating than prayer; but it also demands more of you and, if done in fidelity, can be powerfully transformative in terms of bringing you to maturity and altruism.

Carlo Carretto, the renowned spiritual writer, spend much of his adult life in the Sahara Desert, living in solitude as a monk, spending many hours in formal prayer. However, after years of solitude and prayer in the desert, he went to visit his aging mother who had dedicated many years of her life to raising children, leaving little time for formal prayer. Visiting her, he realized something, namely, his mother was more of contemplative than he was! To his credit, Carretto drew the right lesson: there was nothing wrong with what he had been doing in the solitude of the desert for all those years, but there was something very right in what his mother had been doing in the busy bustle of raising children for so many years. Her life was its own monastery. Her practice was “raising kids”.

I have always loved this line from Robert Lax: “The task in life is not so much finding a path in the woods as of finding a rhythm to walk in.” Perhaps your rhythm is “monastic”, perhaps “domestic”. An explicit prayer practice is very important as a religious practice, but so too are our duties of state.