RonRolheiser,OMI

Taking our Wounds to the Eucharist

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Recently a man came to me, asking for help.  He carried some deep wounds, not physical wounds, but emotional wounds to his soul.  What surprised me initially was that, while he was deeply wounded, he had not been severely traumatized either in childhood or adulthood. He seemed to have just had to absorb the normal bumps and bruises that everyone has to absorb: some belittling, some bullying, never being the favorite, dissatisfaction with his own body, unfairness within his family and siblings, career frustration, unfairness in his workplace, the sense of being chronically ignored, the sense of never being understood and appreciated, and the self-pity and lack of self-confidence that results from this.

But he was a sensitive man and the combination of all these seemingly little things left him, now in late mid-life, unable to be the gracious, happy Elder he wanted to be. Instead, by his own admission, he was chronically caught-up in a certain wounded self-absorption, namely, in a self-centered anxiety that brought with it the sense that life had not been fair to him. Consequently he was forever somewhat focused on self-protection and was resentful of those who could step forward openly in self-confidence and love. “I hate it,” he shared, “when I see persons like Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul speak so with such easy self-confidence about how big their hearts are. I always fill with resentment and think: ‘Lucky you!’ You haven’t had to put up with what I’ve had to put up with in life!”

This man had been through some professional therapy that had helped bring him to a deeper self-understanding, but still left him paralyzed in terms of moving beyond his wounds. “What can I do with these wounds?” he asked.

My answer to him, as for all of us who are wounded, is: Take those wounds to the Eucharist. Every time you go to a Eucharist, stand by an altar, and receive communion, bring your helplessness and paralysis to God, ask him to touch your body, your heart, your memory, your bitterness, your lack of self-confidence, your self-absorption, your weaknesses, your impotence.  Bring your aching body and heart to God. Express your helplessness in simple, humble words: Touch me. Take my wounds. Take my paranoia. Make me whole. Give me forgiveness. Warm my heart. Give me the strength that I cannot give myself.

Pray this prayer, not just when you are receiving communion and being physically touched by the body of Christ, but especially during the Eucharistic prayer because it is there that we are not just being touched and healed by a person, Jesus, but we are also being touched and healed by a sacred event. This is the part of the Eucharist we generally do not understand, but it is the part of the Eucharist that celebrates transformation and healing from wound and sin. In the Eucharist prayer we commemorate the “sacrifice” of Jesus, that is, that event where, as Christian tradition so enigmatically puts it, Jesus was made sin for us. There is a lot in that cryptic phrase. In essence, in his suffering and death, Jesus took on our wounds, our weaknesses, our infidelities, and our sins, died in them, and then through love and trust brought them to wholeness.

Every time we go to Eucharist we are meant to let that transforming event touch us, touch our wounds, our weaknesses, our infidelities, our sin, and our emotional paralysis and bring us to a transformation in wholeness, energy, joy, and love.

The Eucharist is the ultimate healer. There is, I believe, a lot of value in various kinds of physical and emotional therapies, just there is immeasurable value in 12-Step programs and in simply honestly sharing our wounded selves with people we trust. There is too, I believe, value in a certain willful self-effort, in the challenge contained in Jesus’ admonition to a paralyzed man: Take up your couch and walk! We should not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by hyper-sensitivity and self-pity. God has given us skin to cover our rawest nerves.

But, with that being admitted, we still cannot heal ourselves.  Therapy, self-understanding, loving friends, and disciplined self-effort can take us only so far, and it is not into full healing. Full healing comes from touching and being touched by the sacred. More particularly, as Christians, we believe that this touching involves a touching of the sacred at that place where it has most particularly touched our own wounds, helplessness, weaknesses, and sin, that place, where God “was made sin for us”. That place is the event of the death and rising of Jesus and that event is made available to us, to touch and enter into, in the Eucharistic prayer and in receiving the body of Christ in communion.

We need to bring our wounds to the Eucharist because it is there that the sacred love and energy that lie at the ground of all that breathes can cauterize and heal all that is not whole within us.

Orthodoxy, Sin, and Heresy 

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Recently, while on the road giving a workshop, I took the opportunity to go the Cathedral in that city for a Sunday Eucharist. I was taken aback by the homily. The priest used the Gospel text where Jesus says, I am the vine and you are the branches, to tell the congregation that what Jesus is teaching here is that the Roman Catholic Church constitutes what is referred to as the branches and the way we link to those branches is through the mass and if we miss mass on a Sunday we are committing a mortal sin and should we die in that state we will go to hell.

Then, aware that what he was saying would be unpopular, he protested that the truth is often unpopular, but that what he just said is orthodox Catholic teaching and that anyone denying this is in heresy. It’s sad that this kind of thing is still being said in our churches.

Does the Catholic Church really teach that missing mass is a mortal sin and that if you die in that state you will go to hell?  No, that’s not Catholic orthodoxy, though popular preaching and catechesis often suppose that it is, even as neither accepts the full consequences.

Here’s an example: Some years ago, I presided at the funeral of a young man, in his twenties, who had been killed in a car accident. In the months before his death he had for all practical purposes ceased practicing his Catholicism: He had stopped going to church, was living with his girlfriend outside of marriage, and had not been sober when he died. However his family and the congregation who surrounded him at his burial knew him, and they knew that despite his ecclesial and moral carelessness he had a good heart, that he brought sunshine into a room and that was a generous young man.

At the reception after the funeral one of his aunts, who believed that missing mass was a mortal sin that could condemn you to hell, approached me and said: “He had such a great heart and such a wonderful energy; if I were running the gates of heaven, I would let him in.” Her comment wonderfully betrayed something deeper inside of her, namely, her belief that a good heart will trump ecclesial rules in terms of who gets to go to heaven and the belief that God has wider criteria for judgment than those formulated in external church rules. She believed that it was a mortal sin to miss mass on Sunday but, for all the right reasons, could not accept the full consequences of that, namely, that her nephew was going to hell. Deep down, she knew that God reads the heart, understands human carelessness, welcomes sinners into his bosom, and does not exclude goodness from heaven.

But that still leaves the question: Is it orthodox Roman Catholic teaching to say that it is a mortal sin to not go to church on a Sunday and that such an ecclesial lapse can send you to hell?  No, to teach that categorically would itself be bordering on heresy.

Simply stated, Catholic moral theology has always taught that sin is a subjective thing that can never be read from the outside. We can never look at an action from the outside and say: “That’s a sin!” We can look at an action from the outside and say: “That’s wrong!” But that’s a different judgment.  From the outside we can judge an action as objectively wrong, but we can never make the judgment that it’s a sin. Moreover this isn’t new, liberal teaching, it is already found in our traditional Catechisms. Nobody can look at the action of someone else and say: “That’s a sin!” To teach that we can make such a judgment goes against Catholic orthodoxy. We can, and must, affirm that certain things are wrong, objectively wrong, but sin is something else.

Probably the most quoted line from Pope Francis is his famous response to a moral question where he simply responded: “Who am I to judge?”  He’s in good company. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “You judge by appearances; I judge no one.” That, of course, does not mean that there isn’t any judgment. There is, it’s real, and it can condemn someone to hell. But it works this way: God’s Love, Life, Truth, and Light come into the world and we judge ourselves apposite them. God condemns no one, but we can condemn ourselves. It is God’s Love, Life, Truth, and Light against which we weigh ourselves and these determine who goes where, already here on earth and in eternity.

In our catechesis and our popular preaching we must be more careful in our use of the term “mortal sin” and in our judgments as to who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, fully aware that there wasn’t any group that Jesus was harsher on than on those who were making those kinds of judgments.

My Favorite Books of 2016

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So much of life, particularly today, constitutes an unconscious conspiracy against reading. Lack of time, the pressure of our jobs, and electronic technology, among other things, are more and more putting books out of reach and out of mind. There is never enough time to read. The upside of this is that when I do find time to pick up a book this becomes a precious, cherished time. And so I try to pick books that I read carefully: I read reviews, listen to colleagues, and keep track of my favorite authors. I also try to make sure that my reading diet, each year, includes some spiritual books (including at least one historical classic), some biographies, some novels, and some essays.

Among the books that I read this year, these are the ones that touched me.  I cannot promise that they will touch you, but each of them left me with something.

Among books in spirituality 

Gil Bailie, God’s Gamble, The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love.  Bailie again takes up Rene Girard’s anthropology to shed some new light on how the cross of Christ is the most monumental moral and religious event in history. The text is very dense and (truthfully) a tough read, but its insights are exceptional.

Heather King, Shirt of Flame, A Year with Saint Therese of Lisieux. This book will make for a very good, private retreat for anyone struggling with an addiction or obsession, or just with mediocrity in his or her spiritual life.

Christophe Lebreton, Born From the Gaze of God, The Tibhirine Journal of Martyr Monk, 1993-1996. This is the diary of one of the Trappist monks who was martyred in Algeria in 1996. It is the intimate journal of a young man which chronicles how he moves from paralyzing fear to the strength for martyrdom.

Kathleen Dowling Singh, two books: The Grace in Dying and The Grace in Aging. According to Singh, the process of aging and dying is exquisitely calibrated to bring us into the realm of spirit. In these two remarkable books, she traces this out with the depth that, outside of the great classical mystics, I have not seen.

Christine M. Bochen, Editor, The Way of Mercy. This is a series of remarkable essays on mercy, including some by Pope Francis and Walter Kasper.

The Cloud of Unknowing. I finally had the chance to study this classic in some depth and it is, no doubt, the signature book on contemplation and centering prayer.

Among biographies and essays:

Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things, Essays. These essays are dense, deep, robustly sane, and are Marilynne Robinson, the gifted novelist, at her religious best.

Michael N. McGregor, Pure Act, The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. This is the biography of the man who was Thomas Merton’s closest soul-friend, lived out his life as a secular monk, and who carried his solitude at a very high and noble level. It will help re-awaken your idealism.

Fernando Cardenal, Faith and Joy, Memoirs of a Revolutionary Priest. This is a great read about an exceptional man, a priest and a Jesuit, who played a leading role in Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua and was commanded by John Paul to step down. It is a private journal that tells the other side of what much of history has one-sidedly recorded about the struggles for justice in Latin America.

Daniel Berrigan, Essential Writings, Edited by John Dear. Daniel Berrigan died in late April of this year. His writings set the compass for what it means to be a Christian prophet, and this is an excellent selection of his writings.

Three books that deal with facing aging and dying:

Michael Paul Gallagher, Into Extra Time, Living Through the Final Stages of Cancer and Jottings along the Way. A man of faith and letters, Gallagher shares the journal he kept during the last nine months of his life, when he already knew he was dying.

Katie Roiphe, The Violet Hour, Great Writers at the End. How did a number of great writers, including Sigmund Freud, John Updike and Susan Sontag face terminal illness? This book tells us how.

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air. This is a remarkable journal of a young doctor facing a terminal diagnosis that documents his courage, faith, and insight.

Three novels that I recommend:

Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train. This didn’t make for a great movie, but the book is a page-turner.

Ian McEwan, Nutshell and Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs. The pedigree of these two authors alone is enough of a recommendation, but neither will disappoint you here.

A wildcard:

Kenneth Rolheiser, Dreamland and Soulscapes, A Prairie Love Story. Full disclosure, Kenneth is my brother and I lived through many of the stories he shares, so there is admittedly a huge bias here. But the book delivers on its title and will give you a more realistic sense of what it was like to grow up in a Little House on the Prairies.

Happy reading!