RonRolheiser,OMI

May your Kingdom Come, But not Yet

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A friend of mine likes to humor about his struggles in growing up. When I was in my twenties, he quips, I felt that by the time I was forty I would have grown-up enough to let go of my bad habits. But, when I turned forty, I gave myself an extra ten years, promising myself that by age fifty, I’d have conquered these habits. Well, now I’m my fifties and I’ve promised myself that by age sixty, I’ll be more mature and more serious about the deeper things in life.

Most of us, if we are honest, have a similar story. We’re well intentioned, but we keep pushing the things we need to change in our lives off into the future: Yes, I need to do this, but I’m not ready yet. I want more time. Sometime in the future I’ll do this.

That’s a near-universal sentiment, and for good reason. The tension we experience between our desire to grow-up and our perennial procrastination and infinite stalling in doing that, reflects in fact a tension that lies at the heart of Jesus’ message, a tension between God’s promises as being already here and God’s promises as still coming. Simply put: Everything Jesus promised is already here and everything Jesus promised is still coming. We’re already living the new, resurrected life, even as we’re waiting for it still to come. What lies inside this paradox?

Biblical scholars and theologians tell us that everything Jesus came to bring us (the Reign of God, the Kingdom of God, the New Age, the Final Age, the reign of justice on this earth, new life, the resurrection, eternal life, heaven) is already here, except that it’s also still coming. It’s here now, but not fully; a present reality, but in tension. And it’s still coming, in its fullness; still to arrive, in ecstasy. It’s already here and it’s still to be realized. For instance, when Jesus says that he has come to bring us new life, he is not talking simply about our future our lives in heaven; he is also talking about our lives here, already now. The new life is already here, he assures us. Heaven has already begun.

Jesus preached this very clearly and the problem was not that his hearers didn’t understand him. They understood; but, almost universally, they resisted that message. Much as they yearned for God’s Kingdom to be already here, like my friend who keeps asking for another ten years to get his life in order, they preferred to push things into the future. Having God become concrete in their lives was far too threatening.

Gerhard Lohfink, the renowned Biblical scholar, aptly articulates both the resistance that Jesus’ hearers had to this part of his message and the reason for that resistance: “Jesus’ hearers prefer to push everything off into the future, and the story comes to no good end. The reign of God announced by Jesus is not accepted. The ‘today’ offered by God is denied. And that, that alone, is why ‘already’ becomes ‘not yet’. …. It is not only in Nazareth that the ‘today’ of the Gospel was not accepted. Later also, in the course of the church’s history, it has again and again been denied or rendered toothless. The reason was the same as in Nazareth: apparently it goes against the human grain for God to become concrete in our lives. Then people’s desires and favorite notions are in danger, and so are their ideas about time. It can’t be today, because that would mean that our lives have to change today already. Therefore it can lie, hygienically and snugly packed, at rest, inconsequential.”

I suspect that all of us can relate to that: It’s very threatening to have God become “concrete” in our lives, as opposed to God simply being a reality that will one day become very real. Because if God is “concrete” already now that means that our worlds have to change now and we have to stop pushing things into the indefinite future.  This isn’t so much a fault in faith as it is a procrastination, a stalling, wanting of a little more time before we need to get serious. We’re like the guests in the Gospel parable who are invited to wedding banquet. We too want to go to the feast, intend to go to the feast; but, first, we need to attend to our marriages, our businesses, our ambitions. We can get serious later. There’s time. We fully intend to take Jesus seriously; it’s just that we want a little more time before we do that.

We are all, I suspect, familiar with St. Augustine’s infamous prayer. After converting to Christianity at age twenty-five, he struggled for another nine years to bring his sexuality into harmony with his faith. During those nine years, he prayed this way: Lord, make me a chaste Christian … but not yet!

To his credit, unlike many of us, at least eventually he stopped pushing things into the indefinite future.

Fearing Our Own Maturity

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Our bodies and our souls each have their separate aging process, and they aren’t always in harmony. Thus, T.E. Laurence, in, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, makes this comment about someone: “He feared his maturity as it grew upon him, with its ripe thought and finished art, but which lacked the poetry of boyhood to make living a full end of life … his rangeful, mortal soul was aging faster than his body, was going to die before it, like most of ours.”

I suspect that all of us, at some level, fear growing into maturity. It’s not so much that we don’t want to give up the habits of our youth or that we fear that the joys of maturity are second-best to the pleasures of youth. There is, I believe, a deeper reason: We fear, as Laurence puts it, that our maturity will strip us of the poetry of our youth and make us old before time. What’s meant by that?

We sometimes speak of an old soul inside a young person, and this is meant both as a compliment and a criticism, perhaps more the latter. We sometimes look at a young person whose body is full of life and overfull with energy and see a precociousness of soul that belies that youth and energy and we can’t help wondering whether that premature maturity isn’t inhibiting the life-principle. And so we have a mixed reaction: What a mature young person! But is his or her life too-grey and sterile before its time?

Reflecting on this, I was reminded of a comment that Raymond Brown once made in a class. The context of his remark is important: This was not the comment of a young man still looking to leave a mark on life, but rather the comment of a very mature, successful, and respected man who was the envy of his peers. Nearly 70 years old, wonderfully mature, universally respected for everything from his scholarship to his personal integrity, he was a mature soul. And still his comment betrayed the subtle fear that perhaps his maturity had stripped him of some of the poetry of his boyhood. His comment was something to this effect:

You know when you reach a certain age, as I have now, and you look back on what you’ve done, you’re sometimes embarrassed by some of the things you did in your youth, not immoral things, just things that now, from your present perspective, seem immature and ill thought-out, things that you are now too wise to ever risk doing. Recalling them, initially you are a little embarrassed. But then, in those moments where you feel your age and your present reticence, you sometimes look back and say: “That’s bravest thing I ever did! Wow, I had nerve then! I’m much more afraid of things now!”

Jane Urquhart, the Canadian novelist, echoes this sentiment. Rereading one of her own books which she had written twenty years before, she comments: “It is tremendously satisfying to be able to reacquaint myself with the young woman who wrote these tales, and to know that what was going on in her mind intrigues me still.” What’s unspoken in her comment is her present admiration (and dare I say, envy) for the poetry that once infused her younger self.

I had a similar feeling some years ago when, for a new release of my book, The Restless Heart, I was asked to update it. I’d written the book when I was still in my twenties, a lonely and restless young man then, partly looking for my place in life. Now, nearly 25 years later and somewhat more mature, I was sometimes embarrassed by some of the things I’d written all those years back; but, like Raymond Brown, I marvelled at my nerve back then, and, like Jane Urquhart, it was refreshing to reacquaint myself with the young man who had written that book, sensing that he had a livelier poetry and more verve in him than the older person who was rereading that text.

Some of us never grow-up. The body ages, but the soul remains immature, clinging to adolescence, fearful of responsibility, fearful of commitment, fearful of opportunity slipping away, fearful of aging, fearful of own maturity, and, not least, fearful of death. This is not a formula for happiness, but one for an ever-increasing fear, disappointment, and bitterness in life. Not growing-up eventually catches up with everyone, and what judged as cute at twenty, colorful at 30, and eccentric at 40, becomes intolerable at 50. At a certain age, even poetry and verve don’t compensate for immaturity. The soul too must grow-up.

But, for some of us, the danger is the opposite, we grow old before our time, becoming old souls in still young bodies, mature, responsible, committed, able to look age, diminishment, and mortality square in the eye, but devoid of the poetry, verve, color, and humor which are meant to make a mature person mellow and alive, like a finely-aged old wine.

Ten Secrets to Happiness

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The past five years have seen a growth in interest in studies on human happiness. Numerous books have been published on the topic, not least Sonja Lyubomirsky’s, The Myths of Happiness, which has become for many a secular bible for happiness and meaning. In a recent book, Called to Happiness, Sidney Callahan critically evaluates many of these studies. Whatever the merit of these studies, all of us nurse our own secret dream of what will bring us happiness and often that fantasy is at odds with what we know to be true at a deeper level. What will make us happy?

In a recent interview (July 29, 2014) for the Argentine weekly, Viva, Pope Francis weighs in on this topic, submitting his own “Top 10 Tips” for happiness. What are Pope Francis’ tips for happiness or, as he puts it, “for bringing greater joy to one’s life”?

In presenting these, I will be faithful to his captions but, because his commentary on each one was rather lengthy, I will risk synthesizing his central point in my own words:

1. Live and let live.

All of us will live longer and more happily if we stop trying to arrange other peoples’ lives. Jesus challenged us not to judge but to live with the tension and let God and history make the judgments. So live we need to live by own convictions and let others do the same.

2. Be giving of yourself to others.

Happiness lies in giving ourselves away. We need to be open and generous because if we withdraw into ourselves we run the risk of becoming self-centered and no happiness will be found there since “stagnant water becomes putrid.”

3. Proceed calmly.

Move with kindness, humility, and calm. These are the antithesis of anxiety and distress. Calm never causes high blood pressure. We need to make conscious efforts to never let the moment cause panic and excessive hurry. Rather be late than stressed.

4. A healthy sense of leisure.

Never lose the pleasures of art, literature, and playing with children. Remember that Jesus scandalized others with his capacity to enjoy life in all its sensuousness. We don’t live by work alone, no matter how important and meaningful it might be. In heaven there will be no work, only leisure, we need to learn the art and joy of leisure not just to prepare for heaven but to enjoy some of heaven already now.

5. Sundays should be holidays.

Workers should have Sundays off because Sunday is for family. Accomplishment, productivity, and speed may not become our most valued commodities or we will begin to take everything for granted, our lives, our health, our families, our friends, those around us, and all the good things in life. That is why God gave us a commandment to keep the Sabbath holy. This is not a lifestyle suggestion, but a commandment as binding as not killing. Moreover, if we are employers, the commandment demands too that we give our employees proper Sabbath-time.

6. Find innovative ways to create dignified jobs for young people.

If you want to bless a young person, don’t just tell that person that he or she is wonderful. Don’t just admire youthful beauty and energy. Give a young person your job! Or, at least, work actively to help him or her find meaningful work. This will both bless that young person and bring a special happiness to your own life.

7. Respect and take care of nature.

The air we breathe out is the air we will re-inhale. This is true spiritually, psychologically, and ecologically. We can’t be whole and happy when Mother Earth is being stripped of her wholeness. Christ came to save the world, not just the people in the world. Our salvation, like our happiness, is tied to the way we treat the earth. It is immoral to slap another person in the face and so it is immoral too to throw our garbage into the face of Mother Earth.

8. Stop being negative.

Needing to talk badly about others indicates low self-esteem. Negative thoughts feed unhappiness and a bad self-image. Positive thoughts feed happiness and healthy self-esteem.

9. Don’t proselyte, respect others’ beliefs.

What we cherish and put our faith into grows “by attraction, not by proselytizing.”  Beauty is the one thing that no one can argue with. Cherish your values, but always act towards others with graciousness, charity, and respect.

10. Work for peace.

Peace is more than the absence of war and working for peace means more than not causing disharmony.  Peace, like war, must be waged actively by working for justice, equality, and an ever-wider inclusivity in terms of what makes up our family. Waging peace is the perennial struggle to stretch hearts, our own and others, to accept that in God’s house there are many rooms and that all faiths, not least our own, are meant to be a house of prayer for all peoples.

Offered with apologies for whenever my own thinking replaced that of Pope Francis.