RonRolheiser,OMI

Making Love with the Divine

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Kabir, a fifteenth-century Hindu mystic, writes:

            What you call ‘salvation’ belongs to the time before death.

            If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive,

            do you think

            ghosts will do it after? ….

            What is found now is found then.

            If you find nothing now,

            you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death.

            If you make love with the divine now, in the next life you will have

                 the face of satisfied desire.

To make love with the divine. I suspect most of us will picture that as a warm, privatized, affective intimacy, the way we imagine romantic love, except here the other partner is God. Indeed, Christian mystical literature abounds with images of this kind, as does the Gospel of John. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that such a conception is over-idealized and over-privatized. Making love with the divine, if Jesus is to be believed, is something more assessable and more communal than our affective image of intimacy. 

How do we make love with the divine in this life? I have always taught that there are four non-negotiables to Christian discipleship: moral fidelity in our private lives, a commitment to social justice, some involvement within ecclesial community, and a mellow, gracious heart. We make love to the divine by living out these in our lives.

To make this more assessable, let me suggest that making love with the divine in this life asks ten things of us.

  1. A moral fidelity in our private lives

Scripture tells us that those who love God keep his commandments and those who say they love him but don’t keep his commandments are liars. Moreover, it tells us that we are inside a body within which even our most private actions affect everyone else. We make love with the divine by not having any dark, hidden secrets.

2. An effort to live out our lives inside of community

We are called to live our lives and come to God inside of a community. We cannot make love with God alone. It’s always God, others, and ourselves. When we stand before God in judgment, as Charles Peguy suggests, we will be asked, “Where are the others?” Making love with the divine means being both spiritual and religious.

3. A mellow heart that radiates gratitude and forgiveness

Like the older brother of the prodigal son, we can do all the right things, but with the wrong energy. We make love with God by fueling ourselves with gratitude rather than bitterness, and by forgiving others (and God) for life’s unfairness and all the things that have wounded us.

4. A proactive reaching out to the poor and a perennial concern for justice to the world

We cannot make love with God inside an intimacy that does not also take in the poor and the broken. Likewise, we cannot make love with God when we are indifferent to injustice. As Jesus makes clear, a private personal relationship with God never compensates for indifference to the poor and to injustice.

5. A life lived in truth which refuses to lie no matter how inconvenient

To make love with the divine is to live in the truth. Satan is the prince of lies. The single most dangerous thing we can do spiritually is to refuse to acknowledge what is true, and the single most important way we make love with God is never to lie.

6. A childlikeness that never falls into the illusion of self-sufficiency

Life may never be taken for granted, but only as granted. We make love to the divine by never living the illusion of self-sufficiency, by acknowledging always that life is gift and that we are dependent and interdependent with others and with God.

7. A perennial effort to love those who hate us, to not give back in kind

We make love with the divine whenever we love those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and forgive those who hurt us. This is its very essence.

8. A heart open to all

God’s eternal banquet table is open to everyone who is willing to sit down with everyone. Since God loves everyone, we make love with the divine by sharing God’s universal embrace.

9. An habitual openness to let God’s energy flourish within our lives

We make love with the divine by letting God’s energy flourish through our lives, namely, when we let the divine energy inside us be joyous and generative so as to radiate life no matter what cards we are dealt. 

10. A willingness to wait, to live in patience

We make love with the divine whenever we accept to live in patience, to wait for life and love to unfold according to their own inner dictates. We make love to the divine whenever we carry healthily the tension of chastity, not just in the area of sexuality, but also in all areas of life.

The prophet Micah puts all of this succinctly: act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly.

Theology and Spirituality – Writing about It or Writing It

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In the world of the arts, they make a distinction between persons who create an artifact, an artist, a sculptor, or a novelist, and persons who write about artists and their works. We have novelists and literary critics, artists and art critics, and both are important. Critics keep art and literature from bad form, sentimentality, vulgarity, and kitsch; but it’s the artists and novelists who produce the substance; without them critical assessment has no function.

For example, the book The Diary of Anne Frank is a masterpiece. Countless books and articles have been written about it, but these are not the masterpiece, the substance, the artifact that so deeply touched the soul of millions. They are commentaries about the artifact.  Of course, sometimes a person can be both, a novelist and a literary critic, an artist, and an art critic, still the distinction holds. These are separate crafts and separate disciplines.

That same distinction holds true within the area of theology and spirituality, though it is often not recognized. Some people write theology and others write about theology, just as some people write spirituality and others write about spirituality. Right now, I’m writing about theology and spirituality rather than actually doing theology or spirituality.

Perhaps an example can help. Henri Nouwen was one of the most popular spiritual writers in the past seventy years. Nouwen wrote spirituality; he never wrote about it, he wrote it. He was not a critic; he wrote spiritual texts. Many people, including myself, have written about Nouwen, about his life, his works, and why he influenced so many people. Strictly speaking, that’s writing about spirituality as opposed to writing spirituality as Nouwen did. Truth be told, we don’t have an abundance of spiritual writers today the caliber of Nouwen. What we do have, particularly at an academic level, is an abundance of critical writings about spirituality.

I offered the example of a contemporary spirituality writer, Henri Nouwen, but the distinction is perhaps even clearer when we look at classical spiritual writers. We have in fact created a certain “canon” of spirituality writers whom we deem as classics: the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the Pseudo-Dionysius, Julian of Norwich, Nicholas of Cusa, Francis of Assisi, Dominic, Ignatius, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, Francis de Sales, Vincent de Paul, and Therese of Lisieux, among others. None of these wrote works of criticism in se, they wrote spirituality. Countless books have been written about each of them, critically assessing their works. As valuable as these books are, they are in the end not spirituality books, but books about spirituality.

The same is true for theology. We have infinitely more books written about theology than we have books that are actual theology. The word “theology” comes from two Greek words, Theos (God) and logos (word). Hence, in essence, theology is “words about God”. Most theology books and courses on theology contain some “words about God”, but these are generally dwarfed by “words about words about God.”

This is not a criticism, but a clarification. I have taught and written in the area of theology and spirituality for nearly fifty years and am blissfully unaware of this distinction most of the time, mainly because we need both and the two simply flow in and out of each other. However, there is a point where it becomes important not to confuse or conflate the critical assessment of an artifact with the artifact itself, and in our case to recognize that writing about theology and spirituality is not the same thing as actually doing theology and doing spirituality.  Why? Why highlight this distinction?

Because we need the artist and the critic to speak to different places inside of us and we need to recognize (explicitly at times) where we need to be fed or guided. The artist speaks to the soul with one kind of intent, namely, to inspire, to inflame, to deepen, to bring new insight, and to move us affectively. The critic speaks with a different intent: to guide, to keep us balanced, sane, robust, clear-headed, and within the bounds of decency, community, proper aesthetics, and orthodoxy. Both are important. One saves the other from unbridled sentimentality and the other saves the other from simply being an empty exercise. In a vast over-simplification, we might put it this way. Critics define the rules of the game and hold the players to the rule; but art, theology, and spirituality are the game. Games need to be refereed or they quickly degenerate.

In our churches today there is often a tension between those who are trying to create new insight, generate new enthusiasm, and speak more affectively to the soul, and those who are guarding the castles of academia, orthodoxy, liturgy, and good taste. Academic theology is often in tension with devotional life, liturgists are often in tension with pastors, and popular spiritual writers are often in tension with critics. One or the other may irritate us, but each is ultimately a friend.

What We Do in Private

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No one is an island; indeed, no one is ever really alone. If you are a person of faith or even just someone with a highly attuned intuitive sense, you will know that there is no such thing as a truly private act, for good or bad. Everything we do, no matter how private, affects others. We aren’t isolated monads whose private thoughts and acts have no effect on anyone else. We know this, and not just from our faith. We know it intuitively by what we sense in our lives.

How do we sense what lies hidden in the privacy of other people’s lives? Conversely, how does what happens in the privacy of our own lives affect others?

We don’t have a metaphysics, a phenomenology, or a science through which we can tease this out explicitly. We just know it is true. What we do in the private recesses of our hearts and minds is in some ways sensed by others. Every religion worthy of the name teaches this, namely that we are all in some real, mystical, symbiotic communion with each other where ultimately nothing is truly private. This belief is shared by basically all the great world religions – Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, and American and African Native religions. No religion allows for a private sin that does not affect the whole community.

This explains some ofJesus’ teachings. Jesus teaches that it’s not only our outward actions that help or hurt others; it’s also our innermost thoughts. For him, not only may we not do harm to someone we hate, we may not even think hateful thoughts about him in our private thoughts. Likewise it not enough to discipline ourselves sexually so as to not commit adultery, we have to even discipline the erotic thoughts we have about others.

Why? What’s the harm in private thoughts?  It is more than the danger that if we think certain bad thoughts about others we will eventually act them out (true though this may be). What is at issue is something deeper, something contained explicitly in the Christian notion of the Body of Christ.

As Christians, we believe that we are all members of one living organism, the Body of Christ, and that our union with each there is more than metaphorical. It is real, as real as the physicality of a living body. We are not a corporation, but a living body, a living organism, where all parts affect all other parts. Hence, just as in a live body, healthy enzymes help bring health to the whole body, and infected and cancerous cells threaten the health of the whole body, so too inside the Body of Christ. What we do in private is still inside the body. Consequently, when we do virtuous things, even in private, like a healthy enzyme, we help strengthen the immune system within the whole body. Conversely, when we are unfaithful, when we are selfish, when we sin, no matter that this is only done in private, like an infected or cancerous cell, we are helping break down the immune system in the body. Both healthy enzymes and harmful cancer cells work in secret, below the surface.

This has important implications for our private lives. Simply put, nothing we think or do in private does not have an effect on others. Our private thoughts and actions, like healthy enzymes or infected cells, affect the health of the body, either strengthening or weakening its immune system. When we are faithful, we help bring health to the body; when we are unfaithful, we are an infected cell challenging the immune system within the body.

Whether we are faithful or unfaithful in private affects others, and this is not something that is abstract or mystical. For example, a spouse knows when his or her partner is unfaithful, irrespective of whether or not the affair is exposed. Moreover, the spouse knows this not just because there may be subtle betrayals of the infidelity in the other’s body language and behavior. No, she knows this at a gut level, inchoately, mystically, because in some dark inexplicable way she senses the betrayal as a strain on the health and integrity of their marriage. This may sound more metaphorical than real, but I invite you to check it out in life. We feel infidelity.

We know some things consciously and others unconsciously. We know certain things through observation and others intuitively. We know through our heads, our hearts, and our guts, and through all three of these faculties, sometimes (because inside of a body all parts affect each other) we know something because we sense it as either a tension or a comfort inside our soul. There are no private acts. Our private acts, like our public ones, are either bringing health or disease to the community.

I leave the last words to the poets: If you are here faithfully, you bring great blessing. (Parker Palmer)  If you are here unfaithfully, you bring great harm. (Rumi)