RonRolheiser,OMI

The Prince of Lies

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Looking at our world today, what frightens and unsettles me more than the threat of the Covid virus, more than the growing inequality between the rich and the poor, more than the dangers of climate change, and even more than the bitter hatred that now separates us from each other, is our loss of any sense of truth, our facile denial of whatever truths we judge to be inconvenient, and our slogans of “fake news”, “alternate facts”, and phantom conspiracies. Social media, for all the good it has brought, has also created a platform for anyone to make up his or her own truth and then work at eroding the truths that bind us together and anchor our sanity. We now live in a world where two plus two often no longer equals four. This plays on our very sanity and has created as certain social insanity. The truths which anchor our common life are becoming unmoored. 

This is evil, clearly, and Jesus alerts us to that by telling us that Satan is preeminently the Prince of Lies. Lying is the ultimate spiritual, moral, and psychological danger. It lies at the root of what Jesus calls the “unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit”. What’s this sin and why is it unforgivable?

Here’s the context within which Jesus warns us about this sin: He had just cast out a demon. The religious leaders of the time believed as a dogma in their faith that only someone who came from God could cast out a demon. Jesus had just cast out a demon, but their hatred of him made this a very inconvenient truth for them to swallow. So they chose to deny what they knew to be true, to deny reality. They chose to lie, affirming (even as they knew better) that Jesus had done it by the power of Beelzebub. Initially Jesus tried to point out the illogic of their position, but they persisted. It’s then that he issued his warning about the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. At that time he’s not accusing them of committing that sin, but he’s warning them that the path they are on, if not corrected, can lead to that sin. In essence, he’s saying this: if we tell a lie long enough, eventually we will believe it and this so warps our conscience that we begin to see truth as falsehood and falsehood as truth. The sin then becomes unforgivable because we no longer want to be forgiven nor indeed will accept forgiveness. God is willing to forgive the sin but we are unwilling to accept forgiveness because we see sin as good and goodness as sin. Why would we want forgiveness?

It’s possible to end up in this state, a state wherein we judge the gifts of the Holy Spirit (charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, endurance, fidelity, mildness, and chastity) as false, as being against life, as a malevolent naiveté. And the first step in moving towards this condition is lying, refusing to acknowledge the truth. The subsequent steps also are lying, that is, the continued refusal to accept the truth so that eventually we believe our own lies and we see them as the truth and the truth as a lie. Bluntly put, that’s what constitutes hell.

Hell isn’t a place where one is sorrowful, repentant, and begging God for just one more chance to make things right. Nor is hell ever a nasty surprise waiting for an essentially honest person. If there’s anyone in hell, that person is there in arrogance, pitying people in heaven, seeing heaven as hell, darkness as light, falsehood as truth, evil as goodness, hatred as love, empathy as weakness, arrogance as strength, sanity as insanity, and God as the devil.

One of the central lessons in the gospels is this: lying is dangerous, the most dangerous of all sins. And this doesn’t just play out in terms of our relationship with God and the Holy Spirit. When we lie we’re not only playing fast and loose with God, we’re also playing fast and loose with our own sanity. Our sanity is contingent on what classical theology terms the “Oneness” of God. What this means in lay terms is that God is consistent. There are no contradictions inside of God and because of that, reality can also be trusted to be consistent. Our sanity depends on that trust. For instance, should we ever arrive at a day where two plus two no longer equals four, then the very underpinnings of our sanity will be gone; we’ll literally be unmoored. Our personal sanity and our social sanity depend upon the truth, upon us acknowledging the truth, upon us telling the truth, and upon two plus two forever equaling four.

Martin Luther once said: sin boldly! He meant a lot of things by that, but one thing he certainly did mean is that the ultimate spiritual and moral danger is to cover our weaknesses with lies because Satan is the Prince of Lies!

Pope Francis’ New Encyclical

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On October 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis released a new encyclical entitled, Fratelli Tutti – On Fraternity and Social Friendship. It can appear a rather depressing read because of its searing realism, except it plays the long game of Christian hope.

Fratelli Tutti lays out reasons why there’s so much injustice, inequality, and community breakdown in our world and how in faith and love these might be addressed. The intent here is not to give a synopsis of the encyclical, other than to say it’s courageous and speaks truth to power. Rather the intent is to highlight a number of special challenges within the encyclical.

First, it challenges us to see the poor and to see what our present political, economic, and social systems are doing to them. Looking at our world, the encyclical submits that in many ways it is a broken world and it names some reasons for this: the globalization of self-interest, the globalization of superficiality, and the abuse of social media, among other things. This has made for the survival of the fittest. And while the situation is broken for everyone, the poor are ending up suffering the most. The rich are getting richer, the powerful are getting more powerful, and the poor are growing poorer and losing what little power they had. There’s an ever-increasing inequality of wealth and power between the rich and the poor and our world is become ever more calloused vis-à-vis the situation of the poor. Inequality is now accepted as normal and as moral and indeed is often justified in the name of God and religion. The poor are becoming disposable: “Some parts of our human family, it appears, can be readily sacrificed for the sake of others. Wealth has increased, but together with inequality.” In speaking of inequality, the encyclical twice highlights that this inequality is true of women worldwide: It is unacceptable that some have fewer rights by virtue of being women.”

The encyclical employs the parable of the Good Samaritan as its ground metaphor. It compares us today, individually and collectively, to the priest and the scribe in that parable who for religious, social, and political reasons walk past the one who is poor, beaten, bleeding and in need of help. Our indifference and our religious failure, like that of the priest and the scribe in the parable, is rooted both in a personal moral blindness as well as in the social and religious ethos of our society that helps spawn that blindness.

The encyclical goes on to warn that in the face of globalization we must resist becoming nationalistic and tribal, taking care of our own and demonizing what’s foreign. It goes on to say that in a time of bitterness, hatred, and animosity, we must be tender and gracious, always speaking out of love and not out of hatred: “Kindness ought to be cultivated; it is no superficial bourgeois virtue.”

The encyclical acknowledges how difficult and counter-cultural it is today to sacrifice our own agenda, comfort, and freedom for community, but invites us to make that sacrifice: “I would like especially to mention solidarity which is a moral virtue and social attitude born of personal conversion.”

At one point, the encyclical gives a very explicit (and far-reaching) challenge. It states unequivocally (with full ecclesial weight) that Christians must oppose and reject capital punishment and take a stand against war: “Saint John Paul II stated clearly and firmly that the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice.There can be no stepping back from this position. Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.All Christians and people of good will are today called to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty, legal or illegal, in all its forms, but also to work for the improvement of prison conditions.”

As for war: “We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war’

The encyclical has drawn strong criticism from some women’s groups who label it “sexist”, though this criticism is based almost exclusively on the encyclical’s title and on the fact that it never makes reference to any women authors. There’s some fairness, I submit, in the criticism regarding the choice of title. The title, while beautiful in an old classical language, is in the end masculine. That should be forgivable; except I lived long enough in Rome to know that its frequent insensitivity to inclusive language is not an inculpable oversight.  But the lapse here is a mosquito bite, a small thing, which shouldn’t detract from a big thing, namely, a very prophetic encyclical which has justice and the poor at its heart.

Spirituality and the Second Half of Life

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One size doesn’t fit everyone. This isn’t just true for clothing, it’s also true for spirituality. Our challenges in life change as we age.  Spirituality hasn’t always been fully sensitive to this. True, we’ve always had tailored instruction and activities for children, young people, and for people who are raising children, carrying a job, and paying a mortgage, but we’ve never developed a spirituality for what happens when those years are over.

Why is one needed? Jesus seemingly didn’t have one. He didn’t have one set of teachings for the young, another for those in mid-life, and still another for the elderly. He just taught. The Sermon on the Mount, the parables, and his invitation to take up his cross are intended in the same way for everyone, irrespective of age. But we hear those teaching at very different times in our lives; and it’s one thing to hear the Sermon the Mount when you’re seven years old, another when you’re twenty-seven, and quite another when you’re eighty-seven. Jesus’ teachings don’t change, but we do, and they offer very specific challenges at different times of our lives.

Christian spirituality has generally kept this in mind, with one exception. Except for Jesus and an occasional mystic, it has failed to develop an explicit spirituality for our later years, for how we are meant to be generative in our senior years and how we are to die in a life-giving way. But there’s a good reason for this lacuna. Simply put, it wasn’t needed because up until this last century most people never lived into old age. For example, in Palestine, in Jesus’ time, the average life expectancy was thirty to thirty-five years.  A century ago in the United States, it was still less than fifty years.  When most people in the world died before they reached the age of fifty, there was no real need for a spirituality of aging.

There is such a spirituality inside the Gospels. Even though he died at thirty-three, Jesus left us a paradigm of how to age and die. But that paradigm, while healthily infusing and undergirding Christian spirituality in general, was never developed more specifically into a spirituality of aging (with the exception of some of the great Christian mystics).

After Jesus, the Desert fathers and mothers folded the question of how to age and die into the overall framework of their spirituality. For them, spirituality was a quest to “see the face of God” and that, as Jesus makes clear, requires one thing, purity of heart. So for them, no matter your age, the challenge was the same, trying to achieve purity of heart. Then in the age of the persecutions and the early Christian martyrs, the idea developed that the ideal way to age and die was through martyrdom. Later, when Christians were no longer physically martyred, the idea took hold that you could take on a voluntary type of martyrdom by living the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They believed that living these, like the quest for purity of heart, taught you all you needed to know, no matter your age. Eventually this was expanded to mean that anyone who faithfully responded to the duties in his or her life, irrespective of age, would learn everything necessary to come to sanctity through that fidelity. As a famous aphorism put it: Stay inside your cell and it will teach you all you need to know. Understood properly, there’s a spirituality of aging and dying inside these notions, but until recently there was little need to draw that out more explicitly.

Happily, today the situation is changing and we’re developing, more and more, some explicit spiritualities of aging and dying. Perhaps this reflects an aging population, but there’s now a burgeoning body of literature, both religious and secular, that’s taking up the question of aging and dying. These authors, too numerous to mention, include many names already familiar to us: Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, Kathleen Dowling Singh, David Brooks, Cardinal Bernardin, Michael Paul Gallagher, Joan Chittister, Parker Palmer, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Paul Kalanithi, Erica Jong, Kathie Roiphe, and Wilkie and Noreeen Au, among others. Coming from a variety of perspectives, each of these offer insights into what God and nature intend for us in our later years.

In essence, here’s the issue: today, we’re living longer and healthier late into life. It’s common today to retire sometime in our early sixties after having raised our children, superannuated from our jobs, and paid our mortgages. So what’s next, given that we probably have twenty or thirty more years of health and energy left? What are these years for? What are we called to now, beyond loving our grandkids? Abraham and Sarah, in their old age, were invited to set out for a new land and conceive a child long after this was biologically impossible for them. That’s our call too. What “Isaac” are we called to give birth to in our later years? We need guidance.