RonRolheiser,OMI

Go Crazy or Turn Holy

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In a poem Serenade, Brazilian poet Adelia Pradospeaks of a painful ache we feel inside us as we forever wait for something or someone to come and make us whole. What are we waiting for? Love? A soulmate? God? No matter, the frustration eventually pushes us towards a choice, go crazy or turn holy:

I am beginning to despair

And can see only two choices:

Either go crazy or turn holy.

And when that someone or something finally does come:

How will I open the window, unless I’m crazy?
How will I close it, unless I’m holy?

Either go crazy or turn holy. The older we get the more we realize how true that is, how eventually that’s the choice forced on all of us, both by the way we are built and the limitations inherent in life itself. Why? Is there something wrong with life and with us? Why can’t we find a peaceful space somewhere between crazy and holy?

Well, the biblical preacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes offers a reason. After penning that beautiful, oft-quoted text about how there is a time for everything – a time to be born and to a time to die; a time to plant and a time to harvest; a time to break down and a time to heal; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to keep silent and a time to speak; a time for love and a time for hate; and a time for war and a time for peace – he offers us this. God has laid out a beautiful rhythm for life and has made everything beautiful in its own time, but God has put timelessness into the human heart so that we are out of sync with the seasons from beginning to end. God has established a beautiful rhythm to nature; but we, unlike the physical elements and the plants and the animals who don’t have timelessness in their souls, never quite fit into that rhythm. We are overcharged for life on this planet. (Ecclesiastes 3, 1-11)

You find expressions of this in literature everywhere in both religious and secular circles. For example, the renowned German theologian Karl Rahner used to affirm that in the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we learn that here in this life there is no finished symphony. In that, he echoes Saint Augustine’s famous line that is as true and apropos today as it was seventeen hundred years ago when he wrote it: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. That single line expresses both a non-negotiable understanding of the human person and a non-negotiable path he or she must walk. We don’t have a final home here and that’s why at the end of the day there is no option other than going crazy or turning holy. It’s no surprise that Ruth Burrows, the renowned spiritual writer, begins her autobiography with these words: I was born into this world with a tortured sensitivity and my path has not been an easy one.

While this motif is everywhere present in religious literature, it is also present in the thought of many secular poets, novelists, and philosophers. For instance, after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Albert Camus, a professed atheist, was asked by a journalist if he believed in God. He answered: No, I don’t believe in God, but that doesn’t mean I am not obsessed with the question of God. Why that obsession? Because in his thought he could not make sense of the world, nor find a fully sensible place in it for humans, unless there was a God. Without a God, human existence cannot make peace with itself. He likened the condition of someone in this world to that of a prisoner in certain medieval prisons, where they would put a prisoner in a cell that was so small that he or she could never stand fully upright or ever fully stretch out. The perpetual feeling of being cramped, it was believed, would eventually break the prisoner’s spirit. For Camus, that’s our situation in life. We can never really stand up fully or ever stretch out fully. Eventually, this breaks our spirit – and we either go crazy or get holy. That’s also the basic view of other atheistic existentialists like Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Go crazy or get holy! Richard Rohr offers us a third option, get bitter. He submits that once we get to a certain age, we have only three options left open to us: We can become a pathetic old fool; or we can become a bitter old fool; or we can become a holy old fool. Notice what’s non-negotiable. We will all eventually become old fools. We have the choice only as to what kind of old fool we will be – crazy, bitter, or holy.

God’s Silence in the Face of Evil

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Theologians sometimes try to express the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection in one sentence: In the resurrection, God vindicated Jesus, his life, his message, and his fidelity. What does that mean?

Jesus entered our world preaching faith, love, and forgiveness, but the world didn’t accept that. Instead, it crucified him and by that seemingly shamed his message. We see this most clearly on the cross when Jesus is taunted, mocked, and challenged: If you are the son of God, come down from there! If your message is true, let God verify that right now! If your fidelity is more than plain stubbornness and human ignorance, then why are you dying in shame? 

What was God’s response to those taunts? Seemingly nothing, no commentary, no defense, no apologia, no counter challenge, just silence. Jesus dies in silence. Neither he nor the God he believed in tried to fill that excruciating void with any consoling words or explanations challenging people to look at the bigger picture or to look at the brighter side of things. None of that. Just silence.

Jesus died in silence, inside God’s silence and inside the world’s incomprehension. And we can let ourselves be scandalized by that silence, just as we can let ourselves be scandalized by the seeming triumph of evil, pain, and suffering in our world. God’s seeming silence in the face of evil and death can forever scandalize us: in the Jewish holocaust, in ethnic genocides, in brutal and senseless wars, in the earthquakes and tsunamis which kill thousands of people and devastate whole countries, in the deaths of countless people taken out of this life by cancer and by violence, in how unfair life can be sometimes, and in the casual manner that those without conscience can rape whole areas of life seemingly without consequence. Where is God in all of this? What’s God’s answer?

God’s answer is the resurrection, the resurrection of Jesus and the perennial resurrection of goodness within life itself. But resurrection is not necessarily rescue. God doesn’t necessarily rescue us from the effects of evil, nor even from death. Evil does what it does, natural disasters are what they are, and those without conscience can rape even as they are feeding off life’s sacred fire. Normally, God doesn’t intervene. The parting of the Red Sea isn’t a weekly occurrence. God lets his loved ones suffer and die, just as Jesus let his dear friend Lazarus die, and God let Jesus die. God redeems, raises us up afterwards, in a deeper, more lasting vindication. Moreover, the truth of that statement can even be tested empirically.

Despite every appearance to the contrary at times, in the end, love does triumph over hatred. Peace does triumph over chaos. Forgiveness does triumph over bitterness.  Hope does triumph over cynicism. Fidelity does triumph over despair. Virtue does triumph over sin. Conscience does triumph over callousness. Life does triumph over death, and good does triumph over evil, always. Mohandas K. Gandhi once wrote: “When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been murderers and tyrants, and for a time they seem invincible. But in the end they always fall. Think of it, always.”

The resurrection, most forcibly, makes that point. In the end, God has the last word. The resurrection of Jesus is that last word. From the ashes of shame, of seeming defeat, failure, and death, a new, deeper, and eternal life perennially bursts forth. Our faith begins at the very point where it seems it should end, in God’s seeming silence in the face of evil.

And what does this ask of us?

First, simply that we trust in the truth of the resurrection. The resurrection asks us to believe what Gandhi affirmed, namely, that in the end evil will not have the last word. It will fail. Good will eventually triumph.

More concretely, it asks us to roll the dice on trust and truth, namely, trusting that what Jesus taught is true. Virtue is not naïve, even when it is shamed. Sin and cynicism are naïve, even when they appear to triumph. Those who genuflect before God and others in conscience will find meaning and joy, even when they are deprived of some of the world’s pleasures. Those who drink in and manipulate sacred energy without conscience will not find meaning in life, even when they taste pleasure. Those who live in honesty, no matter the cost, will find freedom. Those who lie and rationalize will find themselves imprisoned in self-hate. Those who live in trust will find love. God’s silence can be trusted, even when we die inside of it. We need to remain faithful in love, forgiveness, and conscience, despite everything that suggests they are naive. They will bring us to what is deepest inside of life. Ultimately, God vindicates virtue. God vindicates love. God vindicates conscience. God vindicates forgiveness. God vindicates fidelity. Ultimately, God vindicated Jesus and will vindicate us too if we remain faithful.

The Passion of Christ as Passivity

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We speak of that section in the Gospels which narrates Jesus’ life from the Last Supper until his death and burial, as chronicling his “Passion”. On Good Friday, the lector begins the Gospel with the words: “The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to John”.

Why do we call Jesus’ suffering just before his death his passion?

Generally, this is not properly understood. We tend to think that “passion” here refers to intense sufferings, as in “passionate suffering”. This isn’t wrong but misses a key point. Passion comes from the Latin, PASSIO, meaning passiveness, non-activity, absorbing something more than doing something. Hence, the “Passion” of Jesus refers to that time in his life when his meaning for us is not defined by what he was doing but rather by what was being done to him. What’s being said here?

The life and ministry of Jesus can be divided into two distinct parts: scholars estimate that Jesus spent about three years preaching and teaching before being put to death. For most of that time, in fact for all of it except the last day, he was very much the doer, in command, the active one, teaching, healing, performing miracles, giving counsel, eating with sinners, debating with church authorities, and generally, by activity of every sort, inviting his contemporaries into the life of God. And he was busy, so pressured that at times he didn’t have time to eat. For almost all his public life Jesus was actively doing something.

However, from the time he walked out of the last supper room that activity stopped. He is no longer the one who is doing things for others, but the one who is having things done to him. In the garden, they arrest him, bind his hands, lead him to the high priest, then to Pilate. He is beaten, humiliated, stripped of his clothes, and eventually nailed to a cross where he dies. This constitutes his “passion”, that time in his life and ministry when he ceases to be the doer and becomes the one who has things done to him.

What is so remarkable about this is that our faith teaches us that we are saved more through his passion (his death and suffering) than through all his activity of preaching and doing miracles. How does this work?

Allow me an illustration: some years ago, my sister Helen, an Ursuline nun, died of cancer. A nun for more than thirty years, she much loved her vocation and was loved within it. For most of those thirty years, she served as a den-mother to hundreds of young women who attended an academy run by her order. She loved those young women and was for them a mother, an older sister, and a mentor. As well, for the last twenty years of her life, after our own mother died, she served in that same capacity for our family, organizing us and keeping us together. Through all those years she was the active one, the consummate doer, the one whom others expected to take charge. And she relished the role, was born for it. She loved doing things for others.

Then, nine months before she died, cancer struck her brutally and she spent the last months of her life bedridden. Now things needed to be done for her. Doctors, nurses, the sisters in her community, and others, took turns taking care of her. And, like Jesus from the time of his arrest until the moment of his death, her body too was humiliated, led around by others, stripped, prodded, and stared at by curious passers-by. Indeed, like Jesus, she died thirsty, with a sponge held to her lips by someone else.

That was her passion. She, who had spent so many years doing things for others, now had to submit to having things done to and for her. But, and this is the point, like Jesus, she was able in that period of her life when she was helpless and no longer in charge, to give life and meaning to others in a deeper way than she could during all those years when she was active and doing so many things for others.

That is the mystery of the fruitfulness of passivity, of helplessness. And there’s an important lesson here, not the least of which is the potential fruitfulness of the terminally ill, the severely handicapped, and the sick. There’s a lesson too on how we might understand what we have to give to others when we are ill, helpless, and in need of care from others.

The passion of Jesus teaches us that, like Jesus, we give as much to others in our passivity as in our activities. When we are no longer in charge, beaten down, humiliated, suffering, and unable even to make ourselves understood by our loved ones, we are undergoing our passion and, like Jesus in his passion, have in that the opportunity to give over our love in a very deep way.