RonRolheiser,OMI

The Dispelling of an Illusion

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We don’t much like the word disillusionment. Normally we think of it as a negative, something pejorative, and not as something that does us a favor. And yet disillusionment is a positive, it means the dispelling of an illusion and illusions, unless we need one as a temporary tonic, are not good for us. They keep us from the truth, from reality.

There are many, many negatives to the current coronavirus that’s wreaking a deadly havoc across the planet. But there’s one positive: Against every form of resistance we can muster, it’s dispelling the illusion that we are in control of our lives and that, by our own efforts, we can make ourselves invulnerable. That lesson has come upon us uninvited. This unforeseen and unwelcome virus is teaching us that, no matter our sophistication, intelligence, wealth, health, or status, we’re all vulnerable, we’re all at the mercy of a thousand contingencies over which we have little control. No amount of denial will change that.

Granted, at one level of our consciousness we’re always aware of our vulnerability. But sometimes after we have walked a dangerous ledge for a long time we forget the peril and are no longer aware of the narrowness of the plank upon which we’re walking. Then too our sense of our vulnerability to a hundred million dangers is, like our sense of mortality, normally pretty abstract and not very real. We all know that like everyone else we are going to die one day; but normally this doesn’t weigh very heavily on our consciousness. We live instead with the sense that we’re not going to die just yet. Our own deaths aren’t really real to us. They are not yet an imminent threat but only a distant, abstract reality.

Generally, such too is the vagueness of our sense of vulnerability. Yes, we know abstractly that we are vulnerable, but generally we feel pretty secure. But as this virus spreads, consumes our newscasts, and brings our normal lives to a halt, our sense of vulnerability is no longer a vague, abstract threat. We’re now much more aware that we all live at the mercies of a million contingencies, most over which we have little control.

However, to our defense, our innate sense that we’re in control and can safeguard our own safety and security should not be too-hastily and too-harshly judged. We can’t help it. It’s the way we’re built. We’re instinctually geared to hate our weaknesses, our vulnerability, our limitations, and our awareness of our own poverty and are instinctually geared to want to feel secure, in control, independent, invulnerable, and self-sufficient. That’s a mercy of grace and nature because it helps save us from despondency and helps us to live with a (needed) healthy pride. But it’s also an illusion; perhaps one that we need for long periods in our lives but also one that in moments of clarity and lucidity we’re meant dispel so as to acknowledge before God and to ourselves that we’re interdependent, not self-sufficient, and not ultimately in control. Whatever else about this virus, it’s bringing us a moment of clarity and lucidity, even if this is far from welcome.

We were given the same lesson, in effect, with the downing of the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11th, 2001. In witnessing this single tragic incident we went from feeling safe and invulnerable to knowing that we are not able, despite everything we have achieved, to ensure our own safety and safety of our loved ones. A lot of people relearned the meaning of prayer that day. A lot of us are relearning the meaning of prayer as we sit quarantined at home during this coronavirus.

Richard Rohr suggests that the passage from childhood to adulthood requires an initiation into a number of necessary life-truths. One of these can be summarized this way: You are not in Control! If that is true, and it is, then this coronavirus is helping initiate us all into a more mature adulthood. We are becoming more conscious of an important truth. However, we may not see any divine intent in this. Every fundamentalist voice that suggests that God sent this virus to each of us a lesson is dangerously wrong and is an insult to true faith. Still we need to hear God’s voice inside of it. God is speaking all the time but mostly we aren’t listening; this sort of thing helps serve as God’s microphone to a deaf world.

Illusions aren’t easy to dispel, and for good reasons.  We cling to them by instinct and we generally need them to get through life. For this reason, Socrates, in his wisdom, once wrote that “there is nothing that requires as gentle a treatment as the removal of an illusion”. Anything other than gentleness only makes us more resistant.

This coronavirus is anything but gentle. But inside all of its harshness perhaps we might feel a gentle nudge that we help us dispel the illusion that we are in control.

Love In The Time of Covid 19

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In 1985, Nobel Prize winning author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, published a novel entitled, Love in the Time of Cholera. It tells a colorful story of how life can still be generative, despite an epidemic.

Well what’s besetting our world right now is not cholera but the coronavirus, Covid 19.  Nothing in my lifetime has ever affected the whole world as radically as this virus. Whole countries have shut down, virtually all schools and colleges have sent their students home and are offering classes online, we’re discouraged from going out of our houses and from inviting others into them, and we’ve been asked not to touch each other and to practice “social distancing”. Ordinary, normal, time has stopped. We’re in a season that no generation, perhaps since the flu of 1918, has had to undergo. Furthermore, we don’t foresee an end soon to this situation. No one, neither our government leaders nor our doctors, have an exit strategy. No one knows when this will end or how. Hence, like the inhabitants on Noah’s Arc, we’re locked in and don’t know when the flood waters will recede and let us return to our normal lives.

How should we live in this extraordinary time? Well, I had a private tutorial on this some nine years ago. In the summer of 2011, I was diagnosed with colon cancer, underwent surgery for a resection, and then was subjected to twenty-four weeks of chemotherapy. Facing the uncertainty of what the chemotherapy would be doing to my body I was understandably scared. Moreover, twenty-four weeks is basically half a year and contemplating the length of time that I would be undergoing this “abnormal” season in my life, I was also impatient. I wanted this over with, quickly.  So I faced it like I face most setbacks in my life, stoically, with the attitude: “I’ll get through this! I’ll endure it!”

I keep what might euphemistically be termed a journal, though it’s really more a Daybook that simply chronicles what I do each day and who and what enters my life on a given day. Well, when I stoically began my first chemotherapy session I began checking off days in my journal: Day one, followed the next day by: Day two. I had done the math and knew that it would take 168 days to get through the twelve chemo sessions, spaced two weeks apart.  It went on like this for the first seventy days or so, with me checking off a number each day, holding my life and my breath, everything on hold until I could finally write, Day 168.

Then one day, about half way through the twenty-four weeks, I had an awakening. I don’t know what specifically triggered it, a grace from above, a gesture of friendship from someone, the feel of the sun on my body, the wonderful feel of a cold drink, perhaps all of these things, but I woke up, I woke up to the fact that I was putting my life on hold, that I wasn’t really living but only enduring each day in order check it off and eventually reach that magical 168th day when I could start living again. I realized that I was wasting a season of my life. Moreover, I realized that what I was living through was sometimes rich precisely because of the impact of chemotherapy in my life. That realization remains one of the special graces in my life.  My spirits lifted radically even as the chemotherapy continued to do the same brutal things to my body.

I began to welcome each day for its freshness, its richness, for what it brought into my life. I look back on that now and see those three last months (before day 168) as one of richest seasons of my life. I made some lifelong friends, I learned some lessons in patience that I still try to cling to, and, not least, I learned some long-overdue lessons in gratitude and appreciation, in not taking life, health, friendship, and work for granted. It was a special joy to return to a normal life after those 168 days of conscripted “sabbatical”; but those “sabbatical” days were special too, albeit in a very different way.

The coronavirus has put us all, in effect, on a conscripted sabbatical and it’s subjecting those who have contracted it to their own type of chemotherapy. And the danger is that we will put our lives on hold as we go through this extraordinary time and will just endure rather than let ourselves be graced by what lies within this uninvited season.

Yes, there will be frustration and pain in living this through, but that’s not incompatible with happiness. Paul Tournier, after he’d lost his wife, did some deep grieving but then integrated that grief into a new life in a way that allowed him to write:  “I can truly say that I have a great grief and that I am a happy man.”  Words to ponder as we struggle with this coronavirus.

An Alternate Expression of Love and Trust

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More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it. The Prophet, Jeremiah wrote those words more than 25 hundred years ago and anyone who struggles with the complexities of love and human relationships will soon enough know of what he speaks.

Who indeed can understand the human heart, given some of the curious and cruel ways we sometimes have of expressing love. For instance, Nadia Bolz-Weber shares something we all have a propensity for: “Inevitably, when I can’t harm the people who harmed me, I just end up harming the people who love me.” How true. When we’ve been hurt most every instinct in us screams for retaliation; but, most times, it’s not possible, nor safe, to retaliate against the persons who hurt us. Or, perhaps we aren’t even clear as to who hurt us. So, needing to lash out at someone, we lash out where it’s safe to do so, namely, at those whom we trust will absorb it, at those with whom we feel secure enough to do this. We lash out at them because we know they won’t retaliate. Simply put, sometimes we need to be really angry at someone and since we are unable to vent that anger on the person or persons responsible for it we vent on someone whom we unconsciously trust will safely accept it.

If you’re a loving parent, a faithful spouse, a trusted friend, a true counsellor, a good minister, or even just someone who with integrity officially represents a moral agency or a church it can be good to know this. Otherwise it’s too easy to misread some of the anger and recrimination that will come your way and take it too-personally and not for what it really is. When someone whom you’ve loved is angry at you it’s hard to recognize and accept that you’re probably the object of that anger even though you aren’t the cause of it, but rather are the one safe place where this person can lash out without fear of retaliation and have his or her bitterness absorbed.  If you don’t grasp the peculiar dynamics of love that are at play here you will inevitably take this too-personally, be torn up inside, lament its injustice, and struggle to carry it with the love that’s unconsciously being asked for.

But this can be very hard to accept, even when we understand why it’s happening. This kind of love demands an almost inhuman strength. For example, as Christians we have a special admiration for Jesus’ mother as we imagine what she must have felt as she stood beneath the cross, watching her son, goodness and innocence itself, suffer a brute, violent injustice. Not to lessen in any way the pain that she would have been feeling then, standing helplessly as she did in that awful injustice, she did have the consolation of knowing that her son loved her deeply. Her pain would have been excruciating, as would be the pain of any mother in that situation, but her pain had a certain (dare I use the phrase) “cleanliness” about it. She was free to fully and openly empathize with her son, knowing that his love was giving her permission to feel what she felt.

But many is the loving mother, loving father, a faithful spouse, or trusted friend whose heart is breaking at the anger and accusation being directed at them by someone they’ve loved and to whom they’ve been faithful. How can they not feel accused, guilty, and responsible for the bitter crucifixion they’re experiencing?  Their pain will not feel “clean”.  In effect, what they’re feeling is more what Jesus felt as he was being crucified rather than what his mother felt as she witnessed it.  They’re experiencing what St. Paul refers to in his Second Letter to the Corinthians when he writes that, though innocent himself, Jesus became sin.  That single expression, unless properly read, can be one of the most horrifying lines in scripture. Yet, understood within the dynamics of love, it powerfully highlights what love really means beyond fairytales. Real love is the capacity to absorb injustice with understanding, empathy, and with only the other’s good in mind.

Of course, sometimes the anger directed at us from persons we love is justified and speaks of our betrayal, our sin, and our breaking of trust. Sometimes the angry accusations directed at us validly accuse us of our own sin. In that case, what we’re asked to absorb has a very different meaning.  As well, we need to recognize that we also do this to others. When we’re hurt and unable to direct our anger and accusations against those who hurt us, then, as Nadia Bolz-Weber so honestly shares, we often end up harming the people who love us most.

Love has many modalities, some warm, kind, and affectionate, some accusatory, bitter, and angry. Yes, sometimes we have strange, anomalous ways of expressing our love and trust. Who can understand our tortuous hearts!