RonRolheiser,OMI

Reacting to Criticism

A A A

In much of the secularized world today, we live in a climate that’s somewhat anti-Christian and anti-church (as contradictory as this may sound in a culture that still considers itself Christian). But the truth is that in many circles today it is fashionable to bash Christianity, especially its churches, be they Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Evangelical. Invariably the criticism will focus on inconsistencies, faults, and historical sins inside these churches. Indeed, the expression, I am spiritual but not religious, carries a not-so-subtle critique of the churches. I want God, but not Christianity and the churches.

How serious is this? What’s to be our response?  While it’s irritating, ultimately it’s not a major cause for concern. As a church, we are not fundamentally threatened by this and we should not overreact. Why?

First, because a certain amount of this criticism does us good. We have real faults and shortcomings and our culture generously points them out. The present criticism of the church is healthily humbling us and pushing us towards a more courageous internal purification. Our critics show us our faults; they do us a favor. Besides, for too long we enjoyed a situation of privilege, never a good thing for the church. We tend to be healthier as Christians whenever we are living in a time of dis-privilege rather than in a time of privilege, albeit it isn’t as pleasant. Moreover, there’s something weightier at stake.

We must be careful not to overreact to the present anti-ecclesial climate because this can lead to an unhealthy defensiveness and put us too much in the position of adversary vis-a-vis the culture. That’s not where the gospel wants us to be, not at all. Our task instead is to absorb this criticism, painful though it can be, gently point to its unfairness, but resist every temptation to be overly defensive. Why? Why not aggressively defend ourselves?

Because we are strong enough not to, pure and simple. We can withstand this without having to become hard and defensive. No matter how prevalent or unfair the criticism, the church is not about to go under or away any time soon. We are more than two billion Christians in the world, stand within a two-thousand-year-old tradition, have among ourselves a universally accepted scripture, have two thousand years of doctrinal entrenchment and refinement, have massive centuries-old institutions, are embedded in the very roots of Western culture and technology, constitute one of the biggest multi-national groups in the world, and are growing in numbers worldwide. We are hardly a reed shaking in the wind, reeling, a ship about to go under. We are strong, stable, blessed by God, an elder in the culture. Because of this we owe the culture graciousness and understanding. 

Beyond that, and more important than our historical strengths, is the fact that we have Christ’s promise to be with us and the reality of the resurrection to sustain us. Given all this, I think it’s fair to say that we can absorb a fair amount of criticism without fear of losing our identity. Moreover, we must not let this criticism make us lose sight of why we exist in the first place.

The church does not exist for its own sake or to ensure its own survival. It exists for the sake of the world. We can too easily forget this and, in all sincerity, lose sight of what the gospel asks of us. For example, compare these two responses: at a press conference, someone once asked the late Cardinal Basil Hume what he considered the foremost challenge facing the church today. He replied: “To save the planet.” Some years later, another Cardinal (unnamed here because of his answer) in a television interview was asked roughly the same question, “What do you see as your first task in taking over this diocese?” His reply: “To defend the faith.” A very different answer, clearly.

Everything about Jesus suggests that Hume’s view is closer to the gospel than the other. When Jesus says, my flesh is food for the life of the world, he is telling us that the major task of the church is not to defend itself, to ensure its continuity, or to keep the world from grinding it up. The church exists for the sake of the world, not for its own sake. That’s why Jesus was born in a trough, a place where animals come to eat, and it’s why he gives himself on a table, to be eaten. Being ground up is part of what Jesus is about. Everything about him suggests vulnerability over defensiveness, risk over safety, trust in a divine promise over any human defense and insurance.

The very essence of the gospel is a call to risk beyond defensiveness, to absorb what’s unjust, to not be defensive– Forgive them for they know not what they do. We are meant to be food for the world, not anxious about our own survival. We must be the food of understanding, graciousness, and forgiveness for the world.

The Mystery of the Ascension

A A A

What is the Ascension? The Ascension is an event in of the life of Jesus and his original disciples, a feast day for Christians, a theology, and a spirituality, all woven together into one amorphous mystery that we too seldom try to unpackage and sort out. What does the Ascension mean?

Among other things, it is a mystery that is strangely paradoxical. Here’s the paradox: there is a wonderful life-giving gift in someone entering our lives, touching us, nurturing us, doing things that build us up, and giving life for us. But there’s also a gift in the other eventually having to say goodbye to the way he or she has been present to us. Passing strange, there’s also a gift in one’s going away. Presence also depends upon absence. There’s a blessing we can only give when we go away.

That’s why Jesus, when bidding farewell to his friends before his ascension, spoke these words: “It’s better for you that I go away. You will be sad now, but your sadness will turn to joy. Don’t cling to me, I must ascend.”

How might we understand these words? How can it be better that someone we love goes away? How can the sadness of a goodbye, of a painful leaving, turn to joy? How can a goodbye eventually bring us someone’s deeper presence?

This is hard to explain, though we have experiences of this in our lives. Here’s an example: When I was twenty-two years old, in the space of four months, my father and mother died, both still young. For myself and my siblings, the pain of their deaths was searing. Initially, as with every major loss, what we felt was pain, severance, coldness, helplessness, a new vulnerability, the loss of a vital life-connection, and the brute facticity of the definitiveness of death for which there is no adequate preparation. There’s nothing warm, initially, in any loss, death, or painful goodbye.

Time, of course, is a great healer, but there’s more to this than simply the fact that we become anaesthetized by the passage of time. After a while, and for me this took several years, I didn’t feel cold anymore. My parents’ deaths were no longer a painful thing. Instead their absence turned into a warm presence, the heaviness gave way to a certain lightness of soul, their seeming incapacity to speak to me now turned into a surprising new way of having their steady, constant presence in my life, and the blessing that they were never able to fully give me while they were alive began to seep ever more deeply and irrevocably into the very core of my person. The same was true for my siblings. Our sadness turned to joy and we began to find our parents again, in a deeper way, at a deeper place of soul, namely, in those places where their spirits had flourished while they were alive. They had ascended, and we were better for it.

We have this kind of experience frequently, just in less dramatic ways. Parents, for instance, experience this, often excruciatingly, when a child grows up and eventually goes away to start life on his or her own. A real death takes place and an ascension must happen. An old way of relating must die, painful as that death is. Yet, as we know, it’s better that our children go away.

The same is true everywhere in life. When we visit someone, it’s important that we come; it’s also important that we leave. Our leaving, painful though it is, is part of the gift of our visit. Our presence depends partly on our absence.

And this must be carefully distinguished from what we mean by the axiom: Absence makes the heart grow fonder. For the most part, that’s not true. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but only for a while and mostly for the wrong reasons. Physical absence, simple distance from each other, without a deeper dynamic of spirit entering beneath, ends more relationships than it deepens. In the end, most of the time, we simply grow apart. That’s not how the ascension deepens intimacy, presence, and blessing.

The ascension deepens intimacy by giving us a new presence, a deeper, richer one, but one which can only come about if our former way of being present is taken away. Perhaps we understand this best in the experience we have when our children grow up and leave home. It’s painful to see them grow away from us. It’s painful to have to say goodbye. It’s painful to let someone ascend.

But, if their words could in fact say what their hearts intuit, they would say what Jesus said before his ascension: “It’s better for you that I go away. There will be sadness now, but that sadness will turn to joy when, one day soon, I will be standing before you as an adult son or daughter who is now able to give you the much deeper gift of my adulthood.”

An Invitation to a Liturgical Prayer

A A A

We are all priests from our baptism, and with that comes an invitation, namely, to pray for the world as a priest through the prayer of Christ and the Church. What does that mean exactly?

Everyone who is baptized as a Christian is baptized into the priesthood of Jesus Christ. The priesthood is given to all baptized Christians and is not just the prerogative and responsibility of those who are officially ordained for ministry, and with this comes an invitation to all adult Christians.

This invitation is something very concrete. We don’t have to think about what we are meant to do or invent something. Rather, we are invited to join in a practice that began in the early apostolic community and has come down to us today, that is, the practice of daily praying two sets of prayers out of a ritual set of prayers that are variously called: The Divine Office of the Church, The Liturgy of the Hours, The Canonical Hours, or The Breviary. Since the time of the earliest Christian monastics, these prayers have been a key element in the prayer of the Church, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

There are eight such sets of prayers, each meant to be said at a different time of day and linked to the mood and light of the hour. The eight sets of these prayers are: Lauds (prayed as morning prayer); Prime and Terce (prayed at various times during the morning); Sext (prayed at noon); None (prayed mid-afternoon); Vespers (prayed as the workday ends); Compline (prayed as a night prayer); and Vigils (prayed sometime during the night). Note the appropriateness of the name, The Liturgy of the Hours.

While there are eight sets of these prayers, only monks and nuns inside contemplative orders pray all eight of these. Priests, deacons, men and women in religious orders that are fully engaged in ministry, Protestant and Evangelical ministers, and laity who pray these “hours”, normally pray only two of them, Lauds (Morning Prayer) and Vespers (Evening Prayer).

And these prayers need to be distinguished from our private prayers. These are not private meditations, but are what is called public prayer, liturgical prayer, the Church’s prayer, the prayer of Christ for the world. Ideally, they are meant to be prayed, indeed celebrated communally, but they are still the public prayer of the Church even when they are prayed alone. The intent in praying them is to join the official prayer of the Church and pray a prayer that is being prayed at that same hour by thousands (perhaps millions) of Christians around the world who, as the Body of Christ, are praying Christ’s priestly prayer for the world.

Moreover, since these are the prayers of the Church, and not our own prayer, we are not free to change them or substitute other prayers for them according to our temperament, piety, or theological taste. These prayers don’t have to be personally meaningful to us each day. We are praying as priests, offering prayer for the world, and that is deeply meaningful in itself, independent of whether it is affectively meaningful to us on a given day or even during a whole period of our lives. Fulfilling a responsibility isn’t always affectively meaningful. In praying these prayers, we are assuming one of our responsibilities as adult Christians, that is, to pray with the Church, through Christ, for the world.

The two hours (Lauds and Vespers) that we are invited to pray each day follow a simple structure: three psalms, a short scriptural reading, an ancient Christian hymn (the Benedictus or the Magnificat), a short series of petitions, the Lord’s Prayer, and a concluding prayer.

So, this is the invitation: as an adult Christian, as a priest from your baptism, as a woman or man concerned for the world and the Church, I invite you to join thousands and thousands of Christians around the world and each day pray the Church’s morning prayer (Lauds) and the Church’s evening prayer (Vespers). Then, like Christ, as a priest, you will be offering sacrifice for the world. Subsequently, when you watch the world news and feel discouraged and helpless in the face of all that isn’t right in the world and ask yourself, what can I do? Well, you will be doing something that’s very real, praying with Christ and the Church for the world.

Where do you find these prayers, Lauds and Vespers? Books containing them can be purchased from almost any religious publishing house, Catholic or Protestant. Indeed, they need not even be purchased. Today they are available (free) online. Simply engage your search engine and type in The Liturgy of the Hours or ibreviary and you will find them.  

In praying these prayers each day, whether alone or (ideally) with others, you will be assuming a special power and a responsibility given to you in your baptism and will be giving an important gift to the world. And you will never again have to struggle with the question, how should I pray today?