RonRolheiser,OMI

Faithful Friendship

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I grew up in a close family and one of hardest things I ever did was to leave home and family at the age of seventeen to enter the novitiate of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. That novitiate year wasn’t easy. I missed my family intensely and stayed in touch with them insofar as the rules and communication of the day allowed. I wrote a letter home every week and my mother wrote back to me faithfully each week. I still have and cherish those letters. I had left home but stayed in touch, a faithful family member.

But my life became a lot more complex and socially demanding after that. I moved to a seminary and began to live in a community with sixty others, with people entering and leaving constantly throughout my seven years there so that by the time I’d finished my seminary training I had lived in close community with over one hundred different men. That brought its own challenges. People you’d grown close to would leave the community to be replaced by others so that each year there was a new community and new friendships.

In the years following seminary, that pattern began to grow exponentially. Graduate studies took me to other countries and brought a whole series of new persons into my life, many of whom became close friends. In more than forty years of teaching I have met with several thousand students and made many friends among them. Writing and public lectures have brought thousands of people into my life. Though most of them passed through my life without meaningful connection, some became lifelong friends.

I share this not because I think it’s unique, but rather because it’s typical. Today that’s really everyone’s story. More and more friends pass through our lives so that at a point the question necessarily arises: how does one remain faithful to one’s family, to old friends, former neighbors, former classmates, former students, former colleagues, and to old acquaintances? What does fidelity to them ask for? Occasional visits? Occasional emails, texts, calls? Remembering birthdays and anniversaries? Class reunions? Attending weddings and funerals?

Obviously doing these would be good, though that would also constitute a full-time occupation. Something else must be being asked of us here, namely, a fidelity that’s not contingent on emails, texts, calls, and occasional visits. But what can lie deeper than tangible human contact? What can be more real than that? The answer is fidelity, fidelity as the gift of a shared moral soul, fidelity as the gift of trust, and fidelity as remaining true to who you were when you were in tangible human community and contact with those people who are no longer part of your daily life. That’s what it means to be faithful.

It is interesting how the Christian scriptures define community and fidelity. In the Acts of the Apostles we read that before Pentecost those in the first Christian community were all “huddled in one room”. And here, though physically together, ironically they were not in real community with each other, not really a family, and not really faithful to each other. Then after receiving the Holy Spirit, they literally break out of that one room and scatter all over the earth so that many of them never see each other again and now, geographically at a distance from each other, ironically they become real family, become a genuine community, and live in fidelity to each other.

At the end of the day, fidelity is not about now often you physically connect with someone but about living within a shared spirit. Betrayal is not a question of separation by distance, of forgetting an anniversary or a birthday, or of not being able to stay in touch with someone you cherish. Betrayal is moving away from the truth and virtue you once shared with that person you cherish. Betrayal is a change of soul. We are unfaithful to family and friends when we become a different person morally so as to no longer share a common spirit with them.

You can be living in the same house with someone, share daily bread and conversation with him or her, and not be a faithful family member or friend; just as you can be a faithful friend or family member and not see that friend or family member for forty years. Being faithful in remembering birthdays is wonderful, but fidelity is more about remembering who you were when that birth was so special to you. Fidelity is about maintaining moral affinity.

To the best of my abilities, I try to stay in contact with the family, old friends, former neighbors, former classmates, former students, former colleagues, and old acquaintances. Mostly it’s a bit beyond me. So I put my trust in moral fidelity. I try as best I can to commit myself to keeping the same soul I had when I left home as a young boy and which characterized and defined me when I met all those wonderful people along the way.

Facing our Tough Hours

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Discernment isn’t an easy thing. Take this dilemma: When we find ourselves in a situation that’s causing us deep interior anguish, do we walk away, assuming that the presence of such pain is an indication that this isn’t the right place for us, that something’s terminally wrong here? Or, like Jesus, do we accept to stay, saying to ourselves, our loved ones, and our God: “What shall I say, save me from this hour?”

At the very moment that Jesus was facing a humiliating death by crucifixion, the Gospel of John hints that he was offered an opportunity to escape. A delegation of Greeks, through the apostle Philip, offer Jesus an invitation to leave with them, to go to a group that would receive him and his message. So Jesus has a choice: Endure anguish, humiliation, and death inside his own community or abandon that community for one that will accept him. What does he do? He asks himself this question: “What shall I say, save me from this hour?”

Although this is phrased as a question, it’s an answer. He is choosing to stay, to face the anguish, humiliation, and pain because he sees it as the precise fidelity he is called to within the very dynamic of the love he is preaching. He came to earth to incarnate and teach what real love is and now, when the cost of that is humiliation and interior anguish, he knows and accepts that this is what’s now being asked of him. The pain is not telling him that he’s doing something wrong, is at the wrong place, or that this community is not worth this suffering. To the contrary: The pain is understood to be calling him to a deeper fidelity at the very heart of his mission and vocation. Until this moment, only words were asked of him, now he is being asked to back them up in reality; he needs to swallow hard to do it.  

What shall I say, save me from this hour? Do we have the wisdom and the generosity to say those words when, inside our own commitments, we are challenged to endure searing interior anguish?  When Jesus asks himself this question, what he is facing is a near-perfect mirror for situations we will all find ourselves in sometimes. In most every commitment we make, if we are faithful, an hour will come when we are suffering interior anguish (and often times exterior misunderstanding as well) and are faced with a tough decision: Is this pain and misunderstanding (and even my own immaturity as I stand inside it) an indication that I’m in the wrong place, should leave, and find someone or some other community that wants me? Or, inside this interior anguish, exterior misunderstanding, and personal immaturity, am I called to say: What shall I say, save me from this hour? This is what I’m called to! I was born for this!

I think the question is critical because often anguishing pain can shake our commitments and tempt us to walk away from them. Marriages, consecrated religious vocations, commitments to work for justice, commitments to our church communities, and commitments to family and friends, can be abandoned on the belief that nobody is called to live inside such anguish, desolation, and misunderstanding. Indeed, today the presence of pain, desolation, and misunderstanding is generally taken as a sign to abandon a commitment and find someone else or some other group that will affirm us rather than as an indication that now, just now, in this hour, inside this particular pain and misunderstanding, we have a chance to bring a life-giving grace into this commitment.

I have seen people leave marriages, leave family, leave priesthood, leave religious life, leave their church community, leave long-cherished friendships, and leave commitments to work for justice and peace because, at a point, they experienced a lot of pain and misunderstanding. And, in many of those cases, I also saw that it was in fact a good thing. The situation they were in was not life-giving for them or for others. They needed to be saved from that “hour”. In some cases though the opposite was true. They were in excruciating pain, but that pain was an invitation to a deeper, more life-giving place inside their commitment. They left, just when they should have stayed.

Granted, discernment is difficult. It’s not always for lack of generosity that people walk away from a commitment. Some of the most generous and unselfish people I know have left a marriage or the priesthood or religious life or their churches. But I write this because, today, so much trusted psychological and spiritual literature does not sufficiently highlight the challenge to, like Jesus, stand inside excruciating pain and humiliating misunderstanding and instead of walking away to someone or some group that offers us the acceptance and understanding we crave, we instead accept that it is more life-giving to say: What shall I say, save me from this hour?

Leaving Peace Behind as our Farewell Gift

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There is such a thing as a good death, a clean one, a death that, however sad, leaves behind a sense of peace. I have been witness to it many times. Sometimes this is recognized explicitly when someone dies, sometimes unconsciously. It is known by its fruit.

I remember sitting with a man dying of cancer in his mid-fifties, leaving behind a young family, who said to me: “I don’t believe I have an enemy in the world, at least I don’t know if I do. I’ve no unfinished business.” I heard something similar from a young woman also dying of cancer and also leaving behind a young family. Her words: “I thought that I’d cried all the tears I had, but then yesterday when I saw my youngest daughter I found out that I had a lot more tears still to cry. But I’m at peace. It’s hard, but I’ve nothing left that I haven’t given.” And I’ve been at deathbeds other times when none of this was articulated in words, but all of it was clearly spoken in that loving awkwardness and silence you often witness around deathbeds. There is a way of dying that leaves peace behind.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus gives a long farewell speech at the Last Supper on the night before he dies. His disciples, understandably, are shaken, afraid, and not prepared to accept the brute reality of his impending death. He tries to calm them, reassure them, give them things to cling to, and he ends with these words: I am going away, but I will leave you a final gift, the gift of my peace.

I suspect that almost everyone reading this will have had an experience of grieving the death of a loved one, a parent, spouse, child, or friend, and finding, at least after a time, beneath the grief a warm sense of peace whenever the memory of the loved one surfaces or is evoked.  I lost both of my parents when I was in my early twenties and, sad as were their farewells, every memory of them now evokes a warmth. Their farewell gift was the gift of peace.

In trying to understanding this, it is important to distinguish between being wanted and being needed. When I lost my parents at a young age, I still desperately wanted them (and believed that I still needed them), but I came to realize in the peace that eventually settled upon our family after their deaths that our pain was in still wanting them and not in any longer needing them. In their living and their dying they had already given us what we needed. There was nothing else we needed from them. Now we just missed them and, irrespective of the sadness of their departure, our relationship was complete. We were at peace.

The challenge for all of us now, of course, is on the other side of this equation, namely, the challenge to live in such a way that peace will be our final farewell gift to our families, our loved ones, our faith community, and our world. How do we do that? How do we leave the gift of peace to those we leave behind?

Peace, as we know, is a whole lot more than the simple absence of war and strife. Peace is constituted by two things: harmony and completeness. To be at peace something has to have an inner consistency so that all of its movements are in harmony with each other and it must also have a completeness so that it is not still aching for something it is missing. Peace is the opposite of internal discord or of longing for something we lack. When we are not at peace it is because we are experiencing chaos or sensing some unfinished business inside us.  

Positively then, what constitutes peace? When Jesus promises peace as his farewell gift, he identifies it with the Holy Spirit; and, as we know, that is the spirit of charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, longsuffering, fidelity, mildness, and chastity.

How do we leave these behind when we leave? Well, death is no different than life. When some people leave anything, a job, a marriage, a family, or a community, they leave chaos behind, a legacy of disharmony, unfinished business, anger, bitterness, jealousy, and division. Their memory is felt always as a cold pain. They are not missed, even as their memory haunts. Some people on the other hand leave behind a legacy of harmony and completeness, a spirit of understanding, compassion, affirmation, and unity. These people are missed but the ache is a warm one, a nurturing one, one of happy memory.

Going away in death has exactly the same dynamic. By the way we live and die we will leave behind either a spirit that perennially haunts the peace of our loved ones, or we will leave behind a spirit that brings a warmth every time our memory is evoked.