RonRolheiser,OMI

Tomorrow and Tomorrow

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In his Confessions, St. Augustine describes how his conversion to Christianity involved two separate moments of grace, the first that convinced him intellectually that Christianity was correct, and the second that empowered him to live out what he believed. There were nearly nine years between these two conversions and it was during those nine years that he said his famous prayer: Lord make me a good and chaste Christian – but not yet.

Interestingly, a contemporary of his, also a saint, Ephraim the Syrian (306-373 A.D.) wrote a similar prayer: O my beloved, how daily I default and daily do repent. I build up for an hour and an hour overthrows what I have built. At evening I say, tomorrow I will repent, but when morning comes, joyous I waste the day.  Again, at evening I say, I shall keep vigil all night and I shall entreat the Lord to have mercy on my sins. But when the night is come, I am full of sleep.

What Augustine and Ephraim describe with such clarity (and not without a touch of humor) is one of the real difficulties we face in our struggle to grow in faith and human maturity, namely, the tendency to go through life saying: “Yes, I need to do better. I need to bear down and work at overcoming my bad habits, but now is not the time!”

It’s consoling to know that a number of saints struggled for years with mediocrity, laziness, and bad habits, and that they, like us, could for years give in to those things with the shrug: “Tomorrow, I will make a new start!” For a few years, one of Augustine’s expressions was, “tomorrow and tomorrow!”

“Yes, but not yet!” How often does this describe us?  I want to be a good Christian and a good person. I want to live more by faith, be less lazy, less selfish, more gracious to others, more contemplative, less given over to anger, bitterness, paranoia, and judgment of others. I want to stop giving in to gossip and slander. I want to be more realistically involved in justice. I want a better prayer life. I want to take time for things, spend more time with my family, smell the flowers, drive slower, be more patient, and be less hurried. I have a number of bad habits that I need to change, there are still areas of bitterness in me, I am defaulting on so many things, I really need to change, but now is not the time.

First, I need to first work through a particular relationship, grow older, change jobs, get married, get rested, get healthy, finish school, have a needed vacation, let some wounds heal, get the kids out of the house, retire, move to a new parish, and get away from this situation – then I will get serious about changing all this.  Lord, make me a more mature person and Christian, but not yet!

In the end, that’s not a good prayer. Augustine tells us that, for years, as he said this prayer he was able to rationalize his own mediocrity. However, a cataclysm began building inside him. God is infinitely patient with us, but our own patience with ourselves eventually wears out and, at a point, we can no longer continue as before.

In Book 8 of the Confessions, Augustine shares how one day, sitting in a garden, he was overwhelmed with his own immaturity and mediocrity and “a great storm broke within me, bringing with it a great deluge of tears. … I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes … in my misery I kept crying, `How long shall I go on saying, tomorrow, tomorrow. Why not now?’” When he got up from the ground, his life had changed; he never again finished a prayer with that little nuance, “but not yet”.

We all have certain habits in our lives which we know are bad, but which for a variety of reasons (laziness, addiction, lack of moral strength, fatigue, anger, paranoia, jealousy, or the pressure of family or friends) we are reluctant to break. We sense our mediocrity, but take consolation in our humanity, knowing that everyone (save full-blown saints) often have this spoken or unspoken caveat in their prayers, “Yes, Lord, but not yet!”

Indeed, there is in fact a valid consolation in this prayer in that it recognizes something important inside the infinite understanding and mercy of God. God, I suspect, copes better with our faults than we cope with them and others cope with us. However, like Augustine, even as we say, “tomorrow and tomorrow” a storm steadily continues to build within us and, sooner or later, our own mediocrity will sicken us enough to cause us say, “Why not now?”

When the Psalmist says, “Sing to the Lord a new song”, we might ask ourselves, what is the old song? It’s the one that ends with us praying, Yes, Lord, but not yet!

How Serious is Laughter?

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In a homily, Karl Rahner once commented that in the Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus makes a rather stunning statement. He says, ‘blessed are you who are now weeping, for you shall laugh’. Rahner suggests that Jesus is teaching that our final state of happiness in heaven will not just lift us out of our sadness and dry away our tears, it will bring us to laughter, to “an intoxication of joy.” Laughter is integral to the final ecstasy.

Further still, if laughter constitutes the final happiness in heaven, then it should follow that whenever we are laughing, we are on good terms with reality. Laughter, Rahner submits, is part of the eternal praise of God at the end of time.

However, this can be glib and misleading. Not all laughter gives God praise and not all laughter suggests that we are on good terms with reality. Laughter can also be cheap, glib, and wrong. The final joy of heaven is not always found at that place in a room where folks are cracking up with laughter.

There are many kinds of laughter and not all of them are healthy or godly. There is the laughter of drunkenness, of deadening your senses and jettisoning your moral compass and normal sensitivity. That kind of laughter will not be heard in some noisy little corner of heaven. Then there is the laughter of sarcasm, laughter that belittles others, that delights in others’ problems, and sees itself as superior. That too won’t be heard in heaven. Then there is the laughter that’s predicated on being insensitive and blind to the pain of others, that can enjoy itself even while Lazarus is starving just outside the door. The gospels are clear as to where that kind laughter lands us. As well, there is the laughter of pure superficiality, laughter that comes easy because it really doesn’t care about anything. Such laughter, though harmless, speaks of nothing.

However there are other kinds of laughter that speak of health and of God. There is the laughter of pure spontaneous energy, seen most clearly in the natural joyous bubbling over of the life- principle inside of a young person, like the delight you see in a toddler delighting in her first steps. This is the laughter of sheer delight, one that says, It’s great to be alive! When we laugh in this way, we are honoring God and thanking God for the gift of life and energy – since the best way to thank a gift-giver is to enjoy thoroughly the gift and delight in it.

This kind of laughter is most spontaneous is us when we are young and, sadly, generally becomes more difficult for us as the wounds, failures, pressures, and anxieties of adulthood begin to depress our spontaneous energies. We still laugh, but when we stop feeling spontaneous delight in our lives, when healthy laughter dries up, we tend to turn to unhealthy kinds of laughter to try to lift ourselves out of our depression. Hence, the loud, boisterous, cranked-up laughter we hear at our parties is often really only our attempt to keep depression at bay. See how happy I am!

Peter Berger once wrote that laughter is one of the proofs for the existence of God in that our capacity to laugh in any situation shows that, deep down, we are aware that no situation ultimately binds us. Our capacity to laugh in any situation, no matter how grave or threatening, shows that on some level we are aware that we transcend that situation. That’s why a prisoner being led to his execution might still joke with his executioner and why a dying person can still enjoy a bit of irony. Healthy laughter isn’t just godly. It manifests transcendence inside us.

But, not all laughter is born equal. There is a laughter that simply bespeaks superficiality, forced lightness, insensitivity, drunkenness, or a thinly disguised attempt to keep depression at bay. That is not the laughter of heaven. However, there is another kind of laughter, spoken of by Jesus in the Beatitudes, which is a laughter that simply delights in the joy of being alive and (in that delight) intuits its own transcendence. That kind of laughter is a key component in love and sanctity. It will be one of the “intoxications of joy” that we will feel in heaven.

If this is true, then the holiest person you know is not the humorless, dour, easily offended, over-pious person you deem as serious, deep, and spiritual whom you do not necessarily want as your table companion. The holiest person you know is probably the person you want beside you at table.

When I was a novice in religious life, our Assistant Novice Director, an over-serious, fearful man, frequently cautioned us against levity and humor, telling us, that there isn’t a single recorded incident in the gospels of Jesus laughing. Now deceased, I suspect the man is in heaven. I also suspect that from that vantage point, he would drop that caution.

The One and the Many – Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations

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One of the most ancient problems in philosophy is the question of ‘the one and the many’, whether reality is ultimately a unity or a plurality and how these interrelate. We might ask the same question regarding the plurality of religious faiths, churches, and forms of worship in our world. Is there some inherent oneness there or is it all plurality without anything binding us together in some kind of community that transcends our differences?

At the risk of being misunderstood, here’s my perspective. All of us in the world who have a sincere belief share a common faith because ultimately we share a common God. Moreover, since we share a common God, we also share a common problem; namely, we struggle equally in trying to conceptualize this non-conceptualizable God. The first dogma about God in all valid religions is that God is holy and ineffable, meaning that God cannot ever be circumscribed and grasped in a concept. By definition, it is impossible to capture infinity in a concept (like trying to have a concept of the highest number it is possible to count to.) Since God is infinite, all attempts to conceptualize God fall short.

All legitimate faiths have this problem in common, and this should keep us humble in our religious language. Further still, beyond our common struggle to have a concept of God, we also all struggle to understand God as actually loving universally and unconditionally. All religions and all denominations struggle not to make God tribal, biased, and lacking in full love and understanding. In Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, for example, where we all believe in the same God, we also all tend to conceptualize that God as male, celibate, and frowning most of the time. Not exactly the ineffable, unconditionally loving God of revelation.

So what’s our task? Our task as believers is to move towards an ever-deepening empathy with each other, across all denominational and religious lines. That is the real route for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. At the risk of sounding heretical or disloyal to my own faith tradition, I say this. Our task is not to set out to make converts, to try to persuade others to join our own church. Our task is to enter ever more deeply, faithfully, and lovingly into our own church and denomination, even as we strive to be in deeper empathy with all others who worship God in ways different than we do. 

The renowned ecclesiologist Avery Dulles taught that the way forward for Christian ecumenism and interreligious dialogue is not the way of conversion, of trying to get others to convert to our particular church. The way forward (in his words) is the way of “progressive gradualism”, namely, of each of us being ever more faithful to God within our tradition so that as each of us grows closer to God (and, for Christians, to Christ) we will grow closer to each other and to all people of sincere faith. The unity we seek lies not in one church or faith community eventually converting all others to join it, but in everyone of sincere faith becoming progressively more faithful to God so that the unity we desire can take place sometime in the future, contingent on our own deeper fidelity inside our own faith tradition.

Our task then is not that of trying to convert others to join our own church, but of moving more deeply into our own church, even as we strive to be in an ever-deeper empathy with other churches and other faiths. We need to be brothers and sisters to each other, recognizing that we already have a shared God, a shared humanity, and shared heartaches.

I work in a doctoral program in spirituality that draws students from many different Christian denominations.  During the five years of their program, these students study together, socialize together, commiserate together, and pray together (though only occasionally in a formal church service). Interestingly, during the ten years, we have had the program; we have not had a single conversion of one person to another denomination. Rather, every one of our graduates has left the program with a deeper love and understanding of his or her own tradition – and a deeper love and understanding of other faith traditions.

This does not imply that all religions are equal, but rather that none of us is living out the full truth and that the path forward lies in a deeper personal conversion within our own faith and a more empathic relationship to other faiths.

I leave you with a poem, my own – The One and the Many

Different peoples, one earth

Different beliefs, one God

Different languages, one heart

Different ways of falling, one law of gravity

Different energies, one Spirit

Different scriptures, one Word

Different forms of worship, one desire

Different histories, one destiny

Different strengths, one fragility

Different disciplines, one aim

Different approaches, one road

Different faiths – one Father, one Mother, one earth, one sky, one beginning, one end.