RonRolheiser,OMI

To Fall in Love

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To fall in love! We use the expression to cover many things. You can fall in love with a baby, a sports team, a city, a job, or another person. However, we reserve the prime analogate for this expression for one thing, emotional infatuation, that intoxicating feeling we first get when we meet someone who we sense as a soulmate.

Iris Murdoch once wrote that the world can change in fifteen seconds because that’s how quickly you can fall in love with someone. She’s right, and falling in love emotionally can literally paralyze us with a grip so strong that even death seems preferable to losing the one with whom we have fallen in love. Countless heartaches, broken hearts, depressions, clinical breakdowns, suicides, murders, and murder-suicides testify to this. Emotional infatuation can be a deadly addiction, the most powerful cocaine on the planet. Where does it come from? Heaven or hell? And, what’s its meaning?

Ultimately, God and nature are its author and that tells us that it is a good thing. We are built for this to happen to us. Moreover, it is a healthy thing, if properly understood, both in its intoxicating power and in its innate failure to be a sustaining power in love.

What happens when we fall in love so powerfully with someone? Are we really in love with that person or are we more in love with being in love and the feelings this brings us? As well, are we really in love with that person or are we in love with an image of him or her we have created for ourselves, one that projects a certain godliness on to that other?

Let me risk some answers. Imagine a man falling deeply in love with a woman. Initially, the feelings can be overpowering and literally paralyze him emotionally. However, inside of all this, a certain question begs to be asked: with whom or with what is he really in love? His feelings? The archetype of femininity the woman is carrying? His image of her?  She herself?

In reality, he is in love with all of these: his feelings, his image of her, she herself, and the divine feminine she is carrying. All of that is of one piece inside of his experience. As well, all of this can be healthy at this stage of love.

God invented emotional infatuation, just as God invented honeymoons. We are not meant to be drawn to each other by cold analytics alone. But, this kind of falling in love is an initiatory stage in love (albeit a delightful one) that needs to be understood exactly for what it is, an initiatory stage, nothing more, one that invites us into something deeper. Emotional infatuation is not yet a mature stage in love. Unless one dies in its grip, as did Romeo and Juliet, it will one day lose its hold on us and leave us disillusioned.  When Iris Murdoch said that we can fall in love in fifteen seconds, she might also have added that, sadly, we can also fall out of love in fifteen seconds. Emotional infatuation can be that ephemeral, both in its birth and in its dying.

So falling in love (in this emotional way) comes fraught with certain dangers. First, there is the adolescent proclivity to identify this with deep love itself. Consequently, when the powerful emotional and psychosexual feelings let go, the person easily concludes that he or she is no longer in love and moves on. Next, more subtly, there is this danger. When we are in this initial gripping stage of love, our image of the other carries with it a certain godliness. What’s meant by that?

St. Augustine coined this timeless dictum: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Hence, nothing in life can ever really be enough for us. We are always restless, always yearning for something more. However, in this initial phase of love, when we have fallen into the grip of emotional infatuation, for a time the other is enough for us. That’s why Romeo and Juliet could die happy. At this stage of love, they were enough for each other.

However, the hard truth is that infatuation does not last. The other person, no matter how wonderful he or she might actually be, is not God and can never be enough (and we are unfair to him or her when we unconsciously expect them to be enough). For a while, they are able to carry that godliness for us, but that illusion of godliness will eventually break and we will realize that this is just a person, one person, wonderful perhaps, but finite, limited, and not divine. That realization (which is ultimately meant to be the ground for mature love) can, if not understood, jeopardize or sour a relationship. God invented falling in love! In it, we get a little foretaste of heaven, though, as experience tells us, that is not without its dangers.

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.