RonRolheiser,OMI

After the Bloom has Left the Rose

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What is our deepest center? Normally we take that to mean the deepest part of our heart, the deepest part of our soul, our affective center, our moral center, that place inside of us which Thomas Merton called le pointe vierge. And that is a good way of imagining it. But there’s another.

The classical mystic John of the Cross saw things differently. For him, the deepest center of anything is the furthest point attainable by that object’s being and power and force of operation and movement. What does he mean by that? In essence, this is what he is saying: The deepest center of anything, be it a flower or a human being, is the furthest point to which can grow before it dies.

Take a flower for example: It begins as a seed, then grows into a tiny bud that sprouts into a young plant. That plant eventually bursts forth in a beautiful bloom. That bloom lasts for a while and then begins to dry out and wither. Eventually, what was once the substance of a beautiful bloom turns into seeds, and then in its very act of dying, the flower gives off those seeds to leave new life behind.

Thus, for John of the Cross, the deepest center for a flower is not its moment of spectacular beauty, its bloom, but its last moment when its bloom has turned to seed and it is able to give off that seed in its very act of dying.

There’s a lesson in which goes against how we commonly assess things. When are we the most generative potentially? When do we have the greatest capacity to use our lives to give off the seeds for new life? What is our deepest center of growth?

Normally, of course, we think of the deepest center as the bloom, namely, that period or moment in our lives when a combination of good health, physical attractiveness, talent, achievement, and influence make us someone who is admired and perhaps envied. This is the time in our lives when we look our best and, as they say, are at the peak of our game. This is our bloom! The best we will ever look!

John of the Cross wouldn’t denigrate that moment in our lives. Indeed, he would challenge us to be in that moment, to enjoy it, be grateful to God for it, and to try to use the advantages and privileges that come with that to help others. But, he wouldn’t say this is the peak moment of our generativity, that this is the moment or period of our lives when we are giving off the most seeds for new life. No, like a flower that gives off its seeds in its very act of dying, we too are potentially most generative after the bloom has given way to the grey of age and our achievements have given way to a different kind of fruitfulness.

Imagine a young woman who is beautiful and talented and becomes a famous movie actor. At the height of her career, she is in full bloom and is given the gaze of admiration. Indeed, she is adulated. Moreover, in her life outside of the movies she may be a generous person, a wonderful wife, a dedicated mother, and a trusted friend. However, that bloom is not her furthest point of growth, her deepest center, that time in her life when she is giving off the most vis-a-vis generating new life. Instead, when she is an aged grandmother, struggling with health issues, her physical looks diminished, facing the prospect of assisted living and imminent death that, potentially, like the flower whose bloom has dried and turned to seed, she can give her life away in a manner that helps create new life in a way she couldn’t do when she was young, attractive, admired, envied, and in full bloom.

A similar case might be made for a star male athlete. At the height of his career, winning a championship, becoming a household name, his envied youthful athletic image seen everywhere in ads and on billboards, he is in full bloom; but at that time, he is not optimally generative in terms of his life giving off seeds to bring about new life. That can happen later, in his old age, when his achievements no longer define him, and he, like everyone else, with his hair greying, is facing physical diminishment, marginalization, and imminent death. It’s then, after the bloom has left the rose, that in his dying he can give off seeds to create new life. We tend to identify a spectacular bloom with powerful generativity. Fair enough, that bloom has its own importance, legitimate purpose, and value. Indeed, one of our challenges is to give that bloom the gaze of admiration without envy. Not easy to do, and something we often don’t do well. The bigger challenge however is to learn what we ourselves are called to do after the bloom has left the rose.

Praying the Psalms

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God behaves in the psalms in ways that God is not allowed to behave in theology.

That quip comes from Sebastian Moore and should be highlighted at a time when fewer people want to use the psalms in prayer because they feel offended by what they sometimes find there. More and more, we see people resisting the psalms as a way to pray (or desire to sanitize them) because the psalms speak of murder, revenge, anger, violence, war-making, and patriarchy.

Some ask, how can I pray with words that are full of hatred, anger, violence, speak of the glories of war, and of crushing one’s enemies in the name of God? For others, the objection is to a patriarchal coloring in the psalms – where the divine is masculine and the masculine is too-much deified. For yet others, the offense is aesthetic. Their objection: “They’re bad poetry!”

Perhaps the psalms aren’t great poetry and undeniably do smack of violence, war, hatred of one’s enemies, and the desire for vengeance, all in the name of God. Admittedly, they’re also patriarchal in character. But does that make them a bad language for prayer? Let me suggest something to the contrary.

One of the classical definitions of prayer says “prayer is lifting mind and heart to God.” Simple, clear, accurate. I suggest that the actual problem is that we seldom actually do this when we pray. Rather than lifting up to God what is actually on our minds and in our hearts, we tend to treat God as someone from whom we need to hide the real truth of our thoughts and feelings. Instead of pouring out mind and heart, we tell God what we think God wants to hear – not murderous thoughts, desire for vengeance, or our disappointment with God.

But expressing those feelings is the whole point. What makes the psalms particularly apt for prayer is that they do not hide the truth from God but express the whole gamut of our actual feelings. They give an honest voice to what’s actually going on in our minds and hearts.

Sometimes we feel good and our spontaneous impulse is to speak words of praise and gratitude, and the psalms give us that voice. They speak of God’s goodness in everything – love, friends, faith, health, food, wine, enjoyment. But we don’t always feel that way. Our lives also have their cold, lonely seasons when disappointment and bitterness simmer or rage under the surface. The psalms give us honest voice where we can open up all those simmering feelings to God. Also, there are times when we are filled with the sense of our own inadequacy, with the fact that we cannot measure up to the trust and love that’s given us.  Again, the psalms give us voice for this, asking God to be merciful and to soften our hearts, wash us clean, and give us a new start.

As well, there are times when we feel bitterly disappointed with God and need some way to express this. The psalms give us voice for this (“Why are you so silent?” “Why are you so far from me?”) even as they make us aware that God is not afraid of our anger and bitterness; but, like a loving parent, only wants us to come and talk about it. The psalms are a privileged vehicle for prayer because they lift the full range of our thoughts and feelings to God.

However, there are a number of reasons why we struggle with that. First, because our age tends to eschew metaphor and taken literally, some of the images in the psalms are offensive. Second, we tend to be in denial about our actual feelings. It’s hard to admit that we feel some of the things we sometimes feel – grandiosity, sexual obsessions, jealousies, bitterness, paranoia, murderous thoughts, disappointment with God, doubts in our faith. Too often our prayer belies our actual thoughts and feelings. It tells God what we think God wants to hear. The psalms are more honest.

To pray with full honesty is a challenge. Kathleen Norris puts it this way: If you pray regularly “there is no way you can do it right. You are not always going to sit up straight, let alone think holy thoughts. You’re not going to wear your best clothes but whatever isn’t in the dirty clothes basket. You come to the Bible’s great `book of praise’ through all the moods and conditions of life, and while you feel like hell, you sing anyway. To your surprise, you find that the psalms do not deny your true feelings but allow you to reflect them, right in front of God and everyone.” Feel-good aphorisms that express how we think we ought to feel are no substitute for the earthy realism of the psalms which express how sometimes we actually do feel. Anyone who would lift mind and heart to God without ever mentioning feelings of bitterness, jealousy, vengeance, hatred, and war, should write slogans for greeting cards and not be anyone’s spiritual advisor.

The Dark Night as Impasse

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What happens to us when we experience a dark night of the soul? What’s happening and what’s to be our response?

There are libraries of literature on this, each book or article making its own point, but here I want to share a rather unique and highly insightful take on this by Constance FitzGerald, a Carmelite nun and someone well versed in the various classical spiritual writers who speak about the dark night of the soul.

She uses the word “impasse” to render what is commonly called a dark night of the soul.  For her, in effect, what happens in a dark night of the soul is that you come to an “impasse” in your life in terms of your emotions, your intellect, and your imagination. All the former ways you understood, imagined, and felt about things, especially as this relates to God, faith, and prayer, no longer work for you. You are, so to speak, paralyzed, unable to go back to the way things were and unable to move forwards. And part of the paralysis is that you cannot think, imagine, or feel your way out of this. You are at an impasse – no way back and no way forward. So, what do you do? How do you move beyond the impasse?

There’s no simple or quick path out of this. You cannot imagine, think, or feel your way out of this because the vision, symbols, answers, and feelings you need, in effect, don’t exist yet, at least they don’t exist for you. That’s the exact reason why you are at an impasse and so emotionally and intellectually paralyzed. The new vision and feelings that can reset your vision, thoughts, and feelings first have to be gestated and given birth to through your own pain and confusion.

 At this stage, there is no answer, at least not for you. You may have read accounts of others who have undergone the same impasse and who now offer counsel as to how to undergo the dark night. That can be useful, but it’s still your heart, your imagination, and your intellect that are in the crucible of fire. Knowing that others have gone through the same fire can help give you vision and consolation in your paralysis, but the fire must still be gone through in your own life to reset your own imagination, thoughts, and feelings.

For FitzGerald, being in this state is the ultimate liminal space within which we can find ourselves. This is a crucible within which we are being purified. And, for her, the way out is the way through. The way out of a dark night of this kind is through “contemplation”, namely, staying with the impasse, waiting patiently inside it, and waiting for God to break the impasse by transforming our imagination, intellect, and heart.

So ultimately, this impasse is a challenge for us to become mystics, not that we begin to search for extraordinary religious experience, but that we let our disillusion, broken symbols, and failed meanings become the space wherein God can reset our faith, feelings, imagination, and intellect inside of a new horizon wherein everything is radically reinterpreted.

How do we do this concretely? How do we contemplate? We do it by sitting in the tension, helpless, patient, open, waiting, and staying there however long it takes for us to receive in the depth of our souls a new way of imagining, thinking, and feeling about God, faith, and prayer – beyond the impasse.

Moreover, the broken symbols, the disillusion, and our helplessness to think or feel our way out of the impasse is precisely what assures us that the new vision which is given to us comes from God and is not the product of own imagination or projection or self-interest.

One of the most penetrating criticisms of religious experience ever given was made by Friedrich Nietzsche who claimed that all religious experience, all of it, is ultimately human projection. He argued that we create God in our self-image and likeness for our own self-interest, and that is why a lot of sincere faith and religion can be hypocritical and false. Reacting to this, Michael Buckley, the renowned Jesuit philosopher, and theologian, made this counterclaim: Nietzsche is 95% correct. Ninety-five percent of what claims to be religious experience is in fact human projection. But, Buckley adds, Nietzsche is 5% wrong and that 5% makes all the difference – because in that 5% God’s revelation flows untainted in our lives.

Now, and this is the essential point here, that 5% happens precisely when we are in a dark night of the soul, when our symbols are broken, our intellect is impotent, our imagination is empty, and our hearts are at loss. It is precisely then, when we are helpless to help ourselves that we are also helpless to fudge and taint the way God is entering us.

God can flow into our lives pure and untainted when we are at an impasse and unable to substitute our vision for God’s vision.