Our Over-Complex, Tortured Selves


When all is said and done, our lives are not all that serene and peaceful. In a manner of speaking, we are always somewhat pathetic. That shouldn’t scare us. Pathetic is not a pejorative term. The word comes from the Greek, pathos, which means pain. To be pathetic is to live in pain, and we all do because of the very way we are made.

You might say that doesn’t sound right. Aren’t we made in the image and likeness of God so that each of us, no matter how messed up our lives might be, carry a special dignity and a certain godliness within us? We do carry that special dignity. However, despite that and largely because of it, our lives tend to be so complex as to be pain filled. Why?

Godliness isn’t easy to carry. The infinite inside us doesn’t easily fit itself into the finite. We carry too much divine fire inside to find much peace in this life.

That struggle begins early in life. To create a self-identity as a very young child, we need to make a series of mental contractions which ultimately limit our awareness. First, we need to differentiate ourselves from others (That’s mom – I’m me); then, we need to differentiate between what is living and what is not (the puppy is alive – my doll isn’t); next, we need to differentiate between what is physical and what is mental (this is my body – but I think with my mind). Finally, and critically, as we are doing all this, we need split off as much of our luminosity we can consciously handle from what is too much to consciously handle. With that we create a self-identity – but we also create a shadow, namely, an area inside us which is split off from our consciousness.

Notice that our shadow is not first of all a looming darkness. Rather, it’s all the light and energy inside us that we cannot consciously handle. Most of us, I suspect, are familiar with the words of Marianne Williamson made famous by Nelson Mandela in his inauguration speech: Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.

Our light frightens us because it is not easy to carry. It gives us great dignity and infinite depth, but it also makes us pathologically complex and restless. Ruth Burrows, one of the foremost spiritual writers of our time, begins her autobiography with these words: I was born into this world with a tortured sensitivity and my life has not been an easy one. You wouldn’t expect those words from a mystic, from someone who has been a faithful nun for more than seventy-five years. You wouldn’t expect that her struggle in life was as much with the light within herself as with the darkness within and around her. That’s also true for each of us.

There’s a famous passage in the Book of Qoheleth where the sacred writer tells us that God has made everything beautiful in its own time. However, the passage doesn’t end on a peaceful note. It ends by telling us that, while God has made everything beautiful in its own time, God has put timelessness into the human heart so that we are congenitally out of sync with time and the seasons from beginning to end. Both our special dignity and our pathological complexity take their origins in that anomaly in our nature. We are overcharged for life on this planet.

St. Augustine gave this classic expression in his famous line: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. There is an entire anthropology and spirituality in that single line. Our dignity and our perpetual restlessness have one and the same source.

Thus, you need to give yourself sacred permission for being wild of heart, restless of heart, insatiable of heart, complex of heart, and driven of heart. Too often, where both psychology and spirituality have failed you is in giving you the impression that you should be living without chaos and restlessness in your life. Admittedly, these can beset you more acutely because of moral inadequacy, but they will beset you no matter how good a life you are living. Indeed, if you are a deeply sensitive person, you will probably feel your complexity more acutely than if you are less sensitive or are deadening your sensitivity with distractions.

Karl Rahner once wrote to a friend who had written to him complaining that he wasn’t finding the fulfillment he longed for in life. His friend expressed disappointment with himself, his marriage, and his job. Rahner gave him this counsel: In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we ultimately learn that in this life there is no finished symphony. There can be no finished symphony in this life – not because our souls are defective, but because they carry godliness.

Richard “Rick” Gaillardetz – RIP


No community should botch its deaths. Mircea Eliade said that. What underlies his wisdom here is the truth that what we cease to celebrate we will soon cease to cherish.

With that in mind, I would like to highlight what we, both the religious and secular community, need to celebrate and cherish as we mourn the recent death of Richard Gaillardetz.

Richard, known as “Rick”, was a husband, a father, a friend to many, and (by most every assessment) the best ecclesiologist in the English-speaking world. He taught at Boston College, but lectured widely elsewhere, both as an academic lecturer and as a popular speaker. Beyond his stature as an academic, he had a humanity, a robust sanity, a keen intellect, a natural warmth, a friendliness, and a sense of humor that made him both pleasant and stabilizing to be around. He brought calm and sanity into a room.

What’s to be said in terms of highlighting his contribution? What should we not botch in processing his death? What must we celebrate so as to continue to cherish?

Many things might be highlighted, all of them positive, but I would like to focus on four extraordinary gifts he brought to us.

First, he was a theologian who worked actively at bridging the gap between the academy and the pew. Rick was a highly respected academic. No one questioned his scholarship. Yet, he was highly sought after as a popular lecturer in spirituality and never compromised his scholarship for the sake of popularity. That combination of being understood and respected both in the academy and the pew is a rare thing (it’s hard to be simple without being simplistic) and a huge risk (being a popular speaker generally makes you suspect among your academic colleagues). Rick took that risk because he wanted his scholarship to serve the whole community and not just those fortunate enough to be in graduate classrooms.

Second, he was an ecclesiologist who used his scholarship to unite rather than divide. Ecclesiology is about church, and it is church denominationalism that still divides us as Christians. The divisions among us are largely ecclesial. In most other things, we are together. We share Jesus; we share a common scripture; we share (in different modalities) the Eucharist; we share a common struggle in trying to be faithful to Jesus’ teachings; and we share many common human, moral, and social struggles. Spirituality unites us, but ecclesiology still divides. Rick’s work in ecclesiology is a breath of fresh air in terms of helping us move beyond centuries of division. He loved his own denomination, Roman Catholicism, even as he was fully appreciative of other denominations. His secret? He didn’t just do a theology of the church; he also did a spirituality of the church.

Next, he was a man who loved the church, even as, inside that love, he could be healthily critical of the church when it was merited. I attended his final public lecture in September of last year, and he began that lecture with these words: I was a Catholic by birth; then by choice, and now by love. He went on to share how the Catholic Church was the greatest love in his life and how, too, it has brought him continual disillusionment and pain. He challenged us to love the church and to be critical of it, both at the same time. That manifests a big heart and a big mind. Some can love the church and never see its faults; others can see its faults but never love the church. Rick could do both.

Finally, he was a man who faced his death with faith, courage, and dignity that can serve as a paradigm for the rest of us who, all, someday will have to face what he faced. About eighteen months ago, Rick was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He knew that, barring a miracle, he probably had less than two years to live. Whatever his own internal anguish and struggle to come to peace with that, everything he said, did, and taught during the eighteen months following that diagnosis manifested faith, trust, courage, and a concern for others. He kept a journal of his thoughts during this period and those journals are soon to be published and will constitute Rick’s last great gift to the church and to the world.

I’d like to end this tribute with a little anecdote which Rick himself, I’m sure, would appreciate as adding a bit of color to a tribute which otherwise would be too somber. Some years ago, I went to hear Rick give a public lecture at one of the local universities here in the city. He was being introduced by a well-known theologian, Marianist Bernard J. Lee. After listing off for us, the audience, Rick’s academic achievements, Lee turned to him and asked: “Richard, how the hell do you get the pronunciation ‘Gay-lar-des’ out of this spelling?”

Whatever the spelling and whatever the pronunciation, Richard Gaillardetz was a theological treasure whom we lost much too early.

The Pew and the Academy


I live on both sides of a border. Not a geographical one, but one that separates the church pew from the academic halls of theology.

I was raised a conservative Roman Catholic. Although my dad worked politically for the Liberal party, most everything within my upbringing was conservative, particularly as this pertains to religion. I was a staunch Roman Catholic in most every way. I grew up under the papacy of Pius XII (and the fact that my youngest brother is named Pius will tell you how loyal our family was to that Pope’s version of things). We believed that Roman Catholicism was the one true religion and that Protestants and Evangelicals needed to convert and return to the true faith. I memorized the Roman Catholic catechism and defended its every word. Moreover, beyond being faithful churchgoers, my family was given over to piety and devotions: we prayed the rosary together as a family every day; had statues and holy pictures around our house; wore blessed medals around our necks; prayed litanies to Mary, Joseph, and the Sacred Heart during certain months; and practiced a warm devotion to the saints. And it was wonderful. I will forever be grateful for that religious foundation.

I went from my family home to the seminary at the tender age of seventeen and my early seminary years reinforced what my family had given me. The academics were good, and we were encouraged to read great thinkers in every discipline. But this higher learning was still set solidly within a Roman Catholic ethos that honored my religious and devotional background. My initial university studies were still friends with my piety. My mind was expanding, but my piety remained intact.

But home is where we start from. Gradually, through the years, my world has changed. Studying at various graduate schools, teaching on graduate faculties, being in daily contact with other expressions of the faith, reading contemporary novelists and thinkers, and having academic colleagues as cherished friends has, I confess, put some strain on the piety of my youth. Truth be told, we don’t often pray the rosary or litanies to Mary or the Sacred Heart in graduate classrooms or at faculty gatherings.

However academic classrooms and faculty gatherings bring something else, something vitally needed in church pews and in circles of piety, namely, a critical theological vision and principles to keep unbridled piety, naïve fundamentalism, and misguided religious fervor within proper boundaries. What I’ve learned in academic circles is also wonderful and I am forever grateful for the privilege of being in academic circles most of my adult life.

But, of course, that’s a formula for tension, albeit a healthy one. Let me use someone else’s voice to articulate this. In his book Silence and Beauty, Japanese American artist, Makoto Fujimura, shares this incident from his own life. Coming out of church one Sunday, he was asked by his pastor to add his name to a list of people who had agreed to boycott the film, The Last Temptation of Christ. He liked his pastor and wanted to please him by signing the petition, but felt hesitant to sign for reasons that, at that time, he couldn’t articulate. But his wife could. Before he could sign, she stepped in and said: “Artists may have other roles to play than to boycott this film.” He understood what she meant. He didn’t sign the petition.

But his decision left him pondering the tension between boycotting such a movie and his role as an artist. Here’s how he puts it: “An artist is often pulled in two directions. Religiously conservative people tend to see culture as suspect at best, and when cultural statements are made to transgress the normative reality they hold dear, their default reaction is to oppose and boycott. People in the more liberal artistic community see these transgressive steps as necessary for their ‘freedom of expression’. An artist like me, who values both religion and art, will be exiled from both. I try to hold together both of these commitments, but it is a struggle.”

That’s also my struggle. The piety of my youth, of my parents, and of that rich branch of Catholicism is real and life-giving; but so too is the critical (sometimes unsettling) iconoclastic theology of the academy. The two desperately need each other; yet someone who is trying to be loyal to both can, like Fujimura, end up feeling exiled from both. Theologians also have other roles to play than boycotting movies.

The people whom I take as mentors in this area are men and women who, in my eyes, can do both: like Dorothy Day, who could be equally comfortable, leading the rosary or the peace march; like Jim Wallis, who can advocate just as passionately for radical social engagement as he can for personal intimacy with Jesus; and like Thomas Aquinas, whose intellect could intimidate intellectuals, even as he could pray with the piety of a child. Circles of piety and the academy of theology are not enemies. They need to befriend each other.