Ronald Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.
He is a community-builder, lecturer and writer. His books are popular throughout the English-speaking world and his weekly column is carried by more than seventy newspapers worldwide.
Fr. Rolheiser can be reached at his website, www.ronrolheiser.com
Most of us worry about aging, especially in how it affects our bodies. We worry about wrinkles, bags under our eyes, middle-age fat and losing hair where we want it only to find it on places where we don’t want it. So every now and then, when we look in a mirror or see a recent photograph of ourselves, we are shocked at our own faces and bodies, almost not recognizing ourselves as we see an old face and old body where we are used to seeing a young one.
Normally none of us like feeling sad, heavy or depressed. We prefer sunshine to darkness, lightheartedness to melancholy. That’s why, most of the time, we do everything we can to distract ourselves from melancholy, to keep heaviness and sadness at bay. We tend to run from those feelings inside us that sadden or frighten us.
Christian de Cherge, the Trappist Abbott who was martyred in Algeria in 1996, was fond of sharing this story: He had a very close Muslim friend, Mohammed, and the two of them used to pray together, even as they remained aware of their differences, as Muslim and Christian.
We can never be challenged too strongly with regards to being committed to social justice. A key, non-negotiable summons that comes from Jesus Himself is precisely the challenge to reach out to the poor, to the excluded, to those whom society deems expendable.
The pressures of work and ministry, unfortunately, limit the time I have available to read as widely as I would like.
Still, addicted as I am to books and knowing that without the insight and stimulation that I draw from them I would forever stagnate spiritually and creatively, I scrupulously carve out some time most days to read. As well, given my ministry and personality, I like to read various genres of books: novels, biography, critical essays and, not least, books on Scripture, theology and spirituality.
Here’s my bias apposite reading: In my freshman year at university, I was introduced to good novels. I realized then how impoverished I’d been without good literature in my life. Since that time, more than 40 years ago, I’ve never been without a novel lying open somewhere within my reach. Good novelists often have insights that psychologists and spiritual writers can only envy, firing the imagination and the emotional intelligence in a way that academic books often cannot. As well, always lying open somewhere within reach too will be a good biography or a book of essays. These serve to stretch my horizons, as these perennially constrict both my imagination and my heart. Finally, there are theological and spirituality books which, given both my temperament and my vocation, I read with passion, but which also serve as a source of professional development for me.
So given these particular appetites, what are the best 10 books that I read in 2014?
Among novels, I particularly recommend these four:
- Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See. This isn’t just one of the top books that I read this past year, it is, making an exception for the great classics of English literature, one of the best novels I’ve ever read. This is simply a great book; not quite the Diary of Anne Frank, but a story which moves the heart in a similar fashion.
- Marilynne Robinson, Lila. Robinson picks up some of her characters from Gilead, inserts a lost, young woman named Lila and, through her voice, gives us a near poetry of loneliness and faith. Aside from her emotional depth and perfect prose, Robinson also offers an apologia for the compassion and mercy of God that can help make faith more credible to many of its skeptics today.
- Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings. This is a powerful historical novel about both the evil of slavery and of sexism. Mirroring the Christian story of redemption, good ultimately triumphs, but not before someone has to sweat some blood in martyrdom. Kidd is always worth reading, but this book stands out, even for a novelist of her calibre.
- Jhumpa Lahire, The Lowland. Like many of Lahire’s novels this story also sets itself within the particular trials of emigrating from India to America, but the flashlight that it shines into human relationships helps lay bare some very universal struggles.
Among biographical essays, two books stood out.
- Trevor Herriot, The Road is How: A Prairie Pilgrimage through Nature, Desire and Soul. The flow of the book follows its title. Herriot does a walking pilgrimage across part of Saskatchewan’s prairies, a land roamed for centuries by the buffalo, and lets nature and desire speak to his soul. The result is a remarkable chronicle, a deeply moral book about nature, human nature, sexuality, faith and desire.
- Nancy Rappaport, In Her Wake, A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother’s Suicide. In this book, Rappaport does what all of us should do if we have lost a loved one to suicide, namely, work through that person’s story and find the threads to cleanse and redeem his or her memory.
Among theological and spirituality books, I recommend:
- James Martin, A Pilgrimage. Martin at his best, offering a good, balanced, healthy Christology, presented in a reader-friendly way. Scholarship accessible to everyone.
- Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark. She made the cover of Time magazine for this book, deservedly. Taylor offers an insight into the dark night of the soul for those who can’t, or won’t, read more technical theological literature.
- Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus of Nazareth, What He Wanted, Who He Was. This is more of a scholarly book, though still pretty accessible to the non-professional. It combines solid scholarship, creative insight, good balance and committed Christian faith.
- Christian Salenson, Christian de Cherge, A Theology of Hope. De Cherge was the abbott of the community of Trappist monks who were martyred in Algeria in 1996. This book collects his key writings, particularly as they pertain to the question of the relationship of Christianity to other religions, especially to Islam. Faith, it is said, is built upon the blood of martyrs. Future interreligious dialogue can be built on both the blood and the writings of this martyr. An exceptional book, though hardly surprising, given the exceptional faith and character of de Cherge.
(Fr. Rolheiser can be reached at www.ronrolheiser.com,)
If someone who had never heard the story of Jesus were to ask about His origins, we would, I suspect, begin with the story of His annunciation and birth and end with the story of His resurrection and ascension. While that does capture His life, that’s not how the Gospels either begin or end His story. The story of Jesus and the meaning of Christmas can only really be understood by looking at where Jesus came from, His family tree, and by looking at how His story has continued in history. Indeed, that’s how the Gospels tell His story.
Spiritual literature has always highlighted the primordial struggle between good and evil, and this has generally been conceived of as a war, a spiritual battle. Thus, as Christians, we have been warned that we must be vigilant against the powers of Satan and various other forces of evil. And we’ve fought these powers not just with prayer and private moral vigilance but with everything from Holy Water, to exorcisms, to a dogmatic avoidance of everything to do with the occult, the paranormal, alchemy, astrology, spiritualism, etc. For Christians these were seen as dangerous venues through which malevolent spirits could enter our lives and do us harm.
All of us struggle, and we struggle in three ways. First, sometimes we struggle simply to maintain ourselves, to stay healthy and stable, to stay normal, to not fall apart, to not have our lives unravel into chaos and depression. It takes real effort just to maintain our ordinary health, stability and happiness.
It’s not only love that makes the world go round. Resentment too is prominent in stirring the drink. In so many ways our world is drowning in resentment. Everywhere you look, it seems, someone is bitter about something and breathing out resentment.
Ancient Greece expressed much of its psychological and spiritual wisdom inside its myths. The Greeks didn’t intend these to be taken literally or as historical, but as metaphor and as an archetypal illustration of why life is as it is and how people engage life both generatively and destructively.