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

We can lose our freedom for different reasons and, sometimes, for the best of reasons.

Imagine this scenario: You are on your way to a restaurant to meet a friend for dinner, a perfectly legitimate agenda, but en route you witness a car accident. Some of the people in the accident are seriously hurt and you are the first to arrive at the scene. At that moment your own agenda, dinner with a friend, is put on hold. You’ve lost your freedom and are, by circumstance and need, conscripted to remain there and help. You phone for an ambulance, you call for the police and you wait with the injured until help arrives.

Porous and buffered personalities

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A friend of mine tells this story: As a young boy in the 1950s he was struck down with pneumonia. His family lived in a small town that had neither a hospital nor a doctor. His father had a job which had taken him away from the family for that week. His mother was home alone with no phone and no car. Frightened and completely without resources, she came to his sick bed, knelt beside it, pinned a medal of St. Therese of Lisieux to his pyjamas and prayed to St. Therese in words to this effect: “I’m trusting you to make my child better. I’m going to remain kneeling here until his fever breaks.”

Both my friend and his mother eventually fell asleep, he in his sick bed, she kneeling beside it. When they woke, his fever had broken.

Finding gratitude through my illness

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As a columnist, I’ve always harbored a certain paranoia about being overly personal or exhibitionistic or in thinking my own emotional ups and downs are of interest to others. I’ve tried to respect that fear. Occasionally, however, circumstance dictates that I do write something more personal. This is such an occasion.

I want to express my gratitude for all the prayers and support I have received during these past seven months while undergoing treatments for cancer. That desert-journey has finally ended, and with a good result. Just over a month ago, I finished my last chemotherapy treatment and, three weeks ago, after a battery of tests, was pronounced “cancer-free.” To God, family, friends, colleagues and to the many who have supported me in prayer: Thank you!

John Updike, in a poem entitled “Fever,” once wrote about what illness might teach us:

The struggle between dancing and mourning

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Henri Nouwen used to publish some of his diaries under the title On Mourning and Dancing. The title was wholly appropriate since those diaries chronicled much of his own struggle to give public expression to what was bubbling up inside of him and, at the same time, respect a highly sensitive self-consciousness and reticence that made him hesitate to publicly express those same feelings.

And so his writings are a rare expression of both inner freedom and inner fear. His thoughts and feelings are sometimes tortured, but that’s what makes them rich. It’s not always easy to find that delicate balance between healthy self-expression and unhealthy exhibitionism, even if you are Henri Nouwen — or perhaps especially if you are Henri Nouwen.

Other sheep not of our flock

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I grew up with strong, conservative, Roman Catholic roots: the Baltimore Catechism, the Latin Mass, daily rosary, daily Mass if possible and a rich stream of devotional practices. And that’s a gift for which I’m deeply grateful.

But that wonderful grounding also brought with it a distrust of all religious things not Roman Catholic. I was taught that the Roman Catholic Church was the only true Church and the only road to heaven; so much so that we were strongly discouraged and tacitly forbidden to participate in any Protestant services. In fairness to that catechesis, we didn’t believe Protestants and other religious communities were doomed to eternal perdition, but we struggled mightily to articulate how this might take place. Among other things, we postulated a place we called Limbo, where sincere, non-Roman Catholics with good souls might spend eternity, happy but without God.

Don’t let minor irritations take away from today’s grace

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“When grace enters, there is no choice — humans must dance.”

W.H. Auden wrote those words and, beautiful as they sound, I wish they were true. When grace enters a room we should begin to dance but, sadly, more often than not we let some little thing, some minor mosquito bite, blind us to grace’s presence.

Chastity as purity of heart and intention

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To live a chaste life is not easy, not just for celibates, but for everyone. Even when our actions are all in line, it is still hard to live with a chaste heart, a chaste attitude and chaste fantasies. Purity of heart and intention is very difficult.

Why? Chastity is difficult because we are so incurably sexual in every pore of our being. And that is not a bad thing. It’s God’s gift. Far from being something dirty and antithetical to our spiritual lives, sexuality is God’s great gift, God’s holy fire, inside us. And so the longing for consummation is a conscious or inchoate colouring underlying most every action in our lives.

And so it is hard to pray for chastity because to pray for it, seemingly, is to pray that sexual yearning and sexual energy should lessen within us or disappear altogether. And who wants to live an asexual and neutered life? No healthy person wants this. Thus, if you are healthy, it is hard to put your heart into praying for chastity because, deep down, nobody wants to be asexual.

A haunting equation — lightness vs. weight

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In her novel Final Payments, Mary Gordon articulates an equation that has long influenced Christian spirituality, for both good and bad.

Her heroine, Isabel, is a young woman within whom a strong Catholic background, an overly strict father and a natural depth of soul conspire to leave her overly reticent and overly reflective, looking at life from the outside, too self-aware and too reflective in general to enter spontaneously into a dance or trust any kind of gaiety  

Books that found me over the past year

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Since time is always at a premium, I try to be selective in what I read. As well, I like to keep my diet wide, reading novels, books on spirituality, theological treatises, biographies and essays on psychological and anthropological issues.

How do I select a book? I read reviews, get tips from colleagues, receive books as gifts and occasionally browse in bookstores, but what I actually end up reading is often more the result of a conspiracy of accidents than of a studied choice. Books that we need to read have a way of finding us.

What books of note found me over the past year?

Among novels ...

o Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is a John Updike-type of commentary on contemporary culture. It’s an easy read, but packs good emotional intelligence.

o Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is stunning both in language and content. A classic that deserves to be read. In a culture that tends to prize good looks and looking good above most everything else, this contains some inconvenient warnings.

o Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a witness to the raw drive to stay alive. This isn’t Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, but it touches some of the same places inside us.

o Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed is 200 pages too long, but, like all of Lamb’s books, is deeply insightful apposite to our struggle to forgive and reconcile. Lamb’s central character is invariably someone out of touch with his own anger who is eventually brought to his knees in a way that redemptively exposes his anger to himself.

o Par Lagerkvist’s Barabbas is a very imaginative take on what happens to Barabbas after Jesus’ crucifixion.

o Oscar Casares’ Brownsville Stories and Amigoland: Warm, emotionally insightful, good stories, with special appeal to anyone living near the borders of Mexico.

o Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table is one of the best reviewed novels of 2011, deservedly so.

o Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon is your novel, if you’re looking for an intellectual hit.

Among spirituality and theological treatises ...

o Judy Cannato, Radical Amazement: Insights and hints about getting into the present moment and seeing the hidden depth within life.

o John Shea, On Earth as it is in Heaven, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers. If you are dissatisfied with the homily you listen to every Sunday, buy these commentaries on the Sunday readings.

o Michael Paul Gallagher, Faith Maps, The Religious Explorers from Newman to Joseph Ratzinger: A mature apologetics for those seeking to articulate reasons for their hope.

o Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth — The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale: A great piece on the power of language and the language of the Gospels.

o Rob Bell’s Sex God, Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality, and Love Wins, A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of every Person who Ever Lived, come from the pen of a young minister who writes with extraordinary balance, good insight and an equal feel for both the Gospel and the culture.

Biography ...

o Two of the most powerful books I read in 2011 were Bush Dweller, Essays in Memory of Fr. James Gray, OSB, edited by Donald Ward, and Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. Both are powerful stories, the first about a hermit who meets and counsels the world from his hut, the second about a woman struggling to find life in the face of a number of bitter deaths.

Treatises, theological and anthropological ...

o Michael Kirwan’s Discovering Girard is a lay-person’s introduction to the insights of the renowned anthropologist Rene Girard.

o Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul, Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World. As with previous books, Plotkin pushes the edges of mainline spirituality, calling always for a much deeper role for nature.

Varia ...

o John S. Porter’s The Glass Art of Sarah Hall is a spectacularly beautiful book replete with photos that belongs on every coffee table and in every library.

o David Servan-Schreiber’s Anti-Cancer, A New Way of Life. This book was handed to me at the cancer clinic just as I was beginning chemotherapy and, among the many books on cancer I have perused these past months, I found this one to be the most challenging and helpful.

o Kathleen C. Berken’s Walking on Rolling Deck: Life on the Arc, foreword by Jean Vanier. Berken, a journalist who lived for some years inside the community of L’Arche, takes us inside an alternative world, but without false sentiment or naïve romanticism.

These are books that have touched me, but, as St. Augustine once famously said: Concerning taste, we should not have disputes! Read at your own risk!

Prayer as seeking God’s guidance

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In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day tells of a very difficult time in her life. She had just converted to Christianity, after a long period of atheism, and then given birth to her daughter. During her season of atheism she had fallen in love with a man who had fathered her child. She and this man, atheists disillusioned with mainstream society, had made a pact never to marry as a statement against the conventions of society.

But her conversion to Christianity had turned that world upside down. The father of her child had given her an ultimatum; if she had their child baptized he would end their relationship. Dorothy chose to baptize the child, but paid a heavy price. She deeply loved this man and suffered greatly at their breakup. Moreover, given that her conversion took her out of all her former circles, it left her with more than a missing soul-mate. It left her too without a job, without support for her child and without her former purpose in life. She felt painfully alone and lost.

Praying so as not to lose heart

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One of the reasons we need to pray is so that we don’t lose heart. We all do sometimes. We lose heart whenever frustration, tiredness, fear and helplessness in the face of life’s humiliations conspire together to paralyse our energies, deaden our resiliency, drain our courage and leave us feeling weak in depression.

Poet Jill Alexander Essbaum gives us a poignant example in her poem, “Easter.” Reflecting on the joy that Easter should bring into our lives, she shares that Easter can instead be a season of defeat for us because its celebration of joy can highlight the shortcomings of our own lives and leave us with the feeling that “Everyone I’ve ever loved lives happily just past my able reach.”

And this feeling can drive us to our knees, in bitterness or prayer; hopefully prayer.