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 are all familiar with the Nicene and the Apostles’ creeds, the two great faith summaries that anchor our faith. Without them, eventually we would drift off the path and lose our way. Creeds anchor us.

But the great creeds are like huge rivers that need smaller tributaries to bring their waters into various places. Thus, we also need mini-creeds, short, pithy truth statements that anchor us morally and spiritually. We all, no doubt, have our own favourite mini-creeds. Here are some of mine:

o “Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic.” Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, in a letter to the people of Canada, just before dying of cancer.

Christ as cosmic

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Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in one of his dialogues with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, was once asked: “What are you trying to do?” His answer was something to this effect: I’m trying to write a Christology that is large enough to include the full Christ because Christ isn’t just a divine Saviour sent to save people; Christ is also a structure within the physical universe, a path of salvation for the Earth itself.

Perhaps the most neglected part of our understanding of Christ, though clearly taught in Scripture, is the concept that the mystery of Christ is larger than what we see visibly in the life of Jesus and in the life of the historical Christian churches. Christ is already part of physical creation itself and is integral to that creation. We see this expressed in the Epistle to the Colossians. The author writes: “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation, for in Him all things were created in heaven and on Earth; everything visible and everything invisible ... all things were created through Him and for Him. He exists before all things and in Him all things hold together ...”   

Feeding off sacred fire

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“See the wise and wicked ones, who feed upon life’s sacred fire.” That’s a lyric from a song by Gordon Lightfoot that tries to interpret the struggle going on in the heart of the  mythical hero, Don Quixote. Goodness separates him from the world, even as he understands that wickedness has the same source.

And there’s perplexing irony in this, both the wise and wicked, saints and sinners, feed off the same, sacred source. The same energy that fuels the dedicated selflessness of the saint who dies for the poor fires the irresponsible acting-out of the movie star who proudly boasts of thousands of sexual conquests. Both feed off the same energy which, in the end, is sacred. But it’s easy to misinterpret this.

For example, one of the major criticisms made of religion is that it too frequently uses God to justify war and violence. We commonly see terrible violence being fueled by faith and religion, as is the case with extreme Islam today. But Christianity is hardly exempt. In the Crusades and the Inquisition we have our own history of violence in God’s name and there is more violence than we have the courage to admit still being done today by Christians who draw both their motivation and their energy from their faith. We can protest that, in these cases, the energy is misguided, perverted or usurped for self-interest, but the point remains the same. It’s still sacred energy, even if perverted.

On not bracketing essentials during moral battles

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Today, both within society and the churches, we are finding it ever more difficult to resolve our differences because our conversations are shot through with non-civility, name calling, character assassination and disrespect.

What’s particularly worrying is that we are doing this in the name of truth, cause, the Gospel and Jesus. We are giving ourselves permission to hate, demonize and disrespect each other in God’s name. Our cause seems so important to us that, consciously or unconsciously, we give ourselves permission to bracket some of the essentials of Christian charity, namely, respect, graciousness, love and forgiveness.

This is wrong: No cause allows me to exempt myself from fundamental charity, even if I see myself as a “warrior for truth.” There is a Gospel imperative to fight for truth and ultimately we all need to be prophets who fight for what is right; but even war has its ethics. Even in war (perhaps especially in war) disrespect may never be rationalized on the basis of claiming that God is on our side. Indeed, if God is on our side we should radiate respect for others.

Facing up to a new challenge

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When I began writing this column, I shared that occasionally I would do a column that was more exclusively about my personal life. I have tried to limit myself in that and, in the 28 years I have been writing this column, have probably done fewer than 10 pieces whose main focus was my own life. When I have done so, it was almost always to share with readers a major transition in my life.

This column is one of those personal pieces. My personal life is again undergoing a major transition, though this one does not concern a move to a new job or to a new city. It has to do with my health.

In early May I went for a routine colonoscopy and the doctor discovered a cancerous tumour in my colon. The good news was that it was discovered relatively early, before there were symptoms.

The internal battle for our souls

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Two contraries cannot co-exist inside the same subject. Aristotle wrote that and it seems to say the obvious, something can’t be light and dark at the same time.

However, in terms of what’s happening inside our souls it seems that contraries can indeed co-exist inside the same subject. At any given moment, inside us, we are a mixture of light and darkness, sincerity and hypocrisy, selflessness and selfishness, virtue and vice, grace and sin, saint and sinner. As Henri Nouwen used to say: We want to be great saints, but we also don’t want to miss out on all the sensations that sinners experience. And so our lives aren’t simple.

We live with both light and darkness inside us and for long periods of time, it seems, contraries do co-exist inside us. Our souls are a battleground where selflessness and selfishness, virtue and sin, vie for dominance. But eventually one or the other will begin to dominate and work at weeding out the other. That’s why John of the Cross picks up this philosophical axiom and uses it to teach a key lesson about coming to purity of heart and purity of intention in our lives. Because contraries cannot co-exist inside us, there’s something vital we need to do. What?

The size of our hearts

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It’s common, particularly among religious commentators, to describe the human heart as small, narrow and petty: How small-hearted and petty we are!

I find this distressing because religious thinkers especially should know better. We are not created by God and put on this Earth with small, narrow and petty hearts. The opposite is true. God puts us into this world with huge hearts, hearts as deep as the Grand Canyon. The human heart in itself, when not closed off by fear, wound and paranoia, is the antithesis of pettiness. The human heart, as Augustine describes it, is not fulfilled by anything less than infinity itself. There’s nothing small about the human heart.

But then why do we find ourselves relating to the world, to each other and to God with hearts that are small, narrow and petty?

Consider the human heart’s complexity

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In a book on preaching, entitled, Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner challenges all preachers and spiritual writers to speak with “awful honesty” about the human struggle, even inside the context of faith. Don’t put an easy sugar-coating on things, he warns:

“Let the preacher tell the truth. Let him make audible the silence of the news of the world with the sound turned off so that in that silence we can hear the tragic truth of the Gospel which is that the world where God is absent is a dark and echoing emptiness; and the comic truth of the Gospel, which is that it is into the depth of this absence that God makes himself present in such unlikely ways and in such unlikely people that old Sarah and Abraham and maybe when the time comes even Pilate and Job ... and you and I laugh till the tears run down our cheeks. And finally let him preach this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it the catch of the breath, the beat and lifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears, which I believe is the deepest intuition of truth that we have.”

Reading this, I was reminded of some of the preaching in my own parish when I was a young boy. I grew up in a small, sheltered, farming, immigrant community in the heart of the Canadian prairies. Our parish priests, wonderfully sincere men, tended however to preach to us as if we were a group of idyllic families in the TV series Little House on the Prairies. They would share with us how pleased they were to be ministering to us, simple farm-folk, living uncomplicated lives, far from the problems of those who were living in the big cities.

Search for meaning to find happiness

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Am I happy? Is my life a happy one? Am I happy inside my marriage? Am I happy with my family? Am I happy in my job? Am I happy with my church? Am I happy inside my own skin?

Are these good questions to ask ourselves? No. They’re questions with which to torture ourselves.

When we face our lives honestly this kind of question about happiness is more likely to bring tears to our eyes than solace to our souls because, no matter how well things are going, none of us live perfectly fulfilled lives. Always there are unfulfilled dreams. Always there are areas of frustration. Always there are tensions. Always there are deeper hungers that are being stifled. And always, as Karl Rahner puts it, we are suffering the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable as we are learning that here in this life there is no finished symphony.

Hearing Christ’s heartbeat

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The Last Supper account in John’s Gospel gives us a wonderful mystical image. The evangelist describes the beloved disciple as reclining on the breast of Jesus. What’s contained in this image? A number of things.

First, when you put your head upon someone else’s chest, your ear is just above that person’s heart and you are able to hear his or her heartbeat. Hence, in John’s image, we see the beloved disciple with his ear on Jesus’ heart, hearing Jesus’ heartbeat, and from that perspective looking out into the world. This is John’s ultimate image for discipleship: The ideal disciple is the one who is attuned to Christ’s heartbeat and sees the world with that sound in his or her ear.

Then there is a second level to the image. It is an icon of peace, a child at its mother’s breast, contented, satiated, calm, free of tension, not wanting to be anywhere else. This is an image of primal intimacy, of symbiotic oneness, a connection deeper than romantic love. And for John, it is also a eucharistic image. What we see is how John wants us to imagine ourselves when we are at Eucharist because, ultimately, that is what the Eucharist is, a physical reclining on the breast of Christ. In the Eucharist, Jesus gives us, physically, a breast to lean on, to nurture at, to feel safe and secure at, from which to see the world.

God and violence

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God is non-violent. God does not prescribe violence. Violence should never be rationalized in God’s name. That is clear in Christian revelation.

But that immediately poses the question:  What about the violence in Scripture that is attributed to God or to God’s direct orders?

Doesn’t God, in anger, wipe out the entire human race, save for Noah and his family? Doesn’t God ask Abraham to kill Isaac on an altar of sacrifice? Doesn’t Moses have to talk God out of destroying Israel because God is angry?  Didn’t Jesus kick over the tables of the money-changers in anger? What about extremist Islam today, killing thousands of people in God’s name? God, it seems, has prescribed and sanctioned a lot of violence and killing from ancient times right down until today.  How do we explain all the violence attributed to God?