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

Fr. Henri Nouwen was perhaps the most popular spiritual writer of the late 20th century and his popularity endures today. More than seven million of his books have been sold world-wide and they have been translated into 30 languages. Fifteen years after his death, all but one of his books remain in print.

Many things account for his popularity, beyond the depth and learning he brought to his writings. He was very instrumental in helping dispel the suspicion that had long existed in Protestant and Evangelical circles towards spirituality, which was identified in the popular mind as something more exclusively Roman Catholic and as something on the fringes of ordinary life. Both his teaching and his writing helped make spirituality something mainstream within Roman Catholicism, within Christianity in general, and within secular society itself. For example, American Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has stated that his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, is the book that has had the largest impact on her life.

He wrote as a psychologist and a priest, but his writings also flowed from who he was as a man. And he was a complex man, torn always between the saint inside of him who had given his life to God and the man inside of him who, chronically obsessed with human love and its earthy yearnings, wanted to take his life back. He was fond of quoting Soren Kierkegaard who said that a saint is someone who can “will the one thing,” even as he admitted how much he struggled to do that. He did will to be a saint, but he willed other things as well: “I want to be a saint,” he once wrote, “but I also want to experience all the sensations that sinners experience.” He confessed in his writings how much restlessness this brought into his life and how sometimes he was incapable of being fully in control of his own life.

In the end, he was a saint, but always one in progress. He never fit the pious profile of a saint, even as he was always recognized as a man from God bringing us more than ordinary grace and insight. And the fact that he never hid his weaknesses from his readers helped account for his stunning popularity.

His readers identified with him because he shared so honestly his struggles. He related his weaknesses to his struggles in prayer and, in that, many readers found themselves looking into a mirror. Like many others, when I first read Nouwen, I had a sense of being introduced to myself.

And he worked at his craft, with diligence and deliberation. Nouwen would write and rewrite his books, sometimes five times over, in an effort to make them simpler. What he sought was a language of the heart. Originally trained as a psychologist, his early writings exhibit some of the language of the classroom. However, as he developed as a writer and a mentor of the soul, he began more and more to purge his writings of technical and academic terms and strove to become radically simple, without being simplistic; to carry deep sentiment, without being sentimental; to be self-revealing, without being exhibitionist; to be deeply personal, yet profoundly universal; and to be sensitive to human weakness, even as he strove to challenge to what’s more sublime.

Few writers, religious or secular, have influenced me as deeply as Nouwen. I know better than to try to imitate him, recognizing that what is imitative is never creative and what is creative is never imitative.

Where I do try to emulate him is in his simplicity, in his rewriting things over and over in order try to make them simpler, without being simplistic. Like him, I believe there’s a language of the heart (that each generation has to create anew) that bypasses the divide between academics and the street and which has the power to speak directly to everyone, regardless of background and training. Jesus managed it. Nouwen sought to speak and write with that kind of directness. He didn’t do it perfectly, nobody does, but he did do it more effectively than most. He recognized too that this is a craft that must be worked at, akin to learning language.  

I dedicated my book The Holy Longing to him with this tribute: “He was our generation’s Kierkegaard. He helped us to pray while not knowing how to pray, to rest while feeling restless, to be at peace while tempted, to feel safe while still anxious, to be surrounded by light while still in darkness and to love while still in doubt.”

If you are occasionally tortured by your own complexity, even as your deepest desire is to “will the one thing,” perhaps you can find a mentor and a patron saint in Henri Nouwen. He calls us beyond ourselves, even as he respects how complex and difficult that journey is. He shows us how to move towards God, even as we are still torn by our own earthly attachments.

(Fr. Rolheiser can be reached at his web site www.ronrolheiser.com.)

The Passion according to John

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Each year on Good Friday the Passion of Jesus Christ according to John is read aloud in our churches. John’s Gospel, as we know, was written later than the other Gospels, perhaps some 70 years after Jesus died, and those years gave John plenty of time to reflect upon Jesus’ death and highlight a number of aspects that are not as evident in the other Gospels. What are those special aspects?

The bulk of John’s account focuses on Jesus’ trial and the eventual judgment that He be put to death. But it is ingeniously written. John writes up the trial of Jesus in such a way that, while Jesus is the one being tried, everyone else is on trial except Jesus. Pilate is on trial, the Jewish authorities are on trial, Jesus’ apostles and disciples are on trial, the crowds watching are on trial, and we who are hearing the story. Jesus, alone, is not on trial, even as His trial is judging everyone else. Hence when Pilate asks Jesus: What is truth? Jesus’ silence puts Pilate on trial by throwing Pilate back on his own silence, the truth of himself. It’s the same for the rest of us.

The unquiet frontiers

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Few books have garnered as much respect during the past five years as has Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. That respect is well-deserved. Given secularity’s convoluted history, there isn’t any one, normative study that traces out its evolution; but, if there was, Taylor’s analysis might apply for the distinction.

Few scholars bring so wide and deep a scholarship to the area of history and faith. Taylor confesses that he is a man of faith, but strives insofar as this is possible for anyone, believer or agnostic, to not let his own beliefs colour his research. Few, even those critical of the book, accuse him of that. He is generally objective, reporting what happened without either trumpeting or bemoaning it.

And what he traces out is the big story of how we moved historically from a culture and a consciousness within which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God to today, where belief in God is merely one option among others and often not the dominant one. Until the full-flowering of modernity we lived with what Taylor calls a “porous” rather than a “buffered” consciousness. A porous consciousness is more naturally mystical. A buffered consciousness is what Karl Rahner had in mind when he said we would soon reach a time when someone would either be a mystic or a non-believer.

The Roots of Forgiveness

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In one of James Carroll's early novels, he offers this poignant image: A young man is in the delivery room watching his wife give birth to their baby. The delivery is a difficult one and she is in danger of dying. As he stands watching, he is deeply conflicted: He loves his wife, is holding her hand, and is frantically praying that she not die. Yet the impending birth of their child and the danger of his wife's death conspire to make him acutely aware that, deep in his heart, he has not forgiven her for once being unfaithful to him. He has expressed his forgiveness to her but he realizes now, at this moment of extreme crisis, that in his heart he still has not been able to let go of the hurt and that he has not truly forgiven her.

As his wife hovers between life and death, he sees in her face a great tension, a struggle to give birth to someone even as she desperately struggles not to die. Her agony accentuates the deeper lines in her face and he sees there a dual struggle, to give birth and to not die.

Seeing this, he is able to forgive her in his heart. What moves him is not simple pity but an empathy born of special insight. His wife's struggle to give birth, while wrestling to stay alive, highlighted by the agony of her situation, is like a light shining on her whole life helping to explain everything, including her infidelity.

Loving our enemies

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Lorenzo Rosebaugh, an Oblate colleague shot to death in Guatemala two years ago, used to share at Oblate gatherings some advice that Daniel Berrigan once gave him. Lorenzo, contemplating an act of civil disobedience to protest the Vietnam war, was told by Berrigan: If you can't do this without becoming bitter, then don't do it! Do it only if you can do it with a mellow heart! Do it only if you can be sure you won't end up hating those who arrest you!

That's hard to do; but, in the end, it's the ultimate challenge, namely, to not hate those who oppose us, to not hate our enemies, to continue to have gracious and forgiving hearts in the face of misunderstanding, bitter opposition, jealousy, anger, hatred, positive mistreatment, and even the threat of death.

And to be a disciple of Jesus means that, at some point, we will be hated. We will make enemies. It happened to Jesus and he assured us that it will happen to us.

A contemporary apologetics

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One of the reasons why we don't often find a good Christian apologetics today is because so many of our best theologians write at such a level of academia that their thoughts are not really accessible to the ordinary person in the pews. Apologists like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton are rare. We have great thinkers in theology today, but unfortunately many of them cannot be profitably read outside of academic settings.

With this as a background, I would like to recommend a very helpful book, Faith-Maps, just published by Michael Paul Gallagher, a Jesuit professor at the Gregorian University in Rome. Gallagher has a background in literature which keeps him sensitive to the kind of language which can speak to the popular mind and still remain the language of depth and soul. That's the gift he brings to this book.

What Gallagher does in Faith-Maps is take ten major Christian thinkers (John Henry Newman, Maurice Blondel, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bernard Lonergan, Flannery O'Connor, Dorothee Soelle, Charles Taylor, Pieranglo Sequeri, and Pope Benedict XVI) and write a brief chapter on each of them within which he explains, in lay terms, the kernel of their major insight. Moreover he does this with a certain apologetic intent, that is, to have each of them deliver a short, clear challenge to our generation, especially as pertains to our struggle with faith and with church. And in doing this, Gallagher proves himself a both a gifted and an unbiased teacher: He lays out the central concepts of these thinkers in a way that, for the most part at least, is accessible to the non-professional and in a way that doesn't fall into either liberal or conservative bias.

Saved by one man's sacrifice

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We are saved by the death of Jesus! All Christians believe this. This is a central tenet within the Christian faith and the center of almost all Christian iconography. Jesus' death on a cross changed history forever. Indeed, we measure time by it. The effect of his death so marked the world that, not long after he died, the world began to measure time by him. We are in the year 2011 since Jesus was born.

But how does this work? How can one person's death ricochet through history, going backwards and forwards in time, being somehow beyond time, so as to effect past, present, and future all at the same time, as if that death was forever happening at the present moment? Is this simply some mystery and metaphysics inside of the Godhead that isn't meant to be understood within any of our normal categories?

Too often, I believe, the answer we were given was simply this: It's a mystery. Believe it. You don't have to understand it.

Following Jesus - According to the letter or the spirit?

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I work and move within church circles and find that most of the people I meet there are honest, committed, and for the most part radiate their faith positively. Most church-goers aren't hypocrites. What I do find disturbing within church circles though is that too many of us can be bitter, angry, mean-spirited, and judgmental, especially in terms of the very values that we hold most dear.

It was Henri Nouwen who first highlighted this, commenting with sadness that many of the really angry, bitter, and ideologically-driven people he knew he had met inside of church circles and places of ministry.  Within church circles, it sometimes seems, everyone is angry about something.  Moreover, within church circles, it is all too easy to rationalize our anger in the name of prophecy, as a healthy passion for truth and morals.

The logic works this way: Because I am sincerely concerned about an important moral, ecclesial, or justice issue, I can excuse a certain amount of neurosis, anger, elitism, and negative judgment, because I can rationalize that my cause, dogmatic or moral, is so important that it justifies my mean spirit: I need to be this angry and harsh because this is such an important truth!

Building an Ark

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If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.

You will recognize these words as the opening lines of Rudyard Kipling's famous poem, If, and they, as much as any scriptural commentary, provide the key to understand the story of Noah and the Ark.

What is the meaning of this story? Are we really to believe that at a certain time in history the whole earth was flooded and that one man, Noah, had the foresight to build a boat on which he had placed a male and female of every living species on earth so as to save them from extinction?  Clearly the story is not to be taken literally, as a concrete event in the history of this planet. Like a number of other biblical stories of the origins of history, it is not an historical video-tape of what happened but is rather a story of the human heart, a story which is truer than true in that it happens again and again inside of our lives. And how does it happen? What is the meaning of the story of Noah and the Ark?

Straining for Sabbath amidst the demands of phones and computers

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A comedian recently quipped that today's information technologies have effectively rendered a number of things obsolete, most notably phone-books and human courtesy. That's also true for human rest.

Today's information technologies (the internet, email, software programs like Facebook, mobile phones, IPhones, pocket computers, and the like) have made us the most informed, efficient, and communicative people ever. We now have the capability, all day, every day, of accessing world events, world news, whole libraries of information, and detailed accounts of what our families and friends are doing at any moment. That's the positive side of the equation.

Less wonderful is what this is doing to our lives, how it is changing our expectations, and robbing us of the simple capacity to stop, shut off the machines, and rest. As we get wrapped up more and more in mobile phones, texting, email, Facebook, and the internet in general, we are beginning to live with the expectation that we must be attentive all the time to everything that's happening in the world and within the lives of our families and friends. The spoken and unspoken expectation is that we be available always - and so too others. We used to send each other notes and letters and expect a reply within days, weeks, or months. Now the expectation for a reply is minutes or hours, and we feel impatient with others when this expectation is not met and guilty inside of ourselves when we can't meet it.