Fr. Ron Rolheiser

Fr. Ron Rolheiser

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.

Eight-hundred years ago, the poet Rumi wrote: “What I want is to leap out of this personality and then sit apart from that leaping. I’ve lived too long where I can be reached.”

Isn’t that true for all of us, especially today? Our lives are often like over-packed suitcases. It seems like we are always busy, always over-pressured, always one phone call, one text message, one e-mail, one visit and one task behind. We are forever anxious about what we have still left undone, about whom we have disappointed, about unmet expectations.

Mysticism is an exotic word. Few of us connect mysticism with ordinary experience, especially with our own experience. Mysticism is generally seen as an exotic thing, a paranormal thing, a special kind of consciousness given only to the most elite within the spiritual life.

But mysticism isn’t extraordinary, paranormal or weird, but an important, ordinary experience.

British Carmelite Ruth Burrows defines mysticism this way: Mysticism is being touched by God in a way that is deeper than language, thought, imagination and feeling. It’s knowing God and ourselves beyond explicit thought and feeling.

We all have our faults, weaknesses, places where we short-circuit morally, dark spots, secret and not-so-secret addictions. When we’re honest, we know how universally true are St. Paul’s words when he writes: “The good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing that I do not want to do — that is what I do.” None of us are whole, saints through and through. There’s always something we are struggling with: anger, bitterness, vengefulness, selfishness, laziness or lack of self-control (major or minor) with sex, food, drink or entertainment.

A friend of mine jokingly says that when she dies she wants this epitaph on her gravestone: There was always something!

And there always is. All of us appreciate her frustration. Invariably, there’s always something, big or small, that casts a shadow and somehow keeps us from fully entering the present moment and appreciating its richness. There is always some anxiety, some worry about something that we should have done or should be doing, some unpaid bill, some concern about what we need to face tomorrow, some lingering heartache, some concern about our health or the health of another, some hurt that is still burning or some longing for someone who is absent that mitigates our joy. There’s always something, some loss, some hurt, some jealousy, some obsession or some headache, that is forever draining the present moment of its joy.

There’s a much quoted line from Leonard Cohen that suggests that the place where we are broken is also the place where our redemption starts: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

That’s true, a major wound is often the place where wisdom flows into our lives and a weakness that habitually overpowers us can keep us aware of our need for grace. But that’s half of the equation. A fault, while keeping us humble, can also keep us in mediocrity and joylessness.

John of the Cross offers us this image by way of an explanation:

A number of years ago, accompanied by an excellent Jesuit director, I did a 30-day retreat using the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. In the third week of that retreat there’s a meditation on Jesus’ agony in the garden. I did the meditation to the best of my abilities and met with my director to discuss the result. He wasn’t satisfied and asked me to repeat the exercise. I did, reported back to him, and found him again dissatisfied. I was at a loss to grasp exactly what he wanted me to achieve through that meditation, though obviously I was missing something. He kept trying to explain to me that Ignatius had a concept wherein one was supposed to take the material of a meditation and “apply it to the senses” and I was somehow not getting that part.

Recently a new expression has made its way into our theological and ecclesial vocabulary. There’s a lot of talk today about the New Evangelization. Indeed the Pope has called for a Synod to meet this year for a month in Rome to try to articulate a vision and strategy for such an endeavour.

What is meant by New Evangelization? In simple terms: Millions of people, particularly in the Western world, are Christian in name, come from Christian backgrounds, are familiar with Christianity, believe that they know and understand Christianity, but no longer practise that faith in a meaningful way. They’ve heard of Christ and the Gospel, even though they may be overrating themselves in their belief that they know and understand what these mean. No matter. Whatever their shortcomings in understanding a faith they no longer practise, they believe that they’ve already been evangelized and that their non-practise is an examined decision. Their attitude toward Christianity, in essence, is: I know what it is. I’ve tried it. And it’s not for me!

There are different kinds of power and different kinds of authority. There is military power, muscle power, political power, economic power, moral power, charismatic power and psychological power, among other things. There are different kinds of authority too: We can be bitterly forced into acquiescing to certain demands or we can be gently persuaded into accepting them. Power and authority are not all of a kind.

In his autobiography, Nikos Kazantzakis tells the story behind his famous book, Zorba the Greek. Zorba is partly fiction, partly history.

After trying unsuccessfully to write a book on Nietzsche, Kazantzakis experienced a certain emotional breakdown and returned to his native Crete for some convalescence. While there he met a man of incredible energy and vitality. The Zorba-character in the book is based on this man’s life; never before in his life had Kazantzakis been so taken by the life and energy of another human being.

Several years ago, I was approached by a man who asked me to be his spiritual director. He was in his mid-40s and almost everything about him radiated a certain health. As we sat down to talk, I mentioned that he seemed to be in a very good space. He smiled and replied that, yes, this was so, but it hadn’t always been so. His happiness had its own history ... and its own pre-history. Here’s how he told his story: