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.

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.

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.

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?

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?

September 7, 2011

Feeding off sacred fire

“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.

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.

February 23, 2011

Building an Ark

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?

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!

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.

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.