Fr. Ron Rolheiser
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.
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.
There are more ways than one in which our belief system can be unbalanced so as to do harm to God and to the Church.
What makes for a healthy, balanced, orthodox faith? The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines orthodoxy as “right belief as contrasted to heresy.” That’s accurate enough, but we tend to think of this in a very one-sided way.
For most people, heresy is conceived of as going too far, as crossing a dogmatic boundary, as stretching Christian truth further than it may be stretched. Orthodoxy, then, means staying within safe perimeters.
This is true in so far as it goes, but it is a one-sided and reductionist understanding of orthodoxy. Orthodoxy has a double function: It tells you how far you may go, but it also tells you how far you must go. And it’s the latter part that is often neglected.
Heresies are dangerous, but the danger is two-sided: Faith beliefs that do not respect proper dogmatic boundaries invariably lead to bad religion and to bad moral practice. Real harm occurs. Dogmatic boundaries are important. But, equally important, we don’t do God, faith, religion and the Church a favour when our beliefs are narrow, bigoted, legalistic or intolerant. Atheism is invariably a parasite that feeds off bad theism. Anti-religion is often simply a reaction to bad religion and thus narrowness and intolerance are perhaps more of an enemy to religion than is any transgressed dogmatic boundary.
God, religion and the churches are, I suspect, more hurt by being associated with the narrowness and intolerance of some believers than they are by any theoretical dogmatic heresy. Right truth, proper faith and true fidelity to Jesus Christ demand too that our hearts are open and wide enough to radiate the universal love and compassion that Jesus incarnated. Purity of dogma alone doesn’t make us disciples of Jesus.
Suffice it to say that Jesus is clear about this. Anyone who reads the Gospels and misses Jesus’ repeated warnings about legalism, narrowness and intolerance is reading selectively. Granted, Jesus does warn too about staying within the bounds of proper belief (monotheism and all that this implies) and proper morals (the commandments, love of our enemies, forgiveness), but He stresses too that we can miss the real demands of discipleship by not going far enough in letting ourselves be stretched by His teachings.
True orthodoxy asks us to hold a great tension, between real boundaries beyond which you may not go and real borders and frontiers to which you must go. You may not go too far, but you must also go far enough. And this can be a lonely road. If you carry this tension faithfully, without giving in to either side, you will no doubt find yourself with few allies on either side, that is, too liberal for the conservatives and too conservative for the liberals.
To risk just one example: You see this kind of pained, but more fully Catholic, orthodoxy in a person like Raymond Brown, the renowned biblical scholar, a loyal Roman Catholic thinker who found himself attacked, for opposite reasons, from both sides of the ideological spectrum. He upset liberals because he stopped before they thought that he should and he upset conservatives because he suggested that proper truth and dogma often stretch us beyond some former comfort zones.
And this tension is an innate, healthy disquiet, something we are meant to live daily in our lives rather than something we can resolve once and for all. Indeed the deep root of this tension lies right within the human soul itself: The human soul, as Thomas Aquinas classically put it, has two principles and two functions: The soul is the principle of life, energy and fire inside of us, even as it is equally the principle of integration, unity and glue. The soul keeps us energized and on fire, even as it keeps us from dissipating and falling apart. A healthy soul therefore keeps us within healthy boundaries, to prevent us from disintegrating, even as it keeps us on fire, lest we petrify and become too hardened to fully enter life.
In that sense, the soul itself is a healthy principle of orthodoxy inside us. It keeps us within real limits even as it pushes us towards new frontiers.
We live always in the face of two opposing dangers: disintegration and petrification. To stay healthy we need to know our limits and we also need to know how far we have to stretch ourselves. The conservative instinct warns us about the former. The liberal instinct warns us about the latter. Both instincts are healthy because both dangers are real.
The German poet, Goethe, once wrote: The dangers of life are many, and safety is one of those dangers. This is true in our personal lives and it’s true in Christian orthodoxy. There is danger in bad dogma but there is equal danger in not radiating, with sufficient compassion and understanding, God’s universal will for the salvation of all peoples.
(Fr. Rolheiser can be reached at his web site www.ronrolheiser.com.)
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.)