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.

When I was 22 years old, a seminarian, I was privileged to have a unique kind of desert experience. I sat with my siblings in a palliative care room for several weeks, watching my father die.

My father was young still, 62, and in good health until being struck with pancreatic cancer. He was a man of faith and he brought that to his final struggle. He wasn’t afraid of God, whom he had served all his life, nor of the afterlife, which his faith assured him was to be joy-filled. Yet he couldn’t let go of life easily, struggling almost bitterly at times to surrender. There was a deep sadness inside him, ultimately more soft than bitter, during his last weeks of life. He didn’t want to die.

It’s not easy to sustain love, at least not with constant emotional fervour. Misunderstandings, irritations, tiredness, jealousies, hurt, temperamental differences, the familiarity that breeds contempt and simple boredom invariably chip away at our emotional and affective edges and, soon enough, fervour gives way to routine, the groove becomes the rut and love seems to disappear.

But we can easily misread this.

“No community should botch its deaths.” Those are the words of anthropologist Mircea Eliade, and I use them here to introduce a tribute to Otto Herschan, a long-time Catholic publisher who died on July 12 at the age of 84.

For many years he was the publisher and managing director of a number of national Catholic weekly newspapers, including the Catholic Herald in England, the Scottish Catholic Observer and the Irish Catholic. He brought an interesting background to Catholic journalism.

Our world thinks it understands sex. It doesn’t. Moreover, it is beginning to ignore and even disdain how Christianity views sexuality.

And we are paying a price for this, mostly without consciously realizing it. Sex, outside of its proper containers, respect, unconditional commitment and love, isn’t bringing more joy into our lives, but is leaving us more fragmented and lonely. Part of what’s happening to us is expressed in a haunting line in Leonard Cohen’s song “Famous Blue Raincoat,” where a man reminds a friend of the consequences of his having had sex with a woman to whom he was not committed: “And you treated my woman to a flake of your life; and when she came back she was nobody’s wife.”

Nearly a century ago, Oscar Wilde wrote a famous novel entitled A Picture of Dorian Gray. It begins this way:

Basil Hallward, a painter, has just finished a portrait of a young man of extraordinary good looks, Dorian Gray. Just as he finishes the painting, a brilliant, though highly cynical young Lord, Henry Wotton, wanders into the room, marvels at the painting and compliments Dorian on his good looks. Dorian, quite humble at this stage of his life, tells Lord Henry that his good looks mean little to him. But Lord Henry challenges Dorian to make his good looks mean something, both because they are real and because they are transient.

Here are his words to the young Dorian Gray: “You have a wonderfully beautiful face, Mr. Gray. Don’t frown. You have. And beauty is a form of genius, is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight or spring-time or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it. You smile? Ah! When you have lost it you won’t smile... People say sometimes that beauty is only superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not so superficial as thought is. To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible... Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away. You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory or your past will make more bitter than defeats. Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow and hollow-cheeked and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly... Ah! Realize your youth while you have it. Don’t squander the gold of your days, listening to the tedious, trying to improve the hopeless failure or giving away your life to the ignorant, the common and the vulgar. These are the sickly aims, the false ideals of our age. Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing... A new Hedonism? That is what our century wants. You might be its visible symbol. With your personality there is nothing you could not do. The world belongs to you for a season...”

A new Hedonism — that is what our century wants. Oscar Wilde prophesized this nearly a century ago and, it would seem, that is precisely to where we have evolved in the Western world. Bodily appearance, looking good, having a trim, athletic body, being sexually attractive, remaining young and being admired for your body is, for the majority of our culture, a huge, obsessive preoccupation. Most people in our culture, perhaps not in theory but certainly in our practical life-choices, would agree with Lord Henry when he says: The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible. Good looks tend to trump everything.

Not that this is all bad.  Shallow is the spirituality that discredits the body. We are not angelic, dis-embodied spirits, but creatures of body and soul, and both are important for our spiritual health. God did not make us to walk this Earth indifferent to our bodily appearance, sexually numb and careless about our physical health. Indeed, indifference to our health and bodily appearance is one of the signs of clinical depression. Being young, healthy and sexually attractive is meant to be enjoyed, one of the pleasures that God intended for us. There is no virtue in looking and feeling shabby.

Thus, it’s good, spiritually, to be physically healthy. It’s good, spiritually, to work at keeping our bodies attractive. It’s good, spiritually, to healthily feel our sexuality. But these are a means, not an end. Youth, health and sexual attractiveness do not, as Lord Henry and much of our contemporary society suggest, have a divine right of sovereignty. They are not ends in themselves, but only part of our journey towards maturity, altruism and happiness. They are not the aim of that journey.  

And when we do make them the aim of our journey, we will, soon enough, taste the bitter bile warned of in Lord Henry’s counsel to Dorian Gray: You will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory or your past will make more bitter than defeats.

Today we don’t attach a lot of symbolism to numbers. A few, mostly superstitious, remnants remain from former ages, such as seeing the number seven as lucky and the number 13 as unlucky. For the most part, for us, numbers are arbitrary.

This hasn’t always been the case. In biblical times, they attached a lot of meaning to certain numbers. For example, in the Bible, the numbers 40, 10, 12 and 100 are highly symbolic. The number 40, for instance, speaks of the length of time required before something can come to proper fruition, while the numbers 10, 12 and 100 speak of a certain wholeness that is required to properly appropriate grace.

Several years ago, a friend of mine made a very un-Hollywood type of marriage proposal to his fiancé: He was in his mid-40s and had suffered a number of disillusioning heartbreaks, some of which, by his own admission, were his own fault, the result of feelings shifting unexpectedly on his part.

Now, in mid-life, struggling not to be disillusioned and cynical about love and romance, he met a woman whom he deeply respected, much admired and with whom he felt he would like to build a life. But, unsure of himself, he was humble in his proposal.

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.

September 13, 2011

Christ as cosmic

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 ...”   

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.