Skip to content

The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, by Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I.

by davesandel on September 26th, 2011

The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, by Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I., 1999

257 pages

Thoughts on The Holy Longing:

Ronald Rolheiser speaks with a bit of a Canadian accent.  He was born and raised and mostly educated in Canada.  His parents were immigrants from eastern Europe who settled in an “obscure little hamlet on the vast Canadian prairies” (p. 164).  They struggled to learn English but blessed their son Ronald in his continuing pursuit of philosophy – first in Ottawa, then in Edmonton, then in San Francisco, then in Belgium.

His curriculum vitae describes him as a “community builder, lecturer, and writer.  He has been a theology and philosophy professor and is ordained as a priest by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.  Since 2005 he has been the president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.  He loves poetry and shares much of what he loves in his lectures and his books.

I wonder if the titles of his books, which have won many awards, reflect some of his inner life.  Those titles carry adjectives like shattered, infinite, holy, restless, forgotten.  He has written a column in The Catholic Herald for twenty-eight years, and in July 2011 (http://www.ronrolheiser.com/columnarchive/?id=656) he revealed to his large audience of readers that he had colon cancer.  Surgery contained much of it but not all, and his prognosis, while good, is uncertain.  Six months of chemotherapy invite him into what he called a “certain desert experience.”

He writes, “My peace of soul is predicated on a number of realizations that were only abstract theories for me before this illness.  Some things are infinitely more real to me now: I now know existentially that life is fragile, that health is precious, and that it’s to be appreciated rather than taken for granted.  I know too existentially that we cannot safeguard our own lives, no matter how carefully we try.”

And then he writes, “Faith and hope are flooding into my life as never before.  So too is love.”

In 1999, Rolheiser dedicated The Holy Longing to Henri Nouwen, three years after Nouwen’s sudden death.  He wrote: “Henri 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.”

Nouwen fought his way into spiritual daylight out of darkness – over and over, day after day and year after year.  He was unable NOT to describe the darkness, which surely accounts for much of his popularity.  He rewrote his books over and over to simplify them, and Rolheiser acknowledges his determination to do the same.

The following quotations and excerpts from The Holy Longing are extensive (21 pages worth).  There is just so much good Stuff to share!  Rolheiser fixes the lens of a celibate priest on desire, eros and sexuality.  He moves spirituality out of the monastery into the world.  He brings God down to earth in a spirituality of incarnation which overwhelmed my mind and heart.  He makes the idea of plodding along in a dead church something to rejoice about.  Say what??

And, like Nouwen, he acknowledges the light, the darkness, the struggle, and the gentle smiling love of God his Father.

If you decide to hold off reading and just put this book on your shelf, don’t leave it there long.

 

Outline of The Holy Longing:

Preface

 Part One: The Situation

 What is spirituality?

Desire, our fundamental dis-ease

What is spirituality?

The two functions of the soul

 The Current Struggle with Christian Spirituality

At odds with circumstance

Naiveté about the nature of spiritual energy

Pathological busy-ness, distraction and restlessness

A critical problem with balance, leading to a bevy of divorces:

The divorce between religion and eros

The divorce between spirituality and ecclesiology

The divorce between private morality and social justice

The divorce of the gifted child and the giving adult

The divorce by contemporary culture of its paternalistic, Christian heritage

Toward a Christian spirituality

Part Two: The Essential Outline for a Christian Spirituality

 The Non-negotiable Essentials

The state of the question – an overwhelming pluralism

Our history – where have we come from?

Roman Catholicism

Protestantism

Secular Society

The situation today

Sorting out – the search for substance and balance

The essentials of a Christian spirituality – the four non-negotiable pillars of the spiritual life

In caption

Some stories of imbalance

Private prayer and private morality, but lacking in justice

Social justice, but lacking in private prayer and private morality

Private prayer and private morality and social justice, but lacking mellowness of heart and spirit

Private prayer and private morality, social justice, mellowness of heart – but lack of involvement within a concrete community

Toward fullness and balance – some detail regarding the four essential pillars within Christianity

Private prayer and private morality

Social justice

Mellowness of heart and spirit

Community as a constitutive element of true worship

To walk on earth like Gods

Part Three: The Incarnation as the Basis for a Christian Spirituality

 Christ as the Basis for Christian Spirituality

The centrality of Christ

The concept of the incarnation – “the Word made flesh”

The hermeneutical key – “giving skin to God”

The why of the incarnation

The shocking, raw physical character of the incarnation

Its ongoing character

The difference between a Christian and a Theist

Consequences of the Incarnation for Spirituality

For understanding how we should pray

For understanding how we should seek reconciliation and healing

Reconciliation and the forgiveness of sins

Binding and loosing …

Anointing each other for death …

A few concluding notes in response to some obvious objections

If this is true, then it is too good to be true!

Where does this leave the Catholic sacrament of confession?

For understanding guidance

For understanding community

For understanding religious experience

For understanding mission

For understanding how we remain in contact with our loved ones after their deaths

The heart of spirituality for a Christian

Part Four: Some Key Spiritualities Within a Spirituality

 

A spirituality of ecclesiology

I want the Kingdom but not the Church

Toward a spirituality of ecclesiology: spiritual images of the church

The church is the people: apostolic community

(It is not) like-minded individuals, gathering on the basis of mutual compatibility

(It is not) huddling in fear and loneliness

(It is not) “family” in the psychological sense

(It is not) one roof, one ethnicity, one denomination, one rule book, or one book of common prayer

(It is not) a shared task, a common mission

The church is the rope – baptism and conscription

The church is the sarx – the exzemed body of Christ

The church is the banquet table – the ointment

So why go to church?

Because it is not good to be alone

To take my rightful place humbly within the family of humanity

Because God calls me there

To dispel my fantasies about myself

Because 10,000 saints have told me so

To help others carry their pathologies and to have them help me carry mine

To dream with others

To practice for heaven

For the pure joy of it – because it is heaven!

A Spirituality of the Paschal Mystery

The timeless issues of suffering, death and transformation

The pattern of the Paschal mystery

An umbrella under which to understand: some Paschal stories

The Paschal mystery – a cycle for rebirth

Undergoing the various deaths within our lives

The death of our youth …

The death of our wholeness …

The death of our dreams …

The death of our honeymoons …

The death of a certain idea of God and Church

A note on grieving and on letting ourselves be blessed by the past

Refusing to cling …

A  Spirituality of Justice and Peacemaking

Act justly – the great imperative

What is Christian social justice?

Justice is beyond private charity: a parable

Justice as demanding the transformation of systems

A Biblical foundation for social justice

Social justice and the churches

Non-violent peacemaking

Our naiveté

The painful truth

A prescription for non-violence

A non-violent God who underwrites justice and peace

Sustaining ourselves for the long haul

A Lord’s Prayer for justice

A Spirituality of Sexuality

Sexuality as divine fire

Toward a Christian understanding of sexuality

Sexuality as an awareness of having been cut off

Sexuality versus genitality

A Christian definition of sexuality

A few non-negotiable Christian principles

Living in inconsummation – some Christian perspectives

The frustration of a lifelong unfinished symphony

Some Christian perspectives: what to do until the Messiah returns

Understand the time we are living in

Understand how wide is sexuality’s hunger

Turn our inconsummation into solitude

Own your own pain and incompleteness

Give up false messianic expectations

Go inward

This movement is never made once and for all

Sexual incompleteness as solidarity with the poor

Accept the inadequacy of our love so that its real power can show through

Sustaining Ourselves in the Spiritual Life

The need for sustenance, not just clarity of truth

Commandments for the long haul

Be a mystic …

The need for a personal act of faith

Personal faith depends on prayer

A mysticism for our age – prayer as pondering, carrying tension

Sin bravely …

Honesty within our weaknesses

The unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit

Honesty as letting us see colors again

Gather ritually around the Word and break the bread …

In every circumstance of life, gather ritually in prayer

The meaning of ritual and our current struggle with it

Worship and serve the right God

Sustaining ourselves by keeping the first commandment

 

Quotes from The Holy Longing:

1.            What is Spirituality?

There is within us a fundamental dis-ease, an unquenchable fire that renders us incapable, in this life, of ever coming to full peace … We are not easeful human beings who occasionally get restless.  The reverse is true.  We are driven persons, forever obsessed, congentially dis-eased, living lives, as Thoreau once suggested, of quiet desperation, only occasionally experiencing peace.  Desire is the straw that stirs the drink. – p. 3

This dis-ease is universal.  Desire gives no exemptions.  It does, however, admit of different moods and faces … can show itself as aching pain or delicious hope.  Spirituality is, ultimately, about what we do with that desire. – p. 4-5

No one has a choice.  Everyone has to have a spirituality and everyone does have one, either a life-giving one or a destructive one … Spirituality is not about serenely picking or rationally choosing certain spiritual activities like going to church, praying or meditating, reading spiritual books, or setting off on some explicit spiritual quest.  It is far more basic than that.  Long before we do anything explicitly religious at all, we have to do something about the fire that burns within us. – p. 6-7

Spirituality is more about whether or not we can sleep at night than about whether or not we go to church.  – p. 7

What shapes our actions is our spirituality.  And what shapes our actions is basically what shapes our desire.  What we do will either lead to greater integration or disintegration within our bodies, minds and souls, and to the strengthening or deterioration of our relationship to God, others, and the cosmic world. – p. 7 (also p. 11)

Eros, what St. John of the Cross calls “love’s urgent longings,” is the starting point of the spiritual life, and spirituality is how we handle that eros. – p. 7

To offer a striking example of how spirituality is about how one handles his or her eros, let us compare the lives of three famous women: Mother Teresa, Janis Joplin, and Princess Diana.  Few of us would consider Mother Teresa an erotic woman.  We think of her rather as a spiritual woman … But she was erotic because she was a dynamo of energy.  She was a human bulldozer, an erotically driven woman.  She was, however, a very disciplined woman, dedicated to God and the poor.  Everyone considered her a saint.   Why? – p. 7-8

A saint is someone who can, precisely, channel powerful eros in a creative, life-giving way.   Søren Kierkegaard once defined a saint as someone who can will the one thing … Mother Teresa’s fiery eros was poured out for God and the poor.  That was her signature, her spirituality.  It made her what she was. – p. 8

Looking at Janis Joplin, the rock star who died from an overdose of life at age 27, few would consider her a very spiritual woman.  Yet she was one.  People think of her as the opposite of Mother Teresa: erotic, but not spiritual.  Yet Janis Joplin was not so different: she was an exceptional woman, a person of fiery eros, a great lover, a person with a rare energy.  Unlike Mother, Teresa, however, Janis Joplin could not will the one thing.  Her great energy went out in all directions and eventually created an excess and a tiredness that led to an early death.  But those activities – a total giving over to creativity, performance, drugs, booze, sex, coupled with the neglect of normal rest – were her spirituality.  This was her signature. – p. 8

Most of us are like Mother Teresa in that we want to will God and the poor.  We do will them.  The problem is we will everything else as well.  Thus, we want to be a saint, but we also want to feel every sensation experienced by sinners; we want to be innocent and pure, but we also want to be experienced and taste all of life; we want to serve the poor and have a simple lifestyle, but we also want all the comforts of the rich; we want to have the depth afforded by solitude, but we also do not want to miss anything. – p. 9 (Boy, Ronald really nailed me!)

Medieval philosophy had a dictum that said: Every choice is a renunciation.  Indeed.  Every choice is a thousand renunciations.  To choose one thing is to turn one’s back on many others.  Partner, career, child-rearing, prayer … means not to do many things.  It is not easy to be a saint, to will the one thing. – p. 9

Princess Diana is seen by many of us as both erotic and spiritual.  She was a jetsetter, dating playboys. She also deeply cared for and served God and the poor.  In Princess Diana we see something most of us can identify with: a painful struggle for choice and commitment, and an oh-so-human combination of sins and virtues. – p. 9-10

A healthy spirit must do dual jobs: (1) It has to give us energy and fire, so that we do not lose our vitality and all sense of the beauty and joy of living.  Thus the opposite of a spiritual person is not a person who rejects the idea of God and lives as a pagan.  The opposite of being spiritual is to have no energy, to have lost all zest for living. (2) But the other task of spirituality is to keep us glued together, integrated, so we do not fall apart and die.  Under this aspect, the opposite of a spiritual person would be someone who has lost his or her identity, who does not know who he or she is anymore.  A healthy soul keeps us both energized and glued together.  – p. 11-12

In a manner of speaking, the soul has a principle of chaos and a principle of order within it and its health depends upon giving each its due. Too much order and you die of suffocation; too much chaos and you die of dissipation … One God will keep us energized, the other will keep us joined together … That is why we sometimes experience such intense struggles inside ourselves. – p. 14

The question of what makes our souls healthy or unhealthy is very complex because on any given day we might need more integration rather than energy, or vice versa. – p. 15

We as human beings are not separate from nature but merely that part of nature that can think, feel, and act self-consciously … All of nature is driven by soul, spirit, desire, eros, yearning.  All of nature is fired by a madness that comes from the gods. – p. 17

There is, at some level, a stunning similarity between a bamboo plant pushing blindly upward through the pavement, a baby feeding, a young adolescent restlessly driven by hormones, the tangible restlessness of a singles’ bar, and Mother Teresa kneeling consciously in prayer before her God … St. Paul would say that, in each instance, the Holy Spirit is trying to pray through something or somebody (Romans 8). – p. 18

There is a discontent – which is another word for soul and spirit – in all things.  What those things, or persons, do with that discontent is their spirituality. – p. 18

Everything is driven outward … everything yearns for something beyond just itself. – p. 18

2.            The Current Struggle with Christian Spirituality

Some questions always haunt us: Am I being too hard or too easy on myself?  Am I unhappy because I am missing out on life or am I unhappy because I’m selfish?  Am I too timid and uptight or should I be more disciplined? … These questions pose themselves differently from generation to generation. – p. 21

Past societies were more overtly religious than we.  They simply had less trouble believing in God and in connecting basic human desire to the quest for God and to the obedience that God demands.  But they had their own, serious, religious problems … superstition, slavery, sexism, excessive fears of eternal punishment, legalism … There has been no golden age. – p. 21

What demons torment us in our time?  Here are four: naiveté about the nature of spiritual energy, pathological busy-ness, distraction and restlessness, and a critical problem with balance. – p. 22

1.            Naiveté about the nature of spiritual energy

All energy is imperialistic, especially erotic and creative energy.  Energy is not friendly.  It can beat us up like the playground bully.  Pre-modern cultures treated energy with a holy reverence. – p. 22

Energy is not just difficult to access, it is just as difficult to contain once it enters. – p. 22

Former cultures, whatever their faults, understood the nature of imperialistic energy, especially of spiritual, erotic energy … Hence they had a lot of taboos, fears, timidities, rituals, and prohibitions.  As well, it was generally advised and often forbidden to ask certain questions … The very desire of the human mind to think and to ask questions was feared. – p. 23

They understood what the Bible means when it says, “No one can see God and live!”  Creative, sexual, spiritual energy must have some mediation, some filters, and some taboos surrounding it or it will destroy us.  On its own, it is too raw, too demanding, too powerful. – p. 23

They tried to do two things with this kind of energy: first, understand it as coming from God and ultimately directed back to God.  Desire was always understood against an infinite horizon.  We say we are horny or obsessed; they would speak of “eternal longings” and “hunger for the bread of life.” – p. 23

Second, understand that as a human being, you were meant to bow beneath and put your will beneath the holiness and will of God. – p. 24

So the path needed to channel our eros correctly was the path that directed that desire toward God, the path of “genuflection.”  That path also often became the path of fear and the path of control through external taboos.

They lived with a lot more fear, superstition, restriction and timidity than we do.  On the other hand, they had both social stability and psychological substantiality that we, for the most part, can only envy … Their families held together better.  They slept more peacefully than we do … They did not have to give themselves their own meaning.  Because of this, a real irony perhaps, they suffered less from both depression and inflation (hyperactive spirituality) than we do.

In our naiveté, we consider this energy as friendly, as something we need not fear and as something we can manage all on our own, without the help of a God or rules and taboos … This can be a sign of growing up and it can also be a sign of infantile grandiosity.  In either case, we pay a price for demanding to manage all on our own.  We can no longer find the fine line between depression and inflation.  So we invariably fluctuate between being out of touch with the deep source of energy: depression, and not being able to properly contain it: inflation. – p. 25

Mostly, though, it is depression that is the big problem.  In the western world, generally speaking, most of us adults live in a certain chronic depression … not clinical depression but something wider. – p. 25

An upbeat temperament, gritty optimism and positive thinking are just as often symptoms of a masked depression, the schizophrenia of the clown.  The opposite of depression is delight, being spontaneously surprised by the goodness and beauty of living … Delight has to catch us unaware, at a place where we are not rationalizing that we are happy. – p. 25-26

For most adults, this experience is rare.  We can go for years as loving, dedicated, generous, positive, contributing, compulsive adults and never once during all those years enjoy a thimbleful of genuine delight.  It happens all the time. – p. 26

If you want to see what delight looks like, go by any school yard sometime when kids, little kids, kindergartners and first graders, come out for their recess break.  They simply run around and shriek.  Now that’s delight. – p. 26-27

When you see a child in a high chair, just fed, shouting and throwing Jell-O and mashed potatoes around the room, you are party to delight, and you are also party to something that, outside of children, is exceedingly rare. – p. 27

In Western culture, the joyous shouting of children often irritates us because it interferes with our depression.  That is why we have invented a term, hyperactivity, so that we can, in good conscience, sedate the spontaneous joy in many of our children. – p. 27

We have the opposite problem, too, becoming so possessed by energy and so full of ourselves that we are unlikely candidates to ever be caught off guard by delight.  We have a problem both ways, accessing and containing energy.  Spirituality is about finding the proper ways, disciplines, by which to both access that energy and contain it. – p. 27

What is wrong with pornography is not that there is something wrong in seeing the sexual act.  Sex is not dirty or sinful.  What is wrong with pornography is that it over-stimulates our archetypal erotic energies, leaving us no choice but to act out those energies … or to go into a depression, namely, to turn on the cooling mechanisms inside of us, restrain those energies, and then sizzle in inchoate frustration as they slowly cool. – p. 29

We see nothing wrong in exposing ourselves to this energy in all its rawness … (but) this is not an event meant to be watched.  It is too raw.  Love is meant to be made behind closed doors.  Every society has had taboos about having sex and about exhibiting it, intended to protect people’s souls from the dangerous power of erotic energy. – p. 30

Energy (not just sexual energy) that is so raw as to over-stimulate our energies is imperialistic, not with the tyranny of a bad dictator, but with the overpowering force of a divine agent.  The energy inside us is just too much and when we attempt to handle it without the proper safeguards, taboos, and mediation, we will soon find ourselves stripped of all joy and delight.  Channeling eros correctly is not, first and foremost, about sin and morality, it is about whether or not we sit in delight or depression while eating our suppers at night. – p. 30

Annie Dillard in Holy the Firm: “I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words that people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.” – p. 31

2.            Pathological Busyness, Distraction, and Restlessness

Narcissism (excessive pre-occupation), pragmatism (excessive focus on work and achievement), and restlessness (excessive greed for experience) make us so habitually self-absorbed that we rarely find the time and space to be in touch with the deeper movements inside of and around us.  – p. 32

For every kind of reason, good and bad, we are distracting ourselves into spiritual oblivion. – p. 32

3.            A Critical Problem with Balance, Leading to a Bevy of Divorces

We become forced to choose between two things rather than balancing them.  In fact, both are needed to healthily channel our spiritual energies.  Here are five of those “divorces”:

  1. The divorce between religion and eros

As in all divorces, the property has been divided up: religion gets to keep God and the secular get to keep sex.  We, the children of that divorce, find ourselves torn between the two, unconsciously longing for them to come back together again.

  1. The divorce between spirituality and ecclesiology

Strange thing in the Western world today: the numbers of persons participating in our churches is decreasing while the number of persons interested in spirituality is increasing.  There is a drastic decline in church life right in the midst of a spiritual renaissance.

Sam Keen points out that where every religion begins with the answers, the spiritual quest begins with the opposite.  It begins with the questions.  Once a person settles into the practice of a religion, he or she can no longer claim to be on a spiritual quest.  Spirituality has been traded in for religion. – p. 35

  1. The divorce between private morality and social justice

The person who leads the protest group usually does not lead the prayer group … but spirituality is equally about both.

  1. The divorce of the gifted child and the giving adult

To be religiously mature is to be a person who freely gives his or her life away … But what looks like selflessness can actually be self-serving and manipulative … We often cannot draw the distinction between self-donation and being a victim.  When is something altruism and when is it simply being a doormat? – p. 36-37

  1. The divorce by contemporary culture of its paternalistic, Christian heritage

On the one side we have the Judeo-Christian tradition which taught us the secrets of life and which now feels itself betrayed, sees its foundation commandments breached.  On the other side stands our culture, adolescent in its defiance, accusing that tradition of dealing it death, not life.  Like any child caught in a painful divorce, we stand between them, sense their incompatibility, and do not know to which we should give our hearts. – p. 40

3.            The Essential Outline for a Christian Spirituality: The Non-Negotiable Essentials

To walk into a spiritual bookstore today is to be nearly overwhelmed by variety and choice.  The same holds true for the many moral and religious voices that daily bombard us.  These voices tempt us toward every kind of spiritual practice, traditional or new … What should be part of our Christian discipleship and what should we, in the name of Christ, ignore or reject? – p. 50-52

Essential truths are those that are necessary for everyone, prescribed for everyone, and non-negotiable for everyone.  They cannot be ignored or bracketed on the basis of temperament, taste, situation, or lack of time.  They can be chosen or not chosen; they are universally prescribed … In all the rich spiritual pluralism of today, what is essential? – p. 52-53

At one point in his ministry, Jesus specifies three clear components to discipleship: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  For Jesus, prayer meant not just private prayer, but also keeping the commandments and praying in common with others.  Fasting meant a wide asceticism that included within itself the asceticism demanded by living a life of joy.  Almsgiving meant, among other things, justice as well as charity.  So we can summarize Jesus’ prescription in this way: 1) Private prayer and private morality, 2) Social justice, 3) Mellowness of heart and spirit, and 4) Community as a constitutive element of true worship. – p. 53

Within liberal Christianity and secular culture there is a certain fear that having too-privatized a relationship with Jesus is dangerous, that this is something that takes us away from true religion.  Although not without merits, this critique is spiritually dangerous … without having proper interiority and personal moral fidelity, we can end up turning Christianity into a philosophy, ideology, moral code and miss Christianity’s primary purpose, to help establish relationship with a real person: Jesus. – p. 63-64

We will make progress in the spiritual life only if we, daily, do an extended period of private prayer, and only if we practice a scrupulous vigilance in all the moral areas within our private lives. – p. 64

In the Christian scriptures, one out of every ten lines deals directly with the physically poor and the call from God for us to respond to them.  And in the Jewish scriptures, beginning about 800 BC they taught that the quality of faith in the people depends upon the character of justice in the land … how we treat the most vulnerable groups, namely widows, orphans and strangers. – p. 64-65

Jesus went further.  Bluntly put, we will go to heaven or hell on the basis on giving or not giving food, water, clothing, shelter, and justice to the poor.  How we treat the poor is how we treat God. – p. 65

When we cut our spirituality off from this mandate of Jesus, calling it a question of politics and not something that lies at the very heart of religion, our religion and spirituality soon degenerates into mere private therapy within an unhealthy clique. – p. 65-66

Only one kind of person transforms the world spiritually, someone with a grateful heart. – p. 67

This challenge to stay warm of heart is an integral part of fasting.  Asceticism is as much about disciplining the emotions as it is about disciplining the body.  Rationalizing that our cause is so urgent that anger and bitterness are justified is wrong.  – p. 67

“Following the wrong God home, we may miss our star.” The wrong God is the God of both the contemporary right and the contemporary left: the God who is wired, bitter, anxious, workaholic, neurotic and unhappy as we are.  That is not the God who lies at the end of the spiritual quest who, as Julian of Norwich assures us, sits in heaven, smiling, completely relaxed, looking like a marvelous sympathy and who agrees with Albert Campus that the real revenge on our enemies, both to the right and to the left, and on the deepest demons that haunt us, is to be madly happy. – p. 67-68

Jesus teaches us clearly that God calls us, not just as individuals, but as a community and that how we relate to each other is part of how we relate to God … loving one’s neighbor is not an abstract thing … it means involving ourselves concretely with a worshipping community on earth. – p. 68

We want God, but we don’t want church.  By doing this, however, we bracket one of the primary demands inherent right within the very quest for God.  Frederick Schleiermacher wrote, that separate from historical religion, namely, the churches with all their faults, the individual lives the “unconfronted life.”  Without church, we have more private fantasy than real faith.  Real conversion demands involvement in both the muck and the grace of actual church life. – p. 69

4.            The Incarnation as the Basis for a Christian Spirituality: Christ as the Basis

What Jesus wants of us is that we undergo his presence so as to enter into a community of life and celebration with him.  Jesus is a presence to be seized and acted upon. – p. 74

Jesus, and the discipleship he asks of us, can best be understood within a single phrase: The word was made flesh and it dwells among us.  The central (and also the most “under-understood”) mystery of Christianity is the mystery of the incarnation.  We grasp only the smallest tip of this great iceberg, and we miss its meaning by not seeing its immensity. – p. 75

Using the past tense for the incarnation is a dangerous under-understanding.  The incarnation is still going on and it is just as real and as radically physical as when Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, walked the dirt roads of Palestine.  How can this be so? – p. 76

Why would God want to take on human flesh, within the confines of human history? … God takes on flesh because we all need someone with us who has some skin.  A God who is everywhere is just as easily nowhere … God, having created our nature, respects how it operates.  Thus, God deals with us through our five senses.

Kazantzakis wrote in a story, “Have pity, Lord, temper your strength, turn down your splendor so that I, who am poor and afflicted, may see you!”  “Then, Jesus told the old man, “God became a piece of bread, a cup of cool water, a warm tunic, a hut, and in front of the hut, a woman nursing an infant.”  “Thank you, Lord,” the pauper whispered.  “I bow down and worship your many-faced face.” – p. 78

God takes on flesh so that every home becomes a church, every child becomes the Christ-child, and all food and drink become a sacrament … God, in his many-faced face, has become as accessible and visible as the nearest water tap.  This is the way of the incarnation. – p. 78

The English word “incarnation” takes its root in the Latin word carnus, meaning physical flesh.  There is nothing spiritual about this word.  It emphasizes the body raw, brute, physical.  We can imagine Jesus in this way.  The problem is that we do not attribute the same physical reality to the whole Body of Christ, namely to the the Eucharist and the body of believers. – p. 78-79

The ascension of Jesus did not end the incarnation.  God’s physical body is still among us.  God is still present, as physical and as real today, as God was in the historical Jesus … At the ascension the physical body of Jesus left this earth, but the body of Christ did not. – p. 79

“Christ” is not Jesus’ surname.  Scripture uses the expression “body of Christ” to mean three things: Jesus, the historical person who walked this earth for thirty-three years; the Eucharist, which is also the physical presence of God among us; and the body of believers, which is also the real presence.  To say the word “Christ” is to refer, at one and the same time, to Jesus, the Eucharist, and the community of faith. – p. 79

Scripture, and Paul in particular, never tells us that the body of believers replaces Christ’s body, nor that it represents Christ’s body, nor even that it is Christ’s mystical body.  It says simply: “We are Christ’s body.” – p. 79-80

Does Paul mean this in a corporate or a corporeal way?  A group animated by a common spirit?  Or a body like a physical organism is a body … Scripture scholars mostly agree that it is the latter.  The body of believers does not represent Christ; it is him.  This has immense implications. – p. 80

This incarnation is the core of Christian spirituality.  If it is true that we are the Body of Christ, and it is, then God’s presence in the world today depends very much on us. – p. 80

What does Christ add to God?  What does being Christian add to theism?  Both theists and Christians believe in God, but a Christian believes in a God who is incarnate.  A Christian believes in a God in heaven who is also physically present on this earth inside of human beings.  The Christian God can be seen, heard, felt, tasted, and smelled through the senses.  The Christian God has some skin. – p. 81

5.            Consequences of the Incarnation for Spirituality

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us that a prayer of petition addressed to God is infallible: “Ask, and you shall receive.”  Have you ever wondered why, in fact, that does not always work?  We have a whole stock of answers for that … but none of them are the real reason.  Matthew is a Christian theologian, not simply a theistic one.  Thus, for him, prayers of petition have power to the extent that they are linked to concrete action within a community of faith and love. – p. 82-83

When we pray, when “we ask all these things” in the name of Christ, we are praying through the Body of Christ, which then includes Jesus, the Eucharist, and the body of believers (ourselves) here on earth.  Not only God in heaven is being asked to act.  We are also charging ourselves with some responsibility for answering the prayer. – p. 83

In terms of the incarnation, we find healing and wholeness by touching the Body of Christ and, as members of the Body of Christ, we are called upon to dispense God’s healing and wholeness by touching others. – p. 86

How are our sins to be forgiven us? … The primary sacrament of forgiveness is touching the hem of Jesus’ garment, the Body of Christ.  We have our sins forgiven in the same way as the woman in Mark’s gospel stopped her hemorrhaging, through contact with Christ’s body, that is, the Eucharist and the community. – p. 86-87

This is more than an analogy of how reconciliation works within the incarnation.  It is the reality.  We have our sins forgiven by being in community with each other, at table with each other.  Bluntly put, we will never go to hell as long as we are touching the community – touching it with sincerity and a modicum of contrition. – p. 87

We can forgive each other’s sins; not we, but the power of Christ within us.  As Jesus himself tells us, “In truth I tell you, whoever believes in me will perform the same works that I do myself, and will perform even greater works (John 14:12).” p. 88

When those we love no longer share our faith or our morals, we can continue to love and forgive them.  Insofar as they receive that love and forgiveness from us, they are receiving love and forgiveness from God.  You are part of the Body of Christ and they are touching you.  Within the incredible mystery of the incarnation, you are doing what Jesus asks of us when he says: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be consider bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.”  And “whose sins you forgive they are forgiven; whose sins you retain, they are retained … It is Christ working through us who does this.”            – p. 88-89, 92

Your touch is Christ’s touch.  When you love someone, unless that someone actively rejects your love and forgiveness, she or he is sustained in salvation. – p. 89

Objection: “This can’t be true because, if it were, it would be too good to be true!”  What a marvelous description of the incarnation.  It is too good to be true.  In Jesus birth, something fundamental has changed.  God has given us the power, literally, to keep each other out of hell. – p. 92

When one understands himself or herself as part of the Body of Christ and as touching the Body of Christ, the rationalizing individualism that precisely tempts us never to confess to another person drops away and we, in fact, begin to sense a burning obligation to confess our sins. (But not because we need forgiveness; that we have already received.) – p. 92-93

In the story of the woman touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak, there are two moments of healing: the touch and the explicit confrontation (Mark 5:25-34).  The person-to-person exchange completes something very important and is part of one organic movement toward full reconciliation, peace, and maturity.  Explicit confession is to forgiveness what an explicit apology is to healing.  Facing one’s sin and speaking it out loud brings a more final healing and peace. – p. 93

How do I seek guidance from God, depending upon whether or not I am a Christian?  We seek guidance through Christ.  However, since Christ refers both to the historical Jesus, now exalted in heaven, and the concrete, historical body of believers here on earth, we seek guidance from God in heaven and from what is being pointed out to us by our families, friends, churches, communities. – p. 94-95

God does not speak to us through séances, and the most important things that God wants to say to us are not given in extraordinary mystical visions.  God has real flesh on earth and speaks to us in the bread and butter of our lives … when we look for God’s guidance these voices on earth must complement the voice from heaven. – p. 95

Jesus told his admiring followers, “Unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you have no life within you” (John 6:53).  Why? … He uses the word sarx, which refers to his body in a negative way rather than the more positive or neutral soma.  By using sarx Jesus is referring to his body precisely insofar as it is NOT simply his sinless, glorified body in heaven, nor simply a white communion wafer in church.  What we are being asked to “eat” is that other part of his body, the community, the flawed body of believers here on earth … We cannot bypass a flawed family on earth to try to relate to a non-flawed God in heaven … We are Christians, not theists.  God is not just in heaven, God is also on earth. – p. 96-98

A Christian spirituality is always as much about dealing with each other as it is about dealing with God. – p. 99

The God of the incarnation is more domestic than monastic. – p. 100

The God of the incarnation lives in a family, a trinity, a community of shared existence.  Hence, to say that God is love is to say that God is community, family, shared existence – and whoever shares his or her existence inside of family and community, experiences God and has the very life of God flow through her or him. – p. 100

If this is true, and it is, then a lot changes in how we should seek to experience God.  If God is incarnate in ordinary life then we should seek God, first of all, within ordinary life. – p. 100

Christian spirituality is about undergoing God and participating, through taking part in the ordinary give and take of relationships, in the flow of God’s life.  The God who became flesh in order to be experienced by the ordinary senses, still has flesh and is primarily to be experienced through the ordinary senses. – p. 101

Our digestion of the word of God must make us look different physically.  Thus, our first task in preaching is a silent one.  We must transubstantiate God in order to give a human face to divine compassion and forgiveness.  Only rarely need we preach using words. – p. 104

We need to bring our egos, our joys and our hesitancies to Jesus to see what he makes of them … The fire energy of God that so burns inside of us will come to maturity, creativity and calm when we shape our lives and our bodies in the way that Jesus shaped his, when we help him carry the incarnation forward. – p. 107

6.            Some Key Spiritualities Within a Spirituality: A Spirituality of Ecclesiology

What is the church, as it compares to the apostles gathered around Jesus?

First of all, what is it not?  It is NOT like-minded individuals, gathering on the basis of mutual compatibility … Rather it is about millions and millions of different kinds of persons transcending their differences so as to become a community beyond temperament, race, ideology, gender, language, and background.

It is NOT a group of persons huddling in fear or loneliness (which it often is before they receive the Spirit) …It is when, on the basis of something more powerful than our fears, we emerge from our locked rooms and begin to take down walls.

It is NOT “family” in the psychological sense … It can never be a functional substitute for emotional and sexual intimacy.

Apostolic community is NOT simply having one roof, one ethnicity, one denomination, one rule book, or one book of common prayer.  None of these assures me of community with the other.  Nor does it depend on a shared task and a common mission.  That might require a team, but this does not, of itself, make for apostolic community. – p. 114-118

If church community is not to take its foundation in like-mindedness, a shared fear, the need for intimacy in our lives, a common roof, a common ethnicity, a common denomination, or a shared mission, on what basis does it found itself?  On gathering around the person of Christ and sharing his Spirit. – p. 118

What does it mean to gather around the person of Christ?  Outside of a focus on his person and his presence, nothing, ultimately holds us together.  And the Spirit, too is not vague or abstract: the spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, is defined as charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long-suffering, fidelity, mildness, and chastity (Galatians 5:22).  Living in these virtues is what binds us into community, immune from separation by distance, temperament, race … or even death.  All who live in these virtues are one body and constitute the church. – p. 120

“I knew we had church when after some years of praying together, we gave each other permission to mess with each other’s lives.” – p. 121

The church is the people, but it is also the rope that consecrates us and takes us where we would rather not go (John 21:18).  To be baptized into a Christian church is to be a consecrated, displaced person … derailed from normal.  Many examples explain this, especially becoming parents and being lovers.  Everything changes … And one does not keep an exit visa in the back pocket.  The church has always taught, and rightly so, that baptism is irrevocable, that it leaves an indelible mark on the soul, just as when you hold your own child for the first tie it scars your soul indelibly … We cannot opt in and out of the church as fits our moods and phases of growth. – p. 122-127

As Jesus refers to his flesh as sarx, I can know that whenever I meet the presence of God within community I will not meet it in its pure form … Sin, pettiness, and betrayal are always found alongside grace, sanctity, and fidelity. – p. 127

No family (or church) delivers grace without sin.  All are dysfunctional; it is merely a question of degree. – p. 128

The church is always God hung between two thieves.  Thus, no one should be surprised or shocked at how badly the church has betrayed the gospel and how much it continues to do so today … it has also carried grace, produced saints, morally challenged the planet, and made an imperfect house for God to dwell in on this earth. – p. 128

“In my Father’s house are many rooms.” This is a revelation of the breadth of God’s heart.  The bosom of God is not a ghetto.  God has a catholic heart, meaning a universal, wide, all-encompassing heart.  The opposite of a catholic is not a protestant; it is a fundamentalist, a person who has a heart with one room.  Thus, the spirituality of any church needs to emphasize wide loyalties and inclusivity. – p. 130

To belong to a church is to be loyal to many things, not just to one thing: not picking in an either/or fashion between having boundaries or freedom, between defined doctrines or individual conscience, between institutionalized authority or individual charisma, between the role of ordained ministers or the priesthood of all people, between the local community or the larger universal church, between the gifted or the needy, between liberal and conservative, between old and new.  To be a member of a church is not to choose among these.  It is to choose them all.  Like our God in heaven, we too need a heart with many rooms. – p. 131

John Shea: “The heavenly banquet table is open to anyone who is ready to sit down with everyone.”  The task of church is to stand toe to toe, shoulder to shoulder, and heart to heart with people absolutely different from ourselves – but who, with us, share one faith, one Lord, one baptism, and one God who is Father and Mother of us all. – p. 131

The church is also the place we go to help anoint each other for our impending deaths … There are only two potential tragedies in life and dying young is not one of them.  What is tragic is to go through life without loving, and without expressing love and affection toward those whom we do love. – p. 131-133

In the weeks just before his death, Jesus was anointed at Bethany by a woman’s expensive perfume, then with her tears.  She washed his feet with her hair.  His response could be paraphrased like this: “When I come to die, I will be more ready for death because tonight, of all nights in my life, I’m experiencing the reason this universe was made, the giving and receiving of love and affection: pure gift.  This is a moment to die for!” – p. 133

We still save our best compliments and flowers for the funeral.  Jesus’ challenge is for us to anoint each other while we are still alive: shower those you love with affection and flowers while they are still alive, not at their funerals. – p. 134

So in one very important way, church is about people getting together for no reason other than to take the ointment; that is, to offer each other love and affection for “no reason,” to bask in the perfume and the hair. – p. 134

We go to church so as not to be alone – alone in our joys, alone in our sufferings, alone in the everydayness of our lives, alone in the important passages of our lives, alone on our birthdays, alone on a Sunday morning, and alone on Christmas, Easter, New Year’s and Mother’s day.  We go to church for the ointment.  This is not an abstract concept. – p. 134

We go to church to tell people we love them and, hopefully, to hear them tell us the same thing.  In the end, we go to church to help ready each other for death. – p. 134

So to summarize: what can be a vision, a reason for going to church and committing ourselves in an irrevocable covenant to a group of very flawed men and women and agreeing to journey with them for the rest of our lives?

  1. Because it is not good to be alone
  2. To take my rightful place humbly within the family of humanity

There are three stages of life: first, birth.  Emerging, naked and helpless, not yet individuated, still primordially linked to the family of humanity.  Humble.

Second, washing off that smell of earth: clothing, accumulation, distinction, separation, and actualization.  We spend our early years, and if never really grow up, the rest of our lives, trying to distinguish ourselves, set ourselves apart, have successes, create some privacy.  For the first part of our lives this is a healthy thing.

When adulthood is reached, something else is asked of us, not just by God but also by nature.  First, we emerge, then we separate, now we asked to merge – to go back into community, to lose our separateness, to not stand out, to become naked again.  To be humble.

This can be achieved in the concrete community of church – more inclusive than blood family and less abstract than humanity.  The church gives us the place to die to elitism, which is both perhaps the greatest obstacle to church participation and the greatest benefit of it.

  1. Because God calls me there
  2. To dispel my fantasies about myself

Apart from actual, historical church community, whatever its faults, we have an open field to live the unconfronted life, to make religion a private fantasy that we can selectively share with a few like-minded individuals who will never confront us where we most need challenge.  The churches are compromised, dirty, and sinful, but, just like our blood families, they are also real.  Here we cannot lie, especially to ourselves, and delude ourselves into thinking we are generous and noble.  Fantasies about my own goodness become painfully obvious in the grind of real community.  This deflation is not all bad.

  1. Because 10,000 saints have told me so

I go to church because by far the majority of good and faith-filled persons that I know go there.  Of course, however, I know too some good and faith-filled individuals who do not go to church.  But I still see in their lives the functional dynamics of church, in real commitments that give them community, keep them humble, dispel their fantasies and let them know, in whatever shape this takes in their minds, that God wants them to walk the spiritual road not alone but with others. (As far as this part is concerned, I think of 12 step groups and  any number of places that are more like church than many churches)

  1. To help others carry their pathologies and to have them help me carry mine

In past times, when families were stronger, there was a lot less need for private therapy.  To go to church is to seek the therapy of a public life and to be part of that therapy for others, to ask for help carrying what is unhealthy inside of me and to help carry what is unhealthy inside of others.

If this is true, and it is, then we should also not be surprised that we find every kind of sickness within our churches.  That presence should not deflect us, but instead positively beckon us there.  (As they say at AA, “Hi, my name is Dave, and I’m an alcoholic.”)

  1. To dream with others

A very large people watching the news together could change the world. (Remember Network?  “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”)  The church is that group of persons.  As a world organization with a heart for justice, peace, and the poor – it is far from perfect, but it is the best of a bad lot and it offers positive hope.

  1. To practice for heaven

Heaven, where I get to live in the communal embrace of billions of persons with every temperament, race, background, and ideology imaginable.  A universal heart will be required to live there.  It’s good to get some practice in the currently painful stretching of my heart.  Few things – and we certainly all admit this – stretch the heart as painfully as does church community.

  1. For the pure joy of it … because it is heaven!

People are reminded in subtle ways of their past stupidities and infidelities, even as these are being washed clean by the celebration taking place.  Food and wine are passed around and, underneath it all, despite everything that has been wrong and still is wrong, there is a deep joy present.  A wee messianic banquet is taking place.  Redemption is happening. – p. 134-140

7.            A Spirituality of the Paschal Mystery

No philosophy or psychology can pretend to be mature without grappling with the timeless, haunting questions of suffering and death, and the need for transformation to which these certainties call us. – p. 141-142

The most central Christian “mystery” is the paschal one, which begins with Christ’s suffering, death, and transformation – and continues into our own.  In Christian spirituality Christ is central, and central to Christ is his death and raising to new life so as to send us a new Spirit. – p. 142

We pay lip service to the fact that the key thing that Jesus did for us was to suffer and die, but we seldom really try to understand what that means within our own lives. – p. 143

The Holy Spirit is not a generic spirit, but a spirit that is given to each of us in a most particular way for the particular circumstances that each of us finds himself or herself in.  Pentecost is not just social; it is also personal and individual. – p. 144

We can distinguish between two kinds of death: terminal death (the end of life and end of possibilities) and paschal death (ends one kind of life but opens into a deeper a richer form of life, as when a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies so as to produce new life). – p. 146

There are also two kinds of life: resuscitated life (when one is restored to one’s former life and health) and resurrected life (the reception of a radically new life). – p. 146

The paschal mystery is about paschal death and resurrected life. – p. 146

Life and spirit are not the same thing and are often given to us at a different time.  For example, after the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples are given the new life of Christ, but only some time after, at Pentecost, are they given the spirit for the new life that they are already living … We live by both life and spirit and our peace of soul depends upon having a happy synthesis between the two. – p. 147

Theologically, we can see that there are five distinct moments within the paschal cycle: Good Friday, Easter Sunday, the forty days leading up to the Ascension, the Ascension, and Pentecost.  Each of these is a part of a single process, and each can be understood in relation to the others.  Each is part of a single process of transformation:

1.            Good Friday …            the loss of life – real death

2.            Easter Sunday …            the reception of new life

3.            The 40 days …            a time for re-adjustment to the new and grieving the old

4.            Ascension …                        letting go of the old and letting it bless you, learning to not cling

5.            Pentecost …                        the reception of new spirit for the new life that one is already living

Put into more colloquial language and stated as a personal, paschal challenge for each of us:

  1. Name your deaths
  2. Claim your births
  3. Grieve what you have lost and adjust to the new reality
  4. Do not cling to the old.  Let it ascend and give you its blessing
  5. Accept the spirit of the life that you are in fact living

This is a daily cycle, which we experience in every aspect of our lives.  The paschal mystery is the secret to life.  Ultimately, our happiness depends upon properly undergoing it. – p. 147-148

Examples of deaths that need to be named: the death of our youth, the death of our wholeness, the death of our dreams, the death of our honeymoons, the death of a certain idea of God and church.  (Will they be “paschal” deaths or terminal deaths?) – p. 148

Look in the mirror.  You are seventy years old!  Your youth is dead.  But you are not dead!  In fact, you are richer now, full of a deeper life, than when you were twenty or forty or sixty.  But you are alive as seventy-year-old, not as a twenty-year old.

Paschally, this is your status: Good Friday has already happened: your youth has died.  Resurrection too has happened: you have already received the life of a seventy-year-old, different and richer.  And now you have a choice: you can refuse to grieve and let go of your lost youth (blocking ascension and trying to live your life with someone else’s spirit).  Or you can grieve, let go, and welcome Pentecost.  You can receive the spirit for the life that you are already in fact living, the life of a seventy-year-old, which is a different spirit than for somebody who is twenty.

Some of the happiest people in the whole world are 70 years old, and some of the unhappiest people in the world are 70 years old.  The difference is in their readiness for and reception of “Pentecost,” receiving the spirit readied by God for them at that time and in that place. – p. 148-150

All of us nurse the dream of a perfect life that will bring us perfect consummation.  Eventually all of us will need to grieve that dream so as to receive the spirit of somebody who lives alone and unconsummated … As Karl Rahner once put it, in the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we begin to realize that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.  He is correct.  In the end, we all die, our lives incomplete, our deepest dreams largely frustrated, still looking for intimacy, never having had, in terms of consummation, the finished symphony.

And this must be mourned.  When we fail to mourn properly our incomplete lives then this incompleteness becomes a gnawing restlessness, a bitter center, that robs our lives of all delight. – p. 156-157

We are built for the infinite, Grand Canyons without a bottom.  Because of this way that we are built, on this side of eternity we will always be lonely, restless, incomplete, still a virgin – living in the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable. – p. 157

Some of the happiest couples in the world have been married for fifteen years and some of the unhappiest ones also fit that description … The couple who have been married for fifteen years must receive the spirit for those who have been married for fifteen years – and try to live with the spirit of those who have been married for fifteen minutes. – p. 158-159

Good grieving consists not just in letting the old go but also in letting it bless us.  How can we let the old give us its blessing, particularly if it was a painful or abusive experience?

One of the great anthropological imperatives, innate in human nature, is that we eventually must make peace with the family.  No matter how bad your father and mother may have been, some day you have to stand by their graveside and recognize what they gave you, forgive what they did for you, and receive the spirit that is in your life because of them.- p. 165

8.            A Spirituality of Justice and Peacemaking

There is a difference between private charity and social justice.  Private charity responds to the homeless and wounded, but it does not of itself try to get at the reasons why they are there.  Social justice tries to name and change those structural things that account for the fact that some of us are unduly penalized even as others of us are unduly privileged. – p. 169

Those who enter the democratic arena with historical privileges, with stronger voices, and with more valued skills reap more benefits than the others … It is not accident that laissez-faire democracy has rarely been kind to the poor.  In such a system, to be entirely voiceless, as are the unborn, is to be exceedingly vulnerable and in the ever-present danger of being decertified right out of existence.  That is one of the systemic issues underlying abortion. – p. 171

The fuel that fires our quest for justice must be drawn from the same (energy) source as the truth of justice itself, namely, from the person and teaching of Jesus.  – p. 174

Jesus teaches that we will be judged by how we treated the poor in this life.  He makes the practice of justice the very criterion for salvation.  He identifies God’s presence with that of the poor.  In Jesus view, if you wish to find God, go look among the poor.  Conversely, he tells us that there are immense spiritual and psychological dangers in being rich and privileged. – p. 175

The world does not respond to a challenge for justice when our actions for justice themselves mimic the very violence, injustice, hardness and egoism they are trying to challenge.  Our moral indignation often leads to the replication of the behavior that aroused the indignation  … “The more morally outraged we are, the less likely our outrage is to contribute to real moral improvement.” – p. 180

Like Jesus talking to the prostitute’s accusers (John 8:1-11), nonviolent efforts for justice and peace do not turn the crowd against anyone, innocent or guilty.  Rather they gently touch the part of the conscience that is still soft and inviolate. – p. 184

Redemptive violence is what happens at the end of a movie, storybook or song when the hero finally beats up the bully who has been terrorizing everyone … We hardly stop to think that what has really happened is that goodness has now been more violent even than evil.  We fail to notice that our good hero began as Mother Teresa but ended as Rambo and Batman.  We certainly fail to see that the ending of this redemptive story is radically opposite to the story of Jesus.  When he was cornered and the choice was to fight or die, he chose the latter. – p. 184-185

The God whom Jesus called “Father” beats up no one … In the Gospels, Jesus is described as more powerful than anyone, but the word used is exousia.  That does not refer to muscle, speed, grace or brilliance.  (It is the authority that comes from freedom within oneself to be oneself.) … God’s power does not overpower anyone; it lies muted, at the deep moral and spiritual base of things … it is more helpless, more shamed, and more marginalized.  But it will in the end gently have the final say.  – p. 185-187

We will not always know what political strategy is best or how things will turn out in the end.  We do know that God cares about all victims, that Jesus stands in the midst of brokenness, and that we are being faithful to the gospel when we stand there too. – p. 188

In the world’s schema of things, survival of the fittest is the rule. In God’s schema, survival of the weakest is the rule. God always stands on the side of the weak and it is there, among the weak, that we find God.

Given the truth of that, we might occasionally pray the Lord’s Prayer in this way:

Our Father . . . who always stands with the weak, the powerless, the poor, the abandoned, the sick, the aged, the very young, the unborn, and those who, by victim of circumstance, bear the heat of the day.

Who art in heaven . . . where everything will be reversed, where the first will be last and the last will be first, but where all will be well and every manner of being will be well.

Hallowed be thy name . . . may we always acknowledge your holiness, respecting that your ways are not our ways, your standards are not our standards. May the reverence we give your name pull us out of the selfishness that prevents us from seeing the pain of our neighbor.

Your kingdom come . . . help us to create a world where, beyond our own needs and hurts, we will do justice, love tenderly, and walk humbly with you and each other.

Your will be done . . . open our freedom to let you in so that the complete mutuality that characterizes your life might flow through our veins and thus the life that we help generate may radiate your equal love for all and your special love for the poor.

On earth as in heaven . . . may the work of our hands, the temples and structures we build in this world, reflect the temple and the structure of your glory so that the joy, graciousness, tenderness, and justice of heaven will show forth within all of our structures on earth.

Give . . . life and love to us and help us to see always everything as gift. Help us to know that nothing comes to us by right and that we must give because we have been given to. Help us realize that we must give to the poor, not because they need it, but because our own health depends upon our giving to them.

Us . . . the truly plural us. Give not just to our own but to everyone, including those who are very different than the narrow us. Give your gifts to all of us equally.

This day . . . not tomorrow. Do not let us push things off into some indefinite future so that we can continue to live justified lives in the face of injustice because we can make good excuses for our inactivity.

Our daily bread … so that each person in the world may have enough food, enough clean water, enough clean air, adequate health care, and sufficient access to education so as to have the sustenance for a healthy life. Teach us to give from our sustenance and not just from our surplus.

And forgive us our trespasses . . . forgive us our blindness toward our neighbor, our self-preoccupation, our racism, our sexism, and our incurable propensity to worry only about ourselves and our own. Forgive us our capacity to watch the evening news and do nothing about it.

As we forgive those who trespass against us . . . help us to forgive those who victimize us. Help us to mellow out in spirit, to not grow bitter with age, to forgive the imperfect parents and systems that wounded, cursed, and ignored us.

And do not put us to the test … do not judge us only by whether we have fed the hungry, given clothing to the naked, visited the sick, or tried to mend the systems that victimized the poor. Spare us this test for none of us can stand before your gospel scrutiny. Give us, instead, more days to mend our ways, our selfishness, and our systems.

But deliver us from evil . . . that is, from the blindness that lets us continue to participate in anonymous systems within which we need not see who gets less as we get more.

Amen. – p. 189-191

9.            A Spirituality of Sexuality

Sexuality lies at the center of the spiritual life.  A healthy sexuality is the single most powerful vehicle there is to lead us to selflessness and joy, just as unhealthy sexuality helps constellate selfishness and unhappiness as does nothing else … Sex is responsible for most of the ecstasies that occur on the planet, but is also responsible for lots of murders and suicides.  It is the most powerful of all fires, the best of all fires, the most dangerous of all fires, and the fire which, ultimately, lies at the base of everything, including the spiritual life.– p. 192-193

The word sex has a Latin root, the verb secare. This means (literally) “to cut off,” “to sever,” “to amputate,” “to disconnect from the whole … We wake up in the world, in our cribs, not serene but crying – lonely, cut off, severed from the great whole … We feel ourselves painfully “sexed” (or cut off) in every cell of our body, psyche and soul … Jung once compared the incompleteness we feel in sexuality to the separated white and yolk of an egg.  Together, they make a one, a whole.  Apart they are incomplete. – p. 194

This exceedingly painful loneliness, longing, “madness” is also a great energy.  It is the engine that drives everything else, body and spirit.  If this is true, and it is, then we see that sexuality is more than simply a question of having sex and it becomes very important to distinguish between sexuality and genitality.  Sex and having sex are not simply identifiable. – p. 194

It is not good to be alone.  God meant this about every man, woman, child, animal, insect, plant, atom, and molecule in the universe.  Sex is the energy inside of us that works incessantly against our being alone. – p. 194-195

Having sex (genitality) is not the whole reality of sex, but it is perhaps God’s greatest gift to the planet … some theologians see in sexual encounter a foretaste of the eternal life of heaven. – p. 195

Popular culture teaches that one cannot be whole without being healthily sexual.  That is correct.  But genitality cannot carry all the things that sexuality is supposed to carry.  Sex is a wide energy and we are healthily sexual when we have love, community, communion, family, friendship, affection, creativity, joy, delight, humor, and self-transcendence in our lives. – p. 196

The ancient Greek philosophers gave us the Greek word eros.  For them, however, it meant much more than it does for us today.  It referred, at one and the same time to love’s playfulness, sexual attractiveness, falling in love, sensible family life, friendship, and sacrifice. – p. 196

Sexuality is the extremely powerful sacred energy given to us by God, which urges us to overcome our incompleteness.  It is also the pulse to celebrate, to give and receive delight.  In their full maturity these hungers culminate in making us co-creators with God … mothers and fathers, artisans and creators, big brothers and sisters, nurses and healers, teachers and consolers, farmers and producers … co-responsible with God for the planet, standing with God and smiling at and blessing the world. – p. 196-197

Sexuality is about overcoming separateness (even for an instant) by giving life and blessing it. – p. 198

Sex is sacred.  Never casual, unimportant or neutral.  If its proper nature is not respected it becomes a perverse thing that works at disintegrating the soul. – p. 198-199

In a committed, loving, covenantal relationship sex is sacramental, part of a couple’s Eucharist.  It is then a privileged vehicle of grace, an extraordinary source of integration for the soul, a deep well of gratitude.  It will open both persons (in a way that perhaps nothing else can) to becoming life-giving, gracious and blessing adults. – p. 199

The fire of sex is so powerful, so precious, so close to the heart and soul of a person, and so godly, that it either gives life or it takes it away.  Despite our culture’s protests, it is not casual and can never be casual. – p. 199

For a Christian, sex always needs the protection of a healthy chastity.  Chastity is not the same thing as celibacy.  Nor does it mean that one is a prude.  Chastity has to do the appropriateness of an experience (sexual or other); we are chaste when we experience people, things, places, entertainment, sex in a way that does not violate them or ourselves.  Ultimately, chastity is reverence.

We are chaste when we do not let impatience, irreverence, or selfishness ruin what is a gift by somehow violating it.  Its fruits are integration, gratitude and joy. – p. 201-202

Sexual energy is not always friendly.  With imperialistic power, it seeks to take us across borders prematurely or irreverently.  Thus there is more than a little wisdom in some of the classic sexual taboos.  Fire that is so powerful and sacred needs to be disciplined by more than just our emotional state on a given day. – p. 202

Christianity has struggled, and still does, to healthily and fully celebrate sexual passion.  The world, for its part, has struggle, and still does, to honestly and courageously look at what happens to our innocence and our happiness when we denigrate chastity.  Both need to learn from each other. – p. 203

Christianity must be the moral force that challenges the culture to celebrate the goodness of sex.  When Christianity does not do this, it remains, at this level at least, the enemy of legitimate delight and creativity. – p. 203

Chastity outside of the goodness of sex is frigidity … But sexual passion is only something of depth when it is related to chastity and purity.  It is archetypal, not incidental, that we want to get married in white. – p. 204

Our sexual hungers are simply too wide and all-encompassing to ever be fulfilled and they are of such a complex nature that sometimes having sex does little to fulfill them.  What are we to do with this?  In other words, how are we to live until the Messiah returns? There are five-interrelated postures that can help us:

(1) Understand the time we are living in.  Remember the interim nature of this time, between Christ’s resurrection and the end of time (when all tears will be wiped away), when we will always live in waiting.  We cannot overcome this, but we can make our peace with it, not be a stoic acceptance but by living our incompleteness in the face of a future promise.

(2) Understand how wide is sexuality’s hunger. Janis Joplin says that in our sexuality and creativity we are ultimately trying to make love to everyone.  Jesus says that in heaven, all will be married to all (Luke 20:27-40).  Our sexuality will finally be able to embrace everyone.  In heaven, everyone will make love to everyone else and, already now, we hunger for that within every cell of our being.

It can be most helpful simply to understand that in loving during this “interim time,” the ultimate wound is to be unable to marry everyone.  If the greatest human hunger is to be completely united with all, this should not surprise us.  Since we cannot,  we only have two options that are life-giving: either we embrace the many through the one (by sleeping with one person within a monogamous marriage) or we embrace the one through the many (by sleeping with no one, in celibacy).  Both of these are ways that will eventually open our sexuality up so as to embrace everyone.

(3) Turn our inconsummation into solitude.  Our restlessness is the source of all of our energies.  But it is also what keeps us from restfulness, from prayer, from being centered, and from being happy.  There comes a point in our restlessness when its purpose is no longer to direct us outward, but inward, when we choose to enter our incompleteness in such a way as to turn it into solitude. Solitude is being alone in such a way that our very incompleteness is a source of quiet strength and not of anxious dissipation.

(Ideas from Henri Nouwen): What turns our restless aching into inner quiet and peace is not more activity but sitting still long enough for restlessness to turn to restfulness, compulsion to freedom, impatience to patience, self-absorption to altruism, and heartache to empathy.  This is a movement that is never made once and for all.  Nor am I either a restless person or a peaceful one.  Some days I find being alone almost too painful to bear and other days I bask in quiet solitude.  Coming to grips with unfulfilled sexual hunger is to, more and more, find the latter.

(4) Sexual incompleteness as solidarity with the poor.  Why did Christ remain celibate?  Or rather, what did Christ try to reveal through the way he incarnated himself as a sexual being?  When Christ went to bed alone at night, he was in solidarity with the many persons who, not by choice but by circumstance, sleep alone.  There is a real poverty, a painful searing one, in this kind of aloneness, this “celibacy by conscription.”

The universe works in pairs, from the birds through to humanity.  To sleep alone is to be poor.  When Jesus went to bed alone he was in solidarity with that pain, in solidarity with the poor.  Whatever its negatives, sexual inconsummation puts us into a privileged solidarity with this special kind of poverty.

Whether or not we are married, in this world there are always certain painful areas of inconsummation, places in our life and in our soul where we sleep alone.  Those places of loneliness, rather than being places for bitterness or anger, can become those places where we are, just as Jesus was, most in solidarity with the poor.

(5) Accept the inadequacy of our love so that its real power can show through.  As human beings in deep relationship (married or not), the first task we have is to console each other for the fact that we cannot NOT disappoint each other.  Human beings are not gods and thus what we offer each other will always be less than what we need and look for from each other.  Instead, what we need from each other in deep relationships is precisely a confessor, someone before whom we can stop having to lie, before whom we do not have to measure up.   We cannot have or give the other the “full symphony.”

But, as Thomas Merton has said, when we acknowledge the tragedy that our love cannot be enough for each other, then simultaneously we also reveal its real nobility and life-giving power.  In this wonderfully paradoxical moment, we see suddenly the powerful goodness that is IN FACT there.  Then, finally, things begin to make sense and marriage and celibacy become both possible and beautiful. – p. 204-212

10.            Sustaining Ourselves in the Spiritual Life

Knowledge alone does not save us.  There is also the question of heart, of energy, of willpower on the road.  How do we move beyond our fatigue, loneliness, laziness, bitterness, and bad habits so as to become gracious, happy, self-sacrificing, generative, adult Christians? – p. 213-214

To have a living faith today one must at some point in his or her life make a deep, private act of faith.  This act is primarily the act of private prayer.  Failure to set aside time for this results in a certain dissipation of the soul, even when our sincerity remains intact.  Christianity has always taught this.  Robert Moore says that only prayer provides the fine line (spiritual, psychological and emotional) between depression and inflation, between habitual deadness or an obsession with my own ego.

Here is what Henri Nouwen says: “My time apart is not a time of deep prayer, nor a time in which I experience a special closeness to God; it is not a period of serious attentiveness to the divine mysteries.  I wish it were!  On the contrary, it is full of distractions, inner restlessness, sleepiness, confusion, and boredom.  It seldom, if ever, pleases my senses.  But the simple fact of being for one hour in the presence of the Lord and of showing him all that I feel, think, sense, and experience, without trying to hide anything, must please him.  Somehow, somewhere, I know that he loves me, even though I do not feel that love as I can feel a human embrace, even though I do not hear a voice as I hear human words of consolation, even though I do not see a smile, as I can see in a human face.  Still God speaks to me, looks at me, and embraces me there, where I am still unable to notice it. (Gracias, p. 69)

We are better persons when we carry tension, as opposed to always looking for its easy resolution.  To carry tension, especially great tension, is to ponder (as Mary “pondered” all these things in her heart) in the biblical sense … Great joy (often) depends upon first having carried great tension. – p. 219

Nobody will ever remain faithful in a marriage, a vocation, a friendship, a family, a job, or just to his or her own integrity without sometimes (as Jesus did) sweating blood in a garden. – p. 222

By not demanding that our tensions be resolved we let others be themselves, we let God be God, and gift be gift … more deeply, however, carrying tension is a gestation process.  By pondering, we have the opportunity to turn hurt into forgiveness, anger into compassion, and hatred into love. – p. 223-224

Almost everything within our culture invites us to avoid tension and to resolve it whenever possible, even at the cost of some of our more noble instincts.  This is true for virtually every aspect of contemporary life, save those areas where we can be fiercely ascetical and sweat blood for purposes of our careers or the health and slimness of our bodies. – p. 224

Jacques Maritain: For people of good will to become persons of noble soul, do not panic and resolve tensions too quickly; stay with them instead into the dark night of the soul, until they are transformed and help give birth to the noble: compassion, forgiveness and love. – p. 224-225

What is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and why is it an eternal sin that can never be forgiven?  Although it is always presumptuous to suggest what Jesus was trying to say, as opposed to what he actually did say, in the context of the Bible story (Mark 3:22-30), this is what Jesus might be saying: “Be careful not to lie, not to distort the truth, because the real danger is that, by lying, you begin to distort and warp your own hearts.  If you lie to yourself long enough, eventually you will lose sight of the truth and believe the lie and become unable any longer to tell the difference between truth and lies.  What becomes unforgiveable about that is not that God does not want to forgive, but that you no longer want to be forgiven.

God easily forgives all of your weaknesses and will always forgiven anyone who wants to be forgiven.  But you can so warp your own conscience that you see God’s truth and forgiveness itself as a lie, as Satan, and see your own lie as truth and forgiveness.  That is the only sin that truly puts us outside of God’s mercy, not because God refuses to extend mercy further, but because you look mercy in the eye and call it a lie.” – p. 226-227

Here is the opposite of the sin against the Holy Spirit:  in the story of Jesus healing the man blind from birth (John 9:1-40), this not particularly bright or religiously keen man is one of the first persons to clearly recognize Jesus for who he is and make a profession of faith.  He moves toward that faith through one singular virtue: he refuses to lie.  Simply through his honesty, he is led to God.  That simple honesty is a rudimentary mysticism that brings about faith.  It, alone, can take one to God. – p. 228

To be healthy today in one’s soul, there can be no more important prescription than that given us by the Gospels and by what is still highest within our conscience: Do not lie, be weak if you must, but sin boldly!  If we are honest, eventually God, truth, and love will find us. – p. 230

Ritual is something that, for the most part, we no longer understand.  As adult children of the Enlightenment, we tend to be ritually tone-deaf in that we distrust basically everything we cannot rationally explain. – p. 232

Ritual does work, however.  Ritual works in a way that a kiss, the most primal of all rituals, works.  Kisses do things that words do not and there is no metaphysics that needs to be written about them. – p. 232

Christians have many rituals: baptism, christening, blessings, gatherings around the word of God, breaking the bread together … Daily mass is a ritual, a deep powerful one that sustains a person in the same way that the habit of attending AA meetings sustains a man or woman seeking sobriety.  “The meetings are always the same … everything is totally predictable … I don’t go to those meetings to be a nice person.  I go there to stay alive.”  This ritual (AA, mass …) is a container, a sustainer, a coming together which keeps us, in ways that we cannot explain rationally, from falling part. – p. 233-235

Rituals meant to sustain our daily lives are not meant to be an experience of high energy and creativity, but are meant precisely to be predictable, repetitive, simple, straightforward, and brief.  Common prayer, common meals, common fellowship do not work through novelty or by seeking to raise our psychic temperature.  What they try to effect is not novelty but rhythm, not the current but the timeless, not the emotional but the archetypal. – p. 236

The words we use are, in the end, intended to create among us a certain Quaker silence within which something happens between God and ourselves and among ourselves.  We gather only to let God do us what we CANNOT do within ourselves. – p. 236-237

William Stafford: “A pattern that others have made may prevail in the world, and following that wrong god home we may both miss our star.” – p. 237

Let us not break the first commandment.  (Thou shalt have no other gods before me.)  What kind of God did Jesus reveal?

Although many Christians past and present would not agree, Jesus would agree with this description from Julian of Norwich: “Completely relaxed and courteous, he was himself the happiness and peace of his dear friends.  His beautiful face radiated measureless love, like a marvelous symphony; and it was that wonderful face shining with the beauty of God that filled the heavenly place with joy and delight.”  God is both smiling and relaxed.

Is He?  In the past our concept of God was often too much a projection of our own anger and incapacity to forgive each other, a God with a great recording book within which every one of our sins was written and who subsequently demanded some kind of payment for each one.

Today that God has fallen on hard times, most preachers try to dethrone that punishing, exacting God.  Sadly, however, we have not replaced Him with anything much better.

Conservatives replace the old punishing God with the God of orthodoxy.  He still frowns (and God is always a He) at us, a morally lax rabble.  His first mode of reaction to us is displeasure.

Liberals create a very anxious, worried, hypersensitive, politically correct, workaholic, and generally whining God.  Still the same old frown, a frown of disapproval of the Yuppie rabble.

The God whom Jesus calls his Father does not see the world as rabble.  From page one, God looks and says, “It is good!” When it is all finished God says, “It is very good!”  That original blessing, that gave of appreciation, has never changed, despite the existence of evil and sin.  God’s first gaze upon us is still that of appreciation.

Awareness of his Father’s smile upon the planet was very much part of the consciousness of Jesus.  Imagine that through his entire lifetime, Jesus’ Father kept whispering into his ears that blessing from his baptism: “You are my beloved, my blessed one, my son, and in you I am well-pleased.”

When Jesus looks at the poor, the hungry and the weeping and sees them as blessed, it is because first of all he is hearing God’s voice inside himself, telling him that God is seeing him and all the world in that way.

We are meant to radiate both God’s masculine, fatherly embrace of the wayward and God’s feminine, motherly caress of the bitter.  Do I have the courage to even let myself be embraced when I am  sinful and bitter?  Only if, first of all I know God as Jesus does: my Father, who sees me with the eyes of the heart and who, despite my weaknesses and angers, sits completely relaxed, smiling, with a face like a marvelous symphony.

That symphony, which is always evident in God’s face, is the future to which all of us, and our earth itself, can look forward.  Thus, given that we live under a smiling, relaxed, all-forgiving, and all-powerful God, we too should relax and smile, at least once in a while, because, irrespective of anything that has ever happened or will ever happen, in the end (in the words again of Julian of Norwich): “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and every manner of being shall be well.” – p. 238-241

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: