Sacred Fire

“Sacred Fire,” by Fr. Ronald Rolheiser – Fall 2017

Chapter One – Discipleship and the stages of our lives, October 22, 2017

Rolheiser distinguishes between three phases in the spiritual life. The three phases correspond to the schema of St. John of the Cross, who saw the spiritual life as progressing through three phases:

    the dark night of the senses,
    proficiency in the spiritual life,
    and the dark night of the spirit.

In Rolheiser’s terminology, these are called:

    the struggle to get our lives together,
    the struggle to give our lives away,
    and the struggle to give our deaths away.

“The Holy Longing” was addressed primarily to the first phase of the spiritual life, the struggle to channel our energies and desires in ways that are healthy and holy. “Sacred Fire” is addressed primarily to the second phase of the spiritual life. This book intends to lead believers to live “less self-centered, more mature lives.”

Real wisdom is attained only over a long period of time, and with great effort. This project requires patience. The young struggle with restlessness. The mature struggle with disappointment and boredom. Rolheiser writes, “We once struggled to properly control our energies, we now struggle to access them.”

In reading this first chapter, one should consider the various failures, defeats, losses, and disappointments in one’s life. These are the substance of a mature life, and the raw material of a mature spirituality.

What do you struggle with today?
Have your personal struggles changed over the years?
Have your personal struggles changed you?

Chapter Two – The Struggle – and the Need for Two Initiations, October 29, 2017

In Chapter Two, Rolheiser continues a brief review of the substance of “The Holy Longing.” Here, he addresses the spiritual tasks of young adulthood and the requisite focus of a beginner’s spirituality.

A child’s energy and vitality are watched and directed by parents. An adolescent must find her or his own way to manage the driven-ness of life; at this stage in life, one needs the wisdom and guidance of an elder. This stage of life is the struggle to transform the directionless power of eros into something that puts our lives at the service of God and neighbor.

Rolheiser notes that the lack of puberty rites in western culture leads to the death of thousands of adolescents annually. Personally, I’m not convinced by Rolheiser’s argument.

He wrote, “Nature’s cruelty, or anomaly, is that it gives someone an adult body before that same person is adult in his or her emotions and intellect.” It should be pointed out that Rolheiser is assuming that the course of life in the western world is normal, but it is not. Western society artificially delays adulthood because of the vast amount of information that must be mastered in order to survive in a technological society. Rolheiser’s concerns about adolescence miss the central truth about adolescence: that it is a creation of post-industrial culture.

Among Rolheiser’s list of seven struggles one faces in the first decades of life, one of the most interesting is what he calls “the struggle of moral rectitude.” This is a struggle played out daily in American politics, and one that remains unresolved.

Chapter Three – Mature Discipleship: Some Perspectives from Classical Spirituality and the Human Sciences, November 5, 2017

A “proficient spirituality, according to Rolheiser, is one that allows a person to move beyond their own struggle for identity, meaning, and comfort. He wrote, “there is a healthy anxiety inside us about contributing something to make our families, our churches, and our world better.”

There are, however, some struggles that afflict the spiritually proficient. Old temptations can return with renewed vigor, or they can metamorphose into resentment. Accepting the normal limitations of a human life can lead to a form of loneliness or boredom with life. The same period of life that is our most productive can become a burden, if we fall into the self-pity of thinking we are the only ones working hard. Alternately, we can throw ourselves into work as a means to avoid dealing with the demands of intimate relationships. Sometimes, the habitual character of the middle years of life can lead to an indifference about everything, particularly about religion and other significant relationships. Alternately, those who are particularly sensitive to the normal burdens and tragedies that occur in life can find themselves so weighed down by sorrow that they can no longer function normally in society.

Rolheiser proposes a list of spiritual failings that can afflict the person in mid-life. He uses the traditional list of the “deadly sins,” but he seems to struggle to define for himself what discipleship means.

These spiritual failings can be summed up with a simple image. The first step in the life of faith is a religious conversion that leads a person to desire a conscious, growing relationship with God. This religious conversion brings with it an awareness of the closeness of God, but also an awareness of one’s own moral distance from God. The middle decades of life are a struggle to reach the second major conversion, a moral conversion. It isn’t really the case that one is more severely tempted during the middle decades of life; rather, one is now more aware of those temptations because one has embarked on a path that leads to God.

Chapter Four – Some General Invitations from Scripture, November 12, 2017

He notes that the Scriptures issue multiple invitations to conversion; the invitations are multiple in order to address the changing circumstances in our lives. I would point out that the invitations to conversion are multiple for a second reason: conversion is an on-going process, or it’s not real conversion.
He uses six Gospel passages to illustrate the various invitations to conversion that we (need to), experience.

    The road to Emmaus – believing in Jesus, but not sufficiently to perceive his resurrected presence. The two disciples did not perceive salvation in the Cross; therefore, they did not perceive Jesus’ true identity.

    Peter’s inchoate faith – Peter struggled to remain faithful despite his own weakness and the challenging nature of Jesus’ teaching.

    Responding to conflicting loyalties as Jesus responded to the Syro-Phoenician woman’s request. We are called to loyalty to the Roman Catholic communion, and we are called to loyalty to all human beings. “The Gospels want us to intuit and honor both truths.” (p.116)

    The Scriptures call us to the perfection of God. “God loves the saints in heaven, and God equally loves the devils in hell. They merely respond differently.” (p.117)

    We are called to live the baptism of Jesus and not just the baptism of John (p.128), that is, to rely not on the strength of our own willpower, but to rely on the power of the Spirit.

    We are called to an ecclesial conversion that teaches us to see the Church as much more than a convenience. What should you do when your faith seems weak, when your old religious practices no longer work, when you don’t know where to go? Go back to Church, the assembly of the Faithful.

Chapter Five – Some particular invitations from Scripture, November 19, 2017

He begins the chapter by using what I consider to be an unfortunate approach to Christian spirituality.  He says that the Scriptures invite believers to move from the normal goodness of the universe to greatness.  He cites the example of Teresa of Calcutta, who was a truly holy person.
Based on previous statements in the book, I would surmise that his choice of the word “greatness” was motivated by Gaudium et Spes’ statement about the need the world has for great-souled people.  While both Gaudium et Spes and Mother Teresa are excellent examples of how believers should live, the word “greatness” carries with it some unwanted baggage today.  I would have been more comfortable if he had used a more conventional term such as holiness or sanctity, as these avoid being confused with the definitions of greatness from secular society and consumer religion. 

His first example of greatness, I.e., holiness, is the rich young man in Luke’s Gospel.  He describes the young man as sincerely on the path to God.  He wanted to know what he had to do to make more progress, and Jesus answered.  The young man went away sad because he had insufficient freedom; he was bound to his possessions. 

His second example is Mary, the mother of Jesus, who he describes as having been something like a contemplative nun.  His argument depends on an inadequate understanding of the Scriptures, but he does make a very helpful distinction.  He distinguishes between Mary’s contemplation of the events in the life of Jesus and the amazement of the people who saw his miracles.  Neither Mary nor the crowds understood all that was occurring, but Mary had sufficient faith to watch and wait for understanding to come. 

At the end of the chapter, Rolheiser makes the point that the path to sanctity is one that transforms us into something we cannot foresee.  The “greatness” he wrote about is actually a conversion to what Catholic spirituality has traditionally called “freedom.”   

Catholicism distinguishes between freedom and freedom of choice.  Freedom of choice is the ability to choose from a set of options.  For example, ordering from a menu in a restaurant or voting for a political candidate are exercises of one’s freedom of choice. 

Freedom, on the other hand, is less a matter of choosing a particular outcome and more a matter of relinquishing one’s autonomy to God so that God’s will can be served.  Everyone, regardless of age, background, religion, and personal virtue has freedom of choice.  Freedom, on the other hand, is something that has to be acquired by a lifetime of practice. 

Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Mary the Mother of Jesus are examples of freedom.  They gave their lives over entirely to serving God’s will.  They made a choice (exercised their freedom of choice) to relinquish their autonomy, and to follow God’s will for their lives. 

Chapter Six – Drawing Strength from Prayer, November 26, 2017

He makes the very astute observation that will power is insufficient to get one through the middle years of life; only daily encounter with God through prayer will provide sufficient strength to remain faithful to the end. “Simply put, without prayer we will always be either too full of ourselves or too empty of energy, inflated or depressed.” (p.171)  Although Rolheiser uses Jungian categories to speak about prayer, his perspective is an accurate reflection of Jesus’ own perspective on prayer. (John 4:14) 

On occasion, Rolheiser’s writing makes me laugh out loud.  He begins his discussion of prayer with a quotable quote.  “Mostly, we treat God as a parental figure or as a visiting dignitary and tell God what we think God wants to hear rather than what is actually on our minds and hearts.” (p.173) 

He makes a necessary distinction between public prayer and private prayer; both are necessary, but each is unique. (pp.176-184)  His distinction between priestly prayer and affective prayer is helpful to understand the difference between liturgy and private devotions.  He fails, however, to develop the most important aspect of the difference between liturgy and private prayer; liturgy requires a social connection with other believers; private prayer requires solitude. 

While writing about prayer during a time of crisis, he makes a statement that is not only applicable to all prayer, but should be used as a daily reminder by all the baptized.  He wrote, “Prayer is a focus upon God, not upon ourselves.” (p. 193)  Like the previous chapter’s discussion of greatness of heart, this is another reference to the Catholic notion of freedom; being free means being free of one’s worries and concerns. 

He addresses the classical distinction between meditative prayer and contemplative prayer. (pp. 198-201) Meditative prayer, in Catholicism, is private prayer that relies on the imagination and intellect. If one meditates on the Scriptures, for example, one tries to find meaning or guidance from God through the Scriptural text. Contemplative prayer is essentially different from meditative prayer in that contemplation is passive. In contemplative prayer, one tries to quiet the mind and heart in order to be in God’s presence. Contemplative prayer doesn’t seek answers or guidance; it is the purest form of prayer: wasting time with God.

He states a truth that needs to be taken with the utmost seriousness.  He wrote that the “secret to sustaining a regular life of prayer is ritual and rhythm.” (p. 206)  Prayer isn’t legitimate or authentic unless it is a habitual practice.  Occasional, or inconsistent, prayer can be nothing other than self-serving behavior.  As he wrote above, “Prayer is a focus upon God, not upon ourselves.” (p. 193) 

Chapter Seven – Its Crowing Glory, Blessing Others, December 3, 2017

Dietrich Bonhoeffer defined a blessing as a visible, perceptible, effective proximity of God. Rolheiser says that the mark of spiritual maturity is to be a blessing for the world. (p. 214) He cites the example of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River; God spoke from the heavens, “This is my beloved son, in whom I take delight.” Jesus was a blessing for all people and for all time. (p. 216)

Rolheiser continues his explanation of the meaning of blessing by contrasting it with its opposite, a curse. He says that a great many people live in the accursed state of being joyless and directionless. (p. 220)

To bless another person means to give away part of one’s own life in order that another might have an increased life. “And part of that is dying; we die so that the other might live.” (p. 230) Rolheiser offers another quotable quote here; he writes, “A gesture of blessing feeds others; a cursing gesture feeds off of them.” (p. 231)

His goal of the Chapter seems to be stated in the last few pages, wherein he describes the Divinely intended goal of human existence. “We were born for . . . eternal Sabbath, taking delight in God and in each other.” (p. 242) I find this to be a brilliant summary of the Christian hope of bodily resurrection: that we live as blessings for one another in this life, and enjoy the blessing of one another in the resurrection.

Chapter Eight – Simplifying Our Spiritual Vocabulary: Ten Commandments for the Long Haul, December 10, 2017

He begins this chapter by writing that, “Gratitude is the ultimate virtue, undergirding everything else, even love. It is synonymous with holiness. . . We are mature to the degree that we are grateful.” (p. 244) He offers ten summary statements from the Scriptures that describe holiness of life in terms of having a mature spirituality.

He describes the Decalogue from the Hebrew Scriptures as being “a lowest common denominator, the minimal requirement for morality.” (p. 245). His own ten commandments for a mature spirituality take the form of positive goals to be accomplished rather than prohibitions. They are enumerated on pages 245-246:

    1. Live in gratitude and thank your Creator by enjoying your life.
    2. Be willing to carry more and more of life’s complexities with empathy.
    3. Transform jealousy, anger, bitterness, and hatred rather than give them back in kind.
    4. Let suffering soften your heart rather than harden your soul.
    5. Forgive—those who hurt you, your own sins, the unfairness of your life, and God for not rescuing you.
    6. Bless more and curse less!
    7. Live in a more radical sobriety.
    8. Pray, affectively and liturgically.
    9. Be wide in your embrace.
    10. Stand where you are supposed to be standing, and let God provide the rest.

He explains his ten commandments in very simple, concrete, and practical terms. He writes, “It is not anybody’s job to take care of us, and so we should be grateful when someone does.” (p. 247). Gratitude, therefore, is synonymous with holiness.

Karl Rahner wrote, “In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we come to understand that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.” (p. 250). A person who is mature emotionally and spiritually is able to deal constructively and empathetically with the normal diversity and frailty of human existence.

Following on his discussion of command #2, to live with empathy toward self and others, he writes, “Any pain or tension that we do not transform we will retransmit.” (p. 251). Our natural human tendency is return harm and offence in kind. The center of Jesus’ teaching, however, is a call to rise above our tendencies by learning to forgive our enemies and pray for our persecutors.

His fourth command is to allow suffering to transform us in a positive way rather than degrade us. “Suffering and humiliation find us all, and in full measure, but how we respond to them will determine both the level of our maturity and what kind of person we are.” (p. 253).

Rolheiser wrote, “All the dogmatic and moral purity in the world does little for us if our hearts are bitter and incapable of forgiveness.” (p. 256). The reputation of Christianity as an organized religion would be vastly different today if more of the baptized took this sentiment to heart.

He summarizes his sixth command by saying, “We are mature when we define ourselves by what we are for rather than by what we are against. The capacity to praise more than to criticize defines maturity.” (p. 260). He takes some of the power out of our cultural images of heroism, and replaces it with a uniquely Christian perspective. To be a blessing, rather than a winner, is the crowning achievement of spiritual maturity.

“We are as sick as our sickest secret, but we are also as healthy as we are honest.” (p. 261). Of all the things lacking in our society, perhaps it is the lack of honesty that is most devastating. He writes, “Lying ultimately destroys us because the human spirit is not made to live in dishonesty and duplicity.” (p. 261)

His eighth command is a reflection of the complex nature of being human. We are both individual and social. As a consequence, our spirituality must be nurtured and expressed in both individual and social ways. Both private prayer and public liturgical prayer are necessary for a complete spiritual life. He says, “We are mature to the degree that we open our own helplessness and invite in God’s strength and to the degree that we pray with others that the whole world will do the same thing.” (p. 264)

The world in which we live mitigates against faith in Jesus as Lord. This is true of individual human societies and of the physical universe. “We have truth in part, in small pieces. That is why we need to be content to live with a lot of mystery and humility.” (p. 267). A mature faith requires an attitude of humble awe in the presence of mystery – both the mystery of the world and the mystery who is God. Another of his quotable qoutes made me laugh out loud when I read it. He wrote, “We can no longer live just among our own. Sooner or later, given that the planet is both limited and round, we will find it impossible to avoid what is foreign to us.” (p. 270)

I found the phrasing of his tenth command to be a little amorphous: “Stand where you are supposed to be standing.” His explanation helped. This command is a short summary of the previous nine. He is saying that a full human life is one in which we accept all that we are and all that we are not, and that we accept the reality of our lives without resentment.

Chapter Nine – Radical Discipleship: The Struggle to Give Our Deaths Away, December 17, 2017

Rolheiser began this book by enumerating three phases of life and spirituality: the struggle to get our lives together, the struggle to give our lives away, and the struggle to give our deaths away. The first of the three was the topic of his previous book The Holy Longing. This book is primarily about the second struggle, but he mentioned at the outset that he would address the briefly the third struggle. Rather than being about death, as such, this third struggle is a description of the typical North American experience of retiring from a career. This is a problem only in a limited sense; most of the human population works out of necessity until physical death occurs.

Rolheiser likens the final stage of life and spirituality to John of the Cross’ definition of mystical prayer, the Dark Night of the Soul. He says that this final stage of life offers the possibility of finding a new level of communion with God and neighbor by means of letting go of one’s attachments. He makes a very valid point about this: you can choose to let go of attachments or not, but even if you don’t let go, you’ll be forced to do so eventually. The only real choice one has is how one will die: in resentment and bitterness or as a blessing to others.

Previous Sessions:

The Supernatural: how God’s Grace interacts with your life

How to Grow in Gratitude to God

The Holy Longing

Previous Sessions:

The Supernatural: how God’s Grace interacts with your life

How to Grow in Gratitude to God

The Holy Longing