The Holy Longing

During the Fall 2016 sessions of Adult Faith Formation the group read and discussed Fr. Ronald Rolheiser’s book, “The Holy Longing,” a clear, concise and very practical spirituality for the Twenty-first Century. Fr. Alan’s chapter-by-chapter commentary is posted below.

“The Holy Longing,” by Fr. Ronald Rolheiser – Fall 2016

October 2, 2016 – “What is Spirituality?”

Spirituality is driven entirely by temperament. The form of spirituality that an individual chooses is the result of that individual’s personality. The function of a spirituality is to help one grow in one’s commitment to Jesus and one’s trust in God. Choosing a spirituality, then, is more a matter of choosing what works than choosing between right and wrong (as long as one avoids things that lie obviously outside the bounds of Catholic beliefs).

Catholicism offers the widest possible range of varied spiritualities to address the wide range of personalities in the Church. You’ve heard me say before that the Catholic Church is like Noah’s Ark, except there’s only one of every animal. Every person is unique; therefore, it is reasonable to expect that Catholicism would not limit itself to a single form of spirituality.

The differences between various forms of Catholic spirituality are not limited to the differences in the personalities of the people who practice them. Some forms of spirituality are more appropriate to certain states in life. A monastic form of prayer, for example, would be difficult for a married person with children to maintain. In a similar manner, some forms of spirituality are more adequate than others. A prayer life that consists only of Sunday Mass attendance, or only of private prayer, is an inadequate prayer life.

As some forms of Catholic spirituality are more adequate than others, I encourage you to read this book without comparing it to ideas or practices that are already familiar to you. The philosophical school of Phenomenology calls this “bracketing” experience. One “brackets” experience in order to judge an experience on its own merits, rather than on one’s biases. For the purpose of these Adult Faith Formation sessions, please try to bracket your personal experience of spirituality in order that you might gain an unbiased understanding of Rolheiser’s thought.

Rolheiser isn’t offering a better, more effective or more meaningful way to do novenas or memorized prayers or situational ethics. Rather, he is offering a perspective on spirituality that grew out of post-modernity, and seeks to address post-modernity on its own terms. As such, his vision of Catholic spirituality deserves to be judged on its own merits and in light of its own strengths.

I’m not suggesting that you should change, stop, or even suspend, the form of spirituality you practice currently. Rather, I am suggesting that you try to read Rolheiser with an open mind, and without trying to add his ideas to your own. Rolheiser is one possibility among many, albeit a possibility that is far more adequate for the Twenty-first century than many other forms of spirituality. Rolheiser makes a very compelling case for the need for an up-to-date spirituality; please give his ideas the opportunity to make sense for you.

After reading the book you might begin to question your practices of spirituality. This might be a good thing. In the early part of the Twentieth century Catholic spirituality was obsessed with personal eschatology, that is, how an individual gains entrance into heaven. Catholic preaching and catechesis was so preoccupied with “the last things” that the nature of salvation and Church became quite obscured, and the value of social justice teaching was entirely neglected. As I said above, various spiritualities have varying degrees of adequacy. In Rolheiser’s terms, one’s spirituality will lead either to greater integration or greater disintegration.

Rolheiser’s notion of a “holy longing” is related directly to Augustine’s understanding of the human spirit. In “Confessions,” Augustine addressed this prayer to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

In this book, Rolheiser describes some of the characteristics of the innate spiritual restlessness of human nature, and he proposes how one might find the rest in God that all of us desire. This desire is sometimes experienced as restlessness, sometimes as driven-ness, sometimes as passion. According to Fr. Rolheiser, “Spirituality is about what we do with our unrest.”

October 9, 2016 – “The Current Struggle with Christian Spirituality”

In my introductory remarks I mentioned that Catholicism has the widest possible variety of forms of spirituality, but not all forms of spirituality are created equal; some are more adequate than others.

Clergy are required by Church law to recite the Liturgy of the Hours, which contains several sets of liturgical prayers to be prayed at various hours throughout the day. The Liturgy of the Hours is beautiful prayer, but there are a few things that make it poor prayer for recitation on an individual basis. Firstly, it is a monastic prayer form; it grew out of a monastic setting, and is most appropriate in a monastic setting. Secondly, it is liturgical prayer; it is intended to be prayed by a community rather than by an individual alone. The Liturgy of the Hours was mandated for all clergy by the reforms of the Council of Trent, but it is not adequate prayer for secular clergy engaged in pastoral ministry; it has to be augmented by private prayer.

It used to be common for Catholics attending Sunday Mass to pray the Rosary during Mass. This practice developed in response to the faithful’s inability to understand, and participate in, the Latin language liturgy prior to the Second Vatican Council. One of the intentions of the Council was to make Sunday Mass more accessible to those in attendance.

A spirituality that is composed only, or primarily, of liturgical prayer (like praying the Liturgy of the Hours only), is not adequate because it does little to feed the individual’s personal relationship with God. A spirituality that is composed only, or primarily, of private devotions (like the Rosary), is not adequate because it does nothing to help an individual believer connect with the Church on a social level. Rolheiser adds another perspective from which to judge the adequacy of a spirituality. He asks, “Does your spirituality do an adequate job of fulfilling your potential to have a conscious, growing connection to the Divine?”

Rolheiser uses the psychological concept of “eros” to represent the innate drive to experience the objective world, a drivenness that is constitutive of human nature. Spirituality, according to Rolheiser, is the way in which one chooses to give individuality to this constitutive element of our nature. Some forms of spirituality can lead to a more integrated personality, that is, a life that is constructive both for the individual and society. Other forms of channeling one’s eros can lead to a disintegrated personality, that is, a life in which one is at odds with self and others.

In the Twenty-First century it has become very difficult to identify and practice a spirituality that contributes both to one’s personal happiness and the good of society. This is primarily the result of post-modernity’s distrust of all social institutions, including organized religion.

One of the functions of organized religion is to hand on wisdom received from the past. We live at a time, and in a culture, that distrusts the notion of truth as objective. It is easy for people today to talk about the truth they have discovered within their own life experience, but most people are reluctant to accept the validity of truth embraced by someone else. The person who is willing to embrace their own “truth,” but not the “truth” of another, is incapable of affirming that any truth might be permanently valid. Consequently, we live in a culture of agnostic narcissists.

In Rolheiser’s words, “We want to manage energy (eros), all on our own.” (THL, p.25) We are, however, incapable of adequately managing our desire without help; the result of which is the increasing isolation, loneliness and pettiness we see in our society. Rolheiser describes the contemporary disintegration of personhood as the result of a lack of interiority. (THL, p.31) I would recommend a slightly different perspective.

The idea of an “interior life” is, for the most part, a construct of classical western culture. There is a good reason, for example, that the Gospels say nothing about Jesus’ interior life or his psychological state at various points in his life. The reason is that Hebrew culture in antiquity did not recognize people as having an interior life. Much has been written about Jesus’ psychological state when he was engaged in what we would consider a “tender, compassionate moment” (Luke 9″47-48) or when he was experiencing suffering. (Luke 23:1-46) All of this was written by westerners for westerners, and all of it is fictional.

Modern psychology is a strictly western phenomenon, and not an adequate way to understand Catholicism, which is in its roots a middle eastern religion. Instead of focusing on interiority as the measure of an integrated life and an adequate spirituality, I would recommend using another idea contained in Rolheiser’s writing: relationship. The degree to which a person has a healthy and productive life is the degree to which that person is engaged with other persons in healthy, lifelong relationships. The decline in lifelong relationships today is the most accurate measure of the decline in the adequacy of contemporary spiritualities.

I would add to Rolheiser’s list of “divorces” (THL, pp.33-40), what I consider to be the primary divorce: the divorce between the individual and society. An adequate spirituality is one that connects individuals to one another, and to God, to form a healthy society. Today, we live in a situation created by the failure of both organized religion and secular culture to foster and sustain a healthy society of persons. There is, however, a clear path out of our present straits. Rolheiser uses the apt term, a “dark night of the soul.” The “dark night of the soul” is the path through one’s present inadequacy toward greater adequacy. In the next chapter Rolheiser adumbrates some of the constitutive elements of an adequate Christian spirituality for the Twenty-first century.

October 16, 2016 – “The Nonnegotiable Essentials”

Catholicism has always made a distinction between the various ways in which truth occurs to the human intellect. Specifically, with regard to the truths of salvation, some individual true propositions are essential to salvation and some are non-essential. For example, in order to attain eternal salvation it is essential that one believes in the Trinity, the Incarnation, redemption through the death of Jesus and the ecclesial character of faith. On the other hand, it is not essential that one practice Marian piety; Marian, and other forms of private devotions, can be helpful to an individual’s spirituality, but they add nothing to the saving truth recorded in the Scriptures.

As some spiritualities are more adequate than others, and some truths are more essential than others, Rolheiser identifies four non-negotiable elements of a healthy Catholic spirituality. He drew these four elements from the teaching of Jesus. They are: 1.) private prayer and private morality, 2.) social justice, 3.) mellowness of heart and spirit {this means humility with regard to God and others, and a willingness to forgive}, and 4.) communal {that is, ecclesial} worship. He then offers concrete measurements to determine the presence or absence of these four essential elements.

Private prayer and private morality are not really as private as one might think. For Jesus, the necessary expression of love of God is love of neighbor. He said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) In the absence of love for neighbor, one’s love for God is a delusion.

Within Christianity there are two extreme views that are a de facto rejection of this essential element of a healthy spirituality. The model of Catholicism from the 1940’s over-emphasized private devotion and private morality to the extent that it made religion a private activity in which other people played no significant role; this extreme denied the social nature of humanity and faith. At about the same time that Catholicism was over-emphasizing privatized religion some Protestant groups re-imagined religion as speaking only about social issues. While these two extremes differ in their emphasis they have an identical structure; they portray religion as being nothing more than an ethics. In doing so, these two extremes leave no room for what is essential to religion: healthy relationships with God and other persons.

Rolheiser claims that one in every ten lines in the Christian Scriptures refers directly to the poor. I’ve never seen this statistic mentioned elsewhere, but I am willing to believe the claim. In the preaching of Jesus, and in the Hebrew Scriptures, the poor and marginalized are a classic analogy for those who are faithful to the Covenant.

In the Twentieth century the concern that God shows for the poor in the Scriptures came to be known as the “preferential option for the poor.” Unfortunately, this term came to be fraught with conflicted political meanings. One has only to read the Gospels, however, to see how important it was for Jesus that the poor be given the justice they deserve. (Luke 16:19-31) Personal concern for redressing the injustices of poverty and marginalization, therefore, is an essential element of a real faith in Jesus.

Rolheiser calls the third essential element of a healthy spirituality “mellowness of heart and spirit.” This is an umbrella term that includes several teachings that are central to the Gospels. The word “mellow” reminds me too much of 1960’s counter-culture in the United States. It might be more helpful to use Jesus’ own words. He preached constantly about the need to practice forgiveness as a habit. (Luke 17:3-4) He saw gratitude as a necessary expression of faith in God. (Luke 17:3-4) Jesus also described the appropriate relationship to God and neighbor as one of humility. (Luke 14:11) Please keep in mind that for Jesus these were not mere moral injunctions; these attitudes were descriptions of the shape of an appropriate relationship, the very thing Rolheiser calls an “integrative spirituality.”

The final essential element of a healthy spirituality is a communal, ecclesial element. This element is non-negotiable because of the prominence that it has in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. God calls a People into being by means of the Covenant (Leviticus 26:12), and God continues to call all people to become members of the Chosen People. (Luke 13:29) A healthy relationship with God is inseparable from a healthy relationship with other people, especially other believers. (1 John 4:20)

Rolheiser points out that this is a particularly foreign concept to contemporary society. In his words “our age tends to divorce spirituality from ecclesiology.” Alternately, we can see the foreignness of ecclesial life as an expression of the increasing privatization of human existence, a divorce of the individual from society. Taken together, these four elements of a healthy spirituality point toward a particular consciously chosen life that is an adequate expression of the faith Jesus preached. Rolheiser calls this particular life by several names; perhaps the most accessible, and most challenging, among them is “vocation.”

October 23, 2016 – “Christ as the Basis for Christian Spirituality”

It might seem an obvious statement that Christ should be the basis of a Christian spirituality, but it is a proposition that is no longer universally accepted. There are today numerous so-called “Christian” spiritualities, both within Catholicism and without, that are not actually Christ-centered. Liberal Protestantism abandoned Trinitarian beliefs in favor of an exclusive focus on righteousness through the pursuit of social justice, and the extreme Marian piety of some Catholics is a rejection of the Scriptural mandate of covenantal fidelity to God and neighbor.

In addition to making a case for the necessity of a Christological soteriology in Catholicism, Rolheiser wants also to deepen and expand the generally accepted understanding of the person of Jesus the Christ. He chooses the Incarnation as the starting point for a contemporary, integrative Catholic spirituality based on the Christ event.

Rolheiser asks rhetorically, “Why would God want to take on human flesh?” (THL,76) He portrays the Incarnation as Divine Initiative to draw as close as possible to humanity. He wrote, “In the incarnation, God became physical because we are creatures of the senses who, at one point, need a God with some skin.” (THL,77) The Incarnation, from a Jungian point of view, is an act of Divine individuation in which God reveals God’s particularity and concreteness. However, Rolheiser’s focus on the historical revelation of the Incarnation limits our access to the whole truth of the Incarnation.

The second Person of the Trinity became flesh because human flesh was created by God as the creature in the universe capable of hearing self-communication from God. The Incarnation, therefore, is also an instance of human individuation; it reveals our unique place among all created things. Rolheiser’s discussion of the term “the Body of Christ” touches on this wider, deeper understanding of the meaning of the Incarnation.

In recent Church history the term “the Body of Christ” is understood as referring first to the Incarnation, second to real presence in the Eucharist and third to the Risen Lord’s presence in Church community. This tripartite ordering of the mediations of the Risen Lord’s presence fails to address adequately at least two major points of Catholic belief.

First, it should be noted that until the end of the middle ages the term “the Body of Christ” referred almost exclusively to the body of believers, the Church community. At the end of the middle ages God’s objective reality became divorced from the subjectivity of believers. One of the consequences of that divorce was that the Church and the Sacraments became “things” rather than the modes of presence of a person (the “person” here being both Jesus and the baptized).

Second, it is important to acknowledge that Eucharist is not the only Sacrament of the Church. All of the Sacraments mediate the real presence of the Risen Lord. Eucharist became the prime, and sometimes only, example of the real presence of Christ because of the Catholic Church’s attempt to distance itself from the Protestant Reformers. Sadly, in the effort, we lost a great deal of our theology of the Scriptures, the Church and the Sacraments.

I would, therefore, expand Rolheiser’s statement that the Church is the Body of Christ. The community of believers is the real presence of the Risen Christ because believers encounter the Risen Lord in the Scriptures, the Sacraments and fellow believers. These three mediations are, not coincidentally, also the way in which the Risen Christ is made present to the yet-unbelieving world. This is “the core of Christian spirituality” (THL,80), that Rolheiser is attempting to recover for the twenty-first century.

Rolheiser concludes this chapter with a brilliant quote from Fr. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor who was a professor at L’Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. Fr. Murphy-O’Connor wrote, “In order to continue to exercise his salvific function the Risen Christ must be effectively represented within the context of real existence by an authenticity which is modeled on his.” (THL,81) This illustrates perfectly the necessity of basing a contemporary Catholic spirituality on the belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah sent by God for the salvation of the world. Theists believe in a transcendent God; Christians believe in a transcendent God who is immanent in the physical body of believers. A Christological belief system requires an incarnational spirituality.

October 30, 2016 – “Consequences of the Incarnation for Spirituality”

Rolheiser concludes this chapter with the statement, “Spirituality, . . . is not a law to be obeyed, but a presence to be seized, undergone, and given flesh to.” (THL,107) This description frames spirituality as a wide-ranging and lifelong project. The expansiveness of this notion is seen illustrated in the wide-ranging discussion that comprises this chapter.

“Incarnational” spiritualities are sometimes criticized for being too focused on the present world and insufficiently focused on eternity. Rolheiser avoids such limitations, and the manner in which he does so is worth our attention.

He begins his discussion of Incarnational spirituality by addressing the issue of prayer. He describes personal intercessory prayer as an activity based in the lived experience of being a member of a church community. He wrote, “To pray as a Christian demands concrete involvement in trying to bring about what is pleaded for in the prayer.” (THL,83)

Rolheiser makes a distinction between “praying as a theist” and “praying as a Christian.” (THL,84) The distinction is integral to his understanding of the unique character of any spirituality than can be called legitimately a Christian spirituality. Christian spirituality, by its nature, is fundamentally different from any other spirituality, even from one that is overtly centered on objective belief in God.

In addition to his distinction between a theist’s prayer and a Christian’s prayer, it might also be helpful to acknowledge the difference between wishing and believing. Believing is manifest in the concrete actions of one’s life; wishing remains only a partially formed idea. One cannot call oneself a Christian unless one cooperates actively in the answer that God gives to one’s prayers – this is the definition of believing.

Leaving his discussion on prayer, Rolheiser moves on to a practical description of what constitutes active cooperation with God’s activity (including answers to prayer). He uses physical touch as a metaphor for the life of an active member of a church community. The story of the woman with the hemorrhage in Mark 5:25-34 serves as an illustration of the nature of cooperating with God’s work. In the story, Jesus’ life-giving power is transmitted by means of actual “contact” with his body. In an analogical fashion, Divine power is experienced by individual believers through actual contact with the community of the Church.

Rather clumsily Rolheiser asks, “What is the fundamental sacrament of reconciliation?” (THL,86) He is trying to illustrate his point about the need for an “Incarnational” association with a church community. Unfortunately, he misses an excellent opportunity to address the primary way in which one becomes associated with a church community and the primary way in which one experiences reconciliation. These two events happen in the same experience: Baptism.

In Baptism one is truly incorporated into the Body of Christ, the Church, and into a local church community. Baptism is also the primary Sacrament of reconciliation. It is also a very “physical” experience constituted by several different modes of contact. In the ritual of Baptism the individual is called by name, washed by the Church, has a Church minister’s hands laid on their head, anointed by the Church, clothed by the Church and enlightened by the Church.

Instead of turning to Baptism as the actual, initial point of contact between an individual and the Church community, Rolheiser takes a very conventional approach to Eucharist. He proposes that Eucharist is the primary experience of reconciliation. This is a very curious line of reasoning, particularly in light of the fact that later in the chapter he takes a very unconventional approach to Eucharist. For our purposes it is important to keep in mind that Eucharist is offered only to the Baptized, and only as a renewal of the Baptismal covenant; this is due to the fact that Baptism is the primary experience of reconciliation.

Rolheiser then offers some encouraging words to parents of adult children who have ceased to practice the Faith. He says that the human forgiveness and love of a believer is an extension of the forgiveness and love of God. It is a very reassuring vision of Incarnational spirituality, but he cautions that this should not be taken to an extreme; faith remains something that must be chosen consciously by each individual. Rolheiser’s encouragement to parents should be tempered with the awareness that salvation remains God’s work, rather than ours.

As a part of his discussion of healing touch and reconciliation Rolheiser mentions the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Given the space limitations of a book on spirituality, he is able only to refer briefly to the Sacrament. It should be noted that forgiveness of sins happens in precisely the same way that we receive guidance from God.

The guidance that God provides to us with regard to our decision making is mediated through many means. Both forgiveness and guidance can come to us through personal prayer, through liturgical prayer and through fellowship with the Church community. God speaks to us through concrete events; in a like manner, we are reconciled through concrete events. In the case of mortal sins, the concrete event of reconciliation is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The most commonly committed sins (those that are traditionally called “venial”), do not require Sacramental reconciliation. Common, everyday sins can be forgiven by private repentance or, as Augustine said, by the heartfelt recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Rolheiser’s discussion of the forgiveness of sins focuses primarily on common, or venial, sins. Within that context, it’s very helpful to keep in mind Rolheiser’s words about Church community, “Spirituality, at least Christian spirituality, is never something you do alone.” (THL,95-6)

It is worth paying close attention to Rolheiser’s discussion of the so-called “Bread of Life Discourse” in John’s Gospel. For a very long time Roman Catholicism over-emphasized, to the point of obsession, the role of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. This was not the result of our beliefs about Eucharist. Rather, it was the result of our rejection of the Protestant Reformation. As a result of the over-emphasis on Eucharist Catholics today tend to jump to unjustifiable conclusions about some things; the Johannine Bread of Life discourse is one of them.

Jesus’ statements in Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel are references to the communal relationship with Jesus that is created by Baptism. Rolheiser states that the “flesh” and “blood” referred to in John 6:53-54 are references to Jesus’ person made manifest in the Church community. This was the intention of the author of John’s Gospel, even though it might sound strange to Catholics today. Perhaps, it might be worth asking ourselves whether we are the faithful disciples who are willing to be fed by Jesus, the Bread from Heaven, or if we are the disbelievers who complain, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” (John 6:60)

Rolheiser very adequately sums up Jesus’ teaching by saying, “You cannot deal with a perfect, all-loving, all-forgiving, all-understanding God in heaven, if you cannot deal with a less-than-perfect, less-than-forgiving, and less-than-understanding community here on earth. You cannot pretend to be dealing with an invisible God if you refuse to deal with a visible family. Teaching this truth can ruin one’s popularity in a hurry. People then found it to be intolerable language and it meets with the same resistance today.” (THL,98)

For further reflection on this point, it might be worth giving some thought and discussion to Rolheiser’s statement, “Part of the very essence of Christianity is to be together in a concrete community, with all the real human faults that are there and the tensions that this will bring us. Spirituality, for a Christian, can never be an individualistic quest, the pursuit of God outside of community, family, and church. The God of the incarnation tells us that anyone who says that he or she loves an invisible God in heaven and is unwilling to deal with a visible neighbor on earth is a liar since no one can love a God who cannot be seen if he or she cannot love a neighbor who can be seen.” (THL,99)

Rolheiser sums up the chapter, and his vision of an Incarnational Christian spirituality, by saying, “Christian spirituality is not as much about admiring God, or even trying to imitate God, as it 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.” (THL,101)

November 6, 2016 – “A Spirituality of Ecclesiology”

“The Holy Longing” was published in 1999, and is still very timely today. There are a few places in the text, however, where Rolheiser’s observations now appear dated. This chapter addresses a central element in Catholic spirituality and a crucial issue facing all organized religion in the western world.

At the time the book was published it was apparent to every observer that participation in organized religion had been steadily declining over the previous five decades, and further, that there was no reason to expect the trend to change. Rolheiser wrote, “more and more people are simply divorcing their search for God from involvement within a church community.” (THL,111) Among the consequences of this “divorce” that was so widespread at the end of the Twentieth century was decreasing numbers of people involved in church communities, decreasing numbers of church communities and decreasing viability of church communities.

Since the book was published, however, another consequence of the disaffection with organized religion has appeared. Today, organized religion is not so much shunned as unknown. Those who absented themselves from church twenty or more years ago have raised a generation of children who have no experience of church at all, neither bad nor good. Today, we see the long-term results of the “indifference and a culture of individualism” that Rolheiser mentions. (THL,112)

Rolheiser identifies a number of influences that have led to the decline of organized religion, “the church’s faults, the church’s dark history, a certain tiredness within Western Christianity, our culture’s pathological individualism, the religious indifference of millions, and a perception problem as regards the Christian churches. Certainly it points to the need for a better understanding of the church. The churches may have the water of life, but less and less people want them anywhere near the fire. What’s to be done about that? Our theological libraries are full of excellent books on ecclesiology, but church attendance continues to plummet. Good theology is important, but something else too is needed, a better spirituality of ecclesiology, better practical, personal reasons why, to have a kingdom, we want and need a church. So how might the church be understood?” (THL,113-114). The question is a pertinent one. Although the religious landscape in the western world continues to change, the crucial issue of the necessity of church community remains. Rolheiser spends the remainder of the chapter trying to construct a plausible, contemporary explanation of the necessity of an ecclesial (that is, church-based), spirituality.

The first point that Rolheiser offers toward a new and improved spirituality of ecclesiology is, “the church is the people.” (THL,114) I would go so far as to say that “the Church is the People.” The institution of Church exists only as a consequence of the existence of the People of God. We live at a time when Catholicism is perceived and practiced as a religion that happens ‘from the top down,’ that is, beginning with the Pope and the Vatican, and filtering down to individual believers. This “hierarchical model” of Church has some strengths, but also some significant weaknesses. It provides organization to a very diverse, world-wide faith community, but it also disenfranchises local Church communities (Dioceses), and it marginalizes (or allows for excuses on the part of), individual believers. Ecclesial organization is a good thing, but it is meaningless in the absence of individual discipleship. The on-going decline of the health of parishes and dioceses is the direct result of the lack of emphasis and attention given to discipleship.

In trying to describe the irreplaceable value of church community, Rolheiser makes some very valid points about what Church is not. It is not a gathering of like-minded individuals. (THL,114) The mutual love of fellow believers is a pledge of fidelity rather than an experience of sentimentality or attraction. “Church is not about a few like-minded persons getting together for mutual support; 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.” (THL,115)

Neither is church community sectarian; it is not a small group formed for mutual protection. (THL,116) Church is not a family in an emotional or psychological sense. (THL,117) “Church community can never be a functional substitute for emotional and sexual intimacy. It is not intended to be. One shouldn’t go to church looking for a lover.” (THL,117)

He adds that church community is not based on shared ethnicity or historical experience. (THL, 118) I would add that church is not a matter of shared wants, needs or satisfactions. One of the most discussed events in religious activity in this country is the mega-church. Mega-churches attract many new participants, but the attraction is most often the result of non-religious activities. Participants in the mega-church experience most often refer to the youth programs, family sports, music presentations or social events that make their church experience meaningful. None of these aspects of life in a mega-church is actual religion, because none of it has to do with the Apostolic Faith.

Lastly, Rolheiser says that church community is not the same as a group with a common mission. (THL,118) He means that church community is not founded on anything like team spirit. A corporation, a sports team, a political campaign have a shared task and a common mission; there is nothing inherently religious about any of those activities. Quite the contrary, those sorts of activities are entirely about the here-and-now, and have no reference to the transcendent.

Church community is founded on the person of Jesus. In the Gospels, when Jesus uses the term “faith,” he defined it to mean “personal loyalty.” He asked repeatedly of his disciples that they give their personal loyalty completely and irrevocably to him. It was (and is), the personal loyalty to Jesus’ by his disciples that made (and makes), them a church community.

“Hence the basis for Christian ecclesial community, church, is a gathering around the person of Jesus Christ and a living in his Spirit. And that Spirit too is not some vague bird or abstract tonality. The spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, is defined in scripture as charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long-suffering, fidelity, mildness, and chastity. Living in these virtues is what binds us into community in such a way that we are immune from separation by distance, temperament, race, color, gender, ideology, social status, history, creed, or even death. All who live in these virtues are one body with each other and constitute the church.” (THL,120)

According to Rolheiser, “To be church is, therefore, to celebrate the word of Christ and the Eucharist.” (THL,120) It would be more adequate to say that to be the Church is to be faithful to our Baptismal vows. In Baptism we promise to give our personal loyalty completely and irrevocably to Jesus of Nazareth. At the same time, God promises to give us complete and irrevocable forgiveness of our sins. In the Baptismal covenant we are joined to the life of the Trinity. Making the Trinity’s life manifest concretely in our lives is what it means to be members of the Church together.

Eventually, Rolheiser does get to the topic of Baptism. He does so with a certain amount of dramatic flair, but his discussion sheds light on the issues raised at the beginning of this chapter. He began his discussion of church by acknowledging the noticeable and continuing decrease in interest in church membership in the western world. A primary cause of this loss of interest is the perception that church membership mitigates personal freedom. People often complain that they don’t want to be hemmed in by the rules and regulations and obligations that churches impose. The complaint rests on a very skewed understanding of freedom. We live in a culture that equates freedom with political freedom: one is (and ought to be), free to choose among all the available options. Applying this definition of freedom to religious practice, many people reason that they are (and ought to be), free to make any choice they please about religion, church membership and morality.

This line of reasoning, however, rests on a logical contradiction. The political freedoms we enjoy in this country are solely the consequence of the existing political structure into which we were born, and for which we have a custodial responsibility. There is a much larger context to an individual’s political freedom; it is the context of the effort and sacrifice that were required in order to build a society based on the rule of law. As the choice to build a society based on the rule of law required a concomitant choice to reject other possibilities, our political freedoms exist only as the result of being unable to choose an alternative political and social context.

Similarly, the objection to living in a church community because of the limitations that church community imposes is an objection based on the denial of our human nature. We are, by nature, social animals. We exist because of society, and we owe a debt to society. To think otherwise is to have no conscience. What passes for political “freedom” today is closer to socio-pathic behavior than it is to freedom. The objection to religion based on the limits it imposes on one’s freedom is an objection based on a very selfish and infantile understanding of freedom and obligation.

In order to know and love the One, True God, one must know and love the actual, physical community of the Church. The objections that the Church is burdensome, scandalous, limiting and repugnant are not valid objections. All of life has its burdens, scandals, limitations and discouragements. If one wants to know the real God, one must know a real life (first); this necessarily entails uncomfortable and unwelcome experiences.

Rolheiser concludes the Chapter with a discussion of the question, “Why should I go to church?” He offers several justifications for regular church attendance. I would add one more: you should go to church because it might be your only experience of reality.

– The food we eat is so far removed from its sources that it is often unrecognizable. Do you really know what’s in that doughnut or those “chicken nuggets?”

– Our knowledge of the world is filtered through multiple layers of corporate concerns. News reporting is biased by the network, the reporter, the advertisers who pay for airtime and countless other influences. Was it difficult for you to make a choice when you voted this past week? Much of the difficulty derives from the fact that none of us can be certain that anything the candidates said was the truth.

– We cocoon ourselves in our homes, our jobs, our cars, our electronic devices and our interest groups. Even our culture’s advocacy of diversity is homogenized and measured out in easy to digest doses.

– Everything we have and touch is processed, dyed, shaped, market-tested and possibly made of substances whose names are unpronounceable. Are we individuals or are we merely opportunities to display consumer goods?

– We drown daily in an ocean of information. There is so much data available today, from easy to access sources, that actually knowing any facts might now be an impossibility. Can you really be certain that what you know hasn’t changed significantly since you learned it?

In a very uncertain world, there is a guarantee of certainty provided by regular interaction with other people – in all their weakness and idiosyncrasy. Church attendance puts one in contact with the best and worst of human nature; it is un-redacted and unfiltered humanity in all of its complexity. Regular participation in your parish community might be the most (or only), real thing you do this week.

November 13, 2016 – “A Spirituality of the Paschal Mystery”

Rolheiser begins this chapter with a criticism of Christianity that is a somewhat dated, but valid issue. The Christian Faith is sometimes caricatured as being obsessed with suffering, death and “other-worldly” issues.

Rolheiser wrote, “a lot of anxiety has been taught in the name of Christian spirituality, but the critics of Christianity are naive if they suppose that humans are naturally content and that the issues of suffering, death, and the next life do not, without undue attention from Christianity, make us pathologically anxious. No philosophy of life, no anthropology, no psychology, and, a fortiori, no spirituality can pretend to be mature without grappling with the timeless, haunting questions of suffering and death.” (THL,141)

Freudian psychology has had the effect of leading western society to think of human existence in terms of pathology. Anything and everything that we find distasteful we label as aberrant. The hidden price we pay for this attitude is that we see people as problems to be solved or as therapeutic interventions that exist solely to serve our personal wants.

The Gospels portray human existence in terms radically different from those of “therapeutic” post-modernity. “In Christian spirituality, Christ is central and, central to Christ, is his death and rising to new life so as to send us a new Spirit.” (THL,142) While this is the central truth of Christianity, it is a truth most often accepted tacitly, without any critical examination. “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 and how we might appropriate it within our own lives.” (THL,142)

There are many popular interpretations of the death of Jesus. For some, his death was a necessary blood sacrifice made to appease God’s anger over human sinfulness. For others, his death merely had the appearance of death, but was not actually a death. For still others, his death was an act that had only a moral significance: it was something like a metaphor representing love or sacrifice or self-abnegation.

“The paschal mystery is the mystery of how we, after undergoing some kind of death, receive new life and new spirit. Jesus, in both his teaching and in his life, showed us a clear paradigm for how this should happen.” (THL,145) Jesus’ death on the Cross was, first and foremost, an act of faithfulness to God. In the Incarnation, the second Person of the Trinity took on a human life – not merely the appearance of a human life. In doing so, Jesus showed us both how to live and how to die. According to Rolheiser, the kind of death that Jesus endured (and taught us to imitate), “is a death that, while ending one kind of life, opens the person undergoing it to receive a deeper and richer form of life.” (THL,146)

In our daily experience, death is the end of something – either of our life or the life of a loved one. However, because of the Incarnation, Jesus offers a new possibility for death – that it might become transformative and redemptive. Just as resurrection is not resuscitation to one’s previous life, redemptive death is not return to one’s former existence. The Incarnation/Resurrection of Jesus have created the possibility of a radically new life for all who believe. Necessarily, death is the entrance to this radically new and transformed life. As a consequence, transformative death is at the center of the Christian Faith. In Catholic vocabulary, we call this “the Paschal Mystery.”

The Paschal Mystery is, first and foremost, Jesus’ death on the Cross. Secondarily, the Paschal Mystery also pertains to us (communally and personally). Rolheiser wrote, “our happiness, peace, and maturity depend upon appropriating properly this mystery in our lives.” (THL,148)

“We face many deaths within our lives and the choice is ours as to whether those deaths will be terminal (snuffing out life and spirit) or whether they will be paschal (opening us to new life and new spirit).” (THL,164)

November 20, 2016 – “A Spirituality of Justice and Peacemaking”

Rolheiser begins this chapter with a well-known quote from the Hebrew prophet Micah that says God expects us to “to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Rolheiser uses this quote as the starting point for expanding his “non-negotiable essential” regarding the public morality (social justice), element to an adequate Catholic spirituality. This quote from Micah is used commonly as biblical justification for Catholic social teaching, but it should be pointed that the original meaning of the prophetic utterance was not exactly what it has been made to mean more recently. In its original context, the three elements of the utterance were not three distinct imperatives, but three repetitions of the same imperative. To act with justice, to love and to walk in humility are descriptions of how to be faithful to the Covenant with God; rather than three distinct acts, they are three perspectives on the same act.

Rolheiser, however, intends to deal only with social justice in this chapter. To that end, he addresses the distinction that is used often today between charity and justice. Acts of charity intend to address the immediate needs of those who suffer; social justice intends to address the institutional attitudes and actions that cause people to find themselves in need. (THL,169) “Social justice has to do with changing the way the world is organized so as to make a level playing field for everyone.” (THL,170)

In describing the necessity of social justice as an element of an adequate spirituality, Rolheiser describes eloquently the reason that a commitment to social justice is necessary. “In the ideal it (democracy), is a fair system, but in practice it is not.” (THL,171) Social justice work is the way the faithful address some of the imperfection in the universe.

To this end mentioned above, Rolheiser offers a Christian definition of social justice. In general, he says that one must be willing “to examine, challenge, refuse as far as possible to participate in, and try to change those systems (economic, social, political, cultural, mythic, and religious) that unjustly penalize some even as they unjustly reward others.” (THL,173) He adds, however, that “the fuel that fires our quest for justice must be drawn from the same source as the truth of justice itself, namely, from the person and teaching of Jesus.” (THL,174)

Rolheiser continues with a very insightful analysis of social justice efforts thus far. Among his many smart observations, there is one that I would emphasize as being very pertinent today. He wrote that one of the reasons that social justice efforts often fail to reach their intended goal is an attitude on the part of proponents that says essentially, “I am a victim and thus outside the rules!” (THL,180) I would add to Rolheiser’s critique that oftentimes those who refuse to participate in social justice efforts refuse on this same basis. Much of the opposition to social justice efforts comes from people who either consider themselves to be victims or potential victims of reform. There is a simple, but profound insight here: classifying oneself as a victim is counter-productive; it does no one any good, and is probably at odds with an adequate Catholic spirituality.

Rolheiser ends the chapter with “A Lord’s Prayer for Justice.” It might be helpful to keep in mind that The Lord’s Prayer is essentially and entirely a prayer for the coming of God’s Kingdom and the completion of God’s will for all Creation. A commitment to social justice is a commitment to see God’s will accomplished for all the universe. Consequently, it is a commitment that will remain imperfectly accomplished until the end of time.

December 4, 2016 – “A Spirituality of Sexuality”

Rolheiser begins this chapter with a very expansive definition of sexuality. He wrote, “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.” (THL,192) In order to understand this chapter it is helpful to refer back to his original definition of spirituality. In Chapter One he wrote that spirituality “is about being integrated or falling apart.” (THL,7) Sexuality figures prominently in the project of integrating one’s life through spirituality because sexuality is one of the most powerful motivators behind human behavior. It can act either as a force for integration or a force for disintegration.

It should be noted that Rolheiser takes a Jungian view of sexuality, one that is more imaginative than descriptive. Sexuality, in this sense, encompasses the whole of one’s personality. In place of the word “sexuality” one could substitute words such as “attraction” or “attachment” and remain within the realm that Rolheiser addresses here. Personally, I am tempted to substitute the word “affection” wherever Rolheiser uses the word sexuality.

Most human communication is non-verbal. Voice inflection, facial expression and body language add a great quantity of information to our spoken words, and all of that “information” is affective. Anyone who has ever tried to communicate in writing about a significant issue or powerful experience knows the limitations of the written word. Urgency, approval/disapproval, tenderness, pain, etc., are much more easily conveyed in person than in writing. For this reason, I see Rolheiser’s treatment of sexuality as a reference to affection – to those people and things we cherish, and to the affective/emotional content of experience and communication.

He offers a few timely reminders about how to avoid trivializing a central aspect of human existence. Appropriately, he calls these “non-negotiables.” He wrote, “sex is something sacred.” (THL,198) “Sex by its very nature must be linked to marriage, monogamy, and a covenantal commitment that is, by definition, all-embracing and permanent.” (THL,199) “Sex has an inner dynamic that, if followed faithfully, will lead its partners to sanctity.” (THL,200) The fourth non-negotiable Rolheiser mentions is a sub-set of point two. He wrote, “sex always needs the protection of a healthy chastity.” (THL,201) This follows on the second point above that sex demands covenantal commitment. Affect without appropriate boundaries is necessarily destructive. In Catholicism we use the word “chastity” to refer to the proper use of human sexuality. Chastity does not mean the absence of sex or sexuality; rather, it means the exercise of sexual energies within boundaries appropriate to the person and the situation.

He concludes the chapter with a uncited quote from the theologian Fr. Karl Rahner that the end product of a faithful spirituality is the realization that “all symphonies remain unfinished” in this life. I don’t know if this was intended to be somewhat facetious or merely a pragmatic summary of sexual experience as never quite measuring up to expectations. In either case, sexuality is an elegant symbol of the varied and powerful energies in the human soul that can lead a person either to disintegration or integration. In all of these energies, part of the path to achieving integration is the realization of the real limits the world imposes on us.

December 11, 2106 – “Sustaining Ourselves in the Spiritual Life”

In John’s Gospel Jesus had a conversation with a woman who eventually came to faith as a result of the conversation. (John 4:4-42) After her own conversion she invited her friends and neighbors to encounter Jesus just as she had. During the conversation Jesus offered a metaphor that describes an adequate faith life. He said, “whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14) An adequate spirituality is like a natural spring; it is self-sustaining. An adequate faith in Jesus provides the impetus for its own growth and development, and like the woman at the well, it invites others to encounter Jesus who is the source of life-giving water.

Rolheiser wrote, “It is no longer enough to have been born into a Christian family, to have been baptized, or even to be part of a worshiping community. None of these, alone, will necessarily give us real faith.” (THL,216) In the final chapter of his book Rolheiser offers some suggestions about how to sustain an adequate spirituality in our contemporary social setting. He makes several suggestions, but I would highlight only one of them: “Be a mystic.” (THL,216) By this, he means that one must have a personal habit of daily prayer that affords one the individual experience of God’s presence. Reciting prayers, doing Novenas and engaging in pious devotions can be prayer, but taken all together these are not enough prayer to sustain a Catholic spirituality in our present era.

One cannot count on support from American culture; one has to create and nurture one’s own sense of the sacred. As I said at the beginning of these sessions, spirituality is driven entirely by temperament. Because each person is unique, each person must work to discover what sort of meditative prayer is best suited to their individual temperament. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that some aspects of Catholic spirituality are universal, and apply to all believers. Therefore, while your prayer life will be unique to you, it must include daily meditation with the Scriptures. Further, such daily meditation must be more than a token gesture; an hour a day in prayer with the Scriptures should not be seen as excessive or a practice best left to cloistered monks.

Rolheiser adds an insightful warning about how one ought to approach prayer with the Scriptures. He wrote, “In trying to sustain ourselves as Christians, few things are as important as worshiping and serving the right God. To have a distorted concept of God, no matter how sincere that misconception, is to worship an idol and break the first commandment.” (THL,237-238) Following this observation is one of the most quotable quotes in the book. “In the past, our concept of God was often too much a projection of our own anger and incapacity to forgive each other.” (THL,238)

Daily prayer with the Scriptures will afford one the experience of God’s personality. As long as one prays with this intent, the various temptations to be drawn to a false image of God will eventually give way to an encounter with the One, True God. Among the many things that dissuade us from an adequate life of prayer (“our laziness, our self-indulgence, our ambition, our restlessness, our envy, our refusal to live in tension, our consumerism, our greed for things and experience, our need to have a certain lifestyle, our busyness and overextension, our perpetual tiredness, our obsession with celebrities, and our perpetual distraction with sports, sit-coms, and talk shows. THL,217), perhaps the most powerful is the cultural conviction that we should always be busy and always productive.

A good prayer life is necessarily counter-cultural. Prayer is by nature non-productive. My practical definition of prayer is “wasting time with God.” The daily habit of wasting time with God by reading and meditating on the Scriptures leads ineluctably to finding the life-giving water Jesus spoke about in his conversation with the woman at the well. Rolheiser wrote that an adequate spirituality allows one to live with the normal tensions in life. Admittedly, Catholic spirituality itself creates some of these tensions, but it is worth learning to live with them. The tension created by dedicating a significant portion of one’s day to personal prayer is a small price to pay for inter-personal knowledge of God.

Previous Sessions:

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

How to Grow in Gratitude to God