Ron Rolheiser "Giving Our Death Away" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now, and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri to audiences around the world. Each week we endeavor to bring you an interview with someone who’s been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri Nouwen or perhaps even a recording of Henri himself. We invite you to share the daily meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them we continue to introduce audiences to Henri’s writings, his encouragement and of course, his reminder that each of us is a beloved child of God.
Now, let me take a moment to introduce today’s guest. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak with Father Ron Rolheiser. Ron is the author of 14 books and a person I consider to be the leading scholar and interpreter of Henri Nouwen. At a recent celebration honoring Ron’s retirement as president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, his editor Robert Ellsberg summed up Ron’s ministry in this way: “The impact of his writing, his retreats and his ministry comes from his deep knowledge and identification with the human condition.”
That fact that he has been where we are, whether in a hole or on a mountain top, in love or in pain, in suffering or in joy, whatever the situation, wherever we may find ourselves, we sense that Ron Rolheiser has been there himself, and that he knows the way that leads to God. Today’s talk with Ron is so worth listening to, but up front, I need to give you an apology. My audio wasn’t properly recorded. So some of the questions will be a bit garbled. Please put up with it, stick with it because what Ron has to offer is really worthwhile.
Ron. I love your books and they are full of wisdom that leads us into the presence of a loving and compassionate God. With retirement you’re kind of at a new beginning yourself. Can you tell us what has captured your heart and mind at this point?
Ron Rolheiser: You know, in our business—and you’re in the same business of spirituality— we never really retire, we just move to different phases. And in fact, the interesting thing is, the work we’re doing, like you’re doing in spirituality, you’re much more effective at 70 than you were at 50 or 30. So basically, it’s a shift in work. So I’m leaving administration, which I’ve done now for almost 30 years or basically 30 years, where I’ve tried to keep writing and doing some academics. So now I can go back full-time to writing, to reading, to researching, to helping students. I’m so much looking forward to it. So it’s kind of the end of all the hours I have to put into administration. And so it’s a shift in work not a retirement.
Karen: I found it fascinating what you’re choosing to do. Like you’re going to finish this wonderful trilogy, Holy Longing and then Sacred Fire. But there’s a book that you’re picking up now that you feel will kind of complete that. Tell us a bit about that because, in a sense, that really struck a note with me.
Ron: Karen, as you know, I wrote the books, The Holy Longing and Sacred Fire, but clearly as the first two books in the trilogy. So the Holy Longing is a book about basically, how do you get your life together. Like fundamentally, what’s the message of discipleship and then Sacred Fire, how do you give your life away? How do you spend your generative years and so on? Now the book I want to write is a book about how do you give your death away? How do you live your last years so that your goodbye to this planet and your family is really something that leaves everybody in deep peace. So I actually got the idea from Henri Nouwen, his book, Our Greatest Gift where he coined that expression “how do you give your death away”. During our generative years you’re struggling to give your life away, but then how do you give your death away?
So it’s a concept I got from Nouwen, but it’s very deep in scripture, like Jesus who gives his death in his passion. And it’s also very clear in the mystics, John of the Cross. That’s what John of the Cross would call the dark night of the spirit, the last phase of your life. It’s no longer —In fact I can quote Henri in this. Henri says ‘there comes a time in your life when the question is no longer, the big question, no longer what can I do to still make a contribution. But the question is, what can I do now that when I die, when I go away, my death will be the optimal blessing for my family, community and the church? So you don’t stop living, but you start living in such a way that you’re giving something else to your family and people now.
Karen: It was interesting to me that obviously as soon as I saw that it leaped off the page, that this was something that Henri had spoken about. Do you think with Henri that you had to have that near-death experience and begin to think in terms of what the end of his life was going to be? I’m sure he wasn’t anticipating it to be as short as it was, but in those last years it was very much an understanding he brought to the situation, which in a way really prepared him for when, on his death bed, what he wanted to give out to everybody was to say how grateful he was, how thankful he was for them, which is an amazingly freeing, liberating thing to say: You owe me nothing and I grace you with my love and with my thanks.
Ron: Well it’s interesting that Henri’s near-death experience did two things in his life: a massive, I think transformative phase. The one which is and probably they’re linked together, but you know how Henri all his life always struggled to actually receive love. And then whatever this, this death experience did to him, afterwards he was able to receive love. And that’s when he wrote those wonderful books about, you know, being God’s beloved and so on. But in its own way, it also prepared him for death because he had kind of literally died at one point, but it prepared him so that even though he died young he did the things he needed to in his last years that when he died – okay you’re working on his legacy – but he really didn’t leave any unfinished business. No, when you die oftentimes there’s this, what I should have said or who I should have still visited. So Henri, in a certain sense, didn’t leave any incompleteness, even though he died at this young age.
Karen: That is really something. I mean, your book really challenged me because I look at where I’m at in life. And obviously this is something I have considered, this issue of being past the generative time of your life or entering into a time in which the Passion, the passivity of Christ becomes something, the whole message of, ‘unless a seed fall into the ground and dies.’ This is pretty profound. You’re going to take us down that path, aren’t you?
Ron: Yes. You know, it’s a distinction. Let me just talk about it with Jesus. It’s a distinction we don’t easily pick up, but once it’s pointed out to you in scripture, you’ll see it. You know, we say Jesus gave his life for us. And Jesus gave his death for us as if that’s one movement. No, that’s two movements. Jesus gave his life for us through his activity. He gave his death for us through his passivity. And it’s interesting in Mark’s gospel scholars point out that all the verbs about Jesus before he was arrested and led away, all the verbs are active. He taught, he walked, he healed, he preached. And so after he’s arrested, all the verbs are passive. They led him away, Pilate questioned him, so on. So, he gave us life as to his activity, he gave us death through his passivity, through what he endured.
And that’s a great mystery and Henri was one of the first contemporary writers to really pick up on that. I remember way back, I think it was about 1975, so that’s almost 50 years ago when he did that series of tapes from the Ave Maria Press on waiting. And when he talks about visiting this man who was dying of cancer and so he takes Henri’s hand and he says, Henri you gotta help me. I know I’m dying, but this passivity, what can I do with it? You know, the nurses, the bedpans and so on. And Henri said, ‘I sat by his bedside and I kept reading the Passion over and over again; the passion in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and saying, this is your passivity. You’ve given your life through your activity, now you’ve got to give something through your passivity in absorbing this. Now grant that isn’t always a great consolation when you’re dying or sick, but it’s the only thing there is.”
So way back, that was before Henri articulated a more complete spirituality, but he did a wonderful series of talks. I got them when we still had [unclear] at Ave Maria Press, but there were two talks he gave on waiting, what it means to wait. That was the first time I got this notion of passivity. So the book I’m writing works a lot on that, but it’s going to work on some other things too. One is how do you experience faith during those years? Like what are dark nights and so on?
Karen: We all hope we won’t have them, but we will. In some ways, for some people right now, we’re in the midst of a dark night just because the pandemic is upsetting the world they could control. What are you finding that you can offer out at this point Ron into that kind of reality?
Ron: You know, that’s probably the hardest thing you could ask me. In terms of, you know, there’s a certain helplessness. For instance the pandemic hasn’t affected me a lot, like other people. So for instance our work goes on, we’re not worried about paying our bills and so on. Nobody close to me has gotten ill and died. And so it’s almost like I feel guilty speaking as an outsider to people where this has really taken away their livelihood, or it’s taken away their mother or their father or their daughter and so on. It’s really a transformative, it’s a passion moment for our culture and it’s really tough because our generation, we have many other good points, but unlike our grandparents, we’re not used to this, we’re not used to hardship. You know our grandparents, they lived more vulnerable lives and they were close to the earth, but dare I say it, we’ve become pretty spoiled and pretty soft in our lives. And so when something like this comes along … or let me say something else here too. You know, we were under the illusion that we could control life, that nothing like this could happen to us. And along comes this little virus which we can’t do a thing about. And so even that admitting our helplessness, it’s really scarred our psyche, I think and it’s been hard. I feel for people who have suffered this in a much deeper ways than I have.
I mean, I’ve been inconvenienced, I can’t fly or give talks or something that’s minor. But that’s not like losing your husband or your wife or a child, or your father or like losing your livelihood and not knowing how you’re going to pay your bills. But I think there’s a thing in spirituality, Karen, where we understand things by looking back at them. We’re going to understand this much more when we reflect on it. We understand the way of Providence looking backwards, we’re going to see what we learned from this.
Karen: I’ve always loved those moments when we as a world are joined together. You know, I think about happy moments, it’s New Year’s Eve, or it’s something like the Olympics or something like that. I feel like we’re watching with each other worldwide. We’ve never been through a tragedy that we’re so with somebody who’s in India, somebody who’s in Korea, someone who’s in England. There’s a universality of this moment that it really does stop us short. We thought we had it all in control and suddenly you realize it can go like that. Profound.
Ron: Yes. The other tragic thing that has happened —I’m living United States right now — is that I suspect some of the countries that are better, but it also politically divided us for whatever reason. You’d think tragedy should unite a nation but it’s deeply, deeply divided the United States between who’s wearing a mask and who is not, and what’s a political statement and so on. And that’s the second tragedy to this that tragedy normally brings a family together. This tragedy has torn this family further apart as a nation so that to walk on the street with a mask or no mask is a political statement that sets people either way. That’s a compound to the tragedy.
Karen: I was curious about one thing. What I was wondering about was, what does come out of that. You mentioned the word character. Can you say a little bit more about that?
Ron: Let me give you a metaphor and that’s Abraham and Sarah. Okay, obviously this is metaphorically, so that when she’s 70 and he’s 80, God says set out for a country where you don’t know where you’re going, and when you get there, you’re going to have a baby. Then it takes another 20 years. Then when she’s 90, he’s a hundred, they have their real child, kind of gray-haired, post-menopausal pregnancy. Well, that’s a great image for what are we called to during the early generative parts of our life. For instance, you were married, you’re a mother, you’re raising kids, you’re doing a job, you’re paying the mortgage. It’s pretty clear what you’re doing. The point is, when you become a grandparent and you know a lot of people move into retirement and so on. And they’re still young in a way. Today, you know 70 is the new 50. So you might live maybe 20 more years of healthy life. What are those years for? Well, that’s for you to have your Isaac, that’s your gray-hair pregnancy. So it’s what I call late generativity. In fact, we have a program here now at the school which is a program like the Living School, where we bring in people for over a two-year period off and on to precisely look at that. What are those years for? They’re meant to be enjoyed. People enjoy their grandkids and people enjoy leisure and traveling, golfing, but none of them are a full-time vocation. Now a person like yourself or myself, we keep working but for most people, their work stops.
And so, what’s the new baby they’re supposed to have? I call it second generativity. We all understand first generativity: raising kids, paying a mortgage, being involved with the community and doing all this. And that ends at a certain point. There was a very good book written way back in the mid-nineties, by Germaine Greer, the British feminist, called The Change. It’s a book on women’s menopause, but it’s a powerful book where she talks about, for instance, menopause as a kind of a second puberty. Puberty is biological and emotional changes that launch you into adult life, then menopause ends a certain phase of these biological changes and psychologically, which is like a new puberty to launch you into the next phase of your life. Now she captures that for women. Men who don’t have menopause, or at least they don’t admit it, they can pretend longer but really, and again, getting back to Henri, Henri was the first person who started naming this in popular writing. Then, of course, people like Richard Rohr and myself started working on this as a spirituality. But Henri was the first person to first of all, nibble at its edges. Then at a certain point in his book, Our Greatest Gift to name it explicitly and just say, How do you give your death away? And what does that mean?
Karen: You were the person who, if I read your writing, [unclear] I love that. How was it you found Henri? How did he shape you?
Ron: Well, Henri kind of found everybody. I’ll tell you how I found Henri. I was in graduate school in the early seventies, a young priest and trying to write and I was doing my master’s thesis on the theme of loneliness and just the kind of restlessness in people’s lives. And earlier I had read one book by Henri, which was that book he did on With Open Hands that someone had given to me as an ordination present. It’s a beautiful book – simple, short and so on. But then when I was in grad school that year, Henri wrote a series of articles for the National Catholic Reporter which later became his book Reaching Out. And I often say this to people, it was like being introduced to myself. Like, that series of articles which later became, I think still one of Henri’s great books, Reaching Out, which I think he did in 1975 with the three movements in the spiritual life, from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, from fantasy to prayer. It was explaining me to me. And then after that I became a fan; I started looking up everything he wrote. It wasn’t easy to read everything because Henri wrote a lot, but I think I basically read most everything. But that, Karen, was my initial hook and I knew I wanted to read this guy.
But he’s speaking about what’s moving inside of the human person. And also, Henri invented a new language for writing spirituality. Prior to that, spirituality was written in – you have two kinds, you had like the classical Imitation of Christ and Francis de Sales. And then you had Fulton Sheen and our Sunday Visitor, not that that was bad. But see, Henri really invented a new language which is kind of direct and which he purified during his time. It’s interesting when you read Henri’s earlier books he still uses a fair amount of psychological terms. Later on he purges that completely. It’s just straight language of the heart. He doesn’t use the word narcissism anymore or depression, no clinical terms, just bang -which is language many of us can imitate and use.
Karen: I love where I find a meeting of you and your writing and Henri and it is this language of the heart. And I think you share that gift. And it’s interesting because you have that academic look at it that has the overview and you can see this movement in Henri’s writing. And that’s quite wonderful. I jumped out of asking you, what do you have right now that you are birthing, that you feel God is calling you to? And there must be some impossibility to that. In some ways, everything that surrounds your life makes it very possible for you to keep writing and teaching, et cetera. But there’s also the reality of challenges, I’m sure, that you face. Tell me, what is the Isaac that you are called to birth right now?
Ron: I’ll get very personal here. My dream had been, or fantasy, part of which was fired by Henri. Henri always had this thing about – he understood the dark night of the spirit and see the dark of the spirit is that at a certain point you disappear, you become a nobody. Except Henri could never quite pull that off. Remember he went to the Trappists and that didn’t work, went to South America, that didn’t work. And he went to L’Arche and it kind of worked, but he was still flying all over the world. And so my dream had been to, once I “retire”, that I would go to a Trappist monastery and kind of still write but disappear. And actually, cancer did that in. So now I’m 73, I have cancer, no Trappist is going to take me. It wouldn’t be fair to go there. So now I’m looking to teach and write. But then also, not that I’m looking forward to this, but when my time comes to die and who knows when it’s going to be – I’m on cancer treatments right now – that my Isaac would be to do that in such a way with grace, with humor, to give your death away in a real sense.
Karen: You’re obviously very honest with yourself.
Ron: Yes, well again, I’m sorry I keep coming back to Henri, but remember Henri made a distinction between your achievements and your fruitfulness and at certain point in life your achievements stop, or at least they diminish. But the whole idea is that your fruitfulness can increase. That means the effect of what you’ve done. But the thing I want to inject here is to also, I want to answer your present question a little bit with your other question. John of the Cross has been one of my great mentors and John of the Cross says there’s two ways you can enter the dark night of the spirit. So you can enter it voluntarily, where you do something like Henri, ‘I’m going to go and join L’Arche or something, I’m going to stop my life at Harvard, Yale. Or, it can happen to you conscriptively, which means you go to a doctor’s office and he says you’ve got cancer and you’re going to die. And see, then you enter the dark night of the spirit. So that also circumstance will often dictate what your Isaac is going to be. There’s a certain luxury in picking, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to go to a monastery,’ or something, but for most people it’s more humble. It just happens to them. Your mother gets sick and you’ve got to take care of her. This happens that a circumstance or an illness or something does it to you. It puts you in the night of the spirit. You can go there on purpose or often, for most people, their Isaac is going to be dictated by circumstance. Something’s going to happen.
And that is why – remember there was an older spirituality? My mom and dad lived with what they call it, the ‘duties of state’. And they really believed that if you’re faithful and you’re honest what happens in your life will be your vocation. It’ll show you what God wants for you so that you don’t have to go into this discernment. Where do I do that? What do I do with these years and so on? Stuff will happen. You know, you’re driving, there’s a car accident in front of you. You got to stop.
Karen: What do you think Henri would have said if he was with us in this conversation today given the timeframe, given the pandemic. Do you think he’d have anything to offer into this situation? Does something come to mind?
Ron: Yes. Except on these things, Henri always came up with something novel that was wonderful. And that’s why I can’t guess what it would be, because it would have been – Henri would have written some articles in this I’m sure, that would have been deeply, deeply insightful about what this is calling us to, how it touches our wounds. But precisely the reason Karen I can’t answer that question because if I could, then I could write it myself. But Henri always had a – that was his genius. He could, in these situations – he would write something that would nail it. It would just nail it. And then after he said it, then you say, ‘I should’ve thought of that,’ but you don’t think of it. That’s the reason I can’t write it because that was part of Henri’s unique genius.
Karen: Do you have a favorite book of Henri’s? You mentioned Reaching Out Are there others that you particularly love to go back to?
Ron: Well, I’m going to go with – when they talk about writers they talk about the early and the late. There’s the early Henri, in his early life, the book that I felt was pure genius was that first, very simple book, With Open Hands, but then his book Reaching Out. But a lot of his other stuff was distilled off of that. And I think he did one in 1971 or 70, the other one in 1975. So that’s a lot, you know. And then in his late works of course the ultimate is The Return of the Prodigal Son, but also the book he wrote when he was in the clinic in Winnipeg, The Inner Voice of Love. I mean, all his books were good but those would be my favorites. The Wounded Healer, it’s still the concept that pretty much really got him to Notre Dame and Harvard and Yale and so on. It was, again, one of his genius insights, but it’s one of his earlier books where he’s still got a lot of psychological stuff in it. It’s vintage Henri insight, but not vintage Henri writing like With Open Hands, Reaching Out and then of course The Return of the Prodigal Son, which is his masterpiece. But a hidden little book of his that’s really good is that book, The Inner Voice of Love, when he’s sorting himself, he’s sorting through a clinical depression and he just tries to show that your heart and soul are stronger than your wounds. Basically that’s the thesis. No matter how deeply wounded you are, your heart, you’re stronger than your wounds.
I thought of a line, which is very, very powerful, in the musical Les Miserables when Cosette’s mother dies, [unclear] and in her dying song, she says there are things you can’t overcome. There are things, there’s darkness you can’t overcome. And that’s seems to be so true and Henri struggled there with real darkness. But at the end, you are stronger than your wounds. And you know that’s the power of that book. That’s a great book, vintage passages that you can copy out on that.
Karen: We’re coming up to an anniversary. It will be 25 years in 2021 since Henri died. And it was interesting when I started as the Executive Director, I thought do people still need Henri? And what I’m finding is there is a thirst for what he has written. That continues perhaps even more so during this pandemic, we’ve found in a sense with the daily meditations going out, we hear from so many saying, ‘this is just what I need. It speaks into my life right now.’ I’m grateful for that. We have plans for the year, and I hope people will kind of follow along. We’ll let you know what’s going on. One of our special plans is we’re inviting you to come and be our keynote speaker at the conference we have planned for the beginning of June, it’s June 4th and 5th, and it’s called Henri Nouwen and the Art of Living. And it’s actually a launch of five little booklets that are going to be really about building spiritual formation in the now, in our lives. It’s for small group use in churches and individually, and that sort of thing. And we’re quite excited about it, but I’m delighted you’re coming for that event for us. I noticed on your schedule you’ve got a lot of wonderful things coming up. Would you like to share with us some of those things because I’d love to promote ways in which people can get to hear you teaching and preaching.
Ron: In early February —I think it’s 7th to the 12th — every year I give a national retreat. Normally it would be in person, this year it’s going to be online. This year I’m doing the Incarnation, like the whole body of Christ, what it means and so on. And they could get that off our website. I think the dates of the 7th of February… but it’s a national retreat. And usually we get 150 people here from all over United States and Canada. So this year the whole thing will be online. I am looking very much forward to this Nouwen conference. You may be there for 25 years but he’s not there. But he’s still this huge, huge influence in my life, the lives of many people. So any chance I get to go and speak about Henri or to kind of promote what he’s done, I take it. You know it’s a favor to me. Now I think people sense that I’m not a groupie, but I’m a person who really wants to promote his work. Because I always tell people, you want to be introduced to yourself, start reading Henri Nouwen.
Karen: That’s why you find in Henri a comrade, somebody who has taught you. I think you have learned how to take that voice and bring it out. And I love that about you, Ron. I really enjoy it.
Ron: I want to thank you for the work you’re doing. That’s important work. Henri needs to stay alive.
Karen: I’m looking forward to having you with us in June.
Ron: Okay, thanks Karen. Bye.
Karen: Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. Fr. Ron Rolheiser has given us a vision for how to live our lives fruitfully, even in the midst of a COVID pandemic. Fr. Ron Rolheiser is going to be the keynote speaker for our 25th anniversary online conference scheduled for June 4th and 5th. The conference is called Henri Nouwen and the Art of Living. I hope you’ll join us for this very special virtual gathering. Details of how to register for this and many other special webinars we have planned for 2021 can be found on our Henri Nouwen.org website. For more resources related to today’s podcast click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You can find additional content and book suggestions. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, would you take time to give us a thumbs up or a good review? We also want to encourage you to pass on this podcast to your friends and family. Thanks so much for listening until next time.
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