Ron Rolheiser "" | 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 Nouwen to audiences around the world. Each week, we endeavor to bring you a new interview with someone who, like Henri Nouwen, is thoughtfully and freshly exploring the concerns and issues of Christian spirituality today. We invite you to share the daily meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Our core purpose is to share Henri Nouwen’s spiritual vision so that people can be transformed by experiencing themselves as God’s beloved.
Now, let me introduce you to my guest today. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak with Father Ron Rolheiser. Ron is the author of 17 books. The latest is Ronald Rolheiser: Essential Spiritual Writings, and it’s part of the Orbis Books’ Modern Spiritual Masters series.
I’ve always considered Ron the leading scholar and interpreter of Henri Nouwen. This book is a treasury of Ron’s best writing, addressing themes like: what is spirituality; sexuality and sacred fire; faith, doubt, and dark nights within the soul; prayer and the perennial invitation to go deeper; and on and on. Father Ron and his editor, Alicia von Stamwitz, have drawn not just from his published books, but also from the weekly publication In Exile, a weekly column that appears in over 80 papers around the world.
Ron, welcome to Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. This book really delivers on your essential spiritual writings. What I enjoyed most is your tone. There’s honesty, wit and kindness woven throughout. You have a real understanding of human nature, but also of God’s nature. Tell me, how did this book come about? Did Alicia push you to do it, or did Robert Ellsberg? How did the book come about?
Ron Rolheiser: Well, you know, Robert Ellsberg, who is the editor and the publisher at Orbis, he approached me to do the book, and of course I was highly, highly flattered. You know, that’s a series of some 40 or 50 books and it’s major theologians from [inaudible] to Teilhard de Chardin, so a little bit in spirituality, like the Hall of Fame? But then he said, “Who might be an editor?” Because you know, you don’t do the book yourself; somebody sets the book up. And I’d worked with Alicia on a number of projects, you know, when she was with different presses – liturgical press, Franciscan press – and I knew she’d be really good and that she knows my writings through and through. So, I asked her and so, she met with me a couple of times to look at different writings, but basically Alicia set the book together, but it was Orbis pressed their initiative. So, it’s part of a series. And like I said, Karen, I was highly flattered.
Karen Pascal: So, blame you. You’re a modern spiritual master. That’s a great title, right?
Ron Rolheiser: Spirituality Hall of Fame, you know?
Karen Pascal: I could see you putting that on a lapel. You know, “I’m a modern spiritual master.”
But I truly believe you are, Ron. I get so much out of your writing. And when I dipped into this book, I have to say, I got lots out of it. I really have enjoyed it. You start by telling a little bit of your own story. And it was interesting to me, you told about an event right at the beginning about, actually, a suicide, that had a profound impact on you. It seemed to be like something that stopped you in your tracks. Tell me about that.
Ron Rolheiser: Yeah. It happened when I was 14 years old, summer of 14, you know? Who is it, Steinbeck, wrote, the “summer of my discontent?” I was 14 years old. I wasn’t in high school. And my biggest ambition was to try to make the baseball team. That was all that was on my mind.
And I came to breakfast one morning and my neighbor that dropped into the yard, we were in a farm, and talked to my dad. My dad came in, he was pretty somber. And he says our neighbor said he had hung himself at the barn the night before. And this guy was a man of about 25 years old, perfect body, handsome, a really nice guy. And you know, at that age I had nothing with which to process that, this guy killing himself. And in my whole life, Karen, nothing has ever scarred me or touched me as deeply.
I just went through six months of just trying to process this. I was very unhappy. And then, in June, another young person from our community got killed in an industrial accident. And then in September, one of my best friends died in a horseback-riding accident.
And so, it was just that summer, and you know, through the deaths of my parents and siblings and so on, I’ve never been touched that much. It’s also one of the reasons why I still write a lot about suicide. It just changed my life. There’s another way of putting it, you know, and that’s 60 years ago, almost, and still I can pull the memory up because it’s as fresh as if it happened yesterday.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting to me that it’s a time when we feel invincible. Death feels so far away and it actually came right into your face, into your life, into your story.
Ron Rolheiser: And it’s also suicide. Like, it’s one thing when somebody dies against their will. It’s [another] thing like this handsome young man whose body I envied. He was an athlete and I thought, for him just to kill himself? And then, of course, religiously at that time we had, if somebody commits suicide, will they go to hell? And all kinds of stuff; you’re processing all this stuff and so on. But I think it was the first time that death was real; before that, some old people died. And you know, when you’re 14, if somebody’s 60 years old, they’re old.
This just made it real. But it was a faith experience. You know, I think my vocation and a lot of things rose out of that basis: What’s important in life. What do I believe in? And so on.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting to me. I love hearing your roots, your Saskatchewan roots. And obviously, it’s a root that you turn back to, return to on a yearly basis. But as I read through these pages of spiritual insights, I am rather struck by: Does it ever surprise you that you became a priest? I mean, of all things. You have such a terrifically, for lack of a better word, robust, wildly interesting idea about life and about God. And it engages me so much in your books. But I wondered, did you ever think, “How did I get here?”
Ron Rolheiser: Yes and no. You know, the irony is, Karen, that’s been clear, you know, and it’s not something I wanted. I became a priest because of a call. When I was in high school, the last thing I wanted to be, was a Roman Catholic priest. You know, that the whole thing about the whole black and the cassock and being set apart from others and celibacy and everything else. I thought this isn’t for me. It was a call. And I made that decision at 17, after I finished high school: I’m going to go into the seminary. It’s the most difficult decision I ever made in my life. And it’s the clearest one I ever made. People say, “How can you do that at 17?” And I look back, that’s the clearest, purest decision I ever made in my life, you know?
And part of what’s still, you know, maybe a remnant from the 14-year-old processing suicide and death, but it’s just that I realized that this is what I’m called to. And I kind of made this deal with God: I want to try this, but as soon as it doesn’t work, I’m going to leave. But it always worked. And, you know, a priest’s life is not easy; celibate life isn’t easy, you know? And sometimes I thought, like, in the world, but it’s always worked for me, and I’ve always been happy and it’s always been generative. So, I thought, like, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’ve always been at a place where I felt I was able to generate life. It’s generated life in me. It’s kept me growing. I have my own faults and weaknesses, but I’d be a lot worse if I wasn’t a priest, you know? And I don’t mean this cynically, but I probably saved some poor woman from having a bad husband.
Karen Pascal: Well, this book that we’re going to talk about is essential spiritual writings. Well, what’s the difference between spirituality and theology?
Ron Rolheiser: That’s a good question. I always tell that to my students: What’s the difference between theology and spirituality? I’m going to use a simple rule, a simple thing here. Well, first of all, most theology, Karen, isn’t theology; it’s writings about theology. You know, the word theology means, you know, it comes from two Greek words, theos and logos. Theos is God, logos is words. So, it’s words about God. So, you know, our creeds and stuff are words about God, but a lot of theology is words about those words. But spirituality is theology being lived out.
So, I’m going to give you a simple analogy, which I give my students. And that is, for instance, you take a game – hockey, okay, since you’re dealing with Canadians here. Hockey is a game and you have the rule book, you’ve got to play within those parameters and rules. That’s theology. But spirituality is the game. See, theology tells you the limits of creed and what it means and so on, but when you’re living it out, that’s spirituality. So, theology, it’s the rules, it sets you, this is the field you need to play on, and here are the rules by which you play. But spirituality is the game. It’s living it out. So, maybe, spirituality is how you live out your theology. Because for instance, as you know, as Christians, we have the same basic theology. We have very different lives, sometimes. Even the churches, how a Lutheran and a Roman Catholic or an evangelical live out the gospel can be . . . there’s fundamentally, there’s some parts that are the same, but there’s different ways. So, for instance, Roman Catholicism is a spirituality. Evangelicalism is a spirituality. It’s a different way of living out the game.
Karen Pascal: Right. “A healthy soul keeps us both energized and glued together,” which I find is a great expression. And everyone has to have a spirituality. You’re quite convincing about that. I find that interesting, too. Tell me how Henri Nouwen influenced you, because it seems to me, maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t know that so many are talking about spirituality, but you have become such a wonderful voice for this. And probably prior to you, it was Henri. Tell me a little bit about that relationship, of you to Henri Nouwen.
Ron Rolheiser: Yeah. You know, actually, I’ll get to his influence, but I only actually only met Henri Nouwen once, in the summer of ‘88. And actually, he wasn’t supposed to be on the card. There was a national health convention in Winnipeg, huge, 800 people or something. And I was one of the keynote speakers and Mary Malone was the other keynote speaker, but her husband died. And so, they were desperately looking for a speaker, and Henri happened to be in Winnipeg. So, they brought him and of course he wowed the crowd. And you know, I was actually upset with the crowd, because the whole world was trying to get him to speak. They had him, but they didn’t know who he was. So, during the coffee breaks, people say, “He’s not bad, you know, for a substitute. He’s pretty good.”
And I thought, “Everybody’s trying to get him, and you get him by accident. You don’t know what he has.” So, I met him there and we wrote a couple of times, and so on. That was my only personal experience, but the experience of his writings in my life is huge, huge. And you know, and again, I’m glad you talked about the distinction between theology and spirituality. See, the theologians that have most influenced me are Saint Augustine and then Thomas Aquinas and then Karl Rahner – those are all theoretical people, you know? But Henri really is in that tradition. You know, if you take Karl Rahner and St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and you boil them down and distill them and put them on the ground, that was Henri. So, Henri gave that legs.
So, I’m a theologian. I’m a spiritual writer. When I write theology, I use those people. But see, Henri Nouwen gave this legs. But also, and I want to try to explain: this is very important. He gave it a genre, you know? And let me explain what I mean by that. I’ll use a simple example. I have a friend, Steven Bell, I think you’ve met Steven. I think he was at the Nouwen convention, and he’s a music writer. And he tells this story. He said he was the son of a Baptist minister. And he said, “I wasn’t allowed to listen to rock music.” And he says, “And I was a musician. And I know I can’t write church music, and gospel rock I don’t like,” he said. “And one day, I heard John Michael Talbot, and I thought, that’s it. I can do like that.” And he’s becoming a very good writer.
See, there’s so many of us, you know, if you look at spiritual writings before Henri Nouwen, in different traditions, so we have the classical spiritual writings, The Imitation of Christ, you know, and then Francis de Sales and this, and then you have, more recently, people like Fulton Sheen. Or you have in the evangelical tradition, Billy Graham, and you have all these spiritual writers. I’m not Billy Graham. I’m not Fulton Sheen. I’m not The Imitation of Christ. When Nouwen came along, I said, “That’s it!” Nouwen essentially invented a language and a genre. See, this is the way you write spirituality. And today, almost everybody at the popular, that’s worth reading, is writing in that genre. You know?
So, notice, we’re not writing, like, The Imitation of Christ. We’re not writing like Francis of Sales’ The Devout Life. We’re not writing like Billy Graham, or the charismatic-type writing, and so on. Everybody’s writing like Henri Nouwen, you know. And Nouwen – I’ve given talks on this – he has a formula. I’m not sure if he ever explicitly wrote it down, but he gave it in pieces and I’ve read on how you write spiritually, you know, and it’s always paradoxical. So, for instance, Henri tried to be simple without being simplistic. So, he would rewrite his books over to try to make them simple, but not simplistic, you know, which is exactly what Jesus was. Jesus has stories simply for kids, but they write books on him, you know?
See, and then Henri never hid the fact that he was a Roman Catholic priest, you know, but he wasn’t writing denominationally. He wrote out of that, but his thing almost has a universal scope. And then, you know, an art he mastered that very few people get it. And that’s what made Henri so [inaudible]. Henri could write deep, personal things that bare the soul without being exhibitionistic. You know, most people can’t do that. Either, you know, they self-protect too much and it’s too safe, or they become exhibitionistic. And people say more than I need to know.
Remember when Henri, like, he could bare his soul. I’ll just give you some quotes from Henri. He says, “I want to be a great saint, but I want to experience all the sensations that sinners experience.” He said, “I want to have a deep life of prayer, but I don’t want to miss anything on television.”
See, only Henri could formulate stuff like this, you know, so that you could be deeply personal, but not exhibitionistic. You never have to turn your eyes away and say, “I don’t want to see this. I don’t need to know this,” you know, and all the ways. So, he developed a genre, he developed the language.
And one of the things he taught me, too, is he taught me the difference between Jesus and Christ. You know that I used to, before I got deeply influenced by Henri, I would always write them synonymously: Jesus Christ. That’s like his second name, you know: Jack Parker, Susie Smith, Jesus Christ, you know? And Henri [said], “No, no. Jesus is a person who you have intimacy with; Christ is a mystery that you’re part of.”
And so, now I’m really careful: You’re talking about Jesus, or you’re talking about Christ. You’re talking about Jesus Christ, the two together and so on. But all the way down, I make about 15 distinctions like that.
But so, first of all, the other thing where Henri influenced me, influenced all of us, that was so powerful: He could share his weakness, and share his weakness in such a way that it, first of all, it wasn’t exhibitionistic, but it actually helped you to move forward. And partly, that’s the essence of spiritual writing. And so, Karen, his influence on my spirituality is just huge. In fact, I gave a talk the other day at a workshop. And I said, “I’m going to use some Henri Nouwen pedagogy right now.” And that was his thing, about movements, from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality. Now, a lot of people are using that; they use it pedagogically, and so on. That was Henri. As you know, he was a tortured genius, but he was a genius. To me, Henri’s still a saint, you know: a tortured saint, but a real saint.
Karen Pascal: I love that. I love that. And I love your knowing of him and understanding. And it’s funny, because as I read this book, these essential spiritual writings, I find that kind of self-deprecating honesty in you. You’re very real about who you are. There’s no . . . you don’t build a high pedestal. You kind of undo yourself in the midst of this. And I find that very refreshing and it actually makes it so easy to take from somebody who comes down and lives on my level and tells me, “I’m just like this, and this is what you’re going to get.”
In the book you call Eros the basis of spiritual life. Can you explain what you mean by that? How is Eros the basis of spiritual life?
Ron Rolheiser: Okay, good question, Karen. First of all, for most people in our Western world, now, when we say eros or erotic, they think sex. No, no. Sexuality, it’s important, but it’s only one part of that. Eros is your life principle. You know what a baby is born, as Freud says, it’s just this pure . . . it reaches out it, it pulls everything to itself and it tries to eat up the world. You know, it’s your life principle, you know. It’s all your energy. It’s your eros, you know? Now, notice that comes from – that’s your spirit, that comes from your spirit. Like, your soul isn’t some invisible piece of tissue paper that’s floating around inside your body. Your soul is your principle of energy. It is your spirit, okay. So, quite simply, what I want to say is what you do with your spirit is your spirituality. So, you know, that famous example: If I wrote it today, I’d use different people, maybe. But remember I used that famous example, like three kinds of spirituality. So, you look at Mother Teresa. So, to everybody, Mother Teresa was a deeply spiritual woman, but very few people think of Mother Teresa as an erotic woman, this kind of thing.
But Mother Teresa was very erotic in that she had a powerful energy inside of her. I mean, she steamrolled, nobody was fooled by this little woman. You know, she just, she was this power force in history. But she had it all channeled: just God and the poor, God and the poor, God and the poor. And that was her spirituality.
Then on the other side, I put Janis Joplin. Today, you could use Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, a lot of actors and so on who have died, who, you know, you never think of them as spiritual. They were powerful spiritual figures, you know. Not like Mother Teresa, like for instance Janis Joplin. She could go in an arena with 50,000 people and simply create energy, you know, but she struggled to channel it. Her energy went everywhere and eventually it killed her, see. So, but that was her spirituality.
Mother Teresa has this kind of spirituality, Janis Joplin has that kind of spirituality. Then in between, a wonderful example – now, I don’t know if today’s generation will still get her – is Princess Diana. You know what’s interesting? Princess Diana died [in] 1997. At that point, at that time, her death and funeral stopped the world, her funeral more than any other funeral in history – of kings and popes, and so on. It was the most-watched event ever.
And people say, “Why? She didn’t do anything,” you know? She was the people’s princess. And I know, I watched her funeral know with fascination. I thought, “Why am I intrigued with this woman?” Well, in some sense, she was exactly half Mother Teresa and half Janis Joplin, see. So, she had a powerful eros, but you know, so she’d go and work with Mother Teresa, and she’d learn how to say the rosary. In fact, she’s buried with a rosary from Mother Teresa in her hand. And she’d work with the poor and the next week she’d go on a vacation with a playboy on the French Riviera. And eventually, that also, in some sense, led to her death.
But see, but we always say that Mother Teresa was spiritual, Janis Joplin wasn’t, and Princess Diana was half-spiritual. No, that’s what’s your spirituality. That’s really, everybody has one. What you do with your energy inside is your spirituality and how you channel it.
Now I’ll give you a word. You know, we use the word in Christianity, “discipleship” – we’re disciples of Christ. But notice where that word comes, Karen. It comes from the word “discipline.” See, you know, you put yourself under a discipline. Christianity is a discipline. Buddhism is a discipline, you know, and see, so that’s the way you discipline your eros. You know? So, you’re a Christian, I’m a Christian, you know, your eros itself is wild; it goes in every direction. Your eros wants to drink in the whole world, you know? And now you discipline it, you channel it. And by discipleship, I think very few people realize that discipleship comes from the word “discipline.” And you know, in fact it’s even clearer in Hinduism and Buddhism. Know what they call their spirituality? They call it a yoga. See, we use yoga for a physical [inaudible] and say, “that’s a yoga.” You practice a yoga, but for them, the yoga means not just the body. These are the disciplines you do. So, we use the word, discipline, discipleship. They use the word yoga.
Karen Pascal: There’s a lovely quote in your book that says, “We are each a bundle of untamed eros, a wild desire, longing, restlessness, loneliness, dissatisfaction, sexuality, and insatiability. This is not a sign that something’s wrong. It means something is right.” It’s your aliveness, isn’t it?
Ron Rolheiser: Yeah. Can I tell you a story on that? You know, since we were talking about my youth: I went to the novitiate when I was 17, and I was 18 when I was there. And so (you have to picture this): There were 18 of us and three faculty members, and of the 18 of us, the average age is probably 18 or 19. So, there were like 18 guys, about 19 years old and we were sequestered. In those days, they sequestered. So, we were across a lake from a town and a freeway. But for that year, we only saw each other, young guys, because of course we’re full of testosterone and every kind of thing. And so, we just talked about Jesus as the bread of life and so on.
And one day, we had a visit from an elderly priest – great old guy – and he gets us into a conference room and he says, “Are you guys a little restless?”
“Yes,” we said.
“Great,” he said. “That’s good. Jesus, you must be jumping out of your skin. God, you must be going nuts over here, 18-year-old guys watching life across the lake. That’s good; it means you’re healthy. It’s good.”
And you know, I realized that was the first time somebody gave me sacred permission to feel what I’m feeling. “You’re going nuts,” he said. “Good, good. Otherwise, you’d have to need some hormone shots.”
See, he gave us sacred permission to feel what we’re feeling. I hope that line that you just read helps give people a little sacred permission to . . . because oftentimes in the name of spirituality, we deny this, like, “No, I don’t feel like that.” It’s like the person who’s white-knuckled and says, “I’m not angry.” No, you’re angry. We are restless critters.
Karen Pascal: You know, I think that describes so well what people are going to find in this book, and it’s one of the reasons I’m going to recommend it. You give permission for people to feel what they’re feeling, you know. In a sense, we’re in that camp, looking across the lake, going, “I don’t want to live in denial of what I’m feeling.”
Ron Rolheiser: That’s exactly what Henri did, too. You know what Henri did? Henri is one of the people who gave me permission to feel what I’m feeling. You know, that’s one of his great strengths and maybe where I imitate him most or so on, or draw from him, is just permission to feel your complexity. Because, you know, Henri was one complex critter. They could write two books of abnormal psychology on him, you know, but that’s what made him deep, you know? And he gave you permission to feel your complexity, your pathologies, and say, “This what it means to be a human being.”
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting. The number of times we just hear from our people that read the daily meditations, how much it’s like, “He’s just like me.” And that makes it so genuinely valuable, because you see in it godliness, saintliness, and reality. And we are this wonderful mix of all of those things. And it is very meaningful. I was going to tell you that one of the parts of the book I enjoyed so much was as you very honestly speak about loneliness, about what that’s all about. It really struck me; and you had five types of loneliness, but I would say the honesty of loneliness as the human condition has to be confessed first.
Ron Rolheiser: Tell me how you mean, “confessed.”
Karen Pascal: As I read it, I felt like you basically go back and say, “Yeah, you are lonely.” We’ve all been, in our own way, abandoned in birth. We’re kind of longing to go back into a belonging. I think what I found in your book was the depth to which you understand how we long to belong. You know, that’s something that I loved there.
Ron Rolheiser: Can I give you something colorful, that won’t scandalize your audience? I used to tell students, there’s this great line in scripture, in the book of Kohelet Ecclesiastes, where he says, “God has made everything beautifully in its own time, but God has put timelessness into the human heart.” So, the human heart is out of sync with the seasons, you know? And they say, do you know what that means? I said, “It means this: that cattle contentedly munch grass in pastures, and human beings discontentedly smoke grass in bars.”
See, cattle don’t get lonely. I mean maybe a little bit, but anyway, they don’t have this deep restlessness. Human beings? It’s part of our nature. And again, it’s the part that’s for God. Like, you know, the deepest thing that’s influenced all of my theology and thinking is Saint Augustine: “You’ve made us for yourself, Lord and our hearts are restless and lonely until they rest in you.” That captures it all, really, you know.
Karen Pascal: It does. It does. You mentioned that you think that in a way loneliness – and that kind of goes with what you just said – is the very thing, there’s a purpose in loneliness that pulls us toward people, pulls us towards experience, pulls us with longing, towards connecting.
Ron Rolheiser: You know – because we haven’t talked about it yet – you know, the word sexuality, sex. I don’t know if that’s in the book, if it made the cut, but the word sex in English comes from the Latin verb secāre, and secāre means literally “to cut off.” So, if you take a chainsaw, you saw a branch off, you’ve just sexed that branch. See, now it’s lying on the ground. It’s disconnected from the whole. See, so our sexuality, it wants to drive us back to the whole, to community, to family, to celebration and so on, see. So that we’re lonely, and we’re also lonely in sex, not just in our bodies, but in every part of us: in our spirit, in our souls. We’re cut off and we want to be part of something whole. We want, we need to be part of a union, of a community, of communion.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, because you admit in the book that Christianity still struggles to fully celebrate sexual passion. I find you dare to go there and you go there so totally to talk about it. And I think it’s one of the best parts about this book. You talk about the failure to celebrate healthy sexuality.
Ron Rolheiser: Well, Karen, let me give you a little background on that. It’s interesting, you know, as a celibate, early on I wrote a few articles and I got a lot of pushback, and I got scared. And so, for instance, when I wrote The Holy Longing, I didn’t write a chapter on sexuality. I didn’t; I just thought like they don’t need to hear something from a celibate. They’re going to say, “What does he know?” And so on. And then I submitted it; my first publisher was Hodder and Stoughton in England, before it went to Doubleday. And a very sharp editor there, Carolyn Armitage, she phoned me. She says, “Father, you have to write a chapter on sexuality. You can’t write a book on spirituality.” And so, I did it. And actually, it’s one of the best-reviewed chapters in the book.
But I’m convinced. . . for instance, I’m a Roman Catholic and I’m a proud Christian and so on, but I’ll be the first person to say, not just Roman Catholicism, but we’ve never had anywhere in the church or the churches, a healthy, robust, real spirituality and had sexual ethos. We haven’t. So, for instance, Roman Catholicism (and did I say this sympathetically? I am one). You know, for instance, who gets canonized in the church? Celibates. I can get canonized. You can’t, because you’re married. So, what is that saying? And John Paul actually took it one further. He canonized a couple because they were heroic – they weren’t having sex. So, what does that say?
Or – and I’ve explored that in my writing – sometimes if I write an article where in any way I attribute sexuality to Jesus, to Mary or to some holy person, I get canceled in a newspaper. You can’t do that. A few years ago, I wrote an article. I quoted Robert Moore, and I still like this line. Robert Moore says, God is ineffable. Because we’re talking about God’s gender. You can’t say God is a he and you can’t say God is a she and God isn’t trans and God isn’t bisexual, well, because we can’t conceive of God, but God is male and female. And so, Robert Moore says, “You know how we should think of God?” And I think he was quoting Eliade. And he said, “Think of perfect masculinity and perfect femininity, making perfect love all the time.” And that is why God is so fertile. When I wrote that in an article, and editor of a newspaper sent me an email. He says, “You’ve got to withdraw that; that’s blasphemous.” I said, “Well, if you find one professional theologian or one bishop who’ll publicly dispute that, I’ll withdraw it.” So, a week later he sent me a little email. He says, “Be that as it may, we’re going to move on with younger writers.”
But you know, you can’t touch that, you know? But it shows there’s still blockage. Now, I don’t want to pick on Roman Catholicism or Christianity. We haven’t done it, but neither has anybody else. Now when I look at the world, I don’t see a healthy sexual ethos. It’s not in secular culture. It’s not in Chinese or communist culture or Buddhist cultures, and so on. It’s not in Islamic culture. If someone says, “Where do you think, among everybody, is the healthiest,” I would say Judaism, the Jewish culture. I see that sometimes in Judaism where there’s a much healthier, robust expression of sexuality, that’s still responsible. See, our culture now is free of sex, but it’s completely irresponsible. That’s not the way to go. You take all the brakes off and you have hook-up sex and all kinds of stuff that’s going nowhere. That’s going to emptiness, you know. So, Christianity, sometimes we’re kind of the other extreme. And as I say in the book and say often in columns, we have to be both passionate and chaste. We’ve got to be robustly sexual and robustly chaste.
Karen Pascal: Explain that, take that. What do you mean by chaste? When you say that I have certain things that come to mind. What do you mean?
Ron Rolheiser: Okay, good question. See, Karen, chastity isn’t the same thing as celibacy. Don’t mix the two up. See, for instance, I can be celibate and not chaste. Somebody can be chaste and not celibate. My parents were two of the most chaste people I ever knew, and they had a big family and none of us were conceived immaculately, I’m sure. Chastity is a question of respect, of reverence. In fact, the primary image of chastity comes from scripture and it’s Moses before the burning bush, when God says, “Moses, take off your shoes. The ground you’re standing on is holy ground.” So, I say chastity is a combination of reverence, respect, and patience. You know, in all relationships, there’s got to be a healthy reverence. There’s got to be healthy respect. There’s got to be a healthy patience.
And you know, Annie Dillard has a wonderful image of chastity. I’m not sure it’s in that book where she said, one time she was watching a butterfly coming out of its cocoon and she was fascinated by this, and it was interminably slow. So, after a few hours, she lost patience, took a candle and she just heated it a little bit. So, it happened faster. But then when the butterfly came out, it couldn’t fly. Its wings were premature. See, that’s an image of chastity: the wait for the proper time and so on. So that the world today is very sexual and passionate at times, but it doesn’t get chastity. And sometimes the churches get chastity and they don’t get a robust sexuality, you know? See, that it’s the two together and it’s a tension.
Karen Pascal: I’d like to talk a little bit about something that you really unwrap in this book. And it’s the Incarnation. You’re absolutely determined that we get the Incarnation, because it seems to be essential. It’s got to be a bit of a messy Christmas, not a polite one, you know? And I love that. I think it’s really important. Tell us a little bit why you think that’s so important, and what difference it makes to spirituality.
Ron Rolheiser: Well, I’ll start with the name. You know, we call ourselves Christian, and I’m not sure we often realize what that means. Or let’s take the word Christ. I said, Henri, help sort this out! See, the word Christ isn’t Jesus’ second name, you know – Jack Smith, Jesus Christ. Christ is a title. And basically, Christos means “the anointed one,” or it really means “that place in the world where God has flesh, he’s Jesus, the enfleshed one.” But see, that’s also you and I. That’s the entire Christian community. Like Paul says, we are the body of Christ. Notice he doesn’t say we’re like a body or replace the body. He says, we are the body of Christ. So that, and Jesus says everything I can do, you can do.
So, what I said in book, Jesus didn’t go home on the Ascension, see. The Incarnation wasn’t a 33-year experiment. You know what? Jesus came down and did his 33 years and then went home and, and now the Holy Spirit runs it, you know. Christ came and he never left. Jesus left; Christ didn’t leave. And especially in The Holy Longing, I draw out at length the implications of that.
Let me just give you one example of the implication of that, which is very, very real and very consoling. So often, people come and say, “My kids don’t go to church anymore. I raised them. They’re good. They don’t go to church. What can I do? Can I pray for them?” It says you can be Christ for them. Basically put, if you are a practicing Christian – and this isn’t a wild fantasy – if you say, “My heaven includes my kids,” it does, because you are the body of Christ. And as long as they’re relating to you, they’re relating to the body of Christ. They might not be going to a formal church. That sounds fantastical. It’s not; that’s Christian doctrine. Jesus said, “All the power I have, I’m leaving you,” which is in the power of the keys. You know, when he says, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven,” he wasn’t just talking to Peter. He was talking to all of us, see, so that where you can look at a grandchild or a friend and say, “My heaven includes this person” – and it does. See, that’s fantastical power and it’s not fantastical doctrine. That’s solid Catholic, Christian doctrine in all the churches.
As a professor, whenever I do comprehensive exams for graduate students, I’ll ask them this question: What’s the difference between being a Christian and being a theist? You know, a theist believes in God, a Christian believes in a God in heaven and a God on earth. See, our God isn’t just in heaven. Our God is here, you know? And for instance, I’m a Catholic priest. People come to me for confession, that sacrament of confession. You can forgive somebody; they’re forgiven. You can say, “I forgive you.” You know, I can see that [inaudible] power is everywhere, you know, and I think we’re too unaware of it. I think we’re . . . so many of us as Christians, we’re theists: We believe in God, but we’d be loath to believe in this earthly Christ who, and you know the famous line from Teresa of Avila, the hands on earth right now, Christ’s hands are your hands, the body, it’s your body. His mouth is your mouth.
Karen Pascal: That’s lovely. That’s what I am enjoying so much about, that’s what you give me as I read this book. And I’ve got to tell you, my favorite chapter was the chapter on prayer. I can’t tell you that I’m a terrific pray-er or anything like that. I learned a lot in that chapter. It was really, really helpful. And so, in a sense, I want to encourage people: This book, when it says “Essential Spiritual Writings,” has good stuff on so many different levels. You know, one of the things that came out, and I’m just going to ask you maybe to put it in your own words, because I quite enjoyed it, was the difference between meditation and contemplation. I think I had those two things merged in my mind, but I learned from something you shared. Maybe you could share it with the rest of us.
Ron Rolheiser: Okay. Well first, Karen, I want to qualify that what I’m going to give you, that comes from the Carmelite tradition and the desert fathers and mothers. Now, but there’s a different software that Jesuits and Ignatian spirituality wouldn’t exactly make it the same way. So, contemplation and meditation are used in different ways.
So, I always tell people there’s two sets of software out there, Apple and Microsoft. So, I’m giving you the Microsoft software. The Jesuits are Apple, okay. But this comes from the desert fathers and then through the great mystics, [inaudible] and Teresa and John and so on. But they say meditation is discursive, and it’s precisely an attempt to have a conversation with Jesus, to think about gospel passages and to say, “What’s Jesus saying to me, and what am I asking for?” And so on. And that’s an important form of prayer.
Contemplation is the opposite. Contemplation: You don’t try to meditate at all. It’s today what we call “centering prayer.” You just go and sit with God. You just go and sit. You make a meditation at the beginning for two minutes and say, “God, I’m here to be with you.” Then you just sit and whatever happens, happens. You’re not trying to make a conversation with God. You’re not trying to think, “What is God trying to tell me?” That’s meditation. You just sit there, and it’s predicated on this: Imagine a married couple. On their honeymoon, in the first couple years, they have to talk a lot. When you’re married for 60 years, sometimes you just have to be in the same room with each other. You don’t have to say anything, you know? See, the deeper you move with God, they’d say, the deeper you move into contemplation where it’s all been said. You just go there and you sit.
In fact, Thomas Keating, the great spiritual writer, when he talks about contemplation, he doesn’t even call it prayer. He says, “Just go and sit.” Imagine your mother is in a seniors’ home. You just go and you sit with her. You may be talking about the weather. You may be talking about nothing. You may both fall asleep. You’re there, and that’s a deeper form of prayer. They say meditation, that’s the beginning; when you’re younger and in the spiritual life, you do meditation. Later on, that’s important because, and John of the Cross says, you’d come to it naturally. When you start practicing meditation, a contemplation is when meditation doesn’t work anymore. When you sit in church and say your regular prayers and they don’t mean the same thing anymore, you know?
But I wanted to throw a wild card in here. People often ask, well then, for instance, Roman Catholics, what’s the rosary? Is that meditation or contemplation? It can work either way. See, if you’re meditating on the mysteries and trying to think, that’s meditation. If you’re using it simply as a mantra to be present, then it’s contemplation.
So, a lot of our ritual prayers, like the rosary, are beautiful, because they can work either way. You can use the rosary as a meditation. You can use the rosary as contemplation, where simply the beads become your mantra. And you’re just with God for those 15 or 20 minutes.
Karen Pascal: Now, Ron, you have officially retired. You were the head of the Oblate School of Theology for many years. And now, what are you up to now? I can imagine you’re much in demand as a speaker, because I know that I’m always at your doorstep, saying, “Please come! Please come!” But what are you up to? Are you writing some new books? What are you into right now?
Ron Rolheiser: I’m first going to correct you. I didn’t retire; I stepped down as president. No, I’m a full-time faculty member here. And in fact, the irony is I’m maybe busier than before. So, I’m working with a lot of thesis students, teaching. But the other question: Yeah, I’m writing, I’m writing. I have minor writing projects. I’ve got to write a major article on John of the Cross, and so on. But in terms of books, I have two books that I want to do. And one of them is the third trilogy from Holy Longing, Sacred Fire. This is going to be called Insane for the Light. So, Holy Longing is a book about how do you get your life together? Sacred Fire is, how do you give your life away? And it’s going to be, how do you give your death away? How do you age?
And then I want to do, and I’m always hesitant to say this, because it sounds pious and so on. I want to do a major book on chastity, because it’s so important and it’s died in our culture. I was invited to give a talk at Boston College a few years ago, and Tom Groome invited me. He says, “I want you to talk about chastity, but don’t say the word; it’ll turn everybody off.” But it’s the most desperately needed thing there is, you know? So, I want to do a book on chastity. And I want to practice. I’m doing a series of lectures here in March and I want to just test out these ideas on people and so on. That won’t be a major book; that the big major book is the third of the trilogy of how do you age and die?
Karen Pascal: You know, it’s interesting, because one of the things that we saw with Henri’s writing, sort of in the years before he died, he was writing a lot about giving his death away, wasn’t he? He had somehow seen beyond that veil and understood that there was going to be a blessing in it that would stay with others.
Ron Rolheiser: You know, it’s interesting. He’s one of the first people who tipped us off with that. I’ve also got it from the mystics – John of the Cross and the mystics. But most of our spirituality stopped. Most of our spirituality stopped with your aging, you know? And in fact, it didn’t need to go further because people used to die earlier. You know, if you have a heart attack and die at 55 or 60, you don’t need a spirituality of aging. You know that in 1900 – you know, that’s a hundred years ago – the average age [of death] in the United States and Canada was 40. Forty, you know?
Karen Pascal: Oh, my goodness.
Ron Rolheiser: You know, it’s double now, you know, so if people are dying young, you don’t need, you know . . . But Nouwen was the first person, contemporary writer to put out a book. Remember he called “our last, greatest gift: How do you give your death away?” And it’s too bad Henri didn’t live longer, because he was just beginning to explore that. But today, we’re trying to develop that into something major, because it’s so needed. Like today, a lot of people retire in their early sixties or mid-sixties and they’re wonderfully healthy. They’re going to live another 30 years. Now, what are these 30 years for? And then, you know, you can’t golf for 30 years. It’s not a full-time job. So, what are they for? And then how do you prepare to, as Nouwen says, to make – I like the way he says that “your death is your last, greatest gift to your family and community,” so that when you go away, you’re leaving behind a spirit that’s clean, a spirit that isn’t clinging, a spirit that isn’t bitter, and so on. We have a whole program here at school now called Forest Dwelling, in which we take 80 people for a two-year program. They come in a couple of times a year for a week. And so, we do things on how do you age and how do you give your death away?
Karen Pascal: Beautiful and important question. Really important question.
It is always a treat for me to talk with you. And I do hope that as people are listening, I just want to recommend: Please get this book, The Essential Spiritual Writings by Ron Rolheiser. He is one of our spiritual masters, one of our living spiritual masters, and you will be blessed. The book is just a delicious filling-up spiritually, clarifying spiritually, and very freeing. That’s what I love about you, Ron: It’s very freeing. It’s very real and very freeing. Thank you so much. Thank you for being that champion for Henri Nouwen. Thank you, because you get him and then you help us get him. That means a great deal to me. Thank you.
Ron Rolheiser: Karen, I also want to thank the Society. Thank you for keeping Henri [inaudible], because he’s important. You know, I don’t do this work on Henri Nouwen for some [inaudible] reason; it’s just, he is that important. You know, I look at what he did in my life, but you know, when I get students to do papers and stuff on him, they’re being introduced to themselves, you know, and they get the genre.
Karen Pascal: That’s lovely. Thank you so much. Thanks for your time. This has been good.
Ron Rolheiser: Thanks Karen. Thanks for all the good work you and the Society do.
Karen Pascal: Thank you. Bye-bye.
Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. Father Ron Rolheiser has shared with us some wonderful insights into the spiritual life. The new book that brings together an extraordinary collection of Ron’s writings is called Ronald Rolheiser: Essential Spiritual Writings. It’s published by Orbis. 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, please take time to give us a thumbs-up or a good review. We also want to encourage you to pass on this podcast and our daily, free Henri Nouwen meditations to your friends and family.
Thanks for listening. Until next time.
Praise from our podcast listeners
Help share Nouwen’s spiritual vision
When you give to the Henri Nouwen Society, you join us in offering inspiration, comfort, and hope to people around the world. Thank you for your generosity and partnership!