Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Beyond Growing Up: Sacred Fire

Ronald  Rolheiser. Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity. (New York: Image, 2014). See my response to a book dealing with the same topic by Rolheiser's friend Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Second Half of Life.

"Why am I dealing with all this anger?" a woman of 50 asked her pastor Fr. Ronald Rolheiser.  His message for her, and for readers of Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human Christian Maturity, is that anger comes with her stage in life.  "If you are through your years of searching for and preparing for marriage and a career," he writes, the time that stretches out before you "can feel pretty bland, or flat, or overpressured, or disappointing" (65).

Yet this maturity that Rolheiser calls the "life-giving" stage, is actually a very good thing. At this stage, a person no longer lets "the pleasure principle" rule, "at least [not for] the most important decisions," and has moved beyond "adolescent self-focus" (66).

The anger comes from a couple of sources.  Like the tribes of Israel, we adults, settling the Promised Land, must eradicate "the Canaanites." Rolheiser reads the violent Old Testament war tales as a metaphor for the unfulfilled desires and ambitions of adolescent "grandiosity" (71).  Then there's resentment, like that of Martha and of the Prodigal Son's elder brother:  
Many are the persons who deeply regret that during [these, the] healthiest and most productive years of their lives they were too driven and too unaware of the richness of their own lives to appreciate and enjoy what they were doing.  Instead of privilege, they felt burden; instead of gratitude, they felt resentment; and instead of joy, they felt anger. (77)
Where does an adult go from here?  Not back to adolescence, though I think that's the way our culture looks at this situation.  How many movies and human interest news items begin with a man or woman deep into career, leadership, and family obligations who decides to chuck it all and go for some quest for glory left over from their adolescent phase -- or some romantic new adventure? 

The way forward is, naturally, not so exciting.   It's prayer and (you'll think I'm joking) committee meetings. 

About prayer, Rolheiser captures the restlessness that keeps us from it.  Our "congenital disquiet" is "fanned" by demands on our attention and by the culture, its new shows and songs, news, and the fact that everyone else seems to be going to more interesting places (202).  These days, we're pestered by emails, messages, and requests.   But this is nothing new; Rumi in the 13th century wrote "I have lived too long where I can be reached!" (200). 

To find ways to combat that restlessness, Rolheiser refers often to St. John of the Cross who advised monks and nuns in Spain during the Renaissance concerning the long period of tedious routine after initial devotion.  One answer is to think of prayer the way a grown son might think of visiting a parent in assisted living an hour each day:
On the surface your visits will seem mostly routine, dry, and dutiful.  Most days you will be talking about trivial, everyday things, and you will be sneaking the occasional glance at the clock to see when your hour with her will be over.  However, it you persevere in these regular visits with her, month after month, year after year, among everyone in the whole world you will grow to know your mother the most deeply and she will grow to know you most deeply [because] real connection between us takes place below the surface of our conversations.  We begin to know each other through presence (203).
Other siblings may get drama and tears, but that's because they don't have the same deep relationship (204). 

To daily private prayer, Rolheiser adds corporate worship and ritual.  He's in agreement with some other theologians I've read lately who, after Anglican father Jeremy Taylor,  emphasized the role of the local parish priest and daily prayer services in cementing a community and deepening faith (see for one, Timothy Sedgwick, The Christian Moral Life: Practices of Piety, NY: Seabury, 2008.).

About committee meetings, Rolheiser cites Dorothy Day's friend Peter Maurin, who counseled, "When you don't know what else to do, keep going to meetings because Pentecost happened at a meeting" (131).  Developing this idea, Rolheiser writes of those disciples frightened, unmoored, hiding in the upper room.  As he says elsewhere, "just show up" and count on the Spirit to lead, gradually. 

In this adult stage of life, it's our role to bless others.  Rolheiser acknowledges that it's hard for, say, a revered teacher not to feel resentment and envy of a young new teacher whose popularity will "eclipse" the older man's (233), but his job is to accept and be glad and bless.  "When we bless others we help lift depression from our lives; when we do not bless others, we deepen that depression" (235).

Rolheiser summarizes all in ten commandments for mature living, beginning with the command to "live in gratitude" (245).  Citing Richard Rohr and James Hillman, he advises us to take signs of aging not for signs of death  but "initiations into another way of life" (298).  Models in the Bible for doing this are Job (who leaves naked as he came into the world), Abraham and Sarah, and Jesus -- who can share his spirit with us all only after he has given up life on this earth at the Ascension (309).

Not Just Personal: Justice
Rolheiser also tells us, this isn't about just us.  Summarizing what he wrote in The Holy Longing, (see my reflection, here), Rolheiser outlines "essential discipleship" in terms of actions within community -- forgiveness, gentleness, and actions taken to promote charity and justice.  In the New Testament, "one of every ten lines deals directly with the physically poor and the challenge to respond to them.  In the Gospel of Luke, that becomes every sixth line, and in the Epistle of James that challenge is there, in one form or another, in every fifth line" (50).  We should work, not for "survival of the fittest," but of "the weakest and gentlest."

Personal Response
Personally, while I am warmed by Rolheiser's positive images of mid-life, I must admit that I've been struggling with my mid-life crisis over 30 years.  For a seminar focused on Montaigne, whose essays were his way to take stock of lessons learned at the end of his life (age 40, in the 17th century), I wrote myself into a  "trial" (literal translation for French essai).  In the end, the jury had to rule, if this young teacher won't give up teaching to pursue fame as a writer of novels and plays, will he be guilty of betraying his dreams, or will he be living into a more mature dream?  I was thinking the latter; Dad's one word response was, "Guilty." 

Rolheiser helps me to put that one to bed, finally.   I'm struck by how the author of Ecclesiastes, so weary of life, is just telling about the transition from adolescent expectations and explorations to the mid-life stasis.   "Expressions of this longing and search are what make up the meat of popular music, literature, and movies" Rolheiser writes, revolving around questions "Who am I?  Where do I find meaning?  Who will love me?"(17).  Adolescence is a convergence of hormonal, intellectual, and emotional changes that drive a person out of the home (and good riddance!);  settling in is something beyond "the feeling we get from success and achievement" (9).

Well, at 55, I'm glad to be done with adolescence once and for all.  Except for a few of those pesky "Canaanites"....

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