“It is non-negotiable. If you are alive, you are restless, full of spirit. What you do with that spirit is your spiritual life.” (Ronald Rolheiser, Forgotten Among the Lilies, 10)
Ronald Rolheiser is one of my favorite authors. His books never fail to encourage me, and his newest book, Forgotten Among the Lilies: Learning to Love Beyond our Fears, is no exception. This book will certainly end up on my “Top Ten Books of 2005” list, and will most likely be number one! Quite simply, this is one of the most profound, deeply spiritual, incredibly insightful books I have ever read.
A Divine Diagnosis of Restlessness
Rolheiser recognizes that most of us experience lives of quiet desperation. We long for so much more than we actually experience.
Rarely is life enough for us. Rarely are we able to live restfully the spirit of our own lives. Most often what, where, and how we are living seem small, insignificant, petty and depressingly domestic. We seldom notice our hunger and sleep, cold and warmth. Rarely do we taste the coffee we drink. Instead we go through our days too preoccupied, too compulsive, too driven and too dissatisfied to really be able to be present to and celebrate our own lives. Always, it seems, we are somehow missing out on life. (ix)
Rolheiser invites us to recognize our deep longing – and the frustration that arises from our inability to satisfy it – as an authentic indicator of true spirituality. Instead of trivializing our hunger by assuming that it can be satisfied by achievement, success, sex, or status, we must recognize it for what it truly is: a cry for God. “It is a rare self-understanding today which lets one believe that his or her aches and yearnings are mystical.” (4)
Our yearning draws attention to our incompleteness. When we recognize our incompleteness, we are able to be honest with ourselves and compassionate toward others. Rolheiser asks, “Do we cry with each other and support each other in the frustration of our incompleteness or do we give each other the impression that there is something wrong with us because our lives are inconsummate and our symphonies are incomplete?” (5)
Rolheiser refuses to trivialize our deep hunger by pretending it can be satisfied by anything or anyone in this life. Furthermore, he refuses to trivialize our incompleteness by pretending that we can find wholeness. Instead, he calls us to understand that our “hopeless aching and lack of ease is the very basis of the spiritual life. What we do with the eros inside us, be it heroic or perverse, is our spiritual life” (9). He continues:
The tragedy is that so many persons, full of riches and bursting with life, see this drive as something which is essentially irreligious, as something which sets them against the spiritual. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our erotic impulses are God’s lure in us. They are our spirit! (9)
A Theology of Brokenness
We must be willing to admit and embrace our deep hunger as an authentic expression of spirituality. We yearn for a wholeness – a completeness – that eludes us. Our very best efforts will only yield an unfinished symphony.
Our continued experience of incompleteness is evidenced by our sins, weaknesses, and failures – in a word, our brokenness. Rolheiser argues that the church needs to make every effort to be a haven for the broken. He writes of a young man who despaired of his past by proclaiming “Even God can’t unscramble an egg!”
What this young man was saying was that, for him, there would always be a skeleton in the closet. Ordinary life would, in its own way, limp along but he would remain forever marked by this mistake.
Today we live in a world and a church in which this kind of brokenness and attitude are becoming more the rule than the exception. For more and more people there is a major something to live beyond, some skeleton in the closet: a broken marriage, an abortion, a religious commitment that did not work out, a pregnancy outside marriage, a betrayed trust, a broken relationship, a soured affair, a serious mistake, a searing regret; sometimes with a sense of sin, sometimes without it.
Sadly for many, this comes, as it did for the young man, coupled with a hopelessness, a sense that something irrevocable has happened.
What we need today in the church, perhaps more than anything else, is a theology of brokenness which relates failure and sin seriously enough to redemption. (143-144)
Refusing to admit failure does more damage to ourselves and others than the actual failure itself. “This proclivity to rationalize and not admit weakness and sin is, singularly, the most deadly temptation facing each of us. Failure to admit weaknesses and acknowledge our sin as sin is infinitely more damaging than weakness and sin themselves” (105). According to Rolheiser, it is much better to be an average believer who recognizes his weaknesses, than an average believer who pretends to be a great saint. The former honors God; the latter lies to himself, God, and others, bringing damage to all in the wake of his own self-deception.
When we recognize our passionate longing as spiritual and our brokenness as a sign of our incompleteness, we are in a position to know true joy by recapturing wonder by nurturing a childlike faith. How do we do this?
We do it by touching the nerve of novelty, by purging ourselves of the illusion of familiarity. We must, as Chesterton put it, “Learn to look at things familiar until they look unfamiliar again.”
We do this by making a deliberate and conscious effort at assuming the posture of a child before reality. We must work at regaining the primal spirit, a sense of wonder, the sense that reality is rich and full of mystery. (91)
In a stimulating exercise of self-examination, Rolheiser invites us to truly look into the mirror of our lives in order to discern our spiritual state:
Every so often we spend time in front of a mirror checking for signs of aging. We turn all the lights on and study ourselves. Are there wrinkles in our skin? Bags under our eyes? More grey hair? We scrutinize, examine. It's a proper enough exercise.
But we should be looking ourselves dead straight in the eyes when we do this exercise. In them we will see whether we are aging and whether or not there are any signs of senility.
Scrutinize and examine, look for signs of aging, but spend that time looking into your eyes. What do they reveal? Are they tired, unenthusiastic, cynical, lifeless, lacking in sparkle, hardened? Is the jealousy of Cain there?
Is there any fire there? Does passion still burn? Are they weary of experiencing, incapable of being surprised? Have they lost their virginity? Are they fatigued or excited? Is there still a young child buried somewhere behind them?
The real signs of senility are betrayed by the eyes, not the flesh. Drooping flesh means that we are aging physically, nothing more. Bodies age and die in a process as inevitable and natural as the law of gravity, but drooping eyes signify an aging spirit, a more deadly senility. That is less natural.
Spirits are meant to be forever young, forever childlike, forever virgin. They are not meant to droop or die.
But they can die through boredom and its child – cynicism. They can die through a lack of passion, through the illusion of familiarity, through a loss of childlikeness and virginity, and through a fatigue of the spirit we commonly call despair.
Despair is a curious thing. We despair not because we grow weary of the shortcomings and sufferings of life and, at last, find life too much to take. No. We despair for the opposite reason, namely, we grow weary of joy.
Joy lies in experiencing life as fresh, novel and primal, as a child does, with a certain purity of spirit. This type of joy is not pleasure, though there is pleasure in it. (85-86)
This is just a brief glimpse at a few insights on the spiritual life that Rolheiser offers in Forgotten Among the Lilies. His book is chock full of profound insights on a variety of other topics, including singleness, chastity, marriage, child-rearing, passion, and commitment. Get this book and sit at the feet of a true spiritual giant!
Quotes excerpted from Forgotten Among the Lilies by Ronald Rolheiser
Review © Richard J. Vincent, 2005