WCR FILE PHOTO
Fr. Ron Rolheiser
Sacred Fire: A Vision for Deeper Human and Christian Maturity by Ronald Rolheiser. Crown Publishing Group (New York, 2014), 344 pages.
Success, writes Ron Rolheiser in his new book Sacred Fire, has little to teach us in the second half of life. Where we learn as we mature is through our disappointments, boredom, resentment and frustration.
In the first part of life, one has the big dream. But as one makes or falls into serious commitments and one's energy begins to decline, it becomes clearer and clearer that the dream will not be realized. "We become disappointed that there is not more, that we have not achieved more, and that we ourselves are not more, as we sense ourselves stuck with second best, reluctant to make our peace there."
If Rolheiser's last major book, The Holy Longing (1999), focused on the energy and self-focused questions of youth, Sacred Fire takes us on a journey through the challenges of mid-life, on the search for maturity.
It is a book for those, Rolheiser says, whose questions have moved beyond "Who am I?" to "How can I give my life away more purely, and more meaningfully?"
Success in the first part of life can help to establish one's sense of self-esteem. In mid-life, however, it is less a goal than a narcotic, Rolheiser writes. Rather than a medicine aiding our health, success is a narcotic that hinders our healthfulness.
So, he turns his attention to the mid-life demons that stem from that sense of disappointment – pride, jealousy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, lust. It is the seven deadly sins in a new guise. They raise their head in workaholism where, the more one is drawn into one's work, the less meaning one finds in relationships.
There is the death of the honeymoon – "one of the better foretastes of heaven." As the honeymoon turns into hard reality, love becomes a decision, not something that sweeps one away. "Reality has broken through and we see a very limited horizon at the end of the tunnel." Instead, one feels burdened, taken for granted.
Since 1982, with a few years missing in the middle, I have been editing Rolheiser's columns for the WCR. I remember the day the first one came in on speculation, the Newman College prof on sabbatical in Europe hoping that I would allow him to write for the paper.
"This is amazing stuff," I told one of my colleagues and she agreed. Deciding to publish him was one of the easiest decisions of my journalistic career.
Thirty-two years later, his writing is still amazing. Somehow, he manages to keep it fresh. Oh yes, sometimes there are stories that have appeared previously, and he does walk over well-trod ground. But given that he writes on a perennial topic – spirituality – as opposed to something newsy, it is surprising how rarely Rolheiser repeats himself.
In Sacred Fire, one can occasionally hear hints of some of his columns. But this book is definitely not a collection of warmed-over columns. It is a book in its own right, with its own flow and its own logic.
Moreover, his editor uses her or his blue pen more liberally than I do, cutting back those sentences that run on forever and eliminating those 25-cent words that are part of the professor's vocabulary, but not the vocabulary of many others.
To a point, Sacred Fire is a self-help book. It does, however, mostly avoid that dumbed-down feeling that comes from the author serving up warmed-over bromides that state the obvious in peppy, but not-too-original ways.
Rolheiser cannot resist giving his Ten Commandments for the Long Haul, which are good basic Christian spirituality that we should all be trying to live.
Try number 4: "Let suffering soften your heart rather than harden your soul." Every one of us gets kicked around, and these beatings should be opportunities for growth rather than grounds for festering resentment. Indeed, in mid-life, your soul no longer needs success; it needs suffering. "There is no depth of soul without suffering."
Ask any mature person over 40 what has brought about that maturity and, if they are not too embarrassed to talk about it, they will admit it was the girlfriend who betrayed your love, being bullied as a child, someone making fun of your physical appearance, insecurity about speaking with an accent, etc. Growing up means growing some callouses.
Writes Rolheiser: "To the extent that we have depth, we have been humiliated: the two are inextricably connected."
Number 6: "Bless more and curse less." The picture of immaturity is the elder who is threatened by the young. The one who is mature gives life to others, especially the young, who will take his place in the spotlight. "We are mature when we define ourselves by what we are for rather than by what we are against."
Now that the WCR only publishes every second week, serious fans of his In Exile column may be looking for a more frequent Rolly fix. Sacred Fire is a couple of notches above the column. More than a weekly reflection, it can point one to a new and deeper way of life, one that is appropriate to the middle years of life.