Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi


September 22, 2014

In 1991 Hollywood produced a comedy entitled, City Slickers, starring Billy Crystal. In a quirky way, it was a wonderfully moral film, focusing on three, middle-aged men from New York City who were dealing with midlife crises.

As a present from their wives, who are frustrated enough with them to attempt anything, the three are given the gift of participating in a cattle drive through New Mexico and Colorado. So these three urbanites set off to ride horses through the wilderness.

The comedy part of the film focuses on their inept horsemanship and their naiveté about cattle and the wilderness. The more serious part of the movie tracks their conversations as they try to sort through both their own struggles with aging and the larger mysteries of life.

One day as they are discussing sex, one of the three, Ed, the character with the least amount of moral scruples, asks the other two whether they would be unfaithful to their wives and have an affair if they were sure that they would never be caught. Billy Cyrstal's character, Mitch, initially engages the question jokingly, protesting its impossibility: "You always get caught. All affairs get exposed in the end."

But Ed persists with his question: "But suppose you wouldn't get caught. Suppose you could get away with it. Would you cheat on your wife and have an affair, if no one would ever know?" Mitch's answer: "No, I still wouldn't do it!" "Why not?" asks Ed, "nobody would know." "But I'd know," Mitch replied, "and I'd hate myself for it!"


That answer contains volumes of moral wisdom. Ultimately, nobody gets away with anything. We always get caught, not least by ourselves and by the moral energy in the air we breathe. Moreover, whether we get caught or not, there will always be consequences. This is a deep, inalienable moral principle written into the fabric of the universe. Universal human experience attests to this. Nobody ultimately gets away with anything, despite every protest to the contrary.

We see this articulated, for example, in the heart of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and virtually all Eastern religions in a concept popularly called the law of karma. "Karma" is a Sanskrit word which means action or deed, but it carries with it the implication that every deed we do generates a force of energy that returns to us in kind. What we sow is what we will reap.

Hence, bad intent and bad actions will ricochet back on us and cause unhappiness, just as good intent and good actions will ricochet back and bring us happiness, irrespective of what is seen or known by anyone else. The universe has its own laws that assure this.


Jesus was no stranger to the idea. It is everywhere present in his teachings and at times explicitly stated: "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back" (Luke 6.38).

Jesus is telling us that the air we breathe out is the air we will re-inhale and that this is true at every level of our existence. Simply put, if we are emitting too much carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide into the air, we will eventually find ourselves suffocating on them.

This is true at every level of our lives. If I breathe out bitterness, I will eventually find myself breathing in bitterness. If I breathe out dishonesty, I will eventually breathe in dishonesty. If I breathe out greed and stinginess, I will eventually gasp for generosity in a world suffocating on greed and stinginess. Conversely, if I breathe out generosity, love, honesty and forgiveness, I will eventually, no matter how mean and dishonest the world around me, find life inside a world of generosity, love, honesty and forgiveness.


What we breathe out is what we will eventually inhale. This is a nonnegotiable truth written into the structure of the universe, written into life itself, written into every religion worthy of the name, written into the teachings of Jesus and written into every conscience that is still in good faith.

Where does this principle ground itself, and why can it never be violated without consequence? The principle is inalienable because the universe protects itself, because Mother Earth protects herself, because human nature protects itself, because the laws of love protect themselves, because the laws of justice protect themselves, because the laws of conscience protect themselves, because God has created a universe that is moral in its structure.

God created a morally-contoured universe, one that has deep, inalienable moral grooves which need to be honoured and respected, irrespective of whether we get caught when we cheat.