Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 20, 1999
Rolheiser puts stories to good use
The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality., by Ronald Rolheiser, Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1999, 268 pages; hardcover.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
Father Ron Rolheiser is well known to readers of WCR because of his regular column In Exile. Those who appreciate this feature are sure to treasure The Holy Longing. Here, the author has the opportunity to elaborate extensively upon themes he has introduced and discussed over the years in his shorter articles.
This is a book centring on the popular but elusive subject of spirituality. The title is taken from a poem of the same name penned by Goethe, the German philosopher. It reflects the author's broad reading. Add to that Rolheiser's considerable experience as a writer, teacher, retreat leader and counsellor.
The result is a substantial contribution to the meaning and practice of spirituality for modern inquirers.
Rolheiser has developed a marvellous gift of storytelling. This volume contains many short but poignant narratives which help to clarify particular insights and enhance the general presentation.
He is not afraid to deal candidly and decisively with difficult concerns and does not avoid hard questions. He writes for an ecumenical audience and in an interfaith mode beginning with the experience of ordinary people who may or may not be part of a faith community or with a background in the Christian way.
The author assumes a readership that is concerned about the quality and direction of both personal and communal spirituality. On the whole, this book succeeds because it avoids jargon and easy assumptions. It spells out its course with clarity and takes seriously the intelligence, varied experience and basic sincerity of its readers.
Rolheiser attempts to define the meaning of spirituality in generic terms. "There is within (each one of) us a fundamental dis-ease, an unquenchable fire, that renders us incapable, in this life, of coming to full peace," the author says.
All of us experience this eros, this drivenness and deep ache, that needs to be expressed whether we are religious or not. Spirituality is what we do with that desire. Everyone has a spirituality which can be either life enhancing or destroying.
Spirituality is about discipline; the channelling and integrating of that eros energy in heathy rather than unhealthy ways. At base, spirituality is a very human and not a specifically religious reality. Christian spirituality is one wisdom among many, but since it is the discipline of the author he is unapologetic in his advocacy of what holds meaning for him.
There are four universal pillars of the spiritual life. Private prayer/private morality; commitment to social justice; mellowness of heart and spirit; and community.
Using these pillars as his essential modus operandi, the following sustaining disciplines are suggested: a regular prayer time; the practice of charity and self-sacrifice; concrete involvement with the poor; active participation in the life of some specific church; and vulnerability - mellowing out in the spirit - for the sake of love.
Sexuality is at the heart of the spiritual life. Too often, Christians have viewed their sexuality as an enemy, rather than as the channel through which the Spirit of God can flow. Sex is something sacred but it needs the protection of a healthy chastity.
There must be some taboos. Humans will never be fully satisfied sexually, but through the transforming power of spiritual discipline the inadequacy of our loving and of being loved can allow God's real power to express itself to wounded lives in healing ways.
The archetypal Paschal Mystery, itself based on a universal healing path, is presented as the model for a dynamic Christian spirituality.
We learn this discipline by following the life cycle of Christ from Good Friday in Holy Week through Easter Sunday and the Forty Days to the Ascension leading ultimately to Pentecost, the birthday of the Church.
Rolheiser develops key themes from this mystic cycle and presents them in modern idiom. The faithful adherent is encouraged to reflect upon life's failings and disappointments and to "name your death," "claim your birth," "grieve your losses and assume your new reality," "don't cling to the old but let it ascend and bless you" so that you can "accept the spirit of the life you are now living."
Discovering and personally applying the Paschal Mystery was for this reviewer the highlight of the book.
Creative literary and psychological imagery abounds through all 10 chapters. Use short readings or entire passages from the text as a basis for personal meditation; study groups; retreat and seminar presentations; homilies; inspiring talks - so that the multiple layers of rich meaning might be carefully retrieved and digested.
If there is any flaw in the presentation it would be that there is a surfeit of material and the reader can become overwhelmed.
In an era when many have, through spiritual neglect, joined the Church's "alumni society" and when many others remain unaware of the significant largess often hidden in the Christian faith The Holy Longing fills an important vacuum.
Share this book with your adult children, your parents and others you care about the most.
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is a lecturer at the University of Calgary. His work focuses on modern spiritualities, the comparative spirituality of indigenous peoples and cross-cultural awareness.)