Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI: “Coping with Complexity”
Originally Published on ronrolheiser.com
Holiness and wholeness are, ultimately, the same thing. To be holy is to be whole. That shouldn’t surprise us, grace builds on nature. What’s problematic is achieving wholeness. Why?
Because we’re all so pathologically complex that we spend most our lives trying to figure out who we really are and trying on various personalities the way we try on different clothes. Allow me an example:
I once saw a wonderful interview with Catherine de Hueck Doherty, a Russian Baroness and the founder of the Madonna House Apostolate. She was already more than 80 years old and, reflecting on the struggles of her spiritual journey, said something to this effect:
“It’s like there are three persons inside me. There’s someone I call the Baroness. The Baroness is spiritual and given over to asceticism and prayer. This is the religious person. She’s the one who founded the religious community, wrote the spiritual books, and who tries to give her life to the poor. It’s the Baroness who’s impatient with the things of this world and who tries to keep her eyes focused on things beyond this life.
But inside of me too there’s another person whom I call Catherine. Catherine is, first of all and always, a woman who enjoys fine things, luxuries, sensual delight. She likes idleness, long baths, fine clothes, putting on make-up, good meals, good wine, and used to, as a married woman, enjoy a healthy sex life. Catherine enjoys this life and doesn’t want renunciation or poverty. She’s not religious like the Baroness. Indeed, she hates the Baroness and has a strained relationship with her.
And, finally, inside of me too there’s someone else, a little girl, a child lying on a hill-side in Finland, watching the clouds and daydreaming. The little girl is different still from both the Baroness or Catherine.
… And, as I get older, I feel more like the Baroness, long more for Catherine, but think that maybe the little girl daydreaming on a hill-side in Finland might be who I really am.”
These words come from a spiritual giant, someone who attained both wholeness and sanctity after a long search and difficult struggle, not someone who’s still grappling with initial conversion. What her words highlight are two things, how complex we are and how difficult is it to find wholeness.
Like Catherine Doherty, all of us too have a number of different persons inside us. Inside each of us there’s someone who knows the truth of the gospel call, is drawn to the religious, strives towards self- renunciation, and that knows that there are more important things than worldly achievement, comfort, and sex. But, inside each of us too, there’s also a hedonist, a sensualist, a person who wants to drink in fully the wine and the pleasures of this life. Moveover, inside each of us there’s also a little girl or little boy, daydreaming still on a hill-side somewhere.
Soren Kierkegaard defined a saint as someone who “wills the one thing.” But, with all these different persons inside us, what do we really will? What’s really our deepest desire?
Importantly too, given that grace is meant to build upon nature and not annihilate it, it’s too simple to think that sanctity is merely a question of the “spiritual person” inside us triumphing over the person inside of us who loves this world or over the child in us who is still given over to daydreaming. Wholeness means somehow making a whole, a harmony, out of all these different persons. To ignore, deny, annihilate, invalidate, or bypass one part for another is precisely never to attain wholeness.
Sanctity consists in wholeness and a whole person, like Christ, is someone who is both a drinker of wine and an ascetic, a lover of this life and of the next, a dreamer and a realist, among many other things, all at the same time. What must be rejected in the spiritual quest is not our nature, with its endless paradoxes and seeming contradictory attractions, but any recipe for holiness that would have us believe that sanctity can be obtained easily, without tension, confusion, and great patience.
Sanctity too consists in coming to peace. Peace is not just the absence of war or conflict, but is harmony and wholeness. We come to peace when we make harmony out of discord – with all the pieces accounted for and each given its proper place. To cut off parts of ourselves in the quest for wholeness is tantamount to a pianist sawing- off part of his or her keyboard. It makes things a lot simpler, but it also makes it impossible to play most pieces of music.
To be human is to be pathologically complex. But that points to our richness, not poverty, and suggests that all our different parts are important in the spiritual journey. Nikos Kazantzakis once put it this way, “the spirit wants to wrestle with flesh that is strong and full of resistance … because … the deeper the struggle, the richer the final harmony.”