Godtalk: Help to Self-Understanding
Well known for his insightful writing on spiritual matters, Ron Rolheiser generously shares his experience of being helped towards self-understanding by five people. Although he grew up in a loving, safe, and nurturing family and community, he says, one of the dominant memories of his childhood and teenage years is that of being restless and somehow discontented. “My life always seemed too small, too confined, a life away from what was important in the world. I was forever longing to be more connected to life and I feared that other people didn’t feel that way and that I was somehow singular and unhealthy in my restlessness.
I entered the Oblate seminary immediately after high school and carried that restlessness with me, except that now, entering religious life, I felt even more worry and shame in carrying this disquiet. However, midway through that first year of training, a year which religious congregations call novitiate, we received a visit from an extraordinary Oblate missionary named Noah Warnke, a man who had received numerous civic and church awards for his achievements and widely respected.
He began his address to us novices by asking us these questions: “Are you restless? Feeling isolated in this religious house? Feeling lonely and cut off from the world?” We all nodded... “Good,” he replied, “you should be feeling restless. My God, you should be jumping out of your skins, you’ve all that red-blood, and fire, and energy and you’re holed-up here away from everything!
But that’s good, that restlessness is a good feeling, you’re healthy! Tough it out with the restlessness, it’ll be worth it in the long run!” It was the first time someone had legitimatized how I was feeling. I felt like I had just been introduced to myself: “Are you jumping out of your skin? Good, you’re healthy!”
Immediately after that novitiate year, I began my theological training and one of the persons we studied in depth was Thomas Aquinas. He was the second person who helped introduce me to myself. I was nineteen years old when I first met his thought and, although some of his insights were a bit beyond my young mind, I understood enough to find in him not just some legitimization for how I was feeling but also, more importantly, a meta-narrative within which to understand why I was feeling the way I did.
Aquinas asks: “What is the adequate object of the human mind and heart?” In other words, “what would we have to experience in order to be fully satisfied? His answer: All being! What we would have to experience to be fully satisfied is everything. We would have to know everything and be known by everybody, a human impossibility in this life, and so it shouldn’t be a mystery as to why we live in perpetual disquiet and why, as Pascal says, all the miseries of the human being come from the fact that we can’t sit still in a room for one hour.
The third person that helped introduce me to myself was Sidney Callahan. Reading her book on sexuality as a young seminarian, I was struck by how she linked sex to soul, and how desire, not least sexual desire, has deep roots in the soul. At one point she makes this simple statement. If you look at yourself and your insatiability and worry that you are too-restless, over-sexed, and somehow pathological in your dissatisfactions, it doesn’t mean that you are sick, it just means that you are healthy and not in need of any hormone shots! These were liberating words for a restless, over-sensitive twenty year-old.
A couple of years later, I was introduced to the writings of Henri Nouwen and he, perhaps more than anyone else, gave me permission to feel what I feel. Nouwen, as we know, was such a powerful writer because he was so honest in sharing his own neediness, restlessness, and disquiet. He had a singular talent for tracing out the restless movements within our souls. For instance, in describing his own struggles, he writes: “I want to be a saint, but I also want to experience all the sensations that sinners experience. Small wonder, that life is a struggle.”
Finally, of course, there’s St. Augustine and his famed opening to the Confessions where he summarizes his life-long struggle in the words: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” We carry infinity inside us and thus should not be surprised that we will never find full consummation and peace within the finite. Augustine also gave us that wonderful rationalization that we all use to put off into the indefinite future some of the things that we need to do now: Lord, make me a chaste Christian, but not just yet!
Some people talk about the five people they would like to meet in heaven. These are the five people who have helped me understand what it means to walk on this earth.”
Peter Knott SJ