The Holy Longing

The Holy Longing
The Search for a Christian Spirituality
Ronald Rolheiser
New York: Doubleday, 1999

The Holy Longing, says the author, is written for the spiritually struggling. Few books say all that needs to be said, even to a specific audience. This book says everything necessary, without saying too much. Fr. Ronald Rolheiser covers every current spiritual issue in Roman Catholicism and Protestantism with commendable brevity and compassionate wisdom. Starting with desire and ending with mysticism, he sketches a very helpful map for former Christians seeking to rediscover meaning and for practicing Christians needing to go deep.

Rolheiser exposes the inner divorces that plague us; some we know (spirituality and ecclesiology, private morality and social justice), others may be less familiar, but are real and destructive (religion and eros, the gifted child and the giving adult). Rolheiser is both prophetic and pastoral, he tells us what we need to know rather than what we would prefer to hear, but his tone is that of a good spiritual director: he wants to show us the way out of our current morass. Not the work of an ivory tower intellectual, the book has many pithy, practical examples which clarify and delight. His wide experience is evident throughout the book.

All of us need to be reminded of the nonnegotiable essentials of our spiritual lives from time to time, even religious professionals. Otherwise, we tend to forget, and our thinking becomes fuzzy, our actions self-serving. The four nonnegotiables espoused by Rolheiser are: a) private prayer and private morality; b) social justice; c)
mellowness of heart and spirit; d) community.  The author is right, unless we affiliate with a church or parish or religious community, along with all of its warts, we are probably living a fantasy and staying in our comfort zone. Authenticity demands coping creatively with interpersonal tensions.

The book’s approach to sexual morality is balanced, positive, affirming and firm. Sexuality is good, and God intended genital celebration within marriage as the norm for most people.His approach to vowed celibacy as a privileged sharing in the poverty of those who are denied sex for tragic reasons is okay, but does not go far enough. Fr. Rolheiser would have done a great service to explore the mystical dimensions of celibacy in keeping with the tenor of the book. Happy, fulfilled celibates have a strong sense that God holds them in a very special way through their celibacy; it is as much a sharing in the riches of agaperotic love as another form of poverty.

“The time is fast approaching when one will either be a mystic or a nonbeliever.” Attributed to Karl Rahner, this is a fitting quote for the last part of The Holy Longing. Fr. Rolheiser gives a sober, realistic assessment of the difficulty of being a mystic in today’s antimystical world. I would temper what Rolheiser says about all of our joy this side of death being tinged with sadness (p. 205) with a hearty affirmation of peak experiences and the possibility of an abiding joy that no one can take from us even here. But he is right, faith and joy are work, and the final denoument takes place after death. Being mystics-in-the-marketplace means a daily discipline of prayer, sweating blood to stay faithful, and “pondering” in the Marian sense of living with great tension, strenuously resisting the temptation to resolve tensions prematurely–this alone makes us capable of enjoying the only clear-cut pure joy: the pleasure of God’s company.

Thomas Crutcher


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