Arts and Culture

Realizing Our Fears Leads to Liberation

First of a Lenten Series

I HAVE BEEN LOOKING FORWARD to writing this series of columns during Lent. I am planning to use a marvelous book by one of my favorite authors, Father Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I., as a guide. The book is The Passion and the Cross.

I think that The Passion and the Cross is one of the best spiritual books I have ever read. Insights into the Christian mystery seem to leap off the page at me. Re-reading it and reflecting on Father Rolheiser’s insights should help me to make this holy season a special time in my life.

When I first read the book about a month ago, I knew that I would re-read it at some time. Lent seems to be the perfect time. Of course, I take responsibility for any misinterpretations I make of Rolheiser’s thought.

Catholics have an expression that is used frequently in discussing Catholic spirituality – “Dying with Christ.” I don’t think it refers to a person’s physical death though it can mean that. I think it usually refers to a commitment to identify with Jesus’ self-gift on the cross.

Of course this was the ultimate self-gift that changed the meaning of history and changed the meaning of every person’s life. Followers of Christ are called to repeat that kind of commitment in their own lives. For most of us, this is not an overnight experience; it takes many years, perhaps a lifetime.

I think that dying with Christ in our daily lives means that we try to have the mind of Christ and the love that influenced every action that Jesus did from performing miracles to sharing the Last Supper with his apostles to his words on the cross, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke, 23:46) Of course we hope that our physical death will be the final dying with Christ.

In relation to identifying with Jesus’ self-commitment, Father Rolheiser has some very good insights into how much we allow fear to preoccupy us and stymie our efforts at identifying with Christ’s attitude and love that liberated him. Rolheiser writes the following:

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself; easily said, but mostly our lives are dominated by it. We may be sincere and good, but we’re also fearful – fearful of pain, of losing loved ones, of misunderstanding, of opposition, of sickness, of shame, of discomfort of all kinds and, ultimately, of death. Deep inside us is a  powerful pressure to do whatever it takes to ensure our own lives, safety and security.

“And so it’s not on the basis of nature that we give our lives away or move toward real courage. Like an athlete preparing for a tough contest, we must train for this. Like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, we must die before we die; we must experience a courage-inducing agonia, so that, already having given it all away, we no longer live with the paralyzing fear that someone might take it from us.”

Reading these two paragraphs, I felt he was speaking directly to me. Recently I have become aware of how often fear is a part of my life. I don’t imagine that this experience is something new  but only that I have become more aware of its presence. Rolheiser’s insights have helped me to name some of the realities that I fear and I hopethat his list will help some readers  become more aware of how fearful they are.

Reflecting on how fearful I am has helped me to see in a new way that just about every action I perform as a priest should help me to move toward what Rolheiser calls a “courage-inducing agonia,” from celebrating a Eucharist to writing a column, from engaging in centering prayer to counseling someone, from lecturing to students at St. John’s University to working on a television production, from visiting the sick to burying the dead. I hope these priestly actions help others but they should also liberate me, help me to “die with Christ.”

Taking Catholicism seriously should liberate Catholics. Perhaps becoming aware of how fearful we are is the first step. The second step is to allow our Catholic faith and practices to liberate us, to help us move from fear to courage. I believe this “conversion” can happen to the extent that we surrender to the Holy Spirit, Who is always present in our lives.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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