Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI: “Turning Our Eyes Toward Heaven”

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Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMIIt’s not easy to be centred, rooted, secure in who we are, able to give the world our best. More commonly, we find ourselves adrift, unsure of ourselves, with most of what’s best in us still frustrated, buried, waiting for a better day. Too many things, it seems, conspire against us living out what’s truest and best inside us.

We’d like to be grounded, be ourselves, have a clear direction in life, be free of compulsions, and live out more our dignity, goodness, and creativity; but too many things push us the opposite way. Ideology, anger, bitterness, envy, restlessness, confusion, moral compromise, and the simple need to get by, all pull us down and we end up giving into various compensations (as substitutes for what we really want) and thus quietly despair of ever carrying our dignity, talents, and solitude at any high level.

Why does it happen? The fault is with prayer, or lack of it. We cannot stay steady in a churning sea without a good anchor, cannot avoid giving into compensation unless what’s highest in us is given enough expression, and cannot deal with the issues of finitude unless we have some transcendent focus. Unless we are anchored in something beyond the here and now there is a good chance that we will drown in the present moment.

Jesus models the kind of prayer we need to cope with a world that goes mad at times and with a heart prone to drink in that madness. The gospels describe Jesus praying in different ways, but sometimes they simply say: “He turned his eyes towards heaven!” The same expression is used of other great faith-figures – Stephen, Paul, the early martyrs – and it’s used of them at those times when the forces of madness are precisely threatening to kill them. When the world around them is going mad, they “turn their eyes towards heaven.” The phrase hasn’t been lost on artists.

Virtually every painting of someone being martyred has this motif, the martyr has his or her eyes lifted up towards heaven, in contrast to the eyes of the executioners and onlookers which are cast downwards in hatred, envy, and group-think or in the blank stare of mindlessness.

Jesus lifted his eyes towards heaven and that freed him of hatred, envy, group-think, and mindlessness. What does this mean? How did he turn his eyes towards heaven?

What made Jesus different (and what makes any prayerful person different) is not intellectual insight, superior willpower, less fiery emotions, or monastic withdrawal from the temptations of the world.

Prayer is not a question of insight, of being smarter than anyone else; nor of will, of being stronger than anyone else; nor of emotional restraint or sexual aloofness, of being less passionate than anyone else; nor of withdrawal, of being less exposed to temptation than anyone else. Prayer is a question of unity and surrender, of uniting one’s will with someone else and surrendering one’s will to that other. Prayer is the desire to be in union with someone, especially in union with that other’s will.

Perhaps the people that have understood this best are Alcoholics Anonymous groups. They long ago realized that it’s not by strength of will or by intellectual insight that we keep from drowning. Nobody with an addiction of any kind has ever studied or willed their way out of that. Through pain and humiliation, he or she has eventually come to realize there is only one way out of helplessness, surrender of one’s will to a higher power, God. In essence, people get together at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to (as scripture would put it)”turn their eyes towards heaven.”

Each of us needs to find our own way of doing this if we are to cope with the forces that threaten to drown us. It’s not through study orwillpower that we will rise above ideology, anger, bitterness, discouragement, jealousy, restlessness, confusion, dissatisfaction, moral ineptitude, the endless practical demands of life, and the compensations we give into in order to cope with all of this. We will always be adrift, until we, like Jesus, regularly “turn our eyes towards heaven.” In my experience, the extraordinary people that I have known and admired all have had the same secret, they prayed privately.

Gil Bailie puts it well in VIOLENCE UNVEILED. Commenting on Jesus’ unique capacity to rise above the forces that were drowning everyone else, he says: Jesus broke the snares of satan, not intellectually, but by being God-centred, he “turned his eyes towards heaven.” This is what made him immune to the contagion of desire. If we don’t imitate Jesus in this, we will soon enough imitate the world in its restless, destructive envy. As Bailie puts it: We haven’t a prayer of eliminating the worst of our mimetic passions unless we find a truly transcendent focus for our deepest imitory urges. We cannot keep the last commandment unless we keep the first – “Without prayer, we haven’t a prayer!”