Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI: “The Fire That Shimmers Deep Within Things”

Originally Published on

Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI

“About the best way I can describe the transformation is to say that, now, I see colors!”

A man once shared this story with me: He had recently undergone a serious conversion. That conversion, as he described it, was not strictly speaking a religious one, nor, in a certain manner of speaking, even a moral one. It was an aesthetic conversion of sorts, though ultimately it was also profoundly religious and moral.

What had happened to him? He was in early middle-age, unmarried, and he had always been quite religious, fulfilling his religious duties with a vigor bordering on the scrupulous. Morally too, prior to the conversion he described, his life was essentially in order.

What he suffered from were two interrelated addictions, masturbation and alcohol. But even here, on the surface at least, these were relatively under control. They never, at least so it seemed, interfered with his work, his relationships, or his religious life. He was highly respected and no one who knew him would have guessed that he had a problem.

Except . . . except he knew he had one. As he matured, through his prayer life and through the respect that others entrusted him with, he began to see his own inconsistencies and he sought help.

His counsellor advised him to enter a separate 12-step program for each addiction, alcohol and sex. At first, he resisted, thinking: “I’m not an alcoholic! My sexual issues aren’t that serious!”

Eventually, however, he entered the programs and they, to use his own words, “wrought a great transformation” inside of him: “It wasn’t like I was that bad or anything before I entered those programs. My life was always essentially in order.

“So what happened to me? As best as I can put it, now that I go regularly to Alcoholics’ and Sexual Anonymous meetings, I see colors again. Before that, I wasn’t a bad person, but I was always so taken up with my own needs and yearnings that, most of the time, I wasn’t really seeing what was in front of me. Now, I see colors again and my life is rich in a way that it never was before.”

What kind of conversion is this? Is the challenge of the Gospel about seeing colors? I think so.

Abraham Maslow, after suffering a near fatal heart attack, went on to write: “One very important aspect of post-mortem life is that everything gets precious, gets piercingly important. You get stabbed by things, by flowers and by babies and by beautiful things—just the very act of living, of walking and breathing and eating and having friends and chatting.

“Everything seems to look more beautiful rather than less, and one gets the much-intensified sense of miracles.” (Quoted by John Shea, Spirit Master, p. 99).

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in his spiritual masterpiece, The Divine Milieu, describes his own effort at letting things be piercingly important, I paraphrase: “It is a question of seeing. I long to see the fire that shimmers deep beneath things and deep within things. Oh, to see all things ablaze with God’s fire!”

Oh, to see color! I have a hunch that Jesus had precisely this in mind when he warned us: “Stay awake! Stay vigilant! You know not the time nor the hour!”

There are different ways to being awake, just as there are different ways to being vigilant.

Normally, we take Jesus’ words to stay awake and be vigilant as a more direct (and crass) religious and moral challenge: “Get your life in order because you don’t know when death will hit! Do the reconciliations you need to do! Wrap up your unfinished religious, moral, and relational business because death can catch you rather suddenly! Stay awake and vigilant—religiously and morally.”

There is truth and wisdom in that interpretation of things, but Jesus isn’t just talking about preparation for death, he is also talking about seeing colors while we are alive.

Like Maslow and Teilhard he is saying: “Be awake to the fire that is beneath and within things. Let things get precious and piercingly important—when you are still pre-mortem.

“Be awake to the beauty of babies, and flowers, and your family, and your friends, and your own health—before you are separated from them. Don’t be asleep while you are awake. Don’t be dead to life while you are living. Don’t be blind to miracle, especially to the miracle of your own life.

“Repent . . . and begin to see colors!”