The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality

The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality

by Ronald Rolheiser


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385494199
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/11/2014
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 84,461
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

RONALD ROLHEISER, O.M.I., a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas, and the author of the books The Restless Heart, Forgotten Among the Lilies, The Shattered Lantern, and Against An Infinite Horizon. He is a community-builder, lecturer and writer, and his weekly column appears in more than 90 Catholic publications. More information on his work can be found at

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What Is Spirituality?

"We are fired into life with a madness that comes from the gods and which would have us believe that we can have a great love, perpetuate our own seed, and contemplate the divine."

Desire, Our Fundamental Dis-Ease

It is no easy task to walk this earth and find peace. Inside of us, it would seem, something is at odds with the very rhythm of things and we are forever restless, dissatisfied, frustrated, and aching. We are so overcharged with desire that it is hard to come to simple rest. Desire is always stronger than satisfaction.

Put more simply, there is within us a fundamental dis-ease, an unquenchable fire that renders us incapable, in this life, of ever coming to full peace. This desire lies at the center of our lives, in the marrow of our bones, and in the deep recesses of the soul. We are not easeful human beings who occasionally get restless, serene persons who once in a while are obsessed by desire. The reverse is true. We are driven persons, forever obsessed, congenitally dis-eased, living lives, as Thoreau once suggested, of quiet desperation, only occasionally experiencing peace. Desire is the straw that stirs the drink.

At the heart of all great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion lies the naming and analyzing of this desire. Thus, the diary of Anne Frank haunts us, as do the journals of Therese of Lisieux and Etty Hillesum. Desire intrigues us, stirs the soul. We love stories about desire--tales of love, sex, wanderlust, haunting nostalgia, boundless ambition, and tragicloss. Many of the great secular thinkers of our time have made this fire, this force that so haunts us, the centerpiece of their thinking.

Sigmund Freud, for example, talks about a fire without a focus that burns at the center of our lives and pushes us out in a relentless and unquenchable pursuit of pleasure. For Freud, everyone is hopelessly overcharged for life.

Karl Jung talks about deep, unalterable, archetypal energies which structure our very souls and imperialistically demand our every attention. Energy, Jung warns, is not friendly. Every time we are too restless to sleep at night we understand something of what he is saying. Doris Lessing speaks of a certain voltage within us, a thousand volts of energy for love, sex, hatred, art, politics. James Hillman speaks of a blue fire within us and of being so haunted and obsessed by daimons from beyond that neither nature nor nurture, but daimons, restless demanding spirits from beyond, are really the determinative factors in our behavior. Both women's and men's groups are constantly speaking of a certain wild energy that we need to access and understand more fully. Thus, women's groups talk about the importance of running with wolves and men's groups speak of wild men's journeys and of having fire in the belly. New Age gurus chart the movement of the planets and ask us to get ourselves under the correct planets or we will have no peace.

Whatever the expression, everyone is ultimately talking about the same thing--an unquenchable fire, a restlessness, a longing, a disquiet, a hunger, a loneliness, a gnawing nostalgia,a wildness that cannot be tamed, a congenital all-embracing ache that lies at the center of human experience and is the ultimate force that drives everything else. This dis-ease is universal. Desire gives no exemptions.

It does however admit of different moods and faces. Sometimes it hits us as pain--dissatisfaction, frustration, and aching. At other times its grip is not felt as painful at all, but as a deep energy, as something beautiful, as an inexorable pull, more important than anything else inside us, toward love, beauty, creativity, and a future beyond our limited present. Desire can show itself as aching pain or delicious hope.

Spirituality is, ultimately, about what we do with that desire. What we do with our longings, both in terms of handling the pain and the hope they bring us, that is our spirituality. Thus, when Plato says that we are on fire because our souls come from beyond and that beyond is, through the longing and hope that its fire creates in us, trying to draw us back toward itself, he is laying out the broad outlines for a spirituality. Likewise for Augustine, when he says:

"You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." Spirituality is about what we do with our unrest. All of this, however, needs further explanation.

What Is Spirituality?

Few words are as misunderstood in the contemporary English language as is the word spirituality. First of all, in English, this is a relatively new word, at least in terms of signifying what it does today. That is not the case in the French language, where the word has a much longer and richer history. However, in English, it is only within the last thirty years that this word has become part of our common vocabulary. Thus, for example, if one went to an English library and checked the titles of books, he or she would find that, save for a few exceptions, the word spirituality appears in those titles only published within the last three decades. It is also only within these years that the concept of spirituality has become popular, both within church circles and within the population at large. Today bookstores, church and secular alike, literally teem with books on spirituality.

A generation ago, with some notable exceptions, this was not the case. The secular world then had virtually no interest in the area. This was also true for most of the churches. What we would call spirituality today existed, but it had a very different face. In the Christian churches it existed mainly within certain charismatic prayer groups and theologies of the Pentecostal churches, the social action of some Protestant churches, and the devotional life within the Roman Catholic Church. In secular bookstores you would have found very little in the area of spirituality, other than a section on the Bible and some books on the merits of positive thinking. In ecclesial bookstores, since this was considered an area distinct from strict, academic theology, you would have found very little as well, save for Roman Catholic bookstores where you would have found devotional literature and some books labeled ascetical theology.

Today there are books on spirituality everywhere. However, despite the virtual explosion of literature in the area, in the Western world today, especially in the secular world, there are still some major misunderstandings about the concept. Chief among these is the idea that spirituality is, somehow, exotic, esoteric, and not something that issues forth from the bread and butter of ordinary life. Thus, for many people, the term spirituality conjures up images of something paranormal, mystical, churchy, holy, pious, otherworldly, New Age, something on the fringes and something optional. Rarely is spirituality understood as referring to something vital and nonnegotiable lying at the heart of our lives.

This is a tragic misunderstanding. Spirituality is not something on the fringes, an option for those with a particular bent. None of us has a choice. Everyone has to have a spirituality and everyone does have one, either a life-giving one or a destructive one. No one has the luxury of choosing here because all of us are precisely fired into life with a certain madness that comes from the gods and we have to do something with that. We do not wake up in this world calm and serene, having the luxury of choosing to act or not act. We wake up crying, on fire with desire, with madness. What we do with that madness is our spirituality.

Hence, spirituality is not about serenely picking or rationally choosing certain spiritual activities like going to church, praying or meditating, reading spiritual books, or setting off on some explicit spiritual quest. It is far more basic than that. Long before we do anything explicitly religious at all, we have to do something about the fire that burns within us. What we do with that fire, how we channel it, is our spirituality. Thus, we all have a spirituality whether we want one or not, whether we are religious or not. Spirituality is more about whether or not we can sleep at night than about whether or not we go to church. It is about being integrated or falling apart, about being within community or being lonely, about being in harmony with Mother Earth or being alienated from her. Irrespective of whether or not we let ourselves be consciously shaped by any explicit religious idea, we act in ways that leave us either healthy or unhealthy, loving or bitter. What shapes our actions is our spirituality.

And what shapes our actions is basically what shapes our desire. Desire makes us act and when we act what we do will either lead to a greater integration or disintegration within our personalities, minds, and bodies--and to the strengthening or deterioration of our relationship to God, others, and the cosmic world. The habits and disciplines we use to shape our desire form the basis for a spirituality, regardless of whether these have an explicit religious dimension to them or even whether they are consciously expressed at all.

Spirituality concerns what we do with desire. It takes its root in the eros inside of us and it is all about how we shape and discipline that eros. John of the Cross, the great Spanish mystic, begins his famous treatment of the soul's journey with the words: "One dark night, fired by love's urgent longings." For him, it isurgent longings, eros, that are the starting point of the spiritual life and, in his view, spirituality, essentially defined, is how we handle that eros.

Thus, to offer a striking example of how spirituality is about how one handles his or her eros, let us compare the lives of three famous women: Mother Teresa, Janis Joplin, and Princess Diana.

We begin with Mother Teresa. Few of us would, I suspect, consider Mother Teresa an erotic woman. We think of her rather as a spiritual woman. Yet she was a very erotic woman, though not necessarily in the narrow Freudian sense of that word. She was erotic because she was a dynamo of energy. She may have looked frail and meek, but just ask anyone who ever stood in her way whether that impression is correct. She was a human bulldozer, an erotically driven woman. She was, however, a very disciplined woman, dedicated to God and the poor. Everyone considered her a saint. Why?

A saint is someone who can, precisely, channel powerful eros in a creative, life-giving way. Sren Kierkegaard once defined a saint as someone who can will the one thing. Nobody disputes that Mother Teresa did just that, willed the one thing--God and the poor. She had a powerful energy, but it was a very disciplined one. Her fiery eros was poured out for God and the poor. That--total dedication of everything to God and poor--was her signature, her spirituality. It made her what she was.

Looking at Janis Joplin, the rock star who died from an overdose of life at age twenty-seven, few would consider her a very spiritual woman. Yet she was one. People think of her as the opposite of Mother Teresa, erotic, but not spiritual. Yet Janis Joplin was not so different from Mother Teresa, at least not in raw makeup and character. She was also an exceptional woman, a person of fiery eros, a great lover, a person with a rare energy. Unlike Mother Teresa, however, Janis Joplin could not will the one thing. She willed many things. Her great energy went out in all directions and eventually created an excess and a tiredness that led to an early death. But those activities--a total giving over to creativity, performance, drugs, booze, sex, coupled with the neglect of normal rest--were her spirituality. This was her signature. It was how she channeled her eros. In her case, as is tragically often the case in gifted artists, the end result, at least in this life, was not a healthy integration but a dissipation. She, at a point, simply lost the things that normally glue a human person together and broke apart under too much pressure.

Looking at Joplin's life, and at our own lives, there is an interesting reflection to be made on Kierkegaard's definition of being a saint--someone who can will the one thing. Most of us are quite like Mother Teresa in that we want to will God and the poor. We do will them. The problem is we will everything else as well. Thus, we want to be a saint, but we also want to feel every sensation experienced by sinners; we want to be innocent and pure, but we also want to be experienced and taste all of life; we want to serve the poor and have a simple lifestyle, but we also want all the comforts of the rich; we want to have the depth afforded by solitude, but we also do not want to miss anything; we want to pray, but we also want to watch television, read, talk to friends, and go out. Small wonder life is often a trying enterprise and we are often tired and pathologically overextended.

Medieval philosophy had a dictum that said: Every choice is a renunciation. Indeed. Every choice is a thousand renunciations. To choose one thing is to turn one's back on many others. To marry one person is to not marry all the others, to have a baby means to give up certain other things; and to pray may mean to miss watching television or visiting with friends. This makes choosing hard. No wonder we struggle so much with commitment. It is not that we do not want certain things, it is just that we know that if we choose them we close off so many other things. It is not easy to be a saint, to will the one thing, to have the discipline of a Mother Teresa. The danger is that we end up more like Janis Joplin; good-hearted, highly energized, driven to try to drink in all of life, but in danger of falling apart and dying from lack of rest.

Janis Joplin is perhaps an extreme example. Most of us do not die from lack of rest at age twenty-seven. Most of us, I suspect, are a bit more like Princess Diana--half-Mother Teresa, half Janis Joplin.

Princess Diana is worth a reflection here, not just because her death stopped the world in a way that, up to now, few others ever have, but because is interesting to note that in looking at her, unlike either Mother Teresa or Janis Joplin, people do spontaneously put together the two elements of erotic and spiritual. Princess Diana is held up as a person who is both, erotic and spiritual. That is rare, given how spirituality is commonly understood. Usually we see a person as one or the other, but not as both, erotic and spiritual. Moreover, she deserves that designation for she does reflect, fairly clearly, both of these dimensions.

Table of Contents

Introduction to the Fiftheenth Anniversary Edition of The Holy Longing iii

Preface ix

Part 1 The Situation

1 What is Spirituality 3

2 The Current Struggle with Christian Spirituality 20

Part 2 The Essential Outline for a Christian Spirituality

3 The Nonnegotiable Essentials 45

Part 3 The Incarnation as the Basis for a Christian Spirituality

4 Christ as a Basis for Christian Spirituality 73

5 Consequences of the Incarnation for Spirituality 82

Part 4 Some Key Spiritualities Within a Spirituality

6 A Spiritually of Ecclesiology 111

7 A Spiritually of the Paschal Mystery 141

8 A Spiritually of of Justice and Peacemaking 167

9 A Spiritualiy of Sexuality 192

10 Sustaining Ourselves in the Spiritual Life 213

Notes 243

What People are Saying About This

Michael Downey

Anyone searching for substance and balance in the Christian spiritual life will welcome the wisdom in Ronald Rolheiser's words. His writing is at once learned and clear, not only warming the heart, but also giving light to the mind and guidance to feet stumbling amidst the complexities and ambiguities of our age. He steers clear of the fluffiness and fuzziness clouding today's spirituality superhighway, homing in on the essential elements of a Christian spirituality both sober and sane. The spine in Rolheiser's solid and original approach to a contemporary spirituality is the doctrine of the Incarnation. The particular merit of The Holy Longing is Rolheiser's ability to demonstrate how the bold belief in the Incarnation, affirming that 'God has skin', can altogether change our understanding of every dimension of the spiritual life- form desire, sexuality, and personal relationships to economic justice, ministry to the poor and wounded, and reconciliation among, nations, races and classes. (Michael Downey Professor of Systematic Theology and Spirituality Saint John's Seminary/Archdiocese of Los Angeles, editor of New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, North American editor of Spirituality)

Delia Smith

If you're struggling to seek your own spirituality then let Father Rolheiser be your guide. In this book he will help you to end the search and simply uncover what is, and what has always been, already there. (Delia Smith)

Alban McCoy

Spiritual books abound but few hit the mark. Ronald Rolheiser's latest book is one of the few. Sound good sense and insight are combined with genuine sympathy and understanding for the majority of us who struggle spiritually. Rolheiser's starting point is the insatiable desire deep within us that yearns irresistibly for fulfillment and which is the root of spirituality. But this book is concerned not merely with techniques and methods of prayer: there is also solid theological content conveyed accessibly and imaginatively, and drawing upon a wide cultural and literary background. (Alban McCoy, The Tablet)

Helen Prejean

A master weaver as at work here...I found my soul on every page. At last we have a guide who helps us know what to do with the fire of desire within us. At last a comprehensive, life-giving approach to sexuality. At last a dynamic understanding of how the paschal mystery plays in our own lives. At last a way to weave love for the poor and struggling people with the highest mystical love of God...I love this book. (Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking)

Herbert O'Driscoll

He writes clearly and engagingly, his language can at times be lyrical. He is never sentimental...and all the time he is absolutely grounded in reality. (Herbert O' Driscoll. author of A Doorway in Time)

Alan Jones

Spirituality is often given a bad name because it can mask a damaging sentimentality. The Holy Longing is a bracing alternative to religious posturing. Truly incarnational, Ronald Rolheiser grounds his vision of the spiritual life in hard real-life experiences and tells tough truths. In the end, it is the hard truths of compassion, forgiveness, and action in the world, that give us a true and lasting hope. A much needed antidote to the consumerist view of religion, this book is both a delight and a challenge to read. (Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral and author of The Soul's Journey: the Three Passages of the Spiritual Life with Dante as Guide)

Rembert G. Weakland

Without doubt, Ronald Rolheiser's The Holy Longing is one of the best books about Christian spirituality that has been published in many a year. Its insights are just what all of us need at this moment of history. It blends the old and the new in ways that few other authors can do." (Most Reverend Rembert G. Weakland, O.S.B. Archbishop of Milwaukee)

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Holy Longing 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book is a little slow in the beginning, but once you get in to it, it is absolutely wonderful. It really gets you to think about things using a different perspective. It offers a good explanation as to why we need church to have real faith. It also provides a good explanation of why face to face confessions are good for our souls. It also explains how if we substantiate God within ourselves, we do not need to hand someone the bible or to preach using words to bring God to others,but we will 'radiate the compassion and love of God,-in our faces and our actions.'
Theophilusfamily More than 1 year ago
From the first paragraph of the preface to the final quote by Julian of Norwich, The Holy Longing was both tender hearted and intellectually stimulating. There was something to underline on 99% of it's 257 pages, and I crammed the margins with notes.  (That great line from the preface was a quote from Tielhard de Chardin, who said that most sincere people who lack belief in God lack Him because they have never heard about Him in a correct way.)  The Holy Longing compels engaged reading. This book contains the best annotation on The Lord's Prayer that I have ever read, and I love his chapter on participating in the Incarnation. As one person said, half in wonder, half in objection, "It can't be true because it is too good to be true!" As Ronald Rolheiser quotes from the Goethe poem in the first chapter, we are troubled guests on a dark earth. That is the state of everyone at one point or another, often over and over again. We are born with longings and desires, some that can be satisfied here and some which never seem to be. You can tell me that you don't have a spirituality, but as a human being you do have a spirit, with those desires and fears and hopes, and you are doing something about it. From Mother Theresa to Janis Joplin to Princess Diana, no human being- Religious or Irreligious- gets away from being spiritual.  The question is, in those three women's lives, did their spirituality make them whole or did it help tear them apart? This fascinating first part would make great dialogue with any seeker, and once Mr. Rolheiser starts talking about specific Christian spirituality I don't think they would stop reading. He carries us from the general to the particular so gently that we can all make the journey.  Once he has laid this framework he applies his winsome, conversational tone to the Church as a body of believers, the Paschal Mystery, and social justice and peace…. among other things.  He writes real and he writes with reverence,  just like he explains that the body of Christ contains the delightful and the unpalatable, and we are called to be in communion with both.     And I'd recommend this book. Get ready to ask questions. Reading a good book is an experience, and not a passive one.  (Just for example, these are some thoughts that this book inspired:  "We live in a grand, detailed, singing world, and it begs us to respond to it. How can we not throw up our arms and embrace the pale blue sky?"  "Like Ravi Zacharias asks, are we promised exactly what we want from the prayer vending machine, or are we promised the presence of Christ?"  "If Christianity did not revolve around sacrifice, crucifixion, and stigmata all pointing to redemption, then all people in pain, depression, abandonment and illness, all those hospital bound and divorced and dying, they'd know we were lying about Divine and human nature." ) 
mlesleem More than 1 year ago
I majored in Religious Studies at a private Catholic university. In my 4 years of study I found this particular book to be the most enjoyable and useful.
grandmamichigan More than 1 year ago
This book is very helpful if you are looking for a book to explore your spirituality. Every chapter gives you food for thought.
joelavin on LibraryThing 5 months ago
This is an excellent book for those struggling to define their spirituality and for those wanting to explore it. It is the most unique and quite possibly the most biblically honest exploration of the intimacy that Christ wants to have with us and wants us to have with one another. I would suggest that you read it carefullu, but eagerly!
roydknight on LibraryThing 5 months ago
This touched on so many issues in my own spiritual growth as a follower of Jesus!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loaded with food for thought and for living life more deeply.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
wow good book
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