Ron Rolheiser’s “Sacred Fire”: Nudging Us Toward a More Mature Discipleship

My first recollection of the writings of Fr. Ronald Rolheiser dates back many years, to his popular weekly column in our local Catholic newspaper. He’s a good spiritual writer, engaging and prophetic; so when I was invited to review his newest book Sacred Fire:  A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity for the Patheos Book Club, I embraced the opportunity.

He doesn’t disappoint. In Sacred Fire, Rolheiser draws the reader toward mature discipleship—relying for inspiration on classical spirituality, on scripture, and on prayer. He sees the gift of self in two ways: in learning to give of our lives, we are—according to Father Rolheiser—preparing to give of our deaths. He cites Jesus’ sacrificial passion and death as the paradigm for our own passing. At life’s end, as we find ourselves helpless and rendered passive by illness or pain, it is then that we can give our greatest gift to others. That gift, says Rolheiser, is character.

Ron Rolheiser

The quintessential example of a good death, Rolheiser says (but we already knew!), was the holy death of Pope John Paul II. Rolheiser explains:

John Paul II spent the last years of his life, in effect, living out his death publicly before the whole world, a broken and dying man, and in doing that, John Paul II, the broken, was able to give to the world something that John Paul II, the handsome athlete, could not give—namely, his death.

Of seminal importance in the book are Rolheiser’s Ten Commandments for Mature Living.” Moving beyond the “Thou shalt not’s” of the Bible, Rolheiser’s commandments invite the reader to a higher place, a deeper relationship with God and with one another. Because their lessons are so important to understanding our role as mature disciples, I hope Father Rolheiser won’t mind my sharing them with you. They are:

  1. Live in gratitude and thank your Creator by enjoying your life.
  2. Be willing to carry more and more of life’s complexities with empathy.
  3. Transform jealousy, anger, bitterness and hatred rather than giving them back in kind.
  4. Let suffering soften your heart rather than harden your soul.
  5. Forgive—those who hurt you, your own sins, the unfairness of your life, and God for not rescuing you.
  6. Bless more and curse less!
  7. Live in a more radical sobriety.
  8. Pray, affectively and liturgically.
  9. Be wide in your embrace.
  10. Stand where you are supposed to be standing, and let God provide the rest.

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While I am enthusiastic about the lessons gleaned from Sacred Fire, I am uncomfortable about some parts of Fr. Rolheiser’s teaching, and I temper my endorsement with a caution. It’s because Rolheiser feels emboldened to tweak the longstanding and consistent teaching of the Church like a rubber nose, to impose his own flavor on Jesus’ words, that he is regarded by some as a controversial figure.

The Ten Commandments, as presented by God, contain everything we need to live out the life of love to which we are called.  To the extent that Father Rolheiser’s new vision for the way we are to live urges us toward greater union with God, that is a good thing.  If, however, the reader infers from these “new commandments” that the stuffy old rules are obsolete, that would not be a good thing.  “Do not think,” said Jesus in Matthew 5:17, “that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets;  I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.”

Six times in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches his apostles, saying, “It is written….but I say…” The Pharisees were scandalized by this message, understanding that Jesus was placing Himself above the Law and the Prophets. But He was, after all, the Son of God, the One sent by the Father; so his clarification or reinterpretation or redefinition of God’s commands was appropriate and not at all blasphemous, as the Jews alleged.

But when Father Rolheiser moves beyond the commands of Scripture and says, in effect, “Jesus says… but I say…”, I sometimes want to reach for my trusty lightning bolt deflector.

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Sacred Fire is a selection of the Patheos Book Club.  For more information, to read an excerpt, or to join the conversation, click here.