Moving beyond ‘our little rule’

by Father Ron Rolheiser OMI
Among the Desert Fathers is this story: “Abbot Lot went to see Abbot
Joseph and said: ‘Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of
bad thoughts: Now what more should I do?’
“The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like lamps of fire. He said: ‘Why not
become all flame?’”
Indeed, why not? There probably isn’t a better challenge that might be addressed to any of us. Abbot Lot describes us pretty well;
we “keep our little rule”. We are what classical spiritual writers describe as “proficient” in the spiritual life, beyond initial conversion, staunch and solid in grace. We’re essentially good, prayerful, honest, decent, dutiful, generous, moral and sincere persons.
But the operative word is “essentially”. We are these things essentially, but not radically. Like Abbot Lot, we’re good, generous,
prayerful and honest “according as we are able”, although that isn’t quite true either. Deep down we know we’re capable of more, that God is inviting us to more, but that we are fixated at a certain level of mediocrity.
Simply put, we still have too many compensations, addictions and accommodations to comfort. As well, there is the fear of moving
beyond what disrupts our lives. We live faith, hope, and charity to a point, and there was a time when that was enough, was what God asked of us. Now, though, we sense a deeper call and know we are being asked to let go of many of the things, good and bad, to which we cling for comfort and stability.
We reach a point in the spiritual life, and it is precisely at that point where we have attained a certain proficiency in goodness,
generosity, and fidelity, where God invites us to make a more radical “leap of faith” beyond our comfort and stability. Like everything
else that comes from God, this is precisely an invitation, a beckoning, not a threat. What concretely does this mean?
Let me offer an example: Once, while preaching a priests’ retreat, I was approached by a group of young priests who asked me to join their faith-support group for an evening of prayer and sharing. During
the course of the evening, they shared with me the origin and intent of their group. The priest who founded the group put it this way:
“We were good priests before we formed this group. Essentially we did the right things, were generous ministers, lived in a basic sincerity and honesty, and were respected. But we compensated too much too.
We drank too much, ate too much, fantasised about sex too much, complained too much, felt too sorry for ourselves, and had too many compensations — from masturbation to drinking too much expensive scotch.
“One day, I simply said, ‘Enough! If I’m going to be a priest, why not be a more radical one!’ But I knew that I couldn’t do it alone. So I talked to two priest friends, and that’s how our group started. We meet at least once a week, sometimes twice. That’s a lot of time,
but it’s worth it. It’s been four years since we started and we have more sobriety now in everything. Life is more demanding, but also more fulfilling. I’m happy in a way I’ve never been before.”
He and his group had moved beyond their “little rule”, taken the leap of faith, become pure flame. This is precisely what Jesus asks of the rich young man in the Gospels, the one who turns him down and “goes
away sad”. Notice how the Gospels describe this young man precisely as a person who is proficient in the spiritual life — essentially
good, decent, honest, generous, faithful, but also as experiencing a deeper call, a clear invitation, a dissatisfaction with the level of
his own generosity: “What still is lacking for me?” That’s also our question.
The poet Goethe, in a poem entitled The Holy Longing, describes how, at a certain point in the spiritual journey, one is handed the invitation to become “insane for the light”. What is this insanity?
Jesus names it as the invitation to give up everything and follow him more radically. Kierkegaard calls it “the leap of faith”, John of
the Cross sees it as the willingness to enter the “dark night of the spirit”, and the Desert Fathers call it “leaving our little rule so as to become pure flame”!
Whatever the name, the idea is about reaching a point in the spiritual life where, because we are proficient at being good and
decent, we are invited, like the rich young man in the Gospels, to give up our most cherished comforts and securities and plunge into the unknown in a radically new way.
Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He can be contacted through his website
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