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Ronald Rolheiser on The Holy Longing

By Kay Lagreid

Having sold 75,000 copies of his newest book, this Catholic priest has the attention of a wide audience about matters of the spirit.

Listen to audio excerpts from The Holy Longing


Why did you write The Holy Longing?
How would you describe your own spiritual journey?
What has been your most powerful spiritual experience?
Throughout your writing, you quote the words of John of the Cross, from his poem, “The Dark Night of the Soul”: “I abandoned and forgot myself...leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.” Those words must speak to you very deeply.
It’s clear from your writing that the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen has been influential for you.
What other writers influence you?
As you teach students and speak to a range of audiences, what do you find to be common themes and questions in spirituality?
In The Holy Longing you write that “every generation has struggled spiritually,” and you name the demons that color the contemporary struggle for healthy spirituality. What are they? Why do they afflict our age?
Many Christians struggle for hope right now—particularly women. How do you advise Catholic/Christian women to sustain themselves on the spiritual journey?
The Church
The God of Incarnation
Sex is a wide energy

Ron Rolheiser

Photo by
Mike Penney

People on a spiritual quest are longing to read Ronald Rolheiser. The publication of his seventh book, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality (Doubleday, 1999), has made Oblate Father Ronald Rolheiser of Toronto, Canada, a sought-after teacher, speaker and retreat leader worldwide. The book has sold more than 75,000 copies in hardback.

The Holy Longing received a first-place award from the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada in 2000. Rolheiser also writes an award-winning weekly column on spirituality that is carried by more than 40 publications worldwide. That column can also be found at His work is accessed widely on the Internet, with hundreds of matches evidencing broad interest among Christians of many denominations, not only Catholics but also Lutherans and Presbyterians, to name a few.

Rolheiser, 54, is a theologian who taught for many years at Newman Theological College in Edmonton, Alberta. He is currently an adjunct faculty member of the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. He has doctorates in philosophy and sacred theology from the University of Louvain in Belgium. In his religious community, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, he currently serves in Toronto and Rome as the general councilor for Canada.

In an interview in Seattle last year, I asked Rolheiser about the connections between the book and his own spiritual journey.

Why did you write The Holy Longing?

I wanted to write a book on spirituality and was encouraged to do so by my publisher in England. The Holy Longing tries to be a foundational book in a bookstore full of writing on spirituality. It tries to be a book that parents can give to their young adult children.

All of us have a holy longing. It is desire. We’re born with a divine spark inside us longing for everything—longing for God. That’s the basis of spirituality.

The themes in the book chose themselves. The Holy Longing was 10 years in development, and three months in writing. Perhaps the most original and distinctive chapter is the one on the paschal mystery.

The Holy Longing is not my most personal book, but rather my attempt to name and articulate the Christian fundamentals—why I believe in God and why I go to church.

How would you describe your own spiritual journey?

I had a rural and robust upbringing as a prairie farm boy in a large immigrant family that settled in western Canada. I was well grounded in a close, Catholic family and a small community. My parents were solid and stable people—second-generation pioneers—who always tried, at great lengths, to instill values in us. We had a very deep Christian formation.

     My parents had a healthy sense of their mortality—that life is a gift and there can be great joy in life, but that life is very, very mortal. Your life is partly free, but it’s also owed to the community. Your freedom is conditioned. Your life belongs partly to you, but it also belongs to your family, to the Church and to God.

My parents had a good sense of the paschal mystery. I believe that has given me the courage and the faith to become a priest and to live as a human being, as a Christian and as a priest. This is reinforced by Scripture and by my theology.

My experience with the Oblates has been much the same. They work with the poor. They’re grounded.

What has been your most powerful spiritual experience?

My most powerful spiritual experiences haven’t been spiritual “highs” in prayer or on retreat, although I’ve had some wonderful experiences. Rather, they’ve been precisely in the “blood and guts” of living, growing up in a large family and joining the Oblates, who radiate the same kind of ethos. It’s been my day-to-day experience of committed people, living lives of commitment despite problems and, at the same time, being essentially happy. Inside their own weakness, they’re able to give their lives away.

Understanding spiritual experience in this way probably results from my personality and temperament, too. I’m not a man for the dramatic. That shows in my writing. I’m always talking about the domestic God over the monastic God—the God of the kitchen over the God of the high mountaintop. I talk about the gradual life inside of family and community as opposed to the dramatic falling at the feet, being born again and reborn again in one minute. Not that I belittle private spiritual experience but, for me, spiritual experience is in life.

I try to be a person of prayer and I’ve had some good, prayerful moments. But my deepest spiritual formation has been the guts of my family life, the guts of my Oblate community life and friendships. The people I’m surrounded by are the same type of people I grew up with.

I make a distinction between the students I teach and the people who surround me in different ways—whom I work with and love. There are longstanding friends who become family—oftentimes not admirers, but people who ground you, who see through you, who humble you and, at the same time, sustain you.

     I’m very careful not to let the admiration of students define for me who I am. It’s nice and I’m human. Everybody likes admiration and popularity. But it’s family and long-term friends and community who surround me—the people I go to meetings with every day—who are less enthralled with me than my students are.

Throughout your writing, you quote the words of John of the Cross, from his poem, “The Dark Night of the Soul”: “I abandoned and forgot myself...leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.” Those words must speak to you very deeply.

As Thomas Merton and others have put it so well, the spiritual struggle is basically one of getting beyond pragmatism, narcissism and restlessness, which so control our hearts, our agendas and our preoccupations. What we think about—hour by hour, minute by minute—are our heartaches, our agendas and our restlessness. These keep us from prayer and from each other, and make us ambitious and greedy.

As John of the Cross says in his poem, a good spiritual life is geared to help you escape from self-centeredness. You walk away from your heartaches, your headaches and your restlessness; that’s the true freedom. John would have a very different interpretation of freedom than our culture does.

I’m reminded of the words of the Eagles’ song: “When you’re looking for your freedom, nobody seems to care.” What does it mean to look for your freedom? Sadly, too often we’re looking for our freedom to get into pragmatism, narcissism and restlessness. John of the Cross would say, “Yes, we’re looking for our freedom, but it’s tremendously paradoxical. You’re going to find your freedom only when you abandon your freedom.”

Perhaps St. Francis of Assisi captured it best in his famous prayer. If I want consolation, I shouldn’t go out looking for consolation. I should start consoling people and then I’ll find consolation. So in looking for freedom, I should go out there and give my life to set other people free—and I’ll find freedom. It’s by giving everything away that you find it. That’s the way you leave your cares forgotten among the lilies.

The center of the gospel, the center of the spiritual life, is to give yourself away to find yourself. Jesus kept using different expressions, such as “If you lose your life, you’ll find it. If you try to save your life, you’ll lose it.”

It’s clear from your writing that the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen has been influential for you.

What I liked about Henri Nouwen was that he shared himself and his personal struggles in an honest, transparent and mystical way. Nouwen was a mystic. We all have mystical experiences, but a mystic can articulate those in an aesthetic way.

Nouwen could express sentiment without becoming sentimental. He could express truth with great simplicity—without being simplistic. He could be self-revelatory without being exhibitionist. Those are tricky lines.

People who try to copy Nouwen usually can’t pull it off. The difference with Nouwen was that he was anchored by a great Christian faith and a solid commitment. He was an extremely complex man, and he shared that complexity, which sometimes drove him to the edges of breakdowns. In contemporary spirituality, he has probably had the greatest influence on me. [The Holy Longing is dedicated to Nouwen.]

What other writers influence you?

In classical spirituality, the foundational thinker in my life is John of the Cross. Because he’s so wide, he is, in a sense, my backdrop. He’s laid out the parameters, the boundaries. [The title The Holy Longing is inspired by St. John’s poems.]

In theology, it’s the Jesuit Karl Rahner. I’ve also been very influenced by Thérèse of Lisieux. I think she’s very badly misunderstood, because we’ve “pietized” her. She’s an extremely complex person, but also probably the purest mystic we’ve produced in several centuries. She was, in a way, a child, but at the same time she was a wise old woman, which makes her intriguing.

Sometimes I wonder whether I’m caught more by her depth or by the intrigue of someone who is both Tinkerbell and Mother Teresa. I read her for inspiration, fire and motivation.

I also read Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Ruth Burrows, Richard Rohr and Kathleen Norris. In theology, I read the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin and Augustine.

As you teach students and speak to a range of audiences, what do you find to be common themes and questions in spirituality?

The great struggle for so many people is that they’re overwhelmed with rich plurality. They don’t know what to trust, and it’s easy to lose balance. They hear so many voices—secular voices and energetic voices—everything from what’s said in church to Oprah’s latest book. There’s a hunger to know what’s essential, trustworthy and important—and to sort that out from the fluff.

People want to know how resilient, and how elastic, Christian boundaries are. The basic question is: “I’m living in a world of overwhelming plurality. How do I sort myself out as a Christian?”

Another question that comes from many of the mature people in my audiences—mothers and fathers, grandparents, ministers—is one I wish I had better answers for: “How do we give our faith to our little kids?” There’s a real struggle in the Christian community today to pass faith on from this generation to the next.

A third type of question has to do with handling specific kinds of pain—suicide, divorce, personal brokenness in our lives and in our families. People are looking for clarity, and for help and consolation. They’re looking for someone to say, “You didn’t fail.”

A fourth question is: “How do we sustain our faith in an age when we’re surrounded by wonderful, energetic, distracting voices?”

These kinds of questions help set the agenda for what spirituality has to address.

In The Holy Longing you write that “every generation has struggled spiritually,” and you name the demons that color the contemporary struggle for healthy spirituality. What are they? Why do they afflict our age?

A major challenge is how to integrate all the voices, avoiding two extremes: being so inclusive that Christianity doesn’t mean anything, and being so narrow that the boundaries aren’t wide enough.

The question is how to hear the contemporary voices—where the Spirit is in the color of our world—and at the same time to have boundaries, so that Christianity means something.

A second challenge is building community. Morally, the Achilles’ heel of our culture is the individualism that makes it difficult to sustain any kind of community—marriage, family, parish, neighborhood. We’re into “bowling alone.” Religions—Christianity, Judaism and others—are about community.

A third challenge is how to retain a sense of God and faith in a culture that’s overwhelmingly distracting, where God isn’t in the marketplaces or in the everyday consciousness. How do you prevent your everyday consciousness from becoming agnostic? How do you not be overwhelmed by pragmatism, narcissism and restlessness, which are a kind of dominant consciousness of the culture?

This takes many forms, including workaholism—one of the great spiritual faults of our culture and our lives. We’re so busy. We’re not bad people. We’re busy people. We want family, we want God, we want community, we want neighborhood. There just isn’t time.

As Thomas Merton once said, “The worst spiritual disease in our culture is efficiency.” From the White House to the nursery, the plant has to run. And by the time you keep the plant running, there isn’t time for anything else. We’re tired. We’re surviving.

It’s pretty hard to work the kind of days people work today and then go home and spend an hour in prayer. You’re more likely to watch a sporting event or a rerun of Seinfeld to relax.

Many Christians struggle for hope right now—particularly women. How do you advise Catholic/Christian women to sustain themselves on the spiritual journey?

It may be too glib for me to say as a man, but there’s no other answer right now: It’s precisely with hope and with patience. Hope isn’t optimism. Optimism is based on looking at things and asking, “Is it getting better or worse empirically?” That can be very discouraging.

Hope is based on promise and on a long-term view. It says, “God promised the Spirit. God promised guidance. God promised the Kingdom. It’s going to happen.”

It’s also important for women to have a certain martyr’s patience. For example, all the women who initially worked for the vote never voted. But today women vote.

The struggle for full equality for women is a long struggle. Some progress has been made, but it’s not where it should be.

I think the consolation for many women who are struggling is to realize it’s going to be better for your children, and it’s going to be better for their children. Again, that has to be sustained by hope—not by optimism.

Hope is not about where the stock market or CNN is on a particular day. It’s about what Jesus promised and showed us in the power of the Resurrection. It’s going to happen.

The Holy Longing is available on audiocassette from St. Anthony Messenger Press. The book in print can be ordered from St. Francis Bookshop.

Kay Lagreid is a candidate for an M.A. in transforming spirituality from Seattle University, and hopes to graduate next June. She has been a single parent for 23 years and has balanced parenting with her work in communications for the Archdiocese of Seattle.


  Spirituality is about properly handling the fires, those powerful energies, that flow through us. We struggle because we are naïve and underestimate both the origins and the power of this fire. We think that energy is ours, and it is not. We think we can, all on our own, control it, and we cannot.

The Holy Longing

  Jesus was prescribing four things as an essential praxis for a healthy spiritual life: a) private prayer and private morality; b) social justice; c) mellowness of heart and spirit; d) community as a constitutive element of true worship.

The Holy Longing

  The Church is always God hung between two thieves....To be connected with the Church is to be associated with scoundrels, warmongers, fakes, child-molesters, murderers, adulterers and hypocrites of every description. It also, at the same time, identifies you with saints and the finest persons of heroic soul within every time, country, race and gender. To be a member of the Church is to carry the mantle of both the worst sin and the finest heroism of soul....

The Holy Longing

  The God of the Incarnation has real flesh on earth and speaks to us in the bread and butter of our lives, through things that have skin—historical circumstance, our families, our neighbors, our churches, and that borderline-psychotic friend who painfully reminds us that we are not God. When we look for God's guidance, these voices on earth must complement the voice from heaven.

The Holy Longing

  Sex is a wide energy and we are healthily sexual when we have love, community, communion, family, friendship, affection, creativity, joy, delight, humor, and self-transcendence in our lives. Having these, as we know, depends on many things and not just on whether or not we sleep alone.

The Holy Longing

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