Fr Ron Rolheiser

The first chapter of the Book of Revelation contains a powerful challenge that’s hidden within the overall esoteric language of that book. John, its author, speaking in the voice of God, says something to this effect: I have seen how hard you work, I have seen your fidelity and your hunger for the truth; but I have this against you, “you have less love in you now than when you were young.” That stings!  

It’s easy to be blind to this inside of ourselves. We change, we grow, we age, and sometimes we don’t look at ourselves closely to see what those changes are doing to us. Hence, we can be dedicated, hard-working, truth-seeking, sincere persons, virtuous in most every way, except that this goodness has become encrusted inside an anger, bitterness, and hatred that wasn’t so evident in us when we were young. As we age, it’s easier to be committed to the right causes than to remain loving and not let bitter judgment and subtle hatred infect our character.

It’s important to have the right causes and to fight for the right truth, but as T.S. Eliot warns, “The last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right deed for the wrong reason”. If the author of the Book of Revelations came back today and scrutinized us, conservatives and liberals alike, I suspect, he might say the same thing he said to those Christians in Asia all those years ago, You are dedicated, that’s good – but you have less love in you now than when we were young. Our causes may be right and our motives good, but there is also in us now some hatred of others and demonization of them that wasn’t as evident when we were younger. We need to own this. 

Someone once quipped that we spend the first half of our lives struggling with the Sixth Commandment, with the fire of eros, and then spend the second half of our lives struggling with the Fifth Commandment, with the fire of disappointment, anger, and hatred. When I was young and immature, I used to confess to having “bad thoughts” (to do with the Sixth Commandment). Now, aged and more mature, I confess to having “bad thoughts” (to do with the Fifth Commandment).

There is, I fear, less love in me now than when I was young. I went to the seminary at the age of seventeen and for the next eight years lived in a large community (forty-fifty of us). We were young and immature, but our community life together was mostly wonderful. These were happy years. Today, all of us in that group are in our seventies and are mature. However, if we tried to live together now, we would kill each other. We are more mature – though perhaps with less love in us now than when we were young.

Admittedly, this can be a simplistic judgment. Are we really less loving? Is love simply to be identified with warm energy, friendliness, and being nice to each other? It is more than that. Genuine love can also be prophetic, angry, and hard. Moreover, many things conspire to naturally callous our youthful sensitivity, exuberance, and energy, and harden our faces. Our spontaneity, bounce, and ease in hospitality are calloused simply through the natural loss of our naiveté and through the inevitable blows which life deals us: disappointment, failure, rejection, the death of loved ones, the loss of health, and the growing sense of our own mortality. Those things also take the bounce out of our step and make us less pleasant to be around than when we radiated youthful exuberance, and that isn’t necessarily a loss of love.

Still, I’m haunted by an image Margaret Laurence gives us in the person of Hagar Shipley in her novel, The Stone Angel. As Hagar ages, she grows ever more bitter and critical of others, without ever recognizing how much she has changed. One day, ringing a doorbell, she overhears a little girl telling her mother “that horrible old woman is at the door.”  Hearing this, stung to her roots, she goes to a bathroom, turns on all the lights, and for the first time in years examines her face in the mirror and is taken aback by what she sees. She no longer recognizes her own face. It has become something other than how she pictures herself. Her face now is that of a bitter, hateful old person.

We need to do what she did, have a good look at our faces in a mirror. Better yet, lay out a series of photographs of yourself from childhood, through adolescence, through young adulthood, through middle age, to your present age and study your face over the years to see how it has changed from when you were younger.  Sadly, you will probably see there some hardening that is less attributable to natural aging than it is to bitterness, jealousy, and hatred.

(Oblate Fr Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. He writes a weekly column that is carried in over 90 newspapers around the world. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser. com.)