Any of you who are regular parishioners at St. Louis King of France have probably heard Father James Misko mention one of his favorite theologians, Ronald Rolheiser. (Or Thomas Merton, or Henri Nouwen… we’ll get to them another day!)
I am firmly in the middle stage of my life: I just turned forty, and I am a member of what is commonly called the “sandwich generation,” still raising kids on one side and caring for aging parents on the other. Rolheiser’s 2014 book, The Sacred Fire, explores these three phases of life -- childhood, maturity, and aging -- from a spiritual perspective, outlining three stages of Christian discipleship that correspond to each of these generational stages:
Essential Discipleship: the struggle to get our lives together
Mature Discipleship: the struggle to give our lives away
Radical Discipleship: the struggle to give our deaths away
Right now, I feel as if I’m standing on the center of this bridge with a clear view of both ends.
My oldest children are on the cusp of adolescence, and already I can see them beginning to wrestle hard with the seminal questions of Essential Discipleship. Who am I? Who is God? Who are my friends? What do I do with my life, and why? I watch, and I remember how painful and prolonged that wrestling is, having passed through it myself recently enough that the memories still feel like tender bruises. This phase begins with restless questioning and ends with being uprooted from home and family to a wilderness where eventually (we hope!) one’s new individual adult life can take root and begin to flourish.
For my part, these years of getting my life together were literal wilderness years, spent outside the sheepfold of the Catholic church, without any shepherd but my own willfulness. I pray for better for my own children, but only God can say.
My in-laws, for their part, recently sold their house and moved onto our property, not with wholehearted celebration but with grudging acknowledgment that they need more help than we could provide from 80 miles away. They feel, keenly and very personally, Jesus’ admonition that “when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18) Rolheiser, in his book, explains that Christ is our model here, that he gave his life for us in activity but his death in passivity, “through absorbing in love the helplessness, diminutions, humiliations, and ultimate loneliness of dying.”
My in-laws are nominally Christian but not regular churchgoers. I watch, with compassion and helplessness, as they attempt to make sense of the end of their lives without a firm and abiding hold on the cross. I pray for better for myself one day, but only God can say.
And me here in the middle? Rolheiser maintains that Mature Discipleship begins “when we begin living more for others than for ourselves.” These busy years of career and education and mortgages and parish ministries and weddings and baptisms and funerals… they are the bread and butter of my life right now. My physical life, but also my spiritual life; in Rolheiser’s model, I am called to give both away, generously.
Turning these lenses on the people I encounter around me every day is illuminating. So often, we filter our understanding of others through our understanding of ourselves and where we are. But every spiritual phase requires different kinds of love. Understanding where someone stands on Rolheiser’s continuum can help us to accompany them more fully as brothers and sisters, to encourage them to give whatever-phase-this-is-now over to Christ.
Where, in your daily life, do you meet people in each of these three phases? How are you called to serve each one?
Rolheiser, Ronald. (2014). Sacred Fire: A vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity.