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By Diogenes ( articles ) | Nov 12, 2006

Evelyn Waugh once complained that his generation, in its youth, was fed an illusory image of romantic love by the fashionable novelists of the time. Themselves homosexual (Waugh was thinking of Ronald Firbank, E.M. Forster, Marcel Proust, among others) they used heterosexual couples to portray essentially homosexual courtship, with the upshot that neither male nor female was drawn with accuracy.

I was reminded of Waugh's remark in reading Fr. Ronald Rolheiser's looney recent column on spirituality, "Breathing Emotionally." Ostensibly it's addressed to anyone -- i.e., any reader of the Catholic papers in which it's published. Yet here we have a presumptively homosexual priest quoting a confessedly homosexual priest (Henri Nouwen) on the subject of the spiritual life, as if both were dealing with the universal human condition. Read the stuff below, and ask yourself whether it rings true to the life of any of the first dozen Catholics you met in the church parking lot this morning:

One of the things that [Nouwen] was able to give voice to was his constant struggle to be affirmed, to be made to feel special, to be touched, to be singled out for admiration, to feel tangible proofs of love. Over and over again, in his diaries, he shares his yearning for this. The wording varies, but the pleading is always along these lines:

"Today the small rejections of my life are too much for me -- a sarcastic smile, a flippant remark, a brisk denial, a bitter silence, a failure to be noticed, a coldness from a colleague, an indifference from someone I love, a nagging tiredness, the lack of a soulmate, a loneliness that I can't explain. I feel empty, alone, afraid, restless, unsure of myself, and I look around for invitations, letters, phone calls, gifts, for someone to catch my eye in sympathy, for some warm gesture that can heal my emptiness.

"And right now I don't particularly want God, faith, church or even a big and gracious heart. I want simply to be held, embraced, loved by someone special, made to feel unique, kissed by a soulmate. I'm empty, a half-person. I need someone to make me whole."

My Uncle Louie's prime grief is that his old Ford pick-up wouldn't go into reverse with the 4-wheel engaged, but even on the level of contemplative prayer I can't think Nouwen and Rolheiser have a lot to offer him. A priest who longs "to be kissed by a soulmate" doesn't figure in his notion of growing closer to God. In the same vein, Rolheiser's faux-baroque agonies and ecstasies are, I think, the prosaic twinges of homosexual frustration projected onto a backdrop of spiritual drama. Predictably, what he calls maturity most of us would see as its opposite, namely, adolescent luxuriating in self-pity:

But to come to this [viz., emotional and spiritual maturity], we have to learn a new way of breathing emotionally. The excruciating pain we feel sometimes when precisely we want nothing more in the world than a physical and emotional touch that we can't have is, in essence, a weaning, the pain of the child who has to cry herself to sleep because her mother will no longer nurse her, but is forcing her instead to learn a new way of taking in sustenance.

And how's your rheumatism today, Mrs. Kolarczyk?

Rolheiser wouldn't be Rolheiser if he passed up the chance to do a little gender-bending. Here's his conclusion:

Our prayers don't seem to be heard because God, like a good mother, knows that giving a certain emotional breast back to the child only delays the inevitable. Maturity lies in learning how to breathe emotionally in a new way.

The mystics called this "a dark night of the soul." And we are in one of these dark nights every time we feel the kind of aloneness that drives us to our knees pleading in mercy for the kind of tangible touch that, for a moment at least, would let us feel whole again.

No, the mystics did not call this a "dark night of the soul." There's a difference between Elton John and John of the Cross, however confused they may become in Rolheiser's overheated imagination. It's past time that someone pulled the plug on the problem, which has crossed the boundary from nonsense into madness. Even apart from the shonky theology, when a celibate priest makes seven references to his need to be touched in the 850 words at his disposal, you know something is definitely out of whack. If your son wrote a letter like that home from college, you'd head off to pick him up the next day with the U-Haul attached to the minivan. There are many names for Rolheiser's emotive maunderings, but Catholic spiritual wisdom isn't one of them.

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