Go Crazy or Turn Holy

Ronald Rolheiser
April 8, 2024
Reproduced with Permission

In a poem Serenade, Brazilian poet Adelia Pradospeaks of a painful ache we feel inside us as we forever wait for something or someone to come and make us whole. What are we waiting for? Love? A soulmate? God? No matter, the frustration eventually pushes us towards a choice, go crazy or turn holy:

I am beginning to despair

And can see only two choices:

Either go crazy or turn holy.

And when that someone or something finally does come:

How will I open the window, unless I'm crazy?
How will I close it, unless I'm holy?

Either go crazy or turn holy. The older we get the more we realize how true that is, how eventually that's the choice forced on all of us, both by the way we are built and the limitations inherent in life itself. Why? Is there something wrong with life and with us? Why can't we find a peaceful space somewhere between crazy and holy?

Well, the biblical preacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes offers a reason. After penning that beautiful, oft-quoted text about how there is a time for everything - a time to be born and to a time to die; a time to plant and a time to harvest; a time to break down and a time to heal; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to keep silent and a time to speak; a time for love and a time for hate; and a time for war and a time for peace - he offers us this. God has laid out a beautiful rhythm for life and has made everything beautiful in its own time, but God has put timelessness into the human heart so that we are out of sync with the seasons from beginning to end. God has established a beautiful rhythm to nature; but we, unlike the physical elements and the plants and the animals who don't have timelessness in their souls, never quite fit into that rhythm. We are overcharged for life on this planet. (Ecclesiastes 3, 1-11)

You find expressions of this in literature everywhere in both religious and secular circles. For example, the renowned German theologian Karl Rahner used to affirm that in the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we learn that here in this life there is no finished symphony. In that, he echoes Saint Augustine's famous line that is as true and apropos today as it was seventeen hundred years ago when he wrote it: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. That single line expresses both a non-negotiable understanding of the human person and a non-negotiable path he or she must walk. We don't have a final home here and that's why at the end of the day there is no option other than going crazy or turning holy. It's no surprise that Ruth Burrows, the renowned spiritual writer, begins her autobiography with these words: I was born into this world with a tortured sensitivity and my path has not been an easy one.

While this motif is everywhere present in religious literature, it is also present in the thought of many secular poets, novelists, and philosophers. For instance, after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Albert Camus, a professed atheist, was asked by a journalist if he believed in God. He answered: No, I don't believe in God, but that doesn't mean I am not obsessed with the question of God. Why that obsession? Because in his thought he could not make sense of the world, nor find a fully sensible place in it for humans, unless there was a God. Without a God, human existence cannot make peace with itself. He likened the condition of someone in this world to that of a prisoner in certain medieval prisons, where they would put a prisoner in a cell that was so small that he or she could never stand fully upright or ever fully stretch out. The perpetual feeling of being cramped, it was believed, would eventually break the prisoner's spirit. For Camus, that's our situation in life. We can never really stand up fully or ever stretch out fully. Eventually, this breaks our spirit - and we either go crazy or get holy. That's also the basic view of other atheistic existentialists like Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Go crazy or get holy! Richard Rohr offers us a third option, get bitter. He submits that once we get to a certain age, we have only three options left open to us: We can become a pathetic old fool; or we can become a bitter old fool; or we can become a holy old fool. Notice what's non-negotiable. We will all eventually become old fools. We have the choice only as to what kind of old fool we will be - crazy, bitter, or holy.