Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge.
Today I speak with Father Richard Rohr. I wasn’t quite sure what to call Father Rohr, but he said, “Please just call me Richard.” Richard is a Franciscan Priest and prolific author. Sounds True recently released a six-part audio learning program with Richard entitled The Art of Letting Go: The Wisdom of Saint Francis, in which Richard explores the life and teachings of this beloved figure and offers ways we can incorporate his wisdom in our lives.
In this Insights at the Edge. episode, Richard and I spoke about the relevance of Saint Francis in today’s world, what he calls the spirituality of subtraction, Jesus’ teachings on non-duality, and what is genuine contemplation.
Here’s my conversation with Father Richard Rohr:
Tami Simon: Richard, to begin with, I’d love to meet you, the person, when you were a teenager and you were somehow drawn to join the Franciscan Order. What was happening inside of you and what forces were happening in your life that such an event would happen?
Richard Rohr: Let’s see if I can go back there. I’m sixty-six now, so that was some years ago. I was what we would call in the Catholic Church a “Pre-Vatican II Catholic”; that was the great council that tried to reform the church or update the church in the early 1960s. I was born in the early 1940s so I grew up very much in what we would call the “old church,” where we didn’t even have the distinctions of liberal and conservative. We are all happily conservative together. It wasn’t the angry conservatism you have today. It was a somewhat protected, romantic world of Kansas, and I do think, as a very little boy, I had experiences that probably some people would call “God experiences” or spiritual experiences. I don’t mean to make them overly ideal, but I knew that there was a bigger world. I knew that there was more than business-as-usual that everybody was involved in.
In that time, if you were in the Catholic ghetto that I grew up in, the only way that you could act that out was to somehow be a priest or religious person, or a “Friar,” in the Franciscan term. And wouldn’t you know it, in the eighth grade, a brown-robed Franciscan with his lovely sandals and picturesque romantic appearance came and talked in our classroom. I got his address from the Franciscans; at that time, the province was in Cincinnati, and I wrote off to them and started corresponding. I know today that this is unthinkable, but I actually went to the minor seminary at the age of fourteen. But in the 1950s, in that secure world, we grew up much quicker; it was a much more boundary-identified world.
It’s a decision I’ve never regretted. I have had a wonderful life. But as I told someone the other day, in many ways I had to grow up backward. I had the strong identity structure, belief system, which made me rather secure rather early on, in many ways. But then the 1960s came, after I was already in vows as a young Franciscan. And then I had to do my searching, my experimenting and learning. Asking the question, “What does this all really mean?” But it held my feet to the fire and in my case it worked, because that larger world showed itself and gave me the security to enter into it. That’s probably more than you wanted to know.
TS: No, actually I want to know a little bit more. When you mention that this brown-robed Franciscan came to the classroom, what was it that you saw in that person that touched you?
RR: Well, I had just read a small, admittedly romanticized biography of Saint Francis calledThe Perfect Joy of Saint Francis. And you know, I think that every young person wants to be happy. I had read this life of someone who was a happy saint, who wasn’t dour or morbid, or moralistic. Seeing someone who represented that…costumes and visuals I think are so important when you’re young to personify the idealized image or the self that you want to be so I’m sure I projected a lot onto this man, although he happened to be a grand human being. And the two came together: the life I had just read and this concrete person who might just personify him.
TS: What do you think in Saint Francis’ life and message is really relevant for us today, outside of the romanticism, as you call it? What is the actual pith or core of it that is relevant for us now?
RR: I think that probably the most relevant piece is his universalism or ecology, which didn’t just include the Earth and the animals but people beyond Christianity and Catholicism. His vision wasn’t a tribal vision. It was a vision that even included the non-humans and that’s why the church made him the Patron of Ecology.
TS: But by non-humans you mean animals? How far are we going to take that?
RR: He addressed Sister Wind, Brother Fire, Brother Sun and Sister Moon. It was even the physical and vegetative universe that was part of the mystery of God for him. So much of our history we call “pantheism.” Now we’ve refined our language and we call it “Pan and theism” that he was able, as all mystics are, to see God in all things. And that seeing is probably what we desperately need if we’re going to survive this six billion people on this one planet, especially when you see the rising fundamentalism between the religions, not just on the earth level but on the religion/biological trust level.
TS: How does that come up for you in your work? I mean, you’re clearly identified as a Franciscan, so someone could say that that is a form of a tribe of sorts. You’re of this brown-robed tribe, but yet, you’re communicating the Universal perspective.
RR: People like the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa, two of the Enlightened Ones of our time, both said very similar things that you need to be grounded or rooted or accountable in one place. In fact, going deep in one place leads you to that deeper spot where you find the universal truth. I think that’s true. The most mature spiritual people that I’ve met are accountable to one system, one vocabulary, and they let it take them all the way. They don’t use it to hide behind. They use it to lead them. And I hope Catholic Christianity and Franciscanism have been that in my own life. It has allowed me to be very critical of those very things and yet I wouldn’t for a moment say that it wasn’t that world view that held me long enough in one place so I could find what the words really meant or what the doctrines were really pointing to.
I feel that if I would leave that, I could only become an individualist and I’m not interested in that. I want to be a part of history and society. I want to have access and have connections with other groups. To me that is important. What God is doing, God is doing through limited social groupings and not just isolated, unaccountable individuals. Does that make sense?
TS: Okay, so in addition to Universalism, what do you think is important for us to appreciate about the living wisdom of Saint Francis?
RR: His understanding of downward mobility that preceded E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful. He was saying that already in the thirteenth century. But that he did it in a happy way, not a moralistic threatening, demanding, “You have to do this, are you going to destroy the Earth” way. This is enough. I know he used a word that is not contemporary in this sense: poverty, a love affair with Lady Poverty. He even had to make that beautiful and positive. But it’s clear to me, with the population growth that is going to increase in this century, we all have to learn some form of downward mobility and do it happily, not the enforced equality of communism but some kind of invitation to what I call “falling upwards,” because it is a falling–but so that it doesn’t feel like a loss. I think, in terms of his practice, he taught the contemplative mind. As you know, that’s what we’re doing in contemplation; we’re letting go of our attachment to our own ideas, feelings, and world views. He did it in almost an outer way. All I can assume is that in many days alone in the forest and in the cave, he was doing that in an inner way, too–learning to let go of his own preferences. If you don’t do it in your mind, you can’t do it in action.
TS: Are you finding that there’s a different level of receptivity to downward mobility now in our post-economic super challenging times?
RR: Yes, there is an openness to it verbally, but when it comes to actual decisions to move our lifestyle down and lesson our “carbon footprint” as we say now, I think most of us are finding it pretty hard. Once you have grown used to a certain level, boy it’s hard to go back ward or what feels like backward. That is what I hope I can teach, that there is something better. If you don’t find the “something better,” which for me would be the inner God experience (your soul, your inner life, or whatever word you want to use), but if there isn’t a cushion to fall into, something that holds you and names you, grounds you, loves you, you won’t do it, just ideologically.
There’s a certain amount of the population that is ideological and they can call upon the moral fortitude that is needed. But that’s a small percentage. Most of us need something better or we won’t let go of what we think we have or what we think we need.
TS: What about the idea that, of course I want that inner resource and I have touched that, but why do I have to let go of the outer comforts of my life? Can’t I have both?
RR: Well, I think of the clear disjunctive, one of the few very clear ones, that Jesus made, was “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Mammon” was an Aramaic word for this attachment to the world of things. I think it has to do with attachment. I certainly enjoy plenty of creature comforts and have learned to grow used to them, I’m afraid. So I guess I’m having both, so who am I to talk about it? But I do know that when they are denied me or when the convenience is not there, I, over the years, have grown in my ability to live without them. I hope I’ve grown in some kind of detachment from them. If you are attached to them, I do think it is a problem because you will spend your life trying to serve god and mammon. And if that attachment to creature comforts is too high, it normally will block the spiritual journey. But it’s a matter of degree.
TS: It sounds like what you’re talking about is also having one’s priorities clear, a sense of having clear priorities.
RR: That’s a positive way to put it. They have to be very clear and rechosen almost daily: “What’s really important in my life right now?” I mean, I have to do this flying around, missing flights, cancellations, and weather issues, I have to in the morning, before I set out to the airport, decide what the important thing will be that day. I’d like to get there on time, and it would be convenient and helpful for the other party and for me. But the most important thing is this: to be human and be in union with God, to be loving, to accept reality in it’s present form. If I can set that priority straight, then I can keep my peace, even when the flight is delayed for three hours. It’s not easy. There is still that initial irritation. But you’re right; it’s a matter of clarifying priorities. If I set out in the day angry and irritated, driven toward success (however I’ve defined outer success), then I’m just dang mad at that three hour delay. And my mind will look for someone to blame – the poor girl at the check out desk, for example (I hope I don’t take it out on her), but you know, I could see my mind wanting to.
TS: It’s interesting when you talk about downward mobility, or I know that there are other phrases that you use, like “The Art of Subtraction.”
RR: “Spirituality of Subtraction.”
TS: Yes, the “Spirituality of Subtraction.” What I think of is not so much subtracting outer things but what I need to subtract internally, what I need to let go of –whether it is ideas or positions – I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about that. What is the spirituality of subtraction, no so much in terms of “I’m going to clean out my closet and give away the clothes that don’t fit me,” but internally, what am I letting go of?
RR: Well, you’re pointing to the heart of the matter. It’s amazing how externalized certainly Christianity has been, that it’s been concerned largely with sexual sins, external behavior. But the real demons are these inner demons of avarice, greed, ambition, narcissism, superiority, or elitism. It’s amazing how we’ve allowed ourselves, our people, to live comfortably with these inner attitudes of various kinds of spiritual greed or spiritual consumerism, as some have called it, as long as the outer behavior didn’t go too far. We sort of tolerated it; it was sort of okay. You’re right on; that is what we have to see.
And you know what? You can’t measure it. You can’t fault people for it. I don’t know how ambitious you are. We’ve let popes and bishops get away with massive pride, arrogance and ambition, as long as the internal self was celibate, perhaps. I think the level of consciousness that so much of the world is at now sees through that and we’re recognizing that it’s the soul, the inner choice for life, that really matters. I hope that we’ll live less and less of external roles, formulas, rituals, and costumes as defining your level of awareness.
TS: I’m curious, in your own life, what have been challenging subtractions? Not outer ones, but inner ones?
RR: First of all, being the child of farm people from Kansas, I never expected this degree of well-knownness. There was certainly a point when I was flattered by it, enamored by it, and soon, attached to it. And I could recognize that in myself when some people would perhaps not kiss up to me. They didn’t know anything about me and I would feel that voice inside taking a little offense.
TS: Like, “Don’t they know who I am?”
RR: Exactly! Or, even wanting to even give them my credentials or my name or something like that. And there I saw that that demon was still firmly in place. The people of the staff have heard me say this; I actually ask God to give me one humiliation a day, that someone who does not meet my needs, kiss up to me as I put it, and then I have to watch my reaction to that. Maybe I haven’t earned the right to talk about it because I haven’t suffered a lot. Most of my life has gone ten times better than I ever expected. My learning about suffering has mostly been in solidarity in friendship, in visitation of the poor, of the Third World, of oppressed people. I was a jail chaplain in Albuquerque for fourteen years. It was more friendship and solidarity with other people in hospitals and jails, and third world countries who have suffered that taught me anything I might have had to learn about letting go or suffering. My life has been fairly easy.
I did have a cancer scare in 1991 where I was given six months to live and there I think I had to face my own death. That was a good learning and a necessary part of my journey to really think in my forties at that point that my life was over.
TS: Six months? That’s still a lot of time to figure out a lot.
RR: Well, it didn’t even last that long, which is why I can’t take that much credit. It was malignant melanoma. They operated on me and took out some of my lymph nodes and found out that it had not moved through my body as they thought that it surely would have. It was only a few weeks where I thought, “Okay, it’s probably over.”
TS: Okay, and what did you discover in that few week period?
RR: Firstly, that I wasn’t afraid. And I was happy for that because I’ve always preached that God is not someone to be afraid of. I think many people are raised in organized Christianity who have received so many threats about hell and “God is going to push you,” this whole reward-punishment system. I think an awful lot of Christians are afraid of God. They don’t even realize it. They take it for granted. And I’d always preach that that wasn’t true; that was not my inner experience of God. When I thought death was near, my first response was not fear of dying. I was so glad to know that about myself. It was sadness, “This thing called life is over already.” I thought I’d get longer to do and experience more people. It was deep sadness. And especially when I would see the sadness in my parents’ eyes or my friends’ eyes, then I would lose it. But that was the main learning. I hope that I am not afraid of God.
TS: Now there’s an interested assumption in what you’re saying, which is that your feeling is that when you die, you will be with God?
RR: Yes, I come from the Christian worldview of eternal life, that the goal of life now, not later, is union with God. That’s my definition of salvation. Whenever you live in conscious union or friendship with God, you are saved. It’s not a technique, formula, or belonging system; it’s an experience. It’s heaven all the way to heaven and hell all the way to hell. Hell would be a state of separation or false autonomy. As a Christian, I am a believer in eternal life. We’ve named it as if it’s a geographical place. Even the previous Pope said, “When will Catholics realize that heaven and hell are not geographic places?” They are states of consciousness. Most Catholics are surprised that Pope John Paul II said that.
TS: You said that whenever we’re with God in the state of loving consciousness, we’re saved. What are we saved from?
RR: I’m trying to use the language that most Christians have taken for granted. I don’t like it much myself. Jesus does, in the Gospels, when people enter into this vulnerable trust with him and with the moment, he will say again and again, “Your faith has saved you.” I think that the Eastern word would be “enlightenment” or “awareness” or “you are awakened or aware of the big truth.” But you are right. The English word “saved” implies a negative state. You could just say that that negative state is “unawareness.”
TS: You are one of the only Christian teachers I know who uses terms like “non-duality.” And I know that you have a new book, The Naked Now, in which you’re exploring what would non-duality mean to a Christian. I wonder if you could talk about that.
RR: It’s true on several levels. First of all, let me point out so maybe Christians listening to this won’t think I’m coming from some new space. The classic description of the spiritual journey said that there were three stages: Early Purgation from the ego (to use our language now), middle journey (which was the journey of illumination or the illuminative way), and the last leg of the journey was called the Unitive Way, where you’ve overcome this separateness from God and the separateness from yourself.
We had this language all along. Jesus’ great line of Unitive Consciousness in the tenth chapter of John’s gospel is, “I and the father are one.” That is the highest level of non-duality, where you have actually overcome the split between yourself and God. For me, that’s the very meaning of the Christ mystery.
I always have to tell Christians, “Christ is not Jesus’ last name.” The Christ mystery — and this is said in the prologue to John’s Gospel, in Colossians, in Ephesians, and the first letter of John: the Christ existed from all eternity. The Christ is whenever the spiritual and the human coexist. You could say that Christ began with the Big Bang, when God decided to materialize and not just be pure spirit but take on form. That’s the Christ, you see? And in that sense, all religions have been seeking the Christ. We, in the Christian tradition, believe that in a moment of time when history was ready for it, that Christ consciousness became incarnate (that is what Christmas means for us) in one human being so we could fall in love with it, see it, and touch it, as John’s letter says. You can’t fall in love with a concept in Christian way of thinking.
That union between the self and God, between matter and spirit, I’m convinced cannot be accessed or believed. Like for all practical purposes, most Christians believe not in the Christ mystery, that Jesus is fully human and fully divine at the same time, and that they don’t cancel one another out. They can both be true. A seeming contradiction is not a contradiction because we couldn’t be non-dual with Jesus. For all practical purposes, Jesus, for most Christians, if fully divine. They haven’t struggled with the real paradox. No, that is “theism” to believe in a supreme being. Christianity is believing that spirit and matter coexist in one place. We couldn’t be resolved it in him because we couldn’t resolve it in our self. There has to be a likeness between the seer and the seen.
On the practical level, what you have to teach people is to receive their own experiences non-dually. You don’t eliminate the mysterious, the problematic, the negative, that which I do not understand, which most people do very quickly eliminate as not true because they don’t understand it. How can you deal with God, who is mystery itself? That’s why a lot of our people have not gone very far. On the practical level, it’s teaching people contemplation, meditation, the mind that does not divide the field of the moment but receives the field of the moment as it is, light and darkness, good and bad, the part I understand and the part I don’t understand. Then you can accept the same paradox in yourself.
I become a non-dual seer, I can then see non-duality in everybody else and I don’t need to separate, torture, deny, or eliminate it. It is two sides. First of all, non-duality as a way of accessing the moment, which is called contemplation? The goal for a Christian at least, would be to see that that is the highest level of seeing, which allows you to see the real meaning of the Christ, which allows you to finally believe that I and the Father could be one and are one. But without that legwork ahead of time, overcoming the split within yourself, you normally just can’t possibly overcome the split between yourself and the Divine.
TS: Would you say that it’s fair to say that you experience yourself as divine and human?
RR: That’s right.
TS: That’s your own experience of yourself.
RR: That’s right. There is a part of me that is just so good. Now I don’t feel embarrassed to say that. There is a part of me that wants to love, heal, and renew and would never want to hurt anybody. It’s just, where does this come from? I know that I didn’t develop it or work for it; it’s my soul. We would say that this is the divine indwelling of the Holy Spirit — this part of me that has always said “yes” to love, God, myself, and others. I don’t know where this radical “yes” comes from. That’s my divine part that is in communion with everything already. But then what coexists with it is this nasty, petty self that I don’t even want to talk about, or the thoughts I will have of judgment, dismissal, and of irritation. Right after I’ve given a wonderful keynote address on the contemplative mind, I’ll go to the airport again and be irritated with the first five people that I meet. And I say, “God I’m a phony.” And yet, it’s humility and patience with that very humanity. I don’t hate it anymore as much as I once did, if at all. I can weep over it, and say, “That’s Richard, the one that God loves for some reason.” At my age I think I’ve met both my divinity and my humanity and they do coexist in me.
TS: And the non-duality is to accept that that’s the way it is. There’s no opposition there?
RR: That’s right. It’s not just a reconciling it. Forgiving reality is not reconciling reality, where you hold the tensions and say, “I can live with it.” I can accept it as the nature of the beast, the nature of what is and that this is okay. You actually learn to love as Saint Francis did–the leper, the poor one, the excluded one–because they are the most visible form of this suffering, of this overcoming. I think it becomes an entire set of eyes and a new kind of heart that makes you not want to avoid handicapped people, wounded, gay, poor people — anyone that other groups choose to exclude. You don’t waste time doing that anymore. That’s what’s destroyed the world, in my way of thinking.
TS: I’m curious for you to say a little bit more about that because I was touched that you said that you haven’t had that much suffering in your own life, and yet you’ve sat with a lot of suffering people. What I notice, being with you here, is your capacity to hold the suffering of other people. And I notice that because I feel like I could share my own suffering and it would be welcome. I feel that in the field of who you are. What I’m curious about is how you think, in your own life, first of all, you’re even drawn to suffering people. Why sit with suffering people?
RR: Where did that come from? Let’s psychologize it to begin with. I had a childhood that was ideal. I was my mother’s favorite. My brothers and sisters tease me about that. I had a very dear, simple, uneducated father, a German farmer, who accepted me always exactly as I was, even though I was so different than him. Even as a little boy, I loved ideas and words and he loved the practical. I know it had to be a leap for him to enter into my world. My mother was very tactile, with a lot of hugging and kissing. I think on that level, I got a lot of empathy, sympathy, a connection – even tactile connection. I got my narcissistic fix, as I love to call it. Then, put on top of that, admittedly it was ideology at first, but making Jesus my first teacher and I saw how he was always going toward the poor, the handicapped, the excluded, the outsider, the non-Jew, even though he was happily a Jew. So I learned it intellectually.
Then I learned it emotionally from Saint Francis that this was the heart-of-the-matter for Franciscanism, which was identifying with the underclass, not the upper class. After that it was just one after the other concrete meetings of suffering people in hospitals, in jails, in poor counties, or of people who had very hard lives. Again and again, they were not always unhappy people but they found life at a deeper level.
I guess I was given a certain capacity. But I don’t think I’m naturally loving; I’m naturally narcissistic but I was given enough capacity to connect, to feel, to empathize that they got inside of me; they got under my skin and changed me to some degree.
TS: In what way were you changed?
RR: That my glib theologies, explanations, and certitudes were again and again found not to be true. You know, all you need is one exception. I mentioned gay people a minute ago. All you need to do is meet one exception to the rule and you know the rule not to be true. The wonderful thing about Jesus and Saint Francis, for me, is that they didn’t have any trouble with the exceptions; whereas in organized religion, it seems to me had become an obsession with order or so-called order. It usually became imposed order. And this love of order made an awful lot of clergy and Christian anal retentive people not empathetic people, who could never go outside their own comfort zone. Again and again, I’d meet people – a holy Hindu or a Holy Buddhist or a Holy Jew…I mean, some of the Jewish people that I’ve met in my life are just so altruistic, philanthropic, such great listeners who can care. And I said, “Wow, they don’t have my salvation theory at all and look at them. The proof was in the pudding.
My ideological presuppositions just continued to fall apart by the concrete. You can stay in the platonic world of ideas and maintain your worldviews for a long time, against all evidence to the contrary. But I think Franciscanism gave us a love of the concrete instead of the ideological. That the concrete is the doorway to the universal whereas most religion gets involved with its so-called universals and it never gets back to the concrete. It tries to force all of the concretes– the concrete gay or Hindu person–back into their universals and it never works.
That for me is the meaning of “incarnation,” that word we Christian’s use so much – the infleshment of God in Christ, that even the great mystery needed to become concrete, visible, specific, touchable. And we believe that he became the way to God, that the concrete is the way to the universal. For me, that is the heart of Franciscan philosophy and I think, Christian philosophy. Most Christians aren’t there.
TS: What you mean by that, the concrete? Do you mean the actual person who needs help or the actual situation that is calling you forward?
RR: A specific situation that you have to be present to it, meet it on its own terms without labeling, categorizing, and resolving. It is what it is; when you can meet things as specifics instead of universals. There’s a certain degree of letting go, which is what I’m talking about here.
TS: Letting go of your judgments?
RR: Yes. The comfort that ideology gives us, that “I don’t have to deal with this specific woman because I put her in a category and I know what all women are like so I don’t have to hear her, be present to her, or respect her really.” You don’t have to respect concretes or specifics, this individual person or event, when you have your universal answers for everything.
TS: I want to cycle back to something that you said, because you mentioned this word “contemplation,” and what I thought I heard you say is that genuine contemplation is somehow (I’ll use my own language and then maybe you can help me understand it in your Christian language) resting in this non-dual space. But what does that mean in the Christian experience?
RR: You know, I believe that Jesus himself was a non-dual teacher. When he made statements like, “My father sun shines on the good and the bad; his rain falls on the just and the unjust.” That’s classic non-dual teaching. I think he has largely been interpreted by the Greco-Roman Western mind, which is a good mind – very rational, clear, and makes disjunctives, which is the function of word. Early on, you already see in the desert fathers and mothers, in the mysticism of John’s gospel and Paul’s writings, that they discovered that they needed a different bit of software, to use our language, an alternative consciousness, to deal with the paradox of this Christ mystery. I believe that this was systematically taught as late as the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. But then, it was only in the monasteries and since then, it has become an elite vision for the view, which is probably why the Reformation happened because by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is entirely dualistic and thinking we’re not even teaching it in the monasteries any more.
It was Thomas Merton who almost singlehandedly exposed by his writings in the 1950s and 1960s, that the West no longer understood its own tradition. We Catholics use the word “contemplation,” but he told his own contemplative community in Kentucky, “You’re not Contemplatives. You’re just introverts.” This was very insulting for them. But he was right. They were saying prayer all day, God bless them, heroically so, with a mind that was filled with analysis, judgment, and critique. We had lost the ancient tradition and I think that is why so many Christians in our time have been reading Hindu and Buddhist authors because we say, “My God! That is what we once had.” When people like Eckhart Tolle came along, for example, I got all these letters because I was very supportive of his teaching. People called me “new age” and said how I sold out to the East. I said, “You don’t even know the older traditions.”
We are living in a marvelous time where we’re starting with Merton, but in many schools, certainly Thomas Keating right here in Colorado, we’re rediscovering the Christian contemplative, non-dualistic, mystical mind. We don’t know how to be mystics anymore because we think we’re going to get there by analyzing things or finding some kind of verbal truth or intellectual conclusion. And why? Christianity has produced so much fundamentalism and so much war and violence. I have to say this to Christian groups, “The two World Wars happened on the little continent that we Catholics had in the bag for fifteen-hundred years. We built our Cathedrals everywhere. We had everybody in our club and the two World Wars did not appear in deep, dark pagan Africa. But people who had in my impression, an awful lot of unprocessed pain, anger, repressed fear, and hatred twice in fifty years. It’s pretty amazing and sad. But that is what happens when religion is no longer doing its job, when it’s just a belonging system instead of a transformational system.
TS: Again, I’ll just ask it in a different way then. Given that backdrop, in your view today, seeing as the mystics see, what is genuine contemplation to you?
RR: Well, I’d have to talk about it at different stages: the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive. Most of us, and God works with us, never get beyond the purgative. It’s just the matter of this rugged work of doing your prayer time, your sit, where you recognize your obsessive thoughts, your compulsive and negative feelings, and practice letting go of them, of releasing them, and not identifying with them. That’s purgative, early stage necessary contemplation. You can’t do a nonstop flight to the unitive consciousness. The middle path is that increasing encounter and struggle between darkness and light, where you face your own phoniness; you see your own mixed motives; you recognize your prejudices. But now, out in the social world, in the larger world, not just your thoughts and feelings but how you’re a part of a structured oppression or hatred; your economic/political social world starts also being called into question. That’s the period of larger and larger illumination.
Many people never move to that social level. That’s why we called our center in Albuquerque “The Center for Action and Contemplation.” I feel that contemplation does not lead to social critique, to larger world awareness, which is still early stage purgative, which is fine; it’s purgative contemplation. But it remains or becomes narcissistic if you stay there too long just dealing with your own thoughts and feelings, never getting to a larger love or reconciliation, and then contemplation at the unitive stage, and as you know Christianity would believe in a personal God. What I mean by that is not a human god but that God is the center of relationality, vulnerability, intimacy, give and take, forgiveness, apology, acceptance, and healing; just like two lovers, you can negotiate the relationship; you could work with it. That is the good meaning of personhood. There are no deadends. I can always work with it because there is a great lover on the other side. It’s not falling in love with a force or idea. At the third stage, I think there’s really the capacity to encounter, or what Buber would call the “I-thou relationship.” Or Emmanuel Levinas would call the “face of the other” even the “face of the divine,” as it were. I mean, our Catholic-Christian mystics would speak of falling in love with God and being loved by God and talking to God on the friendship level. That’s the unitive level that is the goal. It’s already heaven now. You don’t need to go to heaven because you’re living in that dialogical, mutual acceptance now.
TS: That’s beautiful.
To conclude, Richard, I have a kind of strange request and if it doesn’t work out, I’m willing to take the risk. I am wondering, Father Richard Rohr, if you could give our listeners a blessing.
RR: Oh my. Isn’t that humble of you?
Let me say something first of all. For someone to ask for a blessing actually means that you’ve already received it. You don’t ask for something that has begun to happen. But that you would be humble enough and trusting enough to ask for it, especially assuming that you’re not a Catholic Christian. Normally we only ask or expect blessings from our own group. But that you would trust that I, as some kind of outsider, could have something to give you. Thank you. You’ve received it already.
May you know the height and the depth.
May you know the length and the breath.
May you know the love that surpasses knowledge.
May you be healed by the love that encompasses all things and know that God love has already blessed you.
You are indeed a blessed one of God.
RR: Thank you, Tami.
TS: Thank you, Richard so much. Thank you for coming her to Sounds True for a recording with us and for the conversation and for your heart’s generosity.
Richard Rohr has created with Sounds True a new learning course called The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis. For more information, SoundsTrue.com: Many Voices. One Journey.