- How great love and great suffering can move us into a new stage of life
- The spirituality of subtraction
- Making room for mystery of joy and suffering
- His secret to staying present to God
Franciscan friar and ecumenical teacher, Father Richard Rohr bears witness to the deep wisdom of Christian mysticism and traditions of action and contemplation. Founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, Father Richard teaches how God’s grace guides us to our birthright as beings made of Divine Love. He is the author of numerous books, including The Universal Christ, The Wisdom Pattern, Just This, and Falling Upward.
What Enneagram type are you? You can take a test to find your type here or read Richard’s books on the enneagram to discern your number.
Kate Bowler You need to learn to let go. Have you ever heard someone say that or wondered if you could do it? Let go, let it all go. It sounds wonderful if what you’re carrying is heavy addiction, brokenness, failure. Set it down. Rest easy for a moment. But we’re also holding on to so much that we can’t live without. A kid who needs you to get down on your knees and hold them when it’s not OK. A parent who needs you to reach out and smooth their hair. Our own tender hearts who love and want and need a second to feel joy again. In moments like this, the idea of letting it go seems impossible. I don’t want to let it go. I want to hold on. My guest today understands the limits and joys of learning to hold on and learning to let go, and I am so grateful to be speaking with him today. Father Richard Rohr is the founder of the Center of Action and Contemplation. For decades, he has been an internationally recognized author and spiritual leader and fundamentally decent human being a joy to meet-.
Richard Rohr I hope!
Kate I am so, so grateful to meet you today. Thank you so much for doing this.
Richard Kate, it’s wonderful to meet you. Thank you. Thank you.
Kate One of my favorite ones of your books is describes that that younger self we have, we have a younger self, don’t we? Who has all kinds of plans who’s very concerned about how to build a good life? Tell me about our first half of life selves.
Richard You’re referring to the book Falling Upward, I take it. I recognize that distinction between the first and second half of life, which is really from Carl Young, helped a whole bunch of pastoral questions and concerns, and it helped me recognize something that now no longer causes me angst and that is, I hope this doesn’t offend anybody, and I’m been a priest for 52 years, believe it or not, I’m still in good standing, but I believe most of organized religion does the task of the first half of life sometimes rather well, but over and over and over and over again. And maybe it’s where we are after 2000 years of Christianity. We’re not yet adult Christianity, where we can lead people to the second half, where the concern is not certitude, being right, proving other people wrong, exclusion of those are we for various silly reasons do not think are worthy. That game is coming to an end, now it’s coming to an end slowly because this growth happens in the individual person. I find a lot of individuals who are moving into the second half of life today, but it happens culturally too. I think what’s tearing American politics apart? I don’t know about Canadian, but is is a culture war in many ways. Between those two attitudes and the first half of life is all about my identity, my group, my rightness. Me winning somebody else losing as if it’s a zero-sum game. The most simple thing I can say about that is it keeps you from understanding the Gospel. Now, of course, I am a Christian, so I’m concerned about the preaching of the Gospel. And the Gospel isn’t a win lose scenario. The reason it was called good news. It’s a win-win scenario. I always say God doesn’t lose, and he doesn’t want his children to lose either. Yeah, once you hear that it becomes sort of common sense or obvious. So we’re getting there, though we are. I mean, so many people, like yourself, who instead of managing sin management, somebody called most of clergy work instead of holding on gaining graces, and we have our indulgences. It is much more in the second half of life than you named it already about letting go.
Kate Yeah, I wonder, too. I’m just thinking about the decline of cultural confidence in institution,
Richard Mhm yeah good word.
Kate In leadership across the board. I would love to have also seen you in the 70s and in the 80s and because as a historian. We learned so much about modern religion from the 70s, but I do kind of wonder, too, if a lot of the the religious movements the last 50 years to have also been very even, in their new age form or more charismatic form, have been also very interested in the questions of the first half of life, like the the rise of the prosperity gospel. Yeah. We can’t ever not have a cousin who’s trying to sell us, send us essential oils who her evangelical church has also approved of. You know that we find these spiritualities that marry inquisitiveness and hunger and ambition, like you’re just about to find your best life now.
Richard You use words very well. Kate, I can tell you’ve wrestled with these subjects. Thank you. Yeah, I don’t know anything that gets us across. Moves us from the first to the second, except great love and great suffering. But if you avoid great love of any body, anything, the world, animals, you see my little dog behind me. Opie! Opie, look in the camera, there you go. And if you avoid suffering, life will make it happen. So it’s going to come your way anyway. You might as well learn what you can from it.
Kate I have to admit that is one of my favorite of your thoughts that, you know, the way you point out that the spiritual path, most people need to be forced onto it. Yeah, they they lose a job, they lose someone, maybe they get sick, there’s some kind of addiction or brokenness, and you have such a lovely phrase for that idea. It’s just like a consequence of living. You called it necessary suffering. You know, I really hadn’t thought that I was somebody who really expected my life to get significantly better. But when it came apart so quickly, I was very surprised and I felt almost I was I’m embarrassed to admit that I felt almost like insulted, like why I thought I was
Richard as young as you are.
Kate Yes, it’s thought. I’m, you know, don’t I try? Don’t I work hard? Don’t I? You know, don’t I? Don’t I? Don’t I? I and one of the things I love so much about your work is it no longer makes it strange to come apart. There is such a shame, I think, attached to suffering in our culture.
Richard There is.
Kate Maybe I haven’t just lost, maybe I’m a loser kind of feeling.
Richard One of my favorite Catholic mystics is a saint we call the little flower. Yeah, she said many wise things, died at the age of twenty four and is the Doctor of the Church and, if you know, Catholic theology that blows cardinals minds that an uneducated French girl could be Doctor of the Church. But she just said so many wise, wise things. And one of them that isn’t so well known, is she said “God knows all the sciences, but there’s one science God does not know, God does not know mathematics. God knows nothing about mathematics.”
Kate I love that.
Richard That is all heart of the matter. So what we’re all doing in the first half of life is counting, counting, measuring, weighing, deserving. I gave you this much, you give me back that much. As long as we’re caught up in counting, it’s it’s a dead end. It really is. And our capitalist countries have just further that as the framing. This is the way you frame reality. It’s about mathematics.
Kate The only quote I remember from her is something along the lines of great acts will not be afforded to me. So I must, you know, accept little things like like
Richard Little things with great love.
Kate Yes, that’s right.
Richard That’s why Mother Teresa took her as her patron saint. Because of that. Of course, Mother Teresa ends up doing rather great things, but says, just do little things with great love.
Kate Yeah, flowers. Flowers everywhere. That’s beautiful.
Kate For people who might not be familiar with sort of the fun particularities of different religious orders, your Franciscan and what what makes what makes a Franciscan, a Franciscan, what makes you a Franciscan? I’d love to hear it.
Richard Franciscanism, since its inception in the 13th century with the life of Francis of Assisi, has always been a very alternative reading of the gospel. From the underside, someone said that everyone first wants to be a Franciscan. Now I know we say that, because it’s so romantic. Other orders might have a rule or a mission, yeah, but we have a persona that’s just utterly attractive. He’s the patron of ecology, you know, he’s the patron of nonviolence, he loves animals. It’s just everything that’s up to date now is what we tried to do, or we didn’t do it so well. But it’s hard not to want to be a Franciscan. I took Jim Wallis, the founder and Sojourners. Years ago, we were both preaching in Europe, and I took him to Assisi and he said, God, this town would make a Catholic out of anybody, and it just reeks of Catholic at its best. Yeah, freedom, beauty, joy, happiness. Franciscan spirituality is not sin centered. Francis’ starting point was not sin. Now you’ve got to know how much that was. I’m not going to mention other denominations and other saints who tend to be rather sin centered. His beginning point was suffering, yeah, human suffering. I’m sure that’s why he was the first known human being to be marked with the stigmata. That he got the mystery of suffering so clearly that is psychosomatic unity that he was it took place in his body. And that’s documented from so many sources. It’s not a Franciscan legend, you know, a man walking around with five wounds permanently in his body. He got suffering. But what makes it even better? He was called the joyful beggar. He got it joyfully, you know? He was not a dower person. Yeah, he was a seven on the enneagram.
Richard At least I think so. He seems like a seven. Are you a seven?
Kate Oh, that’s so, I’m a two, but I’m like if a golden retriever became a person.
Richard Oh yes, you’ve got the warmth of a two.
Kate Oh. It seems so much more common to find people that just want to avoid the pain at all cost, and
Richard And why not? I would have been there. Sure, sure. Yeah, it has to be done unto you when you set out to choose intentional mortification, as we used to call it in the old church. You create some unhealthy personalities with strains of masochism and self punishment and self-hatred. So you’ve got to be careful. You got to ask God to help you ready to accept it when it comes. Yeah, but don’t go out and seek it.
Kate Part of what I hear you inviting us, too, is to stop trying to climb the ladder.
Richard Absolutely. There is no ladder worth climbing. It’s about descending. And that’s going up and going down. We call it a spirituality of subtraction, and I get that phrase from a good Dominican, Mike Greggard, who said the spiritual journey has much more to do with subtraction than it does addition. Brilliant. We’re back to math.
Kate Yeah, terrible math, I love it.
Richard Yeah, the practice is still math.
Kate It’s all terrible math, I mean, grace is awful math that I that I didn’t earn. Suffering is terrible math, God, you’re supposed to love me, and now I have to walk through this pile of crap and you feel your love and then maybe you’ll show up, even though I just wanted the nicer apartment, you know? It’s all terrible. It’s all terrible math. The way that love gets multiplied when you give it. That’s so weird. You’d think it would just go away.
Richard The only metaphor we have is human love. And because even our best human loves are still pretty much conditional. You know, we let our friend down, they let us know or they punish us. So again, to imagine unconditional love. I’m told it’s literally unimaginable.
Kate It does seem like when people want to tell that they’ve changed, they do get these little gifts. There’s other times when I see people work incredibly hard, they ask God to change them. They go to therapy, they walk, walk the hard road of what you want to probably call sanctification. And it works. It’s a kind of brick by brick change. Yes. But then there’s the third, which I have been more annoyed by. There’s just these magical divine moments. They’ve always been in times of my greatest suffering. I’m in the hospital. I shouldn’t feel anything but despair. But all of a sudden, I feel loved and it sticks around for months. And then it goes away.
Richard Of course, if you could hold on to it, we always say you will fall in love with the gift instead of the Giver of the gift. And so the Giver has to withdraw the gift and say as it were, okay, do you trust me or do you just enjoy that good feeling? Yeah. I mean, that might seem like a minor point, but that is what is kept so many, I’m not trying to be critical of another group, but so many evangelicals and Pentecostals from mature Christianity. There are far too tied to feeling and prosperity to things going well for themselves. And they make that the sign that God loves them, whereas most of our Catholic mystics it’s exactly the opposite when a new trial comes their way hallelujah! A new chance to love Jesus. It’s the- I mean, I’m not there yet. I wish I was there. I know that’s the way all of our mystics talk.
Kate It does seem so often that we get these moments where we feel God show up, and then we’re just back to being human again.
Richard Yeah, me too. You know what Paul said about the thorn of the flesh that he realized God gave it to him to keep him from getting proud. That we got to face our really rather desperate humanity. At least every day for a little bit, or we would indeed think we’re the cat’s meow. You know where when you enjoy so much of God’s consolation, you’ve got to recognize your naked, I’m naked underneath my clothes like everybody else.
Kate So there’s no cure, I suppose, for being human then that you can just-
Richard No cure for being human. So when we can put it together and allow these contraries, seeming contraries to co-exist in us, then you can not be ashamed of your humanity because you’re still the temple of the Holy Spirit. Isn’t that wonderful? And you have to choose to believe that most days when you think negative thoughts or resentful thoughts or people who can’t forgive as beautifully as you do.
Kate Only sometimes, just falls into a chasm and then never comes out again?
Richard No, I trust you on that because, I’ve got a very poor memory. It’s getting worse the older I get, and I just don’t remember who hurt me or who screwed me in the middle of life. I don’t even remember it anymore! What a great, what a great so maybe you have a spiritual amnesia, too.
Kate I’m sure this has been exacerbated by what we’ve all been through in the last stretch, but also just how frequently tragedy comes to our doorstep. Talk to a friend yesterday who lost two of her kids in an accident this last year, and she will just have to walk her life alone. And I, in the face of that, there’s no language, it feels like there’s there’s no words to say, Well, we can go back to the way we were before or. What do you say to people when they they’re just hoping maybe that their spirituality would make things a little bit, I don’t know, easier, easier?
Richard How do they endure it without, yeah, some sense of a bigger purpose, bigger love, a bigger mind. I think that so much this time of COVID. How are people getting through this without a loving God?
Kate I find it easier to reconcile suffering around things that were that feel like I just have to put down. I have to put down ambitions or put down dreams or put down maybe things I took on that I thought would make me happier, like some of the the terrible things we do, but we’re really pretty secretly happy about them. You know, for fun sins, you know? Yeah. But for things that have been taken from me, like the the ability to always imagine being a mom, you know, the idea that other people would have to live without people they need, like that’s the stuff that I- that’s the part that feels hard to imagine that any kind of faith like relativizes that, I guess.
Richard Well, that’s the heart of a two. You’ve got the heart of a two. For you, relationship is everything and an especially a sacred relationship like parents and child. You know, if you let go of that relationality, you’re just not sure life means anything. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, we all are- should be that way. But that’s your gift as a two on the enneagram to appreciate that relationship is the sacred, which comes from our doctrine of the Trinity. I always have to get theology and everything, but if God is utter relationship, then it’s in relationship that we find our soul. Yeah, well, you’re not wrong, you’re not wrong at all.
Kate You write so beautifully about this feeling, the feeling of homesickness that maybe sometimes there’s a it’s a little bit of an emptiness, a little ache inside of us, a yearning, maybe for other people and for God that that might, that might tell us something about what we’re made for. I found that very comforting, because otherwise I think maybe in our happiness obsessed culture, we feel like we’re supposed to get to a point of ultimate satisfaction, but still there’s there is something that tugs on us, isn’t there?
Richard Yes, an essential restlessness and just enough of home is planted in us to know that’s where we belong, whatever that connotes. And to know that we want more of it. Yeah.
Kate You know, you try to make so much more room for mystery. Like just pulling apart these.
Richard Yeah, hope so.
Kate The space that we find between each other to feel that like love and energy.
Richard Thank you.
Kate Yes, it does make more room to feel, yeah, I guess just what like like more sacred language to describe what helps us feel alive.
Richard I’m looking out of my geranium on my front porch here now and my little Opie back there, sleeping on my sofa and trying to talk to you. If I can enjoy each of these, then I can enjoy God. What would make us think that we would know how to be present to God if we don’t even know how to be present to a geranium or a dog or a Kate Bowler? Yeah.
Kate I hope this question does not sound impertinent, but I have been thinking about it. One of the things that’s special about priests and nuns and their formation is that they practice dying. They- you give up your belongings, you give up having kids, you abandon your future in a very concrete way. And I don’t mean for this to sound dramatic, but do you think it’s harder for those of us who don’t have a lot of practice?
Richard In dying.
Kate Yeah. Are you getting better?
Richard If you don’t practice ahead of time, it comes as a shock. Well, this shouldn’t be happening to me. We move into a sense of entitlement that really doesn’t serve us well. I think that’s probably the main wound of American society. We’re so entitled thinking we deserve, we deserve. And it makes for very miserable people. I don’t know what other way to say it. You know, every expectation is a resentment waiting to happen. And if you’re expecting life to meet all your needs or if you’re so rich, you can make sure it meets your needs. You have a recipe for being very cynical, very dismissive. It’s a shame that people who practice letting go. They’re the happy ones, the life doesn’t disappoint them.
Kate Yeah, yeah. After people have lost so much recently, they might feel a little reluctant to want to let go of anything else. How do we try to unclench our hands a little bit? How do we practice letting go?
Richard It’s got to begin with very little things. For years, I told the story about three tenths of a mile from where I’m sitting right now there’s a very long, interminably long stoplight and I always just pull up just when it turns red. So I know I’m going to be sitting there a full three minutes, which is nothing, you know, but I just come on, come on, come on, change, change because the Post Office is on the other side and I’m always going to the post office. But when God made clear to me that I had to be happy on this side without getting the mail and before I could race across Bridge Avenue. Yeah, I’m just, it was a major conversion in my life. Richard, if you can’t be happy on this side of of Bridge Avenue, what makes you think you’ll be happy when you get over there? You’re not happy. You’re just moving because you’re moving American thinks they’re happy. It’s very foolish, but it keeps you permanently unhappy. And needing to race somewhere else and race somewhere else. No, the art of letting go is the art of living in the present moment. It really is, but a lot of it honestly comes with time.
Kate When I was most of my childhood, my my dad was pretty severely depressed because, well, for a variety of reasons, partly Prozac had not been invented, but his career was such a great disappointment. He had wanted so much to be a historian and and all the all the work dried up. And so for about 10 years, he sort of lived in a museum of his own experience of failure and very quickly like people do, the joy of trying again brought him back to life, brought him to a sense of vocation and purpose and gift, you know, because he was always is just such a fantastic teacher and learning to do all that helped. But he got this chance to go on one of those semester at sea things where you go around the world?
Richard Sure, sure, yes.
Kate And he was so hungry to take everything in and, but he noticed that the people who had actually been on the trip, they have these lovely sort of pensioners, people who want to retire on a boat like that. And he said the more people lived, the more they refused to take any pictures at all. All they wanted to do, every to tears off the boat, hunger, hunger, hunger, and that they just wanted to go to look and to feel and taste salt air and I guess when I think about that, I think, you know, my dad’s desire for more needed to take him somewhere. And I’m so glad it did. But man, when people are somewhere, it really is so wonderful to watch them stop and learn to receive.
Richard Do you still have your father.
Kate Yeah. Yeah. He retired in great satisfaction.
Kate Never having gotten, you know, a great- but just having gotten to do the work that became important for him.
Richard And then to see his daughter, a historian. Hallelujah.
Kate And then we work together all the time. It feels it does feel like sharing. Just sharing the dream of it feels really completing, I guess, somehow. It does feel right now like we’re being pushed to live beyond our certainties. Yes, it feels the invitation you’re giving us, to me, it feels like the mystery is still going to be a gift. There’s still possibility and love there. It’s just not going to work nearly like a framework we had imagined.
Richard Well, you are a beautiful student of the mystery and you know, mystery is not that, which is not understandable. It’s that which is infinitely understandable. And so you’re always on a search. Good for you. Good for you.
Kate Thank you so much for doing this with me. This was such a gift.
Richard You are so delightful. I wish we had more curious people like you. Thank you. Thank you. God bless you, Kate.
Kate Let go. Let it all go. Except, of course, if you can’t. If you’re a parent who can’t imagine life separate from your kids or if you’re someone else’s child who still reaches for your phone every time something big happens or sad happens even after it’s been years since they’ve been on the other end, living in the present is nice, in theory, except when you’re in pain. So let’s bless that tension. The push pull of wanting to let go, sometimes needing to let go and also needing to hold on.
Kate God, sometimes it feels like a better person wouldn’t be like this, tethered to so many hopes and fears and expectations. And yet I want to gently crush the windpipe of the next person who coolly advises something like having expectations will only set you up for disappointment. Blessed are we when we yearn, yearn for connection and love and touch. Blessed are we when we hunger for the beauty of life itself and the people to fill it. Blessed are we when we are unable to say I’m letting it go because we feel like we will be washed away into an ocean of nothingness. Teach us to hold on to the truths that enliven our spirits and fill our souls and loosen our grip on the painful untruths like that we are alone or unlovable or that desire itself is the enemy. Teach us to hunger for what is good and be filled. There will be no easy addition or subtraction, we will lose and we will gain and almost none of it will make much sense at the time. And it forces our hands open in the ebb and flow of wins and losses, comings and goings we will look for divine love in the mystery of it all. The stubbornness of flowers that still smile at us, at the grocery store and the need for endless small reminders that the pain of it all, the comedy of it all, keeps us wide, wide awake.
Kate Our work on the Everything Happens podcast and with the Everything Happens initiative is made possible because of our partners and generous donors Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment, Duke Divinity School and faith and leadership and online learning resource. And a huge thank you to my team who makes this work not only possible, but fun Jessica Ritchie, Harriet Putman, Keith Weston, Gwen Hegginbotham, Katie Mangum, AJ Walton, Katherine Smith, Mary Jo Clancy, JJ Dickinson and Jeb and Sammi. And if you’d like to be a human with me, come find me online at KateCBowler. I also have a weekly email that might be the right dose of love and courage you need. Sign up at KateBowler.com/Newsletter. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.