Richard Rohr is a paradox. A priest in the Roman Catholic Church, he has also taken vows that dedicate his life to simplicity, to a ‘smallness’ in the world, captured in the ‘OFM’ that follows his name. It’s not a degree or a title in the traditional sense. It stands for ‘Order of Friars Minor’ – the ‘lesser brothers’, more commonly known as Franciscans, who take an oath of poverty and whose brown robes and rope belts symbolise their solidarity with the poor and weak of this world.
Richard Rohr is a Franciscan, but he is also a phenomenon. A highly successful author and popular speaker, he’s been cited as an inspiration by Rob Bell and Brian McLaren, has collaborated with Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis and Shane Claiborne, and has, over the years, counted the likes of Walter Brueggemann as friends. Every day, 150,000 people receive his devotional emails, and recently, Rohr was the first Catholic priest to be invited onto Oprah Winfrey’s hugely influential Super Soul Sunday TV show. Not what immediately springs to mind when we think of the ‘lesser brothers’ living lives of monastic anonymity. But the paradox of a celebrity spokesperson for simplicity has given his ideas greater reach than anyone might have predicted, given his background.
Franciscanism is an ‘alternative orthodoxy’... Not what you say but what you do
The son of German-American parents – a mother who doted on him and ‘a very dear, simple, uneducated’ farmer father – Rohr enjoyed a happy childhood in Kansas in the 1940s and 50s. As a child, he found that he was different from his practically minded father, his love of words evident at a young age. He found inspiration in the Catholic world of saints and stories of Jesus. In early high school, already fascinated by the joyfully idealised version of St Francis he had read about, Rohr was introduced to a visiting Franciscan friar who had addressed one of his classes. The young Richard started a correspondence with the friar, and by the age of 14 had entered the minor seminary.
By 1970, Rohr was an ordained member of the Franciscan order, working on a master’s degree in theology. The following year, he founded a charismatic Catholic lay community in Cincinnati, Ohio, called New Jerusalem. Local papers from the late 70s wax lyrical about the intentional community – where young Catholics shared homes dotted around working-class neighbourhoods, selling their possessions and serving the poor. They also noticed the dynamic founder of New Jerusalem – a man whose sermon audio tapes were selling in the tens of thousands, and whose influence over the community was profound.
Rohr later left New Jerusalem (which survives today) and in the late 1980s founded the Center for Action and Contemplation, in Albuquerque, New Mexico – the base ever since of his influential ministry and activism. His work has gained him many admirers, but also more than his fair share of detractors. Google Rohr and you’ll find countless denunciations from self-appointed guardians of Protestant orthodoxy, at least some of whom worry that his Catholicism might rub off on their churches.
Drawing heavily on the tradition of the Christian mystics (and acting as a natural successor to their later interpreters and emulators like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen), his teachings could be broadly categorised as ‘contemplative’ – a way of thinking exemplified by the title of one of his most popular books, Everything Belongs (Crossroad Publishing, 2003). Rohr believes we should spend less time focusing on who is right and wrong, in and out, and more on communicating God’s radically inclusive grace to the world.
If you’re a control freak, you won’t like the contemplative mind
Rohr situates this thinking within what he calls the ‘heterodoxy’ of the Franciscans. Over a beer and a meal in a small Mexican restaurant in his current home town of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the night before I’m due to interview him for the Catalyst Live theology conference, he discusses that and many other ideas with wit and grace. Casually, he mentions that the last person he brought here was Catholic actor and activist Martin Sheen. It seems fitting that St Francis famously met with and advised Sultan al-Kamil during the Crusades, and now his follower, paradoxically famous for preaching simplicity and humility, meets with President Bartlet.
On the day of our interview, Rohr doesn’t let me make my own way to the CAC. He fetches me in an old pick-up truck and spends the rest of the day showing immense patience with me and my cameraman as we scope out locations and take hours of his time with lengthy interviews – even agreeing to change into his brown Franciscan habit at our request – because it looks cooler on camera. And there is his paradox again: the hugely successful mystic, the campaigner against ego, who doesn’t begrudge us a little stage-management.
Interviewing him is like reading one of his books. Warm, eloquent and disarmingly charming, he occasionally drops in ideas that have my inner fundamentalist screaming for an explanation, a justification. But, even when I disagree with something he’s saying, I never lose the sense that this is a man of God, truly dedicated to the love and grace that Jesus Christ offers.
How significant for the Franciscan order was the current Pope choosing the name Francis?
It was immensely significant. Francis is a non-establishment name, and it’s no accident that no Pope has ever taken it. When he did, we were in disbelief. But we sensed that this man had a different message. We’re just overjoyed that he has taken the papacy from the palace to the streets, where it should have been all along. Which is what [St] Francis did, of course.
In what way has Pope Francis brought the spirit of St Francis to the historic relationship between the papacy and Franciscans?
We speak of Franciscanism as an ‘alternative orthodoxy’, sometimes called ‘heterodoxy’. It was not heresy, but it wasn’t the mainline opinion. And what really made it an alternative orthodoxy was that its concern was orthopraxy: behaviour, practice, lifestyle. Not what you say, but what you do.
[St] Francis went around all the fighting about doctrinal formulations and belief systems – he accepted the creeds of the Church as the belief system of the Church. But he knew that once you put your attention there, to defining it, clarifying it, all you do is create argument. So he didn’t even bother with that. He let it stand, and he put his emphasis on things like simplicity, nonviolence, love of creation. Who can argue with that?
Your own career seems to have a tension with that, in that you have dealt in the realm of ideas that might cause argument.
You are right: probably without realising it – I didn’t plan it this way. I was given good theological training. And so I realised that if people don’t have good theology, they justify some very bad things, like racism and capitalism – in a rigid sense – and probably Communism in a rigid sense, with bad theology. I don’t think it is everybody’s role, but I realised that I’d been given a good theological education, and I could use this to unpack unnecessary obstacles that are so often there.
The process of conversion is very much a process of unlearning. Jesus was always unlearning his Jewish compatriots from their bad Judaism. And a lot of people aren’t ready for the real thing. They prefer the low level religion – I call it ‘transactional religion’, where it’s a sort of vending machine: ‘You do this, God does this…’ It’s not really relational. And good Trinitarian theology, good Christology, makes the world entirely relational. That’s why I like it.
Three more magnificent monks
Recommended reading for Rohr-fans:
Thomas Merton (1915-1968)
Trappist monk, popular author, pacifist campaigner and proponent of silence, solitude and simplicity, Merton was the Rohr of the 1950s and 60s. His poetic devotional writing, openness to Zen teachings and his radical social activism are still influential today – Pope Francis dedicated a speech to the US Congress to him in 2015.
Where to start: Thoughts in Solitude (Burns & Oates, 1958)
Henri Nouwen (1932-1996)
Author, professor and priest, Nouwen spent the latter part of his life living and working as a carer in a L’Arche community for people with developmental disabilities. With books that have sold in excess of 2 million copies, Nouwen was one of the most influential Christian thinkers of the 20th century.
Where to start: The Wounded Healer (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1972)
Frère Roger Schütz (1915-2005)
Swiss monastic and founder of the Taizé movement, Brother Roger gave sanctuary to Jewish refugees and German POWs. The ecumenical Taizé community continues to be an inspiration to millions who seek peace, reconciliation and a spirituality that crosses borders of nation and denomination.
Where to start: Brother Roger of Taizé: Essential Writings (Orbis Books, 2006)
Isn’t it ironic that some of the religious streams that speak the most about a relationship with God are the most ‘transactional’?
It’s so surprising, isn’t it? The very people who can shout so loudly about ‘a personal relationship with Jesus Christ’ are often so impersonal. The right language is very often the best disguise for the wrong identity. You just use the right language and you can remain in your very isolated, self-centred self and think that you are like Jesus because you use the Jesus words.
I just interviewed a man who lived in different homeless shelters around the city for a month. He gave me a rundown of them, and he said the most brutal and unkind one was the ‘most Christian’ one. It was all transactional. You watch this movie where an evangelical preacher is preaching about a personal relationship with Jesus, and then we yell at you afterwards. We don’t make eye contact with you. It’s all just a business. It’s thinking that just executing the right verbal transaction puts me ‘in the club’. Well, it doesn’t, I’m afraid. If you were really in living relationship with Jesus, you would become like Jesus.
What defines ‘contemplative’ Christianity, as opposed to what those of us in the evangelical Church might be experiencing?
I distinguish the contemplative mind from the calculating mind. So, we who are educated, we who are Western, pragmatic, practical, problem-solving people – the mind that we think is the important mind is the calculating mind, which is constantly manoeuvring for self-interest. It’s constantly manoeuvring for ‘How can I look good, how can I be in control? How can I win? How can I make more money? How can I look like a better Christian than you?’. This isn’t love of God. This is all love of self. That’s the calculating mind.
The contemplative mind is the mind that stops doing that. That stops using ‘me’ as the reference point. ‘What do I like? What do I prefer? What do I need and what do I want?’ That has to fall. It doesn’t fall easily and it never falls totally. First you’ve got to recognise that that’s where you operate from. It’s a giant giving-up of control.
But, when you can accept the moment, the situation, the person [in front of you] without judgement, without categorisation, without upping and downing, inning and outing – if you can accept that you are who you are: and that’s the living image of God – that absolutely levels the playing fields of reality. Now you live in the world with respect, with a kind of reverence. Not searching for superiority. Not searching for control, but letting things reveal themselves to you.
Now, if you’re a control freak, you won’t like the contemplative mind. You won’t. You’ll find some way to call it demonic or dangerous, or New Age, or Catholic [smiles], or anything to avoid going there, because it forces you to give up control.
You’ve said that the contemplative or mystical mind is less obsessed with ‘either/or…’ categories, which you call ‘dualistic’, and prefers the approach of ‘both, and…’
Or ‘yes, and…’ The early mind, which you see in a child (and reaches its height in a little boy aged around 10) loves good guys and bad guys. That’s how they frame the whole world. Danger and favourable. It’s a normal way for the simplistic early stage mind to operate. It gives you a sense of security, rightness, control. So you can see why most people, I’m sad to say, stay there. They never move beyond it. The mystical mind is able to do things like love its enemies. You and I both know most Christians don’t do that. In fact, they don’t even consider it. They would never admit that, and it’s not because they’re bad people. It’s just that they don’t know how.
With the dualistic mind, which is the early stage, unconverted mind, you cannot love your enemies. Because the evidence against them being good or lovable is so compelling and so demanding. You don’t know how to live with opposites. Whereas, if I know your gifts and I know your faults and I know they coexist, that’s non-dual thinking. That’s the only way you can love anybody. That’s the only way you can love your wife! For some beautiful, grace-filled reason, you’ve been able to say, ‘Ok, she has a few faults, but dang it, I love her anyway!’ That’s non-dual thinking. You’ve achieved it. We achieve it in the presence of great love and great suffering. In the presence of great pain, we either learn non-dual thinking, or we go crazy.