Father Richard Rohr: Interviews with Spiritual Heroes

Father Richard RohrFather Richard Rohr (OFM), is a Roman Catholic, Franciscan priest, ordained in 1970. He is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albquerque, New Mexico, and the author of more than 25 books about Christian spirituality.   Rohr is a contributing author to the CAC’s journal, Onening, as well as the progressive Christian publication, Sojourners.

He is a proponent of the Perennial Tradition (a subject we discuss below), with a distinct Wisdom Lineage that is accordingly broad and inclusive. Rohr is passionate about helping Christians reach beyond a religion of “this is what I believe” toward something more focused on practice, such as that which is expressed in the Franciscan Alternative Orthodoxy.

Father Rohr graciously spent an hour with me on the telephone for an interview on the afternoon of December 22, 2014. (In the interests of time and subject matter, some parts of the interview have been omitted below.)

Personal Connection

I stumbled along Father Rohr a number of years ago when I began sensing that I was losing the faith of my childhood, and that much of what I had been taught no longer created a faith environment that was inclusive of my ongoing experiences. As I looked around for help in my evangelical milieu, well-meaning folks kept pointing me in a direction that seemed to look backward rather than forward, saying, “Well if you’ll just go back to X, and accept that as being valid, everything else falls into place,” where X was typically some point of doctrine or a confession of a particular ecclesiastical creed. They seemed to be saying that my faith crisis was a tragic developmental hiccup based on a lack of understanding, but Rohr has helped me to reframe it as instead a necessary developmental milestone, marking a call to embrace the mystery of God.

Rohr has been a vitally necessary breath of fresh air, like coming up for oxygen after having nearly drowned.   Though I was personally reared in the protestant tradition, I grew up in a staunchly German (Roman-) Catholic community, so I was able to observe Catholicism from afar. I am tremendously thankful for this, as it engendered such warm feelings toward Catholicism without all of the psychological and spiritual guilt so many practicing Catholics report they carry (another subject we discuss), seemingly as a result of simply having been Catholic.

Rohr’s approach to Christianity is distinctly mystical and references the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and the mystical saints like St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Ávila, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, each of which have had a major influence of my conceptualizations of God, allowing me to embrace both what I understand and what I don’t (and don’t need to).

Thoughts about the Interview

Key words: Spiritual Depth, Broad Thinking, Grace

So many of my evangelical counterparts have attempted to counter shallow, Western Christianity with an ever-tighter grip around doctrine and a focus on the intellect, continually appealing to one’s ability to say “uh-huh” at certain theological points as somehow a marker of that person’s spiritual fitness. They continue to (mis)believe that spiritual depth is a work of what we know, rather than embracing the Cloud of Unknowing that is surely resident in any human effort to fathom God. Rohr’s life and works posit the opposite.

In that sense, his thinking around matters spiritual is uncommonly broad, and allows for so much more freedom in a postmodern era where the sheer volume of seemingly conflicting information and points of view can be otherwise overwhelming.

What’s more, his constant emphasis on Christ’s values – things like mercy, simplicity, and perhaps most importantly, grace – in real and practical ways embodies the kind of Christian journey I desperately wanted, but could never find until more recent years.

For those who are looking for a good introduction to Father Rohr, I would suggest the audio book, The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of St. Francis, as well as the books referenced in the interview below. 

The Interview

CACRTN: Talk with me for a bit about the Center for Action and Contemplation. What is it, what is its mission, and what is your vision for it?

RR: We started the CAC 28 years ago. And I established it because I met so many people who were working for social change. They often had such good concern for issues of peace and justice in the world, but very often lacked any depth of spirituality to deal with that. So, that was our target audience, and it still is in many ways. We’ve had cream of the crop people move through here over the years. We’ve done internship programs, and now we have the Living School where we’ve just accepted 200 new students.

The CAC has a staff of 17 people, and we put out a little journal called Oneing. We sponsor conferences, and keep the school going, and send out Daily Meditations via email.

RTN: With all of that busyness, what’s your personal practice of prayer and contemplative life like?

RR: I’m lucky because I live in a little hermitage by myself behind the Franciscan house. So, I wake up, make a cup of coffee and sit in silence. Sometimes I journal, sometimes I’ll pick up a spiritual book or scripture to get me going a little bit.

Then I go over to the center, and we have a 20 minute “sit” in silence with whoever of the staff wants to join us. After that, the rest of the day, I just try to take every chance I can to find quiet time, which is easier for me not having a family.   I don’t turn on the television, or radio, or music, unless it’s really necessary. So, if there is a chance for silence, I take it. And if I just wrap that silence and inner quiet around the normal events of the day, I can normally stay in a sense of communion, and that’s what I want.

RTN: What gives you the sense that you still have that communion as opposed to when you know that you’ve moved left or right of center?

RR: Well, when you see that little things are irritating you – like when my phone wasn’t working when I tried to call you earlier. [Laughs] I was so afraid you’d be trying to call me, and then I couldn’t get through to you, I copied down the one number and ran next door and it didn’t get through. [Laughs] 

RTN: So that points to it huh? [Laughs]

RR: See?! I lost it for the last 15 minutes! It’s so easy to get caught up in the little dramas – this is a perfect example. I was trained by my parents to never keep people waiting, so thinking you were irritated, or waiting trying to get through to me just upset me interiorally. And these are the things we have to deal with, to recognize, “Well, I can’t please everybody all the time.”

RTN: You know, it’s interesting that you mention your parents. A number of times in your readings, even as much as you mention other influences, you often talk about being German.  My family’s surname was originally Niessen — very German.

RR: Yes!  Oh my!

RTN: Sometimes the Germanic influence – for example, the whole concept of “hard work” – drives against the grain of a more contemplative life. How do you flesh out your cultural and ethnic influences in that sense?

RR: That’s a very good question. I think because I joined the Franciscans young, that began to pull me away, but it also created another kind of work ethic – needing to be a good priest, or be a good “whatever.” So in that way, it was still there.

Again, this morning is a perfect example – being on time, not keeping people waiting. This sometimes undue sense of order can keep me from accepting the moment as it is, and loving the moment as it is.

And yet, I do realize that it is in fighting this early conditioning that every one of us has, we have to consciously choose for the opposite. I’m convinced that it is only in struggling for the contrary that we find the resolution. It never really goes away entirely. Our early conditioning and training has become our brain. It makes me wonder how “free” most human beings really are.

But my contemplative practice has at least help me to see those patterns, and to not be so addicted to them.

Henri NouwenRTN: I was trying to trace out when I was first introduced to you and I can’t exactly pinpoint it. Father Henri Nouwen made such a massive impact on me, and probably because of his love for Thomas Merton, and Brother Roger of Taizé, and somewhere in the mix you popped up. So, if it makes you feel any better, you get a total pass with me in line with being a spiritual hero of mine from the phone call issue this morning!

RR: [Laughs]  You’re sweet.  And well, I’m in wonderful circle with the names you mentioned. Henri was a personal friend, so I knew him well. He was a dear.

RTN: What was your relationship with Henri Nouwen like?

RR: He came to visit me when I was still in Cincinnati, we would talk together. We wrote several times over the years after that. 

As you probably heard, and I don’t say this unkindly at all, he was a bit of a neurotic man – he wasn’t easy to be with. It was just as I said to you – in fighting that neuroses he came to his beautiful spiritual principles, insights, teaching. If he hadn’t have had plenty of demons to fight, I don’t think he’d have ever come to the immense maturity he came to. 

RTN: Yes, that reality, which is often so visible in what he wrote and what others said about him, and the nature of his relationships with friends – it’s always given me a great deal of comfort about my own neuroses. 

RR: Exactly! Yes, it does, doesn’t it? He was not a perfect human being – none of us are, of course – but he wasn’t afraid to let us see it too.

RTN: There are a number of concepts that are recurrent themes in your writing that stand out to me in particular – the first is the concept of the Perennial Tradition. What is it, and what is its role in helping spiritual seekers come to a well-rounded understanding of spirituality?

RR: At this time in history I think it is crucially important to get in touch with this. We cannot avoid the globalization of knowledge and information. When I was a boy growing up in Kansas, I could never think about a Buddhist, or a Hindu, or Muslim, or even a Protestant – I grew up in such a Catholic ghetto. That’s not possible anymore, unless you live in a cave or something. So either we have knowledge of what the other religions and other denominations are saying, and how they tie into the common thread, or we end up just being dangerously ignorant of other people and therefore prejudiced.

So, some say the term “Perennial Tradition” was coined by Aldous Huxley, but I think it goes back even earlier – the philosopher Gottfried Liebniz certainly used it. 

What they mean quite simply is the recurring theme of all religions that there is a sympathy, empathy, connection, capacity between the human and the divine – that we were made for union with one another. They might express this through different rituals, doctrines, dogmas, or beliefs, but at the higher levels they’re talking about the same goal. And the goal is always union with the divine.

I‘m not saying all religions are the same – they clearly aren’t – but once you understand the Perennial Tradition, you recognize that much of the rest we argue about are the accidentals – the fingers pointing to the moon, instead of the reality of the moon itself.

RTN: As many of my readers are current or former or recovering Evangelical Christians, many of us have spent a better portion of our lives organizing ourselves around what we “believe,” personal morality, and neat demarcations of who is “in” and who is “out” of God’s favor and kingdom. This is what you’ve referred to as a sort of “tribal” approach to religion, which refers to in-group/out-group thinking.

So, you’re saying that the Perennial Tradition tends to stand in opposition to this at least at the higher levels. This doesn’t equate all religions, but says that there is something fundamental and common among them.

But in order to learn this, one must have what you’ve referred to “non-dual thinking.” Can you provide a working definition of dualism, and speak to what the starting point is for us who would work away from it?

angel-489524_640RR: The natural way the mind already “knows” as a child is in opposition to something else. It’s funny that we have to have this explained to us, but you wouldn’t know what “cold” was unless there was such a thing as “hot.” If everything in the world was the same temperature, we wouldn’t have these words.

Unfortunately, we create those contrary words as necessary for the world we live in – that is, all kinds of comparisons, and competitions, and antagonisms, starting with male and female itself, which is very deep in the psyche. Many languages of the world reflect this in that they have feminine and masculine words. It becomes our primary way of reading reality.

So, since this is the way we naturally think, very soon we tend to think oppositionally. For some dang reason, the ego prefers to make one side better than the other, so we choose. And we decide males are better than females, America is better than Canada, Democrats are better than Republicans. And for most people, once this decision is made, it is amazing the amount of blindness they become capable of. They really don’t see what’s right in front of them – everything has to be understood in opposition to something else. 

Once you see this, it’s an amazing breakthrough, and that is the starting place for moving away from dualistic thinking. But I don’t think the vast majority of people do. I think most human beings are dualistic thinkers. It gets them through the day. It gives them a sense of superiority and security – that’s what the ego wants. So a lot of people stay there.

This is why teachers like Jesus make so much of mercy, and forgiveness, and grace, because these are the things that, if truly experienced, totally break dualism down. Because once you experience being loved when you are unworthy, being forgiven when you did something wrong, that moves you into non-dual thinking. You move from what I call meritocracy, quid pro quo thinking, to the huge ocean of grace, where you stop counting, you stop calculating. That for me is the task of much of the entire spiritual life of a mystic or a saint – they fall deeper and deeper into that ocean of grace, and stop all the dang counting of “how much has been given to me,” “how much I deserve.” It’s reached its real low-point in our own American country, which is almost entirely about counting and deserving and earning — we call it a sense of entitlement. When you’re trapped inside of that mind, you’re going to have the kind of angry country we have today, where you’re just looking for who to blame, who to hate, who to shoot. It’s reaching that level.

So, religion was made to order to “save the world,” to use a phrase Christians use so much, but we really haven’t been doing a good job of it for centuries. It’s heartbreaking really.

Religion has in fact outdone culture in dualistic thinking – we’ve become as violent, as hateful toward our enemies, damning them to hell and whatever else, that the world doesn’t look to us for wisdom, because we’re trapped in the same dualistic mind, instead of the mind of Christ that we were supposed to have. 

RTN: And further, we can stay that way by sort of cherry-picking Scriptures to give us reasons to stay in that mind. For example, someone might quote out of context, “What fellowship hath light with dark?” What do you make of those sorts of things?

RR: Well, we first have to succeed at good dualistic thinking – we must have good common sense and rationality – such as when Jesus talks about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25

But then we must recognize that this does not resolve the bigger questions – in fact it makes them worse. That’s what we see in Jesus. He can say, for example, “You cannot serve God and money.” That’s dualistic thinking. But the beauty in Jesus is that he never stops there – he far more teaches non-dual thinking.

So, people who think they can just do a non-stop flight to mystical, non-dual thinking, to get it out without going through the process, are usually not right. That’s airy-fairy thinking. They have to wait until they are hurt themselves, or they are cheated, or lied to or betrayed, and they will see that their non-dual thinking is not tested, or truly a gift of the spirit. It’s simply fuzzy thinking. 

So, are you following me? There are two different kinds of non-dual. There is a “pretend,” and a “suffered for.” You come to the latter by grace, after holding the contradictions like we see Jesus doing figuratively, then really on the cross – suffering the two sides of things. You don’t come to non-dual thinking easily.

RTN: Yes, you certainly don’t. A major theme in your writing is this “necessary suffering” and “falling upward.” Let’s use that example you provided, when Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and money.” How does his life move beyond that? How does it access what you’ve called the “trans-rational,” and transcend it, and how do we do that in our lives?

70x7RR: Notice first of all where Jesus makes his most dualistic statements – they are around issues where we are most ready to fudge — issues of justice, money, peace, love of enemies. These are the things we want to avoid. On these, he makes it absolutely clear, sort of like our present Pope Francis talks.  You can’t talk too sweetly around these issues, because people will use any excuse they can to avoid the truth.

But then, once he names the truth, the vast majority of his teaching is about concepts like 70 x 7, about love of enemies, about unconditional love of the outsider, the other race, the other nationality. He’s never creating boundaries, but instead builds bridges.

He still names it – there are such things as sheep, there are such things as goats. You can’t be naïve about evil, but once you’re not, how do you really deal with evil? By love, mercy, patience, and absorbing the pain of the world, not attacking it.

RTN: Yes, because the opposite tack, of course, becomes the very thing it hopes to avoid. Gosh that’s tough. 

RR: Yes! It is!

RTN: Very practically, what do we do with evil? When I’ve tried to talk with friends about the concepts you’re mentioning here, there is a very common refrain to their responses, especially in the United States, about whatever we fear. It goes something like this: “Yes, but you can’t just love them (referring to whomever the enemy is), because they’ll come in and kill us!” So how about it? Can we just love?

RR: As I’m saying, you cannot be naïve about evil. You cannot be naïve to the reality that there are human beings and human situations which have totally identified with the dark side of reality. They are malicious. I’m shocked, even at my age, how many such people there are. You have to be betrayed, lied about, or cheated a few times, which all of us usually are by the second half of life. After that point, you can say, “You know, there are actually malicious people out there who intend to do evil!” I’m so innocent in some ways that it took me years to accept or surrender to that. 

So, your realism teaches you to put up appropriate boundaries so that they can’t do any more evil than possible. But that doesn’t mean you do evil back to them.

But you said it well – this is hard. I know what Luther meant when he said we are “saved by faith alone,” but what a naïve notion of the real spiritual journey. The real spiritual journey is work. You can make a naïve assertion that you trust in Jesus, but until it is tested a good, oh, 200 times, I doubt very much that it’s true.

RTN: Over the years, what have been some of your own milestones in this journey, in moving away from dualistic thinking?

RR: In joining the Franciscans we had to live in intense community for many years. There is nothing like community, or marriage, which is the most intense community, to keep your feet on the ground about your own holiness or superiority or ability to love. In these, you see on a daily basis, sometimes on an hourly basis, your inability to love other people, or to even like other people.

RTN: You might do that — I don’t! [Laughs] Just kidding.

RR: [Laughs heartily] That’s why you were never allowed to be hermit, or to go alone, historically, until the later years of life, because community is the testing ground. So, I’ve always been in a world of relationships.

Now, my community consists primarily of staff and people who write to me and the people I’ve met for years on the road. All of that conundrum of relationships, good, bad, difficult, neurotic, needy – each one creates a different kind of template. “How can I deal with this one?” “Why am I resistant to this kind of person?” “Resentful of that kind of person?”

In each one, you see some of your own dark side – it’s very humiliating.

RTN: Mmm. So it really is the context of ongoing relationships that the tendency to mark yourself and others in/out, good/bad is removed.

RR: The school of relationships is where you learn self-knowledge. I just don’t know how you could learn it sitting alone in the desert on a rock by yourself. [Laughs] You have to see where you fail at it. And that confrontation with your own ability – “I was again not able to love” – those are the teachable moments.

RTN: Yes. It seems easy in abstraction but very difficult in practice, but what you’re saying is clearly true here. Both in the context of marriage and family, and then general relationships.

I’m part of what we call an “intentional community” here. It’s a group of somewhat theological and otherwise misfits – some are clergy persons, many are in the helping professions. It’s called Anam Cara – Soul Friends. We just get together for meals, and to really be intentional about being in one another’s lives.

RR: Oh, that’s beautiful! Good for you! I used to work with an intentional community there in St. Louis when I was still in Cincinnati – Father Frank Krebs. They came out of the charismatic movement. They were such young, idealistic people. They were a delight to work with.

Michael BrownRTN: I’m glad you brought up St. Louis. Since the shooting death of unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown, St. Louis has somewhat become an epicenter of social unrest and racial tension between black and white persons. I guess I wanted to ask, what is your take on all of this?

RR: To start with the systemic explanation, we have had years of hate modeled for us from Washington, D.C. That what you do is oppose people, fight people, resist people.  It seems to me there has been a modeling of hatred at the highest levels in this country that has moved all the way through the culture.

RTN: Are you referring to Congress and the deadlock there, or other things?

RR: Yes, absolutely. And this seeming irrational hatred of a black President. It’s just unbelievable. And then, that the country, in its hatred, keeps thinking more dualistically instead of less. We move to things like, “Tea Party” organizations which are farther right, farther left, thinking that by hating, exposing the other person, we’re going to come to some kind of unity. It’s very sad. I don’t know how we’re going to get out of it, except major suffering. 

RTN: It is sad. I feel sad when you are talking about it.

RR: Yes. How can these people in Washington, who have gone away to universities and had all these opportunities, and who you’d think should be at the top of the pile of awareness be such small, ego-centric people? It breaks your heart.

But again, I think we in the religious world have to carry much of the blame, because most would claim, it seems, that they are Christians. But it sure isn’t evident.

This is the macro-explanation. I think that racism, hatred, and division has been modeled in this country for years non-stop. It’s seeped all the way down.

RTN: So what do we do working our way down from macro to micro? And what should we turn around and say that is life-giving to offer at the gut-level? What life do we offer? 

RR: Apparently this morning Pope Francis gave a scathing critique of the Roman-Catholic curia and their abuses of power. Some of his metaphors were just brilliant. But he made a lot of enemies. He is recognizing that until individual people come to some level of honesty, love, and truth – conversion – the whole systemic thing will remain as it is.

We do have to change individually, and then wait for chances where God puts us in a larger collective where we can model that. I’m just waiting for some people like that to come on the American scene who can model a higher level of consciousness. But you sure don’t get it from the evening news. Neither the people on the streets or those in Washington, except for now and then heroes. And they’re always wonderful.

So, I don’t have any magic answer. I wish I did. We’re still waiting for enlightened people to raise the level of consciousness.

RTN: Right here at ground zero in St. Louis there are some folks who are doing so, but they don’t get much press. Finding a higher level of consciousness is rarely very sexy. It doesn’t make for a good news story.

RR: No! There’s nothing exciting about it.

fallingupwardRTN: Back to your books. I’m 35 years old, and recently I read your book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

RR: Wow! You read it young! Good for you! [Laughs]

RTN: Well, thank you. [Laughs] Listen now, I was understandably shaken up by this line: “Once we reach the age of thirty, success has nothing to teach us. Success is fun and rewarding, but we don’t learn anything new from it. It’s not a bad friend; it’s just a lousy teacher. The only thing that can teach us, that can get through to us and profoundly change us, is suffering, failure, loss and wounds.”

[Laughs] I have to laugh because you know there is something about it that speaks to the soul on one level. I get it, on one hand.  We know, for example, Thomas Merton’s statement, “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”

RR: Yes!

RTN: What does it mean that our primary teacher cannot be success, only failure, and what implications does that have both for American culture and for our individual lives? 

RR: You do need some successes as a young person. They don’t inflate the ego necessarily, they just give you identity and ego structure. This is why Jesus said, if you take that away from a little one, it is better for you to have a millstone tied around your neck. So, you don’t want to take away necessary successes, as I’m sure you’ll want to enable any successes your two little ones will have. 

But after you’ve got your basic ego structure, a certain amount of successes after that feel good, and you may even use that for the empowerment of other people – that’s when they truly become generative. But they don’t as such teach you anything in terms of soul wisdom, and they have a much greater danger – they inflate the ego at this point and make you think you’re more important and wonderful than you really are.

So, successes are really only helpful to about thirty-five – right where you are! [Laughs] And after that, they will always feel good. I don’t want to take them away from you and I hope you have many more. But, don’t construct your life around creating those. Or you will become narcissistic and ego-centric. That won’t get you anywhere.

RTN: This is a hard teaching! Our culture reinforces the opposite model. But again, even at my age, I get it. I get how empty it is. But if failure is our primary teacher, once we’ve accepted this as axiomatic, how can we live without ongoing fear and trepidation of the various and sundry failures that are in front of us and necessary for our growth? What do we do with our anxieties?

RR: Just make sure you’re not putting the majority of your energies into avoiding or denying all failures. When they come, say, “What can I learn from this?”

A lot of our Catholic saints went to the other extreme. They so believed in this principle that they went out seeking suffering and humiliation – it became a kind of Christian masochism. I’m not talking about that. But you can see why they did it, because they saw, “This is where I learn everything!” But when they started steering the ship themselves, it became its own kind of problem.

All you have to do is make sure you’re not spending too much time avoiding it, and when it happens, say, “What can I learn from this?” instead of denying it. I have been an employer for many years now, and I have found very few employees, even those who would call themselves very Christian, when given an honest evaluation, that don’t get very defensive. This shows how very defended we are against our own shadow side. It’s just hard for human beings to see their own weakness – me too!

RTN: Help me understand that, then. Almost as a backdrop for a lot of the other things you have to say, over and over again you reference “true self,” “false self“ (or “separate self”), shadow self.” I’ve always wanted to hear more about these, and our fixation with the term “sin,” and how we get all of these confused.

RR: The word “sin” has become less and less helpful, because in most Christians mind the first implication is “culpability,” you are at fault, you are unlikable. The reason so many of us use the terms “shadow” and “dark side,” because, although there may be culpability, we shouldn’t start off with blaming people. And that’s what language of true-self/false-self helps with.

Mirror_by_Hari1232In the book, Immortal Diamond, I mention that the false self is the “constructed self.” It is largely manufactured by your mind.  It is your concocted, manufactured self-image. You have to do this by the way – you cannot “not” do it. The only trouble is our attachment to it. Because we think it, we think it’s true and real. It’s your psychologically-created self by what has happened to you and what you thought about what has happened to you. All forms of contemplation and meditation help you release your attachment to these personas, because you stand back from them and see that they change, week by week, month by month, and year by year especially. The things you were emotionally invested in last year you hardly think about this year. It doesn’t have any substantial reality to it. 

Now, our culture is almost entirely prepared to not just help you create your false self, but to get very identified with it and attached to it. So, without some form of God experience, which teaches you who you are apart from that – we would say in the religious world, who you are “in” God, in the mind and heart of God – there’s almost no way to get out of it. So you see why our culture is in so much trouble, where people don’t have a deep inner life, or any deep experience of their true self in God, who they were before anyone said anything about them, before they received their first medal or ego identification. And you can see why suffering is so important, because suffering is when those little rewards are taken away from you.

So, I think of myself as a wonderful teacher and preacher, and someone comes up to me and says, “That was a lousy sermon.” [Laughs] That’s a little bit of suffering for me, but it’s the only way I can recognize, “Richard, you’re really attached to this image of being a good preacher and teacher. And that’s your false self – that’s not who you are in God. God uses you, hopefully, as that, but don’t take it too seriously. Because when you die, that will die.”

So your false self is always that which is passing away. Your true self doesn’t go up or down, it’s constant – it’s a rock. Once you learn how to live there, what others say about you, your failures or successes – these don’t send you on a roller coaster ride down or up.

It’s really the only way to peace. There’s no other way to be peaceful except in the true self.

RTN: But when we don’t lean in that direction and live in the true self, that’s the connection with the shadow self. It says, “Now I must hide who I really am – I must hide the false self,” which naturally creates a shadow.

RR: Yes! The false self is filled with shadow because it can’t see what it doesn’t want to see. That’s what the shadow is – it’s not your “bad” self, it’s your “unacceptable” self according to your own self-image. 

Maybe someone was a good athlete when they were young. They might think of themselves adept physically. So when someone makes fun or laughs at them at that level, they will be very defensive because that would knock the “jock” or “athletic” image. Whatever image you might have for yourself.

RTN: Mmmm. Wow.

RR: You’re listening well, Ryan, but I know – it kicks you in the “you know what.” [Laughs heartily] 

RTN: [Laugh heartily] Well, it does!  I’m thinking about what you mentioned earlier, about how we’re revealed in marriage. And I think that some of the areas in my marriage in which I’m most defensive, it’s enlightening for me to realize I’m still clinging to vestiges of my false self. Boy, the false self is really revealed in intimate relationships like that.

RR: Yes, it is. I remember early as a young priest in Cincinnati – I never had children. But I was very naïve about critiquing parents about the way they were raising their children – oh my gosh! That kind of critiquing can never work, especially when children are little. Parents are putting all of their energies into being good daddy or mommy, and when someone says, “You’re not doing it right,” ooh! They just cannot hear it — and that’s totally understandable! But it took me a while to learn that. You can only say what people are at least somewhat ready to hear. Those personas that we are deeply invested in, like if I told you that you were not a good father, you’d have to be heroic to be able to hear that! And that’s okay…but it’s still false self! [Laughs] 

RTN: Well, recognizing that you’re so caught up in clinging to it is crucial. Even since my daughter is just now in Junior Kindergarten, early in the school year the school brought up some things with our daughter, not even bad things, just areas for growth where they were trying to help. And my wife and I were both taken aback at how defensive we felt. We were able to get through it and hear what they were saying because we both clued into the idea, like, “Why are we being so defensive?”

RR: Yeah. Just know, you are not unusual! Your present ego is putting so much energy into being a good dad, that just hurts too much. And their interpretation of it probably isn’t one hundred percent accurate anyhow, so you might be well defensive in those areas anyhow.

RTN: Many of my readers have a somewhat dubious relationship with the institutional church. How has your relationship to the institutional church been challenged or strengthened by your ministry? 

St_Francis_SeminaryRR: Well, first of all, the Catholic Franciscan seminaries gave me a wonderful education in the great tradition. I had some wonderful teachers. So, who am I to complain about being exposed to the big picture that allowed me to both affirm and critique the Catholic tradition, but also the Evangelical, the Pentecostal, any of them? To say, “Okay – here’s where they got it, and here’s where they missed the point.”

Being a priest, of course I have a certain power that the layperson doesn’t have – I can create my own Sunday event, like I was able to do here at the parish church yesterday. So, I don’t have to suffer the way a typical layperson has to very often, where they have to put up with what’s given to them. If the preacher is terrible, or the theology is terrible, what do you do?

I think it’s almost necessary for most people to have the freedom to pull back, and then re-enter at an adult level, where they are neither playing the victim nor creating victims, but just participating in calm, adult behavior. Because an awful lot of churches just aren’t there at adult Christianity, this seems to be the norm anymore. People who arrive at a certain level of consciousness often have to pull away from mainline church and create what it sounds like you’ve done there in St. Louis – a parachurch organization.

Now, realize, that’s exactly what the Jesuits, the Franciscans, the Carmelites, and the Sisters of Mercy have done – we’ve been doing this as Catholics for centuries. We found that the mainline parish system really didn’t feed us or meet our needs. And we ultimately were rewarded for moving outward and onward and blessed for it. Now when people like you do the exact same thing by forming the exact same thing, you’re considered suspect or heterodox or heretical or rebellious. But it’s a very historical pattern.

RTN: Wow! That really speaks to my experience – especially the leaving and returning. We still go to a mainline church, and we are part of the intentional community outside of it. But it has really been your writings that have largely allowed me to leave and come back with a more adult attitude. I hate to say that because it sounds self-aggrandizing, but–

RR: Yeah, yeah – I know. But you can say that to me!! [Laughs]

RTN: [Laughs] But I realized, again, I don’t have to beat them up, I don’t have to be angry. I don’t even have to be resigned to it, kind of like, “Well, this is just going to suck.” [Laughs] Instead, I can say, “This is good so far as it goes.”

RR: [Laughs heartily] Yeah, there you go!

RTN: I have two primary thrusts for still being part of the institutional church. The first is that I need a place where I can go and my children can receive an affirmation of Jesus Christ by someone other than me. And the second is that we can have somewhere to go to take the Eucharist. 

RR: That’s good, that’s good!

RTN: Beyond that, if I can cling very loosely to the rest of my expectations, many of which are birthed out of my false self anyhow, I do very well. So, thank you for that — you gave me that.

RR: You are welcome! You are worth it!

RTN: Last question. Who is Jesus Christ, and what is his Gospel? 

Jesus_Christ_(German_steel_engraving)_detailRR: Well, it’s important to note that Jesus and Christ are two different faith affirmations. Hardly any Christians have been taught that – they think “Christ” is Jesus’s last name.

So, to believe in Jesus, is to believe that the historic person who lived on this earth 2000 years ago was the image of the invisible God. That’s a huge leap of faith, but it is my leap of faith, it’s the act of faith of the Christian community.

But I also believe in the eternal Christ, who existed from all eternity, and that is revealed in creation, was revealed in the Stone Age people, the Babylonians, the Philistines, the Africans – everyone who has ever lived has seen a revelation of the eternal Christ mystery.

If we don’t make this distinction now, in this global age and the huge universe we are discovering, the “Jesus” religion [(Christianity)] could be in real trouble.  “Christ” is bigger than the Earth planet. If tomorrow we discover life on another planet, the whole “Jesus” piece would not make sense anymore.  If he did everything for just us on this planet he wouldn’t be the savior of the “world.”

So, forgive me for the long answer, but it’s important that we understand Jesus and Christ – they came together in Jesus, and I still believe that, but 99% of Christians have never been told that Christ and Jesus are different. Jesus became the Christ.

As to his gospel, Jesus Christ came into the world as the image of the invisible God to communicate to us that not only did we not need to be afraid of God, but that God is more for us than we are ourselves or one another.  God’s love is infinite, and unstoppable, and will win! 

The first three centuries, sixty percent of the fathers of the church believed in universal salvation, that God was creating a new heaven and a new earth, and that all of creation was going to be saved by the mercy and the love of God, moving beyond all tribalism, all in-group/out-group thinking.

RTN: This sounds so much more like “good news!” 

RR: Oh, gosh! We’ve gone backwards in so many ways. So, I believe the good news really is good news. If we could be given that great act of hope at the beginning, that this universe is going somewhere, and is beloved of God, instead of thinking we’re going to bring people to the love of God by fear, and guilt, and shame. What ever made us think that would work? And we see right now that it is hasn’t.

So that good news is really good. Really good. Bigger than we thought.

This post is part of the ongoing series, Interviews with Spiritual Heroes.


Header image courtesy of The Blue Ocean blog, used under creative commons license, no copyright violation intended.

Richard Rohr, Henri Nouwen, St. Francis Seminary, and Jesus Christ images courtesy of Wikimedia, used under creative commons license.

Dualism image courtesy of Pixabay, used under creative commons license.

Seventy times seven image courtesy of Faith and the Fergusons, used under creative commons license.

Michael Brown image courtesy of Facebook.

Mirror image courtesy of Hari1232 of Deviant Art, used under creative commons license.


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Author: Ryan Thomas Neace

Ryan Thomas Neace is a counselor, professor, husband, and daddy. Please contact him for counseling via skype or in-person at ryan@changeincorporated.org.

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