I first encountered Father Richard Rohr few years ago in podcast form. My children were still toddlers and the gym was my one hour of silence to listen to something that wasn’t pbs kids and to think my own thoughts uninterrupted. I stretched out on a yoga mat after my workout, my earbud headphones dangling down while I breathed through cat-cow poses and Rohr’s soothing, even voice filled my ears.
His ideas about God’s relationship to humanity and the cosmos were totally foreign to me. He spoke simply about God, with a tenderness and love that reminded me of the faith of my childhood. However, his conclusions about the expansive, universal love of God were far outside of anything I had been raised with. I was cautious and skeptical, but couldn’t deny that the simple, honest way he spoke of God was far more compelling than the progressive or conservative intellectual gymnastics I had encountered elsewhere. Why wasn’t anyone else talking like this guy? Or were they? Was my faith world really so small?
Rohr’s voice cut through my internal dialogue and I felt a spark of something I hadn’t felt in a long time. Was it curiosity? Hope? Faith? My body felt alive, humming with energy. I cannot remember the specific words he said or what revelation stirred this light in me, but I knew in my body that it was something deeply true. It felt like coming home, and the home was in me all along. For the first time in a long time I noticed how my body – not merely my mind – responded to the Divine. And for the first time ever, that response wasn’t fear or guilt or shame. It was a deep thrill of hope that there was a way for me to engage my spirituality – and the Divine itself – without erasing myself in the process.
I come from a literal, doctrinally obsessed christian tradition. From a young age I memorized verses, then chapters, then whole books of the bible so I would be prepared to “defend my faith”. Once I had locked all those words inside my heart I moved onto popular level theological works – the apologetic classics and the hip theologo-bro stuff – before ultimately digging into heady systematic theology. There must be right answers, I thought, and if my parents and sunday school teachers can’t fully explain them to me I’ll find them myself. I was digging for the bedrock – the solid ground I had been told to build my life upon. If I could clear away the debris and anchor myself to that and the ironclad scaffolding that held up the rest of the tradition, I would finally understand. I could finally live rightly, finally be worthy of love that God murdered his own son for.
I was raised to think that a life lived in pursuit of that sort of doctrinal purity was it’s own reward. Forsake your own feelings, intuition, and needs so that nothing distracts you from digging in and “trusting Jesus alone”. (“Trusting Jesus alone” does not mean that you actually trust in spiritual encounters with the risen Christ, but rather that you trust in the books that have been written to explain all of the confusing things he said and did during his short life.) Anything that seems natural or obvious, any questions that distract from this holy calling to theological education is “trusting in your own understanding”. Anything that feels isolating or makes you anxious is merely an opportunity to surrender, trust, and obey.
I now know this is a tool used to manipulate and control. There is no bedrock. No scaffolding. There are gates and there are walls, but they are built upon the shifting sands of culture and power and fear. But it would be years before I could see what was happening. Years of being praised for my maturity, my seriousness, my passion. Years of an identify formed around self-denial and submission to the will and words of others.
When I was 16, preparing for a summer mission trip, our leaders took us to a seminar titled “The One Thing You Can’t Do In Heaven”. The speaker began the session by loudly snapping his fingers, the sharp sound ringing out and calling the room to attention. Instead of speaking he held his hand high for another second, then snapped again. Pause. Pause, *SNAP*. Pause. Pause, *SNAP*. He grimly looked out at the sea of our young faces and said, “Each of these *SNAP* is another person dying without knowing Jesus. *SNAP* Imagine their bodies, bodies made in the image of God *SNAP* catching fire as they slide helplessly into the pits of hell. Can you feel the heat? *SNAP* Can you hear their cries?” This went on for a half hour or so, him detailing all the places on earth where people have not heard of Jesus, pointing out that our own peers could start the day just driving to school and the next second a car crash instantly enters them into eternal conscious torment. He described the suffering of hell in great detail. He leaned heavily on the gift of life we have, what could be more important than telling the world this saving good news? He stood still, raised his hands again and said “The Lord God Almighty asks *SNAP* ‘Whom shall I send?’ and God’s children said…” He spread his hands out over our heads as raw voices called out “Here I am Lord!” and “Send me!”
I tried to swallow the lump in my throat as the speaker explained the soul saving we were about to embark on. Not next summer on the trip, but today. He began praying over and dismissing each row in the packed conference hall, sending them out to bring Christ to the heathens in Manitou, Colorado. I looked at my peers, their faces reflected the shock and fear I felt on my own. But I was surprised to see the same etched in the faces of our leaders. They were clearly uncomfortable with this exercise, but wasn’t that the point? As proud presbyterians, we believed God was the one pitching those poor souls into hell himself. Shouldn’t we own that? Cover our bases and tell everyone we could about God just in case they were predestined for heaven too? Or didn’t it matter? If God had the final say, did our actions make any difference? I felt anxious, unsure which questions were the right ones. Was I responsible for those burning bodies? Was God?
I expected the doctrinally confident, certainty obsessed church leaders to offer clear answers, but there were none. That day and in the years to come the message was clear: you don’t or can’t understand. Do not doubt the word of God. Don’t trust in your own understanding. Just do what we say. Go out and evangelize, whatever the cost!/Stay home, study, obey your parents. Live your life boldy!/Don’t draw attention. Give up everything for God!/Don’t throw away your education, missions isn’t a career!
This worked for a little while. As women we are groomed by the church from a young age to be quiet and follow orders. But then life teaches us courage anyway and how can we stay quiet once we begin to learn our own strength?
Richard Rohr’s work has helped me to understand what I have known intuitively all along: that these kinds of schisms – body and spirit, mind and heart, knowing and doing – are dangerous and ultimately impossible dualisms to maintain. If I cannot trust my own body, my own mind, my own experience – and not even my own experiences with God – my body learns to silence those voices and signals. I become a wobbly shell of a person, desperately trying to stay on the straight and narrow because my whole identity is bound up in what the doctrine says I am. What choice do have? To fall off is, I was told, utter annihilation. “There is no life apart from God.”
And maybe they were right about that, just wrong about the way it shakes out. Wrong about the possibility of moving beyond the reach of God, the reach of Love. I’m more convinced that ever that whatever path we’re walking is in the way of Love. Love is our companion. Love is IN our companions. Love is in US. If there is a sharp drop-off, Love is there too. If there is a vista and a glorious sunset, love awaits. For the mid-trail meltdowns and months of camping out when we can go no further, Love abides.
I used to think that we should only encounter God in a literal reading of the bible. The God of the ESV was the God we could trust. Everything else was suspect, tainted by our sinful nature. But the more I train myself to notice and be nourished the movement of the Divine in others, the more I trust the movement in myself. Honestly, it still feels heretical to even think such a thing, let alone say it aloud, but noticing the mystery and oneness already present in our world and drinking deeply of the life it offers has made the incarnation real to me in ways that volumes of systematic theology couldn’t touch. It sometimes feels like learning that my favorite story from childhood is actually just the first book in an unending series of adventures for my beloved characters. What joy to crack open that next title!
The ability to hold all of this with open hands, to allow the transformation and healing to happen, this is the mystery of the cosmic Christ, of non-dual thinking, of oneness. This is resurrection: the restoration, the rejoining of body and spirit. In his book The Universal Christ, Rohr writes “Resurrection is contagious, and free for the taking. It is everywhere visible and available for those who have learned how to see, how to rejoice, and how to neither hoard nor limit God’s ubiquitous gift.”
Sometimes it still sounds a little woo-woo to me. I can only begin to engage it poetically, and it doesn’t satisfy any of my sci-fi questions about what is literal or physical in any of these bible stories and what is myth, metaphor, story, or song. I’m frequently unsure I believe any of it, certainly not “intellectually” as I did before. There is no certainty here but the surety of a body and soul open to the movement of Love, a heartbeat that echoes across the cosmic chaos from whatever God might be to the mystery of our own form in this place and time.
If your eyebrows are up to your hairline reading all this, I get it. I’ve been there. I’m still there! As a person with plenty of faith baggage and a slowly emerging sense of trust in my own experience, I encounter Rohr’s work sometimes as a skeptic, sometimes with an eye roll, and sometimes with deep gratitude. As someone who once hoarded books of contemporary evangelical authors and regarded them as nearly divine (to be fair, this is exactly how the authors expected to be regarded), the irony that I have finally found the Divine in the marginal voices of our tradition is not lost on me!
I hope that Rohr’s ethic of faith will encourage you even if his conclusions seem a bit wild. Your experiences, thoughts, feelings, and questions matter. Understanding them, working out a theology, arriving at an answer – none of that is a prerequisite for experiencing the expansive mysterious love of the Divine. Love is for you, whatever name you give it. I believe it cannot be captured or wrestled into a theological text. Love IS you. In you, with you, for you. When I can hold nothing else, I try to open my hands to that much. I open my hands to you too.
If you’re interested in learning more about Richard Rohr and the work of The Center for Action and Contemplation, you can follow either of those links, but I suggest you start by subscribing to his daily email meditations. They are short excerpts from his books, homilies, and lectures, as well as reflections from other faculty and students at the Living School.
The Universal Christ is his latest and, he says (much to our chagrin), final work. If you’re more of a listener than a reader, the podcast Another Name For Everything is a great way into his work. Season one moves chapter by chapter through The Universal Christ, and season two features questions from readers discussed in a round-table format with Rohr and two staff members from CAC.
Happy reading! I look forward to hearing what you uncover.