Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest who lives in New Mexico. He has been and continues to be a significant force in my formation as a follower of Christ. How in the world did that happen? A good South of God boy growing up on the Southside of Atlanta wound up connecting with a Franciscan friar?
Good question. Let me ‘splain it to you, or at least, try. It’s a bit convoluted, circuitous….in a word, messy. Just like I like it,
When I was a student at Emory College, I would go once a month to the Trappist monastery in Conyers, Georgia. It was at the invitation of my pastor, Dr. Estill Jones, who had taught New Testament at Southern Seminary in Louisville, a South of God seminary. Estill had been fired from the seminary along with a few other professors for not being constrained in their theological approach to the Holy Scriptures…in other words, not conservative enough for the home team. Estill left the Ivory Tower of Academia to find his place as a pastor of a South of God church in Thomson, Georgia. That is what I call a “transition”. After serving the people in that eastern Georgia town for a time, he migrated north to Atlanta, East Point actually, to my home church, Dogwood Hills Baptist.
I had fled the church after my grouping of South of Gods fired our pastor, Dr. Bill Geren, also a New Testament scholar. Dr. Geren had fostered a dialogue with a black Baptist church, Wheat Street Baptist which was located on Sweet Auburn Ave. in the heart of Atlanta. He did a pulpit exchange, as well as the choir, in an attempt to promote interracial dialogue. This was in the late 60’s which was amazingly progressive move for the time. But he tried to push to a bridge too far for these South of God members: he “opened the doors” of the church, offering membership to anyone who wants to join, and that meant “blacks”. This bold move led to a deacons (aka board) meeting that Sunday evening to remove him from the position of pastor. My attempt to fall back to comedy led me to quip, when I talk publicly about this event, that they made him a “Rhodes Scholar”, as they ordered “Hit the Road, Scholar!” This firing thing seems to flourish among these folk.
When Dr. Jones arrived, he deftly tried to pull me back into the fold. To this day, I do not know what my parents paid him for his efforts, but it had to be substantial.
In any case, he invited me to join four South of God New Testament Greek scholars who were meeting with four Holy Roman monks, namely Trappist monks at a nearby monastery. The Desired Outcome of our gathering was to translate the Greek New Testament, specifically the Gospels, where Jesus’ words were inked in red to denote specialness, holiness. My red-letter edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which came with an imitation leather cover, was bought at the Sears store in West End, which explains a lot. I left that Bible in East Point, taking instead an interlinear Bible, which Dr. Jones ordered for me, which had both the New Testament Greek and the English translation. Wore it out! It was a gift from Dr. Jones. Free! “Don’t cost nothing” as they say in “Animal House”, though I had no idea what it would cost me in the end.
I am telling you all of that because 1) it’s fun to tell, and 2) I need to situate my relationship to how I originally got connected to a Trappist monastery, which provided my entre to Rohr. Got it?
It was in this group of New Testament scholars that I met Father Anthony. Anthony was an older priest who had Italian heritage. His dark skin and facial features could have placed him in the Mafia backroom with Luca Brasi, “leave the gun, take the cannoli!” And yet, rather than a crime syndicate, circumstances or providence led Anthony to become a monk and eventually the retreat master at the guest house at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.
Anthony was in my monthly Bible study group, though he sort of scared me with his dour face and acerbic quips. Father Joachim was much more approachable as a red-faced Irish priest whose eyes danced with delight. And Father Tom with his brilliant intellect and delightful giggle when something South of God struck him with hilarity, was a quick friend, and through time became my spiritual director.
And then there was Francis Michael. who was almost as young as me, fresh-faced from Philly, a true seeker, having journeyed to India to seek out Mother Teresa, to join her in her mission with the poor of Bombay, only to have her wave him off to go to a Trappist monastery in some God-forsaken land….that’s right, Georgia. Francis Michael and I have been like brothers from the start, almost fifty years ago.
Later, there was Father Patrick Duffy, a former New York cop, made famous in the book, Blue Highways. Patrick joined us late in the game, bringing a cop’s pragmaticism to the dance. Patrick secretly snuck a charcoal portrait of Thomas Merton out for me, as it was destined to be burned. Seems that the artist who had done the portrait had ignominiously left the cloister to become a chef, prompting some of the brothers to burn his work. Patrick saved this gem for me. My mother framed it for me and it has been in every office I have ever inhabited.
It was a mixed bag of nuts, to be sure, my Bible study group at the monastery in Conyers. I loved it. I credit, or blame it, for my spiritual healing, my return to things ecclesial, and my vocation. I looked forward to every monthly meeting, drinking coffee, studying the Gospel, and kibbitzing with these men I admired about the contours of life, the lay of the land. It became a paradigm for my sense of community.
It was Father Anthony who introduced me to Richard Rohr. Anthony was a bit of an anomaly for me as he was a celebrated part of the Roman Catholic charismatic renewal movement. For the unwashed, that was the part of the Church that rediscovered the power of the Holy Spirit back in the 60’s. Richard was a part of this movement, beginning with a huge community of young people that found identity and meaning under his leadership in a charismatic student ministry.
Quick side trip: I have some hidden Pentecostals in my West Georgia background, so I was familiar with the breed. I had even been to some “camp meetings” where the Holy Spirit “fell”, with people falling out on the floor, speaking in tongues. It captured my childhood imagination, wondering what the hell is going on. My branch of the McBrayers got “civilized”, becoming upstanding, pew-sitting, no Holy Rolling, South of God folk. But my experience as a child “stuck”, giving me my basic question about how people come to have faith, or not, and how they choose to express that deepest of human emotions, “awe and wonder”.
It led me to chase down Oral Roberts, who I once watched on TV with my granddad. I was curious, as the line of people waited for a white-shirted, rolled up sleeved Oral to pray over them in the front of the meeting, What was going on? I finally got to interview him when he came one year to Ministers Week at Emory. He seemed normal enough, and only got a slight static electric charge when we shook hands.
It led me to a tent revival of R. W. Schambach and his Holy Ghost Miracle Revival when I spied it from my drive on I-85 at Lakewood Fairgrounds. I watched in “awe” as this sawdust preacher did his thing, with people falling out, right and left. I wondered at the line of people going forward to put in their “love offering” into a Rubbermaid trash can that was doubling as a collection plate. I returned the next night with some fraternity brothers from the North to share my discovery. Oddly, I was bowled over to find out that Schambach’s headquarters happened to be in Tyler, Texas, where I was called to be a priest at the downtown Episcopal parish. R. W. loved my story from those two nights in Atlanta.
It led me to take a Sunday off from my Episcopal Cathedral and go to southwest Dekalb to find the Paulks who were pulling off a truly interracial church on the outskirts of Atlanta. Earl, Don and Clariece became life-long friends who are born and bred in this charismatic tradition. They were doing things and going places no one else dared to go. And my sense was that it was powered by this liminal experience of a power beyond themselves.
And in my own Cathedral parish, we had an amazing group of committed faithful who claimed the power of the Spirit through the Episcopal version of the charismatic renewal that Anthony experienced in the Roman Church. These charismatics proved to be people I could count on for some of the heavy lifting of church life, though they also seemed to struggle some with self-righteous judgment, at least in their early experience. Oddly, we had two congregations at the Cathedral, one charismatic and one traditional, something I documented using a congregational analysis tool. I loved both of them, but the bifurcation came home to roost after I left. But that’s another story.
Anthony was another source for me trying to understand this strange phenomena of spirituality. He had come across Richard Rohr through the dissemination of cassette tapes of his teachings. Anthony would “slip” them to me, like contraband, during our lunch breaks at the monthly Bible studies, holding his secretive finger in front of his lips, which made the tapes even more delicious. Most of my friends were being given Playboys by crazy uncles…I was was getting sermon tapes from a Trappist monk. Again, it explains a lot.
So I discovered Father Rohr through the medium of cassette tapes, the the nascent form of podcasts of my youth. Father Richard remained for me a winsome voice that made sense out of the Jesus I had heard about for all my life. There was a practicality, dealing with everyday life, in Rohr’s teaching, sprinkled with radicality that fit where I was in my life, searching for something to commit my life to. This disembodied voice playing on a cassette tape deck was connecting me to the historical Jesus that seemed to make sense, and challenge me at the same time. Jesus seemed to become relatable, accessible, familiar, no longer just a stained glass story. Retrospectively, Richard Rohr was a huge factor in my transition from my inherited, conventional faith to my individuating, owned faith of commitment.
I met him one day at a conference of spiritual gurus that I was attending, me being a token South of God representative, which was a joke in and of itself. Basil Pennington, Morton Kelsey, Tom Keating, and Fr. Richard were the Roman Catholic bright lights. I remember running into an older man in stairwell at the monastery, who stopped me to ask for directions. It was Douglas Steere, THE Quaker scholar and spiritual wise man of our age. The irony of him asking me for directions was not lost on this sojourner.
Through the years, I have run into Rohr on numerous occasions, a few that afforded me some substantial time for exchange of ideas, and more importantly, questions. The best thing about him to me was that he was REAL, not a lot of “holy” posturing, which is an occupational hazard for those who live in the rarified air of spiritual renown. Coming to believe your own PR package is death to spiritual types, and Richard has guarded against it with a healthy sense of self-deprecating humor,
He began his journey in the wheat field of Kansas, a member of a devout Roman Catholic family. He credits the joyful nuns who served as teachers at his school. These holy, joyful women proved to be the attractors of him as a young boy. He later was taken by reading of the life of St. Francis, his joyful celebration of Creation and life, which led him into that Franciscan order. He began his work among the Native Americans in New Mexico, appreciating their natural spirituality of greeting the rising of the sun each morning as an affirmation of life. He returned to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1987 to begin a retreat center and school, the Center for Action and Contemplation, which is where he is today.
Richard is often overheard talking about God’s continuing call on his life to focus on being present in the moment. He maintains his deep connection to the Franciscan spirit, not only in an appreciation of God’s presence in Creation, but significantly God’s call to Francis to “rebuild the Church!”. Francis responded literally by rebuilding a dilapidated church building, but later recognized a deeper calling to the spiritual rebuilding of the foundations of the Church.
Rohr follows this tradition by not only advocating ecological awareness and care of the Creation, but has taken seriously a call to rebuild the foundations of faith that have been truncated by a limitation of the conception of Christ. While the historical Jesus grants us a definitive look at what the Christ looks like in flesh and bones (the Incarnation, a fancy theological term), the Christ was before this historical moment of birth in a stable, and is present in the Now. A recent book, The Universal Christ, asserts winsomely that God’s love for the world has existed from the very beginning and has been present in all cultures. “This is the Cosmic Christ, who always was, who became incarnate in time, and who is still being revealed.” For Richard, this is the Good News, the joyful message of the Gospel.
There is something of joy that pervades Richard’s very being. When you are in his presence, you get a strong whiff of the joyful exuberance that flows from his experience of being gracefully cared for by the Sisters that taught him, the “Perfect Joy” that he read of in the life of St. Francis, a joy that he intentionally brings in his encounters with people now who cross his path. It reminds me of the old Franciscan saying: “Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary, use words.” There is Good News of Love, Joy, Grace that flow from Richard’s being, by the way he moves and has his being. In my book, that’s as good as it gets.
I took a course with him, through his Center, on Franciscan spirituality as I was beginning my journey toward profession as a Third Order Franciscan. The class was on Zoom, mostly on tape, but I swear that his joy transmitted through the pixelated images from the desert of New Mexico to my island off the coast of Georgia. His call, throughout his life, was to make the love of God known to others, sometimes in spite of the institutions that would throttle him back to a safe speed. Just as in the South of God branch, Richard has had his detractors in the Roman community. There are those that have taped his lectures, trying to “catch him” in error, to present them to the authorities in order to excommunicate him. Richard smiles and shows more grace than I have in my soul for his enemies. I think I remember reading about “loving your enemies” thing somewhere along the way.
Richard has just brought out another book, Jesus’ Alternative Plan. I think he intended The Universal Christ to be his last book, the definitive statement. He had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer, and later suffered a significant heart attack. But he has survived. Some one told me the other day that “he is living on borrowed time”. Aren’t we all? He is leaving behind quite a testament of what he has discerned about God, who Jesus can be, the Spirit that is pervasive and moves as it wills, and a Church that needs to be rebuilt, adding a few timely doors for access. A bridge too far, again? I pray not.
If you have been following Richard’s pilgrimage, the new book encapsulates the center cut of the Gospel, focused on the kerygma, the message, of Jesus’ realm of God and what it means to live seriously out of its vision, including loving your enemies, something we are in need of desperately in our country, something I need. Richard pulls no punches. It is high-test octane. It’s the straight shot-no chaser. High voltage. Are you getting my message? He’s all in with this book, so you need to cap off your long journey with this pilgrim by reading what will be his final book, in a way, his parting words.
And if you are new to this lion that Rohrs, this book would be a good place to start. Talking about living your life out of some core values, unconstrained by careful, tightly wound religiosity that majors on the minor. It’s a straightway back to the Jesus who gets real about this thing called life. It will give you a center from which to expand with joy and wonder. Here is a place to start, to encounter one who has a message that points to a way of being in the world with integrity, a value longed for by a new generation of seekers.
My sense is that we are currently faced with a world full of people hungry for meaning and purpose. Like in various ages, there is always this spiritual hunger, a restlessness looking for a place in which to abide, as St. Augustine framed it in his day. In perhaps his last act of love and compassion, Richard has gifted us with this Gospel treasure, repackaged for this specific time in the development of consciousness and religious sensibility. For what it’s worth, I encourage you to take a look at Richard’s take on the Sermon on the Mount, a kind of compilation, “best of Jesus” hits, to get a fresh look at what Jesus gave his life for: the realm of God.
I’m betting you will be glad you did. Blessings.