Looking at the variety of colors of ink and marker that gild my copy of this book betrays the number of times I have read it over the past several years. In fact, I particularly enjoy going back to it now just to see what was most precious on my previous readings.
Through his books, this one in particular, Richard Rohr has become a wonderful friend. Even though I have never met him, nor—till I sent him this review—have I had any direct personal contact with him, his life has deeply touched mine. In fact, of everything I have read within the last five years, no book has had a bigger impact on me than this one.
The book begins with a provocative piece of free verse entitled “Inherent Unmarketability”:
How do you make attractive that which is not?
How do you sell emptiness, vulnerability, and nonsuccess?
How do you talk descent when everything is about ascent?
How can you possibly market letting-go in a capitalist culture?
How do you present Jesus to a Promethean mind?
How do you talk about dying to a church trying to appear perfect?
This is not going to work (which might be my first step).1
He had my attention. Emptiness, vulnerability, and nonsuccess don’t sound like ways to attract Christ-followers, but the language of frustration, failure, and descent connected immediately with my own experience of the Christian spiritual journey. Perhaps I was about to encounter a genuine alternative to triumphalistic spirituality. Perhaps I was about to meet someone ready to be truly honest about his experience—the experience of authentic transformation. I was hooked.
I also had a foretaste of the writing style—pithy, sometimes provocative, frequently profound.
Yet, profound does not mean heady or inaccessible. In fact, the most insightful parts of the book are often easily mistaken for simple statements of the obvious. But read reflectively and prayerfully, it becomes apparent that nothing in this little book is simplistic.
Take, for example, the focus of the first chapter—the difference between living at the center and the circumference. He opens by claiming that we tend to live on the boundaries of our own lives, confusing the edges with essence, the superficial with substance. The path of prayer/love and the path of suffering are, he suggests, the two Great Paths to the centre. Suffering gets our attention while love and prayer get our heart and our passions. Together they are the route to spiritual transformation.
I put the book down. Is this simplistic or profound? I can hardly tell at first glance. But the fact that I have put the book down and am thinking about the questions raised suggests I have already been deeply engaged in a dialogue that will leave me changed. And I am still on the first page of the first chapter!
What does it mean to be on the path toward the centre? It involves, Rohr suggests, a gradual awakening—a discovery that I am not and can never be in control. It involves learning to see—something that is always at the heart of any genuinely spiritual journey. And it also involves an acceptance of reality—choosing to live and fully accept our reality. It sounds so simple. But I dare to pause and put the book down again.
He leads me on: “If your prayer is not enticing you outside your comfort zones, if your Christ is not an occasional ʻthreat,’ you probably need to do some growing up and learning to love”. He describes people who live from their centre as those who know what boundaries are worth maintaining and which can be surrendered. In contrast, those who live at the circumference defend every ego-boundary and “are, frankly, very difficult to live with.”
The punch line of this chapter—in anticipation of the big theme of the book—is that the only way to the centre is to see that in and through God, everything belongs. He goes on: “We cannot attain the presence of God. We’re already totally in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.”2
Prayer is a way of living in awareness in God’s presence. This also connects us to our deepest self. “Therapy heals our disconnections from this problem, from this person, from this difficult emotion. Prayer heals our split from life itself. It heals our disconnectedness from the deepest stream itself.”3
This is the core of the spiritual journey—learning to discern the presence of God, to see what really is. And, he reminds us, “nothing is more dangerous than people who presume they already see. God can most easily be lost by being thought found.”4
Many times in reading this book I found myself wondering what exactly the author meant by “everything belongs.” I’d catch a glimpse of it, and then I’d look away and it seemed to be gone. I would wonder if he was not being sufficiently clear. But, no—the problem was in me. I was having trouble grasping just how big this truth really is.
Let me jump to Chapter 5 where he unpacks this truth most fully. Entitled “Don’t Push the River,” it provides the image of a fish in water as a metaphor for life in God’s presence. How big is the world that belongs in God? Listen to Rohr’s answer:
If we can learn to trust God the next movement of our soul is to trust ourselves. . . Jesus tells us in the Gospels, ʻDon’t be afraid.’ He’s saying…you can trust yourself because God trusts you, using your journey, your experience. Nothing is wasted; all is forgiven. Nothing will be used against you. In fact, I will even use your sins to transform you!5
Suddenly it’s a very safe universe. Everything belongs. God uses everything for our transformation. There are no dead ends, no wrong turns, and no wasted energy. “Everything is recycled. Sin history and salvation history are two sides of one coin.”6 “Faith does not need to push the river precisely because it is able to trust that there is a river. The river is flowing; we are in it. The river is God’s providential love.”7
Now I am forced to set the book aside for some serious reflection. Is God’s plan for me really transformation through sin, not simply the avoidance of it? Is this how I become a new creature? Is daring to meet God in the shame of my sinfulness what Paul means by his weakness being the source of God’s strength? Things seem strangely upside down, the way of ascent now being described as the way of descent.
And then I recall the opening prayer of “Inherent Unmarketability.” It’s no wonder I feel confused. I think I choose the way of the Cross, but I only want to pass through death once; I want everything from that point forward to be progress and ascent. With God’s help I want to climb the seven-story mountain. I want to make spiritual progress. And these are, of course, God’s desires for me. The question is, however, am I prepared for the path to be one of descent—a series of deaths in which I meet the crucified Savior and through which he works his purposes in me?
But, you might ask (if you happen to recall the subtitle of the book!), how does all of this relate to prayer—and to contemplative prayer in particular? The answer to this question is woven throughout each chapter, but he returns to it in near the end of the book. “When we learn to enjoy and trust the presence of God, we will naturally turn to that presence in prayer.”8 This is contemplative prayer. And this is what it means to see life through the eyes of faith.
This would be a very hard book to review in anything like a traditional book review. It simply touches too many matters—all intimately related and each offered in bite-size chunks that invite the reader to chew them slowly.
The conclusion summarizes the most important of these chunks of wisdom. Let me mention just several of these:
“God is to be found in all things, even and most especially in the painful, tragic, and sinful things.”9
“Human existence is a coincidence of opposites, a collision of cross-purposes. . . . The price we pay for holding together these opposites is always some form of crucifixion.”10
This is the paschal mystery; true life coming “only through death journeys wherein we learn who God is for us. Letting go is the nature of all true spirituality.”11)
The contemplative mind is the only mind big enough to allow us to hold all this together, and the only way of seeing that is surrendered enough to trust. It is the new consciousness God has given us as we become his new creatures. It is “what we call prayer.”12
I have received many gifts from this book. Most importantly, however, it encourages me in my stumbling, failures, and sin as I plod along on the Christian spiritual journey. It reminds me that these are exactly the places where God wants to meet me and work out my conversion. Rather than wasting time kicking myself for being a sinner, I learn to accept myself as I am accepted. Then God can get on with his job of transformation.
I am blessed to have Richard Rohr as a spiritual friend. I have always chosen to surround myself with people who, rather than mirroring my own views, open me up to aspects of the world I would not otherwise have seen. I don’t expect those who accompany me on the spiritual journey to hold the same views as me. That would be too much like traveling by myself. Consequently, I welcome rather than feel disturbed by the points where our views diverge.
The friendship I have experienced with this author has not been dependent on our agreeing on all matters. Instead, it has been based on the recognition that we share a common journey. It is also based on a deep appreciation to God for the gift he has given me—and anyone who cares to read this book—in the life and writings of Richard Rohr.
Dialogue with the Author
DGB: Now that you have read what I have received from your book, any comments about things that you think I have misunderstood or misrepresented? Anything you would like to clarify?
RR: There was nothing that showed lack of understanding in your review, and actually some of your connections made me realize what I said on new levels. Amazing, really! When your own ideas are mirrored back to you through different words and eyes, it seems to open up even more for the author too. You realize you were saying things that you did not fully know you were saying. Your review did that for me. Thank you.
DGB: I am struck by how “successful” the church seems to be in marketing a gospel that de-emphasizes being conformed to the pattern of Christ’s death and transformed into the power of his resurrection. What would a church look like that really got the gospel right?
RR: It is hard for me to imagine what a church would be like that really reflected Philippians 3:11, although I am convinced that is the real, and maybe only, transformative journey that Jesus is talking about. “You must drink of the cup that I must drink of.” This involves much more than the belonging, moral, or ritual systems that we have in most of our churches. We have made Jesus into a tribal god. We have missed the universal message of vulnerability and passover.
I know such a church would be much smaller and less “managed.” But probably its influence would be much stronger—perhaps like the influence of AA, because the message would be absolutely clear and uncluttered. You would not join the church and then ritualize the paschal mystery in various churchy ways.You would pass through the paschal mystery, and by that very fact be a member of the new creation. It would be obvious to those inside who has passed over and who has not, who is living in this new identity in God. But there would be few outer verifications that would “prove” who is in and who is out. More a “mystical body”of Christ than an organization. I am sure this would make me a heretic in Catholic theology, although I can see why you actually need an “institution” to get the whole thing started and keep it moving. I just don’t ever think it is, or will be, co-terminus with the experienced and transformative mystery.I am not so naive as to think this whole thing would continue without some proclamation centers, even if they only half understand the message themselves. They get us all started.
DGB: Some people might be puzzled by your emphasis on mystery in a process of spiritual formation that they understand to be built around absolutes and fairly clear directives. Any comment?
RR: We went down the wrong road when we started giving people the expectation that they had a right to answers, absolutes, and directives—and that it was our job to give them such answers. Jesus never did. He only answered three questions directly in all the four Gospels, and was asked 183! Instead, he gave people a process, a journey, a way of the cross—not moral conclusions, except insofar as certain moral stances reflected the new mystical awareness. Christianity is first of all a mystical matter, and only by corollary a moral matter. We always put the cart before the horse, and it seldom works—unless, of course, we experience the failure of the law/ system/religion as Paul describes in Romans and Galatians. I think this is actually a fairly common pattern. When the cart fails us, we sometimes discover we can ride the horse that has been riding us all along.
DGB: What does it mean to speak of God’s faithfulness in the midst of suffering?
RR: When suffering does not destroy you, even though you have been to the edge of the abyss, you know something that you cannot know in any other way. Someone else is sustaining you. You are indeed living by a life not your own. Or as I love to say, “Your life is not about you.” It is henceforth, most truly, about God. And you are merely a“free sample”of what God has always been doing.
DGB: It has been several years since you wrote this book. Anything you would want to add to it for readers who are encountering the Richard Rohr of 1998 rather than the Richard Rohr of the present?
RR: People tend to remember simple one-liners better than abstruse theology. I think I would just say clearly at the beginning and the end of the book that “we do not come to God by doing it right, but strangely and surprisingly by doing it wrong!” That is good news for EVERYBODY! What we have now is largely bad news for most people. “Religion,” instead of awareness of who we are in God. I can see why Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that we need a “religionless Christianity,” which might ironically be the strongest form of Christianity—not a watering down of anything, but a life and message that is utterly dependent upon God.