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Living a life less ordinary

23 January 2008

Most Christians are as greedy, ambitious, egocentric and warlike as anybody else, says Fr Richard Rohr. So what’s the antidote?, asks Brian Draper

YOU COULD hear a pin drop in the lofty Westminster Cathedral Hall. Several hundred people of all sorts of spiritual shapes and sizes have squeezed in, to hang on the words of the popular writer and speaker Fr Richard Rohr. But Fr Rohr, a Roman Catholic Franciscan from the United States, is saying nothing.

The silence is ultimately not a bad thing. Fr Rohr is here to “speak” on “Silence in the City”, and is mid-flow in a 20-minute stretch of silent contemplation. The event’s organisers — the World Community for Christian Meditation and Contemplative Outreach, London — persuaded him to shoehorn an extra date into the two-week European tour for his new book, Things Hidden: Scripture as spirituality, and he seems to be delivering exactly what they want.

“There’s a set of people they’re calling ‘the emerging church’,” he says enthusiastically over a coffee earlier that evening. “We’re finding Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, all ‘emerging’ at the same level with the same kind of conclusions (the need for a deeper, more contemplative spirituality) all over the place. It’s got to be from the collective unconscious, or the Holy Spirit, or both: it’s happening so quickly.”

Such a stirring has come about despite, and not thanks to, the mainstream Church, he says. “I don’t mean to sound iconoclastic, rebellious, or heretical, but organised religion is coming to an impasse: it can’t answer a whole bunch of the really crucial questions of history and our time. In the same way as any institution or corporation, it is concerned, instead, with issues of precedent, procedure, policy, and possessions.”

So how do you maintain the centrality of spirituality, if that is the answer? “I think it’s next to impossible,” he reflects.

It depends, of course, on what is meant by “spirituality”. For Mr Rohr, “spirituality is about when you discover that the inside of things (the inner life) is bigger than the outside (entrapments of life). Really. That’s it.”

FR ROHR began his own contemplative journey as a 14-year-old. “I had read a life of St Francis, and made contact with some Franciscans who came to my church for a mission. I went to visit them, and I’ve never regretted the decision to join. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be like St Francis? Happy and free and in love with nature and life and humanity.”

But the monastic order also gives him an edge, he believes. He has a sense of being an outsider hanging in there, especially as he is — unusually — also a priest. “Francis didn’t want us to be ordained,” he reflects. “Once you speak for the party, you’ve got to take the party line.”

Judging by his outspokenness on the institution of the Church, he seems to have avoided the pitfalls. “It’s pretty amazing to me,” he says with a wry smile. “I’ve been a priest for nearly 38 years, and people ask me why I haven’t been shut down or shut up while so many others from my time have — and I do wonder. . .

“Maybe it’s because I’m not angry. The Franciscan tradition teaches you not to take yourself too seriously: not to get pompous or clerical, but to underplay your status, your career advancement, fight against it if possible. So that served me well.”

Fr Rohr is the founding director of the Centre for Action and Contemplation (CAC), which he established in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1986. Before then, he had become famous among Roman Catholics and others through a brand new medium — the speaking tape — in the 1970s, and through best-selling books such as Everything Belongs and Radical Grace. As he travelled the world, meeting his growing public, he perceived the need for a deeper level of spirituality, especially among activists.

“I met so many people working for social change, but when I drew close to them, I’d be disappointed. I would agree with their progressive social analysis, but I usually found they were just as egocentric. . . If you don’t undercut that natural egocentricity, that need to be right, to be smart, then the arrogance and self-righteousness on the left is just as problematic as it is on the right.

“That’s where contemplation comes in. We wanted to give those involved in social change some inner spiritual practice, so they could face those demons. And it’s been a wonderful 20 years.”

It sounds like a little help with the erosion of the self which many might welcome because of the lack of space for reflection in today’s culture. Is that what it is really about, I ask. “The point of prayer is always union with God. But the side-effects are wonderful: it makes you a little less narcissistic, a little less offendable, because your ego isn’t centre stage.

“God couldn’t have intended people to go to $100-an-hour therapists. But if you can teach a path of inner listening, surrendering, awakening, to stop repressing that junk and allow it to bubble up, and you bring it to consciousness and hand it over to God, I have seen people dramatically changed from the psychological wounds that we all carry. I really think contemplative prayer is God’s therapy.”

The problem is, he says, that most are too busy to implement such a change, even if they see the need. “This is the big one. I ask myself whether I even have the right to teach this, when for the last 13 days it’s been non-stop. We have to unite the contemplative life with teaching on the simplicity of life, too. We’ve got to live a simpler life. We just can’t have everything.”

A mobile phone, for one thing, is off-limits to the man whose home is a hermitage behind the CAC. “I just don’t want to be that accessible,” he says. In a typical day at home, he tries to spend four to five hours “away from noise” in prayer or silence, either writing or working in the garden.

ALTHOUGH he does not expect others to join him in such a set-apart lifestyle, part of Fr Rohr’s frustration flows from his regret that more Christians do not provide a deeper spiritual alternative through the example of their everyday life. “I do think we should close down all church programmes and just teach people how to pray. I don’t mean how to say prayers, but how to cultivate inner awareness. Then we’d have a church that really would be an alternative consciousness.

  “For the most part, Christians are as greedy, ambitious, egocentric, and warlike as anybody else. There’s just this overlay of God-language.”

How then, does he suggest, we combat such a profound lack of distinctiveness?

How then, does he suggest, we combat such a profound lack of distinctiveness?

According to Fr Rohr, the first step is to change a mindset — dualistic thinking. “Most of us assume that the self we’re meant to ‘die to’ is the body self, the sexual self, and the emotional self. We assume that if you just get rid of your body or emotion or sex then we’ll fly towards God. But there’s no evidence for that. In fact, quite the contrary.

According to Fr Rohr, the first step is to change a mindset — dualistic thinking. “Most of us assume that the self we’re meant to ‘die to’ is the body self, the sexual self, and the emotional self. We assume that if you just get rid of your body or emotion or sex then we’ll fly towards God. But there’s no evidence for that. In fact, quite the contrary.

“Thomas Merton gave us the language of the true self and false self, instead of the body self and spirit self. It’s not your body self that needs to die, but your false self — your persona, or in Freudian terms your ego, the person you think you need to be, the persona you need to live up to.”

The positive spin on all this talk about death-to-self is that we should, he suggests, passionately, constantly choose God, and union with God. “Prayer is a daily choice to live out of the Great Self, not the small self — the God self, not the you self.”

The act of contemplation helps us to observe the “unobserved” or false self, and by so doing, to gradually detach ourselves from it. But it is not something that comes naturally in our culture. “We are a capitalist society, into accumulation, not detachment,” Fr Rohr says. “That’s why people are attracted to Buddhism. Buddhists have kept their vocabulary and their honesty about the need for detachment up to date, whereas we’re just people who have invested heavily in our own opinions and rightness, with disastrous results.”

The secret to detachment, he suggests, is to learn how to live more fully in “the now, not the past or the future”.

Some people do discover “presence”, he explains, “in love-making, in nature, in the presence of great music. As a spiritual teacher, that would be my whole desire, to say: ‘Don’t just look to the churchy moments.’ If you’re contemplative, you’re going to find these moments everywhere. And once that begins, life is no longer divided into the sacred and the secular: it’s one world.”

Perhaps the main threat to the rise in interest in authentic contemplation is that it becomes just another individualistic pop-spirituality technique, or a therapeutic tool alone.

This is something Fr Rohr is painfully aware of. “In some circles, contemplation is the new trendy thing; but when you draw close to some of these people, you find they have no love for the poor or the outsider. It’s just a new way to feel pious.”

It would be hard to mistake the unassuming figure now sitting on a stage in Westminster Cathedral Hall, in complete silence, for a trendy new thing. “This takes a lot of peeling away, and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m always there. I am on my better days. It changes the way you see reality. It changes the way you receive reality,” he says.

A bell sounds, tapped by the gentle Franciscan. Hundreds of pairs of eyes open, slowly, blinking at the light. This time, perhaps, they are opening to the possibility of something deeper.

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