'Eager to Love': Author Q&A with Father Richard Rohr, O.F.M.
Father Richard Rohr, O.F.M., is a New Mexico-based Franciscan friar who is also a popular Catholic author and speaker. He is the author of dozens of books and recorded talks. Father Rohr founded the New Jerusalem Community in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1971 and in 1986 the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he continues to serve as Founding Director. The Center houses the Rohr Institute, a Christian mysticism center where Father Rohr is Academic Dean of the Living School for Action and Contemplation.
Father Rohr’s latest book, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, was published on July 31 by Franciscan media. On July 30, I interviewed Father Rohr by telephone about his book and his work. The following transcript has been edited for content and length.
Your new book on Franciscan founder St. Francis of Assisi was published on the feast day of Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyola, recalling our current Jesuit pope who is named after Francis. Is there an intentional homage to Pope Francis in this timing?
I mention Pope Francis probably six or eight times in the book just because he is such a fitting and appropriate illustration for the very point I wanted to make. Obviously, we Franciscans are very happy that he chose the name Francis. Not for any tribal reasons, but I think just for the message that both St. Francis and Pope Francis has for the world. So yeah, I’m very glad about the timeliness of this book. You know, I’ve written a number of books, but this is the first one that’s fully on the Franciscan worldview.
What’s your impression of Pope Francis so far?
Well, I have to pinch myself every day to believe that I’ve lived to see such a pope! He’s just too good to be true. He’s got such a heart and such a head at the same time, and that combination is just winning over the world. So we’re quite happy. It gives the rest of us who are trying to preach the gospel just a validation from home base, from the center of our church. So yes, I’m happy every day that Francis is pope, and I pray that he has a long life.
Why another book on St. Francis when there is already so much on him?
Well, first of all it isn’t a biography on St. Francis, and I don’t really talk about him until one of the later chapters. I make that point at the beginning. My emphasis in the book is on what flowed from him, what was validated by him and then toward the end of the book I look at the source: Francis himself. Francis was not a theologian, much less a systematic theologian. But he was an intuitive genius, at least in terms of spiritual things and the gospel. I don’t think we need another book on St. Francis.
No offense to St. Ignatius, but Francis has the largest single bibliography in the Library of Congress of anybody who has ever been on the planet –even more than Jesus, which is sort of embarrassing! A librarian told me that every day, another monograph or study or biography is added to that list from some language in the world. But I think part of it is that he’s so attractive to non-Christians and to Protestants. He’s easy to write about, but that doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything written about him. As I say in the book, people try to make him into a hippie or a socialist. The conservatives claim him, the liberals claim him and probably each group claims him for its own purposes. What I say in the beginning of the book is that we need to get beyond what I call birdbath Franciscanism, this very soft romantic notion of Francis as a statue in the garden who has no social message whatsoever, but just a pious pretty message. So that was one of my major hopes in the book, to get beyond birdbath Franciscanism and to give the radical flow that came from his message.
Who are you writing for?
I would say interested but sincere seekers. I don’t care if they’re in the church or out of the church. I would like to believe that interested but sincere seekers, probably with some degree of education, will read it. Some of the chapters are quite heavy; the one on contemplation is really central. People who haven’t done a little homework in these fields will probably jump over some of these heavier chapters because it might be too much for the common reader. I worried about that a bit because I don’t want to write for the elite, but neither do I want to make Francis into a lightweight as he’s so often been portrayed. So I guess I’m shooting at the middle.
What does the title “Eager to Love” mean for you?
As I began writing it, I was wondering what I would title it, and then in reading Bonaventure—Bonaventure is the philosopher-theologian who takes Francis’ intuitive vision and makes a systematic theology and philosophy out of it—is where I found it. In my reading of Bonaventure, I don’t remember if he actually uses that phrase, but whatever phrase I was reading prompted that image. What Bonaventure saw in Francis and what he desired in himself was an eagerness to love. It wasn’t just an intellectual head trip that the gospel for both Francis and Bonaventure was immediately oriented toward love and service in the world. And love of the world and service toward the world. So the phrase came to me and I never changed it after that. The publishers liked it and it stuck.
If you could meet St. Francis, what would you say to him?
What would I say? You know, who am I to criticize a saint, but I think he still was unfortunately touched by the dualistic body-spirit thing that infected so much of the church in most of its history. It’s the one thing he repents of it at the end of his life. He said “if I had to do it again, I would treat my body (Brother Ass) better.” So he got it at the end, but I think we would have a more integrated anthropology, psychology and theology today that wouldn’t be quite as anti-body. So I’d ask him that, why did you do that? And I’m sure he’d say “that’s all that was available to me in the 13th century.” But I’m quite sure he’d do things differently today.
How would you describe your spirituality to someone who isn’t familiar with it?
You know, I’ve been asked that many times over the years, and I’m going to give two words which I hope don’t sound too sophisticated. It’s incarnational mysticism. Those are the two words that sum it all up. I believe the mystical understanding of Christianity is the only real one. You can’t understand John’s gospel unless you move to the mystical level. I think that’s why a lot of Christians’ eyes glaze over when they read John’s gospel. But incarnational mysticism is rooted in the physical, embodied, concrete particular world that’s right in front of us. And for me, that’s the heart of Franciscanism. It’s taking the incarnation absolutely seriously, and not just in the body of Jesus, but in all of creation. Brother Sun, Sister Moon, my black Labrador, cats, all human beings and all species.
Of course, that idea is only coming into its own in our time. I don’t think we’ve had a very strong incarnational spirituality, even though for me that’s the trump card of Christianity. That’s what differentiates us from the other religions of the world. So I think Franciscanism took that very seriously and refused to make it a head trip, although we ourselves have often ended up making it a head trip. But Christianity as a head trip is not where I am, I hope, and I don’t think it’s where Francis was either.
Your books have been extremely popular among Christian readers. Why is that?
Oh God, I wish I knew! It still surprises me. Again, I think it’s because I shoot at the middle. We were told in seminary that our job was to get the Gospel to the masses. That’s why I’m sometimes ashamed of talking a little over some people’s heads. But I do use psychology, anthropology, history and literature. So if someone isn’t interested in any one of those, he or she is often intrigued by the other. Readers will stay with me because I quote poets or theologians. I’m not an academic. But thank God, I have enough of an education that I know how to read the good Jesuits like Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan. I can read them and then hopefully translate what they’re saying in a way that the man or woman on the street can get the impact.
How are things going at the Center for Action and Contemplation right now?
A year ago we began our Living School. I turned 70 last year and that was my line in the sand to stop. I was on the road all over the world for 44 years and it was wonderful. God blessed me and taught me through so many cultures and other religions. But I had to draw an arbitrary line in the sand. I said, after I turn 70, I’m going to stay home. People said to me, what are you going to do when you’re home? I said I didn’t know how long God would give me health and some degree of mind, but why not just teach from here in Albuquerque? So we started what we call the Living School. Our first 180 students started last September. New cohorts of 180 students will join us every September. The Center is really a very alive and good place. I’m blessed to have a competent staff and a vision that seems to speak to people. So we’re doing well, by the grace of God.
How has your ministry evolved or changed in the digital age?
First, I’ve got to confess that I’m personally technophobic. I have trouble, representing my generation I’m sure, navigating the web. But others on my staff put up online my Sunday homilies and daily meditations, which have become the biggest thing of all. This is just a cliché, but it’s more than quadrupled the amount of people I can communicate with and reach. It allows me to stay at home and not feel guilty that I’m not serving or working somewhere. We’re like the Jesuits, we don’t retire and I don’t plan to retire myself, but I did stop all my intense traveling with my superior’s blessing. Now I only do two or three travel events a year. So my main thing with technology is the homilies, the daily meditations and the resource center itself that advertises my CDs and books. I feel very blessed to live in this time.
Do you have any hopes for the future?
My life has been 20 times better than I ever could have planned, hoped for or expected. I’m quite happy, and I don’t mean this merely as a pious add-on, but the only remaining goal I have in my life is to grow in a deeper sense of conscious love for God and the world. There are no strategic plans beyond that.
In your mind, what is the greatest need in the Catholic Church right now?
I don’t mean this simply in terms of the pedophilia scandal, but I think it’s to restore trust in the whole gospel, to restore trust that this whole thing is for real, that we as Catholics are for real. I don’t think much of the world takes Christianity seriously anymore and the Catholic Church in particular. Again, I’m not trying to blame that all on the pedophilia scandal. I think it’s a certain lack of depth, a certain lack of interiority and a certain lack of others seeing transformed people in the church. So much of Christianity has been complicit with racism, sexism and homophobia. By and large, Christians and Catholics aren’t really seen in these areas as largely different from anybody else. We seem to share the same prejudices and limitations. So people have started saying “I don’t think Christianity transforms or enlightens or changes people.”
Until we regain our trust that the church is really a transformational experience—not just a belonging system, not a belief system—inside of which people can really “cook,” then we’re in a lot of trouble. By and large, I’m not trying to be cynical, but I don’t think it is that right now. I think it’s a belonging system and a belief system, both of which are fine, but you can belong to something all your life and believe doctrines all your life without having a real encounter with the divine. If there isn’t a connection with the transcendent or with God, as we would say, I don’t think the church is very helpful! I know the church wants to do these things, but I think we really have to ask for these things. And I think this is what Pope Francis is asking. Are we doing that? He sure is.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.
Thanks for reading. He's a humble man and a pleasure to interview. And he clearly has an amazing gift for ministering to people who are looking for a deeper experience of the divine (not merely a "belonging system" or "belief system" as he says) in the Catholic faith. This new book looks like a real keeper.
Sean Salai, SJ