Last week I signed up for Richard Rohr’s daily meditations. I figured a brief daily exercise might lend a little discipline to my spiritual routine (or lack thereof) in these days of lingering pandemic, self-quarantine and isolation. I’ve read his stuff before, and it liked it. So I haven’t been disappointed.
Fr. Richard Rohr OFM, to give his full name, is the founder and CEO of the Center for Action and Contemplation, a Franciscan retreat and conference center in Albuquerque. While he teaches a Franciscan spirituality, he draws on all faith traditions, and he’s radically inclusive — a perfect setup for spiritual mutts like me. Especially one who grew up in an Episcopal parish named for St. Francis, as I did back in Tennessee.
And for this spiritual mutt, the timing couldn’t have been better. Everything from Afghanistan to the latest Covid-19 metrics from my county health department has been particularly dispiriting lately, and this year’s meditations build on the theme A Time of Unveiling. A good word for it! Things have been pretty apocalyptic for a couple of years now, and an apocalypse (apokaluptein in New Testament Greek) is a revelation, an uncovering, an unveiling as well as the modern meaning of — well, look around you and you get my drift. In an introduction written at the beginning of the year, Rohr explains:
We are living through a period of global disorder. People around the world are experiencing tremendous suffering, uncertainty, and disruption to their lives. Reality is being unveiled— systems of evil and injustice are being seen in greater clarity, and our collective “normal” has been radically upended. Walking through this chaos and despair can be difficult; but, ultimately, it is when everything seems adrift that the spiritual journey becomes both an anchor and a sail. God uses tragedy, suffering, pain—and even death to guide us into greater Love.
In an italicized pull quote at the top of the webpage, he puts it more succinctly:
I believe the Gospel is not about any idealism. It’s not about an ideal world where everybody loves everybody. It’s not idealism, it’s utter realism. The tragic sense of life, the absurd sense of everything, that’s the Gospel.
Welp, that sense of global disorder sure hasn’t gotten any less tragic and absurd lately.
By coincidence, I happened to read Monday’s meditation at almost precisely the same time the last US Air Force transport lifted off from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, thereby bringing overt American military involvement in Afghanistan to its inevitable — and, well, apocalyptic — conclusion. In the same news cycle, right-wing personalities like TV commentator Tucker Carlson and a firebrand Republican congressman from North Carolina hinted at armed insurrection closer to home. And, of course, the Illinois Public Health Department’s Covid metrics still have us under “high transmission” protocols in Sangamon County.
Rohr’s meditation wasn’t about geopolitics, of course. (Although I’m sure Franciscan spirituality has something to say about the subject — after all St. Francis famously met with Egyptian Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil during the Crusades and negotiated, if not peace, at least a sense of mutual respect with the 13th-century Muslim leader.) Nor was it about the threat of domestic terrorism. It’s entirely personal and spiritual, headlined “Absolute Grace and Acceptance.” Still, it was welcome reading at a time when everything out there looks tragic and dispiriting and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.
Rohr begins Monday’s meditation by recalling his days as a 19-year-old Franciscan novice in Cincinnati, when “I had calluses on my knees because we knelt so much,” but he still felt unworthy. “I didn’t have the usual opposition toward authority figures, but I was still going crazy with trying to be perfect.” But over time, he realized “it was my definition of perfection, not God’s” he was battling with. “[S]o I learned not to take it too seriously.” He adds:
Suddenly, I knew that God’s love did not depend on me following all these laws and mandates or being worthy. I knew I wasn’t worthy, and yet here I was experiencing absolute grace and absolute acceptance. The whole system I’d grown up with had implied that God will love us if we change. That day I realized God’s love enables and energizes us to change.
Something like this realization, of course, is what makes 12-step recovery groups work.
Something like it also got the Lutheran churches rolling in the 1520s. In fact, Fr. Rohr mentions Luther when he recalls his feeling of “absolute grace and absolute acceptance” after he had that spiritual awakening at the Franciscan novitiate house in Cincinnati:
I’d realized, “My God, this is inside of what everybody is living, and they don’t see it!” Now once again, I somehow knew that I was good, God is good, life is good. And I didn’t have to achieve that goodness by any performance whatsoever. At that point, I was—like a good Lutheran—saved by grace. Grace was everything!
Of course Rohr was a novice in a Catholic order, and he’d been reading St. Thérèse of Lisieux just before that awakening, but reading this kind of thing is like catnip for a spiritual mutt like me. (I know, I know, I’m mixing metaphors, but I trust Sister Cat and Brother Dog will forgive me — there’s something inclusive about Franciscan spirituality I’m deeply receptive to.) I’ve had my own bouts with what Luther called Anfechtung, perhaps best translated from his German as doubts, despair, an inability to believe in God’s grace (or some combination of the three), and Monday’s meditation reminds me there’s a way out of it.
All of which prompted me to look up the Fransiscan approach to spirituality.
I don’t think I realized until quite recently there was such a thing as Franciscan spirituality, with its own Wikipedia directory, five subcategories and 23 webpages listed (as of today) — even a separate Wikipedia page on Franciscan spirituality in Protestantism. I’d read Rohr’s Universal Christ before, and I’ve checked out Sr. Ilia Delio OSF, who was recommended to me by my spiritual director, a Dominican sister who got me started on my spiritual journey before she passed away in 2020. Delio, who spoke at the motherhouse in Springfield, has a concept of “Christogenesis” — which she defines as a cosmic, Christ-centered evolutionary process that moves toward resurrection and new life — that attempts to reconcile science and religion, a conflict I’ve long had an interest in. But it’s pretty abstract for me, and I haven’t quite succeeded in bringing it down to earth. Interesting concept, sure, but what does it have to do with my life?
Rohr’s meditations go a long way toward answering that question.
There’s an old saying down South that if you want to be understood, you’ve got to put the hay (or oats, I’ve heard it both ways) down where the horses can reach it, a quote I’ve seen attributed to Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution during the Civil Rights struggle, and to the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. (See? I told you I’m a spiritual mutt.) Well, Rohr gets the hay down where this horse can reach it.
Franciscan Spirituality 101
I got my clearest introduction to it in a profile of Rohr by Eliza Griswold in the New Yorker. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author and fellow of the Berggruen Institute think tank at Harvard Divinity School, she says:
Rohr came to his thinking about the Universal Christ through early Franciscan teachings. In the thirteenth century, Francis rebelled against a Catholic Church that had become fixated on its own pomp and hierarchy; he renounced worldly goods, lived in a cave, and found God in nature, revealed to him in figures such as Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Fire, and Sister Water.
Some of this I already knew from growing up in St. Francis parish back in Tennessee. Our little town of Norris was the headquarters for the Tennessee Valley Authority’s forestry, fisheries and wildlife division, and the TVA foresters who helped organize the congregation thought it appropriate to name it after a saint who preached to the birds (at least according to legend) and honored all of God’s creation. Francis was probably the only Catholic saint I learned about in those pre-ecumenical days.
Also, of course, I’ve been reading Rohr’s Universal Christ in the last two or three years. But I didn’t realize his main idea traced back to medieval Franciscan theologians like St. Bonaventure and Duns Scotus. As Griswold explains it:
For [Rohr], the Cosmic Christ is the spirit that is embedded in—and makes up—everything in the universe, and Jesus is the embodied version of that spirit that we can fall in love with and relate to. […] He uses many of the same verses as the early Franciscans to support his claims. “Christ’s much larger, universe-spanning role was described quite clearly in—and always in the first chapters of—John’s Gospel, Colossians, Ephesians, Hebrews, and 1 John, and shortly thereafter in the writings of the early Eastern fathers,” he writes.
We need both, says Rohr. A webpage on Franciscan spirituality maintained by the Franciscan Action Network, says he “names the Franciscan way an ‘alternative orthodoxy’ with its different set of emphases while not trying to fight about doctrines.” This, according to the webpage, has implications for everyday life:
Broadly, the Franciscan way is to live knowing that all of creation is the place to encounter God. Concrete manifestations involve living more simply on the earth and with other people in order truly experience and savor God’s gift of life.
The things of this world are God-like just as they are and reveals God to us in their specificity. Therefore, to deepen our relationship to God we need regular, attentive contact with the world in its simple, humble state. We can forget about a search for things and people that are worthy of love or that will make us happy. The world is full of signs of God’s presence, with God telling us what we need to hear through the bits and pieces we encounter in a day. In an ongoing way we are converted to the gospel through God’s daily work inside and outside of us.
Closely paraphrasing Rohr in her profile for the New Yorker, Griswold says “the spirit of Christ” — which can be defined “essentially, [as] God’s love for the world” — is not the same thing as the historical Jesus. Instead, it “has existed since the beginning of time, suffuses everything in creation, and has been present in all cultures and civilizations.”
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. All things were created by God, and when God created them, God saw they were good. Where have I heard that before? Where haven’t I? And “God,” as Ethel Waters, the gospel singer and TV sitcom star who was saved by Billy Graham and toured with his Crusades famously said, “don’t make no junk.” (Did I mention I’m a spiritual mutt? I try to take my spirituality wherever I find it.) The anonymous authors of the Franciscan Action Network webpage put it like this:
Francis and the Franciscans honored the world around them and were ignited in praising God from their experiences. They did not split the world into that which is profane and that which is holy, but could see God in the dirt and the worms, in the suffering of life, and in the leper. The Franciscan way of seeing moves us away from dividing up the world in the good and the bad which, as Sr. Ilia Delio says, is “always capable of identifying God’s absence, but rarely consistent in affirming God’s presence in everything that is.” Francis was able to see God imbedded in a marvelously interconnected world with God as the source of each and every thing. He saw the world in universal kinship, with the moon, the water, and the birds as his sisters and the sun and the wolf as his brothers.
Seeing God in the dirt and the worms. Brother Cockroach and Sister Mosquito? The trolls who pump out political vitriol are beloved children of God, even if I’m tempted to lump them with the obnoxious insects at the moment. My father, who was a TVA forester, used to tell me copperheads and rattlesnakes had their place in God’s plan — he called it forest ecology except on Sunday — and I may as well get used to the idea. It was preached at St. Francis Episcopal Church when I was a kid, and something like it is proclaimed in the Lutheran church I attend now. And it’s part and parcel of God’s grace as Martin Luther proclaimed it and Fr. Rohr discovered it on his knees in the Franciscan center in Cincinnati.
So none of this is entirely new to me, but it gives me a sharper — and I think more constructive — focus. And there’s more rigor to it than I would have expected. Griswold, who has her own gift for getting the hay down where the horses can reach it, put it like this:
Many progressive schools of Christianity teach that non-Christians can go to Heaven, but the idea of the Universal Christ allows Rohr to make a robust argument based on a version of orthodoxy, rather than on a vague sense of egalitarianism. His followers appreciate his scriptural rigor. “He’s not coming in and saying, ‘I saw a daisy, now everybody love each other,’ ” Tim Shriver, a longtime student of Rohr’s and the chairman of the Special Olympics, told me. “He’s trying to create a new ur-understanding of religion that isn’t bound by separation, superiority, and fighting.”
To all of which this spiritual mutt says amen.
“Franciscan Spirituality,” Franciscan Action Network, Washington, D.C. https://franciscanaction.org/about/franciscan-spirituality/.
Eliza Griswold, “Richard Rohr Orders the Universe,” New Yorker, Feb. 2, 2020 https://www.newyorker.com/news/on-religion/richard-rohr-reorders-the-universe.
Fr. Richard Rohr OFM, “Absolute Grace and Acceptance,” Living Inside God’s Greatness and Glory, Center for Action and Contemplation, Albuquerque, Aug. 30, 2021 https://cac.org/absolute-grace-and-acceptance-2021-08-30/.
Sr. Marilyn Jean Runkel OP, “Energizing, Enriching Assembly,” Just Words, Fall 2012, Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois https://issuu.com/springfieldop/docs/jwvol12no3.
Dennis Sadowski, “St. Francis meeting with famed sultan 800 years ago set tone for Catholic-Muslim relations,” Catholic News Service, Nov. 8, 2019 https://grandinmedia.ca/st-francis-meeting-with-famed-sultan-800-years-ago-set-tone-for-catholic-muslim-relations/.
Keith Douglass Warner OFM, “The Retrieval of a Distinctly Franciscan Spirituality and Intellectual Tradition,” St. Francis and the Americas, Arizona State University, Tempe https://stfrancis.clas.asu.edu/article/retrieval-distinctly-franciscan-spirituality-and-intellectual-tradition.