Understanding Radical Grace with Richard Rohr
by Solomon Eagle


In another of this month’s articles Agenda for Prophets has reflected on the current state of the Church in Britain and concluded that beyond a tiny isolated fringe there is no prophetic, radical or liberationist tendency worthy of note. AfP continues to reject the criticism that this is simply a bleak and dispiriting perspective. We call instead for deeper honesty and discussion on the reasons for the spiritual malaise infecting the Church at all levels and in all regions of the advanced capitalist world.
AfP insists this is not a hopeless vision but an honest and optimistic perspective: as long as there are Christian men and women who continue to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness opposing the dominant culture the Church of Christ will continue to endure.
AfP will endeavour to support and give witness to those who offer genuine prophetic ministry. Amongst the general disorientation, and in the absence of any strong leadership, it is essential that all Christians who live at this critical moment in history have a clear idea from where our salvation will come.
Richard Rohr - a source of hope
Richard Rohr may be one such source of hope. He is a Franciscan of the New Mexico Province and is widely known throughout the world today as the leading light of the Centre for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Next year will be the Centre’s twentieth anniversary year.
Rohr was born in 1943 in Kansas and entered the Franciscan order in 1961. He now lives in a hermitage behind the centre dividing his time between local responsibilities and preaching and teaching the gospel throughout the world. The themes of his teaching and proclamation range between eco-spirituality and liberation theology.
Over the course of the weekend of 10/11th September the Irenaeus Project for Spirituality and Growth, based in Merseyside, England, hosted a conference entitled “Come and See” at which Rohr was the main facilitator and preacher. Upward of 700 people attended this event, many of whom had travelled from all parts of the country.
The venue for the event was the impressive Jesuit church of St. Francis Xavier, Everton, on Merseyside. This inspiring neogothic building provided a somewhat incongruous setting for the inane amplified musical and amateur-dramatic antics that proceeded Rohr’s presentations. The intention of the organisers was that the liturgy of dance and song preceding each talk would be inclusive and not too traditional in form. In fact it was alienating and just another example of the noisy, empty choreography that many of the middle class layers that made up most of the numbers seem to prefer. Nothing could be more emblematic of its failure to communicate than the mime artist at the centre of this weird fandango.
All this notwithstanding Rohr is an impressive speaker and his reflections on the Spirituality of Transformation over the course of the weekend were an inspiring antidote to all of this.
Visitors to the event who had heard Rohr before, either in person or through taped recordings of previous presentations, would have been familiar with the themes he placed at the centre of this weekend. In many respects the same stock phrases and illustrations reoccur but one never tires of them just as one can listen to the gospel parables time and again and rediscover the world afresh. Rohr’s offerings always seem to be grounded in a deep respect for Sacred Scripture and, it would appear, a deep love - albeit from a critical distance - for the Church.
Radical Grace
Twenty years ago Rohr claims to have coined the phrase ‘Radical Grace’. Today it hardly seems a novel concept but when one honestly reflects on the history of our tradition, which essentially holds that salvation comes to us only through the Grace of God as mediated through the circumstances of our lives and par excellence through the sacraments, the salience of Rohr’s central theme is striking. In my view throughout the history of the Church Christian life has not always been lived or experienced primarily as a life of grace.
By way of illustration Rohr invited the audience to reflect on the story of the Gerasene Demoniac. (Mk: 5, 1-20.)
It’s a story which has at its heart lessons about what it means to be worthy, and what it means to be sinful.
The episode shows how Jesus shattered the accepted notions about punishment and reward on which so much of the corrupted Judaism was based. Fixations about who is saved and who is not are the ‘dark side’ of most religions, past and present. The story of Christ’s encounter with the demoniac is a story of transformation in which we see Radical Grace in action; moreover we see here how the Gospel is more about mystical experience rather than morality, in that it always heals.
Rohr made an appeal that our religion needs to be dealing with the great mysteries of grace, journey and transformation instead of being stuck within systems of ‘sin management’ a means by which the clergy maintain the faithful with a sense of unworthiness. Referring to the ‘sick systems of meritocracy’ that sometimes operate within the Church and wider society, and with more than one eye on American foreign policy, he showed how easy it is to frame the world in terms of ‘good guys and bad guys.’ If we remain on this level, Rohr warns us, ‘we are all going to lose’.
Jesus’ primary interest is never with sin. Instead his starting point is with human suffering at the place where ‘radical grace’ is given and received and this fundamentally is within “the mysteries of blood”. Rohr at this point referred to the ‘central initiating mysteries of birth and death’ and the mystical potential which moments of suffering can offer.
According to Rohr all great religion is about ‘what you do with your pain….if you do not deal with your pain you will always transmit it.’
The core idea and central thread running through the whole of the weekend was transformation: transformation of human suffering into a reality that somehow reflects the glory of God, echoing Irenaeus’ famous dictum: “The glory of God is man fully alive.”
In one of many references to Thomas Merton, another roving contemplative who was acutely aware of the need to forge a link between prayer and praxis, Rohr reminded us, ‘at the centre of our being is a point of pure nothingness…….absolute poverty……the glory of God….contemplation is essentially coming to an awareness of what is already there.’
The need for a different consciousness
It is often said that institutional religion has come to an impasse. Reflecting on this point Rohr quoted Albert Einstein’s famous saying: “No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created the problem in the first place.” Viewed through this paradigm the development of a new consciousness must be about learning the mistakes, uncovering this reality and, most importantly of all, understanding our true selves. This involves learning how to pray and live a life of faith which in other words is ‘knowing at a deeper level’. For Rohr the true self is the contemplative self governed by a mind that sees everything as a gift.
Rohr was insistent that we need to move beyond simply saying prayers to being prayer. The widespread understanding of prayer as something functional and practical is the outcome of a ‘calculating and controlling mind’. As an alternative to this, Rohr argued, we need a complete change of consciousness; nurturing contemplative minds.
We need to be like Jesus going out into the desert, willing to ‘de -stimulate’ himself, prepared to reject everything that is not the authentic self and stripping everything down to basics so that the Father could pray through Him with Him and in Him. ‘The true self is who you are in God and who God is in you’- the contemplative self.
Rohr offered an interesting aside on the prevalence of anxiety and the apparent rise in obsessive-compulsive states - the burden perhaps of living in a secular society which prizes the calculating mind over the contemplative. Modern life is rife with a measuring tendency; this is the opposite of living with faith in Jesus, who pointed out the futility of ‘worrying about so many things’.
Again Rohr pointed to the irony of how so often at the heart of Church governance, lay and clerical attitudes are driven by anger and the need to control, clearly not the mind of faith. As a result, he suggested, the Church has become for so many people just another place to hide, impotent and unable to respond to society’s problems.
So the logical mind is not the mind that matters. Declaring his Franciscan spirit Rohr appealed for an alternative vision; instead of the world view of entitlement where everyone’s favourite phrase is a variation of “I have a right to...”, Christians could have a world view of abundance, where living the life of Radical Grace leads one to say; “Everything I need is already here.”
Instead of a disabling awareness of incompleteness - an attitude from which all the capital sins ultimately flow - we need to approach the world with an attitude of sufficiency, instructing our restless heart that ‘there is nothing outside of myself that can offer substantial happiness’. It is ultimately self-defeating to live life believing that completeness comes only through the accumulation of more wealth or possessions. The need for acceptance, stillness and tranquillity within the present moment is crucial otherwise ‘we become infatuated with a world of forms and fail to experience the world of substance.’
Authentic proclamation
The preacher’s role within the Church is always a vulnerable one. Where the dominant consciousness is governed by a judging mind the end result will be control, possibly conformity, but certainly not truth. The hallmark of a genuine spirituality is that it is never judgemental. So the difference between the exercise of a critical perspective and a judgemental mind is the vitality of the spiritual life behind the preacher’s voice.
If the proclamation of God’s Kingdom is authentic no one ought to be left feeling blamed, shamed or even guilty as a result. Genuinely spiritual people are attractive; they will always gather crowds around them (Mk.5, 21.), whether they like it or not! Those looking for a way out of a spiritual impasse will hear of a way out. The authentic proclamation of the Gospel offer words which generate enthusiasm and inspire deeper passion. By contrast, when the words of the preacher flow simply from the ego the end result is ultimately contraction. According to Rohr ‘the soul defines itself by expansion.’ Similarly if the words of the preacher are not of the gospel they will not heal, whereas the Gospel always heals.
I observed a stark contrast between the enthusiasm at the ‘come and see’ weekend and the general level of lethargy in parish life. Not all preachers are as blessed as Rohr, indeed it would be unfair to make such a comparison. Rohr is different in so much as he reminds us of a tradition which prizes contemplation over and above empty busy-ness. He offers an image of mature or ‘Adult Christianity’ - another of his recurring themes - which obviously appeals to baptised and non-baptised alike as being workable and essentially something that is liberationist.
In promoting Adult Christianity Rohr is keeping alive the genuine heart of our Catholic Tradition. Most people today have no use and no time for the diversions and accretions that have become so much part of life within the Church. After all, hardly anything that currently occupies the time of the army of lay functionaries and the ‘busy’ priests of parish life is actually salvific. So if the Church is going to find a way out of its current impasse we need mature spiritual leaders who are above all contemplatives in action.
Readers can gather more information about Richard Rohr, his other writings and the wide range of resources available from the Centre for Action and Contemplation by visiting his website at: http://www.cacradicalgrace.org/aboutus/cac.html (See our links page).