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Immortal Diamonds: An Interview with Richard Rohr (Part 1)

Richard Rohr

The "Tape Priest" discusses contemplation, psychology, sanctification, and more.

Franciscan Priest / Author
February 11, 2015

Some people get an early calling. Think about it: Joseph, David, John the Baptist, Bobby Fischer…

And Fr. Richard Rohr. Fr. Richard first sensed his call to ministry when he was seven years old, as he gathered his friends to teach them the Catechism. Later on in the 1970s, after he was ordained a priest of the Franciscan order, a nun suggested to him, “Why not record your sermons and distribute them so more people can receive the message?” This spiritually precocious young man eventually came to be internationally known as the “Tape Priest.” Now, younger readers of The Table might now be utterly confused. A “tape”? Yes. A long time ago, in a culture far far away, in order to listen to music or any recording, the sound had to be taped and physically replicated onto “tape cassettes.” Awesome Strange, isn’t it? Forgive me. I digress.

Fr. Richard represents what John Wilson (editor of Books & Culture) once called “a serene confidence.” Fr. Richard is comfortable in his own sandals. He is in-tune with what he calls his “true self.” And that calling from long ago has worked itself into a ministry of helping others get in touch with their true self. If this has the air of “self help,” well, that’s probably because it is self-help. But it’s a thick, robust self-help, grounded in the teachings of Jesus and a long-standing Christian spiritual tradition of simplicity and “death to self”—that is, dying to the false self—in order to make Christ the center.

Below, I ask Fr. Richard about the balance between action and contemplation, especially given the frenetic nature of modern-scientific life; the role of psychology in spiritual transformation; his recent book, Immortal Diamond, and the influence of Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins; and much more. Enjoy.

Evan Rosa: You started an organization called the Center for Action and Contemplation. What does action have to do with contemplation? How ought we to balance the two?

Richard Rohr: My studied conclusion is that people who go deep also go broad. If not, they have not gone deep. In their soul depths they realize and learn to draw upon the Indwelling Holy Spirit, and this “spring of water that wells up unto eternal life” (John 4:14). This direct contact with Spirit—within them and yet universally connecting—moves them into a worldview of inherent abundance—and away from our original worldview of scarcity where humans overly defend and protect their own energy, boundaries, and resources.

This is the emergence of the higher and broader contemplative mind which is no longer bound by mere egoic concerns. We almost all start with the scarcity model and have to be deeply converted to a world where there is an abundant availability of grace and life (John 10:10). This is the heart of what it means to be converted, as best I can read the experience and practice of people who really change.

Much mainline Christianity in all denominations became the easy comfort of tribal belonging and group-think trying to pass for a deep and true level of seeing. It won’t work anymore! Our individual and cultural failures are too obvious for all to see.

Admittedly, most Western and contemporary people start on the other side, defining themselves through action, involvement, roles, and relationships. Their challenge is to go to the real depths of these same things and then find their enduring contemplative meaning. When I say “contemplative” I mean to see things in a bigger screen (“With the eyes of God”?) and with greater depth than immediate reward, personal pay off, and disguised self-interest.

This will not happen unless there is at least the beginnings of the death of the small ego “the grain of wheat that wants to remain a single grain” (John 12:24). Until this happens most prayer is not true contemplative prayer, but merely asking God for things that “I” want or need. I am still the center of my universe and not God, who connects all things.

Some criticize psychology (especially it’s “pop” varietals) for being too centered on the self. In your thought and practice, what role does psychology play in understanding and transforming the human self?

Psychology is a modern word we use to describe the many and various avenues that humans have discovered toward honest and helpful self knowledge. This was already deeply valued and deemed necessary in the parables of Jesus, the simple stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, intellectuals from Socrates to Aquinas, and the mystical teachings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Without such honesty and discipline much that has passed for Christianity is little more than well disguised and glorified self interest—mostly “delayed gratification” (a future heaven) instead of the true Gospel that transforms people in God and here and now.

Much mainline Christianity in all denominations became the easy comfort of tribal belonging and group-think trying to pass for a deep and true level of seeing. It won’t work anymore! Our individual and cultural failures are too obvious for all to see.

Paul was not kidding when he said that his message delivered a “complete renewal of our minds” (Romans 12:2) and a “putting aside of your old self and its illusory desires” (Ephesians 4:22). Psychology is just another important gift that allows us to critique and clean the lens by which we are trying to see God, others, and ourselves. Without such lens cleaning, we are largely operating with 20/60 eyesight and insight. People do not see things as they really are, they see things as they are! And the resultant Christian community largely reflects the politics and the prejudices of the neighborhood. At this point, there is not much point in denying that.

You borrowed your recent title, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self, from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that is, ultimately, about the hope born of Christ’s resurrection. In what sense is the resurrection of the Christ related to our sanctification? What is the “immortal diamond” to which Hopkins and you refer?

Because my Franciscan Christology includes not just Jesus but the Cosmic Christ of Ephesians and Colossians and the Prologue to John’s Gospel, I see the resurrection of Christ as not just a physical raising up of the body of Jesus, but a promise and guarantee about God’s plan and design for all of creation. He is the stand-in for “everything” just as Paul is saying in both 1 Corinthians 15 and in Romans 8.

Jesus is what we are, what we are to be, and what we can now trust and allow in every stage of our creaturely journey: divine incarnation and divine election, ordinary life, rejection, betrayal, suffering, doubt, transfiguration, passion, death, and resurrection. In the mystery of the Incarnation God took on one human nature in Jesus—and all human nature by, hope, promise, and guarantee.

For me, the “Immortal Diamond” that Hopkins is describing is a multi-valent metaphor, as all mystery is, and as poets usually discover better than theologians, for some reason. That is exactly what I wanted to build upon in the book. The immortal diamond is simultaneously the human soul, the Divine Indwelling, the Eternal Presence that has made its home among humans (John 1:14), the temple that we are in our very human/spiritual bodies (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20, Ephesians 2:21-22), the human person is the new temple that replaces the old—the old temple had to go—so we could refocus our vision on the “temple that was his Body” (John 2:21) and that Paul extended to the entire species (1 Corinthians 12:4-30).

Basically, the mystery of Incarnation is expanded in space and time through creation itself, personally through Jesus, expanding through all people where the Spirit has descended (Acts 2), and through the ongoing same message in the community ritual of the Eucharist. They all shout divine habitation in the material world!

The term “true self” shows up a lot in conversations about psychology and spirituality these days. It’s an intriguing and suggestive term. What is the true self? What are the three or four most practical ways a person can come to know and embody that true self? 

Your true self is your objective, ontological identity as a creature of God, and as such, it cannot be added to or subtracted from. It eternally participates in the great “I AM” of God from the moment of its conception, which is why all life is holy prior to our distinctions and labels. Our true selves are not created or concocted by any means whatsoever, even religious formulas or decisions. It is only and always discovered—awakened to, realized, and “fallen into,” when our agenda gets out of the way—frankly, usually when our false self is failing us, which we often call “suffering.”

We are all Jacob at the foot of the ladder, thinking we can climb up and down like the angels, when “You were here all the time, and I never knew it” (Exodus 28:16). As we grow in the joy and confidence in this realization, we go on to shout with Jacob “How awe inspiring is this place! This is nothing less than the abode of God and the gate of heaven” (28:17).

How do you see the dangers of the false self playing out in modern society? 

Human societies, as they structure themselves, are almost entirely built around the needs and desires of the false self: unquestioned security rights, contrived status, money, power, control, sexual prowess, military might. To a certain degree these are even necessary to give us an initial ego structure and a starter identity. The trouble is that we become habituated and addicted to these things, refuse to see their dark side, and spend much of our life “seeking more and more of what does not work” to quote a common aphorism in the Recovery Movement. As I say in the book Falling Upward, these are merely the tasks of “the first half of life” and we make them the task of our whole life!

The false self is not the bad self or the evil self; it is just the partial, inadequate, and passing self. When we take the part for the whole, we can end up doing evil and no longer think of it as evil.

We live in an information age—an age dominated by a lust for facts and knowledge. But to what end? How ought we to find personal transformation in the context of information overload? 

Your well-stated question reveals much of the problem. We have confused correct information with spiritual transformation—and they are two utterly different levels of consciousness. Even the churches got trapped in this scenario after the “Enlightenment” of the 17th and 18th centuries. In our frantic attempts to protect ourselves from secularism and rationalism, we created our own forms of “rationalism.”

This took the form of highly doctrinal belief systems among Catholics and an increasingly fundamentalist approach to Scripture among many Protestants—and yes these are well-disguised forms of rational thinking themselves—far removed from the contemplative mind of the early church, the mystical mind of the medieval church, and the orthopraxy of the early Franciscans, many of the Anabaptists, and groups like the Amish, the Quakers, and the Mennonites. These groups emphasized correct practice over mere correct belief which asks almost nothing of the ego, and in fact often falsely inflates the false self and deceives people into thinking they are much more transformed than they actually are (This does not need much proof at this point in Christian history, it seems to me).

You’re engaged in something called the “Living School”? It sounds like “the school of life” or “the school of hard knocks.” How should Christians approach education in an age where online learning and technology tempt us toward gnosticism, away from an embodied spirituality? What is the point of education at the Living School, and how might we import some of that meaning into a broader cultural understanding about the goals of education?

Again, you state the question quite well, and is one of the reasons we have named our little school the Living School. They say that gnosticism is the only heresy that has been condemned or fought against in every single century, but always under a new name and format. Now one of those dangers is on-line, at a distance, individualistic, a funneling in of inflating information, without community, accountability, or responsibility for what you say you believe or understand. This will always be dangerous, because the ego will make information and knowledge into its “buckler and shield” instead of “the faithfulness of God” (Psalm 91:4c). This has been the downside of so much seminary training, I am afraid.

In the application process for the Living School, we accept people who have at least some record of involvement in their social milieu, and are concretely committed to being multipliers and servants of the world after they graduate from our two-year program. We are emphasizing real commitment to regular spiritual practice, and orthopraxy over mere theorizing and theology (although we give them lots of that too). We need to do better at organizing our students into accountability groups in their own parts of the world. We have just accepted our third cohort of 180 students from around the world, and they come on site four times during the two-year certificate program. The need and desire for such an “alternative orthodoxy” which is really orthopraxy, is revealed in the huge amount of students who apply each time, but the disappointment is that we can only accept so few per class at this time. But the result is many students that I would call “Cream of the Crop Christians” and other people of other faiths too.

Look for part two of our exclusive interview with Richard Rohr next week, where we discuss mysticism; busyness, boredom, and blindness; St. Francis and the integration of psychology and spiritual formation; and the troubles with seeing the church as a vehicle for transformation. Thanks for reading!