The Common Good
July 2010

Interview With Richard Rohr

by Jeannie Choi | July 2010

Richard Rohr is founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province.

Richard Rohr is founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province. He has led men's retreats with a focus on inner-healing from anger and rage. In the July 2010 issue of Sojourners magazine, Fr. Rohr published the article, Boys Don't Cry on why developing an inner life is essential to healing men from the explosive violence bottled up within. Below, he speaks with assistant editor Jeannie Choi.

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Jeannie: You have worked a lot with men and the spiritual development of men. Share with me first how this issue became a passion for you.

Richard: You know, I first got involved in men’s work when I was rather young. I was the pastor of a lay community in Cincinnati approximately the time that Sojourners started, which is how Jim and I became close personal friends. We were very much involved in similar things. I realized shortly into it that so many of the young people [I'd worked with] had what I called “father wounds.” They either had alcoholic fathers, absent fathers, abusive fathers, or emotionally unavailable fathers was the most common. And it just got me already as a young priest involved in this issue of [asking] what is this emptiness, this anger, this longing that I found in so many of the young boys? And, of course, as a priest, cause we have the title "Father," we almost ask for it, that people project onto us a lot of their need for a father, both good and bad. So the complexity of all of that sort of drove me into the work.

Jeannie: As far as your own relationship with your father, how has that influenced the work that you do with the men that you work with?

Richard: You know, for me, it was almost coming from the opposite side. I had a very humble, loving, uneducated German farm father, and I think because he was so dear with us kids, so understanding and patient, I think the shock of recognition that so many people didn’t have that was in many ways what catapulted me into the work.

Jeannie: Understanding that we can also see God as mother, how has the context of God as father been a help to you in the work that you’ve been doing?

Richard: Well, again, because I had a loving father, I probably never experienced any conflict. It was only theologically as I began my studies that I recognized that clearly God is beyond gender. So it was a wonderful theological recognition and an important one for me that I hope I’ve incorporated into my work. But it wasn’t a personal need. I was comfortable with calling God “He” simply because I had the psychological foundation for accessing love behind that title, behind that understanding. But I think that it’s even increased as I could recognize God as mother. God is just as much feminine. I had a loving mother too. But it was, for me, more almost an abstract idea. I didn’t feel the passion that a lot of people understandably and necessarily feel.

Jeannie: Have you found that for men who have had those fractured relationships with their fathers, it was almost easier for them to think about God as mother?

Richard: Yes, that’s exactly right. In the Catholic world, where I was primarily involved, of course that got resolved by our quasi-deification of Mary. And I always said maybe it was bad theology, but it was brilliant psychology. When you look at the dominance of Notre Dame, the love of Mary in almost every European country, you know that that, psychologically, had to come from this recognition of the feminine mediating divine love. And for many people in history, it was clearly the preferred way because women raised most people, not men, so their first experience of unconditional love, of touch, of caring, of nurturing very often came from a woman -- that got easily transferred to Mary. I always say to my Protestant friends, I wonder how they dealt with that. One time, a Protestant minister said, “We made Jesus blonde haired and blue eyed and very cute. We made Jesus somehow a much more feminine figure.” And there’s probably truth to that.

Jeannie: And yet, there are a lot of folks more on the evangelical side who are actually working against that “feminine” image of Christ. And there are books and a lot of people saying that Jesus wasn’t this feminine figure but a rogue carpenter. Do you think that that is helpful? What is your reaction to those kinds of teachings in the church?

Richard: Well, it’s probably something they've got to go through, and I understand what they’re trying to say in a way. But invariably, if you work with such people almost on the level of spiritual direction, you see that they are people who prefer a world view of order and even punitiveness. And for some reason, there’s a feeling that the male psyche is going to give that to them. And if that’s your view of religion, which it is for many people, if they’ve never come to the mystical level, religion is for social order and to maintain social order.

You’ll find that such people will often, almost always, prefer a male God. A male image of God gives them this sense of security, safety, order, no nonsense. So that’s where their psyche is at. Probably it’s something that they've got to go through. Not that there isn’t a need for order in the world, but the mystical level seems to be the mature level of religion, and there the question is not order but union – divine union. And so, without some integration of the feminine, usually you never get to the mystical level.

Jeannie: Now one of your main arguments or points in the piece that you have written for the July issue of Sojourners is that much male anger is rooted in male sadness. And I think a lot of people listening to this interview or reading your article will resonate with that. How do you work through that when you do the workshops with men? Where do you begin, and what are the steps toward working through the inner sadness?

Richard: Well, for 15 years now, I’ve been giving these male rites of passage, starting here in Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. Now they’ve moved into eight countries and 13 regions in the United States. In these practical five-day events, many men admitted that they think of themselves as angry people. And they couldn’t find anything very often that in particular they were angry about. And the more safety they felt to go to a deeper level you would find again and again that these were wounded men who had found no place to grieve over their sadness. But for some reason, that sadness transmutes into anger. It’s like an aimless dissatisfaction.

So in my study of male initiation worldwide, I found that what we would now know to call “grief work” was an essential part. I was able to accompany some of the [men] in Kenya in their initiation rites. They took me to what they called the Cave of Grief. And they said, “Here we had to learn to feel our sadness, not just our personal sadness but sadness for the world, the suffering of the world.” How profound. So even that, the primacy of grief work in male initiation, told me this is something central, this is something important.

And then I did a conference with Robert Bly in Minnesota last year, and he told me personally he is convinced that grief is the single emotion that the male cannot control, fix, understand. He doesn’t have anybody to blame – he wants to, of course. And so he thinks grief work is very often the privileged doorway that opens up the inner life, opens up the emotional life of the soul, really, for the male. I think he might be right. But until you get them to recognize it’s grief and not anger, the soul doesn’t open up. As long as it’s anger, you just keep projecting it outward toward other people.

I mean, look at our politics today – angry men in Washington. Just the level of civil discourse just makes you want to cry. And they are the ones who should cry, but they don’t know how to cry, our politicians. They just know how to be angry. So we see that this has had huge social effects. And disasters, political effects, I think, are the angry men who are running so much of the world. It’s very, indeed, sad.

Jeannie: Yes. Just listening to you say that reminds me of when Hillary Clinton was towards the end of her primary race and there was a moment during an interview where she sort of got choked up, and there was this huge media fervor around whether this was emotional pandering or whether it was some sort of shrewd political move, and whether or not women can handle the difficulties of a race. And so even that shows how these standards in Washington of stoicism are being applied to our female politicians.

Ricahrd: Well, you know, I go back to – you were probably not born yet – but Muskie, Senator Muskie, this was back to the '70s or '60s – I can’t know when – when he cried over the death of his wife. They said that he lost the possibility of election on that day. Doesn't that make the point? That we don’t want any president who weeps, even if it shows his capacity to bond with his own wife. How sad.

Jeannie: You also touched on the issue of success and worldly success as also being a driving force for male loneliness and anger and sorrow, and I actually relate to that as well, as the child of Korean-American immigrants, where, in our culture, worldly success and accolades are sort of top priority in our development as second-generation immigrants. And so, I wondered if I could ask you about how we can move from seeking out worldly success to seeking out a life of meaning. How does that transition happen internally?

Richard: That’s a good choice of words, meaning as opposed to success. When you haven’t found inner meaning, you will always substitute outer performance. It’s the only way to fill that void, that sense of significance -- that I am significant. So almost the degree of outer performance can, in many cases, mirror the lack of inner alignment.

Not always, cause the integration point is the opposite. I know many people who are very productive externally and in fact it comes from their great discovery of inner meaning. I was just teaching in South Africa a couple of weeks ago and got to spend some time with Desmond Tutu. And talk about a man who is extremely productive, even in his old age. But a man who clearly has a rich inner life. So I don’t want to say that just being productive is always running from lack of inner meaning, but in many of our people in the secular society and the society of superficial religion, I’m afraid that is the case.

How do you make the move? You know, the move doesn’t even make sense to people until they’ve begun to discover inner meaning. You can only describe it once you’re on the other side. Before that, they just think you’re talking gobbledygook or pious religious language. I’m a Franciscan, and so our whole ethos, our whole world view, is very much one of presence and simplicity in this world, not performance. And I know often when I’ve tried to talk in this direction the typical American business type just sort of rolls his eyes. He thinks I’m living in Never Never Land. And it’s not even his fault -- he’s still in the first half of life spiritually, and he really doesn’t know what you’re talking about.

So you see how this gets back to grief work. There has to be a womp on the side of the head that defeats and undercuts this game of performance. It has to fall apart. Now unfortunately, that very often does not happen until what I call the second half of life, when there’s been enough death in the family and you start experiencing your own physical deterioration. Which is why in mythology so often, you find the old man is described as mellow or wise or even sweet. But it takes him a long time to get there, I’m afraid.

Jeannie: My last question for you, Richard. Without making the assumption that you are a perfect person, I wanted to ask you about your own spiritual practices to keep yourself grounded in a place of emotional openness and a place where you’re able to grieve and get rid of your own personal anger. How do you accomplish that in your own spiritual life?

Richard: Well, thank you for making it personal. You know, I just came back to my little house here from the 20-minute sit together with our staff and our work interns. We have a 20-minute contemplative sit each morning, and then this little house I come back to is my little hermitage. I live here alone, and I’ve lived here 10 years now, thanks to the trust of my own Franciscan superiors. And I said, If I’m going to continue to be any kind of spiritual teacher, I’ve got to go deeper myself. And so for me, [I am] preserving long periods of solitude, silence, prayer, journaling, study, writing. I don’t turn on music or the TV unless I really need to. I just need – I’m 67 now, so I’m in the last years of my life – and I need the process – well, the first half of my life, anyway – and I’m not even doing it consciously, it’s just sort of an unconscious including, surrendering, integrating, forgiving, accepting, loving – that I find goes on when I can allow good periods of solitude and silence.

Now that’s very much a part of our own Franciscan tradition, where St. Francis himself, you know, lived in the caves and the woods and wandering along the roads, so we were encouraged from an earlier year to go inside, so I have the spiritual encouragement in that direction. But for me, it’s necessary for my job. If I don’t do this, I find that I don’t have anything to write, I don’t have anything to say.

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