The Heart of the Gospel is Love (and Richard Rohr is an Expert Guide)

The Heart of the Gospel is Love (and Richard Rohr is an Expert Guide) April 9, 2018

I have spent the last several days simply devouring Richard Rohr’s newest book, Essential Teachings on Love. It’s the latest volume of Orbis Books’s wonderful “Modern Spiritual Masters” series. As a compendium of writings spanning pretty much the entirety of Rohr’s career, this book is an excellent introduction to the key contours of his ideas and teaching. But it’s not just a book for people who are new to Richard. Since it is arranged chronologically, with ample commentary provided by the editors and many excerpts from Rohr’s daily email or transcripts from his audiobooks, this book has plenty of material to delight even the most dedicated student of this popular Franciscan author/speaker.

Essential Teachings on Love was compiled by Joelle Chase and Judy Traeger, who are the editors of Richard’s daily email. This puts them in a unique position to know the depth and breadth of his writings — knowledge which served them well as they compiled this collection.

As the title suggests, this anthology is organized around a central idea: that Rohr’s core message is a ringing proclamation of God’s love (and our invitation to respond/participate in that love). But you get a sense of the breadth and depth of Rohr’s work, since this anthology touches on most of the topics that he has become known for: including the Enneagram, men’s spirituality, Franciscan wisdom, and the importance of grounding both theology and social action in a deeply contemplative understanding of life — what Rohr describes as an “alternative orthodoxy.”

The book does not shy away from the fact that Rohr is controversial in some corners of the Catholic world, but it demonstrates how much he loves his identity both as a Catholic and Franciscan priest, his clear understanding that even traditional religion has its uses, and his desire simply to see the Church be more faithful to the Gospel — the simple and frankly quite revolutionary teachings of Jesus.

For readers of my blog — rejoice, there is much wisdom about contemplative practice in this book. Look at this earthy excerpt, for example:

Contemplation nips negativity, hatred, and violence in the bud. It begins by retraining your initial thoughts, because if you let the mind operate in a paranoid, angry, and resentful way, you aren’t going to get very far. You’re not going to see clearly. At the same time, if you spend your time only in contemplation without moving toward positive engagement, you end up with what many call spiritual constipation. I am afraid it is quite common.

What I found especially poignant was the discussion of the foundation of Rohr’s online teaching program, the Living School. It grew out of a desire that Rohr and other contemplative leaders, like Thomas Keating, had to see contemplation be taught in seminaries. Rohr laments, “As of now, not a single denominational seminary has been able to [incorporate contemplation into their curriculum]… Contemplative epistemology and theology are seen as superficial add-ons rather than the core of the matter.” Which might help to explain, at least in part, why so many churches are losing members so rapidly!

Some of the most moving writing in Essential Teachings on Love comes toward the end, when Richard speaks joyfully of his bond with his dog Venus — but then vulnerably shares his grief when Venus develops a tumor and must be euthanized. Indeed, “vulnerability” is a touchstone of much of the writing collected here, as Rohr speaks to the need of Christians, and men in particular, to acknowledge our own roundedness — but also how authentically he speaks of his own imperfection, ego struggle, and gradual recognition that a healthy spirituality simply is not a “perfect” spirituality.

This is not the first anthol0gy of excerpts from the writings of Richard Rohr to be published — Crossroad released a compendium called What the Mystics Know several years ago. But I think this new volume is much more well-rounded and functions, as I suggested above, both as a useful introduction to Rohr’s work but also as a career-retrospective that all readers should find useful.

The Orbis Books “Modern Spiritual Masters” series is truly an excellent resource for excellent spiritual writing of our generation, not only on topics like contemplation and mysticism, but also social justice, interfaith dialogue, and prayer. While the series consists primarily of Catholic authors, it is both ecumenical and interfaith in scope. I’ve reviewed previous volumes before in this blog: last year, for example, I wrote about the volumes by James Martin and Joyce Rupp. Among my many “favorites” in this series are books featuring the essential writings of Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Merton, Caryll Houselander, Karl Rahner, Flannery O’Connor, and Howard Thurman. Check them out!

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