Richard Rohr Saved my Life

Richard n me

OK, that’s metaphorical, not literal. I am devouring an advance copy of Richard’s latest and, frankly, probably his best book (The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe). I need to explain why I can provide such a glowing recommendation—and this is a long story….

From the age of 12 to (almost) 25, I grew up in an institutional Irish, Catholic school system. At my urging and insistence, my parents sent me to a school for boys who were interested in exploring a vocation to the De La Salle Brothers. While it’s easy to look back with rose-tinted glasses, it was an amazing gift to me. Simultaneously, I know that, for some boys, this was a much more traumatic and negative experience. Let’s just say that, for five years, it was prayers, mass, school, athletics, and study—on a repeat cycle.

I “joined the monastery” when I was 18. I would spend almost seven years as a De La Salle Brother: Deeply formative years with experiences I wouldn’t trade for all the world. Yet, it wasn’t for me (long story) and so I left in 1989. I had also slowly been realizing that, to be in integrity, I not only had to leave the brothers, I also had to leave the Catholic Church.

Why? There is no short version as to why I abandoned the church. That’s an essay in and of itself. But let’s imagine that, as the years passed, thoughts of the church were accompanied by deep feelings of anger and sadness. In retrospect, my anger/sadness did nothing for me. It certainly didn’t change the fact that I grew up with an image of God as an old white dude, sitting on a throne (in clouds), with a big calculator tracking when you were good or bad. Kind of like a nightmarish, malevolent Santa. I had come to see how utterly ridiculous this God was, and I wanted nothing to do with “him.”

I emigrated to San Francisco in 1993. I initially typed “moved to”; in reality, it was yet another uprooting and re-orientating to a new world. In my new home, I discovered that there was a word for people like me; I was now a “recovering Catholic.” Through some volunteer work caring for AIDS patients, I was suddenly exposed to a whole bunch of new perspectives, religions, and spiritual practices—A Course in Miracles, Zen practices, Shamanism, and a whole bunch of stuff that frankly scared me, but I did it anyway. I’m just wired to be a seeker/explorer.

And seek like crazy I did! Living in California, I had access to a rich buffet of traditions, retreat centers, new-age programs, and what-nots. I would experience “re-birthing,” participate in sweat lodges with a Lakota elder, embrace kundalini yoga, and I even spent a full week in a New Mexico Zen monastery! I went to a Unitarian Universalist church and avoided any Christian church. I went just once to the Catholic Church in the Castro (Most Holy Redeemer), a welcoming, progressive community. I wanted nothing to do with church, but I continued to seek.

In 2001, the events of 9/11 were quickly followed three weeks later by the death of my mother. I was consumed by grief. Not just ordinary grief; it was random crying at work, crying on the subway, in the grocery store, and any time I would see an old lady. For a guy who never cried, it was as if I suddenly learned to open the floodgates.

Now, my religious upbringing provided me with a ready-made set of answers to death. It does help that we Irish have an ancient and rich view of death and our mortality. But, in anger, I had abandoned all that, was 5,000 miles away from home and having a complete life-crisis. I was questioning why I had chosen to leave home, questioning my life in San Francisco, and completely disinterested in my job (which carried with it some not-insignificant responsibility for other people). I told my boss I wanted to quit. She urged me not to and kindly arranged for me to take two months off and move to Phoenix with a new job and a significant pay raise. Grief was utterly consuming me and would continue to consume me for almost three years (it was in Phoenix that I’d find a good grief counselor). The death of my mother ultimately drove my decisions to leave San Francisco, end an 11-year relationship, and sever with my wonderful employer to pursue the mad dream of being an executive coach. In the space of two-three years, all my life seemed to have turned over. I now know that this was a “liminal time” (an “in-between” time when everything is in flux and there are no certainties). I’d be surprised if those of you who have reached mid-life haven’t had your own liminal experiences.

And here’s where Richard Rohr entered my story.

When I arrived in Phoenix, a Jewish woman who worked for me, told me that I should check out the Franciscan Renewal Center. It was not quite a church back then, but a welcoming Catholic community that had great appeal to people of all walks of life and all persuasions. It offered amazing retreats—secular and sacred. I went. I saw that Richard Rohr was speaking at a retreat and I decided to attend (I had heard of him when I was in the monastery). Meeting and listening to Richard was like someone giving me a big bucket where all my stuff fit. My mind was officially blown open. I had to speak to him. I told him about the all-consuming grief and he kindly suggested that I attend a Men’s Rites of Passage (or MROP). The rites changed my life. (I could write a full book on the topic. If you’ve read this far, you can watch some of my story in this Ignite talk.) Ignite Video

Reading and listening to Richard has allowed me to integrate all of my psychological and spiritual experiences. There is no doubt that he is both a modern mystic and a prophet. While he hangs with Oprah, Melinda Gates, Dr. Oz, Bono, etc., I’m proud to call him my friend and a personal confidant.

Mystics give us the freedom to not have to categorize or label our spiritual journey. Richard has taught me that “everything belongs” and it doesn’t have to be assessed as good or bad, right or wrong. There is so much more to say, but that will have to wait.

If, like me, you have committed to a spiritual journey and you have come from a complicated Catholic or Christian background, Richard’s latest book will absolutely knock your socks off, because it (i) helps reset so much of the BS in modern Christianity and (ii) points to a much bigger field of possibility than what most of us were taught. Richard Rohr helps me be at peace with and integrate my past.

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