On this episode of Unlocking Us
Anyone who knows me or my work knows the immeasurable influence Father Richard Rohr has had on my life. Rohr is a Franciscan friar and ecumenical teacher, and his words live on Post-it notes all around my house; his numerous books are tattered and torn, as I’ve returned to them time and again, especially in the past couple years. In this magical two-part conversation, Father Richard graciously expands on just a few of the quotes that have turned my world upside down, sharing his thoughts on what it means to be humbled by the mysteries of faith; how we often misinterpret God as a dictator, not a lover; and how we’re ill-equipped to grasp the infinite nature of God and his love. This truly unforgettable conversation left me speechless—and filled me to the brim with love and connection.
Listen to the episode
Father Richard has authored 30-plus books, including:
- The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe
- The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder
- Just This
- Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer
- Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
Brené Brown: Hi everyone. I’m Brené Brown and this is Unlocking Us.
BB: I don’t even know where to start. This is part one of a two-part series with someone who has had a measurable influence on my life and that is Father Richard Rohr. He’s a Franciscan friar and a teacher, an internationally recognized author and spiritual leader. He teaches primarily on incarnational mysticism, non-dual consciousness, and contemplation, with a particular emphasis on how these affect the social justice issues of our time. He is the author of so many books, I think 30, maybe 34. And I’ll just be really honest with you, I just finished recording the two-part series and I’m just… I have got no words. I just have feelings, big feelings. Big feelings of love and deep feelings of spirituality and connection. Yeah, I’m so glad you’re here for this. Before we jump into the conversation, let me just give you kind of the official background on Father Richard. He is a Franciscan friar and ecumenical teacher. He bears witness to the deep wisdom of Christian mysticism and tradition of action and contemplation. He is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Really, he teaches how God’s grace guides us to our birth right as human beings made of divine love.
BB: He is the author of a lot of the big books that you may know, The Universal Christ, The Wisdom Pattern, Just This, and a book that was transformative for me, Falling Upward. Let’s jump in.
BB: I have to take some deep breaths and get really centered because your work has meant so much to my life and my family. I have to start by saying thank you. Especially during the last couple of years, I find myself really digging into books that are tattered and torn and loved and highlighted and re-reading things that you’ve written and saying, “Are you sure? Are you sure uncertainty is supposed to be this hard?”
Richard Rohr: Well, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you lived in Austin. I was just down there last month for a few days. I could have visited you. I didn’t know.
BB: Oh, man. I do, I split my time between Austin and Houston. So…
RR: I see. You’re from Texas?
BB: Fifth generation.
RR: Oh my… Okay.
BB: Oh my.
RR: I won’t hold it against you.
BB: Please don’t.
BB: In all of its beauty and all of its suffering.
RR: That’s right. That’s the right answer.
BB: I thought, if you would be so generous today. I thought I would read a few of the quotes that have completely turned my world upside down. A few of your quotes, and I was wondering if you could teach and talk about them a little bit with us today.
RR: My, you make it so easy for me. I hope. Let me hear what these quotes are.
BB: Yeah, maybe you’ve changed your mind and maybe you’re going to tell me that uncertainty is for the birds, no need to be vulnerable.
RR: No, that’s not true. No.
BB: Okay. Let’s start with this one that I meditate on a lot.
RR: Do you?
BB: Oh yes, I meditate on all these very, very often.
RR: You’re humbling me unbelievably. Thank you. Thank you.
BB: Oh, no. I have these on Post-it notes all around my house.
RR: Oh, my, my, my.
BB: Sometimes I curse you, I’m going to tell you that I don’t…
RR: Yeah, they’re not always… Yeah.
BB: No, they’re never easy.
RR: We have to meet some day. You live so close.
BB: Oh my gosh, I would come to you in a heartbeat.
RR: Well, we’ll get you here. [laughter]
BB: Okay, be careful, be careful. That fifth generation Texan in me is very tenacious.
BB: Okay. First quote. Is it Father Rohr, is that the best?
RR: You know, what we’ve agreed to over the years, the first time they talk to me, they say, Father Richard. In religious orders, we go by first names, not by last names.
RR: Yeah. And then after that, just Richard. You see, that pleases the conservatives that you call me Father [laughter] and it pleases the progressives, that you call me Richard. Okay?
RR: Yeah. Okay, good.
BB: Father Richard, it is.
BB: Here’s your quote, “People who’ve had any genuine spiritual experience, always know that they don’t know.”
RR: Yes. [laughter]
BB: “They are utterly humbled before mystery.”
BB: “They are in awe before the abyss of it all, and wonder at eternity in depth and a love which is incomprehensible to the mind.”
RR: That is good.
RR: I’m glad I said that. This thing called certitude is really a product of the enlightenment, the 17th, 18th century in England, France, Germany especially. And it does so many good things for us, science and medicine and so forth. But it made us feel we have a right to something, a right, and we really don’t. And our ancient ancestors grew up without expecting that. So they were much more easily able to hold on to mystery in general, God in particular, whereas we worship workability, predictability, answers. We like answers, and I do too.
BB: You do?
RR: I’m a little ashamed of it, but I do. I’m 79 now, I’ve grown up in America, and I was always up in front of the congregation or on stage. So people wanted answers from me and I’m sorry to say, I got used to giving them, thinking they were it, they were true. And it’s not good to think that way, I don’t think. It takes away a natural humility that must have come with people who lived in the fields and in nature where everything was growing and changing and dying and living and dying. We created an artificial world where we can create circumstances in which we know, and that’s created a hubris, a pride in Western people. You have to get away from Western over-developed countries to meet a different kind of human being who isn’t that way. Who don’t think they have a right to certitude? It’s really reached its nadir with this culture war where everybody is certain on both sides. No vulnerability left as you would say, yeah, yeah.
BB: What does it mean to be humbled by the mysteries of faith?
RR: It gives you process language, journey language, growth language, the quest for the Holy Grail, the monomyth of the hero. The ancient stories are always stories of new lands and new places where I learn new things, and I call the home that I left into considerable question as if it’s the only place. If you look at every great male myth, because I mainly studied studying male myths for the men’s rights of initiation that I used to give, it’s always… The young man always leaves home, always. [chuckle] Jesus, Buddha, everybody else. Because as long as you stay in Texas forgive me…
RR: You really think that’s normal. And I’d say the same about New Mexico, forgive me. Our egocentricity has extended itself into place and culture and linguistics, and so we’re not real open to new ideas or growth or change. Change is considered unfortunate. [chuckle]
BB: It is, but it’s so interesting to me because I spend so much of my time in organizations working with leaders, and there’s this great quote that everyone desires transformation, but no one wants to change.
RR: There you go. That’s it, yeah. Transformation is a nice up-to-date word, yeah. But change… You know that biblical word that’s the first word out of Jesus’ mouth in Mark and Matthew’s gospel is usually translated “repent,” which is a useless, useless translation. Goes back to the Latin Vulgate poenitentiam, “do penance.” But it really, literally, in the Greek, which is what the Gospels were written in, means “change,” change.
BB: What? What?
RR: What’s translated in your and my Bible as “repent” is metanoia, which is “move beyond the mind.” “Meta,” beyond, “nous,” mind. Move beyond the mind, I know. Just that mistranslation has cheapened so much Christianity, yeah.
BB: Especially… What do you have left when you strip… So I’m Episcopalian but went to Catholic education.
BB: What happens when you have faith and you squeeze vulnerability and mystery out of it? What is a certain faith?
RR: It’s useless as faith. It’s now another means for the ego to take control.
RR: It really is, calling itself “faith.” We call it “the cult of innocence.” I want to make a new tape, I don’t think I got time to write another book. But this idealization of being pure and right and on the right side of things, cult of innocence, it’s led us down a lot of real human dead ends. Whereas Christianity came, not as it was in Jesus an identification with the sinner, with vulnerability on the cross, but a searching for, “How can I prove that I’m not unworthy? How can I prove that I’m not a sinner?” This is not an exaggeration.
BB: No. [chuckle]
RR: It’s not. And I’ve been a priest 52 years. Forgive me, my voice is getting very old.
BB: Oh, I hear you, I hear you loud and clear and lovingly.
RR: It’s such a waste of time and no one knows it. They just believe what they were told, this false notion of faith, as holding on to an initial order that you are presented, usually as the child and therefore understand with a child’s mind. What else could you? I went to Catholic school. [laughter] The good nuns gave me my answers all by the third grade and faith became holding onto those.
BB: Golly, I’ve never thought about that before. So we learn the certitudes of faith as children with a child’s mind. Wow.
RR: When I was a boy, I thought as a boy, remember? St. Paul?
BB: Yes, yes.
RR: First… When I’m a man, I think as a man. I think he was recognizing that, that most people’s understanding of religion is their childhood magical Santa Claus mind. It’s not helpful. It’s really not helpful.
BB: I had a very different experience. It’s interesting. I always say that I was raised by a wild pack of Jesuits because I was in Catholic school in New Orleans and a lot of the Jesuit priests, which were heavily involved at the time in liberation theology in Central America would come up to New Orleans and have dinner with us or maybe stay with us a couple of nights. And it was interesting because as I got older, and they were very vulnerable and witnessed very hard things, but were activists, and I saw a shift from vulnerable, like Jesus, to venerable… And certain. Do you know what I mean? It’s that…
RR: And these were people you liked, huh?
BB: Yeah. I didn’t see it in this these specific group, but I thought, as I got older and met new clergy, I thought, “Boy, sometimes I see less vulnerability and more the venerable.”
RR: Oh my goodness. Yeah. Do you know spiral dynamics, Brené?
BB: You are the first person to ever ask me that, ever. Teach me.
RR: No, no. It would take too long, but it’s the levels of consciousness.
RR: And one of the higher levels of consciousness, which most educated Americans are in now is the green level where you get real certain about your progressive ideas. And we very often greens become mean greens. They, [laughter] sorry to have to say it.
RR: I’m probably one myself. You become as absolutist about your progressive theories as so-called conservatives did about their initial childhood order. Oh, we’ve got such a long way to go Brené. What we have now is still baby Christianity. And that’s why your teaching on vulnerability is foundational and central, everybody who’s listening, she didn’t pay me to say that, [laughter] to the reform of Christianity. See, we had an almighty God, omnipotens Deus in Latin. Every prayer began with omnipotens Deus, almighty God, almighty God. I can’t think of a single official prayer in the church that begins with all vulnerable God. So when you have God defined wrongly, do you see why we are where we are today and why we need you so desperately.
RR: No, it’s true because everybody wants to be omnipotens [laughter]
RR: Not Jesus crucified, not Jesus naked and bleeding, and yet wrong. Oh, you get it so well. Thank you.
BB: Well, this brings me to another quote that…
RR: Let’s hear it.
BB: Yeah, this quote really… This one knocks me upside the head in the best way. “The people who know God well, mystics, hermits, prayerful people, those who risk everything to find God always meet a lover, not a dictator.”
RR: Always. Always. [laughter] And I’ve read the mystics of all religions. They’re always happy, they’re always free, and they’re always in love. They’ve moved beyond law and order, law and order is just a little starting gate, that’s all, to limit your egocentricity.
BB: Can I ask you a hard question? This has always been hard, but can I ask you an even more direct question?
RR: Yeah. Anything you can ask me. I don’t know that I can answer…
BB: How do you control a congregation socially if God is a lover not a dictator?
RR: Brené, that’s probably where it largely came from. Are you a parent?
RR: Yes. How many did you have at one time in the house?
BB: I’ve got two. I’ve got a daughter and a son.
RR: Two, yeah. Well, the only way you can control at the early age before they can rationally think is threat. [laughter]
RR: Now we’re going to take away your Sunday privilege or whatever it is, and it works. So most people translated their early authority figures onto God, and we clergy became extensions of parents. Whose job was to threaten, and it worked in the short order. You got the people to do what you wanted. You didn’t create much holiness. You created a lot of conformity.
RR: A fear. Fear, it’s all fear-based, yeah. My early years in the seminary, and the Franciscans should have known better because we were so love-based in our beginnings, but the highest virtue was obedience not love. I don’t think we were taught how to love, how to be loving. The professors were all quite brilliant but always spoke with an authoritative voice, never appeared out of control or out of understanding. And I’ve given enough ecumenical retreats to all denominations now to recognize it’s pretty much the same. It’s worse if you were… I don’t mean to be prejudiced. If you were raised Calvinist or the denominations that are more into law and order historically. Historically. They aren’t necessarily anymore, but they were. I was in Geneva, and I went into the church where John Calvin preached. And he sat on a chair in the sanctuary with a great big standing whip, W-H-I-P, next to him. And if anybody dozed off, cracked the whip over their head.
RR: Yeah. And there you have… So I’m not making this up as a Catholic. But God, I thought we were bad, and we were. But we never idealized law in that sense. You’ve got to get it right or God won’t like you.
BB: Yeah. You know, it’s so funny because with my kids at mass… I don’t know if this is allowed or not, but I change the words to some of the prayers, so they make more sense to me.
RR: Oh, I change all of them. Go ahead. I hope the bishop isn’t listening. Go ahead, Brené.
BB: Yeah, I think you probably have more permission to do that that I do, but I always say in the Lord’s Prayer “and deliver us from fear and shame” instead of “deliver us from evil.”
RR: Oh, yes.
BB: And I remember one time my son saying, “Shh, you’re going to get in trouble. God’s going to hear you.” And I said, “That’s okay.” And he goes, “He’ll be mad because that’s not what’s in the book.” You know, The Book of Common Prayer. And I said, “That’s not the kind of God we believe in.” But then I felt proud of that parenting moment, but then I had to think to myself, “Oh God, I hope I’m right. I hope that’s true.”
RR: You’re absolutely right. Deliver us from evil implies that God… Or no, “lead us not into temptation” implies that God leads us into temptation.
RR: That’s why I say we’re still in baby Christianity. It’s just certain phrases like “repent” and “deliver us from evil” are now in the common vocabulary, and they’re wrong. They’re just wrong. So you weren’t wrong. You weren’t… Tell your daughters or sons… What do you have, daughters?
BB: I have one of both.
RR: One of each.
BB: So, this leads me to another quote, which I think is something that I really… You know we have those internal conflicts, and I couldn’t name it until now. But I have Brené, who’s seven, at Holy Name of Jesus Elementary School and Sister DaVita. And I was scared to death. And then I have the adult in her 50s Brené saying, “It’s okay. God… If this makes us connect… Closer connected to God, we can change these words.” And there’s an internal struggle sometimes. But when I think about this quote of yours all the time, “God is always bigger than the boxes we build for God, so we should not waste too much time protecting the boxes.”
RR: The boxes. That’s the job of a clergyman. He thinks. She thinks, I guess. Yeah. God has to obey our laws. I mean let’s take the whole gay issue. How dare we say to God, in effect, “You may not love gay people. You’re not allowed to, God. We have decided.” And that’s what we’re saying because…
RR: We can’t deal with infinity. The human mind can’t form the notion of infinity. So, as all the mystics say, “God is infinite love.” Infinite. We don’t know how to process that. We just don’t. So we pull God down and make an anthropomorphism out of God so he loves like we do, very conditionally, with threats and punishments.
BB: And ego.
RR: Yeah, and ego.
BB: We create a God that loves with ego, which is like the opposite of God.
RR: Oh, you get it. Why didn’t we meet 30 years ago? Darn. When did you start going on the road?
BB: 15 years ago, maybe.
RR: I see. See I was on for 52.
RR: That’s why my voice is almost gone now. Go ahead.
BB: When you say… Like, I’m thinking about all the anti-trans bills right now that are really dehumanizing trans kids, especially targeting trans kids.
BB: And when you say when you do that, you’re telling God who God can love and who God shouldn’t love.
RR: You are not allowed to love this person.
BB: Oh that is…
RR: We’re back in charge. We’re back in charge. Yeah. Well, you get it, thank you. Thank you.
BB: Well that feels me with grief.
RR: Grief, I know. Imagine the pain we’ve caused so many people at so many levels, who until the recent generation lived lives of pretend, disguise, denial.
BB: A mask.
RR: A mask, when all God wants us to be is who we really are.
BB: So, flawed and imperfect.
RR: Created in the image of God, that’s right. Which always there is a fly in the ointment, and it’s a struggle with that fly, that gets religion on the bad course when you can’t integrate failure, the negative sin, mistake, that’s the work of vulnerability.
BB: Is there a prayerful contemplative way to find our way to an understanding of infinity but to find our way? Do you know what I’m asking? Like… I don’t want an answer, but is there a path to get us closer?
RR: The historic universal paths of spiritual transformation are two, great love and great suffering. Now, great love normally leads to great suffering. So it comes down to great suffering, but it’s learned by great love, and I’m sure you couldn’t know what you know if you hadn’t loved probably more than one person very deeply.
BB: I have.
RR: And that’s where the world of infinity opens up, where you stop trying to limit her, him and make them into your image. Without great love you cannot understand infinity. No.
BB: Social critic, activist bell hooks, says…
RR: Oh yeah.
BB: Yes. bell hooks called the time that we’re in right now… Very fearlessly she said, “There’s such great lovelessness right now.”
BB: And I thought, that’s what it feels like to me, because…
RR: Doesn’t it, yeah.
BB: Yes, if we have to know love to understand the infinite grace of God, then lovelessness…
RR: Is the opposite.
BB: Is the opposite, in the equation.
RR: It is the opposite.
BB: It would be the opposite of infinity, it would be closing in on just false boundaries. Dichotomy…
RR: You got it. Laws.
RR: Which are almost all man-made, even the church laws. And I’m not antinomian or a rebel, and I know how to obey laws, I can do it easily, but it doesn’t teach you anything. It just makes social arrangements more workable.
BB: Do we have time for a part two and three more quotes?
RR: Well, of course you do. I wish I lived next door. We could talk once a week.
BB: Once a week, you clearly do not know enough Texans. If you lived next door, we would be having pancakes every morning.
RR: Go ahead, please, Brené.
BB: Wooh. This is part one. Y’all, there’s a second part, the questions get deeper and harder, which means he laughs more. I don’t understand it really, the harder the questions get, the more he laughs and just… I don’t know, he says in one part of this, I think it’s probably going to be in part two where he says, “Getting older is about forgiving, including forgiving what I don’t know.” And it’s just incredible. You can find his books, wherever you buy books. You can learn more about him. Links to some of my favorite books on the episode page on brenebrown.com.
BB: I’m glad we’re having this conversation. I need it, I need this conversation. I know that many of you that listen to the podcast are agnostic or atheist or are of different faith traditions, I hope there’s something here for everyone, whether it’s secular or not. So, I’m glad you’re here and I have to say for sure that I’ll never forget having these conversations with Father Richard. One thing to note, the HBO series on Atlas of the Heart is out now. You can catch it on HBO Max, and that’s it. Stay awkward, brave, and kind and I will see you next time. Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from podcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil and music is by the amazing Carrie Rodriguez and the amazing Gina Chavez.
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