How does the way men experience spirituality differ from the way women engage it? What obstacles particularly keep men from experiencing greater meaning in their lives, and what paradigm shifts help them find it?
My guest today has been thinking about those questions over the six decades he’s served as a Franciscan friar. His name is Richard Rohr, and he’s authored numerous books and devoted a significant part of his vocation to working with men — both ministering to those who are incarcerated, and in leading male initiation rituals and retreats.
If you enjoyed my discussion last month with David Brooks about life’s first and second mountain, you’ll want to listen to this one. Father Rohr has long taught the same concept, arguing that life is divided into a first and second half. We begin our discussion by exploring the difference between these two halves, and what it takes to move to the second half of life, including embracing non-dualistic thinking. We also talk about what prevents men from maturing into the second half of life, including having “father wounds.” We then discuss how male spirituality differs from female spirituality, why church doesn’t appeal to men, the male need for initiation, and what it means to do shadow work. We end our conversation with what fathers can do to help their sons embrace the spiritual side of life.
- What are the two halves of life? Why does the idea resonate so much?
- What’s the primary task of the first half of life?
- Why so many men never get to the “sacred dance” of life
- Moving from dualistic to non-dualistic thinking, and what that means
- What does the “fall” into life’s second half look like?
- Why do men have such a hard time passing themselves onto their sons in a healthy way?
- How father wounds keep men stuck in the first half of life
- Differences between male and female spirituality
- Finding and choosing love within disorder
- The importance of initiation rites and rituals
- Men and power
- What is “shadow boxing”?
- How can father’s pass their spirituality down to their children?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- AoM series on Muscular Christianity
- My podcast with David Brooks: The Quest for a Moral Life
- My first interview with David on the road to character
- How Jesuit Spirituality Can Improve Your Life
- Why Men Hate Going to Church
- AoM series on Spiritual Disciplines
- Ego Is the Enemy
- Fighting For Life by Walter Ong
- The Four Archetypes of the Mature Masculine
- Man’s Need for Ritual
- AoM series on the nature and power of ritual
- How Not to Become Your Absentee Father
- Why You Should Go to Church (Even If You’re Not Sure of Your Beliefs)
- AoM series on male status
- How the Hero’s Journey Can Help You Become a Better Man
- Iron John by Robert Bly
Connect With Richard
Richard’s podcast, Another Name for Every Thing
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. How does the way men experience spirituality differ from the way women engage it? What obstacles particularly keep men from experiencing greater meaning in their lives, and what paradigm shifts help them find it? My guest today has been thinking about these questions over the six decades he’s served as a Franciscan friar. His name is Richard Rohr, and he’s authored numerous books and devoted a significant part of his vocation to working with men, with ministering to those who are incarcerated and leading male initiation rituals and retreats. If you enjoyed my discussion last month with David Brooks about life’s first and second mountain, you’ll want to listen to this episode. Father Rohr has long taught the same concept, arguing that life is divided into a first and second half.
We begin our discussion by exploring the differences between these two halves and what it takes to move to the second half of life, including embracing non-dualistic thinking. We also talk about what prevents men from maturing into the second half of life, including having father wounds. We then discuss how male spirituality differs from female spirituality, why church doesn’t appeal to men, the male need for initiation, and what it means to do shadow work. We end our conversation with what fathers can do to help their sons embrace the spiritual side of life. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/rohr, that’s R-O-H-R.
Father Richard Rohr, welcome to the show.
Richard Rohr: It’s very good to be with you. Thank you.
Brett McKay: You are a Franciscan friar who has written several books about spirituality, particularly male spirituality, and I’d like to talk a bit about that today. Before we do, let’s talk about your background a bit. What drew you to become a Franciscan, and then how did you end up focusing on working with men and their spirituality?
Richard Rohr: You know, when I was a very young idealistic man growing up in flat old Kansas, I made the mistake of reading a romantic life of St. Francis. He is a very romantic figure, seems to appeal to everybody. I’m told he has the longest listing in the Smithsonian Library. And that certainly happened to me. And then it just so happened that a Franciscan in his lovely brown robe came to our parish and gave me an address to write to, and that began this whole journey 60-some years ago.
Brett McKay: With that, how did you start working with men and their spiritual needs?
Richard Rohr: Well you know, one of the, if not the first retreat I gave as a young priest in Cincinnati in 1972 was to a group of young jocks coming from a high school where a retreat was required. They didn’t really want to attend, but they had to, to graduate. I preached to them on the classic prodigal son story. To say the least, the response was overwhelming. Over the years, then, I quickly became aware of how many young men, not just in Cincinnati but eventually in the many other countries I got to teach in, suffered from what we call the father wound, that again and again it appeared that the male of the species does not know how to hand on himself to his sons. It’s either power, rivalry, sometimes downright abuse, verbal or even physical. Sometimes it’s just emotional unavailability or the father having been killed in war or dying young.
But then when I became the chaplain at the jail out here in Albuquerque where I’ve lived for 32 years now, then it became obvious to me that this pattern was universal. In my 14 years there, I don’t think I counseled or dealt with a man, honestly, who had a good father. It was like the one predictable quality that I found in men, which seemed to lead them to a life of aimlessness. Let’s just call it that. I knew I had to study, understand what were the patterns at work here? And that’s when I began to make my first CDs, 30 years ago. Well, they were cassettes then, I guess. And then they became retreats and conferences.
Brett McKay: Well, we’ll talk about more, delve more into detail about the father wound and male spirituality, but before we do, let’s talk about some of your big picture ideas, because that carries over into your work with male spirituality. So for example, in your book Falling Upward, you make the case that there are two halves of life, and you see that too in your work with men. You talk about men have two halves of their life. What are those two halves of life?
Richard Rohr: Well, admittedly, it’s oversimplified, but I’m amazed how that particular book, of all my books, is a consistent good seller. I can only think that it’s naming something that’s true to life experience. I got the phrase itself from Karl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, who said there are two major tasks of life. The first is, as he put it, where you create your container. I call that your identity, your persona, your self-image. Probably it amounts to your education, your family situation if you become a husband or a father, or whatever it is. But that’s your delivery system, as Bill Plotkin puts it. And I find that to be true.
Now, the point I make later in the book, I’m going to make it quicker here, is that in non-wisdom cultures, and I’m afraid we are a non-wisdom culture, the task of the first half of life becomes the only task. It’s succeeding, climbing, naming oneself as successful. And most don’t know that there’s a second task. Now, if you read the book, you saw that I drew upon the classic Greek myth of the Odyssey to show that this is not a new issue, but that the way you move from the first half to the second half of life is usually from some event that again Karl Jung would call necessary suffering. It has to happen. You have to fail. Your first salvation project has to disappoint you, and you have to see, my gosh, this is not the whole picture. This is not enough.
Maybe it’s a death in the family. Maybe it’s the failure of your marriage. Maybe it’s facing an addiction. Maybe it’s your sexuality. But something in almost every myth, fairy tale, story, and spiritual teaching, including the four Gospels, there has to be a falling apart. And that’s the transition to the second half of life. I’ll say it very quickly. If the first half of life is building the container, the second half of life is finding the contents that the container was meant to hold. What is my education for? What is my self-image, my money, my reputation for? What was I born to do?
Bill Plotkin, one of our good teachers in our men’s work, he calls the task of the first half of life your survival dance, and he calls the task of the second half of life your sacred dance. We both experience, after years of working with men, that a rather high percentage in a secular culture like ours never get to their sacred dance, because they just keep doing the task of the first half of life over and over and over again. And that’s certainly true in Christianity too, why we have so much immature religion. So that’s it in a nutshell, and I do mean a nutshell.
Brett McKay: It is a nutshell. There’s a lot more to dig in there in Falling Upward. Yeah, when I read that I resonated with it, because that first half of life framework, I’ve been there. It’s always constantly striving. You think that’s going to fulfill you, then you lie in bed at night and you’re like, “Man, is this all there is? Is this it?”
Richard Rohr: Who am I now? Who am I now?
Brett McKay: Who am I now? Right. And then you have to go to that second half of life, and it’s hard to do, and especially in a culture where everything is geared towards that first half, towards striving.
Richard Rohr: Frankly, Brett, you don’t go there. You have to be pushed there. You have to be led there. No one goes there willingly. Again, your first attempt at life has to disappoint you, so you see our American idea of progress doesn’t work too well with growing-up men, because it makes you deny failure. Unless you’re in something like a 12-step program or something similar, we pretty much don’t know there is a second half of life.
Brett McKay: And one thing you also talk about in Falling Upward is sort of the thinking that shades these two different parts of life. In the first half of life, you say it’s very dualistic, and then in the second half of life, you shift to a non-dualistic frame of mind. Can you walk through that?
Richard Rohr: Sure. You know, the word, “non-dual” is somewhat new to most Western people, Now, if we had been raised in the East, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism all take non-dual thinking as normative, as a descriptor for the enlightened person. And what that means is he or she does not think in either-or, all or nothing, where you divide reality into simple binary opposites and you make a choice. And not only do you make a choice that one is better than another, but you really hold onto it rather tightly. It’s non-rational. It doesn’t fit logic. It doesn’t make sense. It’s against the evidence. But that’s how strongly the ego needs to define itself and defend itself, and that does not serve the growing up process very well.
Brett McKay: And you also talk about, you reach a point when you’re in that second half of life, you’re able to… you call this an okay-ness with the tragic nature of life. You’re able to recognize life is hard and sad, but also it’s joyous. And that’s another form of non-dualistic thinking.
Richard Rohr: Excellent that you have come right to that, because the paradigm… You know, in Christian theological language, we call it death and resurrection, but everybody just talked about this as something Jesus went through. We sort of worshiped it in Jesus. Thank you for dying for us, thank you for rising. Most people didn’t have a clue, it seems to me, that they were talking about the whole human journey for all of us, not just Jesus. And that made it rather ineffective, that we’ve got to hold death and resurrection, failure and success together at the same time, as two side of the same coin.
For most Western people who aren’t trained in thinking with paradox, they have to be taught. They really have to be taught non-dual thinking, and they resist it. Usually until something forces them, their own failure, their own face very often needs to be pushed into the mud, to say my gosh, it’s true, and I can still be happy. You have to know it experientially. It can’t just be a Sunday sermon or a book on psychology.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s a good point. I was talking to David Brooks the other day about this idea of kind of going into that deeper, and he’s noticed with his college students that he teaches, they treat this what we call the second half of life like a school project. Like, “Well, okay, I did the first half. Now it’s time to go there, so tell me what I need to do.” And it’s like, well, that’s not how it works.
Richard Rohr: Yeah, David is a friend. We find ourselves thinking alike on a lot of subjects. I think with greater poetry, he’s calling it the two mountains, and writes about it very well.
Brett McKay: You said that you have to be drawn in to the second half of life.
Richard Rohr: Yes, or pushed. Or fall into it, yeah.
Brett McKay: What does that fall have to look like? Does it have to be something tragic, a big setback like a divorce or a death or a cancer scare? Or can that suffering be more subtle?
Richard Rohr: For the male, it normally takes a whomp on the side of the head, because the male psyche is so defended against change, about being powerful and superior. Now, that’s why most cultures developed some practice of initiation rites. For all of history, we’re the exception to that. The male had to be taught how to descend into powerlessness, because he would not go there naturally. Little subtle taps, unless he’s a young man who’s very sensitive, and there are some, most of us demand some humiliation to our ego, some maybe just discovering we lied and our reputation is ruined. You know what I mean?
But it does have to be, in my experience, a whomp on the side of the head. It can’t just be little gentle nudges, because we’ll just miss them and maintain our self-image as superior, separate, in control, right. And you know, here I am a priest, but I don’t think religion has helped people in this very much at all. We just gave them another reason to be right. We haven’t done our work very well at all in that regard.
Brett McKay: Why do you think men need that whomp? What is it, why do you think men, they’re trying to protect the ego? What is it different about men than women?
Richard Rohr: Well you know, these historical biologists, I don’t know if that’s the right word, but they say with some understanding that the history of humanity has been a history of war. The male’s role was to go off and fight war. If men saw their vocation as that of a warrior, which is only one of the classic male archetypes, king, warrior, lover, and wise man, you can see… We now have a word for it. We call it PTSD, where the man just closes down. Life is so absurd, life is so tragic, I don’t know how to process it, especially if I’ve come back a loser in the war.
Brett McKay: One thing that you talked about in your book, why men are probably more drawn to that first half of life mentality, that still got to me, and it also relates to something another, it was a Jesuit priest wrote. His name’s Walter Ong. He wrote a book called Fighting for Life, and he talked about men in competition and kind of relating it to literature. He said that one thing that makes men different from women is that men are different from their mothers. They have to actually create an identity separate from their mom. And you talk about that in your book.
Richard Rohr: Oh yes, that’s a good point. Yes, it’s a good point. We begin by defining ourselves as “not”, because we are so enmeshed with our mother. I am not my mother. So if that becomes your stance, defining yourself by opposition to, it becomes your stance. I’m glad he said that.
Brett McKay: So again, that’s all about creating the ego, and that’s healthy, as you talk about. This first half of life isn’t bad, but at a certain point you have to move to that second half of life. Well, let’s go back into this idea of father hunger and father wounds. What do you think is the source of that? Why is it that men have such a hard time connecting with their sons and teaching them how to be generative men, men who give, men who give life?
Richard Rohr: Well, let me start with this, and it’s obvious in many ways. You can’t give away what you yourself don’t have. And so many men who’ve talked to me over the years, they discovered that it at least went back to their grandfather, that their grandfather was not a very generative man. He didn’t know how to give himself, or if he did, he only learned it in his later years. But while he was raising his father, he was pretty hands-off, didn’t communicate emotions or touch or meaning or love. In our trade-off of gender roles, we thought that was the job of the mother. And certainly until my time, those gender roles were pretty clear in most cultures, certainly in ours. And the father was most of the time not involved in the raising of the children, particularly the son.
Brett McKay: Well, going back. Okay, so you have this father wound, because your father just wasn’t able to express love to you. What’s the result of that? How does that keep men focused in that first half of life for the rest of their life?
Richard Rohr: Boy, it’s real. It’s just real. They keep looking for the perfect boss, the perfect coach. When they find he isn’t perfect, and none of us ever are, again here’s all or nothing dualistic thinking, they go through a huge disappointment and very often totally reject that very same man. They have to have … Who was it wrote the book on the good enough mother? I can’t remember, but we don’t need a perfect father, we need a good enough father. Where I often see it is in this idealization of a manhood that doesn’t exist, this almost powerlessness in the presence of a strong man or a perceived strong man. The need to please him, to have his favor. It’s totally irrational. This can be with men with two PhDs.
I guess I’ve experienced it now. I’ve been a priest for 49 years, and of course we Catholics give ourselves the title “father”. We’re just asking for it, that projection of the perfect father. If you can be a kind and loving man, it works, but then people want more from you than you can ever fulfill. But you also have great power to heal. A little bit goes a long way. One sincere pat on the back, affirmation. I’ve had guys come back to me just saying, “Father, I floated all day after you said that to me.” And again, it has nothing to do with logic. The need is on the non-rational brain stem, low lizard brain level, where if that touch, affirmation, validation is not given to a boy before the age of five, that he can feel it, feel it, he’s forever wanting it from one father figure after another.
And when he doesn’t get it, he becomes the angriest of all. The young boys on the streets of America who hate every authority figure, you just want to cry, because this policeman is not your problem. You really don’t need to hate him. Now, there are certainly some police who have mistreated plenty of people, but most of them want to be good authority figures, I would like to think, I assume. But they’ve got three strikes against them already, because into the father wound… who was it said this? Maybe that was Jung too. Demons flee into the father wound. Antagonistic, fear-based, I’ll never let any man deal with me again. I saw that in the jail when I would try to help some guys. They wouldn’t allow me to. They’re so afraid of being hurt again. It breaks your heart, really.
Brett McKay: That father hunger, that father wound that occurs in childhood, basically it leads men to looking for male love in other places that aren’t-
Richard Rohr: That’s right. That’s right.
Brett McKay: You said in the extreme form, that can lead men to join gangs, like they’re looking for male love.
Richard Rohr: Yes. And a male who’s strong, which is why they will give their whole life to the jefe, the boss, the guy who’s the leader of the gang. He is a surrogate father, and they’ll die for him. You know, when I first wrote my early book on the male journey, I don’t even think it’s out in English anymore, this is the early ’80s, it was translated into German. I went to book tour through the length of Germany, and I can still remember coming into the great cathedral in Nuremberg. My mouth fell open, because I wasn’t well-known then, but it was filled with men from back to front, sitting in the aisles, sitting in the sanctuary. I was extremely well received, and then I opened it up to question and answer.
One young man stood up in the middle of the great cathedral, spoke with rather good English, and said, “Father, we thank you for coming here today.” And he spread his arms out, and he said, “We are the grandsons, we are the sons without fathers. We killed all of our grandfathers in the First World War. We killed all of our fathers in the Second World War. And that’s why we’re filling this church today. We don’t know how to do it.” Oh my God, you could have heard a pin drop. But he was right, and my men’s work books over the year continued to sell extremely well in Germany to this day. Part of it’s I have a German last name. Maybe that’s the reason. But the bravado, the authoritarianism, we associate rightly or wrongly with the German-speaking people is an overcompensation, in my opinion, for in fact being a wounded little boy who doesn’t feel strong, doesn’t know himself, so he wears a persona.
This same young boy said to me, “We needed a father so bad that we chose a bad father. It’s better to have a bad father.” And of course, everybody knew he was talking about Adolph Hitler. “It’s better to have a bad father than no father at all.” You know, we have to look at this today, with the emergence of strongmen all over the world as heads of state. The political implications are huge. People who don’t know who they are, I would say in God, I know most people don’t need it to be said that way, but in some objective way they don’t hold their identity, they will be very attracted to strongmen.
Brett McKay: Because they want some sort of father.
Richard Rohr: That’s it. That’s it.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about … Talk about non-dualistic thinking here, this is going to be some non-dualistic thinking. At the same you argue, okay, everything’s sort of one, encompassed, right? But at the same time you say that there are differences between male spirituality and female spirituality, and you’re able to accept those two things at the same time, so it’s non-dualistic. There are no differences, but there are differences.
Richard Rohr: Very good, yeah. You understand well. Thank you.
Brett McKay: Right. How would you describe male spirituality? How would you describe it? How is it different from female spirituality?
Richard Rohr: You know, don’t let this be an absolute. It’s just based on my years of giving retreats. Males seem to need, like we’re attracted to action movies, we need a drama in which we can find ourselves. It needs to be story-based, ritual-based in a way that ancient initiation rites were. It can’t just be the lecture method. If you want to fill up a room, offer a lecture, and women will fill up the room. They love to be talked to, they love to talk to one another. They love story too, but they love to share their feelings and their experience. Forgive me, I know this is an overgeneralization, but I’m just trying to get to what does seem to be different.
We men are reticent to know our feelings or to share our feelings, until we’ve felt them. And so some kind of ritual drama pulls us inside of that in a way that we can’t deny it. That’s why so many of the men’s movements in our country have rediscovered storytelling, myth, legend, journeys, pilgrimages, movement, action. He needs to know something on the body level, not just the lecture level. And I think again, here’s where Christianity, because that’s the world I mostly moved in, has really missed the point. Once we put the pulpit right in the center of the church, we in effect lost most men. Unless it could be presented in an argumentative debate way, I’m right and you’re wrong. But just a wisdom way, even to this day wisdom lectures are not attended that much by most men. It’s sort of sad to have to admit that. So it’s-
Brett McKay: I was going to say, we had a guest on the podcast talking about how churches have a man problem, like they’re not coming to church, and it’s unique to Christianity. It’s not so much in Judaism or Islam. What do you think churches are doing wrong? Is a part of it, are they catering churches towards female spirituality more than male spirituality?
Richard Rohr: Well, that would be one way of saying it, Brett. I think we’ve made it too nice, too pretty. I mean, I can only pick on us Catholics. All the vestments and the candles and the fancy words instead of real words, the sitting in pews. It’s all order, and when there’s too much order, certainly the man still building his tower, who’s in the first half of life, he likes order. But to keep a man growing, you have to introduce him to disorder. That’s what women love to talk about, wounding and healing and addiction and problems and marriage problems. We don’t like to talk about that. It’s really strange. It’s either order or nothing.
So we come to church, we’re given that order, but then it doesn’t feel honest to us, so we leave altogether. The background from which I’m speaking, Brett, is one of my major paradigms, it’s in my last book, The Universal Christ, is this. Picture three boxes: order, disorder, reorder. In one language or another, that’s taught by all the religions of the world. You start with order, with your first big explanation. To come to wisdom, you have to integrate disorder, not exclude it, not project it. And we have not been good at that at all, integrating disorder. Church was defined as conformity. Only when you can put order and disorder together and see how they both work do you have reorder. Most churches don’t know how to do that, so the male loses respect for that.
I don’t think it’s a conscious process. It’s largely unconscious. But he knows, and he’s right. This is not real. This is not true. In my experience, the largest percent of men come to that around the issues of sexuality. Our black and white teaching on sexuality led most men to feel condemned, lost, evil, bad, oversexed, going to hell, I don’t have a chance. We just haven’t done our homework very well.
Brett McKay: Continuing on that idea of this order, disorder, and reorder, something you talk about throughout your books too, the secular world has gotten caught up in postmodernism where it’s all about disordering. But they haven’t moved on to reordering.
Richard Rohr: Well, that’s because they refuse to respect what was good about order, do you see? It’s the whole putting the two together.
Brett McKay: Right, non-dualistic thinking again.
Richard Rohr: Very good, yeah. Like single issue voting is our new form of dualistic thinking, that we’re allowed to just choose sides instead of seeing the good that’s on both sides, which is order. I started out whatever you started, Democrat or Republican. Now I can see, well, let’s be honest with ourselves. Some of what the other side is saying is true. That’s very hard for the male ego. Today, the female ego seems to be almost as trapped, unless she has suffered. So you’ve probably heard me say, the two normal paths of spiritual transformation are great love and great suffering. If you succeed at avoiding great love of anything or anybody, and great suffering for what you say you love, you’ll stay in the first half of life forever. You’ll stay in a false order. It’s not really order at all.
So reorder is precisely holding on to what’s good about order. Like I’m still a Catholic priest. I mean, all the garbage I know about the Catholic Church, I probably know more history than you do. But that’s not the issue anymore. I’m not looking for a perfect anything. What dominates, I hope, is compassion, forgiveness. I know about the disorder, and I still choose to love. If you’re a married man, you’ve already gone through the same thing. If your marriage has lasted seven years or even three years, you know that your wife isn’t perfect, and yet darn it, I love her. That’s maturity.
Brett McKay: And again it’s that non-dualistic thinking, being able to be okay with both.
Richard Rohr: That’s right. That’s right.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk a bit about your work with creating initiatic experiences for men. This is something you’ve set up. They’re going on around the world. What is it you think a man has to learn in an initiation that they can only learn, possibly, in that initiation?
Richard Rohr: Yeah, well, let me precede any remarks I make by saying most people do not need to go through a formal initiation rite. I wish they could, but most people are initiated by life itself. It’s just that it takes so much longer. So many men only start growing up seriously in their sixties, when the whomps on the side of the head have accumulated enough that they start letting go of their righteousness, their control, their power, where they could have been taught all of that, admittedly, in the immature early form, the age of 17, that life is not about going up, it’s about going down. Not about winning, but about losing. You know, again to speak to any who were raised Christian, our logo is a man who’s utterly losing. We call it the cross. Now, here we have that as our logo, how to lose but still win. And we never got the point, it seems to me.
I don’t want to say they’ve got to go through it, but yeah, back in the early ’90s for about five years, I read everything I could on this universal phenomenon of male initiation rites. I came up with the communalities of what they all seemed to be saying. To give one summary phrase, and it is oversimplified but I think it’s still true to my reading, is this. Men can’t handle power until they have made journeys of powerlessness. If you need power too much, you’re always going to abuse it. I mean, look at our politics, look at our churches. This isn’t even hard to prove. The consistent abuse of power of governments and dictators and senators and congressmen all over the world, not just America. That’s why the male had to be initiated.
Male initiation rites were all about a male facing his power needs. I’ve got some diagrams about this. In my book Adam’s Return, I just describe what a classic initiation rite would include. In my book Wild Man to Wise Man, I have a couple diagrams.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and through these initiations about power, like you talk about in your books, you learn paradoxes about power.
Richard Rohr: Yes, yes.
Brett McKay: When you try to grab on and hold on to power, it leaves you, but when you basically let it go, you become more powerful, more influential in a weird way.
Richard Rohr: When I’m weak, I’m strong, as St. Paul said. I don’t know why it’s true, but you discover your own power at a much deeper level when you can’t have the obvious power. We’ve all seen the shows through our whole life of a handicapped man who still runs the marathon. Why do those stories so fascinate us? It’s the classic hero’s journey, the weak man who’s really the strong man. And then we take some kind of delight in these heroic rich men who fall from power. He looks like he’s powerful, but he ends up being evil. He’s not powerful at all. Is that half the novels that have ever been written? I think it might be. And when you first say it, people say, oh that can’t be true, but check it out. We’re fascinated by how the man matures and does not mature. We read it in romantic novel form, opera, or movie, but a lot of us haven’t made this transfer to real life.
Brett McKay: And one of those other paradoxes you talk about, I think it’s really applicable to men, because they’re constantly striving, they’re constantly trying to achieve. When you go through that initiatic experience, when you have that falling, you realize, at least for me personally, nothing you do matters, but everything you do does matter at the same time.
Richard Rohr: There you go. Talk about paradox, huh? Yeah, yeah. And because everything matters ultimately, how you do anything is how you do everything. No one thing can condemn you either. One mistake doesn’t determine your life, which is what the guys in jail thought. It’s a whole narrative. It’s a whole story. It’s never just one event.
Brett McKay: Throughout this conversation, you’ve talked about how you’ve incorporated the work of depth psychologists like Jung, and also poets and other depth psychologists like Robert Bly, who did Iron John, and there’s Moore and Gillette, with his… you mentioned the archetypes, the king, lover, magician, warrior. You talk about this in the book, some people in Christian circles would call this Dungeons and Dragons masculinity. That was a great way to describe it. But you seem very comfortable integrating this into your Christian worldview. Can you walk us through how you integrate the ideas from these depth psychologists into your Christian beliefs?
Richard Rohr: Yeah. You know, what the Franciscans gave me, God bless them, was a very good education. They taught us how to think, how to read literature, how to read poetry, how to understand psychology. I got a classic liberal arts, not the modern meaning of the word “liberal”, liberal arts education, where you were expected to be a Renaissance man. Knowing we would be considered just priests, and people would expect us just to talk about scripture or theology. We studied philosophy for four years before the Bible was allowed to be put into our hands as an object of study. Boy, little did I know how wise that was.
So for me, truth is truth is truth. You know, St. Thomas Aquinas said, “If it’s true, it’s from the Holy Spirit.” Your first question should not be who said it? Did Mohammed say it? No, the question isn’t who said it, it’s is it true? But that takes some maturity to get to that point. Once you can recognize truth wherever you see it, no matter what the label is, no matter the ethnicity, the nationality, the religious vocabulary, you don’t have any trouble putting all this together. But I know to a lot of people that’s strange.
One of the greatest weaknesses… Please forgive me for saying this. I’m not trying to criticize my good Protestant brothers and sisters, but when Luther started the Reformation right at the time of the invention of the printing press, which was good, but he said “sola scriptura”, only scripture. He set us up for 500 years of dualistic thinking. Only, whenever you say “only”, you’re a dualistic thinker. Now, I know he meant well, and I know what he was trying to get to, to reform Catholicism, which wasn’t paying much attention to scripture, and it still doesn’t. I just want to be fair. He was right, but he was wrong. I’m trying to understand him too.
But it made Western Christianity for 500 years dualistic in its thinking, and not able to integrate the other sciences. If we don’t integrate science now, I don’t know how we can talk to the modern world. My book of a couple years ago on the Trinity, can’t get much more theological than that, but I’m using scientific metaphors all the way through. And those are the most compelling for many people. I’m just saying that when Jesus said to love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole body, your whole mind, and your whole strength, I don’t think we’ve done very well in loving God with our mind too.
Brett McKay: One of the ideas that these guys talk about, Bly and Jung and Moore and Gillette, besides these archetypes that exist and that men can tap into to understand themselves, there’s also the idea of the shadow. They call it shadow work, where you’re trying to wrestle with your shadow and figure out what it is. You call it shadow boxing, which I think is pretty cool. I’m going to start using that. What is shadow work? What is shadow boxing for you?
Richard Rohr: Yeah. Well first, this is probably the one breakthrough that we owe Jung a debt of gratitude for more than anything else. Most of us automatically think of shadow as evil. That is actually to miss the point. It might allow you to do evil, but it’s precisely your denial of evil, what you’re afraid to see, which you cannot admit is true, and therefore you’re more likely to do it while not calling it evil. So it’s disguised narcissism. It’s denied rage. Pick any of the capital sins. As soon as you say, “Well, I’m not that way,” you probably are. That’s what we mean by shadow. It’s those things you’re unable to see or you are unwilling to see until you have to, until you have a mirror raised up to your face. It’s that part of yourself that you do not want to see. So that holding up the mirror is doing shadow work. It’s necessary.
And now some people have the honesty and the humility to do it themselves, but I would say that’s a minority. Usually you need a partner, a marriage. That’s why marriage is the most reliable vocation. Your husband, your wife is a mirror for you after three years to help you see that you’re not a very loving man at all, or loving woman. Probably why a lot of marriages don’t last.
Brett McKay: Okay, marriage can be a way for us to figure out what our shadow is. Other people can tell us. But I imagine just like self-reflection can help you get there too. And the goal is not to kill the shadow. That would be a first life view approach, right? I’m going to conquer it.
Richard Rohr: Very good, very good. Yes.
Brett McKay: It’s to integrate it somehow.
Richard Rohr: Yes. You know, when I was on my last speaking tour in Germany, I saw many images of the classic St. Michael on his horse, or at least with the sword, or killing a dragon. That’s a first half of life approach to evil. And the Germans in their art had a second image, which is less prominent usually than the image of St. Michael or even St. George, who were both male symbols of power killing evil, killing the dragon. It’s St. Martha. Very few people know about this. And she’s always taming the dragon, feeding the dragon. Let me use other words. Reconciling the dragon, making a friend of the dragon, learning what the dragon has to teach you. I tell the men on the initiation rites when I use to give them, “Don’t get rid of your sin until you’ve learned what it has to teach you.” That’s the way of Martha, taming the dragon instead of killing it, because you never kill it anyway. That’s an illusion.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s often like a hydra. It just grows back again.
Richard Rohr: Yeah. That’s perfect, perfect. Yes.
Brett McKay: We’ve been talking about what men can start doing to integrate themselves, kind of get on the second half. Well, they can’t get there on their own, they have to fall into it. But what can men who are fathers that are listening to this, what can they do to help their sons, I don’t know, be sensitive or be aware that three is a second half of life? It’s basically how can fathers teach their sons this kind of soul work that you’re talking about?
Richard Rohr: Well, forgive me if the answer’s going to sound naïve, but spirituality in general is not taught, although that doesn’t hurt if it’s a little bit, it’s caught. It’s caught energetically, where a little boy in the backseat of the car is watching constantly without even knowing he’s watching, how the father reacts in a rageful situation, if he’s afraid to pray or can speak comfortably and helpfully of God. You can only give away what you have become. So I think the emphasis for any man should be, “I got to do my growing up work myself.”
I’ve been using recently, and I won’t have time to explain this, the four categories of Ken Wilber, as the description of all spirituality too. He calls it cleaning up, stage one, growing up, stage two, waking up, stage three, overcoming your separateness and your superiority, stage four, showing up. Today we call that giving back, giving back people who are working for Habitat for Humanity or whatever it might be. That’s a mature person who has integrated the whole world of spirit enough, he has an excess of life, so that he has plenty to give away. But a father can only model that, but a boy wants it so bad that if he doesn’t see it in his father, which he often won’t, he will look for it in his grandfather, where it’s more commonly there at his age. Or in men outside the family, like a Cub Scout coach or a basketball coach.
Brett McKay: No, finding it in your grandfather. There’s a sociologist said that every generation rebels against their father and makes friends with their grandfathers. Well Richard, where can people go to learn more about your work?
Richard Rohr: Oh, well we’re here in Albuquerque, the Center for Action and Contemplation. That long cumbersome title becomes our website address, CAC, Center for Action and Contemplation, CAC.org. Another Name for Everything is our recent podcast on my last book, The Universal Christ. Probably the biggest thing, it’s approaching half a million people every day, is my Daily Meditations, which are free. But you just go to CAC.org, you’ll see there.
Brett McKay: Well Richard Rohr, thanks for so much time. It’s been a pleasure.
Richard Rohr: Very good to talk to you, Brett. God bless you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Father Richard Rohr. He’s the author of several books. Just go to Amazon.com, look up Richard Rohr. He’s got a ton of them. If you’re looking for the books on male spirituality, there’s From Wild Man to Wise Man, Adam’s Return, and On the Threshold of Transformation. And if you’re intrigued by that concept, by the first half and second half of life, check out Falling Upward. And you can also check out his website, CAC.org, for more information about his work. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/rohr, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM Podcast. Check out our website at ArtOfManliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives. There’s over 500 episodes there, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about personal finances, health and fitness, how to be a better husband, better father. We also have articles on male spirituality there as well. And if you like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the Art of Manliness Podcast, you can do so only on Stitcher Premium. Go to StitcherPremium.com, use promo code MANLINESS to get one month free of Stitcher Premium. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on iOS or Android, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Again, that’s StitcherPremium.com, promo code MANLINESS, for a month free of Stitcher Premium.
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