The phrase “spirituality of subtraction” was inspired by Meister Eckhart, the medieval Dominican mystic. He wrote that the spiritual life has much more to do with subtraction than it does with addition. Yet, I think most Christians today are involved, in great part, in a spirituality of addition and, in that, they are not very traditional or conservative at all.
The capitalist worldview is the only one most of us have ever known. We see reality, experiences, events, other people, and things-in fact, every thing-as objects for our personal consumption. Even religion, Scripture, sacraments, worship services, and meritorious deeds become ways to advance ourselves—not necessarily ways to love God or neighbor.
The nature of the capitalist mind is that things (and often people!) are there for me. Finally, even God becomes an object for my consumption. Religion looks good on my resume, and anything deemed spiritual is a check on my private worthiness list. Some call it spiritual consumerism. It is not the Gospel.
Father Richard makes a distinction between first-half-of-life and second-half-of-life spirituality:
Most cultures are first-half-of-life cultures, and even sadder, most organized religions almost necessarily sell a first-half-of-life spirituality. In the first half of life, it is all about me: How can I be important? How can I be safe? How can I make money? How can I look attractive? And, in the Christian scenario, how can I think well of myself and go to heaven? How can I be on moral high ground? These are all ego questions; they are not the questions of the soul. It is still well-disguised narcissism, or even sanctified narcissism, which is surely the worst kind.
I’m sad to say, I think many Christians have never moved beyond these survival and security questions. Even “wanting to go to heaven” is language for securing my future, not a shared future, or a common future for humanity; religion becomes a private insurance plan for that future. It’s still all about me, but piously disguised. It’s not really about love at all!
Any sense of being part of a cosmos, a historical sweep, or that God is doing something bigger and better than simply saving individual souls (my soul in particular), is largely of no interest. This becomes apparent in the common disinterest of so many when it comes to Earth care, building real community, simple living, and almost all peace and justice issues. For many Christians—stuck in the first half of life—all that is important is their private moral superiority and spiritual “safety,” which is somehow supposed to “save” them. It creates what I am now calling a “cult of innocence,” not any real human or divine solidarity. 
Once God and grace move us to the second half of life, religion becomes much more a mystical matter rather than a moral matter. Then it’s about union with all and participation in and with God. Indeed, this is the work of true religion: to help us transition from stage to stage, toward ever-deeper union with God and all things.
Those who fall into the safety net of silence find that it is not at all a fall into individualism. True prayer or contemplation is instead a leap into commonality and community. We know that what we are experiencing can only be held by the Whole and we are not alone anymore. We are merely a part, and as such a very grateful and totally satisfied part. This is “the peace the world cannot give” (see John 14:27).
Real silence moves us from knowing things to perceiving a Presence that imbues all things. Could this be God? When we begin to experience a mutuality between ourselves and all things, we have begun to understand the nature of Spirit. God refuses to be known as any kind of object, but only as a mutuality.
 The phrase “cult of innocence” was coined in a tweet by author and pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, and is explored in depth in Brian McLaren’s new book Do I Stay Christian?.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, A Spring within Us: A Book of Daily Meditations (Albuquerque, NM: CAC Publishing, 2016), 87–88, 208.
The first chapter of the Gospel according to John talks a lot about light. Light is a common theological metaphor throughout Scripture. John opens up his version of the events of Jesus’s life exploring this metaphor, and applying it to the coming of Jesus.
John the Baptist has come to “testify to the light” that was on its way. John’s witness is to point to “the true light, which enlightens everyone.” The divine light Jesus was going to be bringing into the world was such that no darkness would be able to overcome it.
When light and darkness are used as theological metaphors, they are often used to describe the concepts of belief and unbelief. “Light” describes believing; “darkness” describes unbelief. But it is a metaphor and as such it has its limits.
The limits of the metaphor really hit home for me when one of my seminary classmates explained why it really didn’t work for her to think about light and dark as a binary reality. Jen is legally blind. For her, being in a room that is lit typically actually makes it harder for her to see. Light at that level causes her pain. She needs the lights to be dimmed in order to see more clearly.
Hearing Jen talk about how the metaphor of light and darkness feels to her was very helpful for me. I still embrace and affirm the metaphor, but with a qualifier. Jen’s insight helped me realize a very important truth:
Everything we say about God is a metaphor.
As soon as we start talking about God we place limits on God’s identity, the limits of human language. Theology is an attempt to describe the indescribable. God is infinite, present everywhere at once, the creator of all that is and ever will be.
And so we embrace metaphor, and it is good! For yes indeed, the light has come into the world, and no darkness will ever overcome it.
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.
Father Richard describes his spiritual development as a “pilgrim’s progress,” with God using the circumstances of his life—particularly his international ministry and travel—to expand his vision, heart, and mind:
As I moved in ever-widening circles around the world, the solid ground of the perennial tradition never really shifted. It was only the lens, the criteria, the inner space, and the scope that continued to expand. I was always being moved toward greater differentiation and larger viewpoints, and simultaneously toward a greater inclusivity in my ideas, a deeper understanding of people, and a more honest sense of justice. God always became bigger and led me to bigger places. If God could “include” and allow, then why not I? If God asked me to love unconditionally and universally, then it was clear that God operated in the same way.
Soon there was a much bigger world for me than the United States and the Roman Catholic Church, which I eventually realized also contained paradoxes. The e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”) on American coinage did not include very many of its own people (women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ people, poor folks, people with disabilities, and so many more). As a Christian I finally had to be either Roman or catholic, and I continue to choose the catholic end of that spectrum—remember, catholic means universal. Either Jesus is the “savior of the world” (John 4:42), or he is not much of a savior at all. Either America treats the rest of the world and its own citizens democratically, or it does not really believe in democracy at all. That’s the way I see it.
But this slow process of transformation and the realizations that came with it were not either-or decisions; they were great big both-and realizations. None of it happened without much prayer, self-doubt, study, and conversation. The journey itself led me to a deepening sense of holiness, freedom, and wholeness. Although I didn’t begin thinking this way, I now hope and believe that a kind of second simplicity is the very goal of mature adulthood and mature religion.
My small, personal viewpoint as a central reference for anything, or for rightly judging anything, gradually faded as life went on. The very meaning of the word universe is to “turn around one thing.” I know I am not that one thing. There is Big Truth in this universe, and it certainly isn’t mine.
Mature religions, and now some scientists, say that we are hardwired for the Big Picture, for transcendence, for ongoing growth, for union with ourselves and everything else. Either God is for everybody, and the divine DNA is somehow in all creatures, or this God is not God by any common definition, or even much of a god at all. We are driven toward ever higher levels of union and ability to include, even if some of us go kicking and screaming. “Everything that rises must converge,” as Teilhard de Chardin put it. 
 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man, trans. Norman Denny (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 192.
Pain teaches a most counterintuitive thing that we must go down before we even know what up is. It is first an ordinary wound before it can become a sacred wound. Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our arrogance and our ignorance. I would define suffering very simply as whenever we are not in control.
All healthy religion shows us what to do with our pain. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If our religion is not showing us how to transform our pain, it is junk religion. It is no surprise that a crucified man became the central symbol of Christianity.
If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter because we will be wounded. That is a given. All suffering is potentially redemptive, all wounds are potentially sacred wounds. It depends on what we do with them. Can we find God in them or not?
If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somehow in it and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down, and the second half of our lives will, quite frankly, be small and silly.
+Adapted from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, p. 25.
The sin warned against at the very beginning of the Bible is “to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17). It does not sound like that should be a sin at all, does it? But the moment I sit on my throne, where I know with certitude who the good guys and the bad guys are, then I’m capable of great evil-while not thinking of it as evil! I have eaten of a dangerous tree, according to the Bible. Don’t judge, don’t label, don’t rush to judgment. You don’t usually know other people’s real motives or intentions. You hardly know your own.
The author of the classic book The Cloud of Unknowing says that first you have to enter into “the cloud of forgetting.” Forget all your certitudes, all your labels, all your explanations, whereby you’ve put this person in this box, determined this group is going to heaven, decided this race is superior to that race. Just forget it. It’s largely a waste of time. It’s usually your ego projecting itself, announcing itself, and protecting itself. It has little to do with objective reality or real love of the truth.
If the world and the world’s religions do not learn this kind of humility and patience very soon, I think we’re in historical trouble.
A very little bit of God goes an awfully long way. When another’s experience of God isn’t exactly the way I would describe it, it doesn’t mean that they haven’t had an experience of God or that their experience is completely wrong. We have to remain with Francis’s prayer: “Who are you, God, and who am I?” Isn’t there at least ten percent of that person’s experience of God with which I can agree? Can’t I at least say, “I wish I could experience God in that way”?
What characterizes anyone who has had just a little bit of God is that they always want more of that experience! Could it not be that this Hindu, this Sufi, this charismatic, this Jew has, in fact, touched upon the same eternal Mystery that I am seeking? Can’t we at least give one another the benefit of the doubt? I can be somewhat patient with people who think they have the truth. The problem for me is when they think they have the whole truth.
The mystic probably represents the old shibboleth, “Those who really know don’t speak too quickly. Those who speak too quickly don’t really know.”
+Adapted from Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate… Seeing God in All Things (Recording).
Father Richard teaches that a practice of contemplation carries us into the “Big River” of God’s love and enables us to release our fears.
Grace and mercy teach us that we are all much larger than the good or bad stories we tell about ourselves or one another. Our small, fear-based stories are usually less than half true, and therefore not really “true” at all. They’re usually based on hurts and unconscious agendas that persuade us to see and judge things in a very selective way. They’re not the whole You, not the Great You, and therefore not where Life can really happen. No wonder the Spirit is described as “flowing water” and as “a spring inside you” (John 4:10–14) or as a “river of life” (Revelation 22:1–2).
I believe that faith might be precisely that ability to trust the Big River of God’s providential love, which is to trust its visible embodiment (the Christ), the flow (the Holy Spirit), and the source itself (the Creator). This is a divine process that we don’t have to change, coerce, or improve. We just need to allow it and enjoy it. That takes immense confidence in God, especially when we’re hurting. Often, we feel ourselves get panicky and quickly want to make things right. We lose our ability to be present and go up into our heads and start obsessing. At that point we’re not really feeling or experiencing things in our hearts and bodies. We’re oriented toward making things happen, trying to push or even create our own river. Yet the Big River is already flowing through us and each of us is only one small part of it.
Faith does not need to push the river precisely because it is able to trust that there is ariver. The river is flowing; we are already in it. This is probably the deepest meaning of “divine providence.” So do not be afraid. We have been proactively given the Spirit by a very proactive God.
Ask yourself regularly, “What am I afraid of? Does it matter? Will it matter in the great scheme of things? Is it worth holding on to?” We have to ask whether it is fear that keeps us from loving. Grace will lead us into such fears and emptiness, and grace alone can fill them, if we are willing to stay in the void. We mustn’t engineer an answer too quickly. We mustn’t get settled too fast. We all want to manufacture an answer to take away our anxiety and settle the dust. To stay in God’s hands, to trust, means that we usually have to let go of our attachments to feelings—which are going to pass away anyway. People of deep faith develop a high tolerance for ambiguity and come to recognize that it is only the small self that needs certitude or perfect order all the time. The Godself is perfectly at home in the River of Mystery.
Pure, unspoiled religion, in the eyes of God our Father, is this: to come to the help of orphans and widows when they need it and to keep free from the enticements of the system. -James 1:27
Whenever the human and the divine coexist, at the same time, in the same person, you have Christianity. I don’t know that it finally matters what Scriptures you read, liturgies you attend, or moral positions you hold about this or that, as much as it is how you live trustfully inside of God’s one world. This creates honest people, people who don’t waste time proving they’re right, superior, or saved. They just try to live and love the daily mystery that they are in the loving presence of God. “God comes to you disguised as your life,” as Paula D’Arcy proclaimed the first time we taught together. Imagine that!
There are basically four worldviews: (1) reality is just matter, (2) reality is just spirit, (3) through religion and morality, you can work to put matter and spirit together (the most common religious position), and (4) the mate rial world has always been the place where Spirit is revealed. You cannot put them together they already are together, as in Jesus. Only the fourth position, incarnationalism, deserves to be called authentic Christianity. It has little to do with the right rituals, only the right reality.
+Adapted from Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation (Recording). – Richard Rohr