Richard Rohr, Essential Teachings on Love, Orbis, 2018. 263 pp. $22
By Anne M. Windholz
Richard Rohr’s Essential Teachings on Love is a compilation of thematically arranged excerpts from his writings and talks over the years. Divided into four large sections — “Love as Foundation,” “Loving Others,” “Loving Self,” and “Loving Everything” — the book follows the chronology of Rohr’s life. The collection, not surprisingly, addresses major themes of Rohr’s teaching: the power of incarnational love; love and suffering as the great spiritual teachers; the spiritually crippling impact of religion’s “worthiness” myth; and the relational nature of the Trinitarian God.
He entertains what he calls “alternative orthodoxy,” engaging with key but also controversial figures in 20th-century Catholicism — Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day — as well as giants of his own Franciscan tradition: Duns Scotus, Bonaventure, and of course Francis himself. While he maintains an essential — he calls it “conservative” — Catholic identity in revering the real presence in the Eucharist, he also embraces ecumenism and interreligious dialogue in the most small-c catholic sense. Paradox, Rohr notes, is our nature.
For chaplains who understand their vocation as Catholic, Rohr shows how an expansive faith that embraces all peoples and spiritualities can be grounded in Catholic tradition, education, and world view. He readily embraces the wisdom of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other world religions. His observations have much to teach those of us serving within often inspiring, always fallible, and sometimes frail human institutions. Rohr’s intense compassion for those marginalized in our society —the LGBTQ community, the prisoner, the poor and the voiceless —models an open-hearted acceptance that every chaplain should emulate. His attentive study of Twelve-Step spirituality makes him a valuable resource to chaplains companioning anyone suffering from addiction. Rohr understands that the power of presence is greater than that of words, a lesson we learn early as chaplains.
Of course, Rohr’s own work as lecturer, writer, and teacher is all about words — and this book cannot avoid underscoring certain pitfalls in his own practice. His arguments against the “false self” and in favor of the “True Self” sometimes veer dangerously close to the very dualism and labeling that he attacks as destructive. And the book as a whole occasionally slips into an unintentional hagiography that makes Rohr — rather than God — the center. Even Rohr’s admission of his weaknesses and mistakes cannot quite eradicate the occasional sense that Rohr needs to become less, so his subject — love of God, love by God, and love for each other — can become more.
But Rohr is a powerful, prolific, and impassioned messenger. His counter-cultural emphasis on vulnerability and mutuality speaks to the heart of chaplaincy. Heeding his closing words, may we be guided as chaplains and disciples of Christ: “Never doubt that it is all about love in the end.”
Anne M. Windholz, MDiv, PhD, BCC, is a staff chaplain at AMITA Health Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village, IL.