Book review: "Eager to Love" by Richard Rohr

Richard Rohr was introduced to me by a Twitter friend of mine, @calvinjburke. Here are just a few of the positive endorsements that have come across my feed:

For some reason, I didn’t start with Falling Upward, instead serendipitously picking Eager to Love, which deals with the life of Francis of Assisi. If you’ve followed my reviews over the past year, Francis is someone I have found to embody the kind of Christianity I think is true. I first found Francis in Chesterton’s quick biography of the saint, where he states:

That was the point the Pope had to settle; whether Christendom should absorb Francis or Francis Christendom. And he decided rightly… for the Church could include all that was good in the Franciscans and the Franciscans could not include all that was good in the Church… Every heresy has been an effort to narrow the Church. If the Franciscan movement had turned into a new religion, it would after all have been a narrow religion.

This is the first thing that struck me about Franciscanism, is that Francis and his followers remained in the Church, yet stayed outside the mainstream. While not openly criticizing the Church and its leaders, their very lifestyle was a critique. This was a model I had been looking for. Rohr comments on this same effect of Franciscans, noting their heterodoxy, not heresy:

A heterodox opinion is what we would now call a minority opinion. It is not deemed wrong or heretical or rebellious as such, but is simply not the mainstream thought. In that clear sense, Franciscanism has invariably been heterodox, but we usually kept that quiet…

So any debates about Franciscan spirituality were not usually oppositional but had to do with what was stressed and how it was stressed, which makes a not of difference in your practical ethos and imaginal world.

I feel that doctrinally, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leaves a lot of room for variations of belief– I believe Elder Uchtdorf used the term umbrella to describe it– but in practice, we insist on a bland uniformity. We have models other than Saint Francis, Lowell Bennion being a good example. But Catholicism has been at this a lot longer than us, and has quite a few examples of staying unified in the faith while allowing inner critique. I think Oaks wasn’t entirely fair when he said there is no such thing in religion as a “loyal opposition.”

More recently, I read Daring to Cross the Threshold, which emphasizes Francis’s encounter with the Sultan during the Crusades as a model of inter-religious dialogue. Rohr also has a short chapter on that, focusing on Francis’s statement regarding is opposition to the wars of the Crusades: If I tell them they will consider me a food, but if I am silent, I cannot escape my own conscience.

Rohr himself can speak very in-depth about Francis and Franciscanism because he is a Franciscan. But his purpose in writing the book is to revive the spirit of Francis even within his own order, which has either caved into many of the elements Francis critiqued, or fallen prey to its own idiosyncrasies. Rohr quotes Morris West in the afterword:

The work he began still continues… but it is not the same. The revolution is over. The revolutionaries have become conformists. The little brothers of the Little Poor Man are rattling alms boxes in the railway square or dealing in real estate to the profit of the Order… Of course, this is not the whole story. They teach, they preach, they do the work of God as best they know, but it is no longer a revolution, and I think we need one now.

There were a few other surprises about Francis in Rohr’s book too. For instance, Rohr talks about the doctrine of theosis or becoming like God, which we as Latter-day Saints often think ourselves unique (and get branded heretics for). Rohr explains quotes Christ:

“Is it not written in your own law, ‘You are gods?’ Don’t accuse me of heresy here; Jesus said that!… To be a Christian is to objectively know that we share the same identity that Jesus enjoyed as both human and divine, which is what it means to ‘follow’ him. I, in fact, believe that this is the whole point of the Gospel and the Incarnation! (Read John 14 and 15 in their entirely, lest you think I am overstating my position, or study the early Fathers of the Eastern Church, who got this much more clearly than the Western Church.)”

Rohr also explains the motivation for Francis’s radical refusal to take part in consumer culture and live a life of poverty. While doing so isn’t practical for the everyday Christian– at least, for those of us who have families to provide for– I do think that we can take inspiration in Francis in what decisions we make about our careers and how we spend our time. Rohr explains:

When you agree to live simply, you have time for spiritual and corporeal works of mercy because you have renegotiated in your mind and heart your very understanding of time and its purposes. Time is not money anymore, despite the common aphorism! Time is life itself.

And of course, the absolute central message to Rohr’s book is that the gospel is at its core about love. Love is the only thing that can truly change people:

Love is not love until you stop expecting something back. The moment you want something in return for giving, all love is weakened and prostituted. This is the nature of the divine energy that transforms; it is inherently contagious, and it is holiness itself. This is Francis and Clare.

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