Interview with Richard Rohr & Brian McLaren on aging


Considering Richard Rohr’s global influence as a spiritual teacher, many readers may be surprised that this 68-year-old Franciscan friar lives in a little cottage in Albuquerque, not far from his Center for Action and Contemplation. In two years, when he’s 70, he plans to withdraw even further from the world—ending his restless travel schedule as a part of his carefully planned retirement.

We’re used to in-your-face spiritual teachers like Joel Osteen and Deepak Chopra, who revel in the spotlight and the flood of resources that come from their best-selling careers. Rohr is teaching us something quite different—a spiritual model for living that’s more attuned to our ordinary lives.

Rohr is not alone! America is getting older—in ever-more-modest circumstances, sociologists tell us. The brightest of our spiritual sages, at last, are turning to the dreaded question of aging. They’re telling us that all of life—the whole aging process—includes spiritual gifts at every stage. In fact, this summer, Richard Rohr’s longtime friend Brian McLaren writes about the stages of life’s journey represented by the “12 Words” in his new book, which our readers are writing about this week. Rohr is writing about the stages as “2 Halves of Life.” The two writers are longtime friends.

So, in an unusual author interview today, we’re welcoming both Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr to talk with us about Richard’s new book. (Here’s a link to our original interview with Brian if you’d like to compare insights.)


RICHARD ROHRDAVID: We are going to publish an unusual interview with both of you guys—assembling the final text from our two individual telephone interviews. I’m going to give Brian an opportunity to pose some questions to you, Richard, and here’s the first one …

Richard, you write about moving from “simplicity” to “complexity” and back again to a “second simplicity”—or we might call it harmony or awe—in life’s last stage. You argue that, if we’re willing to accept this spiritual gift, we can discover it right there as a natural part of the aging process. In your words from the book, Richard: “We need to hold together all the stages of life including the necessary complexities, and for some strange wonderful reason, it all becomes quite simple as we approach our later years.”

In Brian’s book, he writes about his own early years and then he adds: “Now, almost four decades later, I cringe when I hear the teachings that were standard fare back then. I have discarded those theological wineskins, but I treasure more than ever the wine of the Spirit that was somehow conveyed to me through them. That suit of theological clothing doesn’t fit me anymore but the naked spirituality that sustains me today originally came to me dressed in it.”

It feels to me, as a reader, as though you two are writing the same story—as your two lives appear to converge.

RICHARD: I consider Brian a dear brother. Think of how he comes from an evangelical background and I come from a Franciscan Catholic background—so this truly is an example of the emerging Christianity. Yes, we’re on the same page—sharing many of the same details! It’s amazing!

DAVID: We often tell readers that ReadTheSpirit is engaged in bringing a “national conversation” to the public. I’d say that right now you two are converging within that larger conversation about where we’re all headed.

RICHARD: That sure makes sense. There clearly is an evolution of consciousness taking place. We’re moving beyond tribal thinking. The tribal frame doesn’t work for a large percentage of us anymore. Much of the last 2000 years was lived inside that frame whether we were Protestant or Catholic or Jewish—or whatever religious frame we might have felt around us. I don’t think it’s because people are especially angry or rebellious or iconoclastic now. But, there’s a different feel now to the ways we can talk with each other.

DAVID: I agree completely. And in this new freedom to talk honestly, we can tackle the really enormous issues we’re all facing—like the spiritual meaning of getting older. That’s the truth of American culture right now, although people dread even thinking about it. Independently of each other, you two have come up with two different metaphors.

BRIAN McLARENBRIAN: Richard is writing about this idea of spirituality representing two halves of life, which is his way of expressing this. I came up with my own four stages that I’m describing, related to my 12 words. Richard and I are good friends and I know we’re laughing about this, because we’re talking about something so similar. I could argue that the first two of my four stages are what he calls the first half of life—and my second two stages are his second half of life.

RICHARD: I want to go reread exactly how Brian describes the 12 words and four stages, but from what I recall as we’re talking—yes, I do think his stages overlap with what I’m teaching. However we name them, these ideas can be found in many religious traditions.

When I was teaching in India some years ago, I was taken to see a church in Bangalore where there were four unusual stained-glass windows. They weren’t your standard Catholic stained-glass windows; these four showed stages of life that go back a long way in Indian culture: the student, the householder and then— Well, at that point, most Americans assume that’s all there is to life. In our culture, we think that the meaning of life is to get married, set up a household, then hold it all together and wait for the grandchildren to arrive. But in this church, there were windows showing a third and fourth stage of life beyond the householder. The third window showed the forest dweller—the mature person who, in what I would call the second half of life, goes beyond the home base of the dominant culture. Then, there was a fourth window—an image of the sage or wise person.

I would say that both Brian and I—and these images I’m describing from the windows I recall in India—are all overlapping in describing a spiritual trajectory for life. It really doesn’t matter whether we count these stages as 2 or 4 or 6 or 12—the truth comes through.


DAVID: There’s something else that’s amazing—and rather daring, I think—in what you two are saying about aging. You’re both writing about life’s goal as being both larger—and smaller—than the typical 10 Keys to Success we keep finding in get-rich bestsellers. You’re writing about living a good life, but your vision of goodness isn’t defined by wealth or even by power. You’re describing a good life as a natural journey from our first big hopes for adulthood to final years of relatively quiet satisfaction and growing spiritual wisdom. I’ll bet that neither of you could have written these books earlier in your careers.

BRIAN: Yes, absolutely. I started grappling with these things when, as a pastor, I was trying to understand what people in my congregation were going through. In historic churches, there is a catechesis process that we put people through but usually that ends at the beginning of adulthood. The irony is that we don’t have much of a spiritual formation framework for adults in most churches. We don’t help people to see the much larger, longer sweep of our spiritual journey.

As a pastor I realized that this was an aching void. You would think that for a religion 2000 years old, there would be a lot more common knowledge about spiritual formation across an entire life and it’s surprising how little is common knowledge. We actually do have resources in our tradition but we need to bring them back to the surface. That’s what Richard and I and many others are trying to do. We’re trying to provide some framework for a birth-to-death process of spiritual formation.

RICHARD: Brian says that so well—so clearly. There isn’t a word Brian said there that I would disagree with. It’s true for Catholics, too. All that money Catholics contribute to grade-school education seems to give people permission to solidify and ossify at that level of thinking. Too many people assume that we’ve reached a mature Christianity just because we have memorized all the catechism answers. We have a lot of adult Catholics today who have remained right there at very immature levels of transformation just repeating phrases they learned as children. It’s rather sad, but many of these people assume that a grade-school-level of understanding is the nature of faith throughout an entire life.

Now, before Catholics complain about what I’m saying, let me be clear: Just like Brian in his response, I’m picking on Catholics here because that’s my tradition. I’ve been a priest for more than 40 years and I know how much wisdom we have in our tradition. We must help people to rediscover that. We can’t keep stopping at immature levels of education and missing the entire arc of life.


DAVID: I want to return to what Richard just described as the “forest dweller” and what the Buddhist writer Geri Larkin calls the “ox-herding practice”—the deliberate decision to down-scale as we age. We’re not talking here about that painful downsizing when we reach the frail stage at the very end and we’re forced to cut back and move into a health-care facility. No, we’re talking about something more radical and intentional—deciding to move off center stage, live more simply and allow other people to shine in all of their active, mid-life glory. Every year or so, we’re privileged to have Geri Larkin appear somewhere in the pages of ReadTheSpirit. I know you two haven’t read her books, but I’d say that her writing, in particular, underlines that this spiritual wisdom is broader than Christianity.

BRIAN: When we talk about ox herding, or whatever you want to call that kind of approach to later life, we’re talking about something so very different from the image we usually celebrate of people addicted to our own importance. Most people can’t bear to go from prominence to obscurity.

But I think that is part of a natural aging process. I feel this already. I am now more concerned about my kids’ success than my own success. This is something Richard is talking and writing about: the nature of this elder stage, where you have something to offer but you don’t need to go out there and market it in the way people feel they need to do when young. I think of someone like Walter Brueggemann. Anyone who has ever tried to get Walter to speak at some event knows that it’s like you need a crowbar to physically pry him out of his silence. He’s so much the opposite of people who feel they can’t possibly step off center stage.

I’d like to hear Richard share some of the things he’s thinking about in this regard. It’s so interesting that he is at a very similar moment in his work.

RICHARD: First, we need to say that this approach is there in our Christian tradition—if we pay attention to it and bring it back to the surface for people. I see this happening when Jesus approaches James and John, Peter and Andrew. The text makes it clear these guys are adult men with an occupation, with links to family and the work they do in the community. They are householders and Jesus is clearly leading them beyond that. He’s not calling them to join a church down on the corner. He’s leading them to a new phase of life with no clear description or definition. Talk about an open horizon! Why would they leave their family and occupation? In a subsistence economy like that 2000 years ago, their decision seems almost unbelievable. Yet, they responded and left behind business as usual.

I turn 70 in two years, in March 2013, and both the Franciscans and the Center know that I’m going to stop all the traveling I’ve been doing. Thank you for telling me about Geri’s story, because it gives me courage to know about more people who have done this. I am planning now for that demarcation in my own life. Now, I’d be foolish to say that something won’t come up where I absolutely have to travel somewhere later in life, but I’m describing my plan, my hope and desire.

DAVID: I don’t want to spoil your books for readers, but there’s a convergence even toward the end of your books. Brian writes about a 12th word: silence. And, in chapter 26 of Brian’s book, he quotes you, Richard, about silence: “Silence is the language of God, and the only language deep enough to absorb all the contradictions and failures that we are holding against ourselves. God loves us silently because God has no case to make against us. The silent communion absorbs our self-hatred, as every lover knows.”

RICHARD: Silence. Wow. We can talk forever on that, but it’s a good question to raise here. Silence is the only thing big enough, deep enough and wide enough to move us beyond argumentative dualism. True silence is an inner experience, not primarily an outer experience. You come to that inner silence and you can hold a lot more contradictions and conflicts. But silence is absolutely frightening to us. Most people have no training in silence whatsoever and that’s a disaster if we hope to be healers and peacemakers. You can’t get to the level of peacemaking where reconciling and healing takes place if we stay in the world of words. Words are dualistic. They distinguish this form and that form. That’s why education based on words is not the same as transformation. You and I both know people who hold doctorates and are stuck back in first-half-of-life thinking. But at the highest level of all the world’s religion, in the end we do find a healing silence.

Care to read more on Richard Rohr?

Visit Rohr’s home website: His Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was founded in the 1980s and deliberately places the word “Action” in front of the word “Contemplation.” That’s a key to Rohr’s life-long approach to spiritual teaching.

Get the new book: You can order Richard Rohr’s new Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life from Amazon now.

Want more on Brian McLaren?

OTHER BRIAN McLAREN BOOKS and INTERVIEWS are described in our Brian McLaren Small Group Resources page..

(Originally published at, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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