The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder

By Richard Rohr. Franciscan Media, 2020. 224 pages. $18.99/paperback; $9.99/eBook.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, is a widely admired spiritual writer who seeks in his work to encourage an engaged, informed Christianity in which contemplative practice enables the confrontation of social justice issues. He speaks of “incarnational mysticism,” and has decried Christian teachings that uphold an exploitative relationship between humans and the rest of creation, and teachings that fear our physicality and diversity.

The Wisdom Pattern begins with a diagnostic analysis of our times, in which the long-known structures of order and authority are dissolving throughout society, with associated social and personal disorientations. Rohr emphasizes how postmodernism’s deconstruction of meanings and certainties of modernity both expresses and contributes to the decline of the legitimacy of institutions and of confidence. He argues that there is in this time of turmoil an opportunity to embrace a renewed understanding of the gospel, whose logic is “more spacious and filled with compassion than any system of thought that the world has been able to create. Why would anyone settle for the small mind of rationalism or the no-mind of non-rationalism? This is the Great Mind of Christ.”

Rohr draws extensively on biblical material to argue that our fears, our sense of dislocation and victimhood, and our divided selves all represent an opportunity to move towards a wholeness more deeply grounded in the experience of God’s presence: “faith only builds on that totally positive place within, however small. It needs an interior ‘Yes’ to begin . . . just a mustard-seed-sized place that is in love, that is open to grace, that is thrilled, that has found something wonderful.” He argues that “faith, however, allows us to hold the tension until we can recognize the true evil—of which we are a part. That’s foundational to all compassionate and nonviolent thinking.” 

Over and over, Rohr exhorts his readers to reinterpret traditional verities and human dilemmas in light of recent critical social theory, to understand the process of deconstruction as allowing us to re-vision the radical nature of the gospel and of prophetic religion. 

Rohr applies his teaching to our relationship with the earth as well (“the Great Chain of Being”), to the experience and power of forgiveness, and to the need for structures and boundaries that support the flourishing of abundant spiritual life (“Limits are good teachers”).

The limit he endorses most strongly is the acceptance of our own limited understandings, recognizing that our world—including human nature—is much more complex than we can ever comprehend and capture in formulae and systems of thought. In this connection, he quotes Erasmus: “Is it not possible to have fellowship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, without being able to explain philosophically the distinction between them?” Focusing on Christian love as the foundation of authentic religion, Erasmus represents the “reconstruction” strand of Catholicism: reform that obeys the constraints of love, in all their intricacies, such that the church is no longer the servant of the rich and powerful. 

In order to do this work honestly, Rohr argues, we must learn to live in appreciation of the shadowlands: that is, to accept our own faults and imperfections as well as those of our institutions and culture. Rohr teaches not to acquiesce but rather to understand their functions and their power in our lives so realistically that we are able to transform ourselves out of their grip. Knowing and naming our brokenness is necessary to healing.

The tone of the book is engaging and accessible: the tone, I may say, of good Catholic homilies I have heard over the years. This is a passionate but not an angry book. Much of what Rohr teaches will feel familiar to Friends, even when it is put in very Catholic terms (and Rohr does not shy away from critiquing Catholic structures and culture), though I am not sure I ever found a clear articulation of what the “wisdom pattern” is. 

While I enjoyed spending some time in Rohr’s company, I could not help feeling that the Quakerism of Fox, Penington, Woolman, and others has something which Rohr needs: a method of transformation that goes beyond the helpful change of worldview that Rohr encourages. I recall Christopher Story’s comment, as he was searching among earnest teachers for an authentic religion: “They could tell what sin was . . . but [as to] how to come out of sin, which was the thing I wanted to know, here they left me at a loss.” Still, Rohr speaks as an earnest, committed person of our times: committed to justice, peace, and right stewardship of the earth, and to living a spirituality that serves those goals.  

Brian Drayton worships with Souhegan (N.H.) Meeting. He blogs at 

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