September 21, 2020

Lent II: Richard Rohr on the Dance of Breath and Soil

Sweet Gum Spring

Lent II
Richard Rohr on the Dance of Breath and Soil

During Lent, on Sundays I’m sharing some things I’ve been learning from Richard Rohr.

Rohr is a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fr. Richard’s teaching is grounded in “Franciscan alternative orthodoxy,” which emphasizes both practices of contemplation and acts of radical compassion, particularly for those who are on the margins of society. Each day, in my inbox I receive daily meditations by Rohr that I’ve been keeping and through which I occasionally meander. I will be quoting from these and making comments for our Sunday times together.

Today, on this second Sunday of Lent, as spring creeps closer, we hear of two fundamental springtime realities: breath (wind) and soil. From the beginning of scripture to its end, these images describe human life animated by the Spirit of God. As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever.

7055514073_aa2a15b344_zThe whole process of living, dying, and then living again starts with Yahweh “breathing into clay,” which then becomes “a living being” (Genesis 2:7) called Adam (“of the earth”). A drama is forever set in motion between breath and what appears to be mere soil or earth (humus, human, adamah). The Formless One forever takes on form as “Adam” (and in Jesus “the new Adam”), and then takes us back to the Formless. Each form painfully surrenders the small self that it has known for a while and returns to its original shape in the Great Self we call God. “I am returning to take you with me, so that where I am you also may be,” says Jesus (John 14:3). This changing of forms is called death and resurrection, and the return is called ascension, although to us it just looks like loss.

After the resurrection when Jesus “breathed on” the fearful disciples and said, “Peace be with you. . . . Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:21-22), he was making a clear connection with the first creation of Adam. Jesus is now re-created. He is mimicking the creation story. Adam represents the great human forgetfulness and fragility. Christ is the great divine memory and strength. Humanity is being re-animated with what it always forgets; breath and soil, spirit and matter are again reminded that they are in fact one. God is again breathing into “the clay of the earth” (Genesis 2:7) and reminding it that it is never just earth and clay. This, of course, makes resurrection a foregone conclusion, because in fact Spirit can never die “and as we have borne the likeness of the earthly one, so we shall also bear the likeness of the heavenly one” (1 Corinthians 15:49). Jesus’ resurrection is not a one-time anomaly, but the regular and universal structure of reality revealed in one person.

…Christians call it incarnation, culminating in death, resurrection, and ascension. Whatever we call it, this process is about all of us, and surely all of creation, coming forth as individuals and then going back into God, into the Ground of all Being. This cyclical wholeness should make us unafraid of all death and uniquely able to appreciate life. “To God, all people are in fact alive,” as Jesus put it (Luke 20:38). We are just in different stages of that aliveness. One of these stages looks and feels like deadness–the phase that demands our greatest trust and surrender. And of course, if humanity is free we must always leave open the possibility that some could choose this permanent deadness, which we call “hell.” No one is in that state unless they choose to be.

…The Risen Christ represents the final form of every person who has walked the human journey on this earth.

And here we are, near spring.

Awaiting the wind to blow warmer days our way.

Awaiting the sun to shine its healing, transforming light.

Awaiting the soil to shake off its chill and hold the seeds in warm embrace.

Awaiting the rains to baptize us all and bring forth new life.


  1. Jesus’ resurrection is not a one-time anomaly, but the regular and universal structure of reality revealed in one person.

    Couldn’t disagree more. Jesus’ resurrection was the first, and the unique (because he, as the Incarnation of God in human being, was unique), event which provides the pattern for the rest of humanity and creation, which will follow in his train. What happened in his resurrection was a transcendence of death, a defeat of death: he has overcome death in his own death and resurrection. He has made all things new; the old has passed away. The “new structure of reality” does not include death. Death, and the cycles of birth and death, are out in his resurrection Kingdom.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Have you heard of a storytelling structure called “The Rule of Three”?
      Most familiar type example: “The Three Little Pigs”.

      In the Rule of Three, the story has three key scenes:
      The first (house of straw) introduces the pattern (huff, puff, and blow your house down).
      The second (house of sticks) establishes the pattern.
      The third and last (house of bricks) BREAKS the pattern.

      And Christ’s Resurrection was the Cosmic Third Scene.

  2. Not to belabor the point, but what happened in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus was, and is, not merely what has always happened in the cyclical structures of nature/reality. What happened in Jesus was unique and new, because it was first and because it was Jesus, who was unique, in whom it happened; and it was decisive, because it set the pattern for what follows in the new creation. That we may learn valuable lessons, and spiritual ones at that, from the cycles of birth and death in nature/reality, may certainly be true; to say that those lessons exhaust, or are coextensive with, Christian faith in the resurrected and ascended Jesus is misleading, and untrue.

    • I agree and think Rohr does too. The metaphor of nature’s life-death-rebirth cycle is applicable only once.

      • Unlike you, I haven’t read any of Rohr’s books, so you are more familiar with his overall teaching than I. But every quotation I’ve read from his various works has suggested just the opposite: that in his religious perspective, the person of Jesus Christ is subsumed into a framework of spiritual principles, and that the stories about Jesus, and the teachings about Jesus and of Jesus, derive their spiritual power from the fact that they tap into a wider spiritual truth that is available across religions. That is, the truth and power of Christianity is not in Jesus’ person, but in a set of universal principles.

        This disinclines me to read any of his books, because my own experience is that truth is Jesus Christ, and that grace, upon which my life and faith depends, is not a thing or principle, but a person.

        • Clay Crouch says

          Robert F, give him a try. Visit the website of his Center for Action and Contemplation. Listen and watch some of his talks. I would welcome your response.

          • Well, Clay, I took a moment to check out the website, as I have in the past. From what I can see, every talk requires registration and payment of a fee. As financially strapped as we are, I’m afraid that I lack the means to purchase into the talks/teachings/videos. That’s not a complaint, just the fact. Perhaps I could borrow a book through my library, and give him one try, as you suggest. But there are just so many books I’d like to read, and so little time, and energy.

      • I guess I look at it as Christ’s birth, life, death, & resurrection is the archtype (so to speak because I can’t think of a better word) that the rest of creation follows as it cycles through time, season after season, over & over. Birth, life, death, new birth, new life, new death, again and again. Christ’s death was not the end but the start of a new beginning much the same way that the birth of a baby is the end of a pregnancy.

        Or maybe I’m talking in circles and making no sense at all!

        • Well, it is circular and cyclical, if you’re using those categories; the Hindus and Buddhists call it the Wheel of Death and Rebirth. But in Christ, the wheel is rolling forward, it has direction, toward the New Jerusalem, the New Heavens and Earth, which is a definitive departure from and escape from the processes of existence that tend to cycle, but go nowhere except…well, in circles.

          • Well, yes. Moves forward, but doesn’t stop at least in our earthly lifetimes. The cycles of life and rebirth here on earth remind me that in Jesus, God shows himself physically to be a part of us, part of our earthly cycles, (or rather we are part of him) not just some nebulous being out there somewhere.

  3. Over the years I have been asked to speak, “preach”, at three funerals or memorials, all three for apparently non-practicing, a-religious people, one of them my father. Looking back, I gave it my best shot with what I had available at the time, but I’m not happy with any of the three and would like a mulligan, a do over. I can’t think of a better text to read at a funeral with my kind of people than this piece by Richard above. Probably wouldn’t have flown at the Evangelical funeral I attended recently, Battle Hymn of the Republic and all, tho amazingly, not Amazing Grace.

    Considering the attenders at all three of the services I spoke at, I’m guessing that most of them would not have understood Richard’s words intellectually very well, but would have responded positively to the truth of them. I’m also guessing that a lot of self-identified Christians would have trouble with Richard for the same reason a lot of people had trouble with Jesus as he walked in alternate paths of orthodoxy.

    • ” I’m guessing that most of them would not have understood Richard’s words intellectually very well, but would have responded positively to the truth of them ”

      a very thoughtful comment, CHARLES

  4. Steve Newell says

    On Friday, my 80 year old father died in the faith. While we mourned for the lose of his love, bad jokes, and bad forwarded email, we know that he was ready to be with Christ and we know that we will see in in the final resurrection. As we planned his funeral service, we focused on the hymns he loved and his favorite verses.

    While we are in the Season of Lent, we see how our sins effect us with Dad’s Death, but we look forward to Easter knowing that Christ defeated sin and death that the Dad will be share in this.

    • My sympathies, Steve.

    • Steve, I am sorry to hear of your loss. I’m sure you have much on your mind now, but if you are able to say how you responded to the piece above by Richard Rohr at this difficult time, I would consider that especially valuable feedback and thank you for it.

    • My condolences to you and your family, Steve. May the living Jesus be with you in your time of mourning.

    • Your father sounds a bit like mine (bad jokes, forwarded emails that make me cringe). Mine is still alive, thankfully. Sorry for your loss.

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    The opening hymn today at St Boniface was the Lenten hymn “Lo these Forty Days”.

    Lyrics by St Gregory the Great (a sixth-century Pope).

    Music by Johann Sebastian Bach.

  6. The Hymn of the Day today at Zion Evangelical Lutheran was “Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth”, selected for the appointed Gospel reading for the day: Luke 13: 31-35: “‘…Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!…'”

    Text: Jean Janzen, b. 1933; based on Julian of Norwich, c. 1342 — c. 1413
    Music: Carolyn Jennings, b. 1936

  7. “…The Risen Christ represents the final form of every person who has walked the human journey on this earth.”

    “And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God. Henceforth, any attack even on the least of men is an attack on Christ, who took the form of man, and in his own Person restored the image of God in all that bears a human form. Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, we recover our true humanity, and at the same time we are delivered from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race. By being partakers of Christ incarnate, we are partakers in the whole humanity which he bore. We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others. The incarnate Lord makes his followers the brothers of all mankind.”
    ( Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship )

    I hear echoes of Bonhoeffer in Rohr’s comment, as Bonhoeffer speaks of ‘our solidarity with the whole human race’.

  8. He gives us authority in His Name and intimate fellowship in the Church of Jesus Christ.
    God did all of this through the transformed life of a
    common fisherman. Many Cults,and false religious groups
    seek to remove the deity of Jesus Christ by saying the He was
    just another: prophet, teacher etc.