Interviewing the nicest holy man you've ever met is harder than you'd think.
The first time I met Richard Rohr, I disgraced myself. It was at the wonderful Greenbelt festival, where Father Richard was a speaker. I was in the festival press room at the time, pretending to be a real journalist with a friend of mine who is now a luminary in the Christian press world. We had just finished interviewing him, and were feeling pretty good about ourselves.
"I've never met such intelligent Baptists," he had said. Looking back on it now, I'm less sure it was a compliment. At the time, irredeemably proud as I was to be wearing a lanyard marked 'PRESS', I may have glanced around, hoping desperately that one of the hardened hacks waiting to do their interviews had heard him.
They hadn't. Or maybe they had, and felt bad for me.
I asked the genial Franciscan if I might take a picture for my publication. He said yes. He's a nice man, Richard Rohr. I took the picture, willing myself to project professional journalistic cool and detachment as I pushed the little button at the top of my low-end point-and-click camera, which might as well have been branded Lego, such was its size and shape. And then it happened.
In my defence, Richard Rohr has long been a hero of mine. As a young, spotty fundamentalist in love with Francis Schaeffer, his impact on me had been huge. My brother, whose prayer partner was *whisper it in case the deacons hear* a Catholic, had borrowed a Richard Rohr tape off said prayer partner and brought it to Bible Study. It. Blew. My. Tiny. Mind.
A smart Christian who didn't see the world as the enemy? Someone who quoted Jung and clearly knew the meaning of 'postmodernism' and 'epistemology'? How could I resist? And even as I grew more discerning, realising that a good deal of what he preached was not, strictly speaking, in step with orthodox Fundamentalism (or Evangelicalism) (or Catholicism), I could never escape the deep and abiding sense in my spirit that this truly was a Man of God.
I was a bit of a fan. And when I got that My Little Pony camera in my hands, the conduit of God's grace and peace at countless crisis points in my life just standing there in front of me, something snapped.
"CAN I PLEASE HAVE A PICTURE WITH YOU?" I blurted, far too loudly. And bestselling author and regular speaker to tens of thousands, Richard Rohr, said:
And when we posed, he put his arm around me. I'm pretty sure my hands went numb and my eyes rolled back in my head, though the picture says otherwise. After the photo was taken, I apologised profusely for being so unprofessional. And Richard Rohr, trusted voice on countless stretched and overplayed tapes in my long term storage unit, gave me a hug.
I remember my wedding day and the day of my baptism quite clearly, but I'm pretty sure that hug was the happiest moment of my life.
Almost ten years later, this year, in fact, I was going to see him again. Not only that, but I was going to see him in his natural environment. The Centre for Action and Contemplation. The actual one. In New Mexico, USA. And this time, I was going to be cool.
I was going to interview Fr Richard again, this time with a camera genius, creating a video to be shown at an event I'm helping to organise: a kind of Christian conference, but for smart people.
We had arrived in Albuquerque (close your eyes and try to spell that in your head without looking), New Mexico a little worse for wear. Two days before, we had been in Cincinnati, Ohio (because why would you hit Vegas, New York or LA when you can do Albuquerque and Cincinnati?), filming one of the world's greatest living theologians, Walter Brueggemann. (Legendary Christian journalist? Me? Pshaw. It's not a big deal.) I was jet-lagged and had caught the beginnings of a cold, which decided to wait until we landed in one of the hottest, driest, brightest places in America before it attacked me with a splitting headache, constantly running nose and a throat made of fire and pain. This was going to go splendidly.
The taxi ride had been eventful. Did you know they filmed Breaking Bad in Albuquerque? Our driver did. So, after a good half hour of meth and gangster talk and a short, enthusiastic monologue about legalising cannabis (from our driver, not us), we found our way to the garden flat we had rented and called our illustrious subject. He had suggested, during one of our email exchanges before the trip, that we meet up with him the day before we were scheduled to film him, so that we could discuss the interview and possible locations. He said we should call when we arrived.
"Hello, Father Richard! It's Jonty from the UK film crew. You said we should call."
"Hello Jonty, are you well?"
"Very well," I lied to the priest. "Are you still okay to meet up?"
"Absolutely. Where would you like to meet?"
I told him anywhere he liked, and decided to take a punt.
"Could we take you to diner?"
"Sure! Where would you like to go?"
"This is your town, Father Richard," I said, trying not to sound like I was addressing Walter White, "you pick. We'll be there."
"Well, what sort of time were you thinking?"
"Whenever is good for you."
He chuckled. Do Franciscan writers on male spirituality have to deal with a lot of fangirls?
He suggested six o'clock, just under an hour's time. I told him we'd call a taxi immediately.
"No, no!" he said. "I'll come fetch you! It's the least I can do."
So we found ourselves standing on a road that could well have been a location in the most successful TV show about a drug dealer ever made, waiting for a man who has influenced everyone from Rob Bell to Brian McLaren to come and fetch us to take us to dinner.
Of course, he was graciousness itself. In shorts and a t-shirt, driving a small truck (or regular sized American car), he thanked us (yes, he thanked us) for coming all this way, and pointed out the sights of Old Town Albuquerque, answering, patiently, a seemingly endless series of my nerves-generated questions about the relationship between the Franciscans and the indigenous tribes.
When we got to the town centre, he pulled into the parking lot of the beautiful convent that overlooks the old Spanish piazza. There were no parking signs everywhere. "Clerical privilege," he grinned, and then proceeded to take us on the most delightful walk around the Old Town, pointing out colonial and native architecture, showing us where we might buy local jewellery that benefitted the indigenous people, taking us to an art gallery and even to a gift shop full of pottery and Walter White t-shirts. Unfailingly gracious and polite to everyone he met, walking behind him was like following a septuagenarian Jesus who had decided to moonlight as a tour guide.
The restaurant he took us to, he mentioned as we perused menus, was the one he'd taken Martin Sheen to, a month or so before. I clenched my jaw so as not to shout out a stream of double fanboy questions, starting with, but not limited to: "TELL. ME. EVERYTHING."
Sheen had been sincere in his faith and very concerned about justice for the poor. He had, back in the day, listened to a lot of Fr Richard's tapes, apparently. We spoke about Pope Francis and what a big deal that has been for the Church, the world and the Franciscans, and Fr Richard told us about the 'alternative orthodoxy' and 'heterodoxy' of the Franciscan order, a movement seemingly living parallel to the mother Church, a perfect position from which to be prophetic.
We passed on greetings from Professor Brueggemann and Fr Richard asked why Walter now lives in Cincinnati. Everybody asks. I don't know enough about Cincinnati to understand what is wrong with it, but no other question has come up as often as that since I got back.
The waitress arrived and suddenly, for the first time, our host looked a little concerned.
"You boys, being Baptists, will probably not want anything alcoholic to drink, I guess."
So, we explained to him about British Baptists and ordered a couple of local craft beers, including one with a picture of an alien on the label. Because Roswell, of Area 51 fame, is, of course also in New Mexico.
I can't decide whether having a beer with Richard Rohr was the best moment of my young life, or whether that was having lunch with him the following day, just before filming, when he answered my far-too-earnest questions about the second half of life. Or when, answering my silent prayers since the age of 23 that he would mentor me, out of the blue said, "You should read up on spiral dynamics. It will blow your mind."
'Spiral dynamics...' I repeated in my mind. It sounded... amazing. I haven't actually read much about it yet, but I'm pretty sure it's going to change my life.
The interview went well, apart from my having to stop my spiritual hero mid-way through a sentence so that I, the 37 year old interviewer, could engage in a fit of hysterical coughing and throat lozenging, while he, the 71 year-old interviewee, waited patiently, a picture of health. He wore the brown habit of his order, mostly because I asked him to, and answered my questions with a wisdom that did not surprise me. He was very kind, as were the staff at the Centre. One introduced herself in the kitchen. "I'm a Southern Baptist," she said. When I said that I was a little surprised to find someone from her denomination there, she smiled patiently and said that that sort of thing didn't much matter. She said "matter here", but I felt her meaning was broader.
At the end of the day, Fr Richard dropped us off at home, like two teenagers who've been receiving instruction they aren't fully able to appreciate yet. He helped us with our bags, thanked us again and gave us each a hug. I'm pretty sure I stood on his foot. He didn't mention it at all.
Picture: Alex Baker Photography