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Center for Action and Contemplation

We Learn by Doing It Wrong 

Monday, March 27, 2023

Father Richard describes the futility of trying to “fix” ourselves: 

The genius of Twelve Step programs is that they situate powerlessness and surrender right where they belong—at the beginning. They teach how sin or addiction are overcome not through willpower or by control, but much more by recognizing that we are powerless to overcome them.  

For example, we don’t become charitable by willpower, by saying to ourselves, “Be charitable!” Rather, we recognize the moments when we were totally uncharitable, and we weep over them. That doesn’t feel like power at all, does it? No one wants to go there.  

Any talk of growth, achievement, climbing, improving, and progress highly appeals to the ego. But the only way we stay on the path with any authenticity is to constantly experience our incapacity to do it, our failure at doing it. That’s what makes us, to use my language, fall upward. Otherwise, we’re really not climbing; we’re just thinking we’re climbing by saying to ourselves, “Look, I’m better today. Look, I’m holier than I was last week. Look, my prayer is improving.” That really doesn’t teach us anything or lead us anywhere new.  

In contrast, it is recognizing, “Richard, you don’t know how to love at all” that keeps me on the path of love. Constant failure at loving is ironically and paradoxically what keeps us learning how to love. When we think we’re there, there’s nothing to learn.  

This is the genius of what Paul calls “the folly of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18), the folly of failure: that it doesn’t give us the satisfaction that our egos want. I don’t know if I am growing. I don’t know if I am “deepening my relationship with Jesus,” as Christians love to say. I hope I am, but any smug satisfaction in that is not going to do me or Jesus any good. But every day, knowing that I have not yet begun to love Jesus? That constant experience of littleness is the Franciscan way.  

It’s also the way of one of my other favorite saints, Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897). She called it her “Little Way.” She makes it very clear in small examples how it was failing to love every day that kept her on the path of love. She taught that remaining close to Jesus requires “bearing in peace the trial of not pleasing yourself.” [1] Who would have thought that? That is so counterintuitive! Yet what it reveals is that a lot of us Christians have sought—without knowing it—a certain self-satisfaction, a certain smugness. We think, “I’m a good Christian. I go to church on Sunday. I read the Bible. I love Jesus.” 

And that’s why we still have racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism at the highest levels. Christianity has too often shown itself to be well-disguised narcissism. I congratulate Bill Wilson and Twelve-Step spirituality, because just like Thérèse of Lisieux, they named it. They said powerlessness is the beginning of the spiritual journey.  


[1] Thérèse to Sister Geneviève, December 24, 1896, in Thérèse of Lisieux: General Correspondence, vol. 2, 1890–1897, trans. John Clarke (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1988), 1038. 

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Breathing under Water (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation), online course.  

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Jenna Keiper, Mystic. Jenna Keiper, North Cascades Sunrise. Jenna Keiper, Jonah. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image

Regardless of the conditions we find ourselves in, we learn to navigate in the midst of our lack of control. 

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