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Rebuilding from the Bottom Up

For over fifty years as a Franciscan priest, Father Richard Rohr has worked to reawaken Christians to the radical and transformative message of Jesus. It’s a message that is often distorted by culture and even by the Christian tradition itself. Richard reflects:

Our religion is not working well: suffering, fear, violence, injustice, greed, and meaninglessness still abound. This is not even close to the reign of God that Jesus taught. And we must be frank: in their behavior and impact upon the world, Christians are not much different than other people.

Many Christians are not highly transformed people; instead, they tend to reflect their own culture more than they operate as any kind of leaven within it. I speak especially of American Christians, because I am one. But if you are from another country, look at the Christians where you live and see if the same is true there.

Let’s be honest: religion has probably never had such a bad name. Christianity is now seen as “irrelevant” by some, “toxic” by many, and often as a large part of the problem rather than any kind of solution. Some of us are almost embarrassed to say we are Christian because of the negative images that word conjures in others’ minds. Young people especially are turned off by how judgmental, exclusionary, impractical, and ineffective Christian culture seems to be.

Most Christians have not been taught how to plug into the “mind of Christ”; thus, they often reflect the common mind of power, greed, and war instead. The dualistic mind reads reality in simple binaries—good and bad, right and wrong—and thinks itself smart because it chooses one side. This is getting us nowhere.

Throughout the history of Christianity, it would seem Jesus’ teaching has had little impact, except among people who surrendered to great love and great suffering. Could this be the real core of the Gospel? Such people experience God rather than merely have disconnected ideas about God. We need to rely on the mind of mystics now to offer any kind of alternative—contemplative or nondual—consciousness. We need practice-based religion that teaches us how to connect with the Infinite in ways that actually change us from our finite perspectives.

We must rediscover what St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) called the “marrow of the Gospel.” [1] It’s time to rebuild from the bottom up. If the foundation is not solid and sure, everything we try to build on top of it is weak and ineffective. Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that so much is tumbling down around us. It’s time to begin again. In the year 1205, Jesus spoke to Francis through the San Damiano cross: “Francis, rebuild my church, for you see it is falling into ruin.” If Jesus himself says the church is falling into ruin, I guess we can admit it also without being accused of being negative or unbelieving. Maybe we have to admit it for anything new and good to happen.

References:
[1] Thomas of Celano, The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, chapter 158. See Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, The Founder (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000), 380.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, unpublished talk, December 3, 2016, at Canossian Spirituality Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Chaokun Wang, 墙 wall (detail), 2020, photograph, China, Creative Commons. Yoichi R. Okamoto, Munich’s Large and Beautiful Fussgangerzone (detail), 1973, photograph, Munich, Public Domain. Chaokun Wang, 树 tree (detail), 2019, photograph, Qufu, Creative Commons. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge the image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: Sometimes the wall cracks or the tree dies. We ponder and question what we profess to believe. It’s a healthy practice that undergirds a maturing faith.

Story from Our Community:

As a young adult, I’ve shifted away from ideology and moved into free thought and expansiveness, while grounded in perennial truth. As contemplatives, we’re told to live on uncertainty, but I know that my transformation affects the lives of those around me positively. Here, I can hold my traditional Catholic upbringing and be a person of the modern-day, living amidst its many contradictions.
—Patrick S.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.

 

Unknowing: Weekly Summary

Sunday
Healthy religion is always humble about its own holiness and knowledge. It knows that it does not know. Anybody who really knows also knows that they don’t know at all. —Richard Rohr

Monday
In my experience, the people who find God are usually people who are very serious about their quest and their questions, more so than being absolutely certain about their answers. —Richard Rohr

Tuesday
We may come to a place that points beyond conceptions so that we may start to discover what God is not and allow room for what we can hardly conceive—God is no thing. —Lisa Colón DeLay

Wednesday
Contemplation is a wordless resting in the presence of God beyond all thoughts and images. So, in contemplation, we’re not thinking of anything. We’re not thinking of anything, but we’re wordlessly resting in a presence beyond thought that’s intimately accessing our heart as we intimately access it, and we rest in the oneness. —James Finley

Thursday
What if it was exactly at the point at which the words go wobbly, at which they start to slip through our fingers, that we might find ourselves able to take an unobstructed glimpse into holy truth? —Janet P. Williams

Friday
When we come before the tremendous mystery of God, all we can do is mutter. We know whatever just happened is beyond words, beyond proving, and beyond any kind of rational certitude. Our present notion of God is never it, because if we comprehend it, it is not God. —Richard Rohr

Receiving “Grace”

In her book Seeking the God Beyond, Anglican priest and author Janet P. Williams suggests poetry as a helpful way for individuals to move beyond ordinary patterns of thought and prayer. She writes, “Poems address mystery and reality sufficiently obliquely that in them we can, as Emily Dickinson demanded, ‘tell the truth [a]slant.’” [1] We invite you to click on the image below to listen to a poem entitled “Grace” by Australian poet Judith Wright [1915–2000]. Through prayerful listening, the poem becomes an invitation to experience God beyond what we can know. Here is an excerpt:

Living is dailiness, a simple bread

That’s worth the eating. But I have known a wine,

a drunkenness that can’t be spoken or sung . . .

It seems to have nothing to do with things at all . . .

[it] takes over the depth of flesh, the inward eye . . .

because it occurs beyond the here and now, positives, negatives, what we hope and are. [2]

References:
[1] J. P. Williams, Seeking the God Beyond: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2019), 161.

[2] Judith Wright, “Grace,” in The Double Tree: Selected Poems, 1942–1976 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978), 143.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Chaokun Wang, 夜 night (detail), 2017, photograph, China, Creative Commons. Unknown Author, Close-up of New Growth (detail), 1970, photograph, British Columbia, Public Domain. Chaokun Wang, 竹子 bamboo (detail), 2015, photograph, Heifei, Creative Commons. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge the image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: Moonlight, dewdrops, the overnight growth of bamboo. Nature reveals the great mystery of the Divine in the cycles and patterns of life.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.

Mystical Certitude

Truly, you are a God who hides, O God of Israel, the Savior. —Isaiah 45:15

Father Richard closes this week’s meditations on how God is encountered not through words but through humble “not knowing”:

I want to point out that there are two different kinds of certitude: mouthy and mystical.

Just for the sake of alliteration and cleverness, I call the first one “mouthy certitude.” Mouthy certitude is filled with bravado, overstatement, quick, dogmatic conclusions, and a rush to judgment. People like this are always trying to convince others. They need to get us on their side and tend to talk a lot in the process. Underneath the “mouthiness” is a lot of anxiety about being right. Mouthy certitude, I think, often gives itself away, frankly, by being rude and even unkind because it’s so convinced it has the whole truth.

We have to balance mouthy certitude with “mystical certitude.” Mystical certitude is utterly authoritative, but it’s humble. It isn’t unkind. It doesn’t need to push its agenda. It doesn’t need to compel anyone to join a club, a political party, or even a religion. It’s a calm, collected presence, which Jesus seems to possess entirely. As Jesuit Greg Boyle writes, “There is no place in the gospel where Jesus is defensive. In fact, he says, ‘Do not worry what your defense will be’ [Luke 12:11]. Jesus had no interest in winning the argument, only in making the argument.” [1]

Those who know always know that they don’t know. That’s the character of the mystic. The very word “mystical” comes from the Sanskrit “mū,” which was associated with being tongue-tied or hushed to silence. This Indo-European root shaped the words “mystery,” “mystic,” “mute,” “mumble,” and others. It’s when we come before what the scholar Rudolph Otto (1869–1937) called the “mysterium tremendum” [2]—the tremendous mystery of God—and we can’t find the words. All we can do is mutter, because we know whatever just happened is beyond words, beyond proving, and beyond any kind of rational certitude. Our present notion of God is never it, because if we comprehend it, it is not God. If you happen to have the charismatic gift of speaking in tongues, it is a physiological experience of the ineffability of true spiritual experience. Maybe we all need to pray in tongues!

The only people who grow in truth are those who are humble and honest. This is traditional Christian doctrine and is, in effect, the maxim of Alcoholics Anonymous. Without those two qualities—humility and honesty—we just don’t grow. If we try to use religion to aggrandize the self, we will end up just the opposite: proud and dishonest. Humility and honesty are really the same thing. A humble person is simply someone who is naturally honest about their own truth. You and I came along a few years ago; we’re going to be gone in a few more years. The only honest response to such a mystery is humility.

References:
[1] Gregory Boyle, The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness (New York: Avid Reader Press, 2021), 130.

[2] Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1923), 12.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate: Seeing God in All Things (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2010).  Available as CD, DVD, and MP3 download; and

Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1999, 2003), 120.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Chaokun Wang, 夜 night (detail), 2017, photograph, China, Creative Commons. Unknown Author, Close-up of New Growth (detail), 1970, photograph, British Columbia, Public Domain. Chaokun Wang, 竹子 bamboo (detail), 2015, photograph, Heifei, Creative Commons. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge the image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: Moonlight, dewdrops, the overnight growth of bamboo. Nature reveals the great mystery of the Divine in the cycles and patterns of life.

Story from Our Community:

Separating from my husband, after 17 years of abuse, I felt lost. I was isolated and had lost all sense of who I am. Although, I had had glimpses of God and the divine throughout my life. Reading Fr. Richard’s meditations every day, and several of his books, lead me back to knowing who I am in God, and accepting the mystery of unknowing. I am grateful for all my experiences now, because I know how to pause, look with new eyes, and love my enemy as well as my friends. I know how to trust God, even when I stumble.
—Marilyn G.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.

 

Gestures in the Right Direction

Anglican priest Janet P. Williams describes a renewed sense of the importance of apophatic spirituality:  

We tend to encounter God’s reputation before we (knowingly) encounter God. We gather all sorts of bits and pieces of information about God, some of it good and useful, some of it wildly off-centre and frankly harmful to us and others. . . .

If we are to speak of God as [God] is, then, we need to check what we say as often as possible against the touchstone of our experience of living towards holy encounter. And acknowledging that both our individual experiences and accounts of the common experience of the Church can be bent out of shape by prejudice, stereotype and idiosyncrasy, we need always to hold what we say and hear with a certain provisionality. Though this worries many people, there is no contradiction between this and faith. . . . As is often said, the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty [emphasis added].

From many directions, from the Bible and from philosophy and from the Church’s practical experience of prayer as understood down the ages and wrangled into shape by theologians, there is agreement: God, who reaches out to us in love and mercy, through the life of Jesus Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who meets us in worship and sacrament and prayer and in moments of grace in the natural world and in human relationships, is at the same time far beyond our reach. The words we use to describe God are more like gestures to point our attention in the right direction than they are like a scientific description or dictionary definition. . . .

In the Bible, this is the point made in the last chapters of the book of Job, with their cut-us-down-to-size questions:

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk,

Or who laid its cornerstone,

when the morning stars sang together

And all the [children] of God shouted for joy?’ (38:4–7). . . .

Williams encourages us to trust that God meets us when we acknowledge the limitations of our knowledge of God:

We know too that our words and ideas tend to become wobbly and unreliable when we point them at the divine. . . .

What if it was exactly at the point at which the words go wobbly, at which they start to slip through our fingers, that we might find ourselves able to take an unobstructed glimpse into holy truth? What if it was exactly at the point at which we consent to set aside what we’ve heard about God that we are best equipped to see clearly the character of the God we encounter? What if the setting-aside turned out to be . . . the single most important thing we need to do?

Reference:
J. P. Williams, Seeking the God Beyond: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019), xiii, xiv, xvi, xvii.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Chaokun Wang, 夜 night (detail), 2017, photograph, China, Creative Commons. Unknown Author, Close-up of New Growth (detail), 1970, photograph, British Columbia, Public Domain. Chaokun Wang, 竹子 bamboo (detail), 2015, photograph, Heifei, Creative Commons. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge the image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: Moonlight, dewdrops, the overnight growth of bamboo. Nature reveals the great mystery of the Divine in the cycles and patterns of life.

Story from Our Community:

Separating from my husband, after 17 years of abuse, I felt lost. I was isolated and had lost all sense of who I am. Although, I had had glimpses of God and the divine throughout my life. Reading Fr. Richard’s meditations every day, and several of his books, lead me back to knowing who I am in God, and accepting the mystery of unknowing. I am grateful for all my experiences now, because I know how to pause, look with new eyes, and love my enemy as well as my friends. I know how to trust God, even when I stumble.
—Marilyn G.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.

 

The God Beyond What We Know

Author Lisa Colón DeLay offers insight into the origins of contemplative prayer, which include the experience of God beyond what we know:

The desert elders would sink deeply and continually into what they called the “prayer of quiet.” This type of prayer is called apophatic prayer. It does not employ words. Apophatic prayer involves a mindful and relinquishing disposition in the process of communing with God. This contemplative method of praying does not use images, requests, intercessions, and rituals. It involves the quieting of one’s spirit and the settling into the essence of being, which allows one to be found in the presence of God.

Many of us in Western context and cultures are accustomed to only word-based praying. We understand God mainly through an acquisition of knowledge that affirms what and who God is. This is the kataphatic way of knowing God. This is the first way we begin to know God (or anything, for that matter): with definitions, descriptions, concepts, categories, images, and words. After some development, we understand more fully that God is transcendent, uncontainable. We may notice that God shatters any box of mental understanding we have been misusing. Then we may come to a place that points beyond conceptions so that we may start to discover what God is not and allow room for what we can hardly conceive—God is no thing.

Sometimes other names can help disrupt our hardened and limited concepts of God: Divine Love, Mystery, Source. Apophatic theology, seen most fully within Eastern Orthodox Christianity, invites the spiritually devoted beyond limitations and known categories to ways that make room for what we don’t know and cannot comprehend about the Divine. The prayer of quiet draws us ever deeper into the Mystery that is worth growing familiar with but is ultimately unknowable in its totality. There is a boundlessness of the One who we, in English, sometimes call God, and apophatic prayer may lead us into that unknowing to experience the divine beyond what we know. [1]

Father Richard stresses the importance of not-knowing to the authentic life of faith:

To presume we know is always dangerous. There is an arrogance that comes from knowing and thinking that we normally have the right answer. That’s why great spiritual traditions balance the kataphatic way (knowing God through words and ideas) with the apophatic way (knowing God through silence and unknowing). We see it very clearly in the desert fathers and mothers, and it lasts pretty much through the first thousand years of Christianity. [2] The Franciscan theologian Bonaventure (c. 1217–1274) ended his classic text The Soul’s Journey into God with this instruction, which represents the apophatic tradition of unknowing:

If you wish to know how these things come about,

ask [for] grace, not instruction,

desire not understanding,

the groaning of prayer not diligent reading,

the Spouse not the teacher,

God not man,

darkness not clarity,

not light but the fire

that totally inflames and carries us into God . . . . [3]

References:
[1] Lisa Colón DeLay, The Wild Land Within: Cultivating Wholeness through Spiritual Practice (Minneapolis: Broadleaf, 2021), 102–103.

[2] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Beginner’s Mind (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2002). Available as CD and MP3 download.

[3] Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey into God, 7.6, in The Soul’s Journey into God; The Tree of Life; The Life of St. Francis, trans. Ewert Cousins (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 115.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Chaokun Wang, 夜 night (detail), 2017, photograph, China, Creative Commons. Unknown Author, Close-up of New Growth (detail), 1970, photograph, British Columbia, Public Domain. Chaokun Wang, 竹子 bamboo (detail), 2015, photograph, Heifei, Creative Commons. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge the image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: Moonlight, dewdrops, the overnight growth of bamboo. Nature reveals the great mystery of the Divine in the cycles and patterns of life.

Story from Our Community:

I spent the night of January 30th [2021] alone with my 87-year old Mom, who had been released to hospice care 24 hours earlier following major palliative surgery. I was sleeping in the same room on the couch – more accurately, not sleeping, as she mumbled aloud all night. . . When I greeted her shortly after midnight to give medication, she didn’t recognize me and her fear was evident. It was a stunning, all-too-quick transition that heralded the brevity of the precious life before me. . . Around 6 a.m. I opened the CAC Daily Meditation: “Unknowing: The Inadequacy of Words”; how kind of you to offer that entire reflection just for me in that little living room. This particularly hushed my racing mind: “Mystery,” “mystical,” and “to mutter” all come from the Greek verb muein, which means “to hush or close the lips”.”
—Terri B.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.

 

Speaking of What Truly Matters

Father Richard explores why he believes we must be humble in our language when we speak of God and truth:

German scholar Heinrich Zimmer (1890–1943) studied sacred images and their relationship to spirituality. He said, “The best things can’t be told: the second-best are misunderstood.” [1] So we settle for talking about the “third-best things,” which, in my culture, I suppose are things like sports, television, the weather, and other safe topics.

The best things can’t be talked about—they can only be experienced. And then if we try to talk about them, we know that we see “through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Our best attempts will still be merely stammering, grasping for good enough words. But one of the great difficulties of theology and spirituality is that its subject matter is precisely those “best things” that cannot be talked about. If religion does not have humility about knowing, it ends up being smug, silly, and superstitious.

The second-best things which, according to Zimmer, “are misunderstood,” are those things that merely point to the first-best things. These belong to philosophy, theology, psychology, art, and poetry, all of which—like sacred Scripture—are so easily misunderstood. Yet what I have tried to do in my work is to use those second-best things that point to and clarify the first-best things. What else can we do? All our words, beliefs, and rituals are merely “fingers pointing to the moon.” [2]

I believe Jesus follows the same risky path, which has allowed him to be interpreted in so many different ways. Apparently, he was willing to take that risk, or he would have written down his teachings himself. Why do we think we have a right to certainty or complete clarity? This is the necessary and good poverty of all spiritual language. After all, Jesus never said, “You must be right!” or even that it was important to be right. That’s the genius of the biblical tradition. Jesus offers himself instead as “way, truth, and life” (John 14:6), and suddenly it all becomes about the sharing of our person instead of any fighting over ideas. Some people will meet that statement with resistance and criticism because we feel so much more in control when we are right than when we are in right relationship.

Such admitted poverty in words should keep us humble, curious, and searching for God, although the history of religion has been quite the contrary. In fact, what we have largely done, even in church, is talk about the third-best things. Focusing on things like finances, clothing, edifices, roles, offices, and who has the authority gives us a sense of certitude, order, and control. In my experience, the people who find God are usually people who are very serious about their quest and their questions, more so than being absolutely certain about their answers. I offer that as hard-won wisdom.

References:
[1] As quoted in Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion (New York: Alfred van der Marck, 1985), 21.

[2] Traditional Buddhist saying found in the Lankavatara and the Shurangama.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2008), 69, 119, 121–122.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Chaokun Wang, 夜 night (detail), 2017, photograph, China, Creative Commons. Unknown Author, Close-up of New Growth (detail), 1970, photograph, British Columbia, Public Domain. Chaokun Wang, 竹子 bamboo (detail), 2015, photograph, Heifei, Creative Commons. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge the image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: Moonlight, dewdrops, the overnight growth of bamboo. Nature reveals the great mystery of the Divine in the cycles and patterns of life.

Story from Our Community:

Where do I belong? Not with the rich and privileged, not with the very poor, not with the liberals and not with the conservatives, not with the intellectuals and successful [people], not with organized religion and social organizations, and not even with some family members. I belong in Christ’s arms, in the space of paradoxes, in the space of unknowing and in the cracks of suffering. This is where I am free to see God’s Glory and feel his loving touch of Grace; an open, humble heart.
—Kathy Jo W.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.

 

Humble Knowing

Father Richard Rohr begins this week’s meditations by emphasizing the importance of humility in our knowing, acknowledging all that we don’t know about God, Reality, and ourselves.

Ultimate Reality cannot be seen with any dual operation of the mind that eliminates the mysterious or confusing—anything scary, unfamiliar, or outside our comfort zone. Dualistic thinking is not naked presence to the Presence, but highly controlled and limited seeing. With such software, we cannot access infinity, God, grace, mercy, or love—the necessary and important things! Wouldn’t you join me in saying “I would not respect any God that I could figure out?” St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) said the same: “If you understand it, then it is not God.” [1]

Jesus himself consistently honored and allowed Mystery. Many of Jesus’ sayings are so enigmatic and confusing that I am convinced that is why most Catholics simply avoid reading the Bible. If Jesus had been primarily concerned about perfect clarity from his side, and certain understanding from our side, he surely didn’t do very well as a communicator, even in his lifetime. Thankfully, Protestants insisted on reading and studying the Scriptures, but then became certain they had the one and only interpretation and ignored many of the others! This, even after Jesus so often (seven times in Matthew 13 alone) taught that Ultimate Reality (which he calls “the kingdom”) is always like something. He clearly offers simile and metaphor to invite further reflection and journey, not impose a single understanding.

Jesus largely communicates through parables, stories, aphorisms, and often deeply obscure riddles (such as “Many are called, but few are chosen,” Matthew 22:14). This discourse isn’t pleasing to systematic thinkers. If I had turned in papers as open to misunderstanding, false interpretation, and even heresy as most of Jesus’ teachings are, I would never have passed my theology courses. He couldn’t have been concerned about exact words, or he would have learned to speak Greek, instead of the philosophically imprecise and very different Aramaic!

Healthy religion is always humble about its own holiness and knowledge. It knows that it does not know. The true biblical notion of faith, which balances knowing with not knowing, is rather rare today, especially among many religious folks who think faith is being certain all the time—when the truth is the exact opposite. Anybody who really knows also knows that they don’t know at all.

We’ve got to constantly remind ourselves that we don’t know. The Buddhists call this stance “beginner’s mind.” Imagine how our politics and our churches could change if we had that kind of humility in our conversations. It just doesn’t seem possible anymore. Both politics and religion are filled with people clinging to certitudes on every side of every question. This makes civil and humane conversation largely impossible because there’s no humility. There’s no openness to mystery as being that which is always unfolding. Mystery is not that which is not understandable. Mystery is that which is endlessly understandable.

References:
[1] Augustine, Sermon 117:5 (on John 1:1). Original text: “Si enim comprehendis, non est Deus.”

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2009), 74–75;

Just This (Albuquerque, NM: CAC Publishing, 2017),85–86; and

Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate: Seeing God in All Things (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2010). Available as CD, DVD, and MP3 download.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Chaokun Wang, 夜 night (detail), 2017, photograph, China, Creative Commons. Unknown Author, Close-up of New Growth (detail), 1970, photograph, British Columbia, Public Domain. Chaokun Wang, 竹子 bamboo (detail), 2015, photograph, Heifei, Creative Commons. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge the image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: Moonlight, dewdrops, the overnight growth of bamboo. Nature reveals the great mystery of the Divine in the cycles and patterns of life.

Story from Our Community:

Where do I belong? Not with the rich and privileged, not with the very poor, not with the liberals and not with the conservatives, not with the intellectuals and successful [people], not with organized religion and social organizations, and not even with some family members. I belong in Christ’s arms, in the space of paradoxes, in the space of unknowing and in the cracks of suffering. This is where I am free to see God’s Glory and feel his loving touch of Grace; an open, humble heart.
—Kathy Jo W.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.

 

Love

The mystic is not somebody who says, “Look what I’ve experienced. Look what I’ve achieved.” The mystic is the one who says, “Look what love has done to me.” . . .  There’s nothing left, but the being of love itself giving itself away as . . . the concreteness of who you simply are. —James Finley, Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate

Father Richard affirms love as the heart of all mystical experience:

It seems to me Christianity has put major emphasis on us loving God. Yet the mystics consistently describe an overwhelming experience of how God loves us! In their writings, God is the initiator, God is the doer, God is the one who seduces us. It’s all about God’s initiative. Then we certainly want to love back the way we have been loved. As Franciscan Jacopone da Todi (1230–1306) would say, weeping, “Love is not loved! Love is not loved!” [1] I want to love back the way I have been loved. But it’s not like I’ve got to prove my love for God by doing things. My job is simply to complete the circuit!

Mystics experience a full-bodied embrace and acceptance by Divine Love, and then spend their lives trying to verbalize and embody it. They invariably find ways to give that love back through forms of service and worship, but it’s never earning the love—it’s always returning the love. Can you feel the difference? Returning God’s love is almost a different language. It’s not based in fear, but in ecstasy.

God is always given, incarnate in every moment and present to those who know how to be present themselves. It is that simple and that difficult. To be present in prayer can be an experience of being loved at a deep level. I hope you have felt such intimacy alone with God; I promise it is available to you. Maybe we just need to be told that this divine intimacy is what we should expect. We’re afraid to ask for it; we’re afraid to seek it. It feels presumptuous. We don’t trust that such a love exists—and for us. But it does.

Mystics often use erotic language to describe the deep human-divine relationship found in contemplation. I have often wondered why God would give us such a strong and constant fascination with one another’s image, form, and face. I think it’s because all human loves are an increasingly demanding school preparing us for an infinite divine love.

Today we recognize this school of love as the only real training ground for “all the saints,” and it can never be limited to those who have fully graduated. As the entire New Testament does, we must apply the word “saints” to all of us who are in kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, college, or graduate programs. Love is one shared reality, and our common name for that one shared reality is “God” (see 1 John 4:7–21).

References:
[1] Frederick Ozanam, The Franciscan Poets in Italy of the Thirteenth Century, trans. A. E. Nellen and N. C. Craig (New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1914), 202.

Adapted from Richard Rohr: Essential Teachings on Love, selected by Joelle Chase and Judy Traeger (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018), 61–62.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Jenna Keiper, Untitled Window (detail), 2021, photograph, New Mexico, used with permission. Dorothea Lange, Village Dwelling (detail), 1936, photograph, Library of Congress, public domain. Jenna Keiper, Untitled Window II (detail), 2021, photograph, New Mexico, used with permission. Jenna Keiper and Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: The house in the center image is shut against the harsh sun. It is closed and dark inside. Yet darkness can hold deep beauty and its own kind of light, creating conditions for healing and illumination. After our dark night we may be invited to gently lift the blinds.

Story from Our Community:

Dealing with a severe mental illness (OCD) and trying to make my way through the fog has been excruciating at times. However, the realization that Christ is in me, in my mess, and holding all things together has been healing. Knowing that I have always been held in the Trinity is a source of immeasurable comfort.
—Gary A.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.

 

Unknowing

In his poem “Glosa á lo Divino,” John of the Cross reveals his deep trust in the mystery of “not knowing,” confident that it will lead him into greater intimacy with God. We share with you Mirabai Starr’s translation:

I would not sacrifice my soul
for all the beauty of this world.

There is only one thing
for which I would risk everything:
an I-don’t-know-what
that lies hidden
in the heart of the Mystery.

The taste of finite pleasure
leads nowhere.
All it does is exhaust the appetite
and ravage the palate.
And so, I would not sacrifice my soul
for all the sweetness of this world.

But I would risk everything
for an I-don’t-know-what
that lies hidden
in the heart of the Mystery.

The generous heart
does not collapse into the easy things,
but rises up in adversity.
It settles for nothing.
Faith lifts it higher and higher.

Such a heart savors
an I-don’t-know-what
found only in the heart of the Mystery.

The soul that God has touched
burns with love-longing.
Her tastes have been transfigured.
Ordinary pleasures sicken her.
She is like a person with a fever;
nothing tastes good anymore.

All she wants
is an I-don’t-know-what
locked in the heart of
the Mystery. . . .

I will never lose myself
for anything the senses can taste,
nor for anything the mind can grasp,
no matter how sublime,
            how delicious.
I will not pause for beauty,
I will not linger over grace.
I am bound for
an I-don’t-know-what
deep within the heart of the Mystery.

—John of the Cross, Glosa á lo Divino, trans. Mirabai Starr

Reference: 
Mirabai Starr, Saint John of the Cross: Luminous Darkness (Albuquerque, NM: CAC Publishing, 2022), 73–75. The phrase “glosa á lo divino” refers to a spiritual commentary.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Jenna Keiper, Untitled Window (detail), 2021, photograph, New Mexico, used with permission. Dorothea Lange, Village Dwelling (detail), 1936, photograph, Library of Congress, public domain. Jenna Keiper, Untitled Window II (detail), 2021, photograph, New Mexico, used with permission. Jenna Keiper and Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: The house in the center image is shut against the harsh sun. It is closed and dark inside. Yet darkness can hold deep beauty and its own kind of light, creating conditions for healing and illumination. After our dark night we may be invited to gently lift the blinds.

Story from Our Community:

Many years ago I had a near-death experience around the birth of one of my children. I was filled with the profound Love of the One that could not be contained in my physical body. Even now, writing this, tears flow. John of the Cross said there are no words to describe this Holy One—he was left speechless and so am I. This Holy Love is so utterly and profoundly exquisite that my mind is too small to understand—only my heart can.
—Lynn C.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.

 

Silence

What we need most
in order to make progress
is to be silent
before this great God
with our appetite
and with our tongue,
for the language
he best hears
is silent love.

John of the Cross, Sayings of Light and Love, trans. Mirabai Starr

John of the Cross describes the doubt that disrupts a soul in the dark night, when all sense of knowing God is absent. Mirabai Starr translates from John’s classic work Dark Night of the Soul:

The deep suffering of the soul in the night of sense comes not so much from the aridity she must endure but from this growing suspicion that she has lost her way. She thinks that all spiritual blessing is over and that God has abandoned her. She finds neither support nor delight in holy things. Growing weary, she struggles in vain to practice the tricks [prayer practices] that used to yield results.

John of the Cross encourages those experiencing this dark night to trust the silence that comes when we surrender our need to speak to God using our own words:

This is no time for discursive meditation. Instead, the soul must surrender into peace and quietude, even if she is convinced she is doing nothing and wasting time. She might assume that this lack of desire to think about anything is a sure sign of her laziness. But simple patience and perseverance in a state of formless prayerfulness, while doing nothing, accomplishes great things.

All that is required here is to set her soul free, unencumbered, to let her take a break from ideas and knowledge, to quit troubling herself about thinking and meditating. The soul must content herself with a loving attentiveness toward God, without agitation, without effort, without the desire to taste or feel him. These urges only disquiet and distract the soul from the peaceful quietude and sweet ease inherent in the gift of contemplation being offered.

The soul might continue to have qualms about wasting time. She may wonder if it would not be better to be doing something else, since she cannot think or activate anything in prayer. Let her bear these doubts calmly. There is no other way to go to prayer now than to surrender to this sweet ease and breadth of spirit. If the soul tries to engage her interior faculties to accomplish something, she will squander the goodness God is instilling in her through the peace in which she is simply resting. . . .

The best thing for the soul to do is to pay no attention to the fact that the actions of her faculties are slipping away. . . . She needs to get out of the way. In peaceful plentitude, let her now say “yes” to the infused contemplation God is bestowing upon her. . . . Contemplation is nothing other than a secret, peaceful, loving inflow of God. If given room, it will fire the soul in the spirit of love.

Reference:
John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, trans. Mirabai Starr (New York: Riverhead Books, 2002), 67, 68–69, 70.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Jenna Keiper, Untitled Window (detail), 2021, photograph, New Mexico, used with permission. Dorothea Lange, Village Dwelling (detail), 1936, photograph, Library of Congress, public domain. Jenna Keiper, Untitled Window II (detail), 2021, photograph, New Mexico, used with permission. Jenna Keiper and Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: The house in the center image is shut against the harsh sun. It is closed and dark inside. Yet darkness can hold deep beauty and its own kind of light, creating conditions for healing and illumination. After our dark night we may be invited to gently lift the blinds.

Story from Our Community:

Many years ago I had a near-death experience around the birth of one of my children. I was filled with the profound Love of the One that could not be contained in my physical body. Even now, writing this, tears flow. John of the Cross said there are no words to describe this Holy One—he was left speechless and so am I. This Holy Love is so utterly and profoundly exquisite that my mind is too small to understand—only my heart can.
—Lynn C.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.

 

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In a world of fault lines and fractures, how do we expand our sense of self to include love, healing, and forgiveness—not just for ourselves or those like us, but for all? This monthly email features wisdom and stories from the emerging Christian contemplative movement. Join spiritual seekers from around the world and discover your place in the Great Story Line connecting us all in the One Great Life. Conspirare. Breathe with us.