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Center for Action and Contemplation
Knowing and Not Knowing
Knowing and Not Knowing

Knowing and Not Knowing: Weekly Summary

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Knowing and Not Knowing

Sunday, January 26–Friday, January 31, 2020

Alongside all our knowing must be the equal and honest “knowing that I do not know.” (Sunday)

It is amazing how religion has turned the biblical idea of faith into a need and even a right to certain knowing, complete predictability, and perfect assurance about whom God likes and whom God does not like. (Monday)

We lost almost any notion of paradox, mystery, or the wisdom of unknowing and unsayability—which are the open-ended qualities that make biblical faith so dynamic, creative, and nonviolent. (Tuesday)

God, it seems, cannot really be known, but only related to. Or, as the mystics would assert, we know God by loving God, by trusting God, by placing our hope in God. (Wednesday)

God is eternal, the human mind is finite. If God could be comprehended, surrounded by a concept, this would make us greater than God. —Martin Laird (Thursday)

To be united to God we must “break through” the sensible world and pass beyond the human condition to move beyond knowing to unknowing, from knowledge to love. —Ilia Delio (Friday)
Practice: Simply That You Are

We must find a prayer form that actually invades our unconscious, or nothing changes at any depth. Usually this will be some form of Centering Prayer, walking meditation, inner practice of letting go, shadow work, or deliberately undergoing a long period of silence. Whatever you choose, it will feel more like unknowing than knowing, more like surrendering than accomplishing, more like nothing than anything at all. This is probably why so many resist contemplation at the start. Because it feels more like the shedding of thoughts in general than attaining new or good ones. It feels more like just letting go than accomplishing anything, which is counterintuitive for our naturally “capitalistic” minds!

So, let’s try a practice leading to embodied knowing. I discovered an especially good one in The Book of Privy Counsel, a lesser-known classic written by the same author of The Cloud of Unknowing. I like this practice because it is so simple, and for me so effective, even in the middle of the night when I awake and cannot get back to sleep during what some call the “hour of the wolf,” between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m. when the psyche is most undefended. (Others simply call it “insomnia”!) I warn you: This pattern only gets worse as you grow older, so you will do yourself a favor to learn the following practice early! I have summarized and paraphrased the author’s exact words for our very practical purpose here:

First, “take God at face value, as God is. Accept God’s good graciousness, as you would a plain, simple soft compress when sick. Take hold of God and press God against your unhealthy self, just as you are.”

Second, know how your mind and ego play their games: “Stop analyzing yourself or God. You can do without wasting so much of your energy deciding if something is good or bad, grace given or temperament driven, divine or human.”

Third, be encouraged and “Offer up your simple naked being to the joyful being of God, for you two are one in grace, although separate by nature.”

And finally: “Don’t focus on what you are, but simply that you are! How hopelessly stupid would a person have to be if they could not realize that they simply are.”

Hold the soft warm compress of these loving words against your bodily self, bypass the mind and even the affections of the heart and forgo any analysis of what you are, or are not.

“Simply that you are!”

I like this practice because over time it can become an embodied experience of what we’ve been talking about this whole week: knowing and unknowing. By repeatedly placing whatever it is you think you “know” at that hour of the night under “the soft warm compress” of God’s loving presence, your own body becomes a place of relaxation and inner rest. You know that you don’t know, and you trust that you don’t need to know. You are simply in God’s loving care.


Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent Books, 2019), 222-225.

For Further Study:

The Cloud of Unknowing with the Book of Privy Counsel, trans. Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Shambhala: 2009)

Ilia Delio, Birth of a Dancing Star: My Journey from Cradle Catholic to Cyborg Christian (Orbis Books: 2019)

Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation (Oxford University Press: 2019)

Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014)

Richard Rohr, Franciscan Mysticism: I AM That Which I Am Seeking (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2012), CD, MP3 download 

Image credit: Clearing up, Coast of Sicily (detail), Andreas Achenbach, 1847, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The Desert Fathers and Mothers gave birth to what we call the apophatic tradition, knowing by silence and symbols, and not even needing to know with words. It amounted to a deep insight into the nature of faith that was eventually called the “cloud of unknowing” or the balancing of knowing with not needing to know. Deep acceptance of ultimate mystery is ironically the best way to keep the mind and heart spaces always open and always growing. —Richard Rohr
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