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Center for Action and Contemplation

Reverse Mission

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


Reverse Mission
Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Jesus, perhaps disappointingly, gives no abstract theory of social justice. Instead, Jesus makes his life a concrete parable about how to live in this world. He demands of his first followers that they be living witnesses to a simple life on the edge of the dominant consciousness. Once you are at the visible center of any group, or once you are at the top of anything, you have too much to prove and too much to protect. Growth or real change is unlikely. You will be a defender of the status quo—which appears to be working for you. Every great spiritual teacher has warned against this complacency. The only free positions in this world are at the bottom and at the edges of things. Everywhere else, there is too much to maintain—an image to promote and a fear of losing it all—which ends up controlling your whole life.

An overly protected life—a life focused on thinking more than experiencing—does not know deeply or broadly. Jesus did not call us to the poor and to the pain only to be helpful; he called us to be in solidarity with the real and for own transformation. It is often only after the fact we realize that they helped us in ways we never knew we needed. This is sometimes called “reverse mission.” The ones we think we are “saving” end up saving us, and in the process, redefine the very meaning of salvation!

Only near the poor, close to “the tears of things” as the Roman poet Virgil puts it, in solidarity with suffering, can we understand ourselves, love one another well, imitate Jesus, and live his full Gospel. The view from the top of anything is distorted by misperception, illusions, fear of falling, and a radical disconnection from the heart. You cannot risk staying there long. As Thomas Merton said, “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”

I believe that, in the end, there are really only two “cauldrons of transformation”: great love and great suffering. And they are indeed cauldrons, big stew pots of warming, boiling, mixing, and flavoring! Our lives of contemplation are a gradual, chosen, and eventual free fall into both of these cauldrons. There is no softer or more honest way to say it. Love and suffering are indeed the ordinary paths of transformation, and contemplative prayer is the best way to sustain the fruits of great love and great suffering over the long haul and into deep time. Otherwise you invariably narrow down again into business as usual.

Gateway to Silence:
“Every change of mind is first of all a change of heart.” —The 14th Dalai Lama

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 48, 52-53.

Image credit: “Legend of St. Francis: St. Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Man” (detail of fresco), Giotto de Bondone. San Francesco, Upper Church, Assisi, Italy.
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