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Holding the Tension
Holding the Tension

The Wisdom of Paradox

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

All that is hidden, all that is plain, I have come to know, instructed by Wisdom…. Within her is a spirit intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, active, incisive, unsullied, lucid, invulnerable, benevolent, … dependable, unperturbed, almighty, all-surveying…. She pervades and permeates all things. She is the untarnished mirror of God’s active power.… She makes all things new. In each generation she passes into holy souls. —Wisdom 7:21–24, 26, 27, Jerusalem Bible  

Richard Rohr believes wisdom arises from living with paradox.

Whenever I teach, I am not trying to change anyone’s dogmas or beliefs, but only the mind with which they understand those dogmas. This new mind has everything to do with seeing and thinking paradoxically—grasping the truth of something that seems a contradiction. Great dogmas of the church are almost always totally paradoxical: Jesus is human and divine, Mary is virgin and mother, God is one and three, Eucharist is bread and Jesus. Because paradox undermines dual thinking at its root, the dualistic mind immediately attacks paradox as weak thinking or confusion, somehow separate from and inferior to hard logic. The modern phenomenon of fundamentalism displays an almost complete incapacity to deal with paradox, and shows how much we’ve regressed. Today the church is trying to catch up to what mystics have always known, and great scientists now teach as well.

The history of spirituality tells us we must learn to accept paradoxes, or we will never love anything or see it correctly. The above passage personifying Wisdom is an insightful description of how one sees paradoxically and contemplatively.

Each of us must learn to live with paradox, or we cannot live peacefully or happily even a single day of our lives. In fact, we must even learn to love paradox or we will never be wise, forgiving, or possessing the patience of good relationships. “Untarnished mirrors,” as Wisdom says, receive the whole picture, which always includes the darkness, the light, and subtle shadings of light that make shape, form, color, and texture beautiful.

Reality is paradoxical. If we’re honest, everything is a clash of contradictions, and there is nothing on this created earth that is not a mixture at the same time of good and bad, helpful and unhelpful, endearing and maddening, living and dying. St. Augustine called this the “paschal mystery.”

Western Christianity has tended to objectify paradoxes in dogmatic statements that demand mental agreement instead of any inner experience of the mystery revealed. At least we “worship” these paradoxes in the living collision of opposites we call Jesus. But this approach tends not to give people the underlying principle that Jesus, the Christ, has come to teach us about life and about ourselves. Jesus, as the icon of Christ consciousness (1 Corinthians 2:16), is the very template of total paradox: human yet divine, physical yet spiritual, killed yet alive, powerless yet powerful.

Jesus reveals the great cosmic mystery and calls us to see the same truth in ourselves and all of creation.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2009), 144–145, 147.

Image credit: Oliver Hotakainen, Untitled (detail), Finland, 2021, photograph, public domain. Click here to enlarge image.

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Story from Our Community:  

I’ve been practicing Centering Prayer for about 16 months. Originally, I started practicing to improve my connection with God and decrease my tension and worry. But the additional benefits have been surprising! My sleep has improved, and I’m listening to my intuition much more. I got a wonderful surprise when I went to the dentist recently and was able to relax to the point of closing my eyes in the dentist’s chair. For the past month, I’ve been trying to figure out what I did to decrease my urges for sweets. It occurred to me that it may be another gift of my Centering Prayer practice. —Kara K.

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