Many Paths to Contemplation
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
After recently visiting Mexico and some of the refugee centers along the Texas border and seeing so many children and babies with their parents, I was reminded that contemplative Christianity’s rather monastic, solitary, silent approach just can’t be adequate to describe contemplation for most people. It can’t be, or many of God’s children could never know God. Contemplation is simply openness to God’s loving presence in “what is” right in front of you—which is what I saw these parents do. This presence to Presence can be cultivated in many ways that don’t require sitting on a mat for twenty minutes.
Experiences of great love and great suffering can and will lead anyone to union. Every time you let your kids pull love out of you or when you let a relationship pull suffering out of you, you are present and surrendering to the flow. I think Catholics have also over-emphasized the celibate path which is a “luxury,” it seems to me. I know I enjoy that luxury—the Franciscans provide for all my needs, but most people I know have a mortgage or rent to pay and food to put on the table. So, I think it is really important that we broaden the definition of contemplation to a Trinitarian understanding of God—God as flow—and learning how to allow and participate in the flow. It’s not really about detachment but healthy and unitive attachment.
If we expect the same disciplined practice of twenty minutes of silence twice a day of everyone—for example, busy parents of young children—I think we’re setting ourselves up for delusion. When you keep allowing love to flow toward you and toward others, that is a contemplative life. It is not as easy as it seems. Many laypeople are far more mature in the spiritual life than those of us who have all the accoutrements of celibacy, quiet, and protected solitude.
Those who have a long-term object of love, like a spouse or children, grow through their commitment. I don’t have an object of love like that. Now, I had Venus, my black Labrador, for fifteen years, and then she passed. I do have a wonderful staff who I think love me. I surely love them, but, I don’t have to love them. I can go home and shut the door. But if you are a parent or a partner, you can’t go home and shut the door to your loved ones. For all of us—whether we live alone or with others—the invitation is to open ourselves to the needs and suffering around us.
Hidden away in the middle of Parker Palmer’s recent book, On the Brink of Everything, is a wonderful, simple definition of contemplation: “Contemplation is any way one has of penetrating illusion and touching reality.”  I think that’s brilliant. There are things that force you toward a contemplative mind (for example, your mother’s death), because they force you to face reality, and that can free you from lot of illusions. I’m still grateful to the monastic and Buddhist teachers. But sitting in silence isn’t the whole enchilada. Life is the whole enchilada.
 Parker Palmer, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.: 2018), 57.
Adapted from Richard Rohr in conversation with Mark Longhurst, “Universal Christ Interview with Fr. Richard Rohr” (March 2019), https://cac.org/alumni-quarterly-march-2019/.