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Returning to the Center

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The 150-year-old cottonwood is easily the finest work of art we have at the Center, and its asymmetrical beauty makes it a perfect specimen for one of our organization’s core messages: Divine perfection is precisely the ability to include what seems like imperfection.

Reclaiming our founder’s vision for action and contemplation in a time of change and renewal.

June 14th, 2021

When Richard Rohr founded the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in 1987, he felt called to create something new. From the start, his vision was to provide spiritual grounding for a movement of contemplative activists and prophetic leaders — an “underground seminary” that would teach the path of praxis and prayer, action and contemplation. More than three decades have passed, and the central purpose of the CAC remains unchanged: to introduce contemplative wisdom and practice in the tradition of Jesus, St. Francis, and mystics of every tradition to people around the world in support of inner and outer transformation.

The context we work in, on the other hand, has changed quite a lot since 1987. Technology has made us more connected now than ever before, but people continue to feel distant and misunderstood by others. Our society has undergone moments of mass awakening to systemic injustice, but the institutions we look to for moral vision — especially religious ones — have lost both authority and relevance, unable to cope with or effectively address the increasingly perilous consequences of our global consumer culture.

The world may be full of cynicism, but in our present moment I believe there is also great opportunity to meet the very human need for something truly inclusive, solid, and hopeful. It’s this ever-present need that the programs and resources of the CAC are designed to meet, and over the past six years we’ve grown from a mom-and-pop shop of spiritual misfits into a full-blown professional organization that serves hundreds of thousands of people every day, both inside and (increasingly) outside institutional religion.

Like many of you, I first encountered his work during a time in my life when I felt lost. Though my family was Catholic, I was raised mostly on the religion of the American dream. In college I learned about contemplative activists like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton but was pained by so many Christian leaders standing for exclusion, bigotry, and war. Eventually I left my inherited faith behind and did my best to fill the hole with a career defending human rights. I was convinced I could do better myself but wound up in a losing battle against my own growing anger and cynicism. Thankfully, the universe intervened when a trusted mentor suggested I attend one of the CAC’s retreats. Through Richard’s teaching and example, I was able to reclaim the archetypal power of the Christian narrative through the contemplative path—he showed me how it’s possible to hold the paradoxes of our beautiful and tragic reality by finding and living from my own deepest Center.

My story is not unique or special—merely a single strand in a greater story unfolding all around us, of people in CAC’s community and beyond who are recognizing in themselves the desire for something more. In this time of planetary disruption, I believe we are all witnesses to a world waking up to its very real need for Divine connection and guidance for returning to the Center.

“Though ‘Love’ is not in our Center’s name, I hope that it is the driving force behind all we do, just as it was for Jesus who knew God’s love intimately and fully, and for the early church who proclaimed that ‘God is love.'”

—Richard Rohr

The CAC is undergoing a similar experience – what you might call disorder and reorder – in this stage of our journey as an institution. Over the past several years, we have navigated a period of significant organizational growth and change while also confronting the looming question of how to prepare for life after our founder. As part of our discernment, we reflected on Richard’s impact as a conduit for Christian contemplative renewal and returned to the founding vision for CAC as supporting a movement of spiritually transformed people helping to transform our world. We set out to find a pathway forward for CAC that holds the full breadth and depth of Richard’s vision while homing in on the highest contributions our organization can make carrying it forward.

Though we have experienced many moments of insight and breakthrough along the way, this work has proven to be more challenging (and sometimes even humiliating!) than any of us imagined. Despite our best of intentions, we have struggled with strategic misalignment, too many competing priorities, and a steep learning curve around our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. Tensions in our culture between our founding as an alternative community and our evolution into a more professional organization have also contributed to confusion, frustration, and distrust among staff, and sometimes members of our community. In keeping with Father Richard’s insight that how you do anything is how you do everything, we feel that being clear and open with our community about what we are learning through this discernment process and how we are approaching it in relation to our values and contemplative grounding as an organization is essential to finding a united way forward.

This is what Returning to the Center is all about. Rather than suppressing our mistakes and lessons learned, we hope to reflect together with our community on our discoveries and growing pains as we seek to renew our founding vision and values during this moment and time of growth and change. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll share about processes underway to hone our mission and strategy, institutionalize our values, clarify how we can be instruments of racial equity, and unpack other aspects of our vision for the next generation of our work. At each step, we’ll welcome your engagement and feedback!

Thankfully, Richard is still here and is learning and discerning right alongside us. He once wrote that “God always uses very unworthy instruments so we can never think that it is we who are accomplishing the work,” and I think we’re beginning to see what that means. In today’s religious, environmental, and political climate, there is a great need for unworthy instruments — people on the path of praxis and prayer, action and contemplation. This message has been at the core of what Richard set out to teach, and I am convinced it is the way forward — not just for each of us as individuals, but also for institutions like the CAC.

We thank God for doing so much right — even while we did plenty wrong — in our process of growing up, and we ask forgiveness from any we have disappointed or offended. We also ask for your prayers, too, that above all else we will continue to do God’s work for the healing of our suffering world.

Thank you to all!

Michael Poffenberger
Executive Director
Center for Action and Contemplation

The Center for Action and Contemplation, its Core Faculty and Board of Directors, invite you to accompany us on this journey of transformation as we do the challenging work of reclaiming our founder’s vision for action and contemplation in a time of global change and contemplative renewal.

Returning to the Center will be an opportunity to reflect together with our community on our discoveries and growing pains as an institution on the path of praxis and prayer, action and contemplation. You can expect regular updates on our progress in this work as well as institutional history, community stories, staff essays, videos, and even opportunities to contribute. You will find the latest posts on our website as well as social media and in the News from New Mexico, the CAC’s monthly newsletter. We welcome your feedback!

Image credit: Nicholas Kramer, Trinity Tree, 2017, photograph, Albuquerque.

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