When the CONSPIRE conference series began in 2013, the finale seemed cast beyond the visible horizon. Yet conference by conference, CONSPIRE found its feet and together we walked the trails of the Alternative Orthodoxy towards that horizon. It was not a linear path. We could not always tell by sight or sound our exact bearings, but like a desert fox we zigzagged our way towards that horizon in good faith. Hard as it is to believe, we are now approaching that end.
Teaching the path and practices of the Alternative Orthodoxy as illuminated by Richard has been the core commitment of the CONSPIRE conferences. Spiritual teaching like this needs to breathe in the open air of reality to test the timbre of its heart, and the Alternative Orthodoxy has been tested under the exposure of the burning sun of reality; the heat of wars, refugee crisis, lack of public elders, climate change, systemic racism, religious malfeasance, and social uprisings to name but a few. Shadows cast under this harsh light reveal much while saying little. Meanwhile, Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) has been on its own journey of becoming, wrestling with the persnickety challenge of strengthening our mission and culture as an institution in a world thirsting for guidance on how to be, become, belong, and gather. It is no feeble journey. It is a constant surrender to both reality and the mercy of God. I can vouch for that. The practical and evolving wisdom espoused by the Alternative Orthodoxy allows me to see these as givens. And I know I am not alone.
Sunburned and a tad dehydrated, I see all of us arriving together in the coolness of night at this horizon, at this final CONSPIRE. It is difficult for me to believe that what was once a distant horizon is the location of this present moment. Under this blanket of darkness let us pause and point to the stars that guided us here, as we dare to draw them together as a constellation of God’s Great Story.
Meeting this horizon as God’s Great Story has me musing on the first CONSPIRE like it was the first time I set eyes on my wife. To tell the story properly, let me rewind back to 2011, when I was overseeing the CAC internship program that bridged contemplation and action in daily communal life. It was the apex of my CAC work up to that point, but one day I got this nudge from the Spirit: I was being asked to drop the reins of my program and open myself to something else, something unknown. I begin to think that my number was up, wondering if perhaps it was time to say goodbye — it was a season of transition at the CAC, and a porous port of entry and exit had opened. I considered slipping out the backdoor to put my finger to the wind and see which way the Spirit was blowing me. But before I could do anything hasty, I was called into the office of Alicia Johnson, the new CAC executive director. We talked about my studies, the internship program, and my future at the CAC. Then she wryly asked, “how would you like to start a school with Richard Rohr?”
In my memory, I do a spit take of coffee. It was such an absurd question. “Can you say that again?” Alicia asked me if I was interested in becoming the Director of Curriculum to support Richard and his yet-to-be-named faculty members in developing curriculum for a new program that would teach the Alternative Orthodoxy and Richard’s contemplative lineage. She said my immediate answer was not needed but I should I think about it. I remember shaking my head at such a dreamy invitation. The nudge of the Spirit became a shove, and I was inspired to stay at the CAC in wildly new way, working for a school that Richard thought might be called The Living School for Action and Contemplation.
At the time, the CAC was a ragtag staff of 15 or so. We had big dreams to support the vision that Richard was casting, but we had no map for the journey we were about to embark on. As we dreamed, researched, planned, and Googled “how do you start a school?”, Richard came up with the seven themes he wanted to ground the curriculum in. There was a natural beauty to the evolution of these seven themes, later dubbed the seven core themes of the Alternative Orthodoxy. We also came to the hard realization that there was a limit to the number of students who would be able to participate in a program like this. I do not recall who it was, but someone raised the daffy idea of a public conference. Then the name CONSPIRE spilled out of someone’s lips. Everyone was smitten by the Latin roots of conspirare (breathing together), and the CONSPIRE Conference series was born. (A decade later and this image of breathing together seems even more radical than it did back then.)
Then suddenly it was 2013 and that first CONSPIRE was just around the bend. The gravity of what we were trying to pull off hit us anew. Butterflies fluttered in our guts as we opened the door to over a thousand friendly faces eager to start this journey with us. We relished in the Spirit conceived newness of what was being born — it felt like the contemplative movement growing right under our feet. It was a rich, fertile, and experimental season. After a week aglow with all the teachings, practices, processing, and breathing life together we swept up and turned off all the lights. That night I remember collapsing into my bed to sleep the sleep typically reserved for the dead. Despite all exhaustion gratitude abounded for the unity of purpose being exercised (and with gusto!) by both our newly minted Living School students and CONSPIRE attendees.
For the next 7 years, the CAC continued to invite its general audience to participate in community alongside Living School students at CONSPIRE. Each conference has focused on one of the seven core themes of the Alternative Orthodoxy and featured Richard, the Core Faculty and invited teachers all exploring the living implications of that year’s particular theme. As the years passed, each conference has built on the previous ones — and each time the electricity of that first CONSPIRE has returned to jolt us in unique and unpredictable ways. The Spirit blows where it will, and I suspect that will be the case at this final one, too.
Not a bad way to mark a weekend in September.
We have arrived at this horizon together—whether you have been walking with us since 2013 or stumbled upon CONSPIRE more recently, your story is a part of the CONSPIRE story. Because what is CONSPIRE really if just another name for a gathering of people thoughtfully engaged in the life of God and works of mercy in daily life? It is heightened by our collective attention to our shared mystical incarnation. May our communal presence draw from a God who desires restoration and union for all. Lean into that for this final CONSPIRE.
Let those who have eyes see. The sunset blurs the gates between heaven and earth. Between me, us, and the world. The horizon disappears into the growing night sky.
Let those who have ears hear. Let the inky night cover you. Hear the constellations preach. They burst with good news.
Let us live inside God’s Great Story.
Each day, I work to honor your support—financial, spiritual, relational—and I thank you for the generous ways in which you each offer them.
Senior Program Designer
Center for Action and Contemplation
Paul Swanson is a Senior Program Designer at the CAC, where he supports the creation and curation of podcasts, online courses, and the Living School. He is a graduate of North Park University (BA) and Creighton University (MA), where he studied scripture, theology, and spirituality. He is a jackleg Mennonite and member of Our Lady of the Tall Trees. Paul and his wife, Laura, have two feral yet beloved children. Paul kindles the examined life for contemplatives in the world at contemplify.com.
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!