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Returning to Enduring Wisdom


Returning to Enduring Wisdom
Friday, January 20, 2017

Today in the United States we inaugurate a new president. While I pray President Trump leads with wisdom, compassion, and justice, we cannot simply sit back and watch whatever unfolds. We the people have a tremendous responsibility to work together, to speak truth to power, to peacefully advocate for the rights of all beings and the earth. This requires maturity and contemplative consciousness, empathy for the “other,” and courage to stand with those who are suffering. It is not a popular or easy path. But as human beings, we are called to be active participants in our salvation and mutual survival. I hope that by rediscovering the great gifts of Christianity we might live as our whole selves, becoming the united Body of Christ.

We know the contemplative tradition, or nondual consciousness, was systematically taught in the West as late as the 11th and 12th centuries in some Carthusian and Cistercian monasteries. The early Franciscans were the “accidental” beneficiaries of this more ancient understanding through the lay genius of Francis himself; the Rhineland Dominicans beautifully exemplify it; and the Carmelites gather much of it from their ancient history in Palestine at Mount Carmel. Its final flower, even supernova of expression, is of course in the 16th century mystics, Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross. At great personal cost, Teresa and John reintroduced contemplation to the Carmelites. Other bright spots are Pseudo-Dionysius in the fifth century and The Cloud of Unknowing in the fourteenth century.

The simplest way you can recognize if true contemplation is present in an era or a group is that there will be an explosion of solitaries and gentle prophets. Such gentle prophets—“speaking truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15, RSV)—are greatly needed today! People will be seeking hermitages and anchor holds to contain the depth and breadth of what is being experienced. In 1400 there were approximately 14oo Franciscan-based hermits all over Europe, even though Franciscans were supposed to live in small, simple communities. But that was apparently just a starting place before the bush started burning. I wish I could list for you all of the blessed or sainted Franciscans who either started as hermits or ended as hermits, but always with care for the needy around them.

Soon after the dualistic fights of the Reformation, and after the over-rationalization of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Christians took on a more rational form of thinking and covered it with churchy or pious words. Our own doctrines were henceforth presented in an all-or- nothing, argumentative, and apologetic way rather than through a contemplative, mystical knowing. Almost all Catholic priests and Protestant ministers were educated in their own version of this headiness until it began to fall apart in the mid-1960s.

In the 1950s and 60s, Thomas Merton almost single-handedly pulled back the veil and revealed the contemplative mind that had largely been lost for five centuries. In 1985, I was invited to give an eight-day retreat to the Trappist monks at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, where Thomas Merton had lived. They told me then that Merton was not very popular with many of the older monks in those early days, and was considered a rebel because “he told us that we were not contemplatives. We were just introverts saying prayers all day”—but still with the dualistic and judgmental mind fully in charge. You can imagine how well that was received.

I am convinced that many, many young seekers left seminaries, ministry, religious orders, and convents basically because no one taught them how to pray!  Without a contemplative life, poverty, chastity, obedience, and community itself do not work or even make sense. And ministry becomes another way of running away or trying to find yourself instead of real service for others.

Contemplation is a positive choosing of the deep, shining, and enduring divine mysteries that are hidden beneath the too-easy formulas. It is not fast-food religion, but slow and healthy nutrition. Contemplatives do not let the old get in the way of the new, or the new get in the way of the old. Like all religious geniuses, contemplatives reveal what the old was saying all along. I find much wisdom in what the contemporary, long-suffering poet Christian Wiman writes: “faith itself sometimes needs to be stripped of its social and historical encrustations and returned to its first, churchless incarnation in the human heart.” [1] The Perennial Tradition cannot be repressed and will always show up in unsuspecting places.

Gateway to Silence:
Give us wisdom. Give us love.

[1] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 92-93.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation (Franciscan Media: 2014), 64;
Jesus and Buddha: Paths to Awakening, disc 4 (CAC: 2008), CD, DVD, MP3 download; and
Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), xx.

Image Credit: The Way of the Prophet (detail), silhouette image art work by Mike Van, concept by Vivienne Close.