The Whole World Is Our Cloister

Contemplation in Action: Week 1

The Whole World Is Our Cloister
Sunday, June 25, 2017

In the Franciscan worldview, the Christ can be found everywhere. Nothing is secular or profane. You don’t really “get” the Christ mystery until body and spirit begin to operate as one. Once you see the material and the spiritual working together, everything is holy. The Christ is whenever and wherever the material and the spiritual co-exist—which is always and everywhere! Everything is already “christened”; any anointing, blessing, declaring, or baptizing is just to help us get the point.

I wrote my undergraduate thesis on St. Francis’ break with historic monasticism. When his friars brought up well-established rules for religious life, Francis even went so far as to say “Don’t speak to me of Benedict! Don’t speak to me of Augustine!” [1] (No offense intended to Benedictines or Augustinians.) Francis believed that the Lord had shown him a different way, one which directly implied that the whole world—not just a single building—was our cloister. He did not need to create a sheltered space. We were to be “friars” instead of monks, living in the midst of ordinary people, in ordinary towns and cities. Franciscan friaries are still usually in the heart of major European and Latin American cities. We didn’t live on the edge of town because Christ is found as much in the middle of civilization as is in quiet retreats and hermitages.

Franciscan theologian Bonaventure (1221-1274) soon debated “secular priests” at the University of Paris, because some of them felt that putting together action and contemplation would not work. We became competitors for the affection of the people, I am afraid. Up until Francis of Assisi (1184-1226), most religious had to choose either a life of action or a life of contemplation. Secular priests worked with people in the parishes. The “true” religious went off to monasteries. Francis said there had to be a way to do both.

It’s as if consciousness wasn’t ready to imagine that it could find God in any way except by going into the desert, into the monastery, away from troubles, away from marriage, away from people. In that very real sense, we see a nondual mind emerging with the Franciscan movement.

There are now three major categories of Franciscans. The First Order are the Friars, the Second Order are the Poor Clares, and the Third Order or “Secular Franciscans” are the many lay people and formal religious orders that share our common spirituality. Thirty years ago when I formed the Center for Action and Contemplation in a poorer neighborhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I was just being a good Franciscan. We are still trying to teach that doing compassionate acts from a contemplative foundation is the greatest art form.

Gateway to Silence:
Be still and still moving.

References:
[1] The Assisi Compilation, chapter 18. See Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000), 133.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Franciscan Mysticism: I AM that which I Am Seeking, disc 1 (CAC: 2012), CD, MP3 download; and
Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 1. 

Image Credit: The Incredulity of Thomas (detail), painted by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio between 1601 and 1602. Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam, Germany.

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