Theme:
Action and Contemplation: Part One

Action and Contemplation: Part One

Summary: Sunday, January 5—Friday, January 11, 2020

We need both compassionate action and contemplative practice for the spiritual journey. (Sunday)

In contemplative practice, the Holy Spirit frees us from taking sides and allows us to remain content in the partial darkness of every situation long enough to let it teach, broaden, and enrich us. (Monday)

Silence surrounds every “I know” with a humble and patient “I don’t know.” It protects the autonomy and dignity of events, persons, animals, and all created things. (Tuesday)

Silence is a kind of thinking that is not thinking.  (Wednesday)

A regular practice of contemplation helps us trust that silence will uphold us, receive our mistakes, and give us the courage to learn and grow. (Thursday)

Action doesn’t mean busyness or “do-goodism.” It may not even mean activism, but it does mean serious engagement with the suffering of the world, beyond our own in-groups and affinities. (Friday)

 

Practice: A Prayer for Our Cities

Jesus never told us to separate ourselves from the world. That’s why St. Francis of Assisi and his brothers would not be monks. The Franciscan friars were a totally new religious movement, living in the middle of cities, right with the people, refusing to separate themselves. Francis didn’t hate or avoid the world. He said we had to find a way interiorly to love and have compassion for the world. “The whole world is our cloister,” he taught us. [1]

Our friends at Mile High Ministries in Denver, Colorado, have written a beautiful prayer adapted from Walter Brueggemann’s Prayers for a Privileged People that we would like to share as inspiration for the beginning of this year’s meditations on Action and Contemplation. We invite you to use place names specific to your location and read responsively in a group, though it may also be prayed alone. No matter the setting, allow the ground of silence to hold these sacred words until they birth compassionate action in the world.

Loving God, you have set us in families and clans, in cities and neighborhoods.

Our common life began in a garden, but our destiny lies in the city.

You have placed us in Denver. This is our home.

Your creativity is on display here through the work of human hearts and hands.

We pray for Denver today—for the East Side, West Side, North and South.

For Montebello, Sun Valley, Green Valley, and all two miles of Colfax.

We pray for our poorest neighbors and for powerful people in banks and offices downtown.

We pray for people from the ’hood and the barrio and for the new urbanites.

We pray for Denver’s sisters: Aurora, Arvada, Cherry Hills, Lakewood, Thornton, Highlands Ranch, and others.

And for Albuquerque and Cheyenne, Jerusalem and Nairobi, Kunming and Cuernavaca—and a thousand other cities connected to our own.

In all our neighborhoods this day there will be crime and callous moneymaking; there will be powerful people unable or unwilling to see the vulnerable who are their neighbors.

There will also be beautiful acts of compassion and creativity in all these places—forgiveness and generosity; neighbors working together for a more just community.

Help us see this place as something other than a battleground between us and them, where our imaginations are limited by win/lose propositions and endless rivalry.

Show us a deeper reality, God: Show us your playground, and invite us to play.

Like the city of your dreams, make this a city where those who were once poor enjoy the fruits of their labor;

A place where children are no longer doomed to misfortune, but play safely in the streets under the watchful eyes of healthy old men and women;

A place where former rivals and natural enemies work and play together in peace;

And where all people enjoy communion with you. We pray in the name of the one who wept over the city. Amen. [2]

References:
[1] “Sacred Exchange between St. Francis and Lady Poverty,” 30.25, Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1 (New City Press: 1999), 552.

[2] Adapted from Beyond Our Efforts: A Celebration of Denver Peacemaking (Mile High Ministries: 2019), 251; and

Walter Brueggemann, “This City . . . of God,” Prayers for a Privileged People (Abingdon Press: 2010), 157.

For Further Study:
Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd edition (Fortress Press: 2017)

Richard Rohr, CAC Foundation Set: Gospel Call for Compassionate Action and Contemplative Prayer (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2007), CD, MP3 download

Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (The Crossroad Publishing Company; 2009)

Richard Rohr, Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation (Franciscan Media: 2014)

Image credit: The Angelus (detail), Jean-François Millet, 1857–1859, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: We tend to presume that one must create silent spaces for contemplation. It is as if we have drawn the spiritual veil around contemplative activity, seeking to distance prayerful and reflective practices from the noise of the world. —Barbara Holmes
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Action and Contemplation: Part One

Naturally Indwelling
Friday, January 10, 2020

Those who have gone to their own depths through contemplation uncover an indwelling Presence. Austrian philosopher Martin Buber (1878–1965) called this intimacy an “I-thou” relationship. It is a deep and loving “yes” to God and to life that is inherent within each of us. In Christian theology, this Presence would be described as the Indwelling Holy Spirit, which is precisely God as immanent, within us, and our deepest and truest self. God is the very ground of our being!

Some saints and mystics have described this Presence as “closer to me than I am to myself” or “more me than I am myself.” Thomas Merton and others call it the True Self. The paradox is that this True Self is immortal and indestructible, and yet it must also be awakened and chosen. The Holy Spirit is totally given and given equally to all, but it must be consciously received. The Presence needs to be recognized, honored, and drawn upon to become a Living Presence.

We all bear the divine image, but we surrender to God’s likeness in varying degrees and stages. None of us is morally or psychologically perfect or whole (at least I have not met anyone who is), but saints and mystics nevertheless dare to believe that they are ontologically (“in their very being”) whole, and that it is totally a gift from God. It has nothing to do with our own private “me”—with anything we could do to earn or deserve it!

The Holy Spirit is never created by our actions or behavior. It is naturally indwelling, our inner being with God. (In Catholic theology, we called the Holy Spirit “Uncreated Grace.”) Culture and usually even religion teach us to live out of the false or separate self of reputation, self-image, role, possessions, money, appearance, and so on. It is only as these things fail us, and they always do, that the True Self stands revealed and ready to guide us. Some enlightened souls surrender to this truth and presence early, usually by reason of suffering.

The True Self does not teach us compassion as much as it is compassion already. And from this more spacious and grounded place, one naturally connects, empathizes, forgives, and loves just about everything. We are made in love, for love, and unto love, and it is out of this love that we act.

Action doesn’t mean busyness or “do-goodism.” It may not even mean activism, but it does mean serious engagement with the suffering of the world, beyond our own in-groups and identity groups. Rightly sought, action and contemplation will always regulate, balance, and convert one another. Separately, they are dead-ended and trapped in personality. For all of us, finding tangible ways of expressing our faith is an endless rhythmic dance. The steps change now and then, but Someone Else is always leading and it’s just up to us to “follow” along.

References:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation (Franciscan Media: 2014), 46-47; and

“Not the Center for Activism and Introspection,” Radical Grace, vol. 4 no. 6 (Center for Action and Contemplation: December 1991-January 1992), 1.

Image credit: The Angelus (detail), Jean-François Millet, 1857–1859, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: We tend to presume that one must create silent spaces for contemplation. It is as if we have drawn the spiritual veil around contemplative activity, seeking to distance prayerful and reflective practices from the noise of the world. —Barbara Holmes
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Action and Contemplation: Part One

Sacred Silence
Thursday, January 9, 2020

Most of us who live in a capitalist culture, where everything is about competing and comparing, will find contemplation extremely counterintuitive. How do we grasp something as empty, as harmless, as seemingly fruitless as the practice of silence? Only when we know that it also offers a “peace beyond understanding” (Philippians 4:7) and a “joy that no one can take from you” (John 16:22).

Silence needs to be understood in a larger way than simply a lack of audible noise. Whenever emptiness—what seems like empty space or absence of sound—becomes its own kind of fullness with its own kind of sweet voice, we have just experienced sacred silence.

When religious folks limit their focus in prayer to external technique and formula, the soul remains largely untouched and unchanged. Too much emphasis on what I call “social prayer” or wordy prayer feeds our egos and gives us far too much to argue about. That is surely why Jesus emphasized quiet prayer in one’s own “inner room” and warned us not to “babble on as the pagans do” (Matthew 6:5-7). Oh, the years we Catholics and others have wasted arguing about liturgy in a juridical way! For me, law and liturgy are two different realms. How can we truly pray when we are preoccupied with formula and perfection of technique?

If we can see silence as the ground of all words and the birth of all words, then when we speak, our words will be calmer and well-chosen. Our thoughts will be non-judgmental. Our actions will have greater integrity and impact.

When we recognize something as beautiful, that knowledge partly emerges from the silence around it. It may be why we are quiet in art galleries and symphony halls. If something is not surrounded by the vastness of silence and space, it is hard to appreciate it as singular and beautiful. If it is all mixed in with everything else, then its particularity does not stand out.

As one author I read years ago said, silence is the net below the tightrope walker. [1] We are walking, trying to find the right words to explain our experience and the right actions to match our values. Silence is that safety net that allows us to fall; it admits, as poets often do, that no words or deeds will ever be perfectly right or sufficient. So the poet keeps trying, for which we are grateful! The great spaciousness and safety net beneath a tightrope walker is silence; it offers freedom from self-preoccupation and the fear of making a mistake. A regular practice of contemplation helps us trust that silence will uphold us, receive our mistakes, and give us the courage to learn and grow.

References:
[1] Max Picard, The World of Silence, trans. Stanley Godman (H. Regnery: 1964, ©1952), 22.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation (Franciscan Media: 2014), 7-9.

Image credit: The Angelus (detail), Jean-François Millet, 1857–1859, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: We tend to presume that one must create silent spaces for contemplation. It is as if we have drawn the spiritual veil around contemplative activity, seeking to distance prayerful and reflective practices from the noise of the world. —Barbara Holmes
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Action and Contemplation: Part One

Inner Silence
Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Silence is not the absence of being; it is a kind of being itself. It is not something distant, obtuse, or obscure of which only ascetics and hermits are capable. Most likely we have already experienced deep silence, and now we must feed and free it and allow it to become light within us. We do not hear silence; rather, it is that by which we hear. We cannot capture silence; it must enthrall us. Silence undergirds our very being as ceaseless, primary prayer.

Silence is a kind of thinking that is not thinking. It is a kind of thinking which truly sees (from the Latin contemplata meaning “to see”). Silence, then, is truly an alternative consciousness. It is a form of intelligence, a form of knowing beyond reacting, which is what we normally call emotion. It is a form of knowing beyond mental analysis, which is what we usually call thinking. Philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) was not wrong when he said, “I think, therefore I am.” He was accurately describing the Western person. Most of us believe that we are what we think, but we are so much more than our thoughts about things.

At their higher levels, all of the great world religions teach that this tyrannical mode of thinking has to be relativized and limited or it takes over—and rather completely takes over—to the loss of primal being. Pretty soon, words mean less and less; they mean whatever the ego wants them to mean. Witness our political discourse today! But this leads to more and more cynicism and suspicion about all words, even our own.

The ego uses words to get what it wants. When we are in an argument with our family, friends, or colleagues, that is what we do. We pull out the words that give us power, make us look right or superior, and help us win the argument. But words at that level are rather useless and even dishonest and destructive.

The soul does not use words. It surrounds words with space, and that is what I mean by silence. Silence is a kind of wholeness. It can absorb contraries, paradoxes, and contradictions. Maybe that is why we do not like silence. There is nothing to argue about in true inner silence, and the mind likes to argue. It gives us something to do. The ego loves something it can take sides on. Yet true interior silence does not allow you to take sides. That is one reason contemplation is so liberating and calming. There are no sides to take and only a wholeness to rest in—which frees us to act on behalf of love.

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation (Franciscan Media: 2014), 4-7.

Image credit: The Angelus (detail), Jean-François Millet, 1857–1859, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: We tend to presume that one must create silent spaces for contemplation. It is as if we have drawn the spiritual veil around contemplative activity, seeking to distance prayerful and reflective practices from the noise of the world. —Barbara Holmes
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Action and Contemplation: Part One

Silence, the Great Teacher
Tuesday, January 7, 2020

It seems like our society is at a low point in terms of how we talk about challenging, controversial topics within our political discourse and even our church reflections. I believe the only way through this polarization is a re-appreciation for silence. (If the word silence does not suit you, feel free to substitute nothingness, emptiness, vastness, formlessness, spaciousness, etc.)

Silence has a life of its own. It is not just that which is around words and underneath images and events. It is a being in itself to which we can relate and become intimately familiar. Philosophically, we would say being is that foundational quality which precedes all other attributes. Silence is at the very foundation of all reality—naked being, if you will. Pure being is that out of which all else comes and to which all things return.  Or as I like to say, Reality is the closest ally of God.

When we connect with silence as a living, primordial presence, we can then see all other things—and experience them deeply—inside that container. Silence is not just an absence, but a primal presence. Silence surrounds every “I know” with a humble and patient “I don’t know.” It protects the autonomy and dignity of events, persons, animals, and all created things.

To be clear, the kind of silence I’m describing does not ignore injustice. While some folks who claim to be enlightened contemplatives are merely navel-gazers, as Thomas Merton suggested, there are others who use silence to advance the cause of justice. Barbara Holmes explains:

We tend to presume that one must create silent spaces for contemplation. It is as if we have drawn the spiritual veil around contemplative activity, seeking to distance prayerful and reflective practices from the noise of the world. [That couldn’t be further from the truth!] . . . European domination in Africa and in other nations elicited the silence of those captive cultures. . . . Some of us allow [silence] to fully envelop and nurture our seeking; others who have been silenced by oppression seek to voice the joy of spiritual reunion in an evocative counterpoint.

As frightening as it may be to “center down,” we must find the stillness at the core of the shout, the pause in the middle of the “amen,” as first steps toward restoration. [1]

We must find a way to return to this place, live in this place, abide in this place of inner silence. Outer silence means very little if there is not a deeper inner silence. Everything else appears much clearer when it appears or emerges out of silence.

Without silence, we do not really experience our experiences. We are here, but not in the depth of here. We have many experiences, but they do not have the power to change us, awaken us, or give us the joy and peace that the world cannot give, as Jesus says (John 14:27).

Without some degree of inner and even outer silence, we are never living, never tasting the moment. The opposite of contemplation is not action, it is reaction. We must wait for pure action, which proceeds from deep silence.

References:
[1] Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd edition (Fortress Press: 2017), 20-22.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation (Franciscan Media: 2014), 1, 2, 3, 4.

Image credit: The Angelus (detail), Jean-François Millet, 1857–1859, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: We tend to presume that one must create silent spaces for contemplation. It is as if we have drawn the spiritual veil around contemplative activity, seeking to distance prayerful and reflective practices from the noise of the world. —Barbara Holmes
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Action and Contemplation: Part One

An Embarrassing Silence
Monday, January 6, 2020

When I first learned contemplation in my Franciscan novitiate, I was taught a practice of silent, wordless prayer. Over the decades, I have learned there are many paths to contemplation, myriad ways to access nondual consciousness. (The Saturday practices in the Daily Meditations are our own attempts to help spread the good news of contemplation in many forms.) Regardless how we practice—with stillness, breath, observation, chanting, walking, dancing, calm conversation—contemplation calls the ordinary thinking mind into question. We gradually come to recognize that this thing we call “thinking” does not enable us to love God and love others. We need a different operating system, and it both begins with and leads to silence.

Even through practices full of sounds and words, contemplation helps us access a foundational silence, a deep, interior openness to Presence. One of our faculty members, Barbara Holmes, writes: “An ontological silence can occupy the heart of cacophony, the interiority of celebratory worship. . . . Silence [is] the source of all being. . . . Silence is the sea that we swim in.” [1] And yet we’re often oblivious to it. Thus, the need for practice.

In my book The Naked Now, I call non-silence “dualistic thinking,” where everything is separated into opposites, like good and bad, life and death. In the West, we even believe that is what it means to be educated—to be very good at dualistic thinking. Join the debate club! But both Jesus and Buddha would call that judgmental thinking (Matthew 7:1-5), and they strongly warn us against it.

Dualistic thinking is operative almost all of the time now. It is when we choose or prefer one side and then call the other side of the equation false, wrong, heresy, or untrue. But what we judge as wrong is often something to which we have not yet been exposed or that somehow threatens our ego. The dualistic mind splits the moment and forbids the dark side, the mysterious, the paradoxical. This is the common level of conversation that we experience in much of religion and politics and even every day conversation. It lacks humility and patience—and is the opposite of contemplation.

In contemplative practice, the Holy Spirit frees us from taking sides and allows us to remain content long enough to let it teach, broaden, and enrich us in the partial darkness of every situation. We need to practice for many years and make many mistakes in the meantime to learn how to do this. Paul rather beautifully describes this kind of thinking: “Pray with gratitude and the peace of Christ, which is beyond knowledge or understanding (what I would call “the making of distinctions”), will guard both your mind and your heart in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). Teachers of contemplation show us how to stand guard and not let our emotions and obsessive thoughts control us.

When we’re thinking nondualistically, with this guarded mind and heart, we will feel powerless for a moment, stunned into an embarrassing and welcoming silence. Then we will discover what is ours to do.

References:
[1] Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd edition (Fortress Press: 2017), 20-22.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation (Franciscan Media: 2014), 10-11.

Image credit: The Angelus (detail), Jean-François Millet, 1857–1859, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: We tend to presume that one must create silent spaces for contemplation. It is as if we have drawn the spiritual veil around contemplative activity, seeking to distance prayerful and reflective practices from the noise of the world. —Barbara Holmes

 

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