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Action and Contemplation: Part Three

Action and Contemplation: Part Three

Summary: Sunday, January 19—Friday, January 25, 2020

The desert mystics’ primary quest was for God, for Love; everything else was secondary. (Sunday)

This describes many Desert Fathers and Mothers: high states of union but low levels of cultural, historic, or intellectual exposure to coherent thinking. (Monday)

The desert mystics saw solitude, in Henri Nouwen’s words, as a “place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occurs.” (Tuesday)

Just as so many of the mystics have taught us, doing what you’re doing with care, presence, and intention is a form of prayer, the very way to transformation and wholeness. (Wednesday)

Even in the desert there is no escaping our own habitual responses. (Thursday)

In the freedom with which you freely choose to give yourself in love to the love that gives itself to you, in that reciprocity of love, your destiny is fulfilled, and God’s will for you is consummated. —James Finley (Friday)
Practice: Growing in the Wilderness
If the desert is a place of renewal, transformation, and freedom, and if the heat and isolation served as a nurturing incubator for monastic movements, one wonders if a desert experience is necessary to reclaim this legacy? —Barbara Holmes [1]

Life in the desert is not easy. It does not offer moderate temperatures to please the human desire for comfort nor abundant water to quench inevitable thirst. The caves that offer shelter likely don’t provide a soft place to lay tired bodies. And yet, the desert abbas and ammas sought out these conditions, believing they would find new and abundant life—even where life seemed impossible. We invite you to take a few breaths and to slowly and contemplatively read this passage from Howard Thurman’s Meditations of the Heart, in which he describes an encounter in another kind of mountain wilderness.

It was above the timber line. The steady march of the forest had stopped as if some invisible barrier had been erected beyond which no trees dared move in a single file. Beyond was barrenness, sheer rocks, snow patches and strong untrammeled winds. Here and there were short tufts of evergreen bushes that had somehow managed to survive despite the severe pressures under which they had to live. They were not lush, they lacked the kind of grace of the vegetation below the timber line, but they were alive and hardy. Upon close investigation, however, it was found that these were not ordinary shrubs. The formation of the needles, etc., was identical with that of the trees further down; as a matter of fact, they looked like branches of the other trees. When one actually examined them, the astounding revelation was that they were branches. For, hugging the ground, following the shape of the terrain, were trees that could not grow upright, following the pattern of their kind. Instead, they were growing as vines grow along the ground, and what seemed to be patches of stunted shrubs were rows of branches of growing, developing trees. What must have been the torturous frustration and the stubborn battle that had finally resulted in this strange phenomenon! It is as if the tree had said, “I am destined to reach for the skies and embrace in my arms the wind, the rain, the snow and the sun, singing my song of joy to all the heavens. But this I cannot do. I have taken root beyond the timber line, and yet I do not want to die; I must not die. I shall make a careful survey of my situation and work out a method, a way of life, that will yield growth and development for me despite the contradictions under which I must eke out my days. In the end I may not look like the other trees, I may not be what all that is within me cries out to be. But I will not give up. I will use to the full every resource in me and about me to answer life with life. In so doing I shall affirm that this is the kind of universe that sustains, upon demand, the life that is in it.” I wonder if I dare to act even as the tree acts. I wonder! I wonder! Do you? [2]

References:
[1] Barbara A. Holmes,  Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd ed. (Fortress Press: 2017), 10-12.

[2] Howard Thurman,  Meditations of the Heart (Beacon Press: 1999), 123-124.

For Further Study:

Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (Harper One: 2010)

James Finley and Richard Rohr, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), CD, MP3 download

Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford University Press: 1998)

The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century, trans. Thomas Merton (New Directions: 1960)

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward, rev. ed. (Cistercian Publications: 1984, ©1975)

Image credit: Vendimian of Bythinia (Menologion of Basil II) (detail), Anonymous artist, 981 CE.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Solitude is a courageous encounter with our naked, most raw and real self, in the presence of pure Love.  This level of contemplation cannot help but bring about action. —Richard Rohr
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Action and Contemplation: Part Three

The Peasant’s Alphabet

Friday, January 24, 2020

Abba Poemen (340–450) taught that the right question in all circumstances was “Who am I?” [1] St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) would spend whole nights praying “Who are you, my most dear God, and who am I . . . ?” [2] It is through encountering the absolute safety of God that we discover our True Self, and in finding our truest self, we find a God who is always and forever larger than we expected. The truth of our identity, wrapped up in God, gives us a deep sense of radical okayness and yet humility about our fragility. What a paradox!

Read these sayings and let them stir deeper questions and reflection. This is the power of these simple stories.

One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him,

“Abba Arsenius, how is it that you with such a good Latin and Greek education, ask this peasant about your thoughts?” He replied, “I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.” [3]
Abba Anthony said, “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’” [4]

Abba Isaiah, when someone asked him what avarice was, replied, “Not to believe that God cares for you, to despair of the promises of God and to love boasting.” [5]

I hope this brief introduction to the Desert Fathers and Mothers has given you at least a taste of why their simple spirituality is so valuable for us today. If you are drawn to read more of their sayings, don’t be surprised if you are quickly offended by some of their seeming lower-stage thinking. Stay with them, in honesty and humility, and I’m sure they will teach you something of your own human nature and God’s benevolence. In their irrelevance to our world, these abbas and ammas end up being amazingly relevant, precisely because their frame of reference is so utterly different than ours. We all need radically different frames to recognize our own limitations.

The practice of contemplation took root in these mystics under extreme circumstances—in the desert wilderness and at the height of the Roman Empire. Looking for God, first in cities and then far away from mainstream culture, they ultimately found God’s presence within themselves, once they got still enough to recognize it. For all their idiosyncratic teachings and practices, the desert mystics provide a common thread of love running through their stories. In the words of our own beloved teacher James Finley:

In the freedom with which you freely choose to give yourself in love to the love that gives itself to you, in that reciprocity of love, your destiny is fulfilled, and God’s will for you is consummated. That all of life when you distill it out to its simplest terms, it has to do in the intimate always utterly personal way that each of us serendipitously stumbles upon this great truth. When everything is said and done, only love is real, only love endures. Outside of love, there is nothing, nothing at all. [6]

Contemplation helps us reconnect with our source, which is love, and compels us to embody love in our actions.

References:

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward, rev. ed. (Cistercian Publications: 1984, ©1975), 102.

[2] “The Deeds of Blessed Francis and His Companions,” IX.37. See Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 3 (New City Press: 2001), 455.

[3] Sayings, Ward, 10.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Ibid., 70

[6] James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), CD, MP3 download.

Image credit: Vendimian of Bythinia (Menologion of Basil II) (detail), Anonymous artist, 981 CE.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Solitude is a courageous encounter with our naked, most raw and real self, in the presence of pure Love.  This level of contemplation cannot help but bring about action. —Richard Rohr
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Action and Contemplation: Part Three

The World Carried Inside

Thursday, January 23, 2020 

When so much of our world is focused on making us feel like human “doings” instead of human beings, moving into solitude and silence is both a gift and a burden. Once we have overcome the external pressure to perform, we are left with our own interiority.  The trouble—and the opportunity—in solitude is that there is no one around to blame for our moods and our difficulties. We are stuck with ourselves. The desert abbas and ammas faced the same dilemma.

In the tradition of Moses and Jesus, the Christians who entered into the desert found a wild, fierce, unknown place where they encountered both “demons” and “angels” (Mark 1:13)—their own shadowy selves which contained both good and evil, gold and lead. My friend, wilderness theologian, and mystic Belden Lane helps clear away any romanticism we might associate with desert spirituality:

The desert is, preeminently, a place to die. Anyone retreating to an Egyptian or Judean monastery, hoping to escape the tensions of city life, found little comfort among the likes of an [Abba] Anthony or Sabas. The desert offered no private therapeutic place for solace and rejuvenation. One was as likely to be carried out feet first as to be restored unchanged to the life one had left. . . . Amma Syncletica refused to let anyone deceive herself by imagining that retreat to a desert monastery meant the guarantee of freedom from the world. The hardest world to leave, she knew, is the one within the heart. [1]

A story from the Desert Fathers illustrates that even in the desert there is no escaping our own habitual responses:

A brother was restless in the community and often moved to anger. So he said: “I will go and live somewhere by myself. And since I shall be able to talk or listen to no one, I shall be tranquil, and my passionate anger will cease.” He went out and lived alone in a cave. But one day he filled his jug with water and put it on the ground. It happened suddenly to fall over. He filled it again, and again it fell. And this happened a third time. And in a rage he snatched up the jug and broke it. Returning to his right mind, he knew that the demon of anger had mocked him, and he said: “Here am I by myself, and he has beaten me. I will return to the community. Wherever you live, you need effort and patience and above all God’s help.” And he rose up, and went back. [2]

I have experienced similar frustration more times than I care to count. It seems that wherever we go, there we are, warts and all. The gift and grace of contemplation is in receiving God’s gaze. Love sees our nakedness, accepts us unconditionally, and empowers us to change.

References:

[1] Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford University Press: 1998), 165, 168.

[2] Western Asceticism, ed., trans. Owen Chadwick (The Westminster Press: 1958), 92.

[3] Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, 166.

Image credit: Vendimian of Bythinia (Menologion of Basil II) (detail), Anonymous artist, 981 CE.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Solitude is a courageous encounter with our naked, most raw and real self, in the presence of pure Love.  This level of contemplation cannot help but bring about action. —Richard Rohr
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Action and Contemplation: Part Three

A Practical Twofold Process 

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

As in the early church, the desert Christians were deeply committed to Jesus’ teachings and lived practice. Their chosen solitude and silence were not anti-social but a way to become better at seeing clearly and at loving deeply. Withdrawal was for the sake of deeper encounter and presence.

Speaking of the relationship between contemplation and action, Diana Butler Bass describes the natural flow from solitude to prayer to active love:

For those who went to the desert, “come follow me” [Matthew 19:21] was not an escape; rather, it served as an alternative practice of engagement—the first step on the way toward becoming a new people, a universal community of God’s love.

[Their response to Jesus’] “Come follow me” was intimately bound up with the practice of prayer. For prayer connects us with God and others, “part of this enterprise of learning to love.” Prayer is much more than a technique, and early Christians left us no definitive how-to manual on prayer. Rather, the desert fathers and mothers believed that prayer was a disposition of wholeness, so that “prayer and our life must be all of a piece.” They approached prayer, as early church scholar Roberta Bondi notes, as a practical twofold process: first, of “thinking and reflecting,” or “pondering” what it means to love others; and second, as the “development and practice of loving ways of being.” [1] In other words, these ancients taught that prayer was participation in God’s love, the activity that takes us out of ourselves, away from the familiar, and conforms us to the path of Christ. [2]

Through their solitude, the abbas and ammas learned to be sparing and intentional with their words and to preach more through their lifestyle than through sermons. There were few “doctrines” to prove at this time in Christianity, only an inner life to be experienced so the outer life might be changed. Abba Isidore of Pelusia said, “To live without speaking is better than to speak without living. For the former who lives rightly does good even by his silence but the latter does no good even when he speaks. When words and life correspond to one another they are together the whole of philosophy.” [3]

An old abba was asked what was necessary to do to be saved. He was sitting making rope. Without glancing up, he said, “You’re looking at it.” James Finley, a member of our Living School faculty, puts it this way: “This dance of infinite love is rhythmically playing itself out in the rhythms of our life standing up and sitting down, waking up and falling asleep. The rhythms of the day by day are the rhythms of love given to us as this inherently sacred nature of life itself.” [4] Just as so many of the mystics have taught, doing what you’re doing with care, presence, and intention is a form of prayer, the very way to transformation and wholeness. There is no trick, no magic formula to becoming one with Reality. There is only living and, as you know, this is much harder than it first seems.

References:
[1] Roberta C. Bondi, To Pray and to Love: Conversations on Prayer with the Early Church (Fortress Press: 1991), 13-14.

[2] Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (Harper One: 2010), 48.

[3] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward, rev. ed. (Cistercian Publications: 1984, ©1975), 98.

[4] James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), CD, MP3 download.

Image credit: Vendimian of Bythinia (Menologion of Basil II) (detail), Anonymous artist, 981 CE.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Solitude is a courageous encounter with our naked, most raw and real self, in the presence of pure Love.  This level of contemplation cannot help but bring about action. —Richard Rohr
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Action and Contemplation: Part Three

The Prayer of Quiet

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Desert Fathers and Mothers withdrew from cities to the desert to live freely, apart from the economic, cultural, and political structure of the Roman Empire. At first, the empire persecuted the church, but in 313 CE, Constantine gave Christianity a privileged status, not out of enlightenment or goodwill but in service of uniformity and control. The Desert Fathers and Mothers knew, as we should today, that empire would be an unreliable partner. They recognized that they had to find inner freedom from the system before they could return to it with true love, wisdom, and helpfulness. This is a useful dynamic for all of us who want to act on behalf of the world. If we stay immersed in culturally acceptable ways of thinking and doing, Christianity’s deep, transformative power is largely lost.

So how do we find inner freedom? We can begin by noticing that whenever we suffer pain, the mind is always quick to identify with the negative aspects of things and replay them over and over again, wounding us deeply. This pattern must be recognized early and definitively. Peace of mind is actually an oxymoron. When you’re in your mind, you’re hardly ever at peace, and when you’re at peace, you’re never only in your mind. The early Christian abbas and ammas knew this and first insisted on finding the inner silence necessary to tame the obsessive mind. Their method was originally called the prayer of quiet and eventually referred to as contemplation. It is the core teaching in the early Christian period, but it has been emphasized much more in the Eastern Church than in the West.

In The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Benedicta Ward relates this story, one of the briefest but most popular of all the desert sayings: “A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’” [1] But you don’t have to have a cell, and you don’t have to run away from the responsibilities of an active life, to experience solitude and silence. In another story, Amma Syncletica said, “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.” [2]

By solitude, the desert mystics didn’t mean mere privacy or protected space, although there is a need for that too. The desert mystics saw solitude, in Henri Nouwen’s words, as a “place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the [person] occurs.” [3] Solitude is a courageous encounter with our naked, most raw and real self, in the presence of pure Love. This level of contemplation cannot help but bring about action.

References:
[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward, rev. ed. (Cistercian Publications: 1984, ©1975), 139.

[2] Ibid., 234

[3] Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart (Harper Collins Publishers: 2009), 27.

Image credit: Vendimian of Bythinia (Menologion of Basil II) (detail), Anonymous artist, 981 CE.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Solitude is a courageous encounter with our naked, most raw and real self, in the presence of pure Love.  This level of contemplation cannot help but bring about action. —Richard Rohr
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Action and Contemplation: Part Three

The Desert Mystics

Monday, January 20, 2020

Though I deeply admire the Desert Fathers and Mothers, I must be completely honest with you. There is much about them that I do not find attractive or helpful. And it is important to share that here, or you might pick up one of the collections of their “sayings” and throw it out as unreal, dualistic, naïve, and pre-rational—all of which, I think, would be largely true. The desert mystics represent a level of human consciousness and historical development that we have collectively moved far beyond. And yet, I still admire and even need to learn from them! Let me use the desert abbas and ammas to illustrate an important point for understanding many historical personages and traditions (and even the Scriptures themselves).

Contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber offers a helpful distinction between stages and states. [1] Your stage is your outer awareness. Your state is your inner aliveness. The goal is to be both holy and whole, saintly and wise. But your state and stage don’t always coincide; many of us are stronger in one area than another.

You can be a high-level thinker and be quite astute about psychology, theology, history, or philosophy (a high stage), but do it all from a perspective of individualism and arrogance about that very information (a low state)—because it is still all about “you.” Conversely, you could be quite unified within and with others, in a high state of loving consciousness, but be poorly informed, lacking in exposure and education to helpful and informative knowledge.

Perhaps you know people who are compassionate and kind yet still reveal prejudicial attitudes. They may seem hypocritical but are simply at a high state and a low stage. Love will win out in them and goodness will flow through them, even if they don’t have the gift of teaching or of understanding complex or contradictory issues. They are holy but not whole, saintly but not “smart.”

This describes many Desert Fathers and Mothers: having high states of union but by today’s standards low levels of cultural, historic, or intellectual exposure to coherent thinking. Enjoy them for their state, but do not hate them for their stage! Today we have large segments of the population with the opposite problem: high stages of intellectual exposure with very low levels of unitive consciousness—very smart but without awe, humility, or love, which the Desert Fathers and Mothers had in spades!

Many of the desert sayings may sound naïve, simplistic, and even dangerous, but try to receive the simple wisdom of the desert mystics with an open heart and mind in the coming days and let it lead you to authentic joy. Perceive and enjoy their state of loving union; don’t dismiss them for living in a pre-rational society. Perhaps holding this tension compassionately for them will help us do the same for people in our own time.

Reference:
[1] See, for example, “States, Stages, and the Three Kinds of Self,” Integral Life (September 16, 2009), https://integrallife.com/states-stages-and-3-kinds-self/.

Image credit: Vendimian of Bythinia (Menologion of Basil II) (detail), Anonymous artist, 981 CE.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Solitude is a courageous encounter with our naked, most raw and real self, in the presence of pure Love.  This level of contemplation cannot help but bring about action. —Richard Rohr
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Action and Contemplation: Part 3

Contemplative Consciousness

Sunday, January 19, 2020

I’ve heard some concerns over the years that contemplation is a practice of “Eastern” meditation wrapped in a Christian disguise. Some Christians have even been taught that seeking union with God through silence makes room for the “devil” to get in. While understandable, these apprehensions are based on a lack of knowledge about Christian heritage. In addition to Jesus’ own practice of prayerful solitude, we also have the lives and teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Starting with Anthony the Great in 270 CE, thousands of Christians moved to the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine to form alternative Christian communities. These brave souls were on fire with love for Jesus and sought to become more like him through a disciplined rhythm of life and prayer.

The desert mystics focused much more on the how than the what, which is very different from Christianity’s primary emphasis on beliefs and doctrines in recent centuries. The desert tradition offers a rich teaching of surrender, through contemplation, to the wonderful and always too-much mystery of God. Some have said that the Desert Fathers (abbas) and Mothers (ammas) are like the Zen Buddhist monks of Christianity. Their koan-like sayings cannot usually be understood with the rational, logical mind, which is perhaps why their teachings fell out of favor during the Enlightenment.

Above all, the desert mystics’ primary quest was for God, for Love; everything else was secondary. Thomas Merton (1915-1968) helped modern Christianity recover an awareness of contemplative practice, in part inspired by his reading of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Merton wrote: “All through the Verba Seniorum [Latin for Words of the Elders] we find a repeated insistence on the primacy of love over everything else in the spiritual life: over knowledge, gnosis, asceticism, contemplation, solitude, prayer. Love in fact is the spiritual life, and without it all the other exercises of the spirit, however lofty, are emptied of content and become mere illusions. The more lofty they are, the more dangerous the illusion.” [1]

The Desert Fathers and Mothers focused on these primary practices in their search for God: 1) leaving, to some extent, the systems of the world; 2) a degree of solitude to break from the maddening crowd; 3) times of silence to break from the maddening mind; and 4) “technologies” for controlling the compulsivity of mind and the emotions. All of this was for the sake of growing a person capable of love and community.

Contemplation became a solid foundation for building a civilization and human community—not just in the wilderness centuries ago but in the world today. Contemplative consciousness labels things less easily and does not attach itself to one solitary definitive meaning. In contemplation, one experiences all things as somehow created in the image of God and therefore of equal dignity and deserving of respect.

Reference:
[1] The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century, trans. Thomas Merton (New Directions: 1960), 17.

Image credit: Vendimian of Bythinia (Menologion of Basil II) (detail), Anonymous artist, 981 CE.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Solitude is a courageous encounter with our naked, most raw and real self, in the presence of pure Love. This level of contemplation cannot help but bring about action. —Richard Rohr
Read Full Entry
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