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Knowing and Not Knowing

Knowing and Not Knowing

Sunday, January 26–Friday, January 31, 2020

Alongside all our knowing must be the equal and honest “knowing that I do not know.” (Sunday)

It is amazing how religion has turned the biblical idea of faith into a need and even a right to certain knowing, complete predictability, and perfect assurance about whom God likes and whom God does not like. (Monday)

We lost almost any notion of paradox, mystery, or the wisdom of unknowing and unsayability—which are the open-ended qualities that make biblical faith so dynamic, creative, and nonviolent. (Tuesday)

God, it seems, cannot really be known, but only related to. Or, as the mystics would assert, we know God by loving God, by trusting God, by placing our hope in God. (Wednesday)

God is eternal, the human mind is finite. If God could be comprehended, surrounded by a concept, this would make us greater than God. —Martin Laird (Thursday)

To be united to God we must “break through” the sensible world and pass beyond the human condition to move beyond knowing to unknowing, from knowledge to love. —Ilia Delio (Friday)
Practice: Simply That You Are

We must find a prayer form that actually invades our unconscious, or nothing changes at any depth. Usually this will be some form of Centering Prayer, walking meditation, inner practice of letting go, shadow work, or deliberately undergoing a long period of silence. Whatever you choose, it will feel more like unknowing than knowing, more like surrendering than accomplishing, more like nothing than anything at all. This is probably why so many resist contemplation at the start. Because it feels more like the shedding of thoughts in general than attaining new or good ones. It feels more like just letting go than accomplishing anything, which is counterintuitive for our naturally “capitalistic” minds!

So, let’s try a practice leading to embodied knowing. I discovered an especially good one in The Book of Privy Counsel, a lesser-known classic written by the same author of The Cloud of Unknowing. I like this practice because it is so simple, and for me so effective, even in the middle of the night when I awake and cannot get back to sleep during what some call the “hour of the wolf,” between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m. when the psyche is most undefended. (Others simply call it “insomnia”!) I warn you: This pattern only gets worse as you grow older, so you will do yourself a favor to learn the following practice early! I have summarized and paraphrased the author’s exact words for our very practical purpose here:

First, “take God at face value, as God is. Accept God’s good graciousness, as you would a plain, simple soft compress when sick. Take hold of God and press God against your unhealthy self, just as you are.”

Second, know how your mind and ego play their games: “Stop analyzing yourself or God. You can do without wasting so much of your energy deciding if something is good or bad, grace given or temperament driven, divine or human.”

Third, be encouraged and “Offer up your simple naked being to the joyful being of God, for you two are one in grace, although separate by nature.”

And finally: “Don’t focus on what you are, but simply that you are! How hopelessly stupid would a person have to be if they could not realize that they simply are.”

Hold the soft warm compress of these loving words against your bodily self, bypass the mind and even the affections of the heart and forgo any analysis of what you are, or are not.

“Simply that you are!”

I like this practice because over time it can become an embodied experience of what we’ve been talking about this whole week: knowing and unknowing. By repeatedly placing whatever it is you think you “know” at that hour of the night under “the soft warm compress” of God’s loving presence, your own body becomes a place of relaxation and inner rest. You know that you don’t know, and you trust that you don’t need to know. You are simply in God’s loving care.

Reference:

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent Books, 2019), 222-225.

For Further Study:

The Cloud of Unknowing with the Book of Privy Counsel, trans. Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Shambhala: 2009)

Ilia Delio, Birth of a Dancing Star: My Journey from Cradle Catholic to Cyborg Christian (Orbis Books: 2019)

Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation (Oxford University Press: 2019)

Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014)

Richard Rohr, Franciscan Mysticism: I AM That Which I Am Seeking (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2012), CD, MP3 download 

Image credit: Clearing up, Coast of Sicily (detail), Andreas Achenbach, 1847, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The Desert Fathers and Mothers gave birth to what we call the apophatic tradition, knowing by silence and symbols, and not even needing to know with words. It amounted to a deep insight into the nature of faith that was eventually called the “cloud of unknowing” or the balancing of knowing with not needing to know. Deep acceptance of ultimate mystery is ironically the best way to keep the mind and heart spaces always open and always growing. —Richard Rohr
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Knowing and Not Knowing

Love: The Highest Form of Knowing

Friday, January 31, 2020

My good friend, Franciscan sister and scientist Ilia Delio, has written a wonderful autobiography. In it she recounts how her parents decided to name her Denise. (She would have been named Denis had she been a boy.) Later in life, she was delighted to find a meaningful connection with the man who first approached theology in an explicitly mystical way in his text Mystical Theology. Delio writes: 

When I was doing my doctoral work in theology at Fordham University, I was introduced to the master of mystical theology, Denis the Areopagite, or Pseudo-Dionysius [who wrote in the late fifth to early sixth century]. I was immediately struck by the name “Denis”—the mysterious person who wrote the most exquisite words stretching into the mystery of the incomprehensible God. . . . God is the name of absolute divine mystery beyond any speech or thought or movement. God’s love is so tremendous, this mystical writer claimed, that God is like a sober drunk, falling over himself in the desire to share divine life.

God, the eros of divine love
God, agape, giving Godself away
God, ek-static, standing outside Godself, in the creation of the world
God, the volcanic eruption of divine life.

Because God’s eros is cosmic, Dionysius claimed, the whole universe is drawn to God, who is always utterly transcendent. God is both hidden and revealed, and there is no access to the hidden God except by way of God manifested in creation. We long for God because God longs for us; God eternally desires to give Godself away in love so we can give ourselves in love; love always stands outside itself in the other.

To be united to God we must “break through” the sensible world and pass beyond the human condition to move beyond knowing to unknowing, from knowledge to love. In his De mystica theologia Denis wrote: “As we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing.” [1] . . .

Christian mystics understood love as the core of reality and spoke of a deep relationship between love and knowledge. “Love is the highest form of knowing,” Saint Augustine wrote. [2] Gregory the Great said, “Love itself is a form of knowing” (amor ipse notitia est), meaning that the love by which we reach God implies a form of knowing above ordinary reason. [3] William of St. Thierry put it beautifully in this way: “In the contemplation of God where love is chiefly operative, reason passes into love and is transformed into a certain spiritual and divine understanding which transcends and absorbs all reason.” [4]

Wisdom is knowledge deepened by love. The wise person knows more deeply by way of love than by way of argument because the eye of the heart can see the truth of reality. Hence the wise person is one who knows and sees God shining through everything, even what seems ugly or despised.

References:
[1] Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Mystical Theology,” in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibhéid (Paulist Press: 1987), 139.

[2] For example Bernard McGinn, who writes, “Love and knowledge are intertwined in Augustine’s mystical consciousness.” See Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century, vol. 1 of The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism (Crossroad: 1994), 235.

[3] Bernard McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism—1200-1350, vol. 3 of The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism (Crossroad: 1988), 82.

[4] McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism, 82.

Ilia Delio, Birth of a Dancing Star: My Journey from Cradle Catholic to Cyborg Christian (Orbis Books: 2019), 5-6, 200-201.

Image credit: Clearing up, Coast of Sicily (detail), Andreas Achenbach, 1847, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The Desert Fathers and Mothers gave birth to what we call the apophatic tradition, knowing by silence and symbols, and not even needing to know with words. It amounted to a deep insight into the nature of faith that was eventually called the “cloud of unknowing” or the balancing of knowing with not needing to know. Deep acceptance of ultimate mystery is ironically the best way to keep the mind and heart spaces always open and always growing. —Richard Rohr
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Knowing and Not Knowing

God Cannot Be Thought

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Augustinian priest Fr. Martin Laird is an author, retreat leader, and professor of early Christian studies at Villanova University. He is a gifted teacher who makes the history and practice of Christian contemplation accessible to people of all backgrounds. Here he relates the insights of The Cloud of Unknowing to the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430), the great theologian and bishop.  

The fourteenth-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing acknowledges the distinction (not separation) between what our love can do and our thinking mind cannot. The author likens it to having two faculties, a faculty (or capacity) of the thinking, calculating mind and a faculty for loving. God created each of these. However, “God is forever beyond the reach of the first of these, the intellectual faculty; but by means of the second, the loving faculty, [God] can be fully grasped by each individual being.” [1]

The author [of The Cloud] clearly values the thinking mind. It is necessary for understanding (grasping with the mind) created beings and “to think clearly about them.” [2] Thinking mind functions by means of concepts, images, words, and so on. But God is beyond the grasp of concepts; no word can capture God, no word can have the final word on the Word made flesh, who yet dwells among us (John 1:14). “God can well be loved,” the author says, “but [God] cannot be thought. By love [God] can be grasped and held, but by thought neither grasped nor held.” [3] God is eternal, the human mind is finite. If God could be comprehended, surrounded by a concept, this would make us greater than God. We invent the illusion that God is a thing that we lack and must therefore seek, find, and (attempt to) control. . . .

St. Augustine, the great teacher of love that knows and knowledge that loves, reflects on his own experience of looking for God as an external object, a thing—just huge—that could be located and fixed in space and time. In his Confessions, he relates how all this changed when he at last forgot himself.

But when unknown to me you caressed my head,
and when you closed my eyes lest they see things
that would seduce me,
I began for a little while to forget about myself,
and my madness was lulled to sleep.
When I awoke in you, I saw very differently,
infinite in a very different sense.
But what I saw was not seen with the eye of the body. [4]

For decades Augustine searched for God where God cannot be found—outside himself in conquest, career, and ambition. Only when God casts him into sleep (Genesis 2:21) does something immensely creative happen. Augustine awakes in God and beholds what only the inner eye can behold: the traces of God as luminous vastness. As we journey toward the God who causes us to seek, may we discover our own grounding silence and awake in God who has found us from all eternity.

References:

[1] The Cloud of Unknowing, in The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, trans. A. C. Spearing (Penguin: 2001), 23.

[2] Ibid., 27.

[3] Ibid, 27-28.

[4] St. Augustine, Confessions, 7, 14, trans. Benignus O’Rourke (Darton, Longman, and Todd: 2013), 286.
Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation (Oxford University Press: 2019), xiii-xiv, xv-xvi.

Image credit: Clearing up, Coast of Sicily (detail), Andreas Achenbach, 1847, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The Desert Fathers and Mothers gave birth to what we call the apophatic tradition, knowing by silence and symbols, and not even needing to know with words. It amounted to a deep insight into the nature of faith that was eventually called the “cloud of unknowing” or the balancing of knowing with not needing to know. Deep acceptance of ultimate mystery is ironically the best way to keep the mind and heart spaces always open and always growing. —Richard Rohr
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Knowing and Not Knowing

The Cloud of Unknowing
Wednesday, January 29, 2020

God, it seems, cannot really be known, but only related to. Or, as the mystics would assert, we know God by loving God, by trusting God, by placing our hope in God. It is a non-possessive, non-objectified way of knowing. It is always I-Thou and never I-It, to use Martin Buber’s wonderfully insightful phrases. God allows us to know God only by loving God. God, in that sense, cannot be “thought” at all. [1] 

The anonymous, 14th-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing conveys the fathomless mystery of God and that God can only be known by loving presence—contemplation. The Cloud of Unknowing is the inspiration for practices such as Centering Prayer and Christian meditation. Today I will share some of my favorite excerpts from Carmen Acevedo Butcher’s translation of this Middle English text. The italicized words in brackets are my own.

Lift up your heart to God with a gentle stirring of love. . . .

The first time you practice contemplation, you’ll only experience a darkness, like a cloud of unknowing [which now happily envelops you]. You won’t know what this is [and will have to learn how to live there by “forgetting” your previous methods of knowing]. You’ll only know that in your will you feel a simple reaching out to God. You must also know that this darkness and this cloud will always be between you and your God, whatever you do. They will always keep you from seeing God clearly by the light of understanding in your intellect and will block you from feeling God fully in the sweetness of love in your emotions. So, be sure you make your home in this darkness. Stay there as long as you can, crying out to God over and over again, because you love God. It’s the closest you can get to God here on earth, by waiting in this darkness and in this cloud. Work at this diligently, as I’ve asked you to, and I know God’s mercy will lead you there. . . .

God is incomprehensible to the intellect. . . . Nobody’s mind is powerful enough to grasp who God is. We can only know God by experiencing God’s love. . . .

God can be loved, but not thought. [John of the Cross (1542–1591) and many other mystics say the same thing. Christians could have saved ourselves so much fighting and division if we had just taught this one truth!]

By love, God can be embraced and held, but not by thinking. . . .

No matter how sacred, no thought can ever promise to help you in the work of contemplative prayer, because only love—not knowledge—can help us reach God. . . .

When we reach the end of what we know, that’s where we find God. That’s why St. Dionysius said that the best, most divine knowledge of God is that which is known by not-knowing.

References:
[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, What the Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self  (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2015), 103.

The Cloud of Unknowing with the Book of Privy Counsel,  trans. Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Shambhala: 2009), 11, 12, 14, 21, 28-29, 156. In place of masculine pronouns used in the original, I simply use “God.”

Image credit: Clearing up, Coast of Sicily (detail), Andreas Achenbach, 1847, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The Desert Fathers and Mothers gave birth to what we call the apophatic tradition, knowing by silence and symbols, and not even needing to know with words. It amounted to a deep insight into the nature of faith that was eventually called the “cloud of unknowing” or the balancing of knowing with not needing to know. Deep acceptance of ultimate mystery is ironically the best way to keep the mind and heart spaces always open and always growing. —Richard Rohr
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Knowing and Not Knowing

Soul Knowledge

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

When Western civilization set out on its many paths of winning, accomplishment, and conquest, the contemplative mind seemed uninteresting and even counterproductive to our egoic purposes. The contemplative mind got in the way of definable goals for progress, science, and development, which were very good and necessary in their own way—but not for soul knowledge. We lost almost any notion of paradox, mystery, or the wisdom of unsayability—which are the open-ended qualities that make biblical faith so dynamic, creative, and nonviolent. Instead, we insisted on “knowing,” and even certain knowing all the time and every step of the way! This is no longer the enlightening path of Abraham, Moses, Mary, or Jesus but a rather late and utterly inadequate form of religion, which is probably why so many individuals, especially in the West, now say they are “spiritual but not religious.” I cannot fault them for that, though it sounds like the dualistic mind speaking.

We must remember that Christianity in its maturity is supremely love-centered, not information- or knowledge-centered. The primacy of love allows our knowing to be much humbler and more patient and helps us to recognize that other traditions—and other people—have much to teach us, and there is also much we can share with them. This stance of honest self-knowledge and deeper interiority, with the head (Scripture), the heart (Experience), and the body (Tradition) operating as one, is helping many to be more integrated and truthful about their own actual experience of God.

Contemplation allows us to see things in their wholeness and thus with respect (re-spect means to see a second time). Until Richard recognizes and somehow compensates for his prejudicial way of seeing the moment, all Richard will tend to see is his own emotional life and agenda in every new situation. This is the essential letting-go lesson (kenosis) of Contemplation 101, but such self-emptying does not yet feel much like “prayer” to the average person, which is probably why many give up too soon and frankly never truly meet otherness—much less the Other. They just keep meeting themselves over and over again. Only at a deeper level of contemplation do we begin to see the correlation between how we do anything and how we do everything else. We take the moment in front of us much more seriously and respectfully. We catch ourselves out of the corner of our eye, as it were, and our ego games are exposed and diminished.

Such knowing does not contradict the rational, but it’s much more holistic and inclusive. It might be called trans-rational although many think it is pre-rational. It goes where the rational mind cannot go, but then comes back to honor the rational, too. In our Living School, we call this “contemplative epistemology”—a contemplative theory of how we know what we know. Contemplation is really the change that changes everything—especially, first of all, the seer.  

References:

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent: 2019), 210, 214, 215-216.

Image credit: Clearing up, Coast of Sicily (detail), Andreas Achenbach, 1847, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The Desert Fathers and Mothers gave birth to what we call the apophatic tradition, knowing by silence and symbols, and not even needing to know with words. It amounted to a deep insight into the nature of faith that was eventually called the “cloud of unknowing” or the balancing of knowing with not needing to know. Deep acceptance of ultimate mystery is ironically the best way to keep the mind and heart spaces always open and always growing. —Richard Rohr
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Knowing and Not Knowing

All Spiritual Knowing Must Be Balanced by Not-Knowing

Monday, January 27, 2020

It is amazing how religion has turned the biblical idea of faith around 180 degrees—into a need and even a right to certain knowing, complete predictability, and perfect assurance about whom and what God likes or doesn’t like. Why do we think we can have the Infinite Mystery of God in our quite finite pocket? We supposedly know what God is going to say or do next, because we think our particular denomination has it all figured out. In this schema, God is no longer free but must follow our rules and our theology. If God is not infinitely free, we are in trouble, because every time God forgives or shows mercy, God is breaking God’s own rules with shocking (but merciful) freedom and inconsistency!

In the fourth century, as the Christian church moved from bottom to the top, where it was protected and pampered by the Roman Empire, people like Anthony of the Desert, John Cassian, Evagrius Ponticus, and the early monks went off to the deserts to keep growing in the Spirit. They found the Church’s newfound privilege—and the loss of Jesus’ core values—unacceptable. It was in these deserts that a different mind called contemplation was first formally taught.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers gave birth to what we call the  apophatic  tradition, knowing by silence and symbols, and not even needing to know with words. It amounted to a deep insight into the nature of faith that was eventually called the “cloud of unknowing” or the balancing of knowing with not needing to know. Deep acceptance of ultimate mystery is ironically the best way to keep the mind and heart spaces always open and always growing.

We do need enough knowing to be able to hold our ground. We need a container and structure in which we can safely acknowledge that we do know a bit, in fact just enough to hold us until we are ready for a further knowing. In the meantime, we can happily exist in what some have called docta ignorantia or “learned ignorance.” Such people tend to be very happy and they also make a lot of other people happy.

A few years ago, a man from Colorado came to visit me. He said, “Richard, when you were still in Cincinnati, I gave you a dilemma that I was struggling with; and you told me something that has been my mantra for 30 years. You said to me, ‘You know, you don’t really need to know. It’s okay not to know.’”

Then he said, “That’s been my mantra for 30 years—with my wife, with my children, with my business, in my politics. Whenever there is a dilemma, I just say, ‘I don’t know.’ It makes my wife happy, my children happy, and my life happy!” Tears started running down his cheeks. “You taught me this.”

I said, “I did? I don’t even live it myself!” But then, most of my preaching is really preaching to myself.

References:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 51;

Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 19-20; and

Franciscan Mysticism: I AM That Which I Am Seeking, disc 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2012), CD, MP3 download.

Image credit: Clearing up, Coast of Sicily (detail), Andreas Achenbach, 1847, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The Desert Fathers and Mothers gave birth to what we call the apophatic tradition, knowing by silence and symbols, and not even needing to know with words. It amounted to a deep insight into the nature of faith that was eventually called the “cloud of unknowing” or the balancing of knowing with not needing to know. Deep acceptance of ultimate mystery is ironically the best way to keep the mind and heart spaces always open and always growing. —Richard Rohr
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Knowing and Not Knowing

A Hidden Wholeness

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Alongside all our knowing must be the equal and honest “knowing that I do not know.” That’s why the classic schools of prayer spoke of both  kataphatic  knowing—through images and words—and  apophatic knowing—through silence and symbols.  Apophatic knowing allows God to fill in all the gaps in an “unspeakable” way, beyond words and within the empty spaces between them. The apophatic way of knowing was largely lost to Western Christianity during the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, and we have suffered because of it. As the churches wanted to match the new rationalism of the Enlightenment with what felt like solid knowing, they took on the secular mind instead of what Paul calls “knowing spiritual things in a spiritual way” (1 Corinthians 2:13). We dismissed the unique, interior access point of the mystics, poets, artists, and saints.

Strangely enough, this unknowing offers us a new kind of understanding, though we have an old word for it: faith. Faith is a kind of knowing that doesn’t need to know for certain and yet doesn’t dismiss knowledge either. With faith, we don’t need to obtain or hold all knowledge because we know that we are being held inside a Much Larger Frame and Perspective. As Paul puts it, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known myself” (1 Corinthians 13:12). It is a knowing by participation with—instead of an observation of  from a position of separation. It is knowing subject to subject instead of subject to object.

It took me years to understand this, even though it is straight from the Franciscan school of philosophy. Love must always precede knowledge. The mind alone cannot get us there, which is the great arrogance of most Western religion. Prayer in my later years has become letting myself be nakedly known, exactly as I am, in all my ordinariness and shadow, face to face, without any masks or religious makeup. Such nakedness is a falling into the unified field underneath reality, what Thomas Merton (1915–1968) called “a hidden wholeness,” [1] where we know in a different way and from a different source.

This is the contemplative’s unique access point: knowing by union with a thing, where we can enjoy an intuitive grasp of wholeness, a truth beyond words, beyond any need or capacity to prove anything right or wrong. This is the contemplative mind which Christianity should have directly taught, but which it largely lost with tragic results for history and religion.

References:

[1] Thomas Merton, “Hagia Sophia: Dawn,” In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton, ed. Lynn R. Szabo (New Directions: 2005), 65.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 15-16.

Image credit: Clearing up, Coast of Sicily (detail), Andreas Achenbach, 1847, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The Desert Fathers and Mothers gave birth to what we call the apophatic tradition, knowing by silence and symbols, and not even needing to know with words. It amounted to a deep insight into the nature of faith that was eventually called the “cloud of unknowing” or the balancing of knowing with not needing to know. Deep acceptance of ultimate mystery is ironically the best way to keep the mind and heart spaces always open and always growing. —Richard Rohr
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