Unknowing Archives — Center for Action and Contemplation
×

By continuing to browse our site you agree to our use of cookies and our Privacy Policy.

Theme:
Unknowing

Unknowing

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Week Five Summary and Practice

Sunday, January 31—Friday, February 5, 2021

Sunday
The formal theological terms for unknowing and knowing are the apophatic or “negative” way, where you move beyond words and images into silence, and the kataphatic or “affirmative” way, where you use words, concepts, and images.

Monday
Perplexity, I realized, was working like an X-ray of my soul, exposing much of my so-called spirituality as a vanity project of my ego, an expression of my arrogant desire to always be right, my desperate and fearful need to always be in control, my unexamined drive to tame the wildness of life by naming it and dominating it with words. —Brian McLaren

Tuesday
You actually need this purgation and unknowing to prepare you for a new depth of living, knowing, and loving. —Brian McLaren

Wednesday
Creativity flourishes not in certainty but in questions. Growth germinates not in tent dwelling but in upheaval. Yet the seduction is always security rather than venturing, instant knowing rather than deliberate waiting. —Sue Monk Kidd

Thursday
John of the Cross says that the dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation. —Barbara Brown Taylor

Friday
I entered into unknowing / Yet when I saw myself there / Without knowing where I was / I understood great things; / I shall not say what I felt / For I remained in unknowing / Transcending all knowledge. —St. John of the Cross

 

The YHWH Prayer

You shall not take the name of God in vain. (Exodus 20:7)

Many Christians think the second commandment is a prohibition against swearing. But I believe the real meaning of speaking the name of God “in vain” is to speak God’s name casually or trivially, with a false presumption of understanding the Mystery—as if we knew what we were talking about!

Many Jewish people concluded that the name of God should not be spoken at all. The Sacred Tetragrammaton, YHWH, was not even to be pronounced with the lips! In fact, vocalizing the four consonants does not involve closing the mouth. A rabbi taught me that God’s name was not pronounceable but only breathable: YH on the captured in-breath, and WH on the offered out-breath!

We come from a very ancient, human-based, natural, biological, universally experienced understanding of God. God’s eternal mystery cannot be captured or controlled, but only received and shared as freely as the breath itself—the thing we have done since the moment we were born and will one day cease to do in this body. God is as available and accessible as our breath itself. Jesus breathes the Spirit into us as the very air of life (see John 20:22)! Our job is simply to both receive and give this life-breath. We cannot only inhale, and we cannot only exhale. We must breathe in and out, accept and let go.

Take several minutes to pause and breathe mindfully, surrendering to the mystery of wordless air, the sustainer of life. Part your lips; relax your jaw and tongue. Hear the air flow in and out of your body:

Inhale: YH
Exhale: WH

Let your breathing in and out, for the rest of your life, be your prayer to—and from—such a living and utterly shared God. You will not need to prove it to anybody else, nor can you. Just keep breathing with full consciousness and without resistance, and you will know what you need to know.

Experience a version of this practice through video and sound.

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 129‒131.

Image credit: Ladder and Chair (detail), Photograph by Thomas Merton, copyright the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with Permission.
Image inspiration: How do we look beyond what we think we already know? At first glance the shadow of chair and ladder may be confusing, but shapes and meaning begin to emerge upon a longer contemplation.
To learn more about Thomas Merton’s photography see: Pearson, Paul M, ed., Beholding Paradise: The Photographs of Thomas Merton (Paulist Press: 2020).
Read Full Entry

Unknowing

The Way of Unknowing
Friday, February 5, 2021

Descriptions of the “dark night of the soul” from the Spanish mystic John of the Cross (1542–1591) have become the marker by which many Christians measure their own experience of unknowing. He fits an entire life spent exploring God’s mystery into memorable poetry, and even dares to call unknowing “an ecstasy”! Here are several stanzas from his poem “Stanzas Concerning an Ecstasy Experienced in High Contemplation”:

1. I entered into unknowing

Yet when I saw myself there

Without knowing where I was

I understood great things;

I shall not say what I felt

For I remained in unknowing

Transcending all knowledge.

. . . .

4. He who truly arrives there

Cuts free from himself;

All that he knew before

Now seems worthless,

And his knowledge so soars

That he is left in unknowing

Transcending all knowledge.

. . . .

6. The knowledge in unknowing

Is so overwhelming

That wise men disputing

Can never overthrow it,

For their knowledge does not reach

To the understanding of not-

understanding,

Transcending all knowledge. [1]

John’s poetry is exquisite in its humility—knowing that he does not know, can never know, and doesn’t even need to know! He goes so far as to call this dark night “a work of His mercy, / To leave one without understanding.” [2] John’s teaching contains paradoxes that are difficult to absorb, but modern readers have the good fortune of many good translations, including that of Mirabai Starr. Like the other friends whose work I have shared this week, Mirabai knows the via negativa, the way of unknowing, personally and intimately, and describes what happens between the soul and God in the “dark night:”

The soul in the dark night cannot, by definition, understand what is happening to her. Accustomed to feeling and conceiving of the Beloved in her own way, she does not realize that the darkness is a blessing. She perceives God’s gentle touch as an unbearable burden. She feels miserable and unworthy, convinced that God has abandoned her, afraid she may herself be turning against him. In her despair, the soul does not recognize that God is teaching her in a secret way now, a way with which the faculties of sense and reason cannot interfere.

At the same time that the soul in the night of spirit becomes paralyzed in spiritual practice, her love-longing for God begins to intensify. In the stillness left behind by its broken-open senses and intellect, a quality of abundance starts to grow inside the emptied soul. It turns out that the Beloved is longing for union with the lover as fervently as she has been yearning for him. . . . God will whisper to the soul in the depth of darkness and guide it through the wilderness of the Unknown until it is annihilated in the flames of perfect love. [3]

References:
[1] John of the Cross, “Stanzas Concerning an Ecstasy Experienced in High Contemplation,” The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Institute of Carmelite Studies: 1979), 718–719.

[2] John of the Cross, Collected Works, 719.

[3] Mirabai Starr, introduction to Dark Night of the Soul, by John of the Cross, trans. Mirabai Starr (Riverhead Books: 2002), 20. [Richard Rohr: The best translation in my opinion.]

Story from Our Community:
I live in an assisted living facility with my husband. I have been writing a haiku a day during the pandemic. The great unknowing / This 2020 vision. / Seeing with new eyes. —Juliana H.

Image credit: Ladder and Chair (detail), Photograph by Thomas Merton, copyright the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with Permission.
Image inspiration: How do we look beyond what we think we already know? At first glance the shadow of chair and ladder may be confusing, but shapes and meaning begin to emerge upon a longer contemplation.
Read Full Entry

Unknowing

Faith and Doubt Are Not Opposites
Wednesday, February 3, 2021

The imagination should be allowed a certain freedom to browse around. —Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action

Basic religious faith is a vote for some coherence, purpose, benevolence, and direction in the universe. Unfortunately, the notion of faith that emerged in the West was much more a rational assent to the truth of certain mental beliefs rather than a calm and hopeful trust that God is inherent in all things, and that this whole thing is going somewhere good.

I worry about “true believers” who cannot carry any doubt or anxiety at all, as Thomas the Apostle and Saint Teresa of Calcutta (1910–1997) learned to do. Doubt and faith are actually correlative terms. People of great faith often suffer bouts of great doubt because they continue to grow. Mother Teresa experienced decades of this kind of doubt, as was revealed after her death. In a letter to a trusted spiritual director she wrote, “Darkness is such that I really do not see — neither with my mind nor with my reason. — The place of God in my soul is blank. — There is no God in me.” [1] The very fact that the world media and people in general were scandalized by this demonstrates how limited is our understanding of the nature of biblical faith.

It seems a movement from certitude to doubt and through doubt to acceptance of life’s mystery is necessary in all encounters, intellectual breakthroughs, and relationships, not just with the Divine. Human faith and religious faith are much the same except in their object or goal. What set us on the wrong path was making the object of religious faith “ideas” or doctrines instead of a person. Our faith is not a faith that dogmas or moral opinions are true, but a faith that Ultimate Reality/God/Christ is accessible to us—and even on our side.

To hold the full mystery of life is always to endure its other half, which is the equal mystery of death and doubt. To know anything fully is always to hold that part of it which is still mysterious and unknowable. Our youthful demand for certainty does eliminate most anxiety on the conscious level, so I can see why many of us stay in such a control tower during the first half of life. We are too fragile yet.

Author Sue Monk Kidd has written eloquently about the disruption spiritual seekers often encounter in midlife and our resistance to it. She wonders:

What has happened to our ability to dwell in unknowing, to live inside a question and coexist with the tensions of uncertainty? Where is our willingness to incubate pain and let it birth something new? What has happened to patient unfolding, to endurance? These things are what form the ground of waiting. And if you look carefully, you’ll see that they’re also the seedbed of creativity and growth—what allows us to do the daring and to break through to newness. . . .

Creativity flourishes not in certainty but in questions. Growth germinates not in tent dwelling but in upheaval. Yet the seduction is always security rather than venturing, instant knowing rather than deliberate waiting. [2]

References:
[1]  Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, ed. Brian Kolodiejchuk, (Doubleday: 2007), 210.

[2] Sue Monk Kidd, When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions (HarperSanFrancisco: 1990), 25.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass: 2011), 111‒113; and

The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2009), 117.

Story from Our Community:
In this time of universal powerlessness and complete unknowing, I find true peace in the ability to completely turn my will and my life over to the care of God, understanding that I can never ‘figure this out.’ I pray for a great awakening for all of us and balm for the suffering across the planet. . . I ask each day to be shown what I can do to help. —Shaun P.

Image credit: Ladder and Chair (detail), Photograph by Thomas Merton, copyright the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with Permission.
Image inspiration: How do we look beyond what we think we already know? At first glance the shadow of chair and ladder may be confusing, but shapes and meaning begin to emerge upon a longer contemplation.
Read Full Entry

Unknowing

Love Is the Movement; Doubt Is the Method
Tuesday, February 2, 2021
Candlemas Day [1]

Today Brian McLaren shares brilliantly how doubt has often been a tool of love, drawing him ever closer to the heart of God. Applying his four-fold spiritual growth process of Simplicity, Complexity, Perplexity, and Harmony to himself, Brian writes:

Paul makes clear that nearly everything religious people strive for will eventually be swallowed up in something deeper, and in and of itself, is of no real worth. Even faith and hope don’t have the last word. Only love, he says, is the more excellent way [1 Corinthians 12:31]. . . . In fact, he dares to say, nothing else matters except faith expressing itself in love [Galatians 5:6].

Looking back on my own spiritual pilgrimage, I have come to see “the still more excellent way of love” as the telos [ultimate purpose] whose gravitational pull has been drawing me first through Simplicity, then through Complexity, then downward through Perplexity, and then deeper still, toward an experience that is too profound for words, the experience of Harmony. When I loved correctness in Stage One, yes, correctness mattered, but the love with which I pursued correctness mattered still more. When I loved effectiveness in Stage Two, yes, effectiveness mattered, but the love that moved me to pursue it mattered still more. When I loved honesty and justice in Stage Three, yes, honesty and justice mattered, but the love that burned in my heart for them mattered still more. . . .

Faith was about love all along. We just didn’t realize it, and it took doubt to help us see it. . . .

I wish I could go back to that younger, agonized me [in Stage Three Perplexity] and bring this message:

I know that your perplexity feels like a dead end. But wait, wait, endure, persist, do your work, see it through, hang in there, trust the process, and it will become a passageway, a birth canal. You actually need this purgation and unknowing to prepare you for a new depth of living, knowing, and loving. There is much that deserves to be doubted, and if you really care about the truth, you must pursue it, using doubt as a necessary tool. (It’s not your only tool, but it is one of your tools.)

I know you feel that everything you value is slipping through your fingers. But don’t clench your fists. Open your hands. Your open hands, open eyes, and open heart will prepare the way for new gains, not just new thoughts, but new ways of thinking. You have already added dualistic thinking, pragmatic thinking, and critical/deconstructive thinking to your skill set. You will soon learn a new skill: unitive or nondual seeing, in which knowing and unknowing, faith and doubt, clarity and mystery are not opposites, but complements. [2]

In this final stage, what Brian calls “Harmony,” we are not returned to certainty or knowing in any concrete way, but we are gifted with the “okayness” of not knowing and the coherence of “non-discriminatory love.” [3] Brian, raised Evangelical, really gets it! I do not believe Evangelicalism or street-corner Catholicism can be renewed at any depth without the discovery of the contemplative mind.

References:
[1] Candles were historically blessed on this day to mark the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and the slow return of light. Secular America created Groundhog Day with the same unconscious hope.

[2] Brian D. McLaren, Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It (St. Martin’s Essentials: 2021), 87, 88, 91.

[3] McLaren, 94.

Story from Our Community:
In this time of universal powerlessness and complete unknowing, I find true peace in the ability to completely turn my will and my life over to the care of God, understanding that I can never ‘figure this out.’ I pray for a great awakening for all of us and balm for the suffering across the planet. . . I ask each day to be shown what I can do to help. —Shaun P.

Image credit: Ladder and Chair (detail), Photograph by Thomas Merton, copyright the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with Permission.
Image inspiration: How do we look beyond what we think we already know? At first glance the shadow of chair and ladder may be confusing, but shapes and meaning begin to emerge upon a longer contemplation.
Read Full Entry

Unknowing

Doubt: A Necessary Tool for Growth
Monday, February 1, 2021

My good friend and colleague Brian McLaren’s recently published book, Faith After Doubt, shows how doubt and periods of unknowing are necessary for spiritual growth. Brian proposes a four-stage growth process of Simplicity, Complexity, Perplexity, and Harmony. He writes:

Doubt, it turns out, is the passageway from each stage to the next. Without doubt, there can be growth within a stage, but growth from one stage to another usually requires us to doubt the assumptions that give shape to our current stage. . . .

At the Center for Action and Contemplation, one of our core teachings is “the path of descent,” the idea that the spiritual life will eventually require us to descend into a dark tunnel, to descend into unknowing and doubt, to descend into a loss of certainty, to descend through a process that feels like dying. As with Jesus in the Gospels, we find ourselves crying, “Let this cup of suffering be taken from me” [Matthew 26:39] and “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Matthew 27:46]

This deep anguish characterizes what Brian calls Stage Three: Perplexity. Brian continues:

When I studied the mystics . . .  I learned that they spoke often of purgation (or katharsis) as the portal to illumination (or fotosis) and union (or theosis). They saw purgation as the painful and necessary process by which we are stripped of know-it-all arrogance, ego, and self-will. Perplexity, I realized, was working like an X-ray of my soul, exposing much of my so-called spirituality as a vanity project of my ego, an expression of my arrogant desire to always be right, my desperate and fearful need to always be in control, my unexamined drive to tame the wildness of life by naming it and dominating it with words. The doubt of Perplexity, the mystics helped me see, was just the fire I needed to purge me of previously unacknowledged arrogance. In this way, self-knowledge was another gift that came, unwanted, during my Stage Three descent.

[Through the Christian mystics,] I was exposed to “the dark night of the soul,” a period of desolation in which God feels absent, a period in which one can’t see or understand what is going on, a deep valley during which one feels abandoned and lost. To my surprise, the mystics believed this was not something to be avoided, but rather it was a passageway into something deeper and greater. In fact, only the path of descent into spiritual dryness and soul-darkness could lead the soul to a deeper experience of union with God (or theosis).

Richard again: Ironically, one of the few things I can say I truly know is that not-knowing and often not even needing to know is—surprise of surprises—a deeper way of knowing and a deeper falling into compassion. This is surely what the mystics mean by “death” and why they talk of it with so many metaphors. It is the essential transitioning.

Reference:
Brian D. McLaren, Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It (St. Martin’s Essentials: 2021), 43, 72, 78.

Story from Our Community:
My calling in my retirement years has not been my choice—I am sole caretaker for my husband who is physically disabled, has dementia and multiple medical diagnoses. Some days are good and some days I have less patience, stamina and hope. Reading Richard Rohr’s words first thing in the morning helps keep me fortified. There is such beauty in this world and small miracles and blessings occur each day if we quiet our minds enough to notice them. —Eileen A.

Image credit: Ladder and Chair (detail), Photograph by Thomas Merton, copyright the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with Permission.
Image inspiration: How do we look beyond what we think we already know? At first glance the shadow of chair and ladder may be confusing, but shapes and meaning begin to emerge upon a longer contemplation.
Read Full Entry

Unknowing

The Inadequacy of Words
Sunday, January 31, 2021

My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways. . . . As high as the heavens are above the earth, so my ways are beyond your ways, and my thoughts are beyond your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8–9)

Jesus had been formed by this quote from Isaiah, which teaches Jews humility before the mystery of God (see Ecclesiastes 3:11; Job 11:6; Psalm 139).

When we presume we know fully, we can all be very arrogant and goal oriented at the expense of other people. When we know we don’t know fully, we are much more concerned about practical, loving behavior. This has become obvious to me as I try to observe human nature. Those who know God are always humble; those who don’t are invariably far too sure of themselves (which is different than grace filled self-confidence).

When we speak of God and things transcendent, all we can do is use metaphors and pointers. No language is adequate to describe the holy. As in a familiar portrait of Saint John of the Cross, we must place a hushing finger over our lips to remind ourselves that God is finally unspeakable and ineffable. Or, sharing Jewish tradition, we may even refuse to pronounce the name “YHWH.”

In my experience, the people who find God are usually people who are very serious about their quest and their questions, more so than being absolutely certain about their answers. I offer that as hard-won wisdom.

The Bible, in its entirety, finds a fine balance between knowing and not-knowing, between using words and having humility about words. The ensuing Christian traditions have often not found that same balance. What I’ve called “Churchianity” typically needs to speak with absolutes and certainties. It thinks it has the right and the obligation to make total truth-claims and feels very insecure when it cannot.  Thus, it is not very well trained in insecurity and trust.

I understand that early psychic need for clarity, certitude, and identity, especially to get us started when we are young. Religion, though, also needs a balancing agent to unlock itself from the inside, which most of us would call the mystical or prayer tradition. (“Mystery,” “mystical,” and “to mutter” all come from the Greek verb muein, which means “to hush or close the lips”). Without this unlocking, we will not produce many mature Christians, and certainly not Christians who can build any bridges to anybody else.

This internal balancing act emerged as two streams in the world of spirituality: the knowing tradition and the not-knowing tradition.  The formal theological terms are the apophatic or “negative” way, where you move beyond words and images into silence, and the kataphatic or “affirmative” way, where you use words, concepts, and images. I believe both forms are necessary, and together they create a magnificent form of higher consciousness called biblical faith. This great and healing balance is still rather rare, however, because the ego insists on certitude and perfect clarity (as if that were even possible with things divine).

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 110–111, 113–115.

Story from Our Community:
My calling in my retirement years has not been my choice—I am sole caretaker for my husband who is physically disabled, has dementia and multiple medical diagnoses. Some days are good and some days I have less patience, stamina and hope. Reading Richard Rohr’s words first thing in the morning helps keep me fortified. There is such beauty in this world and small miracles and blessings occur each day if we quiet our minds enough to notice them. —Eileen A.

Image credit: Ladder and Chair (detail), Photograph by Thomas Merton, copyright the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with Permission.
Image inspiration: How do we look beyond what we think we already know? At first glance the shadow of chair and ladder may be confusing, but shapes and meaning begin to emerge upon a longer contemplation.
Read Full Entry
Join Our Email Community

Stay up to date on the latest news and happenings from Richard Rohr and the Center for Action and Contemplation.


HTML spacer