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The Gift of Contemplative Prayer Revised and Updated Edition
By Richard Rohr
The Crossroad Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2003 Richard Rohr
All rights reserved.
Center and Circumference
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
— William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"
We are a circumference people, with little access to the center. We live on the boundaries of our own lives "in the widening gyre," confusing edges with essence, too quickly claiming the superficial as substance. As Yeats predicted, things have fallen apart and the center does not seem to be holding.
If the circumferences of our lives were evil, it would be easier to moralize about them. But boundaries and edges are not bad as much as they are passing, accidental, sometimes illusory, and too often in need of defense or "decoration." Our "skin" is not bad; it's just not our soul or spirit. But skin might also be the only available beginning point for many contemporary people. Earlier peoples, who didn't have as many escapes and means to avoid reality, had to find Essence earlier — just to survive. On the contrary, we can remain on the circumferences of our lives for quite a long time. So long, that it starts feeling like the only "life" available.
Not many people are telling us there is anything more to life. I am told that the primary mediating institutions in our deconstructed society are the media and the business world. While these institutions are not bad, they are inadequate to name our soul or entice our spirit. We are at a serious disadvantage if we take them as "the bottom line" of our existence, which is ironically exactly what we call the business or economic perspective.
Let's presume that there was an earlier age when people had easy and natural access to their souls and openness to transcendent Spirit. I am not sure that this age ever perfectly existed, any more than the Garden of Eden, where all was naked and in harmony, but if it did, it consisted of people who were either loved very well at their center or who suffered very much around the edges — probably both. The path of prayer and love and the path of suffering seem to be the two Great Paths of transformation. Suffering seems to get our attention; love and prayer seem to get our heart and our passion.
But most of us return to the garden by a more arduous route. In his poem Four quartets, T. S. Eliot called it the path of "observance, discipline, thought and action. The hint half guessed, the gift half understood." This ordinary path back to Paradise is the blood, guts, and ecstasy of the whole biblical text: usually three steps forward and two steps backward, just like our lives.
The ordinary path is a gradual awakening and an occasional quieting, a passion for and a surrendering to, a caring and a not caring at all. It is both center and circumference, and I am finally not in control of either one. But we must begin somewhere. For most of us the beginning point is at the edges. This reality, felt and not denied, suffered and enjoyed, becomes the royal road to the center. In other words, reality itself, our reality, my limited and sometimes misinterpreted experience, still becomes the revelatory place for God. For some reason we seem to prefer fabricated realities to the strong and sensitizing face of what is.
Yet the great teachers tell us not to stay on the circumferences too long or we will never know ourselves or God. The two knowings, in fact, seem to move forward together. This movement might also be understood as conversion, transformation, or growth in holiness. You cannot make this journey in your head, alone. Actually, you cannot make it alone at all. You must be led.
Less than a block from where I used to live in downtown Albuquerque there is a sidewalk where the homeless often sit against the wall to catch the winter sun. Once I saw a fresh graffiti chalked clearly on the pavement. It touched me so profoundly that I immediately went home and wrote it in my journal. It said, "I watch how foolishly man guards his nothing — thereby keeping us out. Truly, God is hated here." I can only imagine what kind of life experience enabled this person to write in such a cutting but truthful way. I understood anew why Jesus seemed to think that the expelled ones had a head start in understanding his message. Usually they have been expelled from what was unreal anyway — the imperial systems of culture, which demand "in" people and "out" people, victors and victims. In God's reign "everything belongs," even the broken and poor parts. Until we have admitted this in our own soul, we will usually perpetuate expelling systems in the outer world of politics and class. Dualistic thinking begins in the soul and moves to the mind and eventually moves to the streets. True prayer, however, nips the lie in the bud. It is usually experienced as tears, surrender, or forgiveness.
Perhaps I can presume that this homeless person is not formally educated in theology or psychotherapy; yet through the path of suffering, and maybe prayer, this person is in touch with both essence and edges — and knows who God is. This is why St. Bonaventure and others said that a poor uneducated person might well know and love God more than a great theologian or ecclesiastic. You do not resolve the God question in your head — or even in the perfection of moral response. It is resolved in you, when you agree to bear the mystery of God: God's suffering for the world and God's ecstasy in the world. Agreeing to this task is much harder, I'm afraid, than just trying to be "good."
Living in this consumer-driven world, we are often infected by what some call "affluenza," a toxic and blinding disease which makes it even more difficult for us to break through to the center. Our skin-encapsulated egos are the only self that most of us know, and this is where we usually get trapped. It is fair to say that the traps of mind and ideology are as toxic and as blinding as the so-called "hot sins" of drunkards and prostitutes, though they are harder to recognize. Most of us have to be taught how to see; true seeing is the heart of spirituality today.
Journey to the Core
How do we find what is supposedly already there? Why isn't it obvious? Why should we need to awaken our deepest and most profound selves? And how do we do it? By praying and meditating? By more silence, solitude, and sacraments? Yes to all of the above, but the most important way is to live and fully accept our reality. This solution sounds so simple and innocuous that most of us fabricate all kinds of religious trappings to avoid taking up our own inglorious, mundane, and ever-present cross.
* * *
We do not find our own center; it finds us. Our own mind will not be able to figure it out.
* * *
For some reason, it is easier to attend church services than quite simply to reverence the real — the "practice of the presence of God," as some have called it. Making this commitment doesn't demand a lot of dogmatic wrangling or managerial support, just vigilance, desire, and willingness to begin again and again. Living and accepting our own reality will not feel very spiritual. It will feel like we are on the edges rather than dealing with the essence. Thus most run toward more esoteric and dramatic postures instead of bearing the mystery of God's suffering and joy inside themselves. But the edges of our lives — fully experienced, suffered, and enjoyed — lead us back to the center and the essence.
The street person feels cold and rejected and has to go to a deeper place for warmth and truth. The hero pushes against his own self-interested ambition and eventually discovers that it does not matter very much anyway. The alcoholic woman recognizes how she has hurt her family and breaks through to a Compassion that is much bigger than she is. In each case, the edges that we call reality have suffered, informed, and partially self-destructed. Then they often show themselves to be unnecessary or even part of the problem. Only then do we recognize and let go of the boundaries and edges surrounding our soul. No wonder that the saints and mystics so often use those unpopular words of "surrender" and "suffering." As Jesus says, "Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat" (John 12:24).
We do not find our own center; it finds us. Our own mind will not be able to figure it out. We collapse back into the Truth only when we are naked and free — which is probably not very often. We do not think ourselves into new ways of living. We live ourselves into new ways of thinking. In other words, our journeys around and through our realities, or "circumferences," lead us to the core reality, where we meet both our truest self and our truest God. We do not really know what it means to be human unless we know God. And, in turn, we do not really know God except through our own broken and rejoicing humanity. In Jesus, God tells us that God is not different from humanity. Thus Jesus' most common and almost exclusive self-name is "The Human One," or "Son of Humanity." He uses the term seventy-nine times in the four Gospels. Jesus' reality, his cross, is to say a free "yes" to what his humanity finally asks of him. It seems that we Christians have been worshiping Jesus' journey instead of doing his journey. The first feels very religious; the second just feels human, and not glorious at all.
We tend not to see the transformative pattern of death and rebirth, and how God is our transformer, until after the fact. In other words, we are slow learners, and that is why most spiritual teachers are found in the second half of their lives. For example, Julian of Norwich, the holy English anchoress (1342–1416), had an amazing ability to move beyond either-or thinking. She could live with paradox, unanswered questions, immense inner conflicts, and theological contradictions — and still trust and be at peace. One wonders if this was the fruit of her womanhood, her nonacademic status, her at least twenty years of solitude in the anchorhold, or just the fruit of one night's "showing," as she called it. Certainly she represented the best of what we mean by "contemplative seeing." As she put it, "First there is the fall, and then there is the recovery from the fall. But both are the mercy of God." Maybe you can't believe that until the second half of life.
How did we ever lose that kind of wisdom? Especially when it is almost everybody's experience? Only the spacious, contemplative mind can see so broadly and trust so deeply. The small calculating mind wants either/or, win or lose, good or bad. Yet we all know that the deacon sings of felix culpa on Holy Saturday night. We were saved, the liturgy says, by a "happy mistake." Jesus reminded Julian that his crucifixion was the worst thing that happened in human history and God made the best out of it to take away all of our excuses. As they were for Jesus, "our wounds become honors." The great and merciful surprise is that we come to God not by doing it right but by doing it wrong!
Calmly Held Boundaries
On a very practical level, the problem is that contemporary Westerners have a very fragile sense of their identity, much less an identity that can rest in union and relationship with God. Objectively, of course, we are already in union with God, but it is very hard for people to believe and experience this when they have no strong sense of identity, no boundaries, and no authentic religious experience. People who have no experienced core are trying to create identities and let go of boundaries. For them, it might be helpful to explain that prayer in the early stages is quite simply a profound experience of that core: of who we are, as Paul says, "hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3).
Those who rush to artificially manufacture their own identity often end up with hardened and overly defended edges. They are easily offended and are always ready to create a new identity when the current one lets them down. They might become racists or control freaks, people who are always afraid of the "other." Often they become codependent or counterdependent, in either case living only in reaction to someone or something else. To them, negative identity is created quickly and feels sort of like life. Thus many people, even religious folks, settle for lives of "holier than thou" or lives consumed by hatred of their enemies. Being over and against is a lot easier than being in love.
Many others give up their boundaries before they have them, always seeking their identity in another group, experience, possession, or person. Beliefs like, "She will make me happy," or "He will take away my loneliness," or "This group will make me feel like I belong" become a substitute for doing the hard work of growing up. It is much easier to belong to a group than it is to know that you belong to God. Those who firm up their own edges and identity too quickly without finding their center in God and in themselves will normally be the enemies of ecumenism, forgiveness, vulnerability, and basic human dialogue. Their identity is too insecure to allow any movement in or out and their "Christ" tends to be very small, tribal, and "just like them." If your prayer is not enticing you outside your comfort zones, if your Christ is not an occasional "threat," you probably need to do some growing up and learning to love. You have to develop an ego before you can let go of it. Maybe that is why Jesus just lived thirty years before he started talking. Too often, young adults full of Yeats's "passionate intensity" about doctrine and dogma and which group is going to heaven use God to shore up their nonselves. Such traditionalism is actually avoiding the Tradition of transformation through death and rebirth.
Others let go of their edges too easily in the name of being tolerant and open-minded, but even here "discernment of spirits" is necessary. There is a tolerance in true contemplatives because they have experienced the One Absolute, their own finite minds, and the passing character of all things. This is the virtue of humility or maybe even patience. But there is another tolerance today which is simply a refusal to stand up for anything. To this kind of tolerant person, there are no boundaries worth protecting. The tolerance of the skeptic is largely meaningless, creates little that lasts, and is unfortunately characteristic of much progressive and humanistic thought today.
Traveling the road of healthy religion and true contemplation will lead to calmly held boundaries, which need neither to be defended constantly nor abdicated in the name of "friendship." This road is a "narrow road that few travel upon" these days (Matt. 7:14). It is what many of us like to call "the Third Way": the tertium quid that emerges only when you hold the tension of opposites.
The gift that true contemplatives offer to themselves and society is that they know themselves as a part of a much larger Story, a much larger Self. In that sense, centered people are profoundly conservative, knowing that they stand on the shoulders of their ancestors and the Perennial Tradition. Yet true contemplatives are paradoxically risk-takers and reformists, precisely because they have no private agendas, jobs, or securities to maintain. Their security and identity are founded in God, not in being right, being paid by a church, or looking for promotion in people's eyes. These people alone can move beyond self-interest and fear to do God's necessary work. Look at out how many saints, theologians, and especially woman foundresses of orders were corrected, threatened, and even persecuted by the church during their lifetimes. God is always bigger than the boxes we build for God, so we should not waste too much time protecting the boxes.
Excerpted from Everything Belongs by Richard Rohr. Copyright © 2003 Richard Rohr. Excerpted by permission of The Crossroad Publishing Company.
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