Archive for January, 2020

Love: The Highest Form of Knowing

January 31st, 2020

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.

God Cannot Be Thought

January 30th, 2020

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.  

Gateway to Action & Contemplation:
What word or phrase resonates with or challenges me? What sensations do I notice in my body? What is mine to do?

Prayer for Our Community:
O Great Love, thank you for living and loving in us and through us. May all that we do flow from our deep connection with you and all beings. Help us become a community that vulnerably shares each other’s burdens and the weight of glory. Listen to our hearts’ longings for the healing of our world. [Please add your own intentions.] . . . Knowing you are hearing us better than we are speaking, we offer these prayers in all the holy names of God, amen.

Listen to Fr. Richard read the prayer.

The Cloud of Unknowing

January 29th, 2020

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.  

Soul Knowledge

January 28th, 2020

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.  

January 27th, 2020

All Spiritual Knowing Must Be Balanced by Not-Knowing

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.  

Knowing and Not Knowing; A Hidden Wholeness

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. 

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]

Action and Contemplation: Part Three

January 24th, 2020

 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.  

The World Carried Inside

January 23rd, 2020

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.  

A Practical Twofold Process

January 22nd, 2020

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.  

Action and Contemplation: Part Three

January 21st, 2020

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.  

The Desert Mystics

January 20th, 2020

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.  

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.  

Action and Contemplation: Part Two

Summary: Sunday, January 12—Friday, January 17, 2020

In order to become truly prophetic people who go beyond the categories of liberal and conservative, we have to teach and learn ways to integrate needed engagement with a truly contemplative mind and heart. (Sunday)

The job of religion is to help people act effectively and compassionately from an inner centeredness and connection with God. (Monday)

Contemplation helps us discern what is truly important in the largest, most spacious frame of reality and to know what is ours to do in the face of “evil” and injustice. (Tuesday)

A contemplative lens is the only frame through which we can recognize and address the three sources of evil: the world, the flesh, and the devil. (Wednesday)

Jesus’ social program was a quiet refusal to participate in almost all external power structures or domination systems. Jesus chose a very simple lifestyle which kept him from being constantly co-opted by those very structures, which we can call the sin system. (Thursday)

God’s intention is never to shame the individual (which actually disempowers), but solidarity with and universal responsibility for the whole (which creates healthy people). (Friday)

Practice: All Senses Meditation

Our human senses of hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, and touching are five distinct ways of knowing or experiencing the same thing, but in very different “languages.” True spirituality always brings us back to the original bodily knowing that is unitive experience. We cannot do all our thinking with our minds! During times of stress, remembering how to come back to our bodies can be tremendously beneficial. The following practice from meditation teacher Lorin Roche helps us connect with each of our senses and encounter something through each. Roche explains:

What happens is that your primary perceptions, unsocialized, get a chance to come out without editing. This trains you to let yourself be surprised by perception, to let new and fresh perceptions emerge.

This exercise also lets you practice giving speech to your immediate perceptions. Since childhood, you may not have had a chance to speak freely without editing first.

Set aside ten or so minutes to “play” with all your senses following Roche’s simple guide:

  1. Sit or stand anywhere you like and let yourself get settled for a minute. Do any settling-down movements you want. Stretch or yawn. Then notice the ebb and flow of your breathing.
  2. Begin to speak softly saying, “Now I am aware of seeing. . . .” Continue by saying whatever comes to mind that is visual, whether it is in the outer world or a mental image. The sentence can be said very slowly. Go on like this for a minute or so, just speaking the sentence, “Now I am aware of seeing. . . .”
  3. When you get to the word seeing, say whatever image your mind or eyes are on at that exact moment. As in, “I am aware of seeing the rain.”
  4. Switch to another sensory mode, “Now I am aware of smelling . . .” and say whatever you are smelling.
  5. Continue this way, starting each sentence with “Now I am aware of . . .” and then choosing another sense. Improvise off your immediate perceptions. . . .

Move through the senses in any order you wish:

Now I am aware of seeing. . . .

Now I am aware of smelling. . . .

Now I am aware of hearing. . . .

Now I am aware of tasting. . . .

Now I am aware of touching. . . .

Now I am aware of moving (fast, slow, being still, etc.). . . . [1]