Dancing Standing Still

February 3rd, 2020 by JDVaughn Leave a reply »

Alternative Orthodoxy

Dancing Standing Still
Monday, February 3, 2020

The Franciscans found a way to be both very traditional and very revolutionary at the same time. By emphasizing practice over theory, or orthopraxy over orthodoxy, the Franciscan tradition taught that love and action are more important than intellect or speculative truth. Love is the highest category for the Franciscan School, and we believe that authentic love is not possible without true inner freedom, nor will love be real or tested unless we somehow live close to the disadvantaged, who frankly teach us how little we know about love.  

Love is the goal; contemplative practice and solidarity with suffering are the path. Orthodoxy teaches us the theoretical importance of love; orthopraxy helps us learn how to love, which is much more difficult. To be honest, even my Franciscan seminary training was far better at teaching me how to obey and conform than how to love. I’m still trying to learn how to love every day of my life.  

As we endeavor to put love into action, we come to realize that, on our own, we are unable to obey Jesus’ command to “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). To love as Jesus loves, we must be connected to the Source of love. Franciscanism found that connection in solitude, silence, and some form of contemplative prayer, all of which quiet the monkey mind and teach us emotional sobriety and psychological freedom from our addictions and attachments. Otherwise, most talk of “repentance” or “change of life” is largely an illusion and pretense. 

Early on, Francis found himself so attracted to contemplation, and to living out in the caves and in nature, that he was not sure if he should dedicate his life to prayer or to action. So he asked Sister Clare and Brother Sylvester to spend some time in prayer about it and then tell him what they thought he should do. When they came back after a few weeks, Francis was prepared to do whatever they told him. They both, in perfect agreement, without having talked to one another, said Francis should not be solely a contemplative, nor should he only be active in ministry. Francis was to go back and forth between the two as Jesus did. Francis jumped up with great excitement and immediately went on the road with this new permission and freedom. 

Before Francis, the “secular” priests worked with the people in the parishes and were considered “active.” Those who belonged to religious orders went off to monasteries to be “contemplative” and pray. Francis found a way to do both and took his prayer on the road. (That’s why Franciscans are called friars instead of monks.) In fact, prayer is what enabled him to sustain his life of love and service to others over the long haul, without becoming cynical or angry. Francis didn’t want a stable form of monastic life; he wanted us to mix with the world and to find God amidst its pain, confusion, and disorder. [1] For me, that is still the greatest art form—to dance while standing still!  

Alternative Orthodoxy

Simply Living the Gospel
Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Rule and the life of the Friars Minor is to simply live the Gospel. —St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) [1]  

One of the things I most appreciate about my Franciscan heritage is its alternative orthodoxy. The Franciscan tradition has applied this phrase to itself and its emphasis on “orthopraxy”; we believe that lifestyle and practice are much more important than mere verbal orthodoxy. While orthodoxy is about correct beliefs, orthopraxy is about right practice. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), the famous Dominican Doctor of the Church, may have been influenced by St. Francis when he wrote, “Prius vita quam doctrina.” [2] Or, “Life is more important than doctrine.” All too often Christianity has lost sight of that in spite of Jesus’ teaching and example.  

Jesus’ first recorded word in at least two Gospels, metanoia, is unfortunately translated with the moralistic, churchy word repent. The word quite literally means change or even more precisely “Change your minds!” (Mark 1:15; Matthew 4:17). Given that, it is quite strange that the religion founded in Jesus’ name has been so resistant to change and has tended to love and protect the past and the status quo much more than the positive and hopeful futures that could be brought about by people agreeing to change. Maybe that is why our earth is so depleted and our politics are so pathetic. We have not taught a spirituality of actual change or growth, which an alternative orthodoxy always asks of us. 

Francis loved God above all and wanted to imitate Jesus in very practical ways. Action and lifestyle mattered much more to him than mentally believing dogmatic or moral positions to be true or false. Francis directly said to the first friars, “You only know as much as you do!” [3] Franciscan alternative orthodoxy has never bothered fighting popes, bishops, Scriptures, or dogmas. It just quietly but firmly pays attention to different things—like simplicity, humility, non-violence, contemplation, solitude and silence, earth care, nature and other creatures, and the “least of the brothers and sisters.” These are our true teachers.  

The Rule of Saint Francis—which Rome demanded Francis develop—was hardly a rule at all and was more thought of as “Tips for the Road.” Like Jesus, Francis taught his disciples while walking from place to place and finding ways to serve, to observe, and to love the world that was right in front of them. Observation with love is a good description of contemplation. 

In Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis writes, “In the heart of this world, the Lord of life, who loves us so much, is always present. God does not abandon us, God does not leave us alone, for God has united . . . definitively to our earth, and God’s love constantly impels us to find new ways forward. Praise be to God!” [4] I believe the Franciscan worldview with its alternative orthodoxy can help us “find new ways forward” and stop being so afraid of change. 

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.  


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