Two generations ago, the landmark theologian in our tradition (Nazarene), H. Orton Wiley, wrote that the penal substitution theory of the atonement was inconsistent with Wesleyan (Nazarene) theological commitments, and therefore could not be our atonement theory. Franciscan priest and thinker Richard Rohr is also concerned that penal substitution has led western Christianity down very negative pathways. He writes,
“For the sake of simplicity and brevity here, let me say that the common Christian reading of the Bible is that Jesus “died for our sins”— either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God the Father [proposed by Anselm of Canterbury [1033– 1109] and has often been called “the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written”. Scotus agreed with neither of these readings. He was not guided by the Temple language of debt, atonement, blood sacrifice, or necessary satisfaction, but by the cosmic hymns of Colossians and Ephesians. If Scotus’s understanding of the “how” and meaning of redemption [his “atonement theory”] had been taught, we would have had a much more positive understanding of Jesus, and even more of God the Father. Christian people have paid a huge price for what theologians after Anselm called “substitutionary atonement theory”: the idea that, before God could love his creation, God needed and demanded Jesus to be a blood sacrifice to atone for a sin-drenched humanity. Please think about the impossible, shackled, and even petty God that such a theory implies and presents. Christ is not the first idea in the mind of God, as Scotus taught, but a mere problem solver after the sad fact of our radical unworthiness….
We have had enough trouble helping people to love, trust, and like God to begin with, without creating even further obstacles. Except for striking fear in the hearts of those we sought to convert, substitutionary atonement theories did not help our evangelization of the world. It made Christianity seem mercantile and mythological to many sincere people. The Eternal God was presented as driving a very hard bargain, as though he were just like many people we don’t like. As if God could need payment, and even a very violent transaction, to be able to love and forgive his own children— a message that those with an angry, distant, absent, or abusive father were already far too programmed to believe….
Scotus, however, insisted on the absolute and perfect freedom of God to love and forgive as God chooses, which is the core meaning of grace. Such a God could not be bound by some supposedly offended justice. For Scotus, the incarnation of God and the redemption of the world could not be a mere reaction to human sinfulness, but in fact the exact, free, and proactive work of God from the very beginning. We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made,” as Paul says in Ephesians (1: 4). Sin or problems could not be the motive for divine incarnation, but only perfect love! The Christ Mystery was the very blueprint of reality from the very start (John 1: 1)….
It is no wonder that Christianity did not produce more mystics and saints over the centuries. Unconsciously, and often consciously, many people did not trust or even like this Father God, much less want to be in union with him. He had to be paid in blood to love us and to care for his own creation, which seems rather petty and punitive, and we ended up with both an incoherent message and universe. Paul told us that “love takes no offense” (1 Corinthians 13: 5), but apparently God was the big exception to this rule. Jesus tells us to love unconditionally, but God apparently does not. This just will not work for the soul or mature spirituality. Basically when you lose the understanding of God’s perfect and absolute freedom and eagerness to love, which Scotus insisted on, humanity is relegated to the world of counting! Everything has to be measured, accounted for, doled out, earned, and paid back. That is the effect on the psyche of any notion of heroic sacrifice or necessary atonement. 9 It is also why Jesus said Temple religion had to go, including all of its attempts at the “buying and selling” of divine favor (John 2: 13– 22). In that scenario, God has to be placated and defused; and reparation has to be paid to a moody, angry, and very distant deity. This is no longer the message Jesus came to bring.
This wrongheaded worldview has tragically influenced much of our entire spirituality for the last millennium, and is still implied in most of the Catholic Eucharistic prayers. It gave lay Catholics and most clergy an impossible and utterly false notion of grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness— which are, in fact, at the heart of our message. The best short summary I can give of how Scotus tried to change the equation is this: Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. Christ was Plan A for Scotus, the hologram of the whole, the Alpha— and therefore also the Omega— Point of cosmic history.”
Rohr, Richard (2014-07-27). Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (pp. 183-187). Franciscan Media. Kindle Edition.
—Image credit: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (detail), by Caravaggio, 1601-02
The common reading of the Bible is that Jesus “died for our sins”—either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God (proposed by Anselm of Canterbury, 1033-1109). Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) agreed with neither of these understandings.
Duns Scotus was not guided by the Temple language of debt, atonement, or blood sacrifice (understandably used by the Gospel writers and by Paul). He was inspired by the cosmic hymns in the first chapters of Colossians and Ephesians and the Prologue to John’s Gospel (1:1-18) and gave a theological and philosophical base to St. Francis’ deep intuitions of God’s love. While the Church has not rejected the Franciscan position, it has been a minority view.
The many “substitutionary atonement theories”—which have dominated the last 800 years of Christianity—suggest that God demanded Jesus to be a blood sacrifice to “atone” for our sin-drenched humanity. The terrible and un-critiqued premise is that God could need payment, and even a very violent transaction, to be able to love and accept God’s own children! These theories are based on retributive justice rather than the restorative justice that the prophets and Jesus taught.
For Duns Scotus, the incarnation of God and the redemption of the world could never be a mere mop-up exercise in response to human sinfulness, but had to be the proactive work of God from the very beginning. We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made” (Ephesians 1:4). Our sin could not possibly be the motive for the incarnation—or we were steering the cosmic ship! Only perfect love and divine self-revelation could inspire God to come in human form. God never merely reacts, but supremely and freely acts—out of love.
Salvation is much more about at-one-ment from God’s side than any needed atonement from our side. Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God!
God in Jesus moved people beyond the counting, weighing, and punishing model—which the ego prefers—to a world in which God’s mercy makes any economy of merit, sacrifice, reparation, or atonement both unhelpful and unnecessary. Jesus undid “once and for all” (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10) notions of human and animal sacrifice (common in most ancient religions) and replaced them with an economy of grace and love.
Jesus was meant to be a game-changer for the human psyche and for religion itself. But when we begin negatively, or focused on a problem, we never get off the hamster wheel of shame, separation, and violence. Rather than focusing on sin, Jesus—“the crucified One”—pointed us toward a primal solidarity with the very suffering of God and thus of all creation. This changes everything. Change the starting point, and you change the trajectory, and even the final goal! Love is the beginning, the way itself, and the final consummation.
God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good. Nothing we can do will either decrease or increase God’s eternal and infinite eagerness to love!
Reference: Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 183-188.
Your image of God creates you. This is why it is so important that we see God as loving and benevolent and why good theology is still important.
One mistaken image of God that keeps us from receiving grace is the idea that God is a cruel tyrant. People who have been raised in an atmosphere of threats of punishment and promises of reward are programmed to operate with this cheap image of God. They need deep healing, because they are actually attached to a punitive notion of God. Many experienced this foundational frame for reality as children, and it is hard to let go. It gives a kind of sick coherence to their world.
Unfortunately, it’s much easier to organize people around fear and hatred than around love. Most people who want to hold onto power view God as vindictive and punitive. Powerful people actually prefer this worldview, because it validates their use of intimidation. Both Catholicism and Protestantism have used the threat of eternal hellfire to form Christians. I am often struck by the irrational anger of many people when they hear that someone does not believe in hell. Threat of hellfire “works” because it appeals to the lowest level of consciousness, where we all start.
Much of Christian history has manifested a very different god than the one Jesus revealed and represented. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but this “cultural” god sure doesn’t. Jesus tells us to forgive “seventy times seven” times, but this god doesn’t. Instead, this god burns people for all eternity. Many of us were raised to believe this, but we usually had to repress this bad theology into our unconscious because it’s literally unthinkable. Most humans are more loving and forgiving than such a god. We’ve developed an unworkable and toxic image of God that a healthy person would never trust. The mystical, transformative journey cannot take place until that image is undone. Why would you want to spend even an hour in silence, solitude, or intimacy with such a god?
It’s true that there are some troubling passages of Scripture; even Jesus used dualistic and judgmental statements. Jesus was an honest and wise teacher. He knew that clear-headed, dualistic thinking must precede non-dual or mystical thinking. Jesus was particularly emphatic about issues people normally want to avoid, especially social justice teachings. Here he used dualistic examples like God and mammon (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13), the rich person and the eye of the needle (Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25), and the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31-46). Jesus had to make these points absolutely clear, otherwise it’s far too easy to avoid issues of justice for the poor and inclusion of the outsider.
It seems to me that in Matthew 25, when Jesus appears to make threats of “eternal punishment,” he is making strong contrasting statements about issues of ultimate significance, calling the listener to a decision. The trouble with this passage is that we focus on the threat more than on Jesus’ positive promise of “eternal life.” Jesus presents the teaching first in a dualistic manner. When pressed, he explains it in a non-dual way that encourages universal compassion: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers [and sisters] of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Non-dual thinkers can see that he is creating a moral equivalence between what we do to the least of the brothers and sisters and what we do to Christ. So Matthew 25 is supreme dualism overcome by supreme non-dualism. That is what we need. First do your clearheaded, rational, logical study of all sides of the issue of concern. Then you will see that the issue deserves much more subtlety than taking one side and damning all others. Non-dual thinking allows us to calmly hear, calmly detach, and calmly see from a higher level.
In his book, Inventing Hell, Jon Sweeney points out that our Christian notion of hell largely comes from several unfortunate metaphors in Matthew’s Gospel. Hell is not found in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. It’s not found in the Gospel of John or in Paul’s letters. The words Sheol and Gehenna are used in Matthew, but they have nothing to do with our later medieval notion of eternal punishment. Sheol is simply the place of the dead, a sort of limbo place where humans await the final judgment when God will finally win. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, in the end “God will be all in all” (15:28). Gehenna was both the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem—the Valley of Hinnom—and an early Jewish metaphor for evil (Isaiah 66:24). The idea of hell as we most commonly view it came much more from Dante’s Divine Comedy than the Bible. Dante’s Purgatorio and Inferno are brilliant Italian poetry, but horrible Christian theology. Dante’s view of God is largely nonbiblical; however, there are some great insights in the Paradiso.
In his book, Introduction to Christianity, Pope Benedict XVI explains his understanding of the curious phrase in the middle of the Apostles’ Creed: “[Jesus] descended into hell.” Benedict says that if Jesus went to hell, that means there is no hell—because Jesus and hell cannot coexist. Once Jesus got there, the whole game of punishment was over, as it were. One of the most popular icons in the Eastern Orthodox Church shows Jesus with his legs spread, bridging the abyss of hell, pulling people out of the darkness. This is called “the icon of icons” in the East because it shows the highest level of contemplative perspective and the essence of the Good News.
Gateway to Silence: Open me to grace upon grace upon grace.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Today Is a Time for Mercy,” December 10, 2015, https://cac.org/richard-rohr-on-mercy-mp3; Franciscan Mysticism: I AM That Which I Am Seeking (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2012), disc 3 (CD, MP3 download); and Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2007), 162.
See also Hell, No! (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2014, CD, MP3 download).
Posted in Daily Meditations | Also tagged Dante, Divine Comedy, Eastern Orthodox Church, Inferno, Inventing Hell, Isaiah 66:24, Jon Sweeney, Luke 16:13, mammon, Mark 10:25, Matthew 19:24;, Matthew 6:24, Pentateuch, Pope Benedict XVI, Purgatorio, Sheol
Although Eckhart Tolle is arousing great interest today, many think he is a novelty, New Age, or even non-religious. The process—and that is what it is—that he is teaching, can be traced through the Greek and Latin traditions of contemplation, the apophatic tradition in particular, and the long history of what was sometimes called "The Sacrament of the Present Moment" (Brother Lawrence, OCD, Francisco de Osuna, OFM, Jean Pierre de Caussade, S.J.).
The mystical tradition inside of Orthodoxy and Catholicism often divided contemplation into two types: infused or natural contemplation, and acquired contemplation. Evelyn Underhill, the brilliant historian of mysticism sees three forms of contemplation: 1) Mystical Contemplation of the Natural World, 2) Metaphysical Contemplation of the World of Being and Consciousness, 3) Theological Contemplation of the World of God.
After the oppositional mind that set in place during and after the Reformation of the 16th century, and after the Enlightenment of the 17th-18th centuries, this ancient tradition was largely lost, except among individuals. We lost the older Tradition of "praying beyond words" as the entire Western and Eastern Churches became quite preoccupied with words and proving words to be true or false. This is the only period that Protestantism and Evangelicals have ever known. So for at least 400 years, we have had neither an understanding of infused nor acquired contemplation! It is such foreign terrain to almost all Protestants, and most Catholics and Orthodox that they immediately think it is heresy or even pagan, when in fact, it is the solid tradition of the first 1400 years of Christianity! (Which I will try to document in my next book, The Third Eye).
Tolle is, in fact, rather brilliantly bringing to our awareness the older tradition of both "infused" or "natural contemplation," and the two first types in Underhill's listing. These are both the ground and the process for breaking through to theological contemplation of God, and acquired contemplation of Jesus, the Gospels, and all spiritual things. He is teaching process not doctrine or dogma. He is teaching how to see and be present, not what you should see when you are present. Tolle is our friend, and not an enemy of the Gospel. There should be no conflict for a mature Christian. "Anyone who is not against us, is for us," as Jesus said, and he also said, "Fear profits nothing.”
What Tolle Is Not:
1. Eckhart Tolle is not a Christian theologian or teacher.
2. He is not teaching Christian contemplative prayer or Christian prayer at all.
3. He is not teaching any dogmas or doctrines as such.
4. He is not presuming or teaching that there is a personal/relational God (but neither is he denying it).
5. He is not a proponent of the social, communitarian nature of religion.
What Tolle is Doing:
1. Eckhart Tolle is teaching a form of natural mysticism or contemplative practice.
2. He is teaching a morality and asceticism of recognizing and letting go of "the self that has to die" (Matthew 16:25), which he calls ego and Jesus calls the "grain of wheat" (John 12:24) ; so that another self can be born, which he would call "consciousness" and we would call the person born again in Christ, or something similar.
3. He is giving us some practices (Similar to how John Wesley gave "methods" or Ignatius gave "exercises") whereby we can be present to the grace of the moment and stop the "passions," the "egocentric mind," or the "prideful self" which keeps us from true goodness (or God, as we would call it). Each tradition uses different language for what is to be overcome, but it is always some form of "un-love" and selfishness (which he calls ego). TOLLE IS NOT ASKING YOU TO BELIEVE ANYTHING. HE IS ASKING YOU TO TRY SOMETHING! You will know if it is true, if you try it, and you will not know if it is true or false, if you don't try it. No point in arguing it theoretically or in the abstract.
4. He does assume and imply a worldview that is foreign to many, if not most Christians. For Tolle, Being, Consciousness, God, Reality are all the same thing, which is not all bad, when you come to think of it. Of course, his very point is that you cannot think of it at all, you can only realize it. I would not call him pantheistic (all things are God) as much as panentheistic (God is IN all things).
5. His brilliant understanding of the "pain body," as he calls it, is actually very close to the Catholic notion of Original Sin, and does give a corporate, communitarian, mystical understanding to religion. We are all in this together, and share one another's pain. I'm not sure he makes clear how we share one another' joy, except that he tends to create very "low maintenance" people who can relax and enjoy life.
In Tolle's world, Jesus is not central. However, he is a beloved teacher, who does it perfectly right himself. "Redemption," as we understand it, is not necessary beyond letting go of our own fears, negativity, and oppositional energy. He might understand reality itself as gracious. We would localize that grace in and through Jesus, as the "Sacrament" of all of Creation.
Although Tolle is not a Christian teacher, we must not assume that makes him an anti-Christian teacher. Today we need whatever methods or help we can receive to allow the Christian message to take us to a deeper level of transformation. Our history, and our guidance of Western history, shows this has clearly not been happening on any broad scale. This is an opportunity for us to understand our own message at deeper levels. It would be a shame if we required him to speak our language and vocabulary before we could critically hear what he is saying—that is true and helpful to our own message.
What if John's Gospel had refused to use the word "Logos" which was a term directly taken from Platonist philosophy? What if Paul had kept the limited vocabulary and categories of Judaism when he preached in Rome and Athens? What if Thomas Aquinas had not written his Summa because it was a dialogue with Aristotelian philosophy? Would they have had any success as evangelists?
Admittedly, this will be much harder for those Christians who emerged after the 16th century when the older contemplative tradition was no longer taught, or understood even by the older Tradition. Catholics and Orthodox simply have the trustful advantage of apophatic saints like Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Palamas, Dionysius the Areopogite, Bonaventure, Francisco de Osuna, Meister Eckhart (whose name Mr. Tolle chose when he recognized his gift as a spiritual teacher!), the Cloud of Unknowing, John of the Cross, and Jean Pierre de Caussade.
Unfortunately, most of Western Christianity has understood Jesus apart from the eternal Trinitarian life and the Pre-Existent Cosmic Christ that is presented in Colossians 1:15-20 or Ephesians 1:8-11. Here "The Son" is at work in the universe from the very beginning and everywhere, and not just during and after Calvary (which Protestantism has tended to exclusively concentrate on). Remember, both Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure said "Deus est Ens," God is Being Itself. This is not new or dangerous teaching, but if ones denominational tradition has no tradition of philosophical theology, or no tradition of the pre-existent Christ as the Second Person of the Trinity inherent in the very pattern of creation, then I admit that Eckhart Tolle will be quite foreign terrain. That does not make him wrong.
I have learned to join with Peter, who said after much resistance, "God has made it clear to me that I must not call anyone profane or unclean" (Acts 10:28), and I am willing to hear truth today wherever it comes from, as long as it does not compromise the Gospel. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, "If it is true, then it is from the Holy Spirit."
I must join with Paul who in preaching to the secular Athenians, said "God is not far from any of us, since it is in him that we live, and move, and have our very being" (Acts 17:28). That is an excellent foundation for trusting Tolle's natural mysticism. We are also preaching to a largely secular world, and must find a language that they can understand and draw from, as Paul did, and not insist that they learn our vocabulary before we can even talk to them or hear them. How else can we ever be "all things to all people" (1 Corinthians 9:22) or dare to think that we can "preach the Gospel to all creation" (Mark 16:16)?
"The corruption of the best is the worst."
"These people make a big show of saying the right thing, but their
hearts aren't in it ... so I am going to step in and shock them awake,
astonish them, and stand them on their ears."
—(Isaiah 29:14, Eugene Peterson translation)
A recent study on altruism is supposed to have shown that people affiliated with religion are statistically no less or more loving than people who call themselves unbelievers. In fact, they are often more egocentric, and only a very small percentage is genuinely or heroically altruistic. If true, this is surely disappointing and humiliating for religion, although I must say that it largely matches my own observations. Some of the most naturally generous people I have ever known have been secularized Jews. And they don't even believe in an afterlife system of reward and punishment! We really have to look at this.
I believe there is a deep dilemma and contradiction at the heart of institutional Christianity. Maybe it is even a necessary one. All I know is that it can only be resolved by authentic inner experience, "prayer," mysticism, or dare I call it, "spirituality." I am convinced that religion, in its common cultural and external forms, largely protects the ego, especially the group ego, instead of transforming it. If people do not go beyond first level metaphors, rituals, and comprehension, most religions seem to end up with a God who is often angry, petulant, needy, jealous, and who will love us only if we are "worthy" and belonging to the correct group. We end up with the impossible scenario of a God who is "small," and often less loving than the best people we know! This supposedly divine love is quite measured and conditional, and yet ironically demands from us a perfect and unconditional love. Such a salvation system will never work, unless we allow an utterly new dimension of love "to astonish us and stand us on our ears," as Isaiah says above. Unless God is able and allowed to love us unconditionally, we will never know how to do the same.
Most people I know would never torture another human being under any conditions. Yet people believe in a god who not only tortures, but tortures for all eternity. That is bitter vengeance by anyone's definition. Why would anyone want to be alone with such a testy and temperamental god? Why would anyone go on the great mystical journey into divine intimacy with such an unsafe lover? Why would anyone trust such a god to know how to love those who really need it? I personally know many people who are much more generous and imaginative than this god is. We have ended up being ourselves more loving, or at least trying to be, than the god we profess to believe! Such a religion is in deep trouble—at its core.
Most of my Jewish and Christian friends are very tolerant and accepting of different races, cultures, and religions. They are willing to see good wherever good is to be seen. But not our god. Our god only likes "born again" Americans, and preferably morally successful and "normal" people, who hopefully attend my denominational service on the proper day. (This is easily the quickest growing form of religion in most countries today). Even stingy little Richard Rohr ends up being much more caring, patient, generous, and merciful than Yahweh Sabaoth! How did we get to such absurdity? Especially after Jesus spends most of his ministry affirming those who are wounded, unworthy, not successful, normal, or properly affiliated?
Perhaps you say, "But religion has always taught me that God is love!" Yes, religion "says the right words," but this god we hear about is never allowed to be loving in the way that we have experienced it from even our middle range friends and lovers. I have experienced immense patience, tolerance, and mercy from many of my friends. They put up with my failures and idiosyncrasies, and eventually know that some of my patterns will never even change. They often accept me as I am, and learn to love me as I am—which eventually almost indirectly changes me! Every good parent knows that unmerited love creates love-in-return. Grace creates gracious people. But not our god! God, and the history of religion, seem to prefer mandates, coercion, blame, and shame to achieve some kind of supposed transformation. This is quite helpful for social order and control of the immature, I really understand that. But it is quite clear to me, in the later years of my life, that God does not love me if I change, but God loves me so that I can change. That is an entirely different agenda.
It often seems that religion's most common concern is to find out what God does not like, where God is not present, and who God does approve for hating and excluding. Perhaps we are seeking to legitimate our own need to exclude and hate and dominate? Why else would we like a God who succeeds by punishing and always dominates? We have been told in recent years that God does not like homosexuals, God is not present in mosques and synagogues, and that God is not bothered at all by the direct and collateral damage of our necessary wars. Abortion killing is the only killing that is inherently bad because the fetus is "innocent life." This "morality" will only work if we can dare to think of ourselves as innocent. If legal protection and moral response depends on us being innocent or worthy, then who can be "saved?" What makes the Good News good news is precisely that God loves and defends unworthy and non-innocent life. Otherwise, you and I have little hope. And we can easily justify capital punishment, torture, euthanasia, and even pre-emptive wars against the unworthy ones—which is exactly what we have done. We have become the small god we worship.
I think my central disappointment with much of religion is that it is so stingy in its attitudes, and actually seems to prefer a stingy god. It loves tribalism and group think. It likes to convert others more than change itself. Religions are notorious for excluding, expelling, and excommunicating. It is almost their job description. We actually fear and condemn anything that appears to be a call to mercy beyond our boundary markers. Any universalism ("catholicity") or inclusivity is deemed dangerous. It feels like abdication of sacred ground, for some reason. We always come up with our fear of others, our fear of contamination, our fear of losing some supposed great truth that we are protecting and living. What fragile people religion has often created.
Monotheism's great breakthrough was that its God was "Lord of all the earth." Doesn't monotheism necessarily prepare us for one pattern, one reality, one world—one love? Yet the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have been—up to now—inclusive only at very small levels. The very people who defend the "Creator of all things" are the last ones who really defend that same creation. Sure, God created all things, but we only have to love and respect small parts of it, which just happens to be my part—"Our people" much more than "all people." The ecologists, humanists, and some globalists end up being much more "monotheistic" in practice than most Christians I know.
Isaiah loves to speak of "the nations counting as nothingness and emptiness" (40:17), that "all of humanity will see the glory of God" (40:5), and that "my house will be a house of prayer for all the peoples" (56:7), which is later quoted by Jesus. The light revealed to Israel is to be "the light to all the nations" (42:6) because their message offers illumination for everybody and not just for themselves.
Jesus is the universalist par excellence, always making the outsider the hero of his stories, the non-Jews those with more faith and more compassion, the sinners those who are saved, the women better than the men, and as he continually puts it, "the last first"—while the so-called elect and chosen are his constant opponents. Jesus' clear criterion for one who speaks with authority is simply one who has gone through the belly of the whale experience, or what he calls the "sign of Jonah," the "only" sign he will give. Membership in a group or correct verbiage is not what gives you authority in Jesus' understanding, but those who "drink the cup that I must drink and are baptized with the baptism which I must be baptized" (Mark 10:39). This is "the true authority of those who have suffered" and come through the cleansing bath transformed.
Jesus reaches this shocking and scandalous conclusion because his starting place is quite different. He does not begin with any preoccupation with human sinfulness or the weighing of worthiness or unworthiness (that is the preoccupation of the ego). In fact, he just assumes that we are all "sick and in need of a physician." As he puts it, "I did not come to call the virtuous" (Mark 2:17). Jesus' starting place is human suffering instead of human sinfulness. How else can you explain his full time ministry of healing, exorcism, affirmation of the excluded ones, the alleviation of human distress and humiliation? He is not naive about sin, but just recognizes that human sinfulness, "hardness of heart," is much more a symptom than a cause. Sin largely reveals the problem and he uses it for diagnostic purposes, not for condemnation or exclusion. Sin, for Jesus, is not a set of purity codes or debt codes—which he goes out of his way to flaunt—but inner attitudes which blind and bind us inside of ourselves, and away from communion and mercy.
It is not moral unworthiness that keeps people from God, but moral righteousness and self-sufficiency. It is that simple recognition, which is almost his constant message, which makes Jesus the ultimate, perennial, and radical reformer of religion, and why religious people oppose him. It makes one wonder if such a foundational critique can ever fashion itself into a proper religion at all. I agree with Simone Weil who said "the problem with Christianity is that it insists on seeing itself as a separate religion, instead of a healing message for all religions." I am afraid that is what will always emerge when you have religion without spirituality, or pious practices without inner experience. The very best thing will then become the very worst thing, and the only way through is to "be awakened and astonished" by a divine love that is of an utterly new dimension.
Fr. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque. For more information please visit www.cacradicalgrace.org.
Rohr, Richard. 2007. My Problem with Religion. Tikkun 22(4): 20.
The life and death of a human being is so exquisitely calibrated as to automatically produce union with Spirit.
--Kathleen Dowling Singh
I want to talk about notions of maturity, eldership, staging, sequencing, growth and direction or, what I will call, ripening. Where is this thing we call "life" headed? Who sets the standard? Is there any standard?
Beginning with Jesus' four kinds of soil and receptivity (Mt 13:4-9), to John of the Cross' "nights" and Teresa of Avila's "mansions," through the modern schemas of Jean Piaget, James Fowler, Lawrence Kohlberg, Eric Erickson, Abraham Maslow, Carol Gilligan and Bill Plotkin, each clarify that there is a clear direction and staging to maturity and therefore to human life. We live inside of some kind of coherence and purpose, a believer might say.
Unless we can somehow chart this trajectory, we have no way to discern growth or maturity, and no ability to discern what might be a full, fuller or fullest human response. Neither do we have any criteria for discerning an immature, regressive or even sick response. When pluralism itself becomes the goal, a postmodern dilemma is created. There must be a direction to ripening -- one that moves us beyond any exclusive concern with physical aging, because our concerns are much broader than that. We must also recognize that any steps toward maturity are, by necessity, immature. An understanding of ripening basically teaches us the wisdom of timing, love and patience, and allows us to be wise instead of judgmental.
Having said that, and if I am to believe the novels, myths, poems and people that I have met in my life, old age is almost never described as an apex of achievement, hardly ever sitting atop a summit with the raised arms of a victorious athlete. It is something else, almost always something else -- usually something other than what was initially imagined, or even hoped for.
Ripening reveals much bigger or very different horizons than we realize. The refusal to ripen leads to what T.S. Eliot spoke of in "The Hollow Men," lives that "end not with a bang but with a whimper." I trust that you are one of those who will move toward your own endless horizons and not waste time in whimpering. Why else would you even read this article? Hopefully to help you trust that you are, in fact, being led. Life, your life, all life, is going somewhere and somewhere good. You do not need to navigate the river, for you are already flowing within it.
Ripening, at its best, is a slow, patient learning, and sometimes even a happy letting-go -- a seeming emptying out to create readiness for a new kind of fullness -- which we are never sure about. If we do not allow our own ripening, and I do believe it is a natural process, an ever-increasing resistance and denial sets in, an ever-increasing circling of the wagons around an over-defended self. At our very best, we learn how to hope as we ripen, to move outside and beyond self-created circles, which is something quite different from the hope of the young. Youthful hopes have concrete goals, whereas the hope of older years is usually aimless hope, hope without goals, even naked hope -- perhaps real hope.
Such stretching is the agony and the joy of later years, although one can avoid both of these rich experiences too. Old age, as such, is almost a complete changing of gears and engines from the first half of our lives, and does not happen without slow realization, inner calming, inner resistance, denial and eventual surrender, by God's grace, working with our ever-deepening sense of what we really desire and who we really are. This process seems to largely operate unconsciously, although we jolt into consciousness now and then, and the awareness that you have been led, often despite yourself, is experienced as a deep gratitude that most would call happiness.
This movement is the natural and organic inner work of the second half of our lives, especially if we are granted the full "70 years, or 80 if we are strong" (Ps 90:10). Of course, for many the whole process of ripening, and the deepening of desire, is cut short by tragic, untimely death. Yet we have all seen much younger people accelerate the entire process through an early, perhaps fatal, illness. (If the dying process occurs consciously, it is an extremely accelerated ripening, as in a hot house.) Why would any of us ripen until it is demanded of us? For some the demand comes early. Maybe God knows that most of the rest of us are slow learners and need more time to ripen.
Reality, fate, destiny, providence and tragedy are slow but insistent teachers. The horizon of old age seems to be a plan that God has prepared as inevitable and part of the necessary school of life. What is gratuitously given is also gratuitously taken away, just as Job slowly came to accept. And sometimes we remember that his final pained response was "Blessed be the name of the Lord!" (Jb 1:21). We all live in the same cycle of unrequested birth and unrequested death. Someone else is clearly in control, yet most of our lives are spent accepting and surrendering to this truth, and in trusting that this "someone" is good and trustworthy besides. It is the very shape of faith and the entire journey of faith.
If we are to speak of a spirituality of ripening, we need to recognize that it is always (and I do mean always) characterized by an increasing tolerance for ambiguity, a growing sense of subtlety, an ever-larger ability to include and allow, a capacity to live with contradictions and even to love them! I cannot imagine any other way of coming to those broad horizons except through many trials, unsolvable paradoxes, and errors in trying to resolve them.
Without such a gradually-renewed mind and heart, we almost certainly will end with a whimper, not just our own but also the whimpering of those disappointed souls gathered around our sick bed or gravestone. Too many lives have indeed been lives of "quiet desperation" and God must surely rush to console and comfort all humans before, during, and after their passing. Many put off enlightenment as long as they can. Maybe this whole phenomenon is what Catholics actually mean by purgatory. Without such after-death hope, I would go crazy with sadness at all the lives which appear to end so unripened. The All-Merciful One is surely free to show mercy even after we die. Why would God be all-loving before death but not after death? Isn't it the same God? I've seen no one die perfectly "whole." We are all saved by mercy, "wound round and round," as Merton said. Some do appear to float into pure love in their very final days among us.
A ripening mind and heart is most basically a capacity for non-dual consciousness and contemplation. Many might just call it growth in compassion, but surely no growth in compassion is likely unless one learns how to forgive as a very way of life, and to let go of almost everything as we first imagined it had to be. This is possible as we grow in the more truly Jewish, and eventually Christian, notion of faith, where not-knowing (the apophatic way) must be carefully paired with knowing (the kataphatic way). The Judeo-Christian tradition balanced our so-called knowing with trust, patience, allowing, waiting, humility, love, and forgiveness, which is very nearly the entire message and surely the core message necessary for the possibility of ripening. Otherwise, we all close down, and history freezes up with all of its hurts, memories, and resentments intact.
Non-dual consciousness was largely lost after the in-house fighting of the Christian reformations (16th century) and the defensive posturing of the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries). Henceforth we thought we had to know or, at least, pretend that we did know to prove the others wrong. We deemed full certitude as a total need, and even a right and obligation! How strange and impossible it is when you think about it.
We now study the Scriptures, but only with great difficulty do we share in the actual consciousness of Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Job, Jesus, and the many Marys of the New Testament. They became pious stories of an idyllic time rather than reflecting a level of consciousness. In between, there have been thousands of years of history, religious reformations, and rational thinking. For the most part, we no longer "understand spiritual things in a spiritual way" (1 Cor 2:13) -- which is truly the only way to understand them. A non-dual way of knowing in the moment gives us a life process and not simply momentary dualistic answers, which always grow old because they are never totally true.
So my guidance is a simple reminder and recall to what we will be forced to learn by necessity and under pressure anyway -- the open-ended way of allowing and the deep meaning that some call faith. To live in trustful faith is to ripen, it is almost that simple. Let's start practicing now, early in our life, so we do not have to take a crash course in our final years, weeks, and days. The best ripening happens over time.
Adapted from Richard Rohr's Introduction to the Fall 2013 edition of Oneing, the publication of the Rohr Institute, copyright © 2013, Center for Action and Contemplation.
---“Transgression Gray” by Frank Steinbeck
The following article by Richard Rohr’s introduction to"Transgression," an issue of CAC's journal Oneing. The full journal is available at store.cac.org.
After this surely-shocking Scripture, I begin these remarks on transgression with a poem from my favorite metaphysical poet, George Herbert, Welsh-born Anglican priest and mystic of the 17th century. In “Easter Wings,” as in others of his poems, he seems to deeply comprehend the precise and astounding nature of how spiritual transformation happens. He has learned that you must fall or fail before you know what reunion, or even union, really is, and only “then shall the fall further the flight in me.” God makes it rather certain that we will all fail, if we are honest about ourselves. The bar and goal of unconditional, divine love is set so high that no one can ever honestly say, “I have fulfilled the law!” or “I am a totally good person.”
I quote only the first stanza of George Hebert’s poem. (Please note that he actually printed it in its entirety on the page in the form of two wings—and you see one of them here—so we could symbolically fly with this hard-won wisdom, even on paper.)
Lord, who created man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Oh let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in
As in his well-known and beloved poem, “The Pulley,” Herbert believed that God created a “repining restlessness,” a de facto distance and incompleteness in the heart of all humans, which keeps them forever open to transcendence, always longing for more from a seemingly remote and mysterious God. He believed that the soul lives and grows through longing and restlessness—which “tosses him to the breast” of God.
It seems that we must fail, and even “transgress,” and then desire mercy and love because of that very transgression. It is the way humans test divine love, just as children do with their parents. Otherwise we have no way of knowing that the long, lonely distance between God and ourselves can be—and is—spanned from the other side. Divine oneness is always twoness overcome, not twoness denied or even avoided. We all seem to live in a terror of twoness after having come from our primal and perfect oneness in God. Some say it is the very urgency of all sexuality (sectare = to divide).
What is sometimes called the “myth of transgression” has been seen to operate on many levels: social, psychological, legal, and literary. Our interest here is precisely how the Gospel itself reveals this to be the deepest pattern of transformation, because the old must always die for the new to be born, and our first attempts to love God by following rules are eventually revealed to be much more love of self and love of some kind of order (But we can’t know that yet!). It is our failure to live up to our first man-made attempts at love that drives us toward an ever-higher love where we are not in The law was given to multiply our opportunities for falling. —St. Paul to the Romans (5:20) charge. To paraphrase St. Augustine: “Seek God, but once you find him it will send you on a search of never finding him (because God is infinite).”
This whole trajectory was set in motion with the original Genesis story of “the fall,” where a commandment of dubious quality was given to Adam and Eve. It set up an arbitrary line in the sand that begged for transgression and, in fact, is assured in literary terms. Children already know this intuitively when you read them fairy tales. When it says “You must not do this,” a child somehow knows the princess or peasant will do exactly that! It sets the whole story in a dynamic direction and creates a needed tension for actual moral development, insight, and compassion. But we forget how to read with the common sense of children as soon as we see that a book says “The Bible” on the cover. There seems to be an inherent need in humans for crossing boundaries, testing limits, and even “testing the gods” to find out who these gods really are and who we really are in relationship to them.
The mythic figure here is what some call the Trickster, the clown, the anti-hero and, in Biblical literature, “the sinner” who is again and again shown to be the hero, especially by Jesus. “Her many sins must have been forgiven her or she would not have shown such great love,” says Jesus of “the woman who was a sinner” (Lk 7:47). The law-abiding Pharisee is deemed ridiculous while the grasping tax collector, with no spiritual resume whatsoever (but who is nevertheless honest about himself), goes home “justified” (Lk 18:9-14).
This myth made less and less sense to later Western Christian history which came to think that religion largely existed to teach and maintain social and imperial order. God did not become incarnate to be a divine policeman or a courtroom judge, but instead a “bridegroom” who invites us to his wedding party (Mk 2:19-20). The Western mind eventually had little respect for the ubiquitous disorder in the universe—so different than the Pueblo Indian clown who breaks the perfect symmetry and seriousness of the sacred dance, or the intentional imperfection sewn into the Navajo rug. After forty-some years as a priest, I believe that many if not most people are attracted to religion because they want order in their own lives and in the world. This is not bad; it is a first-half-of-life need and task, and it is nothing but the early warm-up act for the Gospel (Gal 3:24).2 Today even science demonstrates rather convincingly that asymmetry is what breaks the dead patterns and moves all elements, species, and ages forward. It is called “chaos theory.”
This is how the transgression myth was revealed through the Gospel. Jesus, who is judged to be a sinner/offender/failure/transgressor by both high priest and Roman Empire—and truly is by their “objective” criteria—is, in fact, the one who “redeems the world”! Paul repeats this message and calls it the “mystery of the crucified,” which forever discounts both “the Law” (his Jewish religion) and “reason” (Greek philosophy) as ways to achieve order in this world.
The Gospel and the cross say that the only honest and healing order is the acceptance of disorder. This is God’s surprising and scandalous plan. It is much of the import of Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians and, as some scholars now recognize, Paul presaged the “good cynicism” of postmodernism by two thousand years: All the big story lines [“metanarratives”] are wrong, and the one that is right is the one you do not want to hear! Both Jesus and Paul believed that necessary and predictable transgression—and the need for mercy that follows—is the pattern of transformation. This is the way God “justifies,” or executes divine justice. This is how God re-aligns reality inside the only Absolute there is: the eternal love of God. Pope Francis is the first Pope I am aware of who has had the insight and courage to say that Divine Love is the only absolute, and not law, or the church, or morality. Law and reason can never achieve their own goals perfectly, but love and mercy can and do. “Where are your philosophers now? Where are the scribes?” (1 Cor 1:20), Paul shouts. Love alone is the “fulfillment” of the Law (Rom 13:8-10, Gal 5:14).
I will choose such a bridegroom and his wedding banquet any day. We have had too many centuries of ecclesiastical policemen and church courtrooms which have futilely tried to suppress all transgressions, instead of using them as the very springboard which tosses us into the breast of God.
1 John Tobin, ed., George Herbert: The Complete English Poems (London: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1991), 38.
2 Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), Ch. 3.
This article was published in "Transgression," Oneing, Vol. 2 No. 1. "Transgression" includes additional original articles by Rob Bell, Cynthia Bourgeault, James Danaher, Russ Hudson, Diarmuid O'Murchu, Bill Plotkin, Robert Sardello, Avideh Shashaani, and others. The print journal is available from CAC Bookstore, store.cac.org.
When the importance of some form of meditation is pointed out to us, we often think we are being told about an esoteric, high-level, Buddhist practice, something largely unnecessary for ordinary folks. We imagine that meditation is an add-on for the elite and the few; and largely pursued by those who are already introverts. (I am coming to prefer the word meditation for the disciplined practice itself, and contemplation for the non-dual mind, eyes and behavior that result from such practices.)
Meditation is often presented in a way that misses how urgent and central the underlying problem is for each and every one of us: we are all well practiced in a repetitive way of thinking -- and the problem is not what we think nearly as much as our universal entrapment in our own compulsive way of thinking. The problem only becomes clear when we fully realize that we are all victims of the mind and its hard wiring. The human capacity for true inner freedom is initially quite small in all of us, because our mammalian brain pretty much runs the show -- until love, suffering or meditation expands it.
I have become much more patient, forgiving and even loving, as I realize that most people have little choice in their initial knee-jerk reactions to almost everything. What it means to be a spiritual person is quite simply to become someone who is expanding one's bandwidth of free, conscious responses to the moment. Normally, this can only happen for those who experience being held safely inside of love (which many of us would call God).
We are all conditioned, programmed, wounded, addicted, repetitive, habituated and compulsive in our brain processes -- which indeed largely determines the content of what gets in and what stays out. True free will is largely a myth, as most of us initially operate almost entirely out of conditioning and culture (read The Social Animal, where I think the author, David Brooks, makes this point on many levels). We now even recognize that many (most?) of our early attempts at friendship or sexuality are little more than "eroticized wounding" of one another, as we all act out of our own deep needs and hurts. God surely understands this; however, since we do not, we find it hard to forgive one another.
To clarify, the problem in meditation is not the what of our thoughts but the how of our thoughts. How do we receive the moment? Or do we receive it all? Maybe we attack it, push it away or deny any moment that asks something of us. We all must see these deep unconscious patterns or we are minimally free or conscious.
Jesus puts it this way, "Be careful how you see!" and in another place, "Be careful how you hear!" If we do not take ownership and responsibility for our inner processes (largely unconscious tendencies to fear, judge, eliminate, dismiss, attack, merge, take control, pull back and endless variations on these which are eventually "second nature" to us), we quite simply do not see reality or truth -- or others -- at all. We remain addicted to ourselves and our compulsive reactions, which seem entirely real and compelling because we have no distance from them. Perhaps this is the core and the real meaning of sin, and perhaps sin is simply an older word for what we now call addiction. It is indeed a disease, but a disease that can be cured!
Jesus rightly and humbly said of his executioners, "You do not know what you are doing" (Luke 23:34), and I would further add, "Or why you even need or want to do it." Meditation gives us a necessary distance from ourselves when we are faithful to its practice of silence -- instead of too quickly jumping on board with our own feelings and opinions, which are initially "all about me!”
Many of us resist meditation because we think we are being told not to value the mind and its capacity for reason, logic and necessary judgments. That is not the point of meditative practice at all -- in fact, authentic meditation will sharpen and deepen these very faculties, along with purifying our emotional responses -- by getting "us" out of the way with our obsessive and repetitive, even narcissistic and therefore unhelpful, reactions. Without some depth of spirituality, most of us are indeed totally predictable. We cannot act with freshness or freedom; we largely re-act with our dominant mammalian brain in the same old way over and over again, even when it is not working for us.
A good teacher does not take away our "good mind" but simply frees us from how we addictively process information. When we change our how, normally our what takes care of itself. And we will naturally move toward compassion, patience, understanding, forgiveness and inner freedom. We will learn to operate by our "first nature" instead of the learned, largely unconscious, "second nature" responses.
I wonder if this is what Paul was referring to when he told the Corinthians who were "speaking in tongues" (a momentary surrendering of the logical left brain function) that they must not remain children in their thinking, that there is a "grownup way of thinking" (1 Corinthians 14:20). I think meditation teaches us a grownup way of thinking.
Ian McGilchrist states much the same in his contemporary study, The Master and His Emissary. He posits that the right brain was meant to be the master that first received the full context and meaning of a moment, and the left brain was meant to help us place this larger experience inside of words and seeming "logic" so we could communicate it to others. It was meant to be the emissary of the master. But after the printing press was developed and books were published, the left brain took over. McGilchrist states that our entire civilization has now turned the original prototype upside-down, and we begin with supposedly left brain logic and argumentative words -- staying on a perpetual hamster's wheel that we cannot move beyond. I honestly believe that meditation is the only way to get off the hamster's wheel, and to stay off it.
So here are our choices: we can practice meditation, speak in tongues or stay in perpetual non-dual states of deep love and immense suffering (which is normally impossible). So the best ongoing way for most of us is, quite simply, to meditate every day.
Getting Back to Our First Nature: Why the Mind Is the Key
by Fr. Richard Rohr
When I first began to write this article, I thought to myself, "How do you promote something as vaporous as silence? It will be like a poem about air!" But finally I began to trust my limited experience, which is all that any of us have anyway.
I do know that my best writings and teachings have not come from thinking but, as Malcolm Gladwell writes in Blink, much more from not thinking. Only then does an idea clarify and deepen for me. Yes, I need to think and study beforehand, and afterward try to formulate my thoughts. But my best teachings by far have come in and through moments of interior silence—and in the "non-thinking" of actively giving a sermon or presentation.
Aldous Huxley described it perfectly for me in a lecture he gave in 1955 titled "Who Are We?" There he said, "I think we have to prepare the mind in one way or another to accept the great uprush or downrush, whichever you like to call it, of the greater non-self." That precise language might be off-putting to some, but it is a quite accurate way to describe the very common experience of inspiration and guidance.
All grace comes precisely from nowhere—from silence and emptiness, if you prefer—which is what makes it grace. It is both not-you and much greater than you at the same time, which is probably why believers chose both inner fountains (John 7:38) and descending doves (Matthew 3:16) as metaphors for this universal and grounding experience of spiritual encounter. Sometimes it is an uprush and sometimes it is a downrush, but it is always from a silence that is larger than you, surrounds you, and finally names the deeper truth of the full moment that is you. I call it contemplation, as did much of the older tradition.
It is always an act of faith to trust silence, because it is the strangest combination of you and not-you of all. It is deep, quiet conviction, which you are not able to prove to anyone else—and you have no need to prove it, because the knowing is so simple and clear. Silence is both humble in itself and humbling to the recipient. Silence is often a momentary revelation of your deepest self, your true self, and yet a self that you do not yet know. Spiritual knowing is from a God beyond you and a God that you do not yet fully know. The question is always the same: "How do you let them both operate as one—and trust them as yourself?" Such brazenness is precisely the meaning of faith, and why faith is still somewhat rare, compared to religion.
AND YES, SUCH inner revelations are always beyond words. You try to sputter out something, but it will never be as good as the silence itself is. We just need the words for confirmation to ourselves and communication with others. So God graciously allows us words, and gives us words, but they are almost always a regression from the more spacious and forgiving silence. Words are a much smaller container. They are always an approximation. Surely some approximations are better than others, which is why we all like good novelists, poets, and orators. Yet silence is the only thing deep enough, spacious enough, and wide enough to hold all of the contradictions that words cannot contain or reconcile.
We need to "grab for words," as we say, but invariably they tangle us up in more words to explain, clarify, and justify what we meant by the first words—and to protect us from our opponents. From there we often exacerbate many of our own problems by babbling on even further. In Matthew 6:7, Jesus had a word for heaping up empty phrases: paganism! Only those who love us will stay with us at that point, and often love will also tell us to stop talking—which is precisely why so many saints and mystics said that love precedes and prepares the way for all true knowing. Maybe silence is even another word for love?
Most of the time, "to make a name for ourselves" like the people building the tower of Babel, we multiply words and find ourselves saying more and more about less and less. This is sometimes called gossip, or just chatter. No wonder Yahweh "scattered them," for they were only confusing themselves (Genesis 11:4-8). Really they were already scattered people: scattered inside and out because there was no silence.
We are all forced to overhear cell phone calls in cafés, airports, and other public places today. People now seem to fill up their available time, reacting to their boredom—and their fear of silence—often by talking about nothing, or making nervous attempts at mutual flattery and reassurance. One wonders if the people on the other end of the line really need your too-easy comforts. Maybe they do, and maybe we all have come to expect it. But that is all we can settle for when there is no greater non-self, no gracious silence to hold all of our pain and our self-doubt. Cheap communication is often a substitute for actual communion.
Words are necessarily dualistic. That is their function. They distinguish this from that, and that's good. But silence has the wonderful ability to not need to distinguish this from that! It can hold them together in a quiet, tantric embrace. Silence, especially loving silence, is always non-dual, and that is much of its secret power. It stays with mystery, holds tensions, absorbs contradictions, and smiles at paradoxes—leaving them unresolved, and happily so. Any good poet knows this, as do many masters of musical chords. Politicians, engineers, and most Western clergy have a much harder time.
SILENCE IS WHAT surrounds everything, if you look long enough. It is the space between letters, words, and paragraphs that makes them decipherable and meaningful. When you can train yourself to reverence the silence around things, you first begin to see things in themselves and for themselves. This "divine" silence is before, after, and between all events for those who see respectfully (to re-spect is "to see again&rdquo.
All creation is creatio ex nihilo—from "a trackless waste and an empty void" it all came (Genesis 1:2). But over this darkness God's spirit hovered and "there was light"—and everything else too. So there must be something pregnant, waiting, and wonderful in such voids and darkness. God's ongoing—and maybe only—job description seems to be to "create out of nothing." We call it grace.
God follows this pattern, as do many saints, but most of us don't. We prefer light (read: answers, certitude, moral perfection, and conclusions) but forget that it first came from a formless darkness. This denial of silence and darkness as good teachers emerged ever more strongly after the ironically named "Enlightenment" of the 17th and 18th centuries. Our new appreciation of a kind of reason was surely good and necessary on many levels, but it also made us impatient and forgetful of the much older tradition of not knowing, unsaying, darkness, and silence. We decided that words alone would give us truth, not realizing that all words are metaphors and approximations. The desert Jesus, Pseudo-Dionysius, The Cloud of Unknowing, and John of the Cross have not been "in" for several centuries now, and we are much the worse for it.
The low point has now become religious fundamentalism, which ironically knows so little about the real fundamentals. We all fell in love with words, even those of us who said we believed that "the Word became flesh." Words offer a certain light, but flesh is much better known in humble silence and waiting.
AS A GENERAL spiritual rule, you can trust this one: The ego gets what it wants with words. The soul finds what it needs in silence. The ego prefers light—immediate answers, full clarity, absolute certitude, moral perfection, and undeniable conclusion—whereas the soul prefers the subtle world of darkness and light. And by that, of course, I mean a real interior silence, not just the absence of noise.
Robert Sardello, in his magnificent, demanding book Silence: The Mystery of Wholeness, writes that "Silence knows how to hide. It gives a little and sees what we do with it." Only then will or can it give more. Rushed, manipulative, or opportunistic people thus finds inner silence impossible, even a torture. They never get to the "more." Wise Sardello goes on to say, "But in Silence everything displays its depth, and we find that we are a part of the depth of everything around us." Yes, this is true.
When our interior silence can actually feel and value the silence that surrounds everything else, we have entered the house of wisdom. This is the very heart of prayer. When the two silences connect and bow to one another, we have a third dimension of knowing, which many have called spiritual intelligence or even "the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:10-16). No wonder that silence is probably the foundational spiritual discipline in all the world's religions at the more mature levels. At the less mature levels, religion is mostly noise, entertainment, and words. Catholics and Orthodox Christians prefer theater and wordy symbols; Protestants prefer music and endless sermons.
Probably more than ever, because of iPads, cell phones, billboards, TVs, and iPods, we are a toxically overstimulated people. Only time will tell the deep effects of this on emotional maturity, relationship, communication, conversation, and religion itself. Silence now seems like a luxury, but it is not so much a luxury as it is a choice and decision at the heart of every spiritual discipline and growth. Without it, most liturgies, Bible studies, devotions, "holy" practices, sermons, and religious conversations might be good and fine, but they will never be truly great or life-changing—for ourselves or for others. They can only represent the surface; God is always found at the depths, even the depths of our sin and brokenness. And in the depths, it is silent.
It comes down to this: God is, and will always be, Mystery. Only a non-arguing presence, only a non-assertive self, can possibly have the humility and honesty to receive such mysterious silence.
When you can remain at peace inside of your own mysterious silence, you are only beginning to receive the immense "Love that moves the sun and the other stars," as Dante so beautifully says—along with the immeasurable silent space between those trillions of stars, through which this Mystery is also choosing to communicate. Silence is space, and space beyond time. Those who learn to live there are spacious and timeless people. They make and leave room for all the rest of us.
Richard Rohr, OFM, a Sojourners contributing editor, is founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (www.cacradicalgrace.org in Albuquerque, N.M.
Finding God in the Depths of Silence
by Fr. Richard Rohr