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Rohr: “Finding God in the depths of silence”

Real interior silence, not just the absence of noise, is a foundational spiritual discipline. So why are we so resistant to enter into it, asks Richard Rohr OFM.

Richard Rohr OFM, a Sojourners contributing editor, is founder of the Centre for
Action and Contemplation http://www.cacradicalgrace.org in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
This article was first published in the March 2013 edition of Sojourners
Reprinted with permission from Sojourners, (800) 714-7474, http://www.sojo.net
Source: http://www.goodsams.org.au/good-oil/finding-god-in-the-depths-of-silence


BY Richard Rohr OFM


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”).

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 seventeenth and eighteenth 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 realising 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 find 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 theatre 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.

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Rohr: “Where the material and spirit coincide, there is the Christ”

Fr. Richard Rohr – is a Franciscan priest, Christian mystic, and teacher of Ancient Christian Contemplative Prayer. He is the founding Director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM.

“If you had been present at the moment of the Resurrection, what would you have seen? If there had been a video camera outside the tomb, what would it have recorded? Perhaps there would have been a huge flash of light or a subtle glimmer of a dimension beyond our usual perception. At the Resurrection, we believe the historical body of Jesus moved beyond any confinement of space and time. The presence which was captured in finite form was revealed to be an infinite omnipresence. He moved from Jesus to Christ, which now includes in its sweep all of creation and even you and me. The texts all agree that this movement had a physical dimension to it, but it is a new kind of embodiment that is both of this world and yet not limited by it. Thanks to Einstein, we now know that matter and energy are convertible forces.

Whenever the material and the spiritual coincide, there is the Christ. Jesus accepted that full identity and walked it into history. He was fully human and fully divine at the same time. So now we can begin to imagine how they could coexist. The material and the spiritual are one, the human and the divine are forever, the physical plumbed to its depth finds transcendence! The hiding place of God is also the place of revelation—here and now and everywhere. This is an utterly new notion of religiosity, so much so that most of Christian history (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, or Pentecostal) missed this major point and lived in a split universe.

The mystery of Christ is revealed, and the Christ “comes again,” whenever you are able to see the spiritual and the material coexisting, in any moment, in any event, and in any person. God’s hope for history seems to be that humanity will one day be able to recognize its dignity as the divine dwelling place, which it shares with the rest of creation. I don’t know when it will happen or what it will look like to reach the tipping point, for the Christ Mystery to come to fullness. All I know is that this meaning, planted in the middle of things, was meant to give humanity both direction and immense confidence. I suspect “the Second Coming of Christ” happens whenever and wherever we allow this to be utterly true for us. We’re still living in the in-between right now, slowly edging forward, with much resistance. As it says in Romans 8:22-23, creation is “groaning in anticipation,” or as one translation states, “We are standing on tiptoe waiting for the revelation of the sons and daughters of God.” I hope such implanted hope gets your whole life up on its toes!”

Meditation – Monday, March 23, 2015

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Rohr: “The Cosmic Christ”

Fr. Richard Rohr – is a Franciscan priest, Christian mystic, and teacher of Ancient Christian Contemplative Prayer. He is the founding Director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM.

“There were clear statements in the New Testament giving a cosmic meaning to Christ (Colossians 1, Ephesians 1, John 1, 1 John 1, and Hebrews 1:1-4), and the schools of Paul and John were initially overwhelmed by the hope contained in this message. In the early Christian era, a few Eastern Fathers (such as Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor) noticed that the Christ was clearly something older, larger, and different than Jesus himself. They mystically saw that Jesus is the union of human and divine in one person, and the Christ is the eternal union of matter and Spirit from the beginning of time. But the later centuries tended to lose this mystical element in favor of a more dualistic Christianity. We were all the losers. What we could not unite in Jesus, we could not unite in ourselves!

Christianity became another moralistic religion (which loved to be on top). It was overwhelmingly aligned with a very limited period of history (empire building through war) and a small piece of the planet (Europe), not the whole earth or any glorious destiny (Romans 8:18ff) for us all. Not surprisingly, many Christians ended up tragically fighting evolution—along with most early human rights struggles (such as women’s suffrage, rights for those on the margins, racism, classism, homophobia, earth care, and slavery)—because we had no evolutionary notion of Christ who was forever “groaning in one great act of giving birth” (Romans 8:22). Until the reforms of the 1960’s and the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholic Christianity was overwhelmingly a tribal religion and hardly “catholic” at all.

We should have been at the forefront of all of these love and justice issues. The Christian religion was made-to-order—to grease the wheels of human consciousness toward love, nonviolence, justice, inclusivity, love of creation, and the universality of such a message. Mature religion serves as a conveyor belt for the evolution of human consciousness. Immature religion actually stalls people at very early stages of magical, mythic, and tribal consciousness, while they are convinced they are enlightened or “saved.” This is more a part of the problem than any kind of solution. Only the non-dual and mystical mind gets you all the way through.

Authentic mystical experience connects us and keeps connecting us at ever-newer levels, breadths, and depths, “until God is all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). Or as Paul also writes earlier in the same letter, “the world, life and death, the present and the future are all your servants, for you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Corinthians 3:22-23). Full salvation is finally universal belonging and universal connecting. Our word for that is heaven’.

Universal Connection, Meditation, Friday, March 27, 2015 

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Trisagion Processional Cross from 6th-century Syria

Above is my reconstruction of what the original processional cross may have looked like. You can see that all that remained of the ancient cross was the right arm (on the left as you view it) and about ¾ of the bottom. The Trisagion (Thrice Holy) Hymn, first attested to in the mid-5th century, is inscribed on the cross. The hymn is a supplication to the Trinitarian God; “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.” It is still chanted in every Orthodox Divine Liturgy service. The text is uncial (or majuscule) Greek; all uppercase letters, no spacing between words, no diacriticals. This was the standard until the 9th century. It is inscribed in the order that an Orthodox person holding the cross would cross themselves: top to bottom, right shoulder to left.

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Rohr: “Third Eye Seeing”

Fr. Richard Rohr – is a Franciscan priest, Christian mystic, and teacher of Ancient Christian Contemplative Prayer.  He is the founding Director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM.

 

Rohr1“In the early medieval period, two Christian philosophers offered names for three different ways of seeing, and these names had a great influence on scholars and seekers in the Western tradition. Hugh of St. Victor (1078-1141) and Richard of St. Victor (1123-1173) wrote that humanity was given three different sets of eyes, each building on the previous one. The first eye was the eye of the flesh (thought or sight), the second was the eye of reason (meditation or reflection), and the third was the intuitive eye of true understanding (contemplation). 

I describe this third eye as knowing something simply by being calmly present to it (no processing needed!). This image of “third eye” thinking, beyond our dualistic vision, is also found in most Eastern religions. We are onto something archetypal here, I think!

The loss of the “third eye” is at the basis of much of the shortsightedness and religious crises of the Western world, about which even secular scholars like Albert Einstein and Iain McGilchrist have written. Lacking such wisdom, it is hard for churches, governments, and leaders to move beyond ego, the desire for control, and public posturing. Everything divides into dualistic oppositions like liberal vs. conservative, with vested interests pulling against one another. Truth is no longer possible at this level of conversation. Even theology becomes more a quest for power than a search for God and Mystery.

One wonders how far spiritual and political leaders can genuinely lead us without some degree of contemplative seeing and action. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that “us-and-them” seeing, and the dualistic thinking that results, is the foundation of almost all discontent and violence in the world.  It allows heads of religion and state to avoid their own founders, their own national ideals, and their own better instincts. Lacking the contemplative gaze, such leaders will remain mere functionaries and technicians, or even dangers to society.

We need all three sets of eyes in both a healthy culture and a healthy religion. Without them, we only deepen and perpetuate our problems.”

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Olivier Clément: “For God will never reject anybody, his love is offered to all.”

Olivier-Maurice Clément (1921 – 2009) – was an Orthodox Christian theologian, who taught at St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, France.  There he became one of the most highly regarded witnesses to early Christianity, as well as one of the most prolific.

 

clement“Thus will come about the completion of all things, when the Spirit of life, through the communion of saints, will manifest the whole universe as the glorified Body of Christ. Then each person, in giving his face to the transfigured universe, will rediscover his flesh; flesh vibrant with all its natural sensitivity, our earthly flesh, but bathed in the life and fullness of God, who will be ‘all in all’, abolishing the separations of time and space, making possible among the risen a communion beyond anything we can now imagine…

Nevertheless, although the hell of our fallen state has been secretly abolished in Christ, and although God must be revealed at the Last Day as ‘all in all’, there remains the heartrending mystery of the ‘second death’ of the Revelation, the final death of the human being without love plunged into the divine love. For God will never reject anybody, his love is offered to all. But the fire of that love, as St Isaac the Syrian says, is eternal joy for those who welcome it and infernal torment for those who refuse it. Generic hell, as we might call it, may have been destroyed by Christ, but for each free individual there remains the terrible possibility of personal hell. But does this not amount to a fatal obstruction to the divine plan for that universal communion which is the only hope for the fulfilment of the person?”   ~ Olivier Clément, On Human Being:  A Spiritual Anthropology

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Elder Sophrony (Sakharov): On Pride

Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) (23 September 1896 – 11 July 1993) – also referred to as Elder Sophrony, was best known as the disciple and biographer of St Silouan the Athonite and compiler of St Silouan’s works, and as the founder of the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Maldon, Essex, England.
These excerpts are taken from Elder Sophrony’s book, We Shall See Him as He Is, written late in his life.

 

Sophrony “Pride is the dark abyss into which man plunged when he fell. Heeding his own will, he became spiritually blind and unable to discern the presence of pride in the impulses of his heart and mind. It is only when the uncreated Light descends on us through our belief in the Divinity of Jesus Christ that we can perceive the metaphysical essence of pride. The grace of the Holy Spirit enlightens man’s heart and discloses the malignant, fatal tumor within him. He who has experienced divine love finds himself revolted by the poisonous fumes emanating from the passion of pride. Pride separates man from God and shuts him up in himself.
The manifestations of pride are innumerable but they all distort the divine image in man. Outside Christ, without Christ, there is no resolving the tragedy of the earthly history of mankind. The atmosphere reeks with the smell of blood. Day after day the universe is fed with news of the slaying or torture of the vanquished in fratricidal conflicts. Black clouds of hate screen the heavenly Light from our eyes. People make their own hell for themselves. Unless and until we allow repentance to change us totally there will be no deliverance for the world – deliverance from the most terrible of all curses, war. Better be killed than kill is the attitude of the humble man of love [cf. Matt. 10.28; 5:21-22].”   (p. 30 -31)

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Fr. Seraphim (Aldea) – Making Your Theology be Reflected in Your Practical Life

Fr. Seraphim (Aldea) – was tonsured as an Orthodox monk in 2005 at Rasca monastery in Bucovine, North Moldavia. He has a PhD in Modern Theology from the University of Durham (UK) for a thesis on Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov)’s Ecclesiology. He is currently obeying God’s calling to found the Monastery of all Celtic Saints on the Scottish Isle of Mull. This will be the first Orthodox monastery in Celtic Britain in over a millennium (See http://www.mullmonastery.com).

 

seraphim-aldea“The great thing about having this theology is that then it must be reflected in your practical life. And if you look at humanity the way Father Sophrony looked at humanity, very hot contemporary issues are instantly solved.

Questions concerning immigration, questions concerning war, or how to behave in times of war, questions concerning the use of guns and the right to kill other people in any context: all these extremely controversial issues suddenly become perfectly boring because it’s so clear, everything is so clear. Once you have his mind, his theology all these issues are perfectly clear.

You cannot be a Christian in his sense and allow for war or use of guns against other human beings at the same time. That can only mean two things. Either you have a wrong theology and that is reflected in your practical life, or you have a correct theology but you don’t allow that to affect your practical life.

…He used to say that somebody who has correct theology but that correct theology is not reflected in his life is like a bird with one wing. Forever looking up and thinking it will get there not knowing he is already condemned to forever be on Earth. If you don’t allow your theology to inform your life, your values, your choices, then you’ve missed the point and you’ll never fly.”

~ From a lecture delivered in 2016 reflecting on the theology of Elder Sophrony of Essex

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Fr. Seraphim (Aldea): Foundation of True Prayer.

Fr. Seraphim (Aldea) (1965 –  ) – was tonsured as an Orthodox monk in 2005 at Rasca monastery in Bucovine, North Moldavia. He has a PhD in Modern Theology from the University of Durham (UK) for a thesis on Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov)’s Ecclesiology. He is currently obeying God’s calling to found the Monastery of all Celtic Saints on the Scottish Isle of Mull. This will be the first Orthodox monastery in Celtic Britain in over a millennium (See http://www.mullmonastery.com).

 

seraphim-aldea“Prayer in the most early stages is something you have to do.  You do it because your spiritual father says so, because the Holy Fathers say so, and because Christ Himself says so.  Although this is not really prayer, by following someone else – the way the Apostles did – you lay the foundation for real prayer; this foundation is obedience.  You do something not out of your own will, but because someone else tells you to.  You may not be aware of it, but in doing this, you have declared war on your own nature, because it is deeply un-natural in our fallen world to oppose your own will, to reject your own logic and to let go of self-control.  It is against reason, against instinct, against all the things we have become in order to survive.  

When you start praying, you have in fact started your wandering through the desert.  It may last less than forty years; it may last until the day you die.  You may see the Promised Land while still in this life; you may die in the desert, and only enter the Kingdom after you have departed this life.

The one thing that matters is that you start; as long as you keep going, you will be all right.  The advice you will find in all the Fathers is to keep praying, keep yourself on the path; although you may feel it has no effect and that it leads to nowhere, in reality the fruits of this cross are already present in you.  The roots of the prayer are already growing in your flesh and soul, and that is a painful process; that is why you are in pain.

During these long years, you will not be levitating, you will not be swallowed in light, but you will become more humble, more aware of how weak and limited you are, and less inclined to judge other people.  These fruits are the foundation upon which real prayer will be built at the right time.  If you do not go through this process of transformation, if your faith does not survive this desert, if you do not conquer this hell by patience and humility, you will not reach the Resurrection of true prayer.” 

~ Excerpt from the booklet, “On Prayer”, published by The Orthodox Monastery of All Celtic Saints

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David Bentley Hart: “Saint Origen”

David Bentley Hart (born 1965) is an American Orthodox Christian philosophical theologian, cultural commentator and polemicist.  Here, in one short essay published in First Things in 2015, Prof. Hart addresses three topics that institutional Orthodoxy would prefer to avoid:  apokatastasis, Saint Origen, and the church’s chronic propensity to sleep with worldly empire (e.g., Byzantium and Russia)

 

DB-Hart

“Saint Origen”

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