Progressive Christian Channel
Undefended Knowing: A Conversation with Richard Rohr and Tilden Edwards
Richard, was there anything similar, or different, for you?
Richard: First of all, because I joined the Franciscans young, we always had the word "contemplation," and from my first day in novitiate, around 1961, we had to start the day with twenty minutes of silence on our knees. Amazingly, it's what we do now in a sitting position instead of a kneeling position. Those were the first hints that there was another way of knowing, and that it wasn't come to by discursive logic or reasoning or added perception, but it almost came unmediated. I didn't have any theological education then, but I knew there was another way of knowing, and you sort of kept it to yourself, because you weren't sure you weren't fooling yourself, or you really didn't know how to talk about it.
Then, as I grew up I got educated in theology, spiritual theology, particularly the discovery of Thomas Merton. He, for so many of us, gave us the vocabulary that this is an alternative consciousness, that it's not just thinking about God with your reasonable mind, but actually a different mind. And so we started the center in Albuquerque almost twenty-six years ago now with much the same intention.
There's got to be a way to teach people this mind. We made the sad discovery that so much of the church, as Tilden said, didn't seem to know about this mind anymore, even though it was our tradition. And so, many of us studied the history: how we had it, how we lost it. Jesus assumed it and practiced it. But he didn't teach it in a systematic way, although there are some hints that he was trying to teach it. But because it wasn't systematic, the way theology became, we sort of just missed it.
In short, by my time, contemplation in most Christians' minds meant being an introverted personality: liking quiet, sometimes not liking people, or not liking noise. So that needed to be unpackaged, and I think we're twenty-some years into that un-packaging now.
Well now, let's take that word "contemplation." Can you un-package that for us? I mean, what are you talking about here?
Richard: Well let's start with it, the Latin word, contemplat, is seeing, not thinking. So it's a more holistic way of accessing the moment than just the left-brain. I like to call it "undefended knowing," where you keep the screen open, you refuse the dualistic, antagonistic "it's either this or that," which is the way most people prefer to think. They don't know it. So when you refuse this "it's either this or that," you get your usual defenses out of the way of anger, agenda, fear, and judgment. The more you can remain undefended and keep the screen open, I think you have an easier possibility of contemplating a situation.
"Undefended knowing," that sounds very vulnerable to me. What kind of risk-taking or courage does that invite from those who want to enter the contemplative path?
Richard: I think you just named the heart of the problem: that the ego is very defended—that's almost its definition—and vulnerability, exposure, self-disclosure, that isn't our natural language; I think you've just named the primary reason people don't try to learn the contemplative stance, or if they do learn it, they run from it, because to stay there, even for twenty minutes, undefended, without returning to my obsessive, compulsive, repetitive patterns, that's a lot of letting go. And who wants to do that? If there isn't a wise teacher to tell you, "it's okay," and it's not only okay, but it's better, it's good.
Carole A. Crumley is the Senior Program Director at The Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.