The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See
By Richard Rohr
New York: Crossroad, 2009
Review by Carl McColman
Many of the finest studies of Christian mysticism are just that: studies. While authors as renowned as William Ralph Inge, Cuthbert Butler, Evelyn Underhill, Louis Bouyer, John Macquarrie, Bernard McGinn and Robert Davis Hughes have made splendid contributions to our knowledge and understanding of contemplative and mystical spirituality, their erudite and scholarly works are, alas, often just too challenging for the ordinary, non-theologically-educated layperson. Although perusing their work can be a dazzling journey of insight and cognition, the casual reader may well be left wondering the all-important question, largely unaddressed by the scholars: “How do I apply this wisdom to my life?”
Enter Richard Rohr and his inviting, accessible introduction to the mystical element of spirituality written for the average seeker in our time. He understands that mysticism is far more than just “experiencing God,” and he refuses to reduce contemplation to mere psychological nurture or stress management. He deftly understands that mysticism often exists in tension with established religious authority, and yet at its heart Christian mysticism is about reconciliation and relationship more so than revolution and rebellion. Rohr has a clear sense of the paradox and play at the heart of mysticism, and manages to avoid both the trap of esotericism (mysticism as a retreat into private spirituality) and devotionalism (mysticism as a metaphor for super-piety). The title, The Naked Now, evokes a range of “present-moment” spiritaul masterpieces, from Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now to Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence. Like these previous works, The Naked Now recognizes the mysticism is a gift already given, not something we achieve so much as something we, by God’s grace, simply allow: in the undefended, un-judged (hence, “naked”) here-and-now present.
The key to this book’s accessibility and usefulness lies in its subtitle. Rohr does not promise his readers that The Naked Now will make them become mystics; instead, he promises to invite them to “see” as mystics do. He uses the metaphor of seeing and even of the “third eye” to unpack not only what is wrong with religion in general, but to present mysticism as a shift into all-embracing, nondual consciousness. He grounds this fundamental truth in the Christian tradition, discussing how mysticism relates to the Christian (particularly but not exclusively Catholic) life, and especially to the teachings of Jesus. Like Cynthia Bourgeault or even Ken Wilber, Rohr’s understanding of Jesus liberates Christ from the kind of metaphysical superhero who dies to placate a wrathful God and instead celebrates him as a wisdom teacher whose death and resurrection become the archetypal pathway for the life of mystical initiation: descent into the dark night (and surrender of the ego), followed by the resurrection into the “new mind” or “mind of Christ” (metanoia, conversion) that characterizes mystical seeing — and being.
In his introduction to the book, Rohr suggests that these principles epitomize what he is trying to say: “All saying must be balanced by unsaying, and knowing must be humbled by unknowing,” and “All light must be informed by darkness, and all success by suffering.” The key to these mystical axioms, of course, is unlearning the dualistic way of seeing and thinking by relaxing into the naked now: the “sacrament of the present moment.”
The Naked Now is a gentle book, and probably will not convert anyone who is not already predisposed to its joyful and expansive message. It lacks the polemical punch of Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity or Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence; but it really has a different mission than either of those books. It’s not about convincing the ego of how “right” the mystical path is, but rather simply about accepting the invitation to walk the mystic path and see for yourself. Because Rohr is not interested in oppositional consciousness, so he is not particularly interested in meeting his critics (or the critics of mysticism in general) on their level. Rather, he simply invites everyone to “come higher” to the third-eye, naked now level of contemplative seeing. Those who accept the invitation will find this book encouraging and hopeful. Those who don’t probably wouldn’t read the book to begin with.
If you like The Website of Unknowing I can confidently say that you will love The Naked Now. If you’re not particularly familiar with my website, then consider if you are drawn to centering prayer, interfaith spirituality (Christianity in dialogue with Buddhism, etc.), Benedictine/Monastic spirituality, Celtic Christianity, or the emergent conversation. If any of these are of interest to you, get this book. It will inspire you to connect to the spiritual heart of all these creative movements within the Christian community.