Richard Rohr’s new Living School for Action and Contemplation has launched a new synthesis of Christian learning for which I believe the world is waiting. Nearly 1,500 people converged in New Mexico two weeks ago for Rohr’s second Conspire conference and Living School Symposium. Our vocations differed and our geographical homes stretched from Vancouver to Tokyo, but we all shared a common thirst to drink from the well of mystical Christianity. The all-star roster of teachers included Episcopalian hermit Cynthia Bourgeault, psychotherapist and student-of-Merton James Finley, former Mars Hill Bible pastor Rob Bell, Franciscan scientist and theologian Ilia Delio, and contemporary mystic Robert Sardello. As if inhabiting our own monastery within resort walls, we sat in collective silence and chanted simple, Taizé-inflected songs. We listened to talks on quantum physics and the Trinity; we swam in the pool; we watched the sunrise over the Sandia Mountains; we met kindred spirits over drinks. My soul is still humming.
Here are two related reasons why the time is right for this bold educational experiment.
- The Living School integrates contemplative practices with theological learning.
At Harvard Divinity School (HDS) I studied with some of the best theological minds in the country, and yet as a minister-in-training, I did not learn that prayer involves being quiet. How could this be? It’s not as if there weren’t manifold opportunities to do learn this: thoughtful prayers and visionary preaching punctuated Wednesday noon Eucharists. A silent meditation group met regularly on campus. And for many of my teachers, the act of studying religion itself functioned as a form of devotion or prayer. All the same, I graduated with a Masters of Divinity, two rooms and a basement full of theology books, and I had never experienced a contemplative form of prayer, or what Richard Rohr describes as the daily humiliation of the ego that silence provides.
Part of the problem lay in my framing of what prayer was: in my evangelical upbringing, prayer consisted of talking to God. Praising God, petitioning God, confessing to God, repeating God’s Scriptural words back to God. Sometimes, in more charismatic circles, prayer involved listeningto God speaking, and that proved a positive development. Yet prayer still remained mostly verbal and something that I did, not something that was done to me.
The brilliance of Richard Rohr’s Living School for Action and Contemplation is the teaching and expectation of both theological content and contemplative practice. Through the inaugural year we’ve read older mystics such as Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross; we’ve also read recent 20th century mystics such as Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, and Raimon Panikkar. What is different from my Divinity School training is that we are not reading texts primarily for intellectual exploration; we are seeking the same revelation of love and union that the mystics sought. The first symposium last year in New Mexico involved Bourgeault teaching us lectio divina and centering prayer; Rohr teaching us contemplation through images, or visio divina, and Finley teaching us both the practice and heritage of Christian meditation.
I wish somebody in my ministry training, either on the denominational level or at HDS, would have said to me simply: sit down and shut up. You are not that important. Stop cramming your brain with books for a minute; learn and listen to God through silence. Suffer the daily humiliation of the ego that silence can give, in which you witness how truly obsessive and repetitive your habitual thoughts are. I’m grateful to the Living School for giving me bountiful books to read, but I’m even more grateful to the Living School for teaching me how to pray.
- People are hungry for authentic experience of God, but the church has not delivered.
Many of us have heard the statistics: the so-called “None’s” are on the rise. (None’s are those 1/5th of Americans and 1/3 of adults under 30 who check ‘no religious affiliation’ in surveys.) The too-little told story is that the None’s are actually quite spiritual. Pew Forum says 2/3rds of them believe in God, over half report having a deep connection with the earth, and a third claim to be spiritual but not religious. I live by, and even met my wife at, a yoga retreat center in Western Massachusetts at which over 25,000 people visit every year. A few corners away, though, little hill-town churches in my denomination struggle to pay for steeple repairs with dwindling endowments and often less than fifty faithful members. That anecdotal disparity alone points to the spiritual revolution sweeping the country, what Diana Butler Bass has called “The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.” People are still seeking experiences of God, but are doing so increasingly outside the church.
Why is this? Is it because of encroaching secularism (an argument I’ve heard from many evangelicals)? Is it because of Sunday soccer practices (an example I’ve heard more times that you’d think)? Is it because people are fed up with the right-wing agenda of some evangelicals or the spineless belief systems of some liberals (caricatures I’ve also heard numerous times)?
My own intuitive take is that it has to do in part with the loss of the mystical path in the church. Protestants never had much of a mystical path to begin with, and many Catholics forgot the treasure trove of riches that they did have. In this new spiritual awakening, scores of people are turning to the contemplative dimensions of Buddhism, yoga, New Age practices, shamanism, and much more. Folks in the church may scoff at crystals and om-chanting, but we cannot deny that something spiritually momentous is going on.
All the while, under the nose of the established churches, a quiet but powerful resurgence of the mystical-contemplative path of Christianity is taking place. Contemplative Outreach teaches the Christian meditation method known as Centering Prayer to over 15,000 people each year. Brian Mclaren, godfather of Emergence Christianity, turned to the textures of the inner life in his underappreciated Naked Spirituality. Cynthia Bourgeault’s Wisdom Schools sell out over a year in advance. Richard Rohr has been teaching contemplation from his Franciscan perspective for years, but his recent books such as Falling Upward seem to have touched a spiritual zeitgeist, soaring on the Amazon best-sellers list.
With Rohr’s Living School for Action and Contemplation, the Christian mystical path is being taught in an organized and publicly accessible way. And judging by my experience in New Mexico, there are many of us who are thirsty.