Two seminal teachers of the Christian contemplative movement—Father Richard Rohr and Tilden Edwards—joined me in conversation at The Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation earlier this year to reflect on their spiritual awakening and parallel paths in the Christian contemplative tradition.
Father Rohr, founding director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, and Edwards, founder and senior fellow of the Shalem Institute, were both young when they started this work: Tilden an Episcopal priest and the director of an ecumenical organization focused on social issues, and Richard a religious monastic-in-training. Both were inspired by their spiritual hunger to search deeper into the Christian tradition and both discovered a hidden richness there. Their awakening has helped propel the Christian contemplative movement and brought ancient monastic teachings into the digital age. Both envision that sharing contemplative practices enables us all to touch a deeper intelligence and to make us more available to the healing of the world.
What drew you to the contemplative path?
Tilden: Forty years ago, the religious world was different than today. I was part of that way of being in the church, that way of being religious, that way of being prayerful, and something just seemed really deeply missing. And yet, since no one else was talking about that very much, there wasn't a word for it, or a way for it. As I began to explore the long, deep-contemplative tradition and began some practices, it came to me that this was where the hole was.
My basic underlying hunger was for something that I could not even name, because "contemplative" was not a word that anyone used unless you were in a very marginal place in some contemplative community. It was an alien word to so many people. So I felt that I wanted to go deeper myself. I had many years of experience of going to monasteries and retreats. And yet, even as those were presenting what we would call "contemplative" today, it still seemed like they had lost something of the oral tradition and deep lineage, that heart of what the contemplative revelation is about.
At the suggestion of some Christian leaders, I enrolled in a two-month contemplative program of teaching and practices led by a high Tibetan Lama, which helped to open me to a depth of consciousness that I yearned for, as well as a sense of connection of that consciousness with the Christian contemplative tradition. After that I gathered some people together in Washington, DC, in 1973 and the Shalem Institute grew out of that. There were twenty of us who agreed to stay together every week for a couple of hours and have a retreat together as well. Over time, those people began to see that this was filling the hole that they were feeling too and had no name for. And little by little, so much more began to evolve and develop, not only with us, but in the larger culture, where what was so marginal for so long was becoming re-awakened in ways that we had no idea where it might lead.
At first, this was good private prayer that was really deep. Then we began to see this had revolutionary implications for the whole society, not only the church or other religious communities but for the way every institution is grounded.
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.