Image credit: The Incredulity of Thomas (detail), painted by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio between 1601 and 1602. Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam, Germany. 

Contemplation in Action: Week 1

Field Hospital on the Edge of the Battlefield   Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Francis of Assisi taught us the importance of living close to the poor, the marginalized, the outcasts in society. The outer poverty, injustice, and absurdity around us mirror our own inner poverty, injustice, and absurdity. The poor man or woman outside is an invitation to the poor man or woman inside. As you nurture compassion and sympathy for the brokenness of things, encounter the visible icon of the painful mystery in “the little ones,” build bridges between the inner and outer, learn to move between action and contemplation, then you’ll find compassion and sympathy for the brokenness within yourself.

Each time I was recovering from cancer, I had to sit with my own broken absurdity as I’ve done with others at the jail or hospital or sick bed. The suffering person’s poverty is visible and extraverted; mine is invisible and interior, but just as real. I think that’s why Jesus said we have to recognize Christ in the least of our brothers and sisters. It was for our redemption, our liberation, our healing—not just to “help” others and put a check on our spiritual resume.

I can’t hate the person on welfare when I realize I’m on God’s welfare. It all becomes one truth; the inner and the outer reflect one another. As compassion and sympathy flow out of us to any marginalized person for whatever reason, wounds are bandaged—both theirs and ours.

Thomas, the doubting apostle, wanted to figure things out in his head. He had done too much inner work, too much analyzing and explaining. He always needed more data before he could make a move. Then Jesus told Thomas he must put his finger inside the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side (John 20:27). Then and only then did Thomas begin to understand what faith is all about.

Pope Francis is encouraging a church of doubting Thomases when he tells us that “the church seems like a field hospital” [1] on the edge of the battlefield (as opposed to a country club of saved people) and the “clergy should smell like their sheep” (rather than thinking they smell better). [2] If this could happen, it would change just about everything that we have called church up to now.

Gateway to Silence:
Be still and still moving.


[1] Pope Francis, Address to members of the Focolare Movement on September 26, 2014. See full text at
[2] Pope Francis, With the Smell of the Sheep: Pope Francis Speaks to Priests, Bishops, and other Shepherds (Orbis Books: 2017).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Near Occasions of Grace (Orbis Books: 1993), 108-110.

The Left Hand of God   Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Part of integrating the inner and the outer is looking at both sides of life clearly and honestly. We must be able to face the joy and wonder of life as well as its pain, injustice, and absurdity. I call the dark side of life the left hand of God or the painful mystery of things. My several encounters with cancer are good examples. I have long preached about the painful mystery of things, but with each of three diagnoses, it reached out and grabbed me and got my attention.

That’s often how it happens. You’re going along and things are just fine, then wham bam—you’re struck by the left hand of God. The longer you live the more you see the terrible pain, injustice, and absurdity as part of the entire world and the lives of those around you. You can’t make any logical or pleasing sense out of it. Then, if you are open, you’re driven back to an inner place of grace where the paradox is simply held by Love. The only alternative is a life of cynicism.

This brings to mind Rilke’s beautiful poem:

God speaks to each of us as [God] makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand. [1]

Truly compassionate, effective action means looking hard at both sides of life, and that look will drive you back to a God-centered, always daring, contemplative place—which in turn will drive you forward with a passion to do something about all of this pain according to your own gift. If your spiritual practice doesn’t lead you to some acts of concrete caring or service, then you have every reason not to trust it.

St. John Cassian (c. 360-435) called this pax perniciosa or “dangerous peace.” [2] We might also call it the Pax Romana, maintained by force and injustice, instead of the Pax Christi, which comes from love, operates in love, and leads to a love that flows toward the world. Love’s core characteristic is flow—always flowing outward!

Gateway to Silence:
Be still and still moving.


[1] Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (Riverhead Books: 1996), 88. Used by permission.
[2] John Cassian, Conferences, 4.7

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Near Occasions of Grace (Orbis Books: 1993), 107-108.

Action and Contemplation   Monday, June 26, 2017

The words action and contemplation have become classic Christian terminology for the two dancing polarities of our lives. Thomas Aquinas and many others stated that the highest form of spiritual maturity is not action or contemplation, but the ability to integrate the two into one life stance—to be service-oriented contemplatives or contemplative activists.  By temperament we all tend to come at it from one side or the other.

This full integration doesn’t happen without a lot of mistakes and practice and prayer. And invariably, as you go through life, you swing on a pendulum back and forth between the two. During one period you may be more active or more contemplative than at another time.

I have commonly noticed a tendency to call any kind of inner work contemplation, and this concerns me. Inner work might lead you to a contemplative stance, but not necessarily. We shouldn’t confuse various kinds of inner work, insight-gathering, or introspection with contemplative spirituality. Contemplation is about letting go of the false much more than just collecting the new, the therapeutic, or the helpful. In other words, if you and your personal growth are still the focus, I do not think you are yet a contemplative—which demands that you shed yourself as the central reference point. Jesus said, “Unless the single grain of wheat dies, it remains just a single grain,” and it will not bear much fruit (John 12:24).

We must guard against our “innerness” becoming disguised narcissism, navel-gazing, and overly self-serving. I am afraid this is not uncommon in the religious world. An exalted self-image of “I am a spiritual person” is far too appealing to the ego. Thomas Merton warned against confusing an introverted personality with being a contemplative. They are two different things.

Having said that, I’ll point out the other side of the problem. Too much activism without enough inner work, insight, or examination of conscience inevitably leads to violence—to the self, to the project at hand, and invariably to others. If too much inner focus risks narcissism and individualism, I guess too much outer focus risks superficiality, negativity passing for love of justice, and various Messiah complexes. You can lack love on the Right and you can lack love on the Left—they just wear two different disguises.

We need both inner communion and outer service to be “Jesus” in the world! The job of religion is to help people act effectively and compassionately from an inner centeredness and connection with God. 

Gateway to Silence:
Be still and still moving.


Adapted from Richard Rohr, Near Occasions of Grace (Orbis Books: 1993), 105-107.

The Whole World Is Our Cloister   Sunday, June 25, 2017

In the Franciscan worldview, the Christ can be found everywhere. Nothing is secular or profane. You don’t really “get” the Christ mystery until body and spirit begin to operate as one. Once you see the material and the spiritual working together, everything is holy. The Christ is whenever and wherever the material and the spiritual co-exist—which is always and everywhere! Everything is already “christened”; any anointing, blessing, declaring, or baptizing is just to help us get the point.

I wrote my undergraduate thesis on St. Francis’ break with historic monasticism. When his friars brought up well-established rules for religious life, Francis even went so far as to say “Don’t speak to me of Benedict! Don’t speak to me of Augustine!” [1] (No offence intended to Benedictines or Augustinians.) Francis believed that the Lord had shown him a different way, one which directly implied that the whole world—not just a single building—was our cloister. He did not need to create a sheltered space. We were to be “friars” instead of monks, living in the midst of ordinary people, in ordinary towns and cities. Franciscan friaries are still usually in the heart of major European and Latin American cities. We didn’t live on the edge of town because Christ is found as much in the middle of civilization as is in quiet retreats and hermitages.

Franciscan theologian Bonaventure (1221-1274) soon debated “secular priests” at the University of Paris, because some of them felt that putting together action and contemplation would not work. We became competitors for the affection of the people, I am afraid. Up until Francis of Assisi (1184-1226), most religious had to choose either a life of action or a life of contemplation. Secular priests worked with people in the parishes. The “true” religious went off to monasteries. Francis said there had to be a way to do both.

It’s as if consciousness wasn’t ready to imagine that it could find God in any way except by going into the desert, into the monastery, away from troubles, away from marriage, away from people. In that very real sense, we see a nondual mind emerging with the Franciscan movement.

There are now three major categories of Franciscans. The First Order are the Friars, the Second Order are the Poor Clares, and the Third Order or “Secular Franciscans” are the many lay people and formal religious orders that share our common spirituality. Thirty years ago when I formed the Center for Action and Contemplation in a poorer neighborhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I was just being a good Franciscan. We are still trying to teach that doing compassionate acts from a contemplative foundation is the greatest art form. 

Gateway to Silence:
Be still and still moving.


[1] The Assisi Compilation, chapter 18. See Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000), 133.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Franciscan Mysticism: I AM that which I Am Seeking, disc 1(CAC: 2012), CDMP3 download; and
Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 1.


Online Courses

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Daily Meditations:
Rebuilding Christianity “From the Bottom Up”

Drawing from his own Franciscan heritage and other wisdom traditions, Richard Rohr reframes neglected or misunderstood teachings to reveal the foundations of contemplative Christianity and the universe itself: God as loving relationship.

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“People have good reasons to be angry and afraid. Racism, poverty, climate change, and so many other injustices are causing real suffering. But we cannot fight violence with violence. Only the contemplative mind has the ability to hold light and dark together; only unitive consciousness allows transformation at the deepest levels.”


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