For half the year Richard Rohr - Franciscan monk and co-founder of the pioneering ‘Centre for Action and Contemplation’ in New Mexico - lives out his contemplative vocation in a hermitage. The rest of the time he is on the road in Europe and North America with a demanding schedule of retreats and speaking engagements.
Richard has emerged as a leading international authority on the contemplative life and he is widely regarded as a modern prophet. In his own words, Richard describes his mission quite simply as proclaiming the gospel of Christ.
From the vantage point of Norwich Cathedral pulpit with a 20ft screen projecting his image behind him, Richard looked out at a 550 strong audience and concluded: “there’s some kind of wonderful and deep desiring going on in our churches.” Annette Vergette was present at this event and the workshop that followed, and she speaks of this ‘deep desiring’ in her own life and in the context of a wider spiritual hunger.
Following some negative experiences in her adolescence, Annette came to see the church as a rigid institution clinging to external beliefs, while its leaders and members too often failed to live what they preached. “I always felt I was a Christian,” says Annette, “but just not in a church community.”
A few years ago she became involved in a project for Romanian children, and this had a profound impact on her faith journey. Annette subsequently went on an Alpha course, explored Buddhism for a while (“I always felt I wanted to be a Christian Buddhist Quaker”), took part in Nicholas Vesey’s ‘Developing Consciousness’ course and, finally, became a confirmed member of the Church of England. Then came Richard Rohr, bringing together many of the strands of Annette’s quest.
In his books and talks Richard often says: “I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.” For Annette, this experience of being encouraged to trust her own inner knowing was a crucial feature of Richard’s teaching. “I think there are a lot of people,” says Annette, “who have turned away from church because they haven’t found that affirmation there.”
Richard’s focus was to impart an understanding about what we need to do with our minds in order to embark on the contemplative path. He talked about meditation as a means of stepping outside the compulsive traps and illusions of the mind, and what to do when our practice brings us face to face with the emotional wounds stored up in our subconscious. “I think that’s the key point,” said Annette, “why so many of us resist contemplation.”
Richard referred to Jesus’ time in the wilderness as a paradigm of the spiritual journey (see Mark 1:12-13). The bad news is you get to face your demons, but the good news is this act of faith – stepping out into the desert, which is synonymous with interior silence – is met by grace in the form of helping angels. (See below to listen to an audio clip of Richard's talk on The Contemplative Mind).
Liz Westaway is also a recently returned ‘post-Christian’. For Liz, the life-changing aspect of this event was the sense of community it engendered. “There was this inter-denominational connection,” she said. “It seems that’s something people want: community beyond the differences.” Liz also enjoyed meditating with others, “It’s so much easier to ‘be’ in community.”
“For me,” said Annette, “part of the richness was the energy and connectedness for us in the St Augustine’s hospitality team” (Annette was one of the volunteers helping run the event). This in turn built a sense of generosity, warmth and gratitude in the whole group which was attested to by glowing appreciations in the feedback sheets and effusive thanksgiving during the closing Eucharist.
Both Liz and Annette perceive a subsequent ripple-effect: people coming together and sharing Richard’s books and CDs, and telling their friends about his teachings. “I think people are talking,” said Annette. “It will have an impact and the web will just keep growing.” “For some people the word ‘Christian’ can be negative,” she added “What Richard has offered is to be out of the box." “That’s very freeing,” agreed Liz, “and will attract people, the ones who say we’re not religious, we’re spiritual.”
Was this positive energy simply the result of people coming together prayerfully to perform acts of service and create community? Or was there something unique about this event? “Somehow it just captured the moment spiritually...” said Liz. “That’s what Richard is about, isn’t it? He’s a ‘social change agent’. Something happened to enable him to be here, and as a consequence of him being here, something is happening.” “I do think it’s a very special time” agreed Annette. “People are hungry and wanting something outside the conventional, the traditional.”
A key factor in Richard accepting the invitation was that he wanted to visit ‘Julian’s city’ and honour the spiritual legacy of someone he describes as “hands down the greatest of the English mystics”. “It’s interesting,” said Liz, “that someone who was around more than five centuries ago should be having an influence and enabling us to benefit now – she’s worked a kind of miracle!”
In mapping out the historical context of the contemplative tradition, Richard pointed out that Julian lived on the cusp of the transition from one era to another. She wrote her book on the eve of the so-called ‘Age of Enlightenment’, when the more ancient wisdom ways of knowing had not yet been subjugated by the rational mindset of the scientific age. “In great part,” said Richard, “the contemplative tradition has not been solidly taught for 400 years. All the experts are agreeing on that.”
In one of his talks, Richard described an encounter with a monk who was living as a recluse at Thomas Merton’s Gethsemane monastery. They met on a pathway in the woods, and the monk said to Richard, “I have a message I want you to take to the people.” He pointed up at the wide expanse of blue sky. “Please tell them,” said the monk, “GOD IS NOT OUT THERE!”
Richard takes up Julian's mystical vision and preaches about the intimate Abba of Jesus, a God whose love is always and everywhere available, closer to us than our breathing. It is also the mighty Yahweh of our Jewish ancestors, who forbade the name of God to be spoken outside the context of religious ceremony. “Once you think you understand the Great Mystery," said Richard, "religion becomes idolatrous.”
He led a meditation which showed how the construction of the word ‘Yahweh’ embodies the Jewish understanding of the nature of God as both ultimate mystery and absolute presence. “There were people in tears as a result of that meditation,” said Annette, “it released something very deep within them.” For another participant, Richard’s demonstration of ‘YHWH’ (no syllables) as the ‘breath’ – our first, our last and our truest prayer – was a key to uniting the Eastern and Western contemplative traditions. (See below for audio clip of Richard on ‘Yahweh – breath of God’).
Richard’s simple but revolutionary gospel message is that God is with us, among us and, ultimately, deep within us. He reminds us, with urgency and authority, that we are invited to make the pilgrimage within in order to discover just how near the kingdom of God really is and, through the unifying power of deep, wordless prayer, to reintegrate the fractured spheres of society and self.
“That’s why,” said Liz, “it makes so much sense to meditate: to help you get inside yourself and find heaven on earth.”