Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM: Silence, Action, and Contemplation (Episode 19)

Richard Rohr talks with us in this episode about silence, spirituality, contemplation, action, and why discernment is essential for each of these areas of life.

One of the most popular and beloved of living authors writing about contemplation , Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque NM, and the dean of the online Living School. Through his popular books, audio recordings, conferences, and daily emails, this Franciscan priest has become a leading spokesperson for the recovery of contemplative spirituality in our time.

Kevin, Cassidy, and Carl skyping with Fr. Richard Rohr.

“I believe the primary orthopraxy — praxis — is silence. Primary: it precedes all other spiritual practices, all other spiritual disciplines. And of course we’re first of all talking — and I know you know what I’m going to say — about  interior silence. And that takes a while to achieve, because most of us, our mind fills up as soon as we open our eyes in the morning, with ideas, projects, agendas, arguments… and they’re all of a verbal character.” — Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

Rohr spoke with the Encountering Silence team from his hermitage in New Mexico, where he offered insight not only into his work as a writer and speaker, but also into the challenges we all face as we seek to integrate contemplation (including silence) into the demands of contemporary life. Indeed, as our conversation progressed it became clear that, as much as he values silence, Rohr felt strongly that silence should never be used as an escape from the demands of relationships, communities, or the struggle for justice — the “action” that must be partnered with “contemplation.”

Rohr has a keen understanding that silence is not something that not all people have easy access to — so, therefore, silence is a justice issue. He also points out that silence is not the same thing as contemplation (neither, for that matter, is being an introvert!) and that perhaps the most valuable gift that silence can give us is an invitation to move beyond the dualistic nature of language into a space that is restful, open, and simple — a space where, in the title of one of his most popular books, “Everything Belongs.”

“Silence is a way of knowing.” — Kevin Johnson

Richard Rohr is a warm and generous person and our conversation was quite intimate. He told us a remarkable story about encountering two of the most renowned Catholics of the twentieth century shortly after graduating from high school (spoiler alert: one of them was Thomas Merton!), and reflects in a truly beautiful and vulnerable about how it feels to be a man at 75 (we recorded just a few days after his birthday) where he finds grace in “having no agenda.”

“If people do get into contemplation or silence in the first half of life, it’s almost always by some encounter with limits. Let me call it that instead of suffering, because we’re so afraid of the word suffering. But without limits entering your life, you tend to define your religion in terms of spiritual ascending, rather than descending.” — Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

Among the topics we touch on in our wide-ranging conversation is the distinction between true and false silence — as well as true and false dimensions of activism — the importance of being in the “second half” of life for embracing the contemplative life, the recognition that contemplation can take different forms in different cultures, and the hope that Rohr finds working with younger adults in the context of his ministry.

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Some of Richard Rohr’s other books include:

Episode 19: Silence, Action and Contemplation: A Conversation with Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM
Hosted by: Carl McColman
With: Cassidy Hall, Kevin Johnson
Guest: Father Richard Rohr, OFM
Date Recorded: April 10, 2018

Silence and Poetry (Episode 18)

We love poetry — and we find that, of all literary forms, poetry seems to most quickly and assuredly bring the attentive reader to the threshold of silence.

“Poets all see silence as sacred ground,” notes Kevin, “because it’s from the silence the poems come.” Together we muse on how poetry puts us in touch with our bodies, our intuition, and how the relationship between poetry and silence is, perhaps, just the same as the relationship between silence and sound that forms the foundation of music.

Much like musicians use notes, poets are the composers of words. They pay such attention to the space between. More then we do in typical writing, typical everyday language, they heed the mystery, they listen to the offbeat, and they use it. They know how to harness it, they know how to hold it open-handed… it’s I would dare to say closer to silence then any other writing is. — Cassidy Hall

Because we are all “poetry geeks” pretty much just as much as we are “silence geeks,” we joke that trying to create a podcast about poetry should take us 200 hours (or more). So this week’s episode is just a check-in, a snapshot of where our journey with poetry has taken us at least for now.

From Mary Oliver’s earthy reflection written in response to a cancer diagnosis, to Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska’s playful consideration of how the experience of the mind or soul has an “embodied” or “natural” dimension, to the more ethereal or even transcendent perspective of Evelyn Underhill, the poems we consider in this episode dance between matter and spirit, between consciousness and mystery, between wonder and doubt and insight. And while none of these poems are specifically “about” silence, they all usher us into that place where word and silence kiss.

Silence is embodied, and yet silence is paradoxically also immaterial… To encounter silence implies materiality. — Carl McColman

Some of the poets, authors and resources mentioned in this episode:

Silence isn’t a fleeing from the world, it’s a fleeing to the world. It’s actually getting out of your ideas about the world, and actually showing up and being present in the world. — Kevin Johnson

Episode 18: Silence and Poetry
Hosted by: Carl McColman
With: Cassidy Hall, Kevin Johnson
Date Recorded: April 10, 2018

Notes on Silence (Episode 17)

This week we have our first “return” guest, as Patrick Shen joins us again to discuss the new book he co-wrote and co-edited with Cassidy Hall, Notes on Silence. Describing the book as an “entry point” into silence, Patrick and Cassidy share with Kevin and Carl how the book functions as a companion to their documentary film In Pursuit of Silence — and how it is simply a work of art in its own right.

Silence is always over-stated — and under-said. — Cassidy Hall

 

 

Notes on Silence features a selection of essays by both authors exploring silence, and their relationship to silence, from a variety of angles. The book also includes transcripts of interviews from a variety of persons who are featured in the film: theologians, psychologists, artists, educators, and others who have many interesting things to say about silence and the noise in our contemporary habitat. Since only a portion of each interview could be included in the film, these transcripts provide a wealth of information for anyone who wants to go deeper in his or her pursuit of silence.

A monk from New Mellerey Abbey, Father Alberic, said to me, ‘Silence is a place of infinite possibility.’ Silence is also a place of infinite language, because there is no proper language — there is no official way to box it in.” — Cassidy Hall

Notes on Silence also contains a generous selection of beautiful (and deeply contemplative photos) taken by both Cassidy and Patrick. As each of them shares thoughts on one of their favorite photos in the book, they give insight into how image as well as words can testify to the beauty of silence, and of our capacity for wonder at, and in, silence.

Alas, we cannot know for certain, the cosmos demands that we surrender to its majesty, and we must take our seat at the feet of doubt. — Patrick Shen

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

Absolute silence would be a state of lifelessness. Our relationship with silence is always filtered through sound in some way, shape or form. — Carl McColman

Episode 17: Notes on Silence
Hosted by: Kevin Johnson
With: Cassidy Hall, Carl McColman
Guest: Patrick Shen
Date Recorded: March 29, 2018

 

Silence and Mysticism (Episode 16)

What role does silence play in mysticism?

That’s the question that launches our conversation this week. Episode 16 is inspired by the recent release of The Little Book of Christian Mysticism, by Carl McColman. But rather than just focus on the new book, we decided to broaden the conversation in this week’s episode to a more general reflection on how silence and mysticism belong together — and influence each other.

We launch our conversation by looking at the problems connected with merely trying to define the word “mysticism” (and related terms  like “experience” and “spirituality”). From there we explore the connection between mysticism, mystery and silence.

“The Christian of the future will be a mystic — which is to say, a Christian who’s comfortable with silence, who’s comfortable with mystery, who’s comfortable with paradox and ambiguity, but who moves into all of that for the sake of love: the love of the Divine, and the love of one another.” — Carl McColman

Our conversation considers how mysticism is misunderstood by both the academic world the world of “pop” spirituality, how mysticism can make a difference even in the context of the institutional crisis in the church today, and how mysticism can be meaningful to the ordinary person today — leading to the radical (but ancient and orthodox) teaching of deification or divinization — what Saint Peter called being “partakers of the Divine nature.”

In our conversation, we explore who are some of Carl’s favorite mystics, how the women mystics of the Middle Ages need to be acknowledged as courageous heroines of the faith, and which mystics ought to be declared doctors of the church.

“Experience is the beginning of mysticism… People will say ‘I am drawn to mysticism because I want an experiential faith.’ I think that’s great! But let that be your starting point, and not your ending point. If the experience of God is the beginning of mysticism, then God’s encounter with you is the end of mysticism.” — Carl McColman

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

“In the ancient church, contemplation was the highest form of rationality. It was when you actually let go of your ideas so that you could have new ideas, you could be open and you could rest and you could listen.” — Kevin Johnson

Episode 16: Silence and Mysticism
Hosted by: Kevin Johnson
With: Cassidy Hall, Carl McColman
Date Recorded: March 29, 2018

Br. Elias Marechal, OCSO: The Silence of a Trappist (Episode 15)

Meet Brother Elias Marechal — Trappist monk, author, contemplative, storyteller, and a man of deep, resplendent silence.

Silence is always there — from the time we’re born it’s there, because it’s in the image of God. — Br. Elias Marechal, OCSO

This episode — a conversation with Brother Elias — is our second Encountering Silence “Field Recording” in which one member of our team (in this case, Carl McColman) records a face-to-face interview with a person whose life is deeply engaged with silence.

Brother Elias Marechal, OCSO, with Carl McColman

Brother Elias is a monk of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, at the edge of the Atlanta suburbs. Born in New Orleans, he is a lifelong spiritual seeker, who after a profound encounter with Divine Mystery while a freshman at Notre Dame, has devoted his life to meditation and to a spiritual practice both deeply rooted in Christian mysticism and yet profoundly embracing the wisdom of all the world’s contemplative paths.

He is the author of two books: Dancing Madly Backwards: A Journey Into God (Crossroad Publishing, 1982) and Tears of an Innocent God: Conversations on Silence, Kindness and Prayer (Paulist Press, 2015). Of the latter book, Thomas Keating says it is “valuable and full of wisdom drawn from the author’s remarkable experience of East and West.” And Cynthia Bourgeault notes, “If you’ve never experienced authentic Trappist sapiential writing before, you’re in for a treat!”

Tears of an Innocent God

Carl McColman has known Brother Elias since 2005, so their conversation carries the warm feel of two old friends. They sat down together at the Monastery guesthouse in November of 2017 to have a wide-ranging conversation about silence, writing, and prayer.

The image of God contains all of God’s qualities and characteristics. The first one is silence. Second, kindness; the third, compassion; then listening with deep respect even to someone with an opposite view, and so forth. And the whole idea is that you’re in this land of unlikeness and then you wake up in some way to the image of God. And you begin this journey, led by the Spirit, through the land of likeness in which, as you go along, all the various characteristics of God begin to unfold… in a simple, easy, and effortless way. — Br. Elias Marechal, OCSO

In the podcast Br. Elias discusses his first encounter with infused contemplation — at the grotto of Notre Dame University, when he was a freshman — and later discovering the complementary practice of acquired contemplation. He also reflects on a near death experience he experienced as a child, about his lifelong quest for purity of heart, on his experience of twenty-five years as a Trappist monk, how silence is an essential element in restoring the image and likeness of God within us, and much more.

He speaks about his early experience learning meditation and how the practice of meditation fostered his own relationship with silence — and how the Holy Spirit carries us through the unfolding of the image and likeness of God within us. He shares  his understanding of the role that breath plays in prayer — particularly the Jesus Prayer — which allows us to let go “into the abyss of the kindness and compassion of God.”

There is silence in heaven, because to communicate with one another, one “transfers” thoughts to another, and the other transfers thoughts to you — and this includes God. It’s very very interesting. So silence is all-pervading in the heavenly kingdom. — Br. Elias Marechal, OCSO

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

Episode 15: The Silence of a Trappist: A Conversation with Br. Elias Marechal, OCSO
Hosted by: Carl McColman
Introduced by: Cassidy Hall
Guest: Br. Elias Marechal, OCSO
Date Recorded: November 10, 2017

Lost in contemplation? Or just two introverts with their eyes closed?

 

Silence and Rhythm (Episode 14)

What is the relationship between silence and rhythm?

Silence as the offbeat: there is no rhythm without the silence. — Cassidy Hall

What are the ways that silence can create rhythm? How can silence enhance the notes of our day; how does silence strain out the noise in our life and directs the way we approach the everyday rhythms of our lives?

I always feel that poetry is like wild language, that it’s language that actually hears the birds, and the wind, and the rippling of the pond, and then is just able to imitate that in human speech… poetry doesn’t care if you notice the words, right? The poet is saying, the words are saying, “If you saw what I saw in my head, if my words were able to give you the vision, then we’re there!” — Kevin Johnson

Our conversation dances between the beat of the heart and the cadence of the lungs; from there we reflect on poets and artists and how both rhythm and silence shape their work; the relationship between silence, rhythm, breath, and prayer; how sometimes the rhythm “falls out” because of self-consciousness (as opposed to the “deeper silence” where we simply relax into a silence akin to forgetting or selfless-consciousness), and how even the difficult times and moments of life might be indicative of simply a bigger rhythm at play.

In between every beat of the heart is a moment of silence. — Carl McColman

And of course, we talk about poetry, and the social ramifications of silence (i.e., how silence subverts our culture’s aggressive materialism) —and much more!

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

For the podcast featuring our friend and co-conspirator Jessica Mesman Griffith, click here: Things Not Seen Podcast #1806: The Communion of Haints 

Episode 14: Silence and Rhythm
Hosted by: 
Kevin Johnson
With:
Cassidy Hall and Carl McColman
Date Recorded: March 5, 2018

Fr. James Martin, SJ: Silence as the Bridge to Christ, the Self and the “Other” (Episode 13)

Fr. James Martin, SJ is the author of numerous books as well as an editor at America magazine. A Jesuit priest, Fr. James has emerged as one of the leading voices for Ignatian spirituality — and Catholicism in general — for our time. He has also become a lightning rod for some segments of the Catholic world — his gentle call for greater dialogue between the Catholic Church and LGBT Catholics has led to social media attacks along with calls for boycotts and cancellations of Fr. Martin’s speaking engagements. Yet he himself remains undeterred, seeking to be a voice for hope and reconciliation in our troubled world.

“We’ve developed this culture of noise and distraction so much, that when people are alone with their thoughts or alone with silence, it’s frightening.” — James Martin, SJ

The Encountering Silence team met Fr. James Martin when he presided at a Mass for a Pax Romana meeting in New York last December that the three of us attended. Several weeks later the four of us gathered via Skype for a rich conversation exploring  the connections between silence, Ignatian spirituality, prayer, spiritual direction, meditation, interspirituality and interfaith dialogue, and how writing (and revising) his book Building a Bridge has made a difference in his own ministry. Fr. James also muses on the essential connections between silence, relationship, and God — and how silence and prayer can help us to overcome fear of “the other.”

Our phones — a friend of mine the other day called them “weapons of mass distraction.” — James Martin, SJ

Incidentally, when we recorded this episode, the release date for the paperback edition of Building a Bridge was scheduled for March 13, 2018. Subsequently, the publisher moved up the release date one week — so the book is available now.

God enjoyed silence when God was on the earth with us.
— Fr. James Martin, SJ

The verse from Ecclesiastes that Carl mentions is Ecclesiastes 3:11: “God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart…” (New International Version)

In terms of prayer and silence, I participate in it ultimately to be in a deeper relationship with God… I meet God in silence, and God speaks to me in silence… God always speaks to me in silence, I just need to be paying attention. — Fr. James Martin, SJ

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Episode 13: Silence as the Bridge to Christ, the Self and the “Other”: A Conversation with Father James Martin, SJ
Hosted by: 
Kevin Johnson
With: 
Carl McColman and Cassidy Hall
Guest: Father James Martin, SJ
Date Recorded: 
January 29, 2018

Silence as Refuge (Episode 12)

When we embrace silence as an alternative to conflict, are we just choosing to escape? Or can silence be a refuge, a temporary or even permanent shelter from the challenges of life? How can we tell the difference between silence-as-refuge and silence-as-escape?

Recognizing the ache that we meet, the ache of the whole  world … that we meet in our silences, right? It reminds us that there’s space there for the whole world. — Cassidy Hall

Silence can be “toxic” when we  refuse to speak to someone in the interest of resolving conflict or managing differences; likewise, silence can be toxic if we enter into it as a way of escaping conflict, or avoiding essential conversations or tasks that require our (verbal) attention.

But an alternative to the toxic quality of silence-as-escape is today’s topic, silence-as-refuge: the recognition that even the most socially and politically engaged activist needs times of retreat, of quiet, of rejuvenation and reflection.

For me what’s important is that the silence circulates even among the words… the word “silence” here is actually pointing to something else: a shift of attention, a refocusing. — Kevin Johnson

Our wide-ranging conversation explores how monasteries can function as “silence refuges,” fostering an ability to love from a place of deep interiority; the relationship between silence and “perfection;” the classroom setting as a venue for silence as a pedagogical strategy; the relationship between loneliness and solitude (aloneness); and much more!

When we’re taking refuge from something, that thing that we’re taking refuge from doesn’t just go away. It’s learning to be patient with the messiness of life, or the brokenness of life, or the wounding of life. — Carl McColman

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Silence as a refuge is necessary;
Silence as a refuge is listening;
Silence as a refuge is cleansing;
Silence as a refuge is the poetry of love.

Episode 12: Silence as Refuge
With: Kevin Johnson and Carl McColman
Date Recorded:
November 27, 2017

Fr. Stephanos Pedrano, OSB: Silence in the Cloister (Episode 11)

This week marks the first Encountering Silence “Field Recording” in which one member of our team (in this case, Cassidy Hall) records a face-to-face interview with a person whose life is deeply engaged with silence. Today’s episode features Cassidy in conversation with a Benedictine monk, Fr. Stephanos Pedrano, OSB.

Cassidy Hall and Fr. Stephanos Pedrano, OSB

Father Stephanos is a monk of Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, California. The Encountering Silence team met Fr. Stephanos online, through a small social media group for artists, writers, and others who explore the intersection between art, spirituality, justice, and authenticity. In that context Fr. Stephanos is a voice of calm, deep spirituality, and good humor. Since he lives so close to Cassidy Hall, it seemed natural for her to pay him a visit, and during her time at the monastery, to record the interview which we are now sharing with you as our 11th episode. Even though this is the third episode to feature an interview on the podcast, it is actually the first interview to have been recorded (back in October of last year).

Fr. Stephanos tells his story, from his early yearning for liturgy and community, to discovering intentional silence through prayer, to eventually discerning his call to monastic life — which in turn took him to the threshold of silence. He reflects on how the wisdom of Saint Benedict has shaped the monastic experience of silence, and the relationship between silence and love. He goes on to talk about Mother Teresa — a modern saint who “suffered” the silence of God, whose voice fell into absence as she responded to her vocation to serve the poorest of the poor.

He explores some of the “silent wisdom” of the Rule of Saint Benedict, such as can be found in Benedict’s twelve steps of humility — which on the surface seems so counterintuitive to the values of our age, but actually points to treasures such as the spiritual beauty of silencing one’s own ego, in response to the love of God. Fr. Stephanos also explores why the word “contemplation” never appears in the Rule of Saint Benedict, and also talks about the heart of lectio divina, the deeply contemplative monastic practice of meditative reading of scripture, and how silence has given him insight into the dynamics of his own personality — and into love.

Monks are men of silence, but they are also men of many words… primarily the Psalms. — Fr. Stephanos Pedranos

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

In the picture we see Cassidy and Fr. Stephanos enjoying a beer from the Almanac Beer Company, a California microbrewery.

Episode 10: Silence in the Cloister: A Conversation with Fr. Stephanos Pedrano, OSB
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
Introduced by: Kevin Johnson
Guest: Fr. Stephanos Pedrano, OSB
Date Recorded: October 25, 2017

 

Valentines Day & Ash Wednesday — Silence & Paradox (Episode 10)

For this episode, we felt drawn to reflect on a couple of “liturgical paradoxes” coming up now and in April: that the Christian holy day of Ash Wednesday corresponds to Valentine’s Day; and that Easter Sunday falls on All Fools’ Day, April 1.

Valentine’s Day originated as a Christian memorial (for Saint Valentine), but in its secularized form it is a day for celebrating romantic love — complete with flowers, a nice dinner out, and of course, plenty of chocolate. But this flies in the face of the meaning and observance of Ash Wednesday — as the first day of the penitential season of Lent, Ash Wednesday is a solemn occasion for reflecting on our mortality (“remember that you are dust”), our sinfulness or woundedness, and — at least in some traditions — is a day for fasting — hardly conducive to indulging in sweets!

Of course, even without the religious overlay, Valentine’s Day can be paradoxical even on its own — as a day of sorrow for those who are lonely, or bereaved, or even navigating a relationship where love is absent.

How do we hold these paradoxes together? Could silence be a key to finding a way to honor both the pleasures of love and the invitation to self-forgetfulness?

“Paradox is paradoxical only to the linear, self-conscious mind,” says Maggie Ross in her recently published book Silence: A User’s Guide, Volume Two: Application. She goes on to consider an alternative to the limitations of the linear mind, which she calls “deep mind.” “Deep mind is inclusive, what ancient writers refer to as the place of unity. Its ways of thinking are holistic, even holographic.”

“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”  — attributed to Niels Bohr

Put another way: perhaps paradox is itself a gift, a reminder that there’s more to our minds (and our capacity to know and to understand) than the limitations imposed by language and linear thought. Perhaps when we try to make sense of how to hold a paradox like Valentine’s Day falling on Ash Wednesday gently and authentically, we are invited into a place of deeper and higher knowing — and the portal to that place is not logic or language but simply silence.

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Another poem we didn’t mention in the podcast, but that deserves a shout out here, is Walter Brueggemann’s “Marked by Ashes” (from his book Prayers for a Privileged People). Also check out Thomas Merton’s thoughts on paradox in The Sign of Jonas

Like the prophet Jonas, whom God ordered to go to Nineveh, I found myself with an almost uncontrollable desire to go in the opposite direction. God pointed one way and all my “ideals” pointed in the other. It was when Jonas was traveling as fast as he could away from Nineveh, toward Tharsis, that he was thrown overboard, and swallowed by a whale who took him where God wanted him to go…But I feel that my own life is especially sealed with this great sign, which baptism and monastic profession and priestly ordination have burned into the roots of my being, because like Jonas himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox. — Thomas Merton

Episode 10: Silence & Paradox: Ash Wednesday & Valentine’s Day
Hosted by:
Cassidy Hall
With:
Kevin Johnson and Carl McColman
Date Recorded:
February 9, 2018

Header Photo by Cathal Mac an Bheatha on Unsplash

A Podcast