Practicing Awareness, with Richard Rohr

I’ve recently been reading Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now, another of his many books and resources for contemplative spirituality. These days I acknowledge my bent toward contemplation (but please don’t mistake me for a devotee of Schleiermacher), just as I grow stronger in my confessional identity (thanks to Luther and Melancthon). And so, I admit to entertaining Rohr somewhat skeptically. I don’t love his overt weaving of non-Christian theology into his take on Christian spirituality. I suppose that’s borne from my feelings that so many people kidnap Scripture and weave embedded theologies that seem so self-destructive. I hate to bring in non-Christian sources when we can’t even seem to get Scripture right.

Yet, I do recognize the importance of keeping somewhat open-minded, in order to discover elements from Rohr that can have rich meaning for my own experience of faith. With that, I was reading Rohr’s Appendix 4 – “Practicing Awareness.” He offers a 4-step method for a form of centering prayer, and I felt so moved to reflect on it here.

Step 1 – With your senses (not so much your mind), focus on one single object until you stop fighting it or resisting it with other concerns.

This reminds me of lectio divina, which continues to be a meaningful faith practice for me. A basic form of lectio divina is to repeatedly read a passage in a meditative fashion, allowing particular words to stand out and draw my attention. The repetition somehow addresses my tendency to overthink or to obsess over whatever’s going on in my day. It’s not a cure for distraction, but sometimes I rediscover the focus I wish I could summon at will. And while I don’t think it’s a universal understanding of lectio divina, I think the words that stand out to me are a special experience of the Word of God transmitting to me through Scripture. As God still speaks, God always has a Word for me, and for all people.

This also reminds me of staring at a printed word, until it ceases to mean anything anymore. It just becomes a bunch of symbols. Surely I’m not the only person who ever experienced that. It’s almost like trying to remember how to spell a word, and realizing that you’re thinking too hard about it. Ultimately it’s like the unraveling of the tenuous connection between image and meaning. And then, I can consider whether the meaning was mine alone, or inherited from my culture.

And then, something I don’t like, is that Rohr makes a connection between this and Eckhart Tolle’s “power of now.” Similarly, I don’t care for Scripture’s treasure imagery. In a world dazzled by material possessions, it feels like dangling the carrot of equivalence to woo people to faith, whether it’s “power”, or “riches”, or whatever one’s god just happens to be.

What captivates me about the Gospel is that I believe it shows me the truth of the world as it really is. All the riches in the world will not satisfy, and I can perceive that even in my own life. Similarly, the Gospel sees triumph and resurrection in the apparent epic fail of Christ’s crucifixion. Separating word (cross) from meaning (salvation). I feel like my understanding of the Gospel has a realness to it that frees me from having to defend or prove it. And in turn, it becomes a story that I can freely offer to others, in the possibility that it can become the same for them. I see the Gospel as teaching me that things are not as they seem, and very often that “seeming” is the meaning I have constructed.

Step 2 – You must choose not to judge the object in any way, attach to it, reject it as meaningless, like it, or dislike it. This is merely the need of the ego to categorize and control and define itself by preferences.

I think this continues my thought of the Gospel. We tend to avoid what we dislike, and embrace what we like. The personalized Internet gives us a filtered worldview, and makes our avoidance so easy. I think the key word of this step 2 is “preferences.” Ultimately, the God of dichotomy and contradiction (also covenant and promise-keeping) places us in a world that reflects God’s own image. I think we ultimately cannot deny the reality of those things we seek to avoid. As I don’t want to live a lie, I must learn to approach the things I would avoid, to separate word from meaning, and see those things for what they really are.

This reminds me of Paul. One day he ceased to just be the “women keep your heads covered, and silent” guy, and became more than that for me.

Step 3 – “Listen” to the object and allow it to speak to you. Allow a simple dialogue to happen. Speak back to it with respect and curiosity. You will thus learn to stop “objectifying” things as merely for your own compensation, control, or use.

This is not just about people and sex. Beyond that, this is a chance to use my imagination. As I take in the reality of facets like shape, texture, color, temperature, and so on, I can use my imagination to consider how God might be speaking through those details, when I begin to see an object as it really is. Somehow this makes me think of environmental theology. We look at the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, and imagine the grandeur of the God responsible for it. But how do we know that we’re really not just worshiping a god of our own creation, born in our romantic interpretation of the Grand Canyon?

Rather, what can the reality of the Grand Canyon tell us about God? The deep chasm between territories? The sharp disruption of nearby forests? When we really see something like the Grand Canyon in all its excruciating detail on multiple levels, we begin to see dimensions to God that speak to the disruptions and brokenness in our lives that leave us grieving and wandering.

This also reminds me of having recently read Pastor Rob Saler’s article The Church’s Mission in a World without Nature:

http://www.mcsletstalk.org/15.2/the-churchs-mission-in-a-world-without-nature

He speaks about our anthropocentric tendencies in interpreting nature. And, what of seeing God’s hand in human-created structures and objects? If we begin to consider the possibility of being “created co-creators” with God, we can wonder what Word of God spoke to a creator, in turn speaking to us when we observe the object as it is. I think the leap to “created co-creators” lends a tremendous hopefulness to this entire activity.

Step 4 – A kind of contented spaciousness and silence will normally ensue. This is a form of nondual consciousness. Only after the fact does one look back and realize that it was a holy/whole moment. If you do it during the moment itself, it spoils the pure experience, because ego with its judgements and attachments has reentered the scene.

As I run out of steam here, I think this idea of taking myself and my constructed meanings out of the experience of an object, leaves room for God to speak and to work, thereby turning the experience into a holy moment. Though God speaks regardless whether I make space for it. But if I stop proof-texting, and seeking to justify myself, I do leave room for conscious engagement with God’s Word. And that will continue to shape who I know myself to be.

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