The way up is the way down


by Michael K. Holleran

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02282014p20pha.jpgYES, AND ...: DAILY MEDITATIONS
By Richard Rohr
Published by Franciscan Media, $24.99

Truth is paradoxical. In fact, the closer one dives into spiritual truth, or inner truth, the more paradoxical it becomes. The portals open to mystery and to the reconciliation of opposites.

This basic axiom is what Peter Abelard affirmed in the 12th century with his famous treatise "Sic et Non" ("Yes and No"), and what Richard Rohr claims in his new book, Yes, and ... : Daily Meditations. Notice that Rohr's title is not "Yes and No" or "Yes, but ...," two clichéd expressions open to misinterpretation. "Yes, and ..." reminds us that both poles are "yes" dancing in a non-resolution (signified by the title's ellipsis), which anticipates an ever-greater leap into a mystery that can never be adequately defined.

Rohr's best observations are always aphoristic and incisive, reflecting not mere intellectual cleverness, but profound contemplative experience. In this volume, the "meat is nicely cut up into small pieces," as David Benner remarks in the foreword. In fact, these brief meditations are more or less a collection of the daily email reflections that Rohr has been sending out to his subscribers over the past year. They are arranged under seven headings, with 52 meditations in each category, to offer nourishment every day of the year.

Rohr himself explains and justifies his hermeneutic in a short introduction, claiming with good reason that he is interpreting the Scriptures much as Jesus did himself. He notes, "Jesus consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary, punitive, and triumphalistic texts in his own Jewish Bible in favor of passages that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and honesty."

The seven underlying themes all evoke, and build upon, the central insight that "everything belongs" (the fourth theme, and title of Rohr's earlier book on contemplation). Plunging more deeply into their mysteries is not a spiritual luxury, as we quickly see, but a crucial challenge. Thus, the first theme cautions that experience is to be taken seriously, along with Scripture and tradition. This insight derails religion's tendency to blind dogmatism or fundamentalism, the source of so much havoc today.

Stemming from and leading to this, the third theme boldly proclaims that there is only one seamless reality, the luminous Ladder of Being (as Medieval mystics/theologians called it), in which the distinction between natural and supernatural, sacred and profane, is exposed as ultimately and radically false. Theologians as diverse as Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar have all pointed out the problems with such dichotomies -- and got into trouble for it. Nonetheless, insistence on such spiritual schizophrenia has wrought inestimable damage on many levels, and only a narrow clericalism has any interest in maintaining it.

However central the previous insight, an even more critical one is the fifth: "The separate self is the problem, whereas most religion and most people make the shadow self the problem. This leads to denial, pretending, and projecting, instead of real transformation into the divine." Such clever diversion of attention perpetuates the reign of the ego: It feels superior by suppressing bodily passions, and meanwhile, in cruel isolation, seeks power, prestige and possessions, even within ecclesial life. As Rohr has noted, we have been "mortifying" the wrong thing for 2,000 years!

This brings us to the next startling realization: The way up is the way down. The sixth theme states: "Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines." Even this belongs! These are hard lessons, though many primitive initiation rites and contemporary addiction recovery programs have proven to understand it well. How could we, who worship a tortured man on a cross, miss this? The ego managed to turn even this icon into atonement and satisfaction theories.

So, if death is life, darkness light, and weakness strength, then the ultimate truth (and Rohr's seventh theme) is: "Reality is paradoxical and complementary. Non-dual thinking is the highest level of consciousness. Divine union, not private perfection, is the goal of all religion." This leads us full circle to the title of the current volume: Yes, and ...

Rohr's pungent insights are a bitter and soothing balm for our wounded souls and world. That they seem so strange, shocking and counterintuitive only proves how poorly we have understood our own tradition, and grievously deformed it. The loss of this contemplative eye, he suggests, is what created wars of religion, whereas "non-duality" is recognized more and more as the meeting point of all traditions. Whether we, and religion, can survive depends on our finally getting the message right.

[Michael K. Holleran is a priest of the New York archdiocese, a Zen sensei and a former Carthusian monk.]

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 28-March 13, 2014 print issue under the headline: The way up is the way down.

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