Tuesday 21 November 2023


 Geoff Watson of the Marazion Quaker Meeting House pressed Richard Rohr's book - 'silent compassion - finding God in contemplation' into my hand recently and said that he was donating this work to the library and I should read it. He was right to recommend it. First published in the USA in 2014 and now in the UK in 2022, it is a wonderful read for all but perhaps profoundly so for Quakers. Richard Rohr, OFM, is a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founding Director of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He has authored numerous books, including six published here by SPCK. 'silent compassion' (sic) is very much a Quaker book; Rohr's wisdom is George Fox's and all those since who have found the Spirit in community silence.

Father Richard Rohr

It is a short book, 78 pages in length and divided into five chapters:

  1. Finding God in the Depths of Silence
  2. Sacred Silence, Pathway to Compassion 
  3. The True Self is Compassion, Love Itself
  4. Looking Out in Prayer with Contemplative Eyes
  5. The Path to Non-Dual Thinking 
One message I have taken from the book is that we need to use fewer words and take care not to over-think; we come closer to the essence of life and ourselves through meditative silence. My usual format of bullet-points will therefore serve well to give you a precis of the wisdom of Richard Rohr.

  •  In his introduction, Father Richard outlines his belief in the Trinity whist stressing the oneness of the Divine. He cites the wisdom of  the Christian mystic Lady Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) three times: 
  • "By myself I am nothing at all, but in general, I AM in the oneing of love. For it is in this oneing that the life of all people exists." 
  • "The love of God creates in us such a oneing that when it is truly seen, no person can separate themselves from another person." 
  • "In the sight of God all humans are oned, and one person is all people and all people are in one person." 
  • For Richard Rohr, this is the perennial tradition, the ultimate truth about the Divine that has always been part of the Revelation shaping the Christian faith - and the faith of other religions too. 
  • Father Richard is well aware of what he calls the "deterioration of culture" all around us - for him, consumerism has some very unhealthy features. What we need is a vital counterweight: we need to learn the value of silence, to experience inner silence as "the essence of simple and stripped down", to see silence as "a living presence of itself, which is... primal, and then to see all other things - now experienced deeply - inside of that container."
  • Rohr offers this telling polarity: "The soul does not use words. It surrounds words with space, and that is what I mean by silence. The ego, on the other hand, uses words to get what it wants."    
  • "Silence is a kind of wholeness... It can absorb paradoxes and contradictions. Maybe that is why we do not like silence. There is nothing to argue about in true inner silence... It comes down to this: the ego loves something it can take sides on... this common tendency is dualistic thinking - and true interior silence really does not allow you to take sides." 
  • Someone who lives in a capitalist culture like we do, where everything is about competing and comparing and winning, may well find silence counter-intuitive.
  • Non-dual thinking is precisely contemplation.
  • We are now at the end of centuries of endless Christian argumentation which the world no longer listens to anymore. When we lose the contemplative mind, or non-dual consciousness, we invariably create disturbed and disturbing people who may turn to violence. Our school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, says Father Richard, is trying to reintroduce the West to what we call the Perennial Tradition, the underground stream we all share. 

Richard Rohr presents a compelling case that sacred silence is the pathway to compassion, to sacred love. This was the way of George Fox. It is the Christian Way, as expressed in 1 John 4: 16: "God is love and anyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in them."  

All this leads to Father Richard's conclusion that the true self is compassion, in another word love itself. The 'true self' is an expression of Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the American Catholic Trappist monk, who did so much to awaken the Catholic Church to the importance of peace and the universality of the Divine. Buddhist understanding, for Merton, was vital to a true Catholic faith. Rohr, from his Trinitarian position says: 'The True Self must be awakened and chosen... just as the Holy Spirit is totally given and given equally to all; but it must be received, too'.  

Thomas Merton is the man in the middle; Robert Lax, Merton's life-time friend with similar beliefs, is the man in the white shirt. Louise and I became aware of the presence of Robert Lax on the holy island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea when we first became summer visitors in 1988 - see this blogpost of mine that celebrates Lax and his increasingly minimalist poetry - press here.  

In his section concerned with looking out in prayer with contemplative eyes, Richard Rohr addresses the matter of mysticism. Mystical encounters are for everyone - you don't need to have practised meditation for decades. They are an intuitive grasp of the whole and by the whole. They are an intimation of God - for God is another word for the heart of everything. 

I love Rohr's judgement that mystics can love their enemies, the foreigner, the outsider because they don't make the distinctions that low-level religions do. Such low-level religion is "more tribal, a social construct to hold an individual group together." Father Richard insists that he means no disrespect but he points out that if the experience of God is dependent on formal sacramental ministry from ordained clergy, then 99.9 per cent of creation has no chance of knowing or loving God. Furthermore, if the clergy themselves have not made the necessary spiritual journey, how can they possibly guide you?   

You don't find happiness by seeking happiness because that leaves you too self-centred. Ego-consciousness is still steering the ship. Deep contentment is something you drop into - true happiness is much more in the realm of gift and surprise, like an alighting dove or a tongue of fire, which is why these metaphors abound in the Bible in descriptions of the Holy Spirit. 

We need to develop an alternative consciousness which means letting go of what our social worlds have conditioned us to do: to solve problems, to fix things, to rearrange matters. Another mind is always already there waiting. And alternative behaviour also helps create the alternative mind. "We do not think ourselves into a a new way of living, but we live ourselves into new ways of thinking". That's one of the core principles at the Living School of Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  

Lax wrote his poetry in an ever-more minimalist style - stripping down the words to find the essence.

My wife, Louise, remembers seeing Robert Lax, walking along the water-front at Skala, the harbour port of Patmos, at the end of the nineteen-eighties. Her own textile art journey has entered a minimalist phase. Here is her tribute to Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, who wore the black for the poor and beaten down: 

Black Minimalism - a tribute to Johnny Cash, the Man in Black

Grey Minimalism - the Power of Potential

Geoff Watson who introduced the wisdom of Richard Rohr to me also shared this prayer-poem which is based on a 16th century Frankfurt prayer:

Lord, today, teach me to listen.

Lord, teach me the silence of humility,
the silence of wisdom, 
the silence of love, 
the silence that speaks without words, 
the silence of faith.

Saviour, teach me to silence my heart
that I may listen to the gentle movement
of the Holy Spirit within me 
and come to know and live from the depths
which are God today and always.

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