Conversatio Divina

Part 3 of 16

The Greatest Art Form: Action & Contemplation

Richard Rohr & Gary W. Moon

“I die by brightness and the Holy Spirit”
Thomas Merton“Mary Compared to a Window” by Thomas Merton © 1944.

01.  Introduction

I dare to call action birthed from contemplation the greatest art form because I believe it is. It underlies all those other, more visible art forms we see in great sculpture, music, writing, painting, and most especially in the art form called human character. When these two (action and contemplation) are one, the result is always beauty, symmetry, and transformative form—lives and actions that inherently sparkle and heal.

With most people the process of uniting contemplation and action begins on the “action” side. It is surely this way for the first half of life for almost all of us, even introverts. We learn, experiment, try, do, stumble, fall, break, and find. It is largely done in the outer world of activity, starting with crawling, walking, playing, and speaking. The stage gradually gets larger for these “enactments,” but we are still constructing our own good stage on which to perform. (We just don’t know it yet!) Yes, there are inner thoughts, feelings, and imaginings during this time, maybe even sustained study, prayer, or disciplined thought, but do not call them contemplation. These are necessarily and almost always self-referential, both for good and for ill. Do not be put off by this, but at this point in our lives, it is still largely about “me” and finding my own preferred and proper viewing platform. These first steps toward true contemplation have to be, and they are good. But they are not yet the great, much less the greatest, art form of the union between action and contemplation that we want to talk about here. We must go further.

We can expand because of our actions and reflections, or we can use them to contract. The teaching and guidance needed early on are about process more than content. How can I see and use my action and my reflections to expand and not to contract? How can I listen for God and learn God’s voice more than God’s precise name and plan? How can I keep my heart, mind, and soul open “in hell”? This should be the early form of spiritual teaching: not what to see nearly as much as how to see; process, not content.

I am afraid this focus on process usually cannot be taught in book or catechism form; it is picked up largely by rubbing off parents and significant others. Could this be the real “laying on of hands,” the deepest meaning of “apostolic succession”? Could this be the way the Spirit is passed from vessel to vessel? I personally think so.

But if such soul work is learned, usually by osmosis, one will keep growing—and the contemplative side of the soul will begin to show itself. There are already “hints and guesses,” as T.S. Eliot would put it, early in the first half of life; and some chosen souls, like Therese of Lisieux or Gerard Manley Hopkins, seem to get the hints and make the guesses. But for most of us, it is a longer process of being drawn by “brightness and the Holy Spirit,” as Merton says.

Yet note that he says he “dies” by this brightness because, although we are pulled into the Mystery through our actions and beyond our actions in the first half of life, it will be felt and experienced as a kind of dying. And yet it is a dying into what always feels bigger and brighter.

So first of all, contemplation is a series of losses, largely of our illusions. If the early process of “how” did not go deep, we will use all incoming data (read “actions”) to defend ourselves, protect ourselves from our shadow, and build a leaden manhole cover over our unconscious. We will settle for being “right” instead of being holy and whole, saying prayers instead of being one.

Remember, the ego wants only containment and control. Only the soul wants meaning and mystery. In fact, that is how you can tell the difference between whether it is your ego leading you, or “brightness and the Holy Spirit”! If I have not found a way to hear and allow that deeper level of soul, I will use all my roles, my relationships, and even my religion to fortify my ego and my private agenda. I might even say a lot of prayers, but they will not be the spacious world of contemplation. They will be dualistic and drawn-out devotions, always needing another one because the past one did not work. The “Unified Field” has not yet opened up. The Brightness has not yet happened. Remember Jesus’ asking, “Why do you babble on like the pagans?” That’s where we still are, somehow thinking more is better when the exact opposite is true: in the spiritual life, less is always more.

Contemplation waits for the moments, creates the moments, where all can be a prayer. It refuses the very distinction between action and contemplation. Contemplation is essentially non-dual consciousness, which overcomes the gaps between God and me, outer and inner, either and or, you and me. The reason why the true contemplative-in-action is still somewhat rare is that most of us, even and most especially in religion, have gained a Ph.D. in dualistic thinking. And then we try to use that limited tool for prayer, problem, or relationship. It cannot and will not get you very far.

Yes, we are led forward by “brightness,” and by that I mean a “Larger Force Field” that includes the negative, the problematic, the difficult, the unknown, that which I do not yet understand, and the Mysterious, which God always is. Brightness is not into the exclusion or denial of anything.

The irony of ego “consciousness” is that it always excludes and eliminates the unconscious—so it is actually not conscious at all! It insists on “knowing,” being certain, and refuses all unknowing. So most people who think they are fully conscious (read “smart”) have that big leaden manhole cover over their unconscious. It gives them control but seldom compassion or wisdom. That is exactly why politicians, “priests,” and CEOs of anything will predictably continue to fail and fall as the Inner Mystery continues to show itself through them and to them.

The beauty of the unconscious is that it knows a great deal, whether personal or collective, but it always knows that it does not know, cannot say, dares not try to prove or assert too strongly because what it does know is that there is always more—and all words will fall short.

The contemplative is precisely the person who agrees to live in that kind of “brightness.” The paradox, of course, is that it does not feel like brightness at all, but what John of the Cross calls a “luminous darkness” or others call “learned ignorance.”

In summary, you cannot grow in the great art form, the integration of action and contemplation, without (1) a strong tolerance for ambiguity, (2) an ability to allow, forgive, and contain a certain degree of anxiety, and (3) a willingness not to know and not even to need to know. This is how you allow and encounter Mystery. All else is mere religion.

Of course, you can do this only if Someone Else is holding you in such dying; if Someone Else is taking away your fear; if Someone Else is doing the knowing; if Someone Else is a really great and satisfying Lover! If you can allow that Someone Else to have his way with you, you will go back to your life of action with new vitality, but it will now be one smooth flow. It will be “no longer you” who acts or contemplates, but the Life of One who lives in you (Galatians 2:20), now acting for you and with you and as you!

Henceforth, it does not even matter whether you act or contemplate, contemplate or act, because both will be inside the One Flow that is still and forever loving and healing the world.

02.  A Brief Conversation with Richard Rohr

Gary W. Moon: Richard, I greatly enjoyed your essay. And if you don’t mind, I would love to ask you just a few follow-up questions

Richard Rohr: Fire away.

GWM: What motivated you to choose “Center for Contemplation and Action” as the name for your ministry—what was the most central element of the founding vision?

RR: Actually, you made a common mistake. That is not the name of the center.

GWM: Wait a minute; I’ll need to make sure I’m talking to the right Richard Rohr. Do you have a long brown robe?

RR: I think you have the right Rohr. But I deliberately put the word action first when I founded the center here in 1986; we are the Center for Action and Contemplation because I do not believe you have anything to contemplate or any depth of contemplation until you have acted, risked, failed, loved deeply, sinned, been forgiven more than few times, and moved outside of your comfort zone a few times.

GWM: Yes, it is fascinating to me that I did that—I had even double-checked the website and still reversed it. I guess I’m that tied to the notion of contemplation as the starting point.

RR: Well, you are not the first. But I found that the common language of “deepening my prayer life” and “going on retreat” can often stop right there, and you never get to any actual engagement or action, but just more retreats to deepen your prayer life! So our bias is to work primarily with people who are already “doers” somehow, and then you help them to deepen that doing, integrate that action, and connect the dots of their life with God, grace, and inner experience. Twenty-four years later, I am convinced it was the correct decision. These are the people who heal the world because they have accepted the healing within themselves first.

GWM: Thank you, Richard. You wove Merton’s provocative phrase, dying “by brightness and the Holy Spirit,” throughout your essay. What, more specifically, are you suggesting will die in contemplative prayer?

RR: When you stand inside of the Big Light, your illusions “die” or fall away. It lures you into a much bigger world.

GWM: Which illusions—illusions of our ego, illusions that life apart from God is possible and desirable? And by “bigger world” do you mean life in the kingdom of God?

RR: The illusions that we all must face are things like our own superiority, our worthiness, our supposed maturity, and our idealized altruism. Again and again we must see that they are not true! Both Paul and Francis were sincere when they said they were “less than the least” (Ephesians 3:8), because the closer you get to the light, the more of your shadow self you always see. Without the brightness of the Spirit you would never proceed. The spiritual journey is constant “shadowboxing” with one’s own pretensions and those rejected and denied parts of the self that keep coming up for air.

GWM: And the kingdom of God part?

RR: Yes, I do mean “kingdom of God,” but not in the sense of an afterlife or heaven. But the way Jesus used it, and as we pray in the Our Father, as something that happens “on earth as it is in heaven.” So kingdom consciousness necessarily comes into conflict with any kingdoms we have built here: our own agenda, our own country, any imperial worldviews, our own religion, etc. That is the “Bigger World” that always demands we surrender our smaller worlds.

GWM: Okay, then, one last thing before we leave this area. Richard, would you help us understand how one dies by brightness. How has that worked in your own life?

RR: So that this does not remain theoretical or impossible, let me give you an example of “dying by brightness.” It is not what you don’t know that asks much of you; it is what you do know clearly, even at a subliminal level, that drives your life and allows you to include death as a part of that life. It is what you cannot not know, what is written within you, that determines your final direction and destiny. Because I clearly know that Jesus clearly taught love of the poor, the outsider, and “the stranger,” I have had to adjust my politics, my attitude toward people who are not like me, the way I schedule my calendar, and the way I spend or do not spend my money. That very “brightness” has been my ongoing death—to my little ego agenda, my American agenda, and even my Catholic agenda. It would be so much easier to be dull to the Gospel than bear the burden of its brightness and clarity.

GWM: So, accepting deeply what you know, know from Scripture, makes you more willing to die to the demands of the agenda of your smaller self, your ego.

RR: Yes, exactly.

GWM: I believe I read in some of your other writings that you believe Paul was referring to “ego” when he used the word “flesh.” Do you mind unpacking that a bit more?

RR: I am increasingly convinced in studying passage after passage in Paul’s letters that he is pointing to approximately the same reality that Freud termed the ego, but he uses the very unfortunate word flesh, which for most of us connotes physicality. That is not the point! Fortunately, some translations, like the Jerusalem Bible, have used other words like “self-indulgence” instead of “flesh.”

The ego self that has to die is that autonomous, controlling, self-sufficient part of us that inherently wars against both soul and Spirit and hates all change, just as Paul says (e.g., Galatians 5:16–20). It wants to be the whole show. If you understand flesh to mean embodiment, you get right back into the dualism that has trapped us for so long: whereas “ego” allows us to recognize there is a good and necessary meaning to ego, and there is also an ego self that avoids communion, change, and death at all costs. That is always the main problem. In short, you can be sensate or sensuous and not be egocentric at all. You can be a chaste virgin and be a total narcissist.

GWM: Do you think that the “false self” and “ego” are synonymous?

RR: No. I think the ego has a good side and a bad side. But false self, as I use it, is a larger reality than ego. It is neither good nor bad of itself. It’s only a problem when we think it is the only self, and we take it too seriously and let it steer the ship. So “false self” and “ego” overlap a great deal but are not exactly the same. You must “die” to your ego or yourself as a central reference point for anything. But you do not really die to your false self; you just stop believing it and its false promises and rewards because you have met your true self, and you now have a much better alternative! You need to make use of your false self, however, every time you operate from a role, a title, a needed job description, a chosen self-image. For example, I am a “speaker” this moment. That is not bad, but it is not my “I AM,” and I had best not identify with it too much, or I will be trapped inside it. The false self does work together with ego, however, to take over and keep us from surrendering to the true self in God.

GWM: Why—in other writings—do you refer to the “tree of Life” as contemplation?

RR: I use the metaphor in The Naked Now.

GWM: Yes, I tried to buy that book, but Barnes and Noble had it misshelved.

RR: What?

GWM: Sorry, just a naked joke. Please go on.

RR: Hmm. In The Naked Now, I based that comment on the highly symbolic usage in the book of Genesis where two trees are compared in the garden, the tree of personal choosing and deciding, which is called the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (2:9) and the “tree of life.” The first tree we must not eat of because it lets us define ourselves by our preferences, which leaves us both egocentric and dualistic, incapable of subtlety or discernment, and un-needy of any inner journeys of prayer.

Contemplation is the different mind that does not begin with preferences, but receives and includes the whole as it is. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Prius vita quam doctrina” (De Anima, II, 37), or life itself is a larger category than doctrine or even morality. Contemplation is the tree of life because it receives the whole unified field of the moment as it is, and does not give in to the temptation to eliminate that which is problematic, difficult, mysterious, or demanding. It is not dualistic. The tree of life must always include death and mystery, or it would not be the tree of life.

GWM: Thank you, and just one final non sequitur question. What do you mean when you say prayer is resonance?

RR: Basically, I am trying to say that in the spiritual life, and surely in prayer, we are always the respondents and never the initiators. When we pray, we are only “seconding” the first motion that was always made by God.

GWM: As always, Richard, you have given us much to think about. Thank you for being so generous with your time.



Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest who serves as the animator and founder of the center for action and contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. for more information on Richard and his work, visit

Gary W. Moon, vice president and chair of integration at Richmont Graduate university, founded (with David Benner and Larry Crabb) Conversations Journal, directs the international Renovaré institute for Christian spiritual formation and has authored several books, including his most recent, Apprenticeship With Jesus: Learning to Live like the Master (Baker).