Sonja LivingstonAugust 20, 2021
Franciscan Father Richard Rohr poses for a photo with Oprah Winfrey on the set of "Super Soul Sunday" during the taping of the show Nov. 12, 2014.

I really hoped I would be holy by now. Or, if not holy, at least tilted a little more obviously in the direction of heaven. Instead, I am pulled off the road near the New York State Thruway just south of Rochester beside a strip of land overgrown with plants and straddled by power lines. Except for a rough path cut by ATVs and utility trucks, the field is wild. Since I discovered the place years ago, it has become a favorite hiking spot when I am home. And I am home. Just like everyone else. It is September of 2020 and we are still in lockdown.

Today is no ordinary quarantine day. It is my final day in the Living School, which is typically marked with a ceremony in New Mexico. Started in 2013, the Living School began as a program of the Center for Action and Contemplation, founded in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1987 by the renowned Catholic priest Richard Rohr, O.F.M. The school offers an accessible but thorough examination of the Christian contemplative tradition by combining online study with in-person symposiums.

Since its beginning, 984 students have completed the intensive two-year program, which includes units on topics such as non-dual consciousness, mystical traditions and human and cosmic incarnation. Students explore mystics like Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross alongside more contemporary figures like Thomas Merton, Etty Hillesum and Teilhard de Chardin. One of our first handouts was a five-page timeline of mystics and non-dual thinkers ranging from Buddha and Heraclitus to the 14th Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King Jr.

When I started the program back in 2018, I watched that years’ cohort cross a conference center stage, certain that, even if I did not quite manage holiness by program’s end, at least I would be in Albuquerque, sipping margaritas and posing for group photos with the 150 other members of my class. But when Covid-19 struck, much that seemed certain fell away. Now, instead of walking a stage at the Hotel Albuquerque, I’ve settled on a hike to mark the passage and am stumbling over hummocky grass and divots of mud, more earthbound than ever.

A few hundred yards to my left, semi trucks rumble along the Thruway. Behind me, cars zip past on a local road. A potato chip bag is caught in the metal gate. A crow caws from a nearby tree. A few years ago I found a deer skeleton here, hit, no doubt, by a passing car. Nothing is immediately pretty as I start out on the path. If I didn’t know better, I would have driven by like everyone else. But I do know better.

The Great Lakes lend the region the sort of humidity and tangled lushness normally reserved for more southerly climates. Cattails and plumed grasses grow in vigorous stands while wild grapevines wind their way up trees and “No Hunting” signs. As kids we called them monkey vines and chewed the sour nectar from fleshy green tendrils.

I think again of Albuquerque and feel a pang over missing the in-person sessions with my Living School teachers. But I remember what Jim Finley, a faculty member, said two days ago in his Zoom lecture, quoting the Trappist monk Thomas Merton: You cannot love and live on your own terms. Finley’s wife had recently passed away after a long illness, and he was clearly referring to losses greater than ceremonial gatherings. Still, our rituals matter. We would not perform them if they didn’t. This is what I am thinking as I head deeper into the field where the crickets and meadow katydids—even the buzzing power lines—weave a tapestry of sound.

The Ever-Present Longing for God

I had applied to Living School primarily to study with Father Rohr. After returning to Mass and rediscovering the beauty of the Catholic tradition a few years before, I longed for a more intensive prayer life and a better grounding in our contemplative heritage. I had heard Father Rohr’s name since I was a teen. His teaching influenced many people in my childhood church. He had even visited the parish a few times in the late 1980s. While I do not remember his lectures from my childhood, I do remember how captivated the adults were by his teaching. Now, nearly 40 years later, I am just as smitten.

Father Rohr is wildly intelligent, light-hearted, humble and unfailingly generous.

I am not alone. Bono is a fan. So is Oprah. Father Rohr has written countless books and was profiled last year in The New Yorker. His most recent book, The Universal Christ, was a New York Times best seller. His daily meditations are sent to hundreds of thousands of inboxes around the world. When I heard him speak at the Chautauqua Institute in New York two summers ago, the line to meet him stretched for hours. My friend, a regular at Chautauqua, says he had never seen anything like it.

A master teacher, Rohr is wildly intelligent, light-hearted, humble and unfailingly generous. While his take on the Gospel often appears radical, I have noticed that Father Rohr does not necessarily preach a different message from others. But the message bypasses the moralistic and is grounded first and foremost in love.

Father Rohr understands the ever-present human longing for God even and especially as the culture increasingly moves away from organized religion. The latest Gallup poll shows that the number of people in the United States claiming religious membership has dipped below 50 percent for the first time—with younger adults leading the exodus. Father Rohr is exceedingly popular with Boomers and older Generation Xers like myself. But younger people also throng to the Living School, which offers an alternative or, depending on one’s stance, an enhancement to institutional religion. Of the Catholics (practicing and lapsed) I met in the program, many had been hurt by or were looking for a way beyond the rigidity relative to sexuality and gender that has too often marked our experience of practiced Christian tradition.

 

The Contemplative Tradition

Along with a focus on his Franciscan tradition and especially its Alternative Orthodoxy, which stresses lived experience over stated belief, the spirituality of imperfection is one of Father Rohr’s most consistent teachings. Invoking the symbol of the cross to illustrate how Jesus modeled the path of descent as the way to salvation, Father Rohr emphasizes the need to let go of all we think we know and face our very powerlessness in order to make room for God and new life. Related to this teaching, and just as central, is the idea of non-dual thinking, which amounts to allowing that most of what we tend to categorize as good or bad, Black or white, actually encompasses qualities of both. Loss, for example, while painful and not an experience most of us ever seek, often offers a path back to God.

While he is both founder and academic dean, Richard Rohr is not the Living School’s only teacher. The scholar and Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault and the ex-monk, clinical psychologist, and one-time spiritual-directee of Merton, James Finley, rounded out the faculty while I attended. Both have written extensively on contemplative Christianity and are spiritual masters in their own right. Dr. Finley’s genius was uncontainable as he lectured on St. Teresa of Avila and St. Bonaventure. His light filled the room as he spoke on the primacy of love in God’s creation. Once, I nearly collided with him during the rush of a bathroom break and remember the peaceful smile he flashed in response. Two years later, I can still feel his warmth.

Loss, while painful and not an experience most of us ever seek, often offers a path back to God.

Cynthia Bourgeault’s sessions were the greatest surprise. Whether she led discussions on lectio divina, sacred chant or welcoming prayer, I walked away uplifted, and my heart expanded every time. Each symposium was a feast of insight and ideas. At first, I tried to grab hold of the collective wisdom, scribbling notes until my ink ran dry. At some point, I realized I could never capture what I was after with a pen. More luminous than the faculty’s words was their embodiment of the principles they taught. They were extraordinary human beings and humble servants who had dedicated their lives to the joyful service of God. More than any text, their example filled me with hope about what was possible with a life of faith and prayer.

In particular, Cynthia’s introduction to Thomas Keating’s method of centering prayer, and the book she wrote on the subject, radically deepened my perception and practice of daily prayer and offered the most practical and soul-nourishing takeaway. She was wise and generous, honest and stalwart in her faith. Once someone asked her about the problems in churches and why she did not simply walk away. Her answer—that she would rather grow her heart to accommodate the struggle than to walk away—echoed something that had been at work in me since I had returned to church. In the past, when issues like the lack of women on the altar had deeply troubled me, I had chosen to leave. While I still struggle with such issues, the tougher and more rewarding choice has been growing my own heart enough to bear the difficulties along with the joys.

No Such Thing as Perfection

Given all I had learned, I should have understood that not even the Living School could be a utopia. Like any organization, including the various religions and denominations that had fostered most of us, the Living School was also imperfect. As a microcosm of the larger culture, how could it be otherwise? Still, I had longed for—and had tasted in faculty lectures—the promise of the sort of community that transcended societal norms and was disappointed when this did not permeate every minute of my experience.

Over the course of the two-year program, a focus on the politics of personal identity became increasingly prevalent. Groups began to form for students of color or for people who identified as L.G.B.T.Q. This tracked with what was happening in the larger culture, and while such divisions are perhaps inevitable as we work through a history of exclusion, my experience was that they often struck a different note than faculty lectures, led to a sense of division (or overidentification) and limited what we talked about in our time together. Meanwhile, topics of poverty and class, at least as entrenched as race, were not addressed.

An example of this came during an activity during the 2019 symposium intended to raise awareness and solidarity with those on the margins. Before beginning an exercise that involved looping some people in and locking others out as a way to physically demonstrate what it feels like on the margins, a young staff member instructed our large group to remove our shoes and hold hands. I tend to be skeptical when it comes to activities requiring the removal of shoes, but I tried for a few minutes before finally escaping to sit with a fellow escapee in the hall.

As the human chain, largely made up of white faces, moved around the room, shoeless and smiling, a dark-skinned service employee darted in and out, clearing away crumpled napkins and drinks. The activity was clearly well-intentioned, but as I sat watching the man working, it was impossible not to notice that our mostly white group was so engaged in the solidarity exercise that no one seemed to notice the irony of a brown man cleaning up our trash.

Perhaps because my childhood was spent on the margins, I am sensitive to such contradictions. My family of seven children and our single mother moved around a great deal, living on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation near Buffalo, a motel room along the interstate and in a tent pitched beside a cousin’s cornfield. We finally landed in a tiny, urban, dead-end street with neighbors of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Once when our electricity was cut off for nonpayment (as it was nearly every summer), brown and Black neighbors ran extension cords from their kitchen into ours so we could wash a load of laundry or see at night. My family and I were not oblivious to what our skin color meant in terms of privilege and power in society, but our immediate relationships with our neighbors were defined more greatly and immediately by our mutual need and support.

I could have tried harder to share my perspective with other students, but when I did so in the forums provided, I was met with silence. I remained quiet, afraid of looking like another straight white person resisting uncomfortable discussions of sexuality and race. My unusual childhood experiences were admittedly different from many at the Living School, and my insecurity about my views only added to my increasing sense of isolation. On some level, I also understood that my expectations were too high.

I had longed for the promise of the sort of community that transcended societal norms.

I raised my concerns to Brandon Strange, engagement director at the Center for Action and Contemplation, in the process of writing this piece. He responded by email, saying that “The Living School is continually reflecting on how to best support students from a diversity of racial and other backgrounds.” He also provided a quote from a 2017 reflection by Father Rohr, which read: “Unity, in fact, is the reconciliation of differences, and those differences must first be maintained—and then overcome by the power of love! You must actually distinguish things and separate them before you can spiritually unite them, usually at cost to yourself.” I agree with both of these points, but was disappointed that, in a school of spiritual formation, we were still in the early stages of the reconciliation, and never seemed to move any closer to the unity we all desired.

The truth was that, regardless of any categories of religion, race, gender or sexual orientation we placed ourselves in, those of us fortunate enough to attend Living School were unquestionably privileged in our ability to study with three modern spiritual masters. Of course we need to honor and celebrate our various identities; of course we must acknowledge our brutal past relative to race, gender and sexual orientation—but as students increasingly identified into subgroups and divided for lunch and group activities, we seemed in danger of losing sight of our collective privilege and greater commonality.

Living School faculty members often spoke of the Perennial Tradition: a sense of God so loving and true that it is impervious to the relative smallness of human drama or cultural trends. Limiting the notion of ourselves, and parsing identity, to the particulars of our bodies and circumstances certainly reflects a reality—one that is all too often cruel and in need of healing. Even so, clinging to that limited notion of our humanity so forcefully seems a little like hanging out in a waiting room just outside the grand ballroom of God, where we are loved and love one another for that which transcends the surface of what is seen by the world. The tendency toward group identification among Living School students was not worse than anywhere else, but seemed more easily noticeable precisely because the faculty’s brilliant teaching had helped me see that the glittering ballroom is right here!

Back on the Path

Back in my scrappy Thruway field, I stop to pick wildflowers while considering the Living School. Despite its imperfections, it has been one of the greatest blessings of my life. My prayer life has deepened. I met some beautiful people—seekers like myself—and had fallen a little more in love with Catholic tradition. I judge less harshly and less often—or at least I do not heed my judgments as much. I am nowhere near the sort of spiritual growth I had naïvely imagined, but as I bend to pick Queen Anne’s lace, something inside me surges with joy.

While I still grieve the loss of the Albuquerque ceremony and in-person blessings from teachers who have come to mean so much, perhaps this field, with its weeds and Walmart trucks rumbling past, is a more fitting setting to end my time in the Living School. As I turn toward my car, a bird flies out of the brush, startling me. If my husband were here, he would know the bird’s name. I simply say, “Good morning, little bird” and lean in for a better look. Closeup, the field reminds me of the flowering grasses in Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation.”

I continue working on my bouquet, collecting stems of goldenrod, thistle and loosestrife. The purple-red spikes proliferate near local ponds. “They’re invasive,” my husband reminds me whenever I swoon over loosestrife. I’ve started saying, “Aren’t we all?” And we laugh. We all feel a little unwanted or uprooted at times. None of us is entirely pure. But we are also heartbreakingly precious reflections of God.

I had imagined the Living School would somehow transform me into a more spiritual being and that, unlike the church, the program would somehow be perfect. Two years later, neither is true. But I feel more bound to my faith and to attempting to love the world as it is, with all its noise and weeds and complications, to see everywhere as sacred ground.

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