Prayer: overcoming dualism


Pope Francis has had a fair amount of success in getting people to look with new eyes at major issues or problems in our world. He has been helped out in this thanks to generally friendly media coverage.

Of course, that doesn’t mean people always agree with what he says or that those who do actually take significant actions or change their behaviour.

It’s enough to think of the pope’s incessant appeals for peace. One must admit that they have not brought an end to many wars if any.

And what has been the result of his repeated exhortations to show greater respect and reverence towards all of creation — human beings, animal and plant life, and all the elements in the environment?

Most people — even in the Vatican — don’t seem to know or be much interested in the fact that we’re currently in the “Season of Creation”, a five-week-long ecumenical initiative to find ways to protect “our common home”. Yet, this is also something Francis has strongly endorsed.

Still, these issues get decent press mostly because even those in the mainstream secular media recognize that the pope has a certain moral authority, even if he is not an expert on environmental issues or international diplomacy and peacemaking.

A teacher of prayer

Francis is a Christian priest and bishop and, as such, he is fundamentally a “spiritual” leader. That means his expertise or specialization is in spiritual matters. And one of most important of all is prayer.

Most people probably don’t know that he spent almost an entire year using his Wednesday general audiences to teach about prayer.

“Prayer is the breath of faith; it is its most proper expression. Like a cry that issues from the heart of those who believe and entrust themselves to God,” he said on May 6, 2020, when he started the weekly catechetical series.

The pope continued lecturing on prayer for the next two months before briefly suspending the lessons in order to speak to the public about the urgency of “healing the world” in light of the deep social ills the coronavirus pandemic had brought to the fore.

But he resumed the teaching cycle on prayer in early October 2020 and continued the weekly lessons right up until June 2021. In all, Francis gave 38 talks on the subject. But most of these went largely unreported even; I regret to say, by La Croix International.

A topic too embarrassing or just too intimate?

Perhaps we Catholics are not comfortable talking about the issue publicly because we’re afraid we’ll be seen as “preachy” or “churchy”.

Many Catholics — perhaps most, actually — seem to be as embarrassed to talk to others about their “prayer life” as they are to talk to them about their sex life! Is it because they don’t have one? Or do they find it is too private and intimate to speak about openly?

When I say “they”, of course, I mean “we” — all of us.

I suspect one of the issues is that most Catholics have not been taught much about prayer beyond reciting texts such as like the Hail Mary, keeping personal devotions and going to Mass.

We saw this during our awkward attempts to fill the void left by suspended public liturgies during the various pandemic lockdowns. It seems that as spiritual leaders and companions, we Catholics have not done very well — in general — in giving people the tools to help them build an interior life.

Prayer is more than just going to church on Sunday

Even some six decades since the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the Church continues to convey the message that the “litmus test” for being a Roman Catholic consists in faithfully observing the “obligation” to attend Mass on Sundays and a fixed number of Holy Days.

Certainly, there have been major efforts to promote spirituality in the post-Vatican II Church, such as meditation, Lectio Divina, centring prayer, etc. But group recitation of the rosary before Mass or Eucharist adoration afterwards, as well as other “devotions”, continue to hold pride of place.

All spirituality, in a certain sense, is Eucharistic since the celebration of the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s faith and life. But we continue to perpetuate the medieval obsession with the Eucharistic elements.

And we tend to reduce prayer to the exercise of asking God for help (for ourselves or others) or giving God thanks for our blessings, which is all well and good.

With few exceptions, our Catholic bishops and presbyters have not helped people explore the Church’s tradition of contemplative prayer. And that may be because many of them have not been taught how to do so.

The most important prayer word is not ‘Contemplation,’ nor is it ‘Action;’ it’s ‘and.’

The contemplative approach to navigating a world in dramatic upheaval

It is not essential to be a monk or nun to engage in contemplation, to just sit with God in silent stillness. But some form of contemplation is essential to being a believer, even one who identifies as Catholic.

I’m no prophet, but it seems clear to me that we are only at the beginning of probably the biggest upheaval and most dramatic transformation in human history.

The cacophony of information (and misinformation) that is being spread today at such dizzying speed has alone begun to destabilize the communities and institutions that were once our points of sure reference.

How long this disruption will continue and what sort of casualties it will leave in its wake is anyone’s guess. The Church, because it is part of this world, will not be spared.

The only way to navigate this huge transformation, it seems to me, is through a contemplative approach. That does not mean running away from reality and navel-gazing.

Overcoming a dualism that is not Christian

Contemplation and action are not opposed. One cannot healthily exist without the other.

“In Jesus Christ, in his person and in the Gospel, there is no opposition between contemplation and action,” the pope said at his general audience on May 5, 2021.

“No. In the Gospel and in Jesus, there is no contradiction. This may have come from the influence of some Neoplatonic philosopher, but it surely has to do with a dualism that is not part of the Christian message,” the pope said.

The Franciscan spiritual teacher Richard Rohr says contemplation is precisely nondual thinking. Here he also uses the example of how Jesus in the Gospels deals “contemplatively” with the reality of good and evil:

Jesus does not hesitate to dualistically name good and evil and to show that evil is a serious matter. However, he does not stop there. He often speaks in dualistic images, especially in regard to issues of wealth and power: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24).

Yet Jesus goes on to overcome these dualisms by the contemplative, nondual mind.

We can and should be honest about evil, even at the risk of making some people uncomfortable, but we must not become hateful, nor do we need to punish the “goats” in our life. We keep going deeper until we can also love them and seek their healing and transformation.

External behaviour needs spiritual guidance

Rohr, who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation, insists there can be no opposition between effective action and authentic contemplation.

“The most important word in our Center’s name is not Action nor is it Contemplation; it’s the word and. We need both compassionate action and contemplative practice for the spiritual journey,” he says.

“Without action, our spirituality becomes lifeless and bears no authentic fruit. Without contemplation, all our doing comes from the ego, even if it looks selfless, and it can cause more harm than good. External behaviour must be connected to and supported by spiritual guidance,” Rohr concludes.

Go back and look more carefully at Laudato si’ (On Care for our Common Home – 2015) and Fratelli tutti ( On Fraternity and Social Friendship – 2020), and you’ll see that in these two encyclicals, Pope Francis draws the same conclusion.

Of course, if you meditate a bit more prayerfully on the Gospels, you’ll discover that so does Jesus.

  • Robert Mickens is LCI Editor in Chief.
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.
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