A Long Loving Look at the Real

When we think of Jesus out in the wilderness, so often we think of struggle. And there surely was struggle. He wasn’t eating much, so he must have been hungry. And then there’s the struggle with temptation, which was a very real one, for Jesus as much as it is for us.

But as I was reading this reflection from Fr. Richard Rohr, it occurred to me that there is something else going on–for Jesus in the wilderness, and for us during Lent. Something that encompasses struggle, but is not primarily defined by it: we’re taking “a long loving look at the real.” “The real” is the real world we’re surrounded by, God’s creation that is the “first Bible.” But that’s ourselves too, as we are also part of God’s creation. We are a living testament. Our role during Lent then is to really look at ourselves and the world we’re living in. To see it for what it is, which means we cannot help but see how broken it is and we are: how violent, greedy, and unjust we have allowed it to become. But at the same time, we’re looking at the real world through eyes made of love. We aren’t just struggling with what we see–we LOVE it. Love is a big word that can encompass a lot of what we would normally see as negative: heartbreak, disappointment. But it takes those things and changes them from judgement to compassion and even joy. Love acknowledges the bad, but finds the good too.

So today take a minute to calmly look at the world around you. See God’s creation. See yourself. Be honest. But be loving.

Cosmos Instead of Churchiness

Once you are in an authority position in any institution, your job is to preserve that institution, and your freedom to live and speak the full truth becomes limited. [Saint] Francis taught us to live on the edge of the church, rather than managing the institution. We were not intended to be parish priests. Francis himself refused priesthood, and most of the original friars were laymen rather than clerics. This position offered the Franciscans structural freedom. We were to always occupy the position of “minority” in this world. (The M in OFM stands for minorum, Ordo Fratrum Minorum.) Francis wanted us to live a life on the edge of the inside–not at the center or at the top, but not outside throwing rocks, either. This unique position offers structural freedom and hopefully spiritual freedom too. 

The early Franciscans said the first Bible was not the written Bible, but creation itself, the cosmos. “Ever since the creation of the world, God’s eternal power and divinity–however invisible–have become visible for the mind to see in all the things that God has made” (Romans 1:20). This is surely true; but you have to sit still in it for a while, observe it, and love it without trying to rearrange it by thinking you can fully understand it. This combination of observation along with love–not with resistance, judgment, analysis, or labeling–just observation with love and reverence, is probably the best definition of contemplation I can give. You simply participate in what one Carmelite described as a long loving look at the real.

For Francis, nature itself was a mirror for the soul, for self, and for God. Clare uses the word mirror more than any other metaphor for what is happening between God and soul. The job of church and theology is to help us look in the mirror that is already present. All this “mirroring” eventually effects a complete change in consciousness. Thomas of Celano, Francis’ first biographer, writes that Francis would “rejoice in all the works of the Lord and saw behind them things pleasant to behold–their life giving reason and cause. In beautiful things he saw Beauty Itself, and all things were to him good.” [1] This mirroring flows naturally back and forth from the natural world to the soul. All things find themselves in and through one another. Once that flow begins, it never stops. You’re home, you’re healed, you’re saved–already in this world.

That’s the kind of salvation that so many of us perhaps expected, but only in the next world–and only for a few it seems–if we follow our own criteria. Meanwhile, we live unhappily and with a sense of scarcity in this world, hoping for some victory later. I believe the victory is now, or it isn’t much of a victory; if you don’t have it now, you won’t know how to live it later, or to even desire it.

Either this world is the very “Body of God” or we have little evidence of God at all. “Transactional” theories of a later salvation–instead of transformation now–have come to mean less and less to most people. Yet those whose livelihood depends on this theory continue to keep many sincere seekers codependent on such a message and even their precise formulation of it. Such codependency only works among people who do not know how to pray and see for themselves. Salvation is not something you arbitrarily believe in. You only believe in it because you first of all see it. Francis, a living contemplative, walked the roads of Italy in the 13th century shouting, “The whole world is our cloister!” By narrowing the scope of salvation to words, theories, and select groups, we have led many people not to pay any attention to the miracles that are all around them all the time here and now.

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