See also Joelle’s article in the spirituality section of our website.
Joelle Chase is an intern at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Spectrum asked her what it’s like and how her experience is shaping her faith.
RD: What is the Center for Action and Contemplation?
JC: The Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) was founded in 1987 by a Franciscan Catholic priest named Richard Rohr. Fr. Richard wanted to offer a practical integration of contemplative spirituality for social activists, having observed that they often burn out or their energy becomes just another violence against a cause. The CAC is a nonprofit organization providing experiential education that combines spiritual practices and social/eco-justice concerns. The idea is for action to flow out of a deep, centered compassion and for spirituality to be grounded in a practical, lived-out gospel. Richard emphasizes the “and” in the center’s name. He teaches that we need a nondualistic mentality that values “both,” that does not compartmentalize life into sacred/secular, good/bad, us/them, but welcomes God in God’s various forms. The CAC is all about inviting humans into a more grown-up, yet childlike, stage of life where we act out of love, without needing to label things, realizing that we have never been separated from the source of that love who is visible in every being.
The CAC employs only fourteen staff and nine part-time work interns; it’s little, but loud! Fr. Richard’s latest book, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, is #1 at Amazon for books in the mysticism category. Our little resource center distributes all of Richard’s materials (he’s written over fifteen books and recorded many, many talks: we joke that he has not one thought left unrecorded) to a large audience. We publish a quarterly journal, Radical Grace, and send out daily meditations via email. Typically between 500 and 1,000 attend the conferences in Albuquerque several times a year in addition to Richard’s almost constant travel for speaking engagements. This summer he tours the UK (with a stop at the large, ecumenical Greenbelt Festival) and South Africa as well as many U.S. sites. Richard has been invited to speak to groups representing many faiths, from Baptists to Buddhists.
RD: How is the CAC shaping Evangelicalism, particularly emergent conversations?
JC: Last year the CAC offered an Emerging Church conference with Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle, Shane Claiborne, and Alexie Torres-Fleming, and we are following up with another Emerging Christianity event this April. 2009’s presentations focused on a fresh understanding of Jesus, spirituality that links contemplation and action, social justice and holistic mission, and authentic community. Emerging Christianity continues and deepens the conversation between Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and other Christians.
RD: How did you become an intern and how long will you stay in Albuquerque?
JC: After graduating from Andrews University, I spent two years teaching at a one-room Adventist school in Montana. The experience was an initiation, a lesson in letting go of expectations and the known, both in my work and in my relationship with/understanding of God. I realized the elementary setting was not life-giving for me, but didn’t know what else to try, so I decided to take a year off to listen before diving into another degree or job. After living in an isolated, conservative area, I was ready for kindred community. The communal living aspect of the CAC internship sounded welcome, even to an introvert like me! I am here for the nine-month internship, ending mid-May (though I’ll be staying on as part-time staff for the summer). The CAC welcomes work interns for 3, 9, or 12-month internships and hosts paying interns for short 9-day border immersion trips to El Paso and Juarez.
RD: What are your responsibilities and how are they enriching you as a person?
JC: I work in the programs department, organizing and promoting Richard’s speaking events which includes planning his itinerary, finding venues, calling and emailing potential attendees, and proofing conference materials. The CAC hosts several major conferences each year in Albuquerque, most recently Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gates: Learning to See As the Mystics See with Jim Finley and Cynthia Bourgeault. I’m enjoying working in a networked, interdependent family that shares the responsibilities of the CAC’s mission. It’s a welcome relief after working alone and bearing the entire responsibility of a school. In the past learning new skills has been intimidating, but the atmosphere of patience here has helped me become more assertive and willing to try new and challenging things.
The CAC staff participates in spiritual formation as a team every month, making the center feel like a community where we not only work together, but also share one another’s personal spiritual journeys. Work interns spend 25 hours a week at their assigned jobs and15 more hours in formation. Formation includes two 20-minute meditative sits a day, group spiritual formation (on topics such as shadow work, contemplative prayer, body prayer, eco-spirituality), social justice (focusing on, for example, the violent situation in Juarez, restorative justice, fair trade concerns), and environmental care (permaculture, mindful eating, local farming, simple living).
RD: What in your spiritual journey led you to be interested in the work of Richard Rohr? What have you learned from other spiritual traditions at the CAC?
JC: I began participating in a spiritual formation group at a small Adventist-run retreat house in Buchanan, MI (Still Waters: www.comebestill.org ) several years ago while attending Andrews University. The group leader, who also became my spiritual director, introduced me to Richard’s work. I immediately responded, as so many people do: “I already knew this! I just didn’t know how to put it.”
Though I joined a group that had been together for five years and had already formed close bonds, I felt that my soul had come home. The combined gifts of spiritual companionship (including one-on-one spiritual direction) and meaningful materials (e.g. David Benner’s trilogy: The Gift of Being Yourself, Surrender to Love, and Desiring God’s Will; Robert Mulholland’s book on spiritual formation and the Bible, Shaped by the Word; Rohr’s recordings: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Shape of God—Deepening the Mystery of the Trinity, Healing Our Violence through Centering Prayer) grew a dormant longing for God into a passionate experience with Love. My long-held intellectual ideas about God became less important, and relationship with and transformation through God became central.
With my new vibrant experience also came a bit of a quandary: how could I continue reading scripture, listening to sermons, and hearing familiar hymns that spoke of a violent God? The “container” (this is what Richard calls the first half of life in which we’re given structure and a sense of our specialness) that held my growing up years seemed too small. It didn’t have room for my expanding view of God. Alden Thompson’s Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? and Rohr’s Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality encouraged me to read between the lines and to notice the themes of God who is continually revealing Godself to humanity, ever changing lives and perspectives into more peaceful and gracious forms. Accustomed to and perhaps somewhat tired of the Adventist lingo and traditions, I’m finding fresh meaning to old truths in the context of Buddhism, Native American spiritualities (recognition that God’s character is visible in the natural world), Sufi mystics (my favorites are Rumi and Hafiz), and Catholic ritual (genuflection, blessing, liturgical calendar).
What has been most challenging to me is learning how to move from contemplation into action. Thomas Merton laughingly accused the “contemplatives” in his monastery of simply being introverts. That is probably true in my case! And it is taking time to discover what the balance between moving and being will look like in my life and to what action I am being called. This seems to be a listening, waiting time…
RD: What are your co-workers like at CAC? How many interns are there and what kind of background do they have?
JC: As a nonprofit, the CAC seems to draw young people without a family to support and retirees who don’t want to quit working just yet. A strong group of core volunteers (again, mostly retired folks) comes regularly, dedicating a combined total of hours exceeding that of the CAC’s paid staff. Staff and interns come from diverse backgrounds including a Sufi, a Slovenian Franciscan nun, a Mennonite pastor, a Jazz singer, an Episcopalian accountant, and a Seventh-day Adventist with dreadlocks (me); we range in age from 23 to 65; we represent most of the Enneagram numbers and diverse personalities. The work internship program can accommodate eight interns, though we currently have six, living together at Stillpoint, a house down the road from the CAC offices.
RD: With the experience you’re having now, what do you find yourself thankful for in Adventism and what do you hunger for more of? Do you see anything like CAC happening in the Adventist Church?
JC: I am grateful for the safe and, for the most part, gracious container Adventist culture has provided me with. My Adventist education instilled critical thinking skills and an in-depth knowledge of a narrow subject area. I smile often when I’m the only one, in a Catholic gathering, who remembers the details (names, passages) of a particular Bible story. Adventist parents and the broader church family loved me thoroughly and well, giving me the structure I needed as a child and the freedom to explore I need now as a young adult. My experience in the church has been short (only all of my 26 years) and limited (within more rural, small congregations), so I’ve seen only bits and pieces of Adventism. I am encouraged by professor-friends who have a wider view of the church from their travels and interactions with other SDAs. I appreciate the open conversations taking place here at Spectrum and elsewhere. I wish for more love and less fear, that the church as an organization would move toward freedom in spirituality and practical gospel living. I’m proud of ADRA and the tangible ways it expresses Jesus’ teachings, and I hope the church as an institution will take on compassionate action as a more central mission.
Though I haven’t been a part of it yet, GODencounters seems to be nurturing a lively and relevant spirituality within Adventism, and I’m eager to see more people discover an authentic experience of God. I do think that, on a small scale, Adventists are moving away from tribalism and rigidity into expansive love. Many Adventists I know are reconnecting with the ancient roots of our faith that value mystical experience.
Will there be something like the CAC in the Adventist church? I don’t think it will actually fall under the church umbrella. Though Richard is a priest at the local Catholic parish, he isn’t very popular in the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. His teachings push the edges of what is officially acceptable. This particular growth in Adventism will probably continue through individuals and small groups who dare to risk misunderstanding and alienation, while the bigger organization takes smaller steps and tries to keep us wild ones in check!
RD: What are your plans post CAC?
JC: I’m not finding that place where, as Frederick Buechner puts it, my “deep hunger meets the world’s deep need.” But I have an inkling it will involve organic farming and sustainability practices. I will spend this summer volunteering at a small farm here in Albuquerque. Perhaps after that I’ll hop from farm to farm for awhile to learn some practical skills before settling down more permanently. I want to find a landscape, community, and vocation niche that will allow for a mutual giving and receiving of Life.
Visit www.cacradicalgrace.org to learn more about the Center for Action and Contemplation.
See also Joelle’s article in the spirituality section of our website.