Healing the Elephant in the Womb

This piece by Cynthia Bourgeault is the seventh in a series beginning with “A Surprising Ecumenism“, her response to Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica. The second is “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal“, the third is “When Does Life Begin?“,  the fourth is “The Developmental Soul“, the fifth is Teilhard, the Personal, and the Developmental Soul“, and the sixth is “Fullness of Life“.


As we come down the home stretch in this extended Wisdom inquiry into the abortion issue, I’ve tried to draw together here some of the most important implications and “business arising” out this exploration. Most of my following “top five” have already been touched on in previous blogs, but a few are new (though obviously following from points already raised). Here we go:

  1. Reframing

The whole conversation around the abortion issue needs to begin with a comprehensive reframing of the metaphysical assumptions on which it rests: away from a substance-theology-driven fixation on nailing down the precise moment when “life” begins (implicitly understood as meaning an individual human soul) and toward a wider appreciation of the entire life journey as a single, interwoven dynamism of “soul-making” in which each stage of the journey is equally vulnerable and precious. When does a daffodil become a daffodil? Is daffodil the bulb? The shoot? The bud? The flower? It is all of the above, yet none insofar as a stage is taken in isolation. In the traditional Wisdom maps – confirmed as well as in the more dynamic relational models emerging from the leading edges of biophysics and evolutionary theology – the term “pro-life” can no longer be usurped by any single phase of the journey, for the soul is the fruit of the entire life journey, not merely of the moment of conception.

This Wisdom understanding of “pro-life” assumes that the boundaries demarcating an individual life from the greater relational field that has supported its gestation/individuation – and will continue to do so for the entire course of its life – are always a bit indistinct, marked by considerable reciprocity at each step of the way. Attempting to establish identity by separating an individual element from the whole is an old, old metaphysical habit that no longer matches the shape of our dynamically interwoven universe. At every phase life makes its way juggling difficult balances and hard trade-offs. To be pro-lifenot merely “pro-birthimplies an acknowledgement of that challenging terrain and the willingness to bring forbearance and mercy to the entire unfolding.

  1. Compassionate speaking

    Arthur Russell’s “The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea”

As an important initial step in that direction, we need to become much more forbearing and merciful in our use of language. Precision is necessary“soul”, “life”, and “individual essence” are NOT synonyms, and when used as if they are, they result in creating what Arthur Lovejoy once defined as emotional pathos – language wielded for sentimental and/or manipulative effect. Christianity is already vulnerable enough to that sort of emotional manipulation; it has been standard devotional and even theological practice for centuries. We need to tread extremely gently here, and to be doubly alert to well-worn rut tracks of associative thinking.

Above all, it seems to me that the word “murder” has no place in any helpful discussion of the abortion issue. Technically, yes, abortion terminates an incipient human life. But when connotation – not merely denotation – is factored in, murder typically implies malevolent intent; it already presumes a crime.1 To impose this set of associations on a decision-making process which virtually always unfolds in the realm of human anguish is inflammatory and cruel. Is it also murder to “put down” a pet? To withdraw life support from a loved one following a catastrophic stroke? Do these decisions – which also terminate a life – always presume malevolent intent?

At very most, we are speaking here of “fetal homicide”. My own preference would be to recognize that in those great liminal zones surrounding birth and death, where life is not yet (or no longer) fully viable on its own, we need a whole different way of languaging those painful but sometimes necessary decisions to end the life of another sentient being. I am not suggesting euphemism here, but rather an honest and compassionate clarity that would serve the goal of healing – not simply anger and blame.

  1. Acknowledging the shadow

That being said, abortion does end the life of another sentient being, and such a decision is never easy or pain-free. It inflicts deep wounds on the human psyche (I believe this is true even in the case of putting down a pet), and these wounds are long in healing and reverberate on many planes; in that sense, abortion is a karmic act. Because of the harm it invariably engenders (to self, fetus, relationship), it is never simply a medical “procedure”, let alone a “normal” method of birth control. It should always be considered exceptional: a “least preferable” option to be invoked only after alternatives have been carefully weighed and rejected.

Since the clearly documented shadow side of abortion still tends to be under-acknowledged in pro-choice presentations, there seems to be an obvious need for a more balanced emphasis in sexual education, together with a concerted effort to make standard forms of contraception readily and blamelessly available: the only strategy to date that has yielded a conclusive and consistent success rate. And yes, here again, it’s a trade-off between high principles and sustainable results. From my admittedly pragmatic angle of vision, it seems that if the Catholic Church could ever see its way clear to constraining the rights of the “potentially conceived” in favor of those already conceived (i.e., contraception as the only realistic “preferable alternative” to abortion), I suspect that the vast bulk of its pro-life agenda would be instantly achieved.

  1. Safeguarding legal access

While abortion is never the preferred option, I believe it needs to remain a protected legal option. The Wisdom model provides additional validation for doing so in affirming the equal importance of all stages of life and exposing the implicit Catholic/evangelical theological bias at work in the presumption that the rights of the unborn take precedence over the rights of the mother. In an increasingly pluralistic America, where many religions and no religion offer competing moral compasses, it is more important than ever to establish a legally protected space in which difficult personal decisions can be arrived at through personal conscience, not through the legal imposition of sectarian dogma. I return here again to my earlier proposal of a “two-tier” system stipulating that included among the fundamental “first tier” rights is the right for a woman to control her own body and to hold the decisive vote as to whether a new life will be formed within her body.

Beyond that baseline – at what I’ve called “second tier” – adherents of specific religious paths would have the full freedom to practice a higher level of moral observance according to the understandings of their particular faith tradition. It simply would not be universally binding. 

  1. Creating a wider ethical forum

Beyond those immediate issues raised by the abortion issue itself, the even greater challenge has proved to lie in figuring out a way to hold this conversation at all! And I’m not just talking about the differences of opinion and occasionally painful give-and-take as challenging new ideas are collectively pondered; I’m asking why thoughtful pondering of the kind we’ve been sharing here is such a painful rarity in our cultural conversation nowadays. As I racked my brains to think of a journal, a publishing house, an academic, or retreat setting that might sponsor such a discussion, I quickly realized there were none. “Too far afield” for traditional theological journals; “too political” for academic or contemplative specializations; “too provocative” for retreat or even Living School fare, where one wishes to avoid giving offense to those who might be challenged or made personally uncomfortable by the exchange: “Cynthia is misusing her post as a teacher to wander into such dangerous personal ground”.

It has seemed to me for a long time now that the most urgent long-range need facing our country today is for some cultural forum – beyond an internet blog series – where the important questions and issues impinging on our common humanity can actually be weighed and discussed. A Wisdom chautauqua, as it were. But what sort of forum would that be, and where would it take place?

Traditionally, issues of ethics and morality have been discussed and enforced within specific faith traditions. But today there is no longer a single faith tradition undergirding our civic morality and, given the prevailing contemporary interpretation of the First Amendment, it is no longer easily acceptable to teach subject matter traditionally identified as belonging to the “religious” sector in a secular educational setting. The big questions that have traditionally guided human ethical progress – “Who am I?”, “What am I here for?”, “Who is my neighbor” ,“Is there anything beyond self-interest?”, “Is there a higher purpose or coherence to the universe?” – are perceived as spiritually booby-trapped (alas, often true!) and hence off-limits for the purposes of public education. Meanwhile, given the continuing hemorrhaging in most mainstream religious denominations, it is far from a foregone conclusion that younger generations of Americans will be exposed to these ideas even within a religious setting.

The vacuum is lethal – filled, by default, simply with the clichés and role-modeling available from the entertainment and marketing sectors. The highest and finest of what has traditionally made us human has effectively been closed out of our cultural transmission.

This becomes particularly pressing when we attempt to explore the concept of a developmental soul, for it clearly presumes a sacred context for the human condition, a meaning to life not realized in personal self-maximization but in cosmic obligation and the sense of participation in a larger coherent whole. It is here and only here, the great sacred traditions unanimously affirm, that the ultimate meaning and satisfaction of human life are to be found. It is here and only here, one might add, that the attitudes, vision, and practices that can carry our planet safely into the future are to be found. And it is only at this scale – against the wider backdrop of the meaning of all of life, considered as a unified trans-cosmic whole – that the meaning and gravity of fetal abortion finally come into a rightful perspective. If we are not able even to raise these questions – let alone, wrestle with them, grow into them – what hope do we have in steering our planet wisely through these turbulent times?

Like many citizens in our country today, I’ve come to hate gerrymandering – that political sleight of hand that hacks up functional geopolitical units in order to create political firewalls. But even more than political gerrymandering, I loathe cultural and spiritual gerrymandering, which chops up the unified terrain of the human heart into a thousandfold denominational and academic fiefdoms in such a way that the great river of our collective human wisdom can no longer flow freely through it. The tragedy, of course, is that it is only our collective human wisdom that will save us.

Any bright ideas as to how such a container might be created?


Notes:

  1. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “murder” as the unlawful killing of a human being by another with malice aforethought, either expressed or implied. A “homicide” is defined as the act of a human being in taking away the life of another human being.

Fullness of Life

This piece by Cynthia Bourgeault is the sixth in a series beginning with “A Surprising Ecumenism“, her response to Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica. The second is “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal“, the third is “When Does Life Begin?“,  the fourth is “The Developmental Soul“, and the fifth is Teilhard, the Personal, and the Developmental Soul“.


A brief poetic interlude before the final run-up on a conclusion.

The clear, simple truth: nothing can fall out of God. Where would it go?

God is not somebody (not me) – somewhere else (not here). God is the all, the now, the whole; the undivided, dynamic totality of form and formlessness. As Barbara Brown Taylor pictures it so vibrantly in The Luminous Web (p. 74):

Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light – not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them – but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationship that animates everything that is.

We are pouring from fullness to fullness here.

From the perspective of the cove, the tide rises and falls in great contrasting cycles. A wharf riding gently at sea level on the high tide may be perched fifteen feet above a mudflat when the tide has emptied out. The sea ebbs and flows; the cove appears as “full” or “empty.” But from the perspective of the ocean, the volume of water is always the same; like a great watery amoeba it simply extends and retracts its arms into the nooks and crannies of coastline from its own serenely undiminished magnitude.

When we think about life in terms of rising-and-falling, beginning-and-ending, we are betraying our finite perspective. “The individual drop that we are disappears in time”, writes Raimon Panikkar in Christophany (p. 130) [also see our audio set by Cynthia Bourgeault of the same name]. “But the personal water that we are (the drop’s water) lives eternally – if, that is, we have succeeded in realizing the (divine) water that we are.” If, in other words, we have succeeded in shifting our perspective from cove to ocean.

It’s not easy, for sure. Down here in earth-time, the fleetingness of duration weighs heavily on us. “The paths of glory lead but to the grave”, Thomas Grey famously lamented. So brief the duration of a human life; so quickly over and gone. And when that life is but embryonic, cut off before it is even born, the pathos seems doubly brutal. We feel it as an exception, a violation. We do not see – do not want to see – even the slightest continuity with the universal, impartial agency of those “Ways of Life” Teilhard speaks of – ingenuity, profusion, indifference (!!) – to which all lower orders in the chain of life are bound. Duration seems so precious to us when it comes to human beings; less so, perhaps when we try to extend it to virtual particles or stars exploding in-and-out of existence in distant galaxies – or for that matter, to the millions of un-germinated seeds for every fetus engendered; to the ants, viruses, butterflies, starfish washed up on a beach in a freak flood tide, abandoned pets, livestock en route to the slaughterhouse…Where do our hearts draw the line?

“Only from the spirit, where it reaches its felt paroxysm, will the antinomy clear”, writes Teilhard – “and the world’s indifference to its elements will be transformed into an immense solicitude – in the sphere of the person”.  But perhaps not quite in the way we are expecting. Personhood does not change the laws to which the entire created order is bound, but perhaps it gives us some perspective by rescuing consciousness from its captivity to duration.

So what about all those “souls” who don’t get a chance to live this life, spread their wings, even draw their first breath? Is something unbearably precious lost forever? As I ponder, from my own human perspective, the pathos of a life seemingly cut short in time, I find myself drawn back time and again to this haunting poem by Laura Gilpin (entitled “The Two-headed Calf”), which I first came across in Belden Lane’s spiritual classic, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes.

Tomorrow when the farm boys find this
freak of nature, they will wrap his body
in newspaper and carry him to the museum. 

But tonight he is alive in the north
field with his mother. It is a perfect
summer evening: the moon rising over
the orchard, the wind in the grass. And
as he stares into the sky, there are
twice as many stars as usual. 

I offer this poem as a kind of dark solace in the face of that sickening, “punched-in-the gut” feeling that arises whenever we try to fathom a life that will never know the grace of duration in time. All life is one life, ultimately, and this one life is in the hands of God and is the hands of God. As humans, we properly feel grief and immense pathos when a potential life trajectory is suddenly cut off, either intentionally or by accident, and it is right that we should; that is the nature of our human sentiency. But to the extent that we can open our hearts and learn to feel all of life – in all its myriad yet particular forms – as the seamless sentiency of God, then perhaps we can loosen our grip on individual duration and let the unbroken wholeness of life flow according to its own mysterious deeper rhythm. The antidote to hardness of heart (from which our culture certainly suffers) may not lie so much in exaggerating the rights of the unborn as in opening our hearts more deeply to the unity – and free fall – that is divine love.

Nothing can fall out of God. Each and every created essence – whether plant, mineral, animal, human – participates in the symphony of divine self-disclosure in its own way and knows the fullness of divine mercy according to its own mode of perceptivity. Even a stone. Even a blade of grass. Most certainly a fetus. Most certainly at the hour of our death. Duration does not affect that holographic fullness, presumably even in a virtual particle. Even – sometimes especially – in brevity, the intensity of the whole is conveyed in a heightened form – twice as many stars as usual!

Granted, the gift of time gives us the window of opportunity to do some pretty amazing stuff – like developing a soul, for one! But the soul is for cosmic service. Cosmic fullness is something else again. It is the free and gratuitous birthright bestowed by God on every quark and particle of the created order. And we get to participate in it freely, fully, here and now, simply because each one of us is a tiny shareholder in the divine aliveness.

Nor does even an “interrupted life” ever pass out of the knowingness of God. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” says Psalm 139 – and if we turn that promise just slightly sideways, we can see in it a deeper assurance that has slipped by us on the first pass. Each individualized life is a trajectory – a probability wave, quantum physicists would call it – of divine self-manifestation that already exists in the heart of God. The heart of God is the infinite abyss of all possibilities. Its time will come round again.

Teilhard, the Personal, and the Developmental Soul

This piece by Cynthia Bourgeault is the fifth in a series beginning with “A Surprising Ecumenism“, her response to Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica. The second is “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal“, the third is “When Does Life Begin?“, and the fourth is “The Developmental Soul“.


But what about Psalm 139?

The biggest challenge in wrapping one’s head around this Wisdom notion of a developmental soul – at least for traditionally reared religious folks – is that it seems to fly in the face of that well-loved Biblical assurance that God is personally and intimately invested in the creation of each and every human being: “For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb”, the psalm’s text assures. In the face of this apparently explicit assurance that each human soul originates in God and reflects God’s personal handiwork, the alternative version – that developing a soul is the principal business of this life and that not all human lives will get there – seems bleak and impersonal. What could possibly be the advantage of looking at things this way?

The advantage is that it might – just might – knock us out of a cul de sac of sloppy and sentimental thinking based on an antiquated metaphysics that is no longer supported by science.

You may have already noticed how some of this sloppiness has slipped into some of the comments generated by this blog series. There is a strong tendency to use the terms “life”, “soul”, and “human person” interchangeably, as if they are equivalent. They manifestly are not. “Life begins at conception”, some of you have passionately reiterated – but not so: according to contemporary scientific models, life is already well underway at the time of conception; it is a property already shared by sperm and egg since it belongs as a general condition to the biosphere. Nor is the soul created at conception, if the developmental road map is to be taken seriously; soul is the fruit of the journey, not the seed.

What is created in that “ignition” moment at conception – and yes, it is a pivotal moment – is the individual human life, the temporarily separated spark of divine consciousness that will have the option, with tenacity and luck, to return to the divine fullness having realized a very different kind of substantiality within the cosmos.

The Wisdom teaching is clear: below a certain threshold, death brings an end to this temporary sense of individuated selfhood. The “soul” is not destroyed (since it has not yet come into being in the first place); the individual essence components are simply reabsorbed back into the biosphere. As Jesus himself expressed this ancient teaching in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, “All of nature with its forms and creatures exist together and are interwoven with each other. They will be resolved back, however, to their own proper origin, for the compositions of matter return to the original roots of their nature…

Above this threshold – with the crystallization of what we have been calling “second body” or soul in the true esoteric sense of the term – this dissolution does not take place (not immediately, at any rate). The individuality thus formed as the fruit of “conscious labor and intentional suffering” can hold his or her personhood within a wider spiritual cosmos which is not affected by the dissolution of the physical (earth-plane) body. This attainment is always viewed as being for cosmic servanthood, not for personal glory.

Teilhard and the Personal

Interestingly, Teilhard de Chardin arrives at a remarkably similar assessment from his scientific perspective. There is indeed a dividing line, he feels, and it is integrally related to some threshold of consciousness crossed in the human species. As he writes with astonishing power toward the end of The Human Phenomenon (p. 194):

Certainly the human being appears to disintegrate just like the animal. But here and there the phenomenon functions in reverse. Through death in the animal the radial [energy] is reabsorbed into the tangential. In the human, the radial escapes the tangential and is freed from it. There is an escape from entropy by a sudden reversal toward Omega. Death itself is hominized.1

Yes, the Wisdom tradition would agree, that is precisely what happens. But whereas Teilhard would at first appear to be according this “escape from the law of entropy” to all humans, the developmental model would assert that it in fact occurs to only some of them: those who, in the course of their lives have acquired/developed a soul – or, to put it in Teilhardian language, who have passed from mere individuals to becoming persons.

But is Teilhard in fact conferring this blessing on the entire human species? You have to admit, his “but here and there” is quite a teaser!

We know from elsewhere in The Human Phenomenon – and in fact, throughout his work – that Teilhard draws a very clear distinction between an individual and a person. For him the two terms are not synonymous, but more like progressive stages of a human journey. The individual is simply an autonomous human unit operating in accordance with biological necessity. The person has developed the gift of genuine interiority (in a way that dovetails closely with that Boros quote I shared with you in the last post). This interiority, moreover, is not individualistic or isolationist but is simultaneously the awareness of belonging to a greater whole. It is grounded in a dawning sense of a deeper human collectivity, which is at the same time a new evolutionary emergence.

The journey from individual to person is the essence of what Teilhard means by “hominization”. If this key Teilhardian term is understood to designate not simply the evolutionary appearance of the species homo sapiens, but rather the interior journey within each member of this species as he or she moves toward becoming a person, then we have a model which is essentially in line with the great Wisdom lineage of which Teilhard is our most recent powerful spokesperson.

“An immense solicitude – in the sphere of the person…”

As a biologist, Teilhard knew only too well that the biosphere is characterized by an extravagant wastefulness. Living organisms come into being in astonishing profusion, only to vanish just as quickly. In a powerful philosophical reflection on “The Ways of Life”, tucked into an early chapter in The Human Phenomenon, he designates the three core characteristics of life as profusion, ingenuity, and indifference toward individuals (p. 67):

So many times art, poetry, and even philosophy have depicted nature like a woman, blindfolded, trampling down a dust of crushed existences. In life’s profusion we find the first traces of this apparent hardheartedness. Like Tolstoy’s grasshoppers, life passes over a bridge of accumulated corpses…Life is more real than lives, as it has been said…

Here lost in number. There torn apart in the collective…The dramatic and perpetual opposition in the course of evolution between the element born of the multiple and the multiple constantly being born in the element.

Perhaps this perspective might be of some dark consolation as we step up to the plate and ponder the apparent “heartlessness” of a model in which many individualized essences do indeed “spontaneously abort”, failing to transform that initial individualized essence into a soul that will be cosmically viable beyond the womb of this life. This is, as Teilhard points out, simply the universal condition of the biosphere and, insofar as one remains firmly planted in that realm, its laws will continue to hold sway, no matter how hard we stamp our feet and emote about the “personal” nature of each newly conceived human life. The individual is not yet the personal. That belongs to another sphere.

But, says Teilhard, the value we are obliquely intuiting here does in fact exist; we are simply looking for it in the wrong place, assigning it to the wrong level of consciousness (p. 67):

Insofar as the general movement of life becomes more ordered, in spite of periodic resumptions of the offensive the conflict tends to resolve itself. Yet it is cruelly recognizable right to the end. Only from the spirit, where it reaches its felt paroxysm, will the antinomy clear; and the world’s indifference to its elements be transformed into an immense solicitude – in the sphere of the person.

“We are not there yet,” he cautions. And yet he does hold out for us here a pathway of hope, and a way of potentially resolving the fierce impasse around the personal so categorically invested in the newly conceived fetus. By Teilhard’s standards a fetus is a human individual, but it is not yet a person. And in tasting the difference between the two (and the developmental ground to be covered here which is the true meaning of being “pro-life”), we may finally be able to move forward.


Notes:

  1. This passage is filled with Teilhard-speak; my apologies. Tangential energy is for him the physical energy routinely measured by science. Radial energy corresponds to what most esoteric maps would call “psychic” energy: the finer energy of consciousness as it expresses itself in attention, prayer, will, or, for Teilhard, increasing self-articulation and complexification. Omega is his evolutionary endpoint, identical with Christ; “hominized” means transformed in the direction of becoming more fully human in its highest sense: coherent, conscious, compassionate.

The Developmental Soul

This piece by Cynthia Bourgeault is the fourth in a series beginning with “A Surprising Ecumenism“, her response to Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica. The second is “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal and the third is “When Does Life Begin?


Essence

According to Gurdjieff, the mysterious “X-factor” that enters in the moment of conception is not yet soul but essence. Think of it as the hand of cards you’re dealt at the start of a card game. It comprises a set of unique characteristics including race, gender (and most likely gender orientation), basic body type and other genetic factors, influences emerging from more distant ancestry and bloodline – and yes, that unquantifiable legacy “from the stars” – all combined primarily according to what Teilhard would call “tatonnement” (“trial and error”): evolution’s predilection for trying out any and all possibilities. Cumulatively, all of the above will combine to confer on you what is commonly known as your “nature”.

Notice how there is no need to stipulate an “artist” God here, specifically designing a unique human being; what’s being pictured here is simply a lawful playing out of a freedom already inherent within Creation itself. Essence is not customized, not micro-managed – at least according to most schools of inner work I’m familiar with. (That may take some getting used to, and for those of you finding yourself already in resistance mode, I encourage you simply to let this new perspective settle in a bit. Rest assured that I do intend to talk about the origin of the personal in due course.)

Once formed, essence will take its place as one of the three constituent terms in an ongoing dynamism of becoming which, not surprisingly, will play out according to the Law of Three. The other two terms, according to modern Sufi master Kabir Helminski (who reflects this same Wisdom lineage that I myself was trained in) are spirit and heart.

Spirit is that ever-roving, unboundaried, invisible divine dancing partner, participating in every movement of our life according to its own deepest teleology, namely, self-disclosure (remember “I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known”?). It generally plays the role of first force, Holy Affirming: ever prodding, nudging, unfolding.

Essence will typically play the role of Holy Denying, the bloc résistant in which Spirit will reveal its face. Through its very embodied finitude, essence provides both the necessary raw material and the necessary friction to allow the pure movement of spirit to reveal itself in time and form.

Heart – or conscience – is the alchemical  “third term” that is catalyzed in us through a life lived in growing consciousness, authenticity, obedience (as in ob-audire: “listen from the depths”), and that active cultivation of the self-reflective potential miraculously gifted to human consciousness. Heart is the unique fruit of a life wisely and fully engaged. More important, from the perspective of the road map I’m laying out here, it contributes the crucial third force, or “holy reconciling”, which makes possible that ultimate desideratum, namely, the fully arisen soul. Soul (or as Helminski calls it,  “the essential self”) is precisely that “fourth in a new dimension” which arises out of conscious weaving of those other three – spirit, essence, and heart —within the great womb of life.

While this statement may sound jarring, note how it is already well embedded in early Christian tradition. The Gospel of Thomas puts it as starkly as possible in logion 70: “If you bring forth what is within you, that which you bring forth will save you. If you fail to bring forth that which is within you, that which you fail to bring forth will destroy you.” “That which is within you” is your embryonic soul.

Jesus seems to be reinforcing this teaching in his celebrated parable of he talents – once you recognize, of course, that the “talents” are not our aptitudes and gifts (which belong to essence) but, rather, these soul potentialities transformed and quickened in the light of conscience/heart. This message comes through powerfully as well in the medieval mystic Jacob Boehme; it is in fact the driveshaft of his entire metaphysics. But it peers out as well from any number of other Christian mystics, even those of much more theoretically “traditional” metaphysical training and temperaments. One of the most powerful statements of this principle I know comes in contemporary Jesuit Ladislaus Boros’ spiritual classic, The Mystery of Death (p. 60-61):

By Alden Cole

From the facts of existence and the surrounding world an inner sphere of being a human is built up. This inner man is brought about by a never-ending [conscious] daily application, on the treadmill of duties, annoyances, joys, and difficulties. From these insignificant actions freely performed, the decisive freedom is built up – freedom from oneself, freedom to view one’s own existence from outside…From the crowded days and years of joy and sorrow something has crystallized out, the rudimentary forms of which were already present in all his experiences, his struggle, his creative work, his patience and love – namely, the inner self, the individual, supremely individual creation of a man. He has given his own shape to the determinisms of life by a daily conquest of them; he has become master of the multiple relationships that go to make him up by accepting them as the raw material [italics mine] of his self. Now he begins to “be”.

As far as I know, Boros never directly encountered the Christian inner tradition, let alone the teachings of the Asian spiritual traditions. Yet he has eloquently described here what would be easily recognizable in any of these other streams as “Witnessing Self”. He has captured precisely the same nuance articulated by The Gospel of Thomas, Boehme, Gurdjieff, and Jacob Needleman – namely, that our “soul” is not our raw essence per se, but something of an entirely different nature which is alchemized through the active engagement of essence with heart/consciousness. It is not so much a substance (at least in terms of corporeality as we understand it in this life) but more a process – or as Jacob Boeheme had it, a tincture, a quality of our essential aliveness which shines through the lineaments of this life like a shaft of imperishable light. Above all, it is not conferred at the start, but brought into being in this life through the quality of our conscious work. 

“Food for the moon”

Within the western Wisdom tradition this imperishable “other” is sometimes known as second body or “the wedding garment”. Actualizing it is seen – with some urgency – as the real business of our earthly sojourn.

Admittedly, there is a hard edge to this teaching, jolting us into responsible stewardship of our own time in human consciousness. We can choose, if we like, to drift downstream on the currents of pain or pleasure. We can invest our whole life’s energy worshiping the golden calf of ego. Or we can get with the cosmic program and come to grips with the real purpose of our time here as we humbly acknowledge that soul is not an automatic birthright but, rather, the final alchemy of a life lived here in conscious alignment with higher cosmic purposes.

Furthermore, the tradition states – essentially unequivocally – that this second body, or wedding garment, must be formed in this life. That is why it is called a wedding garment: because it is the appropriate and necessary regalia for the “wedding banquet” of eternal life – which, incidentally, does not begin after we leave this body, but here and now as this new substantiality we bear within us increasingly allows us to perceive, that the gates of heaven are, truly, everywhere.

This is soulwork in the true sense of the term: not the “soft” version that passes for soulwork today, preoccupied with unraveling dreams and deciphering messages from our “inner guides”, but the adamantine work of bringing something into existence here that will have coherence and substantiality beyond just this realm. Gurdjieff called it our “Real I”. [And, as Sandra brilliantly pointed out in the comments of my seventh post, Margery Williams Bianco’s character the Skin Horse reiterates this same concept in the classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit.]

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco

“You must find that in you that already lives beyond death and begin to live out of it now”,  my teacher Rafe taught me, encapsulating the essence of this teaching in his own plain words. To defer this project till after we die is too late; for, as Jacob Boehme bluntly puts it, “everything lies where it has fallen”. This is not, by the way, a question of “final judgment”, of some higher being deciding you are “unworthy”. It’s simply that the conditions in the next realm out, sometimes known as the Imaginal, are finer and drawn to far closer tolerances than in this life. Only something of a similar fineness will pass through the sieve.

I am theologian enough to know that the immediate argument conventionally trained Christians will raise against this is that it seems to defy the promise of Psalm 139 – “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” – and replace the intimate and personal nature of our lifelong human relationship with God with an impersonal and even harsh algorithm. I do not believe this is actually so. I will have more to say about the personal in my next blog, with the intuition that this alternative vision, certainly strongly intimated by Jesus, is actually far more merciful and cosmically nobling.

The second objection, of course, is that this sounds like a classic recipe for spiritual materialism – I can already picture the internet ads for second-body-building nutritional supplements and “wedding garment” consultants! But the checks-and-balances factor, built right into this equation, lies in the fact that the requisite food for building second body is, in Gurdjieff’s famous formula, “conscious labor and intentional suffering”. Second body cannot be attained through self-maximization, but only through the classic route variously known in the sacred traditions as kenosis and humilty. “We ascend by descending,” as the Rule of St. Benedict succinctly observes. There is no other way.

For those who opt out, preferring to live out their days in their egoic comfort zone (a condition known in the inner tradition as “sleep”), the potentiality offered at birth to become a soul is simply returned, stillborn. Nothing has germinated here of permanent substantiality; nothing has become viable beyond the womb of this life. Such existences, in Gurdjieff’s words, become “food for the moon”. At death their temporary selfhood dissolves back into its original physical components and takes its small part in the vast network of reciprocal feeding, by which the cosmos bootstraps itself. Nothing is finally wasted.

From the Work perspective, then, abortion is not something that befalls merely a fetus. It happens at all stages, and is in fact the tragic outcome of most human lives. Lulled into complacency by the illusion that we already “have” souls, we fail to engage the real task of spiritual germination and wind up dreaming our lives away.

Only when this inconvenient truth is finally, fully faced will the real question of what it means to be “pro-life” find its authentic balance.

When does life begin?

This piece by Cynthia Bourgeault is the third in a series beginning with “A Surprising Ecumenism“, her response to Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica. The second is “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal“.


In this third installment of what now looks to be shaping up as five-part series, I hope to bring a Wisdom perspective to that profound liminal sphere encompassing conception, birth, and the formation of the soul; for it’s in the metaphysical confusion surrounding these mysteries, I believe, that the roots of our present abortion conundrum really have their origin.

Note that I say “a Wisdom perspective” rather than “the Wisdom perspective”, for the Wisdom tradition is by no means monochrome. My comments here reflect the strands of the lineage that have most directly informed my own understanding; specifically, the Gurdjieff Work and the Christian mystical/esoteric lineage running through the Gospel of Thomas, the Philokalia, Jacob Boehme, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. They also reflect some of the thinking at the forefront of contemporary embryology, particularly as represented in the work of Dutch embryologist Jaap van der Wal.

The beginnings of life

The Wisdom tradition would affirm vigorously that life does not merely begin at conception; it is already well underway by the time of conception – “life” here understood not as a purely biological phenomenon, but as flow, dynamism, and intelligent purposiveness. In contrast to earlier, more mechanical models, which tended to see conception in Darwinian terms (“the fittest sperm takes the egg”), contemporary embryological research suggests a much more collaborative model, far more akin to Nash-ian Game Theory than to Darwinian survival of the fittest: a myriad of sperm collaborate to place a single sperm before the egg, which then opens – volitionally – rather than simply being battered or overwhelmed.

There is evidence as well that conception occurs according to a full-fledged Law of Three model. It’s not simply sperm / egg / baby but, rather, sperm / egg / X / baby, where X represents the infusion of some mysterious animating force beyond the immediate biochemistry.

Those of us who participated in the 2012 Tucson Wisdom School will no doubt never forget that powerful moment when Wisdom student Nancy Denman, a research embryologist from British Columbia, described how the process of conception actually occurs: “The egg opens to a single sperm”, she explained, “then closes”. For about twenty-four hours there is stillness. Then, all of a sudden, the egg starts vibrating violently. “‘Ignition!’ we all call it”. Then she added parenthetically, “Those of us of a more religious bent might be inclined to describe it as “the descent of the Spirit.”

However this X-factor is named, it certainly seems to function as a third term in the old “nature versus nurture” conundrum, offering still another line of explanation as to why babies conceived by the same parents and raised in the same household under the same value system frequently wind up displaying such markedly different personality traits. “Our essence comes from the stars”, Gurdjieff always insisted. There is something in the formation of a new life that cannot be reduced to pure biochemistry; it seems to be an emergent property of the act of conception itself.

Life not Soul

So far so good. There is nothing in the above that should raise any eyebrows whatsoever among even the most ardent pro-lifers. “What part of life do you not understand?” If anything, we are pushing back the leading edge of life into even earlier in the process, into the intrinsic purposiveness that Teilhard de Chardin and others would see as part of the irreversible intelligence of evolution itself.

But hang onto your hats – this next step is where we are about to part company rather dramatically with traditional pro-life metaphysics. For the Wisdom tradition would suggest that Life – which indubitably is present at the moment of conception if not well before – is not synonymous with Soul. The terms are often used interchangeably, and it is precisely here, in this confusion, that the Gordian knot is originally tied.

In traditional Catholic metaphysics, this “X-factor” would immediately be identified as “the soul”, the essence of the living human being. The soul is created by God and bestowed at conception. Once bestowed, it is henceforward immortal within the cosmos; death will change its state but will not destroy it. Thus, the soul trajectory is established from the very beginning; from this the moment of conception forward, this uniquely particular and fully formed human identity will make its way through the journey of life, along the way accumulating virtue or vice – in acknowledgement of which it will be assigned its permanent dwelling place in either heaven or hell.

In the light of this venerable but antiquated metaphysical road map (note how it’s steeped in “substance theology”, long since invalidated by contemporary scientific models), it is easy to understand both the urgency and the pathos dominating the “pro-life” strategy. Denying the gift of life to even a two-cell fetus is tantamount to killing a defenseless human soul. The assumption governing much of the pro-life rhetoric seems to be that somehow pro-choice folks don’t “get” that a human life is a human soul, and they need to be shown that it is, often in emotionally exaggerated and manipulative ways; hence those “abortion stops a beating heart” billboards.

The Wisdom tradition – at least the lineage of the tradition I have been formed in – would see it differently. What is bestowed in that moment of “ignition” is not yet a soul but, rather, the potential to develop a soul. Soul does not come at the beginning, it comes at the end, forged and fused in the crucible of life itself (or perhaps better, in the womb of life) through the conscious weaving of that hand which is dealt at the moment of conception.

The notion of a “developmental soul” comes as a shock and perhaps even an affront to traditional Christian metaphysics. But hear me out here: it has been a staple in the Western esoteric tradition from the get-go, as I will document in my next post. But even more compellingly, it holds the potential, I believe, to bring an authentic resolution to the abortion impasse, and to tie together that great desideratum so far escaping us: that integral “pro-life” stance that sees all stages of life as equally compelling and worthy of sacred protection.

Stay tuned for the next installment – to follow promptly.

Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal

This piece by Cynthia Bourgeault is the second in a series beginning with “A Surprising Ecumenism“, her response to Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica.


In my previous blog post, I invited members of our Wisdom community to begin to engage a conversation on the emotion-charged issue of abortion rights as a means to promote respectful dialogue to think beyond this singular issue. It is with no little “fear and trembling” that I launch a foray into this quintessentially Catholic moral ground. But to the extent that abortion has become the tail wagging the dog, chaining much of the Catholic political conscience to the decidedly un-Christian agendas of the religious right – and to the extent that this “elephant in the room” continues to go unmentioned in the otherwise compelling moral analysis recently emerging from Vatican – I feel some obligation as an American citizen and a wisdom teacher to at least try to get the ball rolling.

Forgive me: this is long for a blog. But take it in small doses, and take your time.

Some preliminary remarks

If my memory serves me correctly, in one of his earliest encyclicals the Pope already laid out some firm groundwork here when he warned against a myopic, single-pointed focus that inevitably twists moral issues out of context. That’s surely what the abortion issue has become in the US, an instantaneous flashpoint. But minus specific guidance as to how to back the Church down off this ledge, I don’t see a practical way to take the first step toward defusing the tension. Is anybody seriously going to be damned fool enough to say, “Hey, we’ve decided that human life doesn’t begin at conception,” or “The rights of the unborn don’t matter”? There seems to be “no way to get from he-ah to they-ah,” as we like to say in Maine, so the issue keeps running in circles.

Some preliminary reflections

Well-nigh universally, the liminal zones bordering life and death – i.e., what happens before birth or after death – have been regarded as a Mystery entrusted to the great spiritual traditions. The traditions offer different perspectives and instructions, but always with a common baseline of 1) respect for the sacredness of these passages; and 2) the need to prepare for these passages, and to live one’s life in conscious relationship with them. The plethora of spiritual practices offered by all sacred traditions are aimed, among other things, at developing a capacity to navigate this territory using more subtle and refined faculties of perception (in Christian tradition this has traditionally been referred to as “faith”).

Across the board, the experience of most committed practitioners is that they eventually “live into” an intimate mystical familiarity with these liminal zones, acquiring the capacity to personally validate spiritual truths inaccessible by the rational intellect alone. Apart from this special training, the rational intellect remains dominant and is the basis of our common social contract. And this, I would say, is a good thing, for the attempt to impose theological dogma concerning the liminal when the inner faculties have not been yet developed to personally validate it leads to the devolution of faith into “blind faith” and opens the doors to theocratic totalitarianism and manifold forms of spiritual abuse to which our culture has become increasingly sensitized.

In former eras, when the population of any given nation was overwhelmingly of the same spiritual tradition, it was fairly simple to conflate these two tracks. The word “catholic ” (as in “Catholic church”) literally means “universal” and, back in the era when the foundations of moral theology were being laid down, the known world was indeed just that. There were Catholics, “heathens”, and missionaries: not much in between.

Nowadays, that is no longer even remotely true. Even in our tiniest nations – and certainly in a nation as vast and sprawling as the United States – there is no longer a single presumed overarching spiritual tradition. There are many – and increasingly none. The fragile glue maintaining civility across increasingly diverse populations is the social contract itself. “Co-exist” is indeed the watchword of our times. Any attempt by one group to reassert its claim that its vision is truly “catholic” – i.e., universally binding – inflicts inevitable misery and violence on the rest.

For this reason, I would propose to offer here what amounts to an essentially two-tier solution governing our deliberations on the abortion issue. The first tier (which one might argue is actually the more “catholic” in the original sense of the term) is consistent with our evolving understanding of human rights and our growing awareness, in a converging world, of the need for our common human family to set universal baselines for sustainable “best practices” with regard to environmental protection, resource allocation, disease control, and population control. The second tier, encapsulating the wisdom carried in the sacred traditions, bears witness to the sacred potential of human life to come to its full spiritual fruition.

I will argue here that this “second tier” wisdom, regardless of the tradition from which it emanates, is binding within that tradition, not beyond it. But within it, lived with fidelity and depth, it has the capacity – indeed, inevitably WILL – serve to redeem and purify the rather clumsier practice lived at the common level.

So here is my six-point proposal. This is clearly – to my mind at least – simply an opening gambit that perhaps opens up a new way of framing the impasse. I eagerly invite your comments and refinements. For the moment I am thinking of this solely in terms of the USA, but hopefully it might have some eventual broader applications as well.

The first tier  (the basic social contract)

  1. We agree that it will be the government’s sacred responsibility to provide for the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” of each of its citizens.

This is the classic social contract built into the foundations of our nation, and for 241 years it has served us well.

  1. We agree that included among the fundamental rights implicit within these freedoms is the right for a woman to control her own body and to hold the decisive vote as to whether a new life will be formed within her body. 

I know that this one will feel like a punch in the gut to those whose sense of moral duty has been firmly pinned in championing the rights of the unborn. But it is the logical and necessary consequence of Point 1, which is in turn the necessary starting point for a social contract founded on a clear separation of church and state. While the government will do its best to provide for the rights of ALL its citizens – including those in utero – nevertheless, in those difficult circumstances when the two are in direct conflict, we agree that the rights of the present and quantifiable members of its citizenry take precedence over the rights of those still under the custody of the liminal sphere.

But we have not thereby disposed of all concern for the unborn! For those feeling punched in the gut, please continue on to Point 4. 

  1. We agree that in a world so deeply threatened by poverty, disease, and overpopulation, the government should exercise responsible stewardship by providing access to birth control and family planning.

These are envisioned not as moral concessions but as fundamental health rights.

This, then, would comprise my version of a sustainable social contract, with strong legal and moral precedent in the American notion of individual freedom.

The second tier

  1. We agree that the spiritual traditions are individually at liberty to invite or impose a higher standard of conduct upon their adherents in accordance with that tradition’s understanding of moral and ethical obligation. 

While this may at first sound like a double-standard, I believe it is one where there is already strong precedent in the spiritual traditions. Already in Catholicism, for example (in fact, in all sacred traditions featuring a monastic expression), marriage is seen as the general baseline while celibacy is seen as a “higher way”. The decision to walk the celibate path is not universally imposed, but on those who choose it, it becomes morally binding.

Traditionally the inducements offered to invite this higher level of commitment were pitched around personal fulfillment or excellence: a higher spiritual attainment, admission to heaven, etc. But as the Wisdom tradition has consistently maintained (and, as modern physics, specifically the concept of quantum entanglement, confirms), the real efficacy of this higher level of practice lies in its leavening effect upon the whole, raising the bar of spiritual energy and available grace for everyone. A spiritual path practiced with high integrity and commitment emits a transforming energy of its own, which goes much further in actually securing a higher level of spiritual understanding than individuals conscripted into a level of moral behavior they neither understand nor personally assent to.

My intuition is that a significant portion of Catholics voluntarily taking on the Church’s traditional moral teachings on family planning and abortion would do more to better the lot of the unborn than a entire nation forced into compliance with laws experienced as coercive and personally injurious. If the active practice of an authentic sacred tradition produces as its fruits “peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”, as Christian tradition (and all traditions) have staunchly maintained, then it is to be expected that these qualities, once actually attained, would percolate through the entire body of our country’s citizenry, if nothing else elevating the climate and respectfulness of the civic discourse. It has always been said that Christians taught first by example – by the fragrance of a life lived with compassionate integrity. It is still our best bet going into the future, particularly where the changes we’re looking to see involve those liminal realms – birth and death – where the spiritual integrity of the gesture is far more impactful than the immediate victory wrested by means which belie their ends.

Click the image for more information. Thank you to PiALOGUE.info.

The last two points are more general, extending beyond the specific abortion issue in order to attempt to establish a climate in which a pluralistic nation, in rapid social transition and spanning at least a three-level gap in levels of consciousness as measured by contemporary evolutionary maps (from amber to green, tribal- to world-centric) might still continue to engage in civil discourse and a healthy give-and-take:

 

 

 

  1. We agree that government will not intervene with the internal standards of conduct imposed by a spiritual tradition upon its adherents, so long as these standards do not directly threaten the public health or safety. Neither will it establish and promote these standards as binding upon all its citizens. 

I would expect this to be a continuing grey area – and rightly so – in that ongoing dance between religious freedom and public safety. There will still be regular legal challenges – as to, for example, whether Christian Scientists should be compelled to seek medical attention for their children or Old Order Mennonites forbidden to use corporal punishment on theirs; whether homophobic town clerks should be required to issue marriage licenses to gay couples or homophobic merchants be required to bake them wedding cakes. In a less polarized society than ours has now become, this would all remain within the realm of healthy give-and-take by which the collective social conscience is slowly nudged ahead.

In order to back down the polarization, however, which by now has escalated to unmanageable levels, I would add in a corollary here which, while it personally breaks my liberal heart, is I believe the only realistic concession that will represent a significant stance of “bargaining in good faith” to ease the present stand-off:

5a. The government agrees not to use its juridical power to impose secular affirmative action standards upon dissenting spiritual groups operating within their own sectarian networks. 

In this matter, I am much guided by the model set by my own Episcopal Church in its landmark decisions to embrace women’s ordination and gay marriage. While these decisions, once passed by the General Convention, became the law of the Church, there was a long timeline for total compliance, and wide latitude was given for dissenting clergy and congregations to slowly acclimatize to the new state of affairs through continued conversation and study, with the right to personally opt out of participation in actions that felt to them morally offensive (bishops opposed to women’s ordination, for example, would be able to place their women postulants under the care of a neighboring bishop, nor would a church adamantly uncomfortable with women priests have one foisted upon them). Time was allowed for healing and assimilation, with responses erring on the side of forbearance rather than a self-righteous pressing of the issue.

  1. Spiritual groups will refrain from seeking to impose their specific moral values or agenda as the law of the land, to the extent that these values either exceed or undercut baseline freedoms already guaranteed above.

A work in progress…

The proposal set forth here is admittedly a compromise. But beyond perhaps easing the polarization, I believe it actually restores a generically rightful balance. In arguing that sacred teachings are binding within a specific spiritual tradition but not beyond it, I believe I am not only acknowledging one of the realities of our pluralistic world, but actually calling on an inherent capacity of these two complimentary streams to counterbalance and bootstrap each other. At its best, the secular state can rescue the sacred traditions from their tendency toward monological thinking and extremism. And at their best, the sacred traditions remind us that the meaning of life is derived from exactly those liminal edges, in the renewed and deeper stabilization of the capacity to live as human beings according to those higher faculties of perception which have never been fully actualized – and by my estimation never will – within purely secular models. Severally and collectively, the spiritual traditions are the evolutionary omega, calling us on to what we have forgotten, or what we may still become.

I realize that many of my Catholic friends will be saying, “yes, but what about all those unborn babies?” As you recall, this proposal began with two assertions, both emerging from my perspective as Wisdom teacher. The first is that pre-birth and post-death belong to those great liminal Mysteries of life, and are best left in the custody of the sacred traditions; the second is that the spiritual practices carefully curated by each of these traditions afford access to these Mysteries in ways that the rational mind cannot comprehend. In the absence of this specific spiritual training (in Christianity, its lineage flows through contemplative prayer), perception will default to the rational mind, where abortion indeed looks like “baby killing”, and emotions instantly bridle at this presumed assault on the innocent. From the more rounded, three-dimensional perspective that opens up from “mind in the heart”, the situation takes on an entirely different coloration. It is this Wisdom perspective that I will exploring in my final blog post.

A Surprising Ecumenism…

This is the first post in a series by Cynthia Bourgeault. The second post, “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal” was posted July 26, 2017 and the third, “When Does Life Begin?”, on August 23, 2017.


Both my spirits and my hopes have been raised by the recent appearance of an important and already game-changing new article in the most recent edition of La Civiltà Cattolica.  This is a prestigious Jesuit publication, whose contents are personally vetted by the Vatican Secretary of State and which can thus be seen as a bellwether if not a de facto mouthpiece for papal policy. Entitled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, the article is the first attempt I have seen to drive a significant intellectual wedge into the murky moral alliance between conservative Catholicism and Protestant evangelical fundamentalism that helped to catapult Donald Trump into office and is still a cornerstone of his support.

The article created a well-deserved stir when it first began to circulate widely on the web during the week of July 9-16. By the end of that week internet access had been severely curtailed (presumably at the instigation of the publisher), while at the same time the remarkable analysis offered here began to catch the attention of the international news media. I am glad I printed myself out a copy before it disappeared from public sight; certainly it has already been a rich stimulus to my own creative thinking. Over the next two or three blog posts, I’ll share some of the reactions and implications it’s been stirring up for me.

In this learned yet accessible article, co-authors Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa (a Roman Catholic and a Presbyterian pastor, both of them respected editors and close friends of the Pope) trace the rise of Protestant Fundamentalism in the early twentieth century, exploring its major doctrinal assertions and detailing its increasing infiltration into American politics. They conclude with a sweeping rejection of these doctrinal claims as antithetical and dangerous to authentic Catholic belief. The article’s “blockbuster” assertion (understandably receiving wide play in the social media) is that there is basically no ideological difference between fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam: both draw their juice from an identical “cult of an apocalypse”, featuring a final confrontation between good (“us”) and evil (“them”) which will destroy the planet as we know it and usher in the reign of God.

The article represents a significant intellectual milestone and augurs a significant potential wind-shift in Vatican political activism (no doubt this is what has most caught the media’s attention). It is worthy of close study and discussion in our Wisdom circles if folks can get their hands on it (you can still sometimes get in by going directly to the La Civiltà Cattolica website and clicking on the Italian version of the article; an English language option will appear at the end).

While there are few surprises here for those already familiar with American religious history, the most welcome surprise is the message clearly being signaled here that the Vatican is finally waking up to the theological implications of this “surprising” alliance that a significant segment of American Catholicism has found increasingly tempting and is now taking a firm intellectual stance against its three constituent threads: the aforementioned “cult of an apocalypse”, the “prosperity gospel” (which has deeply influenced several US presidents including our current one), and a particularly distorted notion of religious liberty which sets the Church in permanent mortal combat with the presumed secularity of the state. The article powerfully calls the question on the present “ecumenism of hate”, as the authors name it, and lays out in contrasting detail Pope Francis’ vision of impartial and active engagement with the secular state in the hopes of securing a sustainable future for all humankind.

I applaud their work here because it lays a firm theological foundation for articulating the dangers implicit in the growing entanglement of the Catholic Church in American rightist politics. The article sets out clear standards by which, for example, self-styled über-Catholic Steve Bannon (specifically mentioned in the article) is in fact peddling a dangerously distorted version of Catholic teaching. It lays out clear benchmarks by which Catholics can sort through the confused rhetoric of evangelical fundamentalism and name its widening drift from classic Catholic doctrine. While the authors could have done more to clarify that evangelical fundamentalism represents a perversion of Protestantism as much as of Catholicism (not merely another of Protestantism’s myriad confusing expressions), their analysis is nonetheless a solid intellectual milestone. It is also reflective of the Pope’s strategic way of thinking: his preference for first building a solid theological and historical foundation for reflection and action, rather than simply leaping in with rhetorical or knee-jerk responses.

But the elephant in the room remains…

While I am deeply gratified for the breakthrough this article represents, I must say that I find it naïve to expect that it will shift a single stone in the present Catholic/fundamentalist political alliance. Because, in a glaring omission from the presentation, the real basis for this alliance is not fully exposed; hence, the analysis remains incomplete and its practical applicability limited. The article mounts a strong case theologically, but in so doing it manages deftly to sidestep the crucial point: that the real basis for the alliance is not theological but strategic. Nor is this merely a minority viewpoint, to be laid at the doorstep of a small subset of Catholic ultraconservatives; it represents the united “bottom line” of the Roman Catholic Church in America: the vast majority of its bishops, seminaries, and the message percolating into the parishes. The real root of this alliance, I believe, lies in the Roman Catholic Church’s continuing fixation on the abortion issue, together with its lesser but ever present and now vigorously reemerging sidekick, birth control. This is the practical motivation behind the devil’s pact with fundamentalism; if it takes casting one’s lot with a “cult of the apocalypse” to ensure that Roe vs. Wade is legally overturned, well, that’s the unfortunate cost of doing business.

It seems unfortunate that in an article otherwise so thorough and scholarly, this rather sizable elephant in the room escapes mention. The article thus creates the impression that all we have to do is wake up to the theological errors inherent in the alliance with Protestant fundamentalism, and Catholics will come streaking back to a more inclusive and life-affirming version of the gospel. Well, maybe. But if you think this translates into any significant flipping of the Catholic vote in 2018, don’t hold your breath.

To their credit, I am not sure that from the European (or even South American) perspective, the Vatican can really understand the ferocity of the way in which the abortion issue has enthralled the popular American Catholic imagination. It’s a quintessentially American stew, comprised in equal doses of high principles and sentimentality run amok. One need only to drive the interstate almost anywhere in the American South or Midwest and see the fully emblazoned billboards with a flat-lining EKG announcing “ABORTION STOPS A BEATING HEART” to begin to appreciate the pungent mix of sentiment and sentimentality that makes this particular issue such a moral flash-point. I personally know many Catholics (in fact, probably the majority of my Catholic acquaintances) who, although good, solid, thoughtful people, not otherwise inclined toward hysteria, feel so strongly that this issue is so essential to their practice of Catholicism – and so underrepresented by any other advocacy group – that they will reluctantly sacrifice the entire rest of the gospel’s “pro- life” teaching (as it might apply to immigrants, Muslims, accessible medical care, gun control, capital punishment) in order to secure this one point. It is this “unholy alliance” that really has provided the undefended back gateway – in fact, sluice-way – by which unethical politicians can continue to occupy their seats in congress, pawns in a game whose real movers and shakers are in fact the Ayn Rand-style kleptocrats (such as Paul Ryan, The Koch brothers, the Trump dynasty) or apocalyptic Armageddon-mongers such as Steve Bannon.

My continuing hope – which I have alluded to in articles and posts before – is that our brilliant and committed Pope will move increasingly in the direction of giving issue-specific theological guidance and direction to begin to confront this Gordian knot in a way that is both respectful of Catholic tradition and profoundly responsive to the desperate need of our one planet, trembling on the brink of environmental and social collapse.

In the face of this unprecedented global crisis, it is not enough merely to name and proclaim the ways in which the resurgence of Christian fundamentalism represents a perversion of Catholic doctrine. It is not enough merely to repeatedly denounce those currents in American politics fueling radical isolationism and environmental irresponsibility. It is not enough simply to continue to decry the Muslim ban, or lament the moral corruption of our present executive and congressional branches. These stances are all good insofar as they go. But we need to connect the dots. What is really needed – and comprises, I believe, the real Catholic moral priority of our time – is to develop specific guidelines for faithful Catholics detailing how, when push comes to shove, to weigh priorities and difficult trade-offs so that abortion does not become the tail wagging an increasingly rabid and dangerous dog.

I am not a moral theologian – or even a Catholic for that matter, so I recognize that I will have no standing in that particular conversation. But as a Christian Wisdom teacher and a concerned planetary citizen, I know that it is important for this conversation to be taking place and for imaginative new thinking to be invited from all quarters. Deliberations on this all-important topic so far left in the hands of the Catholic experts have yielded us no appreciable results; they’ve merely solidified the impasse. This is a human dilemma, and it is as a human family that will solve it.

And so I propose here to engage this conversation among our Wisdom Community, asking us all, from our collective data banks of spiritual insight and life expertise, to engage this crucial impasse and see if the act of intelligent conversation can itself generate a bit of third force. Over the next two or three blogs (writing not yet begun but intention herewith signaled) I will attempt, first of all, to lay out a potential pathway toward a new social contract with regard to the abortion issue, a pathway which, though admittedly a compromise, might be one that both Catholics and non-Catholics could live with. In the following, more extended blog, I will reflect on what light the Wisdom tradition has to shed on the beginnings of life and the nature of the soul, both key components in the present gridlock.

A good start has been made in this article, and I commend it to you all for deeper study and reflection. But in accepting its conclusion that joining forces with a distorted Christian fundamentalism is not an option, the next step is to move courageously to confront the “root of the root” of this nefarious allegiance and speak directly of – to – the elephant in the room. 

Opening to the Eye of the Heart: A Report

Nancy Van Kirk (cellist, artist, and soon-to-be Scot) offers this report on our recent retreat with the Rev. Matthew Wright, student of Cynthia Bourgeault’s and a big hit with all who experience his teaching! Matthew’s retreat was on the topic of the Gospel of Thomas, and Nancy, a recently-joined member of The Contemplative Society, reflects on her experience of Wisdom School and how we came around to opening to the Eye of the Heart. 


For a few days in March, several of us attended a Contemplative Society Wisdom School presented by Matthew Wright.  Entitled Opening to the Eye of the Heart, it offered an exploration of the Gospel of ThomasAbout twenty of us gathered at this amenable site that was warm and cozy in spite of lingering winter weather. Drifts of snow in the parking lot awaited spring thaw and there were dustings of snow in the night. Some days it was raining but, like a blessing, the sun came out at just the right moment to warm our “labora” efforts at pruning, raking, and sweeping the winter debris away. We left the Cowichan Lake Research Station trim and tidy. 

Being a Wisdom School (rather than a retreat), we embraced the four-part Benedictine balance of prayer and work, alone and together, while remaining silent during meals and maintaining the Great Silence at night. The daily practice of centering prayer, chanting, nourishing the body with excellent vegetarian food, grounds work outdoors, and receiving the ever-flowing richness of Matthew’s teachings made for an ideal Wisdom School experience – one whose rewards continue to be felt and remembered.

This is the second time Matthew has presented a Wisdom School sponsored by The Contemplative Society and we certainly hope there will be many more. Matthew Wright is from West Park, NY, an area near Woodstock, where he and his wife live on the grounds of Holy Cross Monastery, integrated into monastic life. He serves as part-time priest at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church. He is young, passionate, and articulate with a vast knowledge of contemplative practice, wisdom teachings, theology, religious history, and inter-spirituality. He responded openly and willingly to all questions and topics asked of him while offering well-structured, sequential teachings using Logia from The Gospel of Thomas and writings in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Philip. The teachings were balanced by embodiment through chanting and, eventually, by dance that moved us out of the circle of chairs and into the centre of the room. Gradually, it became apparent to me that we were opening to the Eye of the Heart – we were beginning to see with the organ of unitive perception. How we got there was through a process of engagement with five practices Matthew taught.

We began with his teaching on the role of silence. Matthew suggested thinking of silence as a container rather than an arbitrary imposition. With silence from the start, we quickly moved away from superficial opening conversations into a consciousness that focused on breath and heartbeat – on our own and those of the others present. Matthew mentioned that Jesus had a practice of silence in his discipline of quiet prayer: he would go to a quiet place to pray early in the morning. With silence we can become aware of our interconnection to all of life. Our opening chant Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me, based on Logion 108, complemented the teaching, setting the stage for an exchange of wisdom – the wisdom we could experience by participating as a group, the wisdom we hoped to acquire through the transformational words of Yeshua in the Gospel of Thomas, and the wisdom Matthew could impart through the teachings he planned to offer.

The second practice then, after silence, was interconnection. Matthew reminded us that interconnection is a focus of the Second Axial Age, the one we are in now, and that Jesus was an early master. This second age rejects the notion of the need to escape matter and the body that characterized the First Axial Age, and shifts us to reconnect with the world – to undertake the important task of belonging. Jesus embodied the fullness of human possibility and taught us about relationship with God, with each other, and with all creation. Thomas was a champion of this unitive, mystical understanding captured in the words of his Gospel. We noted that Teilhard de Chardin was also such a champion with his concept of Christogenesis, the universe itself as the unfolding of Christ. As the Second Axial Age takes hold, the notion of individual salvation is changing into a collective and cosmic salvation; we are also becoming the mystical body of Christ that is cosmic. We are in the early stages of awakening to the interconnection of all.

Matthew’s third practice was to give attention to present moment awareness. We sang the chant Attend to the living presence, here and now (based on Logion 59) that encourages watchfulness and vigilance. From Logion 59, we learned that present moment awareness can lead to greater compassion, knowing from a deeper center, seeing what is hidden, and achieving a unbounded consciousness. Presence, as we know, is an important practice taught by contemporary spiritual teachers such as Eckhart Tolle. Present moment awareness is also intertwined with the fourth practice – awakening to oneness. We were told that Jesus taught a sense of oneness that arises from the practice of attention and surrender. Indeed, it is also called love. Matthew suggested that we think of Jesus not as a priest nor a prophet but, rather, think of him as a healer and a teacher, or mashal in the Jewish Wisdom tradition. Jesus taught the path of inner transformation through aphorisms, parables, and sayings that are often like Zen kōans. It is these teachings that we hear in the Gospel of Thomas, a Gospel that shows us how to follow the contemplative path that Jesus (Yeshua) embodied.

Our understanding of the Gospel of Thomas was further enriched by Matthew’s teachings on related topics. First, he mentioned two historical events that provided important context and, secondly, he discussed several contemporary advances that continue to influence our evolving awareness.

Historically, one event was Constantine’s fourth-century acceptance of Christianity as the Imperial state religion and his call to solidify its creeds and canon. As a result, Christianity increasingly became a belief system rather than a path of transformation. To put it glibly, while the Councils attempted to hammer out the mystery, instead they just hammered the mystery out! Mysticism, in fact, became suspect, but survived secreted away in monasteries. The other historical event was the miraculous survival of the Nag Hammadi Library, discovered in Egypt in 1945. The existence of a Gospel of Thomas was known to the early church, but thought lost forever. Amazingly a Coptic translation of the entire Gospel was among the Nag Hammadi findings. Scholars have needed decades to interpret the Gospel of Thomas and free it from the shackles of a mistaken Gnostic label. 

On the influence of contemporary advances, Matthew included several topics that may be familiar to contemplatives. One is our growing knowledge of levels of consciousness as described by Ken Wilber and others, and by the developmental framework of Spiral Dynamics (Graves-Beck). These show that humankind has evolved enough to recognize the interconnectedness of all beings, plus they reveal that the ability to accept spiritual interpretations that differ from one’s own (second tier) is a sign of higher consciousness. Another advance is the idea of inter-spirituality as proposed by Wayne Teasdale, which shows that the path of transformation taught by Jesus is similar to transformative pathways in other traditions such as the Sufi tradition of Islam. A third influence would be scientific research on the neural pathways of the brain and the heart that reveal far greater complexity within and between them than previously recognized. These factors, plus the historical context, may help explain why it has taken two millennia for us to become conscious of our interconnectedness and the contemplative path that Jesus taught.

In addition to silence, interconnection, present moment awareness, and oneness, with the fifth foundational practice that remains we arrive at the Eye of the Heart. Both Cynthia Bourgeault and Matthew tell us that the heart is the organ of spiritual perception, so by drawing the mind into the heart we can learn to perceive wholeness, we can grasp the unity of existence. Thomas’ gospel presents a “map” that gives us clues to the consciousness of Jesus (Yeshua), and by studying this gospel and putting its teachings into practice, we can begin to put on the mind of Christ. This fifth practice is heart-knowing, or to find singleness of heart. The eye of the heart allows us to see from oneness, to leave the ego and its duality behind and become a “single one” or Ihidaya – a title used by early Syriac-speaking Christians. To make ourselves whole we need to see that duality is resolved from within; then when it is resolved we will find that authenticity, honesty, and integrity are the result. Seeing from oneness is to drop our false identity, to find our true self, to find sovereignty, and to be God’s manifestation set from the beginning.   Our one true being, our treasure, is the heart. Many familiar sayings point to this primary insight: finding the Pearl of Great Price, or finding the Treasure hidden in the field. To see with the eye of the heart, to arrive at this level of consciousness, is also to experience healing (salvation). From this perspective, sin is not the breaking of rules but a lack of alignment.

  • Silence
  • Interconnection
  • Present moment awareness
  • Oneness
  • Heart knowing

Matthew had even more teachings to offer to help us on the path of transformation and a new consciousness. One was to see the Gospel of Thomas as laying out a vision of what Raimon Panikkar calls Christophany – seeing all beings as a manifestation of Christ. Another was to see Mystery in the Gospels as experientialnot revealed in words alone but manifest when mind, heart, and body are in alignment. When they are, the human has wholeness and integrity of purpose.  The integration of all three will align us with the infinite source and allow the heart of God to flow through. This idea, in turn, leads us to the essential insight that every being is an unfolding of Christ and each of us can enter into the consciousness Jesus had. The incarnation then is in us.

Another teaching involves the intersection of a vertical (eternal) and horizontal (life) line, a simple cross (+). The heart is at the centre of the crossing where time and timelessness meet. Our goal is to live at the center where the intersection is constant.

Matthew discussing the redshift/blueshift model.

Matthew also discussed the contrast between a redshift and a blueshift model applied to the Cosmos and the Divine.   Redshift is a physics term that refers to the way light’s wavelength increases (weakens) as it moves away from its source, shifting from the blue to the red end of the colour spectrum in the process. Is the world a mistake (as in Gnostic mythology)?  Are we in perpetual exile, increasingly dense and distant from the Divine? A redshift model would say yes, that as we move more deeply into the world, we move further away from God. But what if God is actually moving more fully into form through the world resulting in a blueshift model? In these shift models, red is moving away from the centre and blue is moving towards it. Matthew advises us to stop our up and down thinking, recognizing instead that divine movement is outward from the heart. God is flowing more fully into form as on-going incarnation, reminding me of the beautiful Sufi sentiment, “I was a Hidden Treasure and I longed to be known…”. 

This report is just a sampling of the rich teachings Matthew presented and the range of topics we explored during Opening to the Eye of the Heart, through the Gospel of Thomas and supplemented with brief readings from the Gospels of Mary Magdalene and Philip. In no way can my report do justice to the event. Matthew is a pleasure to listen to, offering perceptive answers to questions, supported by his wisdom and experience, and I was reluctant to leave and let go of listening to his wise words.

This Wisdom School also included experiential activities in multiple ways, each well planned and connected. It was insightful to read different editions of Thomas as a group comparing words and possible meanings between them. We chanted and danced to Become all flame, moved into humility and quietness in meditation, practiced action and stillness, dance and rest, life and essence. One woman shared a poem inspired by the event; another led a group to see the old growth forest. Knowing that inter-spirituality is a passionate interest of Matthew’s, we delighted in the chance to try Sufi chants and movement: the tahlīl, shouts of “Hayy” and “Hu”, simple whirling. We knew such practice could only enrich the contemplative path we were exploring by offering connection, however small, to another’s faith. Indeed, we might discover facets of our own soul that would not be possible otherwise.

The Gospels we studied were a natural way to integrate opposites, to awaken to a new humanity. Matthew’s closing words left us with the profound insight that “we are coming into unity in diversity, and diversity remains.” 

Thank you, Matthew, for your teachings, and to The Contemplative Society for bringing him here.

Substituted Love

Cynthia Bourgeault has been leading a Lenten e-course from Spirituality & Practice titled, “Becoming Truly Human: Gurdjieff’s Obligolnian Strivings”. As Easter approaches, we offer a brief excerpt of Cynthia’s commentary from that course in the midst of Holy Week. To purchase the entire e-course (available on-demand soon), please visit Spirituality & Practice.


The fifth Obligolnian Striving: “the striving always to assist the most rapid perfection of other beings, both those similar to oneself and those of other forms, up to the degree of the sacred ‘Martfotai’; that is, up to the degree of self-individuality.”

It’s one thing to be willing and able to help a fellow being: to send them strength, reassurance, even an energetic boost. But is it possible to actually change places with them so that we take the weight on our own shoulders and they are permanently set free?

Painting by Brian Kershisnik

Definitely not, most spiritual traditions say. In the words of my Sufi teacher, a butcher’s son: “Every mutton hangs by its own leg.” Assistance, yes; baraka, blessing, clarity, counsel, and strength: in all these ways we can help. But spiritual liberation itself is non-transferable. You can’t become conscious unconsciously, by someone else doing it for you. It is the fruit of your own inner work.

I raise this point, obviously, because we are now less than a week out from the beginning of Holy Week. And during that week, Christians universally will be staring straight into the face of the claim that Jesus did precisely what most of the other sacred traditions see as impossible: that he is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the World.”

The usual way in which Christians have come to hear this statement, however, is through the distinctly dark filter of “atonement theology.” In its starkest version, God is seen as being angry with the people of Israel for their repeated backslidings; He requires a human substitute to pay the price. (In Christian fundamentalism this is often languaged as “Jesus died for your sins”.)  The roots of this theology lie in the Old Testament temple ritual, where each year a compulsory scapegoat was sent out into the desert, carrying on its back the collective sin of the Hebrew people. Early Christians simply took over this metaphor and Jesus became the cosmic scapegoat.

The English mystic Charles Williams was working from a whole different model when he brought forward his notion of substituted love, a teaching which had actually been present all along in Christianity, but under-emphasized. Essentially, it overrides the idea of victimhood, that punitive mainstay of atonement theology. Rather than passively enduring a victim’s death at the hands of an angry God, Jesus steps up to the plate and voluntarily offers himself in an intentional act of “lightening the burden of our Common Father” – i.e., taking on his own shoulders a bit of that collective burden of suffering that weighs so heavily upon the human condition.

Fundamentally, for Williams, it’s all about carrying another’s burden. It can be as simple as carrying the shopping bags for an elderly neighbor or as wildly fantastical as taking upon yourself an attack of black magic aimed at your companion (the plot of his own spiritual masterpiece, All Hallows Eve.)  It is widely celebrated in C. S. Lewis’s well-loved fantasy, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe when the innocent lion-king, Aslan, voluntarily offers his life in payment of the debt incurred by the wayward Edmund. But it is also as concrete and historical as civil rights activist Jonathon Myrick Daniels stepping before the gun of a deputy in Haynesville, Alabama, and taking the bullet aimed at his black companion.

These actions make no sense in the world of formal cause and effect. Nothing really changes; the carnage still goes on. And yet, from each of these examples, there rises a certain fragrance, a deeper and more mysterious scent of what it might mean to be a human being. Precisely situated on the line where kenosis (self-emptying love) crosses “exchange” (“love your neighbor as yourself”), they speak powerfully of a love which is deeper than human origin, and hence, not bound by finitude.

When a candle is snuffed out, it sends up a final plume of smoke, bearing the fragrance of all it has been. When Jesus died on the cross, according to the gospels, the fragrance of his being, rising like incense, knocked the Roman centurion on guard right off his feet. “Truly, this man was the Son of God,” he proclaimed. And the strength of that fragrance still lingers in our world to this day; in fact, it continues to rise.  

My friend Kabir Helminski once observed, “Two stones cannot occupy the same space, but two fragrances can.” I offer that image as a way of picturing, perhaps, how this fragrance of substituted love at the heart of the Paschal Mystery might mysteriously intertwine, interpenetrate, and ultimately enfold our sorrowful planet in the at-ONE-ment of its embrace.