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.

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. 

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.

Unified in Hope

This letter comes from Cynthia Bourgeault in a time when many are celebrating new hope, while others are struggling to barely hold on. Her words of wisdom, drawing on Gurdjieff’s Law of Three and the Teilhardian Synthesis help us to remember that we are all united in the universe’s unfolding of consciousness, that this time is for all of us.


Dear Wisdom friends,

I want to thank you all for the beauty of the work you are collectively doing around this election. There have been torrents of words already, and I am loathe to contribute to the stream, particularly so many of you have spoken so eloquently and succinctly about it. Honestly, I think Bob Sabath pretty much nails it in his short reflection: that combination of courage, openness, forgiveness, renewed commitment, and compassion that will be required of each of us as we pick up the pieces and move ahead.

img_0682-3I am so grateful to be working with you all in this bandwidth, with the tools and perspectives we have been gradually developing in our wisdom work over the past years. From Teilhard, we have the reassurance that evolutionary change flows over deep time. Events which, viewed at the wrong scale (i.e., too close up), look like devastating upheavals, actually turn out to be relatively minor systemic adjustments. Beneath the surface ripples and rapids, the river itself is still flowing smoothly in its channel. Hope does not divert course.

From Gurdjieff we have the Law of Three and a powerful set of tools for processing and applying (a.k.a., invoking, channeling, mediating, etc.) third force. Many of you are already doing this. It seems clear (to me anyway) that by election night, the Trump candidacy carried the affirming force (i.e., pushing, initiating); the liberal progressive establishment carried the denying (i.e., resisting, holding back, status quo). From a Work perspective (i.e., through identifying lines of action), my initial take is that Donald Trump carried third force, breaking up the political logjam and achieving forward movement again. It seems that he also did this in a classic way: by reversing the lines of action. What had heretofore been the “conservative” or “denying” force was suddenly catalyzed as the affirming in a paradigmatic Law of Three upset – and remember, these forces are lines of action in and of themselves morally neutral. That’s where we come in.

As of November 9th, we are all in a new ball field. Now that the shake-up has occurred, it is our Wisdom calling to use our heads and hearts in a broader, Teilhardian sort of way, to look at what is needed now and how we might collaborate with it.

The vision of a single, unified humanity burns as strongly as ever as these tectonic plates of consciousness and culture grind up against each other. I sense very clearly that my own work calls me strongly to continue to work in this task of strengthening and deepening the international and interspiritual aspects of my teaching work. It was very meaningful to be in the UK on election night, to meditate with a group of nearly 300 seekers in Bristol, and to reaffirm palpably the power and presence that quietly unstoppable Christ-Omega, drawing us along to that fullness of love that has been the trajectory, the sole trajectory throughout these 14 billion years. That is the corner of this vineyard in which I feel personally the most impelled to work.

Back in our home turf, am I totally off-base in my intuition that the missing, underlying third force has something to do withThe_Holy_Trinity SAFETY? Remember the example I give in The Holy Trinity and The Law of Three of my friend Jane before the grant adjudication board, recognizing clearly that the scarcity base had to be transformed into an abundance base before anything could shift? Viewed from a slightly longer range and slightly out-of-left-field perspective, I keep seeing that this election of Donald Trump in a way completes an octave that began on September 11, 2001. For more than fifteen years now – the whole lifetime of three of my four grandchildren – the country has struggled under a pervasive sense of vulnerability, impotence, and helplessness, of having been subjected to a collective rape which still paralyzes the resolve, the “gout de vivre” as Teilhard calls it. It expresses itself across the board: in the obsession with guns and gun violence, in the addictive power of realityTV, and, in the more privileged classes, with the neurotic hysteria around food, security, and child safety. I really believe that at a subliminal level, Trump’s “Make America great again” speaks to that sense of releasing the paralyzed, hang-dog fear which is the only America we have come to fear. It’s not really about economics. It’s about something way deeper…

At least a basis on which to begin…If we could quit calling each other idiots and “deplorables” and begin to deal with the deep terror, the desperation and helplessness which is felt across the board, we might begin to sense the ways to draw together….

What will be required of us all working in this particular wisdom bandwidth, I believe, is that old quality metis, which Peter Kingsley described so well in his book Reality. It really means an alert, supple shrewdness – like Jesus, when cornered by the question, “Must we pay taxes to Caesar?” It’s an ability to be present in our bodies and in our hearts, to live beyond fear and judgment, and because of this non-identification, to be able to use the materials immediately at hand in the moment to see what must be done – again, immediately in the moment.

If anything has been the victim of this election, it’s pluralistic consciousness: the “mean green” sense of sanctimony, moral rectitude, urgency, and judgmentalism that has infected so much of the liberal progressive culture where so many of us have tried, with the very best of intentions, to do our work. Weighed in the balance, alas, and found wanting. We have to learn to work from a more skillful place, reading the signs of the times, trusting love, finding our voices once again to “speak truth to power”.

Yes, a lot of precious sacred cows are about to be slaughtered, I fear. We will see social and environmental benchmarks we have worked for for decades summarily undone. (I don’t need to enumerate; WAY too depressing.) We must understand this in advance and not let every defeat become an Armageddon, a reason for falling on our swords. The earth herself has a will, and the one body of humanity has coalesced too far to be deconstructed. They will be our partners. They have intelligence and resilience we can draw on, if we can only not lose the way in fear and despair.

And so, Wisdom crew, “Allons!” Let us go forward. There is work to be done; prayer, joy, courage, and strength are deeply needed. And we DO know the way there. This is Wisdom’s hour.

Love, Cynthiathe-time-is-now

Saying “Goodbye” to Felicity Hanington

Dear friends in The Contemplative Society,

It is with great sadness that I must share the news with you of the death of Felicity Hanington in Victoria last Saturday, October 29th. Felicity was one of the earliest members of The Contemplative Society, and I owe both her and her amazingly talented family an enduring debt of gratitude, both professionally and personally.

Felicity fought a long and hard fight with cancer. It was 1999, nearly 20 years ago, when she first received her diagnosis of breast cancer. At that point she herself was barely 40, and her young children Charlotte and Mathew were 9 and 4 respectively. Opting for fiercely aggressive chemo, Felicity fought the beast into remission – and then proceeded to totally remake her life, with spiritual growth and inner authenticity at the center of everything. It was a gamble that paid off profoundly. She lived to see her children grow into amazing, productive adults, and to face both life and death as gift.

EagleIsland2012Feb2My own most powerful interface with the Hanington-Dawe family came in 2001, when Felicity and husband Larry Dawe discerned that they were called to help me build my hermitage on Eagle Island. They came, Felicity still barely recovered from that first bout with chemo, and proceeded to give their hands and their hearts to raising my hermitage. That it stands and has housed me for more than a decade is entirely their profound and mysterious gift to me. I am still awed by their generosity – and fortitude. Perhaps from her now-more-spacious viewing platform, the beauty of this gift will shine through even more clearly.

Felicity evidently completed her life just as she had lived it: with openness, receptivity, grace, and gratitude. I share her obituary with you here as a small token of the gratitude and awe I feel for this Wisdom seeker who has exemplified the path in better ways than I will ever know.

felicity-hanington

To Larry, Charlotte, and Mat, my deep condolences, but a gratitude as well for the precious additional years you were able to be together. And, for her spirit, which I know you all carry within you with equal grace and fortitude.

En christo,

 

Cynthia


The board also wishes to share our condolences with Felicity’s friends and family.

We invite you to share your sentiments below in the comments.

Love is the Answer – What is the Question?

This blog post first by Cynthia Bourgeault appeared on Ilia Delio’s new website, The Omega Center on September 12, 2016.


I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known. And so I created the world, both visible and invisible.

This famous saying from the Hadith Qudsi, the extra-koranic sayings of Islam, speaks to the question of why God would want to bring creation into existence in the first place. Astonishingly, the reason given is not for majesty or dominion, but for intimacy, the yearning for self-disclosure, to know and be known. Seeded into the cosmos is that same primordial yearning, reverberating as a psychic harmonic of the big bang.

Teilhard de ChardinTeilhard de Chardin probably never encountered this quote. His familiarity with Islam was painfully limited, particularly in its mystical and Sufi branches with which he was ironically so deeply in tune. But in a real sense, this little gem of Islamic wisdom almost perfectly encapsulates Teilhard’s own magisterial understanding of cosmic love, transparency, and the personal.

How did we get to be here? How did anything get to be here? Teilhard judiciously sidesteps the classic metaphysical stipulation of a fall, an “involution” into matter. As a scientist rather than a metaphysician, he does not have to begin with the grand “why” of things; the “what” of them will suffice. And what he actually observes seeded into the stuff of the universe is a paradoxical dialectic: intense atomicity, granulation, the myriad bits and pieces of our materiality—and yet, at the same time, an underlying unity, and a force calling the “unorganized multitude” to move in the direction of “the unified multiple”.¹ However the pieces may have gotten broken in the first place, what he observes everywhere in the universe is a countering force—he names it love—moving beneath the pixilated surface drawing all things together. “Driven by the force of love,” he writes, “the fragments of the universe [continuously] seek each other so that the world may come into being.”

For Teilhard, love is not first and foremost a sentiment, let alone a sentimentality. It is first and foremost a geophysical force, built into the very structure of the cosmos. In an astonishing one-liner toward the end of The Human Phenomenon he writes:

In all its nuances, love is nothing more or less than the direct or indirect trace marked in the heart of the element by the psychic convergence of the universe upon itself.²

love-universe

In other words, if you’re familiar with his theories of complexification and convergence, he’s saying that this primordial impulse toward unification (experienced at the biophysical level as attraction and at the psychic as eros) actually has its antecedent in the physical shape of our planet itself, its perfect sphericity inherently designed to shove things closer and closer together so that they converge, complexify, and grow more conscious. Whether by chance, “intelligent design,” or its own innate teleology, the whole thing seems to be set up like a cosmic gristmill for the extraction of consciousness.

When we love, then—when our own hearts reach out in tenderness, desire, or plain old physical attraction—Teilhard asks us to remember that the cosmos, too, passed this way, seeking at the macro-level what we are now experiencing at the micro.
We are in each another holographically, this world and us: the whole of the “universe story” carved in our own hearts, and the whole of our own story reverberating within the cosmic heart.

jakob_boehmeLike that great other cosmological visionary Jacob Boehme (1585-1624), Teilhard has a penchant for moving back and forth very quickly between the physical and psychic realms. What for Boehme is friction at a physical level very quickly becomes anguish at an emotional level; hence, he can speak of the anguish of creation awakening to itself. In a similar way, Teilhard moves between the “outside” of things and their “inside.” From the outside perspective, love is a form of energy. It is an aspect—no doubt the primary aspect—of what he calls radial energy, the energy of evolution, the energy released in the process of complexification/consciousness. It is the force that runs through the cosmos as an energetic counter-current to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, drawing things to become more unified, vitalized, and whole. From the inside—the psychic perspective—love retains its traditional meanings of compassion, intimacy, and generativity, drawing things to become more deeply themselves—“I am, may you be also,” as Beatrice Bruteau concisely summarizes it. But it also conveys for Teilhard an additional connotation: spiritualization, which means the release of yet another quantum packet of that sum total of consciousness and conscience (and, in French, they are the same word!) seeded into the cosmos in that initial eclosion of divine yearning that launched the whole journey in the first place.

When Teilhard speaks of “harnessing the energy of love,” he is speaking in both senses, both inside and outside. In the end, they are holographically embedded in one another, so the bridge between the cosmic processes and our own hearts is trustworthy.

Thus, we can look to our own hearts to tell us more about what Teilhard sees as the essence of the complexification/consciousness process—and hence, of evolution (and hence, of love): his insistence that “union differentiates.” We often think of love in terms of merging, uniting, becoming one, but Teilhard was wary of such definitions; his practiced eye as an evolutionist taught him something quite different. True union—the ultimate chef d’oeuvre of love—doesn’t turn its respective participants into a blob, a drop dissolving in the ocean. Rather, it presses them mightily to become more and more themselves: to discover, trust, and fully inhabit their own depths. As these depths open, so does their capacity to love, to give-and-receive of themselves over the entire range of their actualized personhood.

The term “codependency” was not yet current in Teilhard’s day, but he already had the gist of it intuitively. He knew that love is not well served by collapsing into one another. It is better served by standing one’s own ground within a flexible unity so that more, deeper, richer, facets of personhood can glow forth in “a paroxysm of harmonized complexity”.³

The poet Rilke, Teilhard’s contemporary and, in many respects, kindred spirit, is on exactly the same wavelength. “For what would be a union of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?” he asks in his Letters to a Young Poet. “Love is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another.”

“To become world in oneself for the sake of another…” Hmmmm. Does love really ask us to become world? Does love make worlds? Is that what love does?

True, Teilhard does not directly tackle the question of first causes. But a clue to the cosmological riddle is surely embedded in his understanding of love as the driveshaft of evolution. Suppose this love is not a pre-existent “property” attributable to God, as in the classic substance theology of the past. Suppose it is instead an alchemical process: a tender and vulnerable journey of self-disclosure, risk, intimacy, yearning, and generativity whose ley lines are carved into the planet itself. The whole universe story has come into being because God is a hidden treasure who longs to be known. And the way—the only way—this knowing can be released is in the dance of unity-in-differentiation which is the native language of love. If it takes a whole village to raise a child, it takes a whole cosmos to bear forth the depths of divine love.binary-stars2

 


Notes:

    1. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Human Phenomenon. ed. Sarah Appleton-Weber. Sussex Academic Press: 2003. Page 28.
    2. Ibid. Page 188.
    3. Ibid. Page 184.

 

Contemplation and the Christian Faith: An Interview

This piece was originally posted on Christopher Page’s blog, In A Spacious Place. Christopher was interviewed by a Year 11 Australian student in Brisbane. Her class was investigating contemplation as the highest expression of intellectual and contemplative life, identifying the intra-religious connections of contemplation between three religious traditions.


Recently I received an email from a student in a Study of Religion class asking me “to answer some questions about contemplation and the Christian faith.” She may have got a little more than she bargained for as my reply to her questions exceeds 1,000 words.

Having put down these thoughts, it seemed worthwhile to share them here:

 

Responses to a Study of Religion Class Students Questions on “Contemplation and the Christian faith”


– What is contemplation to Christianity?
It is important to be clear about how we are using words. The noun “contemplation” is not synonymous with “contemplative practice”.

Contemplation is either:

  1. a state of awareness of God’s presence and action in all of life to which we open through contemplative practices, or
  1. one form of silent spiritual practice in which the practitioner intends to open to an awareness of the presence and action of God at work in all of life.

In these two senses, “contemplation” in Christianity is used to refer to the inner path of faith and practice in which a person of faith seeks to open more deeply to an awareness of the Divine at the heart of all creation and to surrender to God.

– Is contemplation/contemplative practice the best way to connect to God as the suprasensuous (above/inaccessible to the physical senses)? Why/why not?
There is no “best way to connect to God”. In fact there is no way “to connect to God.” All human beings are connected to God. There is no way to be alive and NOT be connected to God. God is the breath of life, the well-spring of all being, apart from Whom there is no life.

all-sacredThe issue is NOT “connection”; the issue is awareness. The question is not, “Are we connected to God?” but “Are we conscious of God, open to God’s work in our lives, and responsive to God’s Spirit?” All spiritual practice aims to enable the practitioner to open more deeply to the presence and action of God and to live more responsively to the flow of love that is the fundamental life-force of the universe. Every person must find the path that works best for them to help them become more sensitive to the secret hidden inner stirrings of the Spirit.

The anonymous author of the 14th-century English spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, wrote:

Should it seem that the way of prayer I have described in this book is unsuited to you spiritually or temperamentally, feel perfectly free to leave it aside and with wise counsel seek another in full confidence.

(Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing And The Book of Privy Counselling. trans. William Johnston, S.J. NY: Image Books, 1973, 143)

This is wise and gracious advice. Every person needs to be encouraged to find the way that resonates with their lives to deepen their consciousness of God.

– What are the spiritual benefits of actively participating in contemplative practices?
It is important to be cautious in speaking about “spiritual benefits”. Spiritual practice is NOT just one more form of self-help discipline. The aim is NOT to make us better people. The aim is to open to an awareness of the presence and action of God in all of life. Contemplative practice seeks to help the practitioner become more sensitive to the subtle moving of God in all of life. It aims to support us in surrendering more deeply to the energy flow of life and loosening our resistance to the realities of life as they are.

With this caution in mind, it is likely that following a spiritual path that genuinely nurtures surrender and acceptance will deepen a sense of peace and groundedness in our lives. Faithfully following a life of spiritual practice will probably make us more compassionate, more open, more flexible, and help us to live more gently in this world. We will likely find ourselves less bound to external circumstances, less dependent upon the feedback of other people as a source of motivation for our lives, and less anxious and driven. We will probably find that we are able to live more freely independent of the constant driving power of likes and dislikes.

There is always a danger of turning any practice into an idol. Jesus said, “It is written,’Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him'” (Luke 4:8). This means that God is the only goal of spiritual practice. The orientation of spiritual practice is letting go, not getting somewhere. We do not aim at peace, harmony, a sense of well-being; we aim at God. These qualities for which we long may follow, but they are NOT the goal.

The goal is to surrender to God and to open more fully to God.

– How often should someone participate in contemplative practices?
One of the goals of spiritual practice is to move beyond “should.” There are no “shoulds” in spiritual practice. Every person’s life is different. We are all at different places in our spiritual journey. The Spirit of God works in every person’s life in unique ways that are particularly suited to that person. God is a great respecter of persons and honours where each person is in the journey of life.

We need to be deeply aware of our personal life circumstances and to respect the realities of our lives. It is not realistic to ask a young parent with small children to spend twenty minutes twice a day in silent prayer. A retired person who lives alone and has a relatively orderly life may have the freedom and space to give more time to intentional spiritual practices than a person who is in the early stages of establishing themselves in the world.

Life has seasons. There are some seasons in which some practices are appropriate and feasible. There are other seasons when such practices are not possible. We each need to open to the guidance of God’s Spirit and find the practice that is suitable for our lives in the season in which we are living.

Contemplative practices are always gentle and respectful.

– How does Centering Prayer connect to contemplation?
Centering Prayer is one particular form of contemplative prayer practice. It aims to develop in the practitioner a greater ability to surrender to the presence and action of God at work in all of life.

– How do you know the right time to do contemplative practices, and how do you prepare yourself for them?
See comments above on “should”.

There is no “right time” to do any practice. The only goal is to find a life pattern that works for the particular person. The spiritual life is guided and governed by the Spirit at work in the person’s life. There is no pattern that fits every person. We must live in response to the specific working and call of God’s Spirit in our lives.

Having said all that, it is important to note that setting aside a specific time and place for one’s practice does help to develop regularity and discipline. We are more likely to develop healthy life-giving spiritual habits if we regularly sit in meditation and reinforce this intention by showing up consistently in the same place at the same time every day. We humans are embodied spiritual beings; so our physical surroundings, time of day, and body patterns will help or hinder our spiritual practice.

Meditation-Group-at-UVicIt can also be a substantial support in meditation practice to connect with a community of people who regularly sit together. The exercise of meditation in a group deepens the experience of silence and is a great encouragement to regular practice.

All of life is preparation for contemplative practice and all contemplative practices are preparation for life. Spiritual life is a sacred circle into which we are drawn when our hearts are open.

– Why is it important to understand our spirituality?
It is not “important to understand our spirituality”. When we enter the realm of spirituality, we are entering the realm of mystery. Spiritual practice draws us to the limits of the human capacity to understand. In spiritual practice we stand on the edge of the great deep darkness of unknowing that resides at the heart of all existence.

Spiritual practice may lead to greater wisdom; but it is not a path to understanding in any rational, cognitive sense.

In spiritual practice we intend to open to human faculties that are deeper than the intellectual and emotional functions we use to navigate a great deal of life. This is what Jesus was speaking about when he said, “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).

We go into the “room” of the human heart when we step aside for a moment from the distractions and preoccupations of daily life and open to an awareness of the deeper moving of God’s Spirit. This awareness comes not primarily at a cognitive or emotional level. It comes “in secret,” in a subtle hidden realm that, while including thought and feeling, transcends both thought and feeling. Spiritual life aims to open to and be sensitive to this subtle hidden realm that is the true nature of all human existence.

Advent 2015 – Letter from President

As Advent draws to a close, Heather Page, President of The Contemplative Society, reminds us of how love was and is made manifest. Also, a special announcement regarding Cynthia Bourgeault’s plans to visit Vancouver Island in 2016. 


Dear Members and Friends,

As we approach the final days of Advent and move into Christmas celebrations, I am filled with gratitude for those who support The Contemplative Society in a variety of ways: from our faithful volunteers to those who offer steady financial support, as well as those who bear witness to the mission of the society through their steady contemplative practice. Although based in British Columbia, Canada, TCS is a global community offering and receiving support from contemplatives throughout the world.

Advent - Christ Church Cathedral

I am also grateful to Cynthia Bourgeault, our principal teacher and advisor, who continues to teach and model incarnational Wisdom to a growing audience worldwide. Through Wisdom Schools, retreats, workshops, books, on-line e-courses, and audio and video recordings, this teaching continues to reach people hungry to hear and practice the ancient wisdom which is at the heart of early Christian practice but often forgotten in our culture today.

We are delighted that Cynthia has agreed to be with us on Vancouver Island, September 19-24, 2016, when she will teach on the writings of Teilhard de Chardin. Cynthia says she aims to make Teilhard’s writings “less dense and see how he is carried through in liturgy and practice…” We will begin taking registrations in the spring. Be sure your membership is up-to-date so you will be the first to hear when registration opens. Cynthia’s retreats fill quickly!

As Christmas approaches, I am reminded of Cynthia’s teaching on love made manifest in the midst of “density and jagged edges”. God chose to incarnate, to suffer constriction, and to carry divine love and sorrow together in a finite body as witnessed and embodied in the Christmas story. I want to share a beautiful passage from The Wisdom Jesus that seems appropriate for our day:

Could it be that this earthly realm, not in spite of, but because of, its very density and jagged edges, offers precisely the conditions for the expression of certain aspects of divine love that could become real in no other way? This world does indeed show forth what love is like in a particularly intense and costly way. But when we look at this process more deeply, we can see that those sharp edges we experience as constriction at the same time call forth some of the most exquisite dimensions of love, which require the condition of finitude in order to make sense – qualities such as steadfastness, tenderness, commitment, forbearance, fidelity, and forgiveness. These mature and subtle flavors of love have no real context in a realm where there are no edges, no boundaries, where all just flows. But when you run up against the hard edge, and have to stand true to love anyway, what emerges is a most precious taste of pure divine love. There, God has spoken his most intimate name.

Let me be clear here. I am not saying suffering exists in order for God to reveal himself. I am only saying where suffering exists and is consciously accepted, there divine love shines forth brightly. Unfortunately, linear cause-and-effect has progressively less meaning as we approach the deep mysteries (which originate beyond time and thus have no real use for it). But the principle can be tested. Pay attention to the quality of human character that emerges from constriction accepted with conscious forgiveness as compared to what emerges from rage and violence and draw your own conclusions…

…Our jagged and hard-edged earth plane is the realm in which this mercy is the most deeply, excruciatingly, and beautifully released. That’s our business down here. That’s what we’re here for.

[Source: Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus (Shambhala, 2008), 99-100.]

My prayer is that we might be given courage, patience and great humility so “that we may learn to bear the beams of love”. May we be conscious of how this love manifests in the days ahead.

With sincere gratitude,

Heather Page
President