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.

Mary Magdalene in Metchosin

Liz Vickers, board member of The Contemplative Society, reflects on her recent experience preparing and “post-holding” for the Quiet Day celebrating the Feast Day of St. Mary Magdalene.


On July 22nd, the Feast Day of St. Mary Magdalene, I drove with a friend out to Metchosin – by my  request, in silence, so as to be quiet and grounded for the day. I was well prepared to lead the Quiet Day with Eileen; well prepared, and a bit nervous. I have organized and attended many retreats and Quiet Days with The Contemplative Society, but this was my first time as a “post holder”.

In preparing for the event with Eileen, meeting with her and exchanging ideas to co-create the shape of the day together, I learned so much from her about how to go about constructing a container for our practice. Re-reading The Meaning of Mary Magdalene by Cynthia Bourgeault, I learned a lot about Jesus and about his relationship with his Beloved, and how the church came to deny Mary her true role as Apostle of the Apostles. This process of preparation taught me a lot about myself while deepening my understanding of this saint, but it was only the beginning.

When the day came, we gathered, fifteen of us, both experienced meditators and some who were new to contemplative practice, in St. Mary’s Anglican Church at the top of the trail head to Whitty’s Lagoon. We sat encircling a small round table, an altar with icons, roses and rose petals, and a red candle, red being the colour often associated with Mary Magdalene.  After a welcome and overview of the day, we entered more completely into the space with a short guided embodiment practice. We did this briefly at various intervals during the day and were reminded to listen with our hearts, the organ of spiritual perception. The background to the day was silence – it was tangible. We chanted Be Still and Know That I Am God, and sat.

Sitting in silence with others in a beautiful place: I can’t think of anything better to do on a Saturday in the summer. What was it that stirred in me so deeply leading up to and during this day?

For lectio Eileen chose a  reading from a beautiful poem by Robert T. Pynn (which can also be found on p. 163 of Cynthia’s The Meaning of Mary Magdalene):

No longer the object
of my affections,
he has become the 
subject of my truth.

The memory of
his  love
no longer clings to
the skin of my life,
he has dissolved
the mirage
of separation
and pours
the pure wine of
his presence into
the waiting
chalice of my heart. 

This led into a profound meditation. Sitting and going deep within I saw or felt the image of the chalice that was my heart, open and available for Presence to enter.

During the Quiet Day, I loved the sense of Mary Magdalene that was with us in the celebration of her Feast Day. We chanted inside the church and outside on the grass, prior to meditation and in body prayer. We thought of her as the Samaritan woman at the well whom Jesus asked for a drink from as we chanted in a circle on the grass the chant Let All Who are Thirsty Come. We chanted it as Grace before eating lunch, just as they do at the Taizé community in France, a place where a door opened in me that I never knew I had. France, where legend has it Mary became a hermit in a cave at Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume after Jesus’ death. We poured ourselves into movement as we chanted Take O Take Me As I Am, recalling the Song of Songs, imagining Mary speaking these words to Jesus, her Beloved, and making these words our own.

During the two-hour break at noon, I went down the trail to Sitting Lady Falls and listened to the sound of the cascading water, smelled the green smell of the leaves, and soaked up the beauty and the stillness of the trees.

The idea of being a post holder in today’s world was given meaning through a beautiful ritual. Eileen talked about what it meant to be a post holder, with the example of Mary Magdalene, who stood faithfully by her Beloved in life, through death and resurrection, and who carried his teaching forward as the First Apostle. As we listened, each of us held a twig taken  from a basket that was handed round. Then we each placed our twig in a bowl filled with sand and silently made a pledge to be a post holder in our own unique way. My pledge was to show up, and to keep showing up. The twigs formed a beautiful symbol for the day and our group, each one an individual, and all forming together an intricate and beautiful pattern. And, again, the image of a receptacle that was available and ready to be filled came to me. The chant What We Need is Here was followed by a sit.

Spending a day in retreat is one thing. Taking with you what you have experienced into the world of everyday living is the challenge. After our final sit we finished with a reading from an article (“We Were Made For These Times” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes). Then we left the room in silence and stood in a circle outside.  A raven talked to us from a branch in a fir tree above us against the backdrop of the deep blue sky. The day was complete.

I loved spending time with this unique group of people. It seemed to me that everyone who was meant to be there was, and that each person present had an equally important role to play. After the lunch break, having spent the morning in silence, we had stood in a circle and each of us in turn said our name, and our name was repeated back to us by everyone present. It was a beautiful expression of the contribution that each of us made, and of the support that we gave and received to and from each other. Feeling that we were all equally responsible for the day, it was much harder – though not impossible – to feel self-conscious.

At the end of the day I felt relief that things had gone so well. I felt refreshed and filled with gratitude: gratitude for the opportunity to be a post holder, to Eileen for inviting me, and for her wonderful teaching, and to Mary Magdalene for lighting our way.


For more on Mary Magdalene, explore our audio teachings by Cynthia Bourgeault, Mary Magdalene & the Path of Conscious Love and Through Holy Week with Mary Magdalene.

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.

Advent 2016 – Letter from President

Dear Members and Friends of The Contemplative Society,

Advent: a time of waiting, of drawing more inward, a season of contemplation. It is easy for our personal energies to be dispersed and scattered, especially at this time of year. In the midst of the restlessness, fear, and general noise of day-to-day living, I am mindful of the need to consciously and honestly take a closer look at how we manifest our own energies. Advent is an opportunity to take time, to pause in the midst of all that calls us outward. We have an opportunity at this very moment as we read this to sense the activity and energies within our own minds, emotions, and physical bodies. Can we practice being here now in the midst of all that pulls our attention away from the present moment?

Advent is an opportunity to open to that place within where the deep, the holy, the inexpressible resides. Soon the festivities, celebrations, and joyful outpouring will be upon us providing much opportunity to manifest outwardly in abundance, gratitude, and thanksgiving. The weeks of Advent are a perfect container for allowing the soul to hibernate and quieten for a time. During these last days of Advent might we, like Mary, “treasure up these things and ponder them” in our hearts, or as Fr. Bruno says below, “allow yourself to be gathered into it”, into that place where  “you know within yourself the perfect stability of the universe”?

Fr. Bruno Barnhart died a year ago, on November 28th, the eve of the first Sunday in Advent last year. Fr. Bruno was a Roman Catholic priest at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, and has been on my heart and mind this Advent. Cynthia and Bruno were two of my earliest contemplative teachers. Contemplatives on Vancouver Island were blessed to have a group who annually brought Fr. Bruno here to lead and teach at extended silent retreats at the Sisters of St. Ann’s retreat house, Queenswood, and later at Bethlehem Retreat Centre. The extended sitting, as well as the teaching, deeply nourished me as well as challenged my pre-existing assumptions of what defined a spiritual life. I am deeply grateful to have been the recipient of Fr. Bruno’s words and his remarkable presence which gave witness to a life lived deeply. Those times of deep retreat laid a firm foundation and continue to inform my spiritual practice and growth today.  This section from Fr. Bruno’s book, Second Simplicity (p. 20-21) seems timely for this season of year:

Friend, just for a moment, allow your mind to disengage itself from its surface and to be drawn inward by the pull of its root, its invisible ground and stem. There at the center you are aware of something uncircumscribed, which is one with yourself, which is yourself illimitable. There: we should say here, for in this place there is only here. This is the here of being, the place of the burning bush, the crossing of time and space, of history and possibility, of experience and cosmos.

You cannot think of this, it is not an object of thought. You cannot focus on it, but from time to time it enkindles, it becomes conscious within you, and you can allow yourself to be gathered into it.

…What if it is not a place but everyplace, what if it surrounds you, so that the problem is not that of finding a way to it, but of finding the way out of the ways in which you are stuck? What if is the everywhere that we are imprisoned from, blinded from, the burning reality that we reach toward at every moment through the strong vertical bars of our mind, our will?

But still there are these moments of consciousness. There are moments when you know within yourself the perfect stability of the universe and the absolute sufficiency, the intrinsic rectitude of light.

…Maybe the way is a crazy multiple of love for this thing inside us: the pearl, the treasure. But be careful not to name it in such a way that you bring it home. For you do not live where you think you do. Instead, let it lead you. Let it be wild, an eccentric center, a city hidden in the wilderness, an unspoken name, an unspeakable syllable, a fire burning all the words into a wild and weaving script of smoke. Come back to this again and again.

One practice that can support our intention to open and receive is Centering Prayer. Cynthia’s first book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening is one of the best books available on this practice and I eagerly await the follow-up to this book, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice, which is now available for pre-order from Shambhala Publications. Fr. Thomas Keating writes of Cynthia’s newest book, “A masterpiece of spiritual wisdom firmly rooted in the Christian mystical tradition. A brilliant analysis of nondual Christianity in theory and in practice and a major contribution to the Centering Prayer movement and to interspiritual dialogue.”

I am grateful to contemplatives around the world who continue to support the mission of The Contemplative Society in its efforts to encourage contemplative practice and wisdom teaching. May this Advent and Christmas be a holy time for you filled with abundance and joy.

Heather

 

Heather Page, President

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

Thanksgiving 2016 – by Heather Page and Jennifer England

Soon after the recent Wisdom School with Cynthia Bourgeault, retreat participant Jennifer England (Integral Master CoachTM with sparkcoaching.ca) wrote a piece reflecting on Omega, Teilhard de Chardin, the process of evolution, and love. Heather Page, president of The Contemplative Society, provides the introduction, a Thanksgiving letter, also inspired by the Wisdom School. 


Dear Members and Friends of The Contemplative Society,

Canadian Thanksgiving will be celebrated this weekend. As many gather around the table to celebrate family and abundance I am reminded of a passage Cynthia referred to in her recent Teilhard Wisdom School here on Vancouver Island.

Cynthia made reference to a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans:

 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

choirCynthia reminded us that the force of love cannot be contained in one person; we need to bear the beams of love together. She used the illustration of a choir as an example of how every voice is necessary for the expression of the whole. Each individual brings a distinct quality adding to the magnificence of the combined expression.

Jennifer England attended this recent Wisdom School and I have included her beautiful reflection below. In her own authentic and distinct voice, Jennifer captures a unique expression of the Wisdom week.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, or simply pause in gratitude, may we sense the wondrous ways we are connected to a larger body of family, friends, and colleagues as well as to all of creation. I am particularly grateful at this time of year for the body of contemplatives who share, as Jennifer writes, the yearning “to become intimate with the active force of love”. 

Bless you all,

Heather


Consciousness Rising

On all our ski trips, Dad drew the Omega symbol in a snow bank with one of his poles every time we stopped. There were so many, you could have found your way home just by following the symbols. He drew it in every birthday card, Easter Sunday drawing, and I’m sure on our country mailbox and my first bottle of scotch. Whether it was embellished with eyes, a pointy nose, and a half smile, it has been with me since I was a young girl.

Even though I knew I should read before Wisdom School, I was reluctant to delve into my $1.95 copy of The Phenomenon of Man by Teilhard de Chardin.¹ I had his work jostling for room on my nightstand, but couldn’t get into it late at night – it felt too intellectual and heady. But on the first night of the retreat, Cynthia helped me find a way in. Wisdom School, she pointed out, is not about downloading information but about wisdom formation. Knowing with more of you.

Photo by Sher Sacks, Wisdom School 2016 participant

Photo by Sher Sacks, Wisdom School 2016 participant

As the first night descended, we gathered with our sheepskins, meditation quilts, journals, and mugs of tea. A framed photo of the Teilhard, the French scientist/Jesuit priest, was nestled among lit candles, rocks, and fossils on a nearby table. And we, of all ages, were ready to find our way to the Omega.

Teilhard was a keen observer of evolution, expressed through the dynamism of planet life. Everything is in motion, he said, and he called this cosmogenesis. Over 4 billion years on Earth, evolution has brought us the geosphere, the biosphere, and more recently, the noosphere. Throughout this evolution, Teilhard observed a pattern of increasing complexity in life structures on the outside and increasing consciousness on the inside. As I reflected on the changes in my brief lifetime, I can see and feel this motion and complexity: industrialization, time/space compression, globalization, the internet and smart phones, climate change, mass migrations…

Whether it is through our awkward groping in the dark or the constriction that comes with too many people in a limited space, evolution works because it’s under tension. As long as things have their own space, there is not motivation or impetus for change. From here, Cynthia took us through Teilhard’s ideas on convergence – whereby humans are the “axis and arrow of evolution”. Like lines on the globe merging at its poles, so too is the direction and pulse of transformation. So, as the planet becomes dense with humans and space and resources become limited, we naturally experience increasing tension. For me as a hopeful humanist, I’d like a bit more space and less stress on our globe, but for Teilhard, he saw this as a good thing and would have loved densification of neighbourhoods and sweaty subways.

And this is where I began to really pay attention with Teilhard. Because, if you are a bit like me, and have felt fear listening to the news – whether on Syria or US politics, it’s easy to feel discouraged as to where we’re collectively headed. But for Teilhard, our dissonance and difference is where unity begins. With friction between the parts of a system, we experience more exchange, connection – enabling the radically personal to emerge, those deep and vulnerable places of being human when faced with anguish, grief, uprootedness.

What is it on behalf of? Intentional design or sentimental hope? Resurrecting a deeper quality, Cynthia reminds us it’s the drive shaft of love wanting to become revealed and known in the granular, the personal, and the messiness of everyday human life. And this active force of love is the undercurrent of it all…leading us to a collective experience of increasing interiority, where all things are joined.

alpha omegaThis is the Omega. And, Teilhard quietly says in the Epilogue of The Phenonemon of Man, the Cosmic Christ. Simply, as I understand it, the incarnation of Jesus in human form – where the movement of Divine love became holographically part of this planet.

How to know more of this, with more of me?

The Other Way to Listen by Byrd Byron is one of my favourite stories to read to my kids. It’s about a young boy and an old man who talk about what they can hear. The Old Man says he can hear a cactus flower bloom in the desert. The boy wants to learn. The Old Man tells him he has to learn another way to listen. Only then will the rock speak. The lizard howl. The cactus sing.

I am groping my way to listen differently. And this is the wisdom formation that Cynthia talks about. The path of wisdom is to become intimate with the active force of love within that yearns to be known and related to the yearning in another.

At the retreat, I was staring up at the millions of fir needles in an old growth forest, watching raindrops fall from hundreds of feet up. In that moment, I remembered the Omega in the snow. All of the Omegas. Hundreds of them carved into the frozen water, sliding over billions of years of layered bedrock.

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Jennifer is an Integral Coach who lives in the Yukon with her family. She was one of the 50 people, and one of the youngest contemplatives, who attended this year’s Wisdom School. Read more about her on sparkcoaching.ca.


Notes:

    1. Cynthia Bourgeault recommended the following translation for our Wisdom School: Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Human Phenomenon. ed. Sarah Appleton-Weber. Sussex Academic Press: 2003.