Reflections of a Wanderer: Unpacking the “Way of Union” Retreat

You wander from room to room
Hunting for the diamond necklace
That is already around your neck

~ Rumi

Wandering, hunting, seeking, yearning…sometimes I think that what is around my neck is a heavy burden…yet I am invited to treasure the beautiful necklace that is there, and has always been there.

My 65th year has been a year of wandering, pilgrimaging, seeking to make sense of my life of yearning, seeking. I started the year by walking the Camino de Santiago and shared in the pain and exaltation of thousands of other pilgrims, with thousands of different reasons for pilgrimaging. I began to get a very slight but visceral sense of embodiment…could this be what it is to embody Christ? How could I sustain this? I came home to a deeper commitment to my Catholic roots and my contemplative practice in the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM) tradition.

But it is so hard to be Catholic in these times and, while I feel an enduring whisper to stay, there is also anger and deep frustration, despite positive changes in recent years. So the questions always are there: Is this what Christ intended? Is this what God created us to be? Why is change taking so long? In seeking answers, I am drawn to Christian mysticism and Sufism, particularly the teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and Rumi.

So I was very interested when I learned that the “Way of Union” retreat was to be offered on Vancouver Island by The Contemplative Society. Nonetheless, I hesitated about going because of time and cost. But everything seemed to conspire to draw me there, including the generous offering of a scholarship, so I signed up. As the weekend began, I felt immediately embraced into a community of spiritual explorers, men and women of diverse ages seeking understanding of how to bring Christ’s love into our day to day lives and thus be “agents of social change”.

Shortly after the retreat was over, and with barely time to gather my breath, I left for three months to volunteer at the new WCCM community at Bonnevaux, France. And with three times per day meditation and physical labour, I unpacked what the learning of the Way of Union retreat, and this whole year of wandering, means to how I should live each day, indeed each minute. And I saw that they are integrally connected.

The day I left Canada, Fr. Thomas Keating died. The WCCM honored his life in prayer and in virtual participation in the celebration of his life. Bonnevaux sits on the French Camino and we explored ways that we can support pilgrims on their way to Santiago. I began reviewing my notes from our time with the “Way of Union” teacher, Matthew Wright.

The notes from the retreat highlight that community is “grist for the mill of transformation.” What transformation am I invited to in community with The Contemplative Society and the WCCM? I am reminded that, in contemplative practice, wisdom is recognized as perennial. How do I reconcile that with ubiquitous suggestions within Christianity that Christ alone is our Saviour? What does it mean to embody the “bridal chamber” or place of union in a world dominated by separateness and power-over? I often feel deep fatigue with the need to turn away from dominant messages. Our days of exploration with Matthew encouraged us to hold our emerging awareness in spaciousness, as non-identified witnesses. It reminded us that, in the perennial traditions, there are several levels of self-hood or different mansions. And the level I am at in this moment is where I need to be. Right here. Right now.

According to the Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said: Let him who seeks not cease from seeking until he finds; and when he finds, he will be disturbed, he will marvel, and he shall reign over the All.

One month after the retreat, I am beginning to embrace what it might feel like to be disturbed in this search and look forward to continued exploration. 

But most importantly, I am much more appreciative of the diverse contemplative traditions within Christianity and outside of it, the support The Contemplative Society provides through scholarships and other accessible resources, and the role it plays in fostering interfaith dialogue and mysticism around the world. The people supporting The Contemplative Society truly are diamonds on my necklace.  

With deep and heartfelt gratitude!


To support people like Kathleen, give a gift to The Contemplative Society this Giving Tuesday*! In addition to providing scholarships, the support of our donors helps to bring world-renowned teachers like Cynthia Bourgeault and Matthew Wright to our community, fund the recording and production of audio teachings from these contemplative masters, and provide other free or inexpensive resources on our website. Give a gift on Giving Tuesday*, and receive a special bonus:

  • brand new donors and members who renew will receive access to either an exclusive video from Matthew Wright OR an exclusive video from Cynthia Bourgeault!

  • previous donors/members who top up their previous 2018 gift, renew their membership with an increased gift, or become a monthly donor will receive access to both exclusive videos from Matthew Wright and Cynthia Bourgeault!

Reward yourself and human consciousness – give today!

*Only donations received by TCS (or postmarked) on November 27, 2018 from 12:00 am to 11:59 pm PST are eligible for video access. Access to videos expires December 20, 2018.


Kathleen’s perspectives are shaped by a diverse background living and working in Canada’s North and in inner-city communities in Vancouver, BC. Having raised three sons as a single mother, she has an enduring commitment to social justice and community development. Now retired, Kathleen seeks to link her passion for contemplative experiences with a commitment to inclusive communities and her family involvement as a grandmother. She now lives in Gibsons, BC and co-facilitates a weekly Christian meditation group there.

From Covenants to Consciousness in the Book of Job – Part 3

This post continues our series of bringing you more Wisdom from your fellow students of the contemplative path. We hope you will find these posts enriching, enlightening, and inspiring for your own journey. If you would like to submit a post for future consideration, please email admin@contemplative.org.

Read on for the third part of a series from our deeply knowledgeable audio ministry editor, Peggy Zimmerman. Additional posts are listed below:


By the end of our last post, the Job story has led us to three happenings:

  • Yahweh has had a prick of self-awareness, reflective consciousness.
  • His dark side has been uncovered and now planted in human and Yahweh’s knowing or, in Job’s words, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad” (Job 1:10).
  • Yahweh is faced with a choice of relating with his creation in a new way or letting creation collapse back into an ineffable unity.

So far, we have approached and understood these ideas from the premise that creation is all about the Endless Unity yearning to know itself, to become human — the divine plan. This post will continue our explorations from a slightly revised take on this plan. But first some terms need defining.

A “plan” implies thought or consciousness, which raises the discussion about the state of consciousness in the Absolute. To remain true to the antinomy of the Endless Unity, it is a state of neither identifiable consciousness nor unconsciousness, but rather non-consciousness. Consciousness, as ultimately some form of communication between “somethings” (as per Ilia Delio’s insightful definition), cannot be in the no-thingness of the Absolute. Likewise, unconsciousness has nothing to be “un” about. While both may be regarded as latent or potentials, they have no meaning within the antinomy of Unity.

With this understanding, the divine plan may be more precisely called the divine trajectory. We can have some confidence in substituting this word as we boldly state our premise that the fundamental a priori essence of the ineffable Absolute is Unity. It will eternally move to reestablish its Oneness. Thus, the ontological journey may be reframed from God yearning to know itself to an inevitable irrepressible trajectory of God’s diverse features moving toward the essential state of unity. However, with the totality of antinomy split outwardly, that essence must actually be a re-unity in a different state; i.e., a space-time reality evolving toward Oikonomia — the “reunion of created and uncreated realms” (Bourgeault, HT, p. 182). The unmoving Alpha is ever-moving toward Teilhard’s Omega Point.

While this reframing may seem like semantics or reasoning in a circle, the focus on a trajectory and reunification provides a different position for viewing the incarnation and the Trinity. Otherwise, we are led too quickly to simply seeing God as love and as longing to know itself.

Given the three Job happenings listed above, Yahweh’s long-distance relationship with creation can no longer be justified— self-aware humans now know too much, as does Yahweh. His antinomy has split apart and omnipotence is ruling the roost destructively. His creation could no longer be what we might call a virtual reality operating from an obedience-based software program. The covenant relationship has been too prone to failures to assure his dispersed and opposing qualities will be united again. In short, Yahweh could longer relate as a long-distance creator of cosmic reality; he had to be that reality throughout its invisible and visible realms. More precisely, Yahweh had to be forever becoming, unfolding and enfolding the cosmos through stages of rising consciousness and finally to transformed consciousness; i.e., Teilhard’s superconsciousness accumulating in the noosphere and culminating in Oikonomia. Emanation had to transition into immanation.

Yahweh’s features (or “names”) emanate out in their own separate ways, primarily vibrating to their independent subtle energetic frequencies as psychic forces. To gather these psychic forces together, Yahweh’s essence of Oneness had to reside in a conscious being who could contain and live from a unified, non-dualistic knowing. Enter Jesus. How does the infinite become finite and restore its perfect wholeness forever? The way and the means are revealed in the life and acts of Jesus the Christ, but not as directly as first appears and has traditionally been understood. Moreover, as wisdom students we know that the Jesus events did not take the divine trajectory to its destined target point — Oikonomia.

So what was the role of Jesus? First, he embodied his “father’s” essence not in a state of unity but as a flow of unifying energy. At the same time in history, he embodied the consequences of psychic forces run rampant. In his Job encounter, Yahweh ran smack into (or, in wisdom speak, witnessed) the consequences of the conditions and endless choices imposed by separated opposites entrenched in a reality of “hard edges” — a dualistic reality (Bourgeault, WJ, pp. 97-98). The full implications of Yahweh’s exposure to the dark side of creation have to be experienced by him in some experiential (i.e., incarnated) way, not just virtually.

A second role of Jesus was to be a sacrifice (an act of making sacred). For Jung, this sacrifice served to expiate Yahweh’s immoral treatment of Job — divine mercy must finally correct a divine wrong (Jung, p. 43). We can from our reframed position go a step deeper and see the sacrifice as an atonement for the Endless Unity’s initial violation of its essence, the rupturing of its perfect wholeness and rest. On the micro level this amounts to expiating the original state of separation (sin) that humans are born into.

With his embodiment role and redemptive death, Jesus as the first anointed self-aware being was prepared for his third role — his reconciling act in the “harrowing of hell,” as Cynthia insightfully suggests (WJ, pp. 119-124). Expressed through our reframing, Christ carried the unifying vibration into the manifesting world’s center (heart) where the psychic forces enter physical reality as spiritual realities. Thus, Christ is not only the model of divine re-unification, he is the initiator of it — the Holy Reconciler. He has established a way for re-unification in the new dimension of creation.

Let’s pause here to make some associations explicit. With consciousness being any form of communication, Christ through self-aware intentional consciousness has set up a specific line of communication by embodying the flow of unifying essence. Through his unflinching steady position (as demonstrated by Job), Christ holds all dualities together and stirs the deeply buried spirit of Oneness embedded in every psychic force. Thus, with this conjunction, the exchange between opposites is grounded in a mutual give and take to restore wholeness. This is in the Christian wisdom tradition called love, relieved of any emotional fixation. It involves kenotic giving and humble taking in the unfolding of unity in diversity.

Thus, the way is established by Christ, which is integrated into the means for walking the way. In a fourth and fifth roles, Christ resurrects and leaves humanity a Paraclete, a mediator — the Holy Spirit. His resurrection is the penultimate reconciliation as death (suffering, pain, evil) becomes intrinsic to the transformation of mortality into immortality. Thus, Christ’s resurrection is not so much conquering or denying death (i.e., anti-life) as it is transforming physical life into transfigured being.

Could it be that the energy involved in the cosmic reconciling and the third force alchemizing of the life-death collision into the new arising of a transfigured risen Christ was densified by, or even created, the Holy Spirit? Perhaps this idea about the Holy Spirit brings together the paradoxical first and second laws of thermodynamics by injecting in them the spiritual law of a cosmic trajectory toward re-unification. The heat loss (entropy) from the reconciling “work” is gathered in the Holy Spirit.

At any rate, by whatever process, the Paraclete (mediator) can be viewed as a reconciling force flowing and accessible in this world’s reality. By opening our centers of being (our hearts) to this spiritual energy, we have the means of becoming complete humans working toward a new humanity, as envisioned by Teilhard. The creator’s means of communicating with its creatures is no longer restricted to visions, dreams, myths, and symbols as with all his previous spokespersons. We now have a direct and personal party line, carrying the unifying spirit between us and the Endless Unity. We can experience this direct line in such practices as Centering Prayer, during which heart/mind connections and neurological re-patterning are occurring, as being verified by a growing body of research.

The bottom line is the infinite and finite have a new relationship built on reflective consciousness entering into creator/creature exchanges (communications) with the mutually beneficial intention of re-unification. Moreover, as Christ taught, our transformed consciousnesses of non-duality are forming a body, a new (transfigured) humanity, referred to as the body of Christ or the Oikonomia manifested.

With the reframing developed so far in these posts, we can approach with renewed wonder the wisdom formula depicting the flow of the Absolute into matter where each factor is a densification of the previous factor:

Endless One > psychic forces > spirit > energy > matter

In this formula we can see Boehme’s idea of the big bang and Teilhard’s observation that “particles can now be treated as transient reservoirs of concentrated power” (Teilhard, p. 13). Also, although “for science energy currently represents the most primitive form of universal stuff” (p. 14), Teilhard posits that “all cosmic energy is fundamentally psychic [spiritual]” (p. 30 and p. 230). Thus, “some rudimentary psyche exists in every corpuscle (in the infinitely small, that is infinitely diffuse, state)” (p. 217).

With these thoughts we can extend the above formula as a starting point for reconsidering the Trinity in the final post. As a confirmed scientist, Teilhard eschews metaphysical inquiry, but he repeatedly flirts with it and challenges us to take up the task of broadening the boundaries of science.


Peggy Zimmerman has been as a technical editor, environmental and urban planner, university instructor, mental health counsellor, and human resources manager. Since retiring sixteen years ago, she has participated in environmental activist work. In that time she also rediscovered her Christian roots and set out on deepening her spiritual life, largely through a personal study of the Christian wisdom tradition. She arranged for the introduction of Centering Prayer to the Comox Valley, facilitates a weekly sit at her church, initiated and continues to facilitate a monthly Taizé service.


References:

  • Alden, Robert L. Job. Vol. II in The New American Commentary series. Broadman & Holman Pub., 1993.
  • Anonymous. Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. Robert Powell, trans. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putman, 1985, 2002.
  • Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. NY: Random House, 1993.
  • Barr, James. “The Book of Job and Its Modern Interpreters”. Lecture delivered in the John Rylands Library, 10 February 1971. Available at www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk.
  • Boehme, Jacob. Genius of the Transcendent: Mystical Writings of Jakob Boehme. Michael L. Birkel and Jeff  Bach, trans. and eds. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2010.
  • Boehme, Jacob. The Way to Christ. Peter Erb, trans. Toronto and NY: Paulist Press, 1978.
  • Bourgeault, Cynthia. (HT) The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2013.
  • Bourgeault, Cynthia. (MMag) The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2010.
  • Bourgeault, Cynthia. Teilhard for Our Times. Spirituality & Practice, 2016. Available at https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/ecourses/course/view/10182/teilhard-for-our-times.
  • Bourgeault, Cynthia.  (WJ) The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind — A New Perspective on Christ and His Message. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2008.
  • Bourgeault, Cynthia.  (WWK) The Wisdom Way of Knowing. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.
  • Bruteau, Beatrice. God’s Ecstasy: The Creation of a Self-Creating World. NY: Crossroad, 1997.
  • Clement, Olivier. The Roots of Christian Mysticism. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993.
  • Delio, Ilia. The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2013.
  • Gospel of Thomas. Lynn Bauman, trans. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 2004.
  • Hart, David J.H. Christianity: A New Look At Ancient Wisdom. Kelowna, BC: Northstone Publishing, 1992.
  • Jung, C. J. Answer to Job. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.
  • Miles, Jack. God: A Biography. NY: Vintage Books, 1995, 1996.
  • The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed. Michael D. Coogan, ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Human Phenomenon. Sarah Appleton-Weber, trans. Chicago, IL: Sussex Academic Press, 1999, 2003, 2015.
  • Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. New York, NY: Image Books Doubleday, 1990.

From Covenants to Consciousness in the Book of Job – Part 2

This post continues our series of bringing you more Wisdom from your fellow students of the contemplative path. We hope you will find these posts enriching, enlightening, and inspiring for your own journey. If you would like to submit a post for future consideration, please email admin@contemplative.org.

Read on for the second part of a series from our deeply knowledgeable audio ministry editor, Peggy Zimmerman. Additional posts will be listed below:


By the end of Part 1 of this exploration, we were prepared to consider the story of Job from a metaphysical perspective — and in particular Jung’s analysis of the story as a grand metaphor of Yahweh coming to consciousness. Both Boehme and Teilhard provide some direction for this still largely ignored avenue for exploring the Book of Job.

A helpful starting point is Boehme’s brilliant early recognition of the inner tension of the Divine. For him this tension is an impressure or “‘unequal pressure’ in the equilibrium of the divine will” resulting in movement (Bourgeault, HT, p. 97). Boehme calls this first principle of movement the wrathful principle. A less affective term may be unbridled power, as Job encountered it. Jung understands Yahweh’s antinomy as “the indispensable condition for his tremendous dynamism” (Jung, p. 7) and sees God’s “inner instability” (p. 66) as the cause of creation:

But the pleromatic split is in turn a symptom of a much deeper split in the divine will: …God wants to become man, the amoral wants to become exclusively good, the unconscious wants to become consciously responsible (p. 62).

The inner tension between the pulling in of Unity and the pushing out to differentiate for self-knowing brings to mind Teilhard’s diffusion-convergence interplay observed in creation. These repelling and attracting forces lead into his complexification-consciousness concept. As long as the unconscious-conscious antinomy remains undisturbed Unity can be eternally at rest. But Satan’s bet, which is actually challenging Yahweh to be self-aware, occasions Unity to face its manifesting expression. For the latent capacity for becoming (the lived expressing of Unity) to flower into being, the impulse toward consciousness must be realized — in both senses of the word “realized”. Moreover, the overall direction of the interactions of these opposing forces is imbued with the essence of Unity; that is, a trajectory back to unity as a reuniting in a new dimension. This would be Jung’s “regenerated God”, Boehme’s body of Christ, Teilhard’s Omega point, and fulfillment of Oikonomia, the divine plan.

Could the big bang be the splitting of the unconscious-conscious antinomy of the Unity (perhaps like the splitting of the atom in the material realm)? I realize we are wading into the deep waters of the debate over whether the Source (Unity, God, One) is unconscious or pure consciousness or both. While Jung, Boehme, and Teilhard all have their positions on this topic, it is another area for a separate discussion. Regardless, in the Book of Job an intimation of self-awareness occurs. This is even suggested by Yahwah himself, according to Jung, in his judgment of Job’s friends: “they have not spoken of me what is right as my servant Job has” (42:7). The friends have argued on the basis of conventional wisdom, which may apply to pragmatic everyday moral situations but simply doesn’t cut it with the big questions of life — paradigmatic and personal ontological questions.

Two implications of this apparent motion toward awareness as a result of unconscious behaviors are:

  1. A new divine-human relationship is being forged.
  2. Evil is an essential part of the process.

Job in his righteous stand has put a new wrinkle in the human relationship with God by boldly going where no human has gone before (Star Trek allusion is intentional). The Old Testament covenants rooted in laws, obedience, and judgment do not hold ground in Job’s case. As Jung points out, “Yahweh displays no compunction, remorse, or compassion, but only ruthless brutality…he flagrantly violates at least three of the commandments he himself gave out on Mount Sinai” (Jung, p. 14). The whole scheme of retribution/rewards and salvation through an outside source is collapsing under Job’s experience. The divine-human relationship is shifting from covenants to consciousness. Integrating the micro and macro, the know-yourself theme in The Gospel of Thomas can be at the same time the Unity knowing itself, or Jung’s regenerating God. Just how wisdom and kenosis factor in, again, must wait until another post.

Regarding the existence of evil, the two basic positions are: 1) evil is the absence of good, privatio boni (the privation of good); that is, the absence of God, or 2) evil is an aspect of God and is the necessary initial movement of creation or the evolution of consciousness. Jung, Boehme, and Teilhard all support this latter position from their own perspectives. Not surprisingly, the outward expression of Unity’s inner struggle manifests with omnipotence taking precedence over omniscience. As demonstrated repeatedly in micro reality, blind fury (shock and awe come to mind) is the immediate reaction for resolving tensions — war rather than negotiations, might to enforce right.

Boehme characterizes the wrathful principle as “hardness, harshness, and sharpness” (Bourgeault, HT, p. 97). Teilhard associates evil with disorder, failure, and decomposition (i.e., death as part of life); the toil and suffering necessary for growth; and the anguish “of a consciousness awakening to reflection in a dark universe” (Teilhard, pp. 224-225). Materially, this is the initial diffusion of random, disorganized bits and pieces; that is, energies that eventually condense into matter along the re-unifying trajectory. Teilhard also directly connects the unconscious with evil: “We have glimpsed that unconsciousness is a kind of ontological inferiority or evil.” Teilhard makes this statement as a scientist governed by the idea “that the world will only find its completion insofar as it expresses itself in a systematic and reflective perception.” In a near reversal of the Job story, Teilhard sees the need “to know for the sake of power,” but as a religious he goes on to emphasize that this power for the advancement of humanity must be “put to the service of the spirit” and “for the purpose of being more (Teilhard, p. 176).

Credit: hoodmystic.com

While unconsciousness, evil, the dark, the shadow and sin have been used interchangeably by Jung and others, the unconscious should not be equated with evil. Evil (and sin as evil in action) is a content of the unconscious and can manifest in ugly ways. But goodness can also spring from the unconscious, as in spontaneous heroic acts. Evil is understood as separation or differentiation from good. It is ultimately non-life giving; it is Scott Peck’s people of the lie. Nevertheless, given the initial fight/flight instinct in the face of tension and threats, Yahweh is certain to not flee and is saved by Job’s judicious backing off. While Job retreats, Yahweh regresses.

The answer for Job is to not enter a clearly unwinnable power struggle. If his victim won’t engage, the perpetrator must either continue the stalemate to its bitter end (the death of Job) or own up to his monstrous behavior of allowing his bet with Satan to go to such untenable lengths. But Yahweh’s owning up is just a prick, however momentous. His omniscience is still too overwhelmed by his omnipotence. It is noteworthy that Satan disappears after the prologue, never heard from again as a separate character (Barr, p. 41). For Jung, God “is hiding [Satan] from his own consciousness in his own bosom!” (Jung, p. 19). Thus, Jung can say, “Job is no more than the outward occasion for an inward process of dialectic in God” (p. 16).

By the end of the story, Yahweh finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. Either he must continue in “the torture of non-existence,” that “hellish loneliness” (Jung, p. 11), or pursue “a personal relationship between himself and man,” whom he needs “urgently and personally” (p. 8). In other words:

Existence is only real when it is conscious to somebody. That is why the Creator needs conscious man even though, from sheer unconsciousness, he would like to prevent him from becoming conscious (p. 11).

Just before this unorthodox announcement, Jung makes a comparable intriguing statement: “Yahweh regrets having created human beings, although in his omniscience he must have known all along what would happen to them” (p. 10) and not only what would happen to humans, but what might happen to his divine plan. For all his omniscience, the One could not know if humanity as a whole would finally choose to align with that inner spark of divinity or remain stubbornly disobedient. Is it any wonder that the initial divine-human relationship was an obedience-based covenant, admittedly on the gross level of rules and laws as it is for children? For the mature spiritual person, obedience, as derived from its root of ob (L. toward) and oedire (L. to hear), is to fully take in and follow the Unity’s message. Despite the trajectory toward conscious unity, there is no guarantee that humanity won’t fall off the curve as the manifesting One carries on without us in other worlds.

As the stuff of the universe enfolds on itself (Teilhard’s involution), evolution is irrepressibly progressing. Built into the involution-evolution interplay is the very essence of “God”; i.e., unity, informing and embedded in the trajectory toward re-unification. Will we join the dance and participate in unconscious Unity becoming conscious Unity? After all, it’s just one giant step to move out of the dosado with an obedience covenant and to swing into transformed consciousness. Future posts will offer a way to bolster our stepping forth by reconsidering the Trinity and keeping in mind Jung’s answer to Job.

Read on – Part 3.


Boehme-for-Beginners-Cynthia-Bourgeault-473x454To honour the date of death of Jacob Boehme or if you are interested in learning more, please see our Boehme for Beginners audio teaching by Cynthia Bourgeault.


Peggy Zimmerman has been as a technical editor, environmental and urban planner, university instructor, mental health counsellor, and human resources manager. Since retiring sixteen years ago, she has participated in environmental activist work. In that time she also rediscovered her Christian roots and set out on deepening her spiritual life, largely through a personal study of the Christian wisdom tradition. She arranged for the introduction of Centering Prayer to the Comox Valley, facilitates a weekly sit at her church, initiated and continues to facilitate a monthly Taizé service


References:

  • Alden, Robert L. Job. Vol. II in The New American Commentary series. Broadman & Holman Pub., 1993.
  • Anonymous. Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. Robert Powell, trans. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putman, 1985, 2002.
  • Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. NY: Random House, 1993.
  • Barr, James. “The Book of Job and Its Modern Interpreters”. Lecture delivered in the John Rylands Library, 10 February 1971. Available at www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk.
  • Boehme, Jacob. Genius of the Transcendent: Mystical Writings of Jakob Boehme. Michael L. Birkel and Jeff  Bach, trans. and eds. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2010.
  • Boehme, Jacob. The Way to Christ. Peter Erb, trans. Toronto and NY: Paulist Press, 1978.
  • Bourgeault, Cynthia. (HT) The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2013.
  • Bourgeault, Cynthia. (MMag) The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2010.
  • Bourgeault, Cynthia. Teilhard for Our Times. Spirituality & Practice, 2016. Available at https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/ecourses/course/view/10182/teilhard-for-our-times.
  • Bourgeault, Cynthia.  (WWK) The Wisdom Way of Knowing. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.
  • Bruteau, Beatrice. God’s Ecstasy: The Creation of a Self-Creating World. NY: Crossroad, 1997.
  • Clement, Olivier. The Roots of Christian Mysticism. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993.
  • Delio, Ilia. The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2013.
  • Gospel of Thomas. Lynn Bauman, trans. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 2004.
  • Hart, David J.H. Christianity: A New Look At Ancient Wisdom. Kelowna, BC: Northstone Publishing, 1992.
  • Jung, C. J. Answer to Job. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.
  • Miles, Jack. God: A Biography. NY: Vintage Books, 1995, 1996.
  • The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed. Michael D. Coogan, ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Human Phenomenon. Sarah Appleton-Weber, trans. Chicago, IL: Sussex Academic Press, 1999, 2003, 2015.
  • Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. New York, NY: Image Books Doubleday, 1990.

 and a monthly One World service (incorporating chants and readings from the world’s spiritual traditions), leads book studies on Cynthia Boiurgeault’s texts and the Gospel of Thomas, and edits Contemplative Society retreat recordings. At her church she serves on the Congregational Education Committee and the Pastoral Care Committee.

Photography as an Act of Faith

While we have featured many guest posts in the past, we are setting the intention to bring you more Wisdom from your fellow students of the contemplative path. We hope you will find these posts enriching, enlightening, and inspiring for your own journey. If you would like to submit a post for future consideration, please email admin@contemplative.org.

Read on for an enlightening testimonial to art as a spiritual practice by Cynthia Bourgeault’s student, Diane Walker.


Back in the days when I was living in Vermont and heating my house with wood, we used to say wood warms you four ways: once when you cut it down, once when you drag it home, once when you chop it into kindling, and once when you burn it. For me, contemplative photography works the same way: you get several opportunities to be warmed by that spark of the sacred. 

That divine spark expresses itself as a kind of recognition, and it happens for me at four different points in the process: when the subject calls to me; when I’m deciding how to photograph it; when I develop the resulting image, either in the darkroom or on my computer; and, finally, when I decide to engage with the image and see what it has to teach me. And in each case, the key to the process lies in paying attention: being present, being mindful, and not trying too hard to control the results.

If you’re a professional photographer, you may well have been taught that an amateur photographer takes a picture and a professional makes a picture. But if you are a contemplative photographer, it’s more about making yourself available for what needs to be revealed; a matter of showing up, keeping your camera handy, and being consciously present, listening for what calls to you.

So what does that mean – to be a contemplative? What does it mean for photography to be an act of faith? According to Ed Bastian,

“Contemplation is not an aimless meandering of thought, but a disciplined activity by which one explores and investigates an idea, an insight, a sacred persona, or a truth, in a thoroughgoing way, pursuing its consequences for all aspects of our lives.” 

Once I looked at it that way, I could begin to see parallels between his definition of contemplation and the way the spirit was moving through my photography.

Photo by Diane Walker

So what do I mean by that? To be a contemplative photographer is essentially an act of faith, and it has these same four contemplative components.  The discipline lies in being aware and open; it’s a commitment to listen for that divine spark – even to seek it out – and to keep my camera with me so that I can respond. The activity is the response to the spark, the conscious act of composing the photo in a way that allows the subject to speak most effectively through the camera. The idea, truth, or insight then appears – somehow – in the finished photo. And the consequences become clear when I engage with that photograph and try to understand and write about what it could possibly have to teach me.

When approached from this perspective, the photo can begin to serve as a metaphor for some aspect of the spiritual life. And the whole process is about faith and trust: confirming my heartfelt belief that somehow, in engaging with the photo and exploring the metaphors it suggests, I can learn something about that truth or insight and the consequences it has or will have on my life and the lives of those around me.

Sometimes the moment is accidental; the feeling, the impulse to see and respond, comes first, and you just have to hope you have your camera with you (and that’s one kind of discipline). But you also need to be conscious about showing up; to make the effort to go out with your camera, in faith that there might be something there that needs to voice itself through your work.

It may not initially be obvious, when you’re taking the picture, where the process is leading you. Sometimes the true meaning of the work only emerges when you bring the image to life – whether in a darkroom or on a computer. It may be that the key element will emerge in that process, in whatever manipulations you feel led to perform as you bring the image onto the page.

Photo by Diane Walker

And sometimes, it’s not until you meditate on the final image itself, that whatever truth it has to offer may be revealed – and, having come to that understanding, over time I developed what is now my daily practice. Each morning, after I awaken, I read a chapter or so of something spiritual with my cup of coffee. After 20 minutes of Centering Prayer, I sit down at my computer, wander through my photos and look at them to see what might be calling to me today.

I then spend time engaging with that photo, asking what it might have to teach me. Sometimes the words come quickly, and sometimes it takes a lot of pondering, but eventually I post that response on my blog along with the photo and send it out into the world. And there’s that contemplative process again: the discipline of sitting down and meditating, the activity of finding a photo, the time spent examining it to search for the idea or the truth, and then the writing itself, exploring and sharing the consequences of that truth.

So that’s it; that’s how contemplative photography as an act of faith has become, for me at least, a journey to the Sacred. The four ways in which the spirit moves through the process – finding a subject, taking the picture, evaluating the image, and then writing about it – nicely parallel the four steps of contemplation. There’s a discipline to it, then an active exploration, usually some truth or insight to be gained, and, in the end, some consequences to be learned and shared along the way.

And in conclusion:  if I were to share any last words about contemplative photography, I think they would be this: all creativity – not just photography – is really an act of faith. So I invite you to explore your own creativity – whatever form that may take. Take on a practice, a discipline. Have fun with it! Release your need for control, and don’t be afraid to experiment. Stay open to possibility and trust in the process – because here’s what I believe: there’s wisdom everywhere, all around you. You just have to pay attention.


Diane Walker is a contemplative photographer, painter, and writer with an extensive background in journalism, religion, and marketing. She is the former Communications Director for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Washington and has served on the faculty of the Diocesan School of Theology. She has lived on four different islands in Washington state, and has served as the volunteer exhibitions director at ECVA, a national artists registry with online exhibition space. A regular practitioner of mindfulness meditation/Centering Prayer, Diane pairs her writing and spiritual practice with her art, producing a daily blog of photos, paintings, and meditations at contemplativephotography.com. She is the author of Illuminating the Mystery: Photographic Meditations on the Gospel of Thomas.

Diane’s work can also be found on the cover of our audio teaching with Mirabai Starr, One Heart: Weaving a Tapestry of Interspiritual Community.

A birthday present to the future

You might not recognise her name, but without her, The Contemplative Society wouldn’t exist. You might not have access to audio teachings, Wisdom Schools, or a community of contemplatives to reach out to for support. When hearing the name “Cynthia Bourgeault,” you might respond, “Cynthia who?” Or worse, you wouldn’t hear the name at all.

But rather than entertaining those dark thoughts, we get to celebrate! And the person who deserves our praise and gratitude was Margaret Haines, the first president of The Contemplative Society. Cynthia lauds her as her “mentor and midwife…Virtually everything I have learned, accomplished, and brought into being, I owe to her.” The contemplative community is also indebted to her as it was her belief that the contemplative path ought to be available to anyone seeking it, her work that laid the foundation for The Contemplative Society to become a hub for contemplative practice and learning opportunities. Along with our connection to Cynthia, she’s one of the main reasons we now serve a spiritually diverse global family today.

Retreats are central to this story, the containers in which the contemplative community is forged, and the places where new perspectives on the tradition emerge – Cynthia often gets her ideas from the alchemy that occurs on retreat, like her idea to walk the Enneagram. Additionally,  our students replenish their capacity for practice, contributing to the transmission of contemplative Wisdom and the evolution of human consciousness. The in-person hands-on experience is invaluable to the community. But retreats are expensive, and the expense limits the pool to which contemplative Wisdom can be transmitted. That’s why The Contemplative Society offers as many scholarships as possible for retreats.

But don’t take it from me – take it from one of our scholarship recipients. In 2014, Meagan, a young mother of small children, was able to attend Cynthia’s retreat on The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three thanks to financial support. Without that support, she wouldn’t have walked the Enneagram where “the energy built until I could feel it ripple across my palms and scalp. It made me think of the law of world creation and the Law of Three and I wondered at what we had loosed into the world by our collective action.” That same year, Meagan helped found a new-monastic community that is still thriving today.

It’s because of experiences like these, and the feedback we got in our recent membership survey, that we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary by establishing the Margaret Haines Scholarship Fund. It honours what Margaret did for us, and strengthens our community’s ability to transmit contemplative Wisdom long into the future.

So while celebrating our 20th anniversary is a time for reflection and saying “thank you” to those who carried us here through leadership, donations, and volunteering, it’s also a time to look ahead. I hope you will join me in making a special contribution to the Margaret Haines Scholarship Fund as your birthday present to The Contemplative Society and to contemplatives of the future. Our past is a bright one – let’s keep that light going for another 20 years.

~ Henri Lock, vice-president of The Contemplative Society and
United Church chaplain, University of Victoria


We are celebrating our 20th anniversary and to honour our past and invest in our future, we’ve established the Margaret Haines Scholarship Fund. Our goal is to raise $5000 to increase the accessibility of contemplative practice and learning opportunities for those who face financial barriers. Invest in a contemplative future today by visiting contemplative.org/haines!

Is sacred reality really real?

Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamagate…” (“Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone utterly beyond…”)

We used to chant this ancient Hindu chant in our small contemplative circle in Snowmass, Colorado back in the early 1990s, during the “Advaita” phase of our work. I hadn’t thought of it for years, but it suddenly popped back into my mind this morning as the following exchange with a student suddenly flowed out of me, from where I do not know. I think I may actually have just encapsulated in about 800 words everything I really wanted to say in my next book, currently (and a little too Sisyphus-fully) on the drawing boards. Anyway, for what it’s worth…

Happy formlessness,

 

Cynthia


The question… 

Dear Cynthia,

I have very much appreciated your teachings and approach to the spiritual life. I’m writing because I’ve been increasingly bothered for the last several months with the doubt that there is an actual spiritual, supernatural realm beyond our human experience. I truly believe we human beings have deep spiritual 

experience, even a mystical sense of union with God. But how can we know that this experience is connected to anything real beyond the perceptions of our brains? I just have this nagging doubt that once our brains die, everything goes dark. It makes less and less sense to me how we could retain, or regain, consciousness and personhood after death as the doctrine of the resurrection promises.

These questions have become an obstacle to my prayer. I feel like I need to know (or have better-understood intellectual reasons for wagering) that there is an objectively real spiritual realm beyond earth and the human brain, in order to pray with motivation and hope.

Could you let me know how you know? Or the reasons you come back to for trusting in the reality of a spiritual realm that transcends the experiences (however profound) of our bodies and minds?

And my response…

Thank you for sharing with me this profound and delicate transition point in your own journey. Both the clarity and the honesty with which you reveal your struggle suggest you’re really standing at the edge of a major paradigm shift. I’d almost be inclined to say the one that ushers you through the gate into the authentic nondual.

It’s clear that your old cosmology of God — and the prayers emerging from it — is crumbling before your eyes, and that’s good. But what replaces it?

One way to go, certainly, is to simply replace your previous theological/metaphysical castle with a new one, generated by the same mechanisms of the brain, only this time more spacious. The whole metaphysical postulation of a supernatural or “imaginal” realm speaks directly to that strategy.

Throughout the spiritual ages, across all the sacred traditions, there has been a cloud of witnesses who can validate that personhood beyond the physical realm does indeed exist. I have had the perhaps questionable privilege of being able to travel in this realm a bit over these past twenty years on the eagle’s wings of my spiritual teacher Rafe. So I know that there is indeed water in this well, and that the well does indeed water the earth and materially help it through the recurring drought times and deserts of the human spirit. Yet I know also that even this well ultimately proves to be a construction. Just as everything in this all-too-perishable realm ultimately reveals itself to be.

But this doesn’t mean it’s false — only impermanent, as the Buddhists would say. In his recent book Waking, Dreaming, Being, philosopher Evan Thompson has a brilliant one-liner: “All illusions are constructions, but not all constructions are illusions.” The impermanent, intermediate, and ultimately mirage-like nature of the surrounding imaginal/supernatural world is indeed a construction. But so is the cosmos itself (and the word “cosmos” in Greek means “ornament”): a beautiful construction through which the otherwise inaccessible white light of the divine heart becomes manifest. We all participate in that illusion, each to our own degree, to our own level of clarity and toughmindedness. And good is done here — as well as some degree of harm. In the words of the old Koranic maxim, God speaks and says, “I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known, so I created the worlds, visible and invisible”. All of us, in our temporarily separated individual conscious viewing platforms are pixels participating in that grand construction, the revelation of the divine heart. It is all fiction. And it is all real.

But another way of moving through this impasse — and the way I think you’re actually intuiting here — is not to build another cosmic Prospero’s castle using the same old mental methodology, but to question the nature of the mind itself in its seemingly unbreakable addiction to mentally constructed meaning. What would it mean to live “bare”, without that whole mental castle?

A scary threshold, to be sure. Few reach it, and the few who do generally get scared shitless and go running back as quickly as possible to the world of constructed meaning. But it is possible to stand there and to stand well. Beyond the cloud of constructed meaning, there is such a thing as direct perception. And you can get there if you wish — if you can stand it.

As Thomas Merton observed shortly before the close of his life in his own devastating moment of final clairvoyance (which I can almost but not quite quote from memory): “I was jerked out of my habitual, half-tied way of looking at things…having seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything — without refutation, without establishing some other argument.” The constructive principle drops out, and what remains is simply bare seeing.

And it’s just here that one discovers the remarkable, elusive secret: that meaning and explanation are not the same thing. Explanation is of the mind. Meaning is of the heart, a felt-sense of belongingness that needs neither justification nor further action. It is simply its own fullness. Prayer does not reach it, for it is the source of prayer, the source of everything.

Rest assured that consciousness does not go dark when your individual pixel of it departs from its individual body container. The only thing that goes dark — that is to say, if you decide to forego a side trip through the imaginal or boddhisattva bardos and proceed direct to the heart of the infinite — is your individual relationship to consciousness. Consciousness is the stuff of the universe, undivided and whole. It will never go dark. It will simply enfold “you”, and the exile will be over…

I’m not sure this helps, but hopefully it at least affirms that you’re standing on sacred ground, and that cynicism is not the only option. The other is to deepen the wonder.

“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” ~ Exodus 3:5

Blessings,

 

Cynthia

Mirabai Starr: Blessed Weaver

In the last week of September, The Contemplative Society welcomed Mirabai Starr to Vancouver Island for a retreat entitled “One Heart: Weaving a Tapestry of Inter-spiritual Community” at Cowichan Lake Research Station, a first collaboration between our organization and this renowned author, translator of the Mystics, and speaker. While she is perhaps best known for her memoir Caravan of No Despair, in which she chronicles her many tales of love, loss, and transformation, we were interested in her expertise on and authenticity in walking the inter-spiritual path. Though we expected to learn much from her on this subject and were thoroughly satisfied by her teachings, what we didn’t expect was the tangible transformation she helped usher among a group of women from various cultural and spiritual backgrounds, different degrees of previous experience and knowledge with the subject, and varying levels of comfort with the practices we were encouraged to try. Over the course of four days, Mirabai held us tenderly and confidently, helping us foster our listening skills through triad work, harness our written voices through contemplative writing practices based on Natalie Goldberg‘s method, and reacquaint our hearts with our Beloveds as foundation for social action in our world.

As testament to our time together, and to share with the world our gratitude to Mirabai and each other for this demonstration of hope and possibility, below are two reflections graciously written by retreatants. Their similarities and differences help exemplify what can happen when unity is born out of diversity, when One Heart beats in many. Deep thanks to Mirabai for sharing her warmth, honesty, and skills; she indeed wove together threads of disparate interests and backgrounds into a Tapestry of Inter-spiritual Community.


Elizabeth Kerwin

My first foray into The Contemplative Society began with my immersion in Mirabai Starr’s retreat at Cowichan Lake, though my contemplative life started long before. Being one of many Americans whose spiritual path and questing has brought me on a meandering journey, mine began with a Catholic childhood with very liberally minded parents, an Irish Catholic father from the Bronx, and a German born mother who grew up with a Jewish-turned-Anthroposophist father and a Lutheran-Swiss mother working with Rudolph Steiner’s teachings. In my own young adulthood, I turned to yoga and Buddhism, seeking more direct embodied experience of my soul and inner life. I find myself now on a return trip to my Christian roots, while being on a contemplative path and still teaching yoga in its fullness, not separating it from its spiritual roots. Naturally, an inter-spiritual path seems an inevitable part of the plot. I am married to a spouse ardently ordained as an Inter-spiritual Minister, so when “One Heart: Weaving an Inter-spiritual Community” with Mirabai Starr was offered by The Contemplative Society, I had an intuitive draw and a natural inclination to register for the retreat.

Photo by Anne Voegtlen

During the retreat, Mirabai offered a teaching from St. John of the Cross about the many ways a garden may be watered, the ultimate form being through the grace of rain pouring from the sky, nourishing the plants and the earth without effort. My experience in the retreat was much like this: I became a grateful recipient, basking in poetry and readings from Mirabai’s many published works, chanting, practicing contemplative writing and sitting; all deeply nourishing for my own “inner garden”.  Beyond this, I received the gift of sitting in an intimate circle of women, guided deftly by Mirabai in our project through her many invitations for us to share of ourselves in words, presence, and respectful and structured support, often as witness to others’ writing or speaking when sharing in triads. Sparkling and vast Lake Cowichan, catching the early Autumn golden light, and daily walks through the forests, added the soul-stirring dimension of drinking in nature’s healing

Mirabai has knowledge in a wide variety of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions, and shares this generously, clearly reflecting her own experience walking a deep path of inter-spiritual life. While there is a common prejudice against those who take on many rather than a single path, for me Mirabai is one who lives with a breadth as well as depth I have seldom witnessed. We heard teachings from Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, St. John of the Cross, as well as many readings from one of her many books, God of Love, which explores the common heart of the Abrahamic traditions. We learned of Jewish practices, Muslim teachings, and sat in the beauty of contemplative community silence. On Friday evening a Shabbat service blessed us with a beautiful challah bread, the glow of candlelight, sacred wine, and apples dripping with honey. We gathered together, our heads shrouded, our hearts opening in the intimacy of feeding and being fed, tasting the sweetness of life, and bringing forth the remembrance that Sabbath practices must be resurrected, brought back into the foreground lest we forget such essential goodness in our lives in what Thomas Merton called the “rush and pressure of modern life” during the twentieth century.

Mirabai clearly cares deeply for the world, and actively conveys her sense of willingness to enter the dark realms that inevitably emerge in our own lives, as well as globally in our contemporary world plagued by environmental problems and those of social justice. Mirabai’s weaving of elements of Sacred Activism into the tapestry of our time together, stands as a central thread as I gratefully reflect upon this retreat. She upholds the essential message of the Good Samaritan or the Bodhisattva, that we are called in our spiritual engagement to be clear that awareness and action related to the world’s suffering must be held, and acted upon.

Life’s pain and life’s beauty, in its most essential poignancy flowed like a river through the retreat, and Mirabai’s deep willingness to be open and transparent, truly humble and loving, have made an indelible impression on me. In my imagining, the circle of participants initially gathered around the teachings and exercises with curiosity, and perhaps with a little skepticism on the parts of some, and, by the closing of our time, it seemed clear that we had indeed created together an inter-spiritual community with one heart, even a bit challenged to release ourselves from a beautiful holding and step back into our ordinary lives. I have been carrying the connections in my heart and into my work in a deeply satisfying way.

I am so grateful for all those who made this rich opportunity possible, and for the refreshed inspiration and hope with which I am now moving in my life, and my work. I look forward to paths crossing again with those who gathered for this wonderful immersion.


Mary Wolfe

As we drove in, old growth forest on one side, straight rows of seedlings on the other, our pace slowed, our senses opened. Warmly greeted and shown our rooms, we settled in. The shore line and silvered lake, right there, beckoned. The peace of the wild was all-surrounding.

We had come a variety of distances, for a variety of reasons, most of them because of Mirabai. Some of us had read one or more of her books. Some of us had met her before, or taken one of her on-line courses. Some of us had barely heard of her. Most of us met Mirabai for the first time as we gathered in the dining hall for dinner. All women standing in a circle, singing the simple grace she taught us, I felt the beginning of something significant. That evening in our first session the “something” began to take shape as we introduced ourselves and shared our aspirations for the retreat. Although Mirabai sat guru-like in front of us and would be our teacher-leader for the four days, I felt we were a circle of equals where everyone belonged.

The days were spaciously paced. A Great Silence held us through nights, morning meditations, and breakfasts.  Live music from a Celtic harp invited us to gather for each teaching session. Several times in a day, Mirabai divided us into small groups and gave us opportunity to share what we were experiencing. In the afternoons she gave us prompts for stream of consciousness writing, then invited us to listen to each other’s unearthed gems. Unhurried, without any sense of obligation, I felt free to simply BE in each moment.

Photo by Anne Voegtlen

Mirabai brought me into places of deep listening by reading to us. She read poems from the great mystics, prayers to the Divine Feminine, and excerpts from her several books. She taught freely and knowingly from her early experiences in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism. She shared how her love for Christ grew as she translated John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Julian of Norwich. She sprinkled times of silence throughout her teaching. Friday evening her Jewish heritage came alive as she led us in the ritual of welcoming Shabbat. With our heads covered we prayed facing each direction. Then gathering in close, we blessed the beautiful Challah loaf and tore off pieces of its moist sweetness to feed each other – a simple act of tender intimacy. As the chalice of wine passed around I knew I had been invited into deep rest. Our hearts were kindled with loving-kindness.  

Together we asked hard questions – about identity, gender, orthodoxy, forgiveness, social justice, vocation, and what gives us joy. One evening we lit a fire near the beach and sat around its warmth while Mirabai taught. Afternoons, when it wasn’t raining, we walked the trails, cheerily talking to keep the bear away. Meals were delicious and nutritious, whether eaten in scheduled silence or open for keen conversation. We told our stories and listened deeply. Mirabai gave us an eclectic bounty of truths carefully gleaned from all the world’s traditions. In order to understand them, I need to experience and live into them. Though I am quoting them out of their context, these are some of my “live-into” gems:

  • The wound of suffering is the portal to the Beloved.
  • Jacob’s example tells me it is my birthright to wrestle with all the teachings, and make them my own; if Love is not there, leave the teaching behind.
  • The longing itself is the path.
  • I don’t have to believe everything I think.
  • Stay still, stop meddling, and let God paint my portrait.
  • God, who is ever with me, cannot come to visit me unless I am not there.
  • The moan of separation is the cry of union.
  • If I take one step toward God, God takes seven steps toward me. If I run toward God, God rushes toward me.
  • Sin has no substance except by the pain it causes.
  • The inter-spiritual way is to travel through the wilderness with open hands and drop to my knees wherever I encounter Love. Love affirms our essential connectedness. It is all about Love.
  • All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.

In our last session on Sunday we went around the circle sharing the ways our hearts had been opened. What I had felt on Wednesday had evolved into something like a woven garment, a prayer shawl, a love wrap, holding us in Oneness. Days after our goodbyes, its blessing lingers. Thank you each one, thank you Mirabai, thank you Amma God.


Many thanks to Anne Voegtlen for the photos, and to Elizabeth and Mary for sharing their experiences with us.

To increase your chances of attending one of The Contemplative Society’s retreats with celebrated teachers such as Mirabai, consider becoming a Member. Members receive the first opportunity to register for our retreats. To join, visit our Support Us page.

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.

Deep practice, deep listening, deep hope

Dear Wisdom friends,

I want to make very clear to all of you that the “keep calm and carry on” tone of my earlier (immediately post-election) post does not imply that I’m feeling sanguine about the course of events now facing our country and our world. Quite to the contrary, I believe over the next several months we’re in for some hard reversals, probably harder than most Americans born post-World War II have ever seen in their lifetime.

I’ve been out here on Eagle Island for a few days of Advent deep listening, trying to second-guess myself. But the premonition remains.

And it’s still Wisdom’s hour. Because I believe that those of us seriously committed to walking the Wisdom path have something to bring to the mix which most of our culture – either secular or spiritual – is simply not going to be able to get at. And it’s the missing piece, I believe, where clarity and resolve are to be found, if at all.

As you know, the two main influences on my overall metaphysical bearings are Teilhard and Gurdjieff. From Teilhard I get the reassurance that deep hope takes place over deep time. So much of our human terror and horror comes from trying to compress the timescale too tightly, insisting that coherence must be found over the course of only a few generations, or at best a few centuries. That’s like a pressure cooker without a steam valve; it will inevitably blow up.

From Gurdjieff, I’ve come to understand that all planetary evolution operates under the sway of the Law of Three – and that, once again, we must look beyond immediate “good and bad” / ”winners and losers” modes of thinking in order to see the deeper lines of causality actually directing the unfolding from within a still-coherent field. What looks in the short-range to be unmitigated catastrophe can prove in the longer range to be addressing serious systemic malformations that need to be confronted and corrected before the evolutionary mandate can truly move forward.

It’s exactly this kind of long-scale and impartial visioning that we need to bring to these up-ended times.

My stubborn foreboding is that in the upcoming months we will witness the substantial dismantling not only of the past eight years of Obama progressive liberalism, or even the past eighty years of New Deal social welfare, but something far more resembling eight hundred years of the Western intellectual tradition – all the way back to the 13th century when the rise of scholasticism and the secular university began to displace the hegemony of the faith-based dogmatism in favor of free inquiry based on rational empiricism.

And the centerpiece in this domino chain of destruction is of course democracy itself, whose whole foundation lies in the sanctity of the above-mentioned principles.

Faced with threats – already underway – to what most of us still take for granted as the unshakable foundation of our national life – freedom of speech, freedom of the press, civility of discourse, and a commonly agreed-on factual data base – I believe that the great American liberal progressive establishment will almost inevitably lose heart. I am seeing it happening already: people simply too numb and disoriented to even know what’s hit them. The possibility that democracy itself might fall victim to the collective insanity now massing on its horizon is too devastating even to ponder; we either dig in our heels, give up in despair, or distract ourselves in a dwindling oasis of “business as usual”.

Let there be no mistake about this: what has just come to pass is a serious blow to the foundations of Western Civilization. To name it at a lesser degree of magnitude is to set ourselves up for mere reactivity rather than understanding. We need to name it for what it is and be able to hold our footings as the edifices of post-Enlightenment culture reel-and-tumble in this seismic shift.

And yet, I think it is precisely at this scale – i.e., eight hundred years – that we can discover the real ley lines of the Law of Three at work, in the situation, and we can understand more powerfully, impartially, and strategically what needs to be done as we hold the space for the course corrections which have necessarily arisen. This is not the destruction of consciousness, but a legitimate and ultimately propitious reconfiguration. We must not lose sight of that hope. If nothing else, we need to keep saying it so that it does not vanish from the face of the earth.

I invite all who feel so moved to join me in the work awaiting at this other scale of magnitude. It will involve a combination of deep practice and wider reading and thinking.

The deep practice is about collecting our hearts so as to be more directly and acutely in alignment with “the conscious circle of humanity” – those of all ages and faiths who help hold the bandwidth of compassionate and wise presence around this fragile earth. It is in this imaginal bandwidth that wisdom comes magnificently into her own, but only as our own hearts grow wide and gentle and calm enough to receive her.

The deep reading: for starters, we need a small group or groups who are seriously willing and able to take on Gurdjieff’s sprawling cosmological masterpiece, Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson. If you doubt that our own times are already brilliantly encapsulated there (including an eerily accurate portrait of our POTUS-elect), have a close look at chapters 25-28. (Read Cynthia’s follow-up post to find out more about engaging with this book.)

The other three which are part of my nightly bedtime reading for this retreat and these times: And There was Light by Jacques Lusseyran; Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban’s iconic 1980 post-apocalyptic novel; and of course, The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnus. 

Over the next few months, I will be listening further into how our work wants to take shape “on the ground”: independent small groups? A new round of Wisdom retreats? Online learning formats? Officially rebooting the Omega Order? Road not clear at this point. But I do know that the real Wisdom step is not to pre-design the format, but simply to put the heart out there and see how it seeds itself.

So that’s what I’m doing here, dark and cold time of the year, commemorating this weekend Advent III and the 21st anniversary of the crossing over, into that conscious circle, of Rafe [see Love is Stronger Than Death], in all things my teacher and lightholder.

Let me hear from you if you’re in.

Blessings and love,

Cynthia