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.

Thanking our Midwife

Dear friends in The Contemplative Society,

It is an honour to be asked to contribute a few words in support of the Margaret Haines Scholarship Fund.

Where do I start, with Margaret Haines or with the contemplative vision that sustained her every step of her long and fruitful journey? Margaret was the spiritual mother of The Contemplative Society, our tiny, “can-do” organization she founded to bring me to British Columbia, and she was my own spiritual mother, midwifing my emergence as a contemplative teacher. In fact, Margaret was midwife all the way; everything she touched, from plants to people to fledgling organizations, grew sturdy and strong in her graciously nurturing hands. When she died at age 85 in 2011, she could look back with justifiable pride on having launched not only an organization, but the thousands of people this organization has touched over the years.

Fr. Thomas Keating, Cynthia Bourgeault, and Margaret Haines (March 2002)

What many may not know is that Margaret was a lifelong seeker herself. After completing her “first half of life” duties as a faithful wife, mother, and arborist in the Okanagan, she turned in the second half to a rigorous embrace of the path of transformation, walking parallel tracks in contemplative Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism. She had considerable experience in the Gurdjieff Work under her belt as well, gathered while she and her family still lived in the UK. Her seamless inner integration of Buddhist and Gurdjieffian mindfulness with Christian contemplation furnished the creative matrix in which my own Wisdom teaching came to birth. It all began on Salt Spring Island, BC, in July 1997: the headwaters of a movement that has now spread worldwide.

To all appearances, Margaret, as she began her journey, was simply a “housewife”, a “lay person”, a seeker among hundreds of other seekers, with no particularly distinguishing features other than her innate clarity and her persistence on the path. It was that persistence that brought her to fullness in her own journey and gradually transformed her from postulant to post-holder. That’s how wisdom transmission works; always has and always will. You show up with dogged faithfulness and a constantly rekindling beginner’s mind, and something gradually crystallizes in you. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, you gradually become real, on that same pathway of faithful love.

I mention this because all our spiritual journeys begin at the beginning when both the time and funds needed to support those formative forays into the world of contemplative transformation nowadays often come at prohibitive cost. Younger seekers in particular need scholarship help if they are to take those first steps which even for Margaret, back a half century ago, came at a gentler and kinder time in our planet’s economic history. The same goes for people entering the path later in life or seeking out retreat to renew a path already begun; retirement on a limited income presents similar financial challenges.

There are many Margaret Haineses waiting out there, keen to be formed in the tradition in order to serve their term as post holders and carry the torch to the next generation. All it takes is persistence. And funding.

We hope that each of you reading this message will be moved to support Wisdom transformation by giving as generously as you can of both. A more appropriate tribute to Margaret Haines I cannot imagine.

With warm wishes,

Cynthia Bourgeault


To join Cynthia in supporting the Margaret Haines Scholarship Fund, and help us reach our goal by the deadline of June 30, visit contemplative.org/haines today!

Alchemy

Retirement: often lauded as a time to enjoy what we have worked for all our lives, taking trips, cultivating hobbies, and being with friends and family. Many use their freedom for kicking back and pampering, while others take advantage of the extra time to engage in transformational contemplative work. It can be a time of great joy and pleasure, but it’s not always smooth sailing; it can also be a time of great loss, whether of career, health, or loved ones, and often concurrently. It is in these desperate times that our capacity for transformation is greatest, and that’s where retreats come in. Read our collection of testimonials below to see how the majority of our community is taking life’s beatings and turning them into gifts.


The five-night Gospel of Thomas retreat allowed us to go more deeply into contemplative silence and the contemplative mind. Matthew provided the perfect balance of silence, practice, and teaching. Practice consisted of mindfully working in the garden while attempting to pay attention to the movement of our thoughts, emotions, and bodies as we worked with others and worked alone. In the physical movement of raking leaves, sweeping the sidewalk, or pulling weeds, one has the opportunity to practice maintaining contact with one’s body, noticing reactions to the work itself as well as to those working nearby. This spiritual lab is an excellent opportunity to experiment and offers skills which are applicable to life beyond retreat…I continue to be grateful for the presence and work of TCS on Vancouver Island and beyond. Many thanks for providing this opportunity as well as the financial support provided.

~ Anonymous participant in the “Opening to the Eye of the Heart: Wisdom and the Gospel of Thomas” retreat with Matthew Wright (2017)


Mary-Clare pictured with Cynthia Bourgeault at the “Living the Mysteries” retreat in 1999

The combined wisdom of 21 people plus Matthew’s teaching was absolutely extraordinary. This created a very intense time of learning for me. The work group periods turned out to be the most challenging part of the retreat for me, as there was someone in my work group who really pushed my buttons. For various reasons I developed a real resistance to this person, so I knew this was where the work for me was at this retreat.

I am extremely grateful to those who have supported The Contemplative Society community by funding scholarships, and to those responsible on the board of The Contemplative Society for awarding the financial assistance. It was very much appreciated and I almost certainly would not have come to the retreat without that help. I believe retreat scholarships are very important to The Contemplative Society and give life and growth to it and the world through them.

~ Mary-Clare Carder, participant in the “Opening to the Eye of the Heart: Wisdom and the Gospel of Thomas” retreat with Matthew Wright (2017)


I sincerely appreciate the generosity of The Contemplative Society for awarding me with a scholarship to attend this retreat. I wanted to go to a retreat but I am on a fixed income and couldn’t afford registration so I ate humble pie and applied for a scholarship. I was delighted to receive it and am so thankful for it!

When Mirabai read the beautiful piece on page 33 from her book Mother of God, I had a spiritual awakening. The words of the new Pentecost spoke to my heart. I felt a releasing and a letting go of my tight grip on life. It was the beginning of a transformed relationship with the feminine Divine. My devotion was to Jesus, the Christ but now I also rest in the safe haven of Mother God. Now at home, in the morning I light a candle, sit, and meditate. I have wanted to use this for a long time but rarely found the discipline. It is with gratitude I now enjoy a morning sit. I attribute this to receiving the scholarship that allowed me to attend the retreat.

~ Anonymous participant in the “One Heart: Weaving a Tapestry of Interspiritual Community” retreat with Mirabai Starr (2017)


Her authentic nature enabled me to assimilate new truths and already known spiritual practices into developing new, dynamic ways of viewing my spiritual practice. Sitting in stillness, as we did daily, was wonderful, especially in such a peaceful, sacred place. Mirabai’s talks were enlightening, especially the ones about the Christian mystics, pushing me further to reflect and study their time-honoured truths.

At the end of the retreat we were asked to think about what we would be taking with us, what we have been called to do in the world. I was convicted to continue to write more poetry about the bleeding earth, a call to social justice, and increased consciousness of the world’s environmental problems.

Finally, I would like to say that I felt very privileged to attend this retreat and to participate with other like-minded women. I am so grateful for the scholarship and will treasure the insights that attending this retreat have given me.

~ Jane Jennings, a participant in the “One Heart: Weaving a Tapestry of Interspiritual Community” retreat with Mirabai Starr (2017)


Altar to Teilhard de Chardin, who describes the the power of transformation in Christian and evolutionary terms

I experienced the first dream visitation from my Dad since he passed away. I feel sure that our Wisdom School’s daily extended time in group meditative prayer was the vehicle which provided a “thin place” where such a blessed connection could occur.

Another particularly memorable moment occurred during a longer period of chanting on the final evening of the Wisdom School. Standing and using simple gestures to accompany our words, we sang as one body. I sensed a tapestry of spiritual community – though composed of many different strands – which awakened again in me the desire for deeper faith community. That experience resulted directly in a decision to align myself with a soul-nourishing worshiping community on a weekly basis as often as possible, even though it means travel beyond my local sphere and requires significant time expended to do so.

I am thus committed to further study, to continue exploring intentional community, and to worship where my soul is fed. My heart is filled with gratitude for The Contemplative Society scholarship which made possible my attendance. My prayerful hope is that my experience will give rise to offering –  in some way – a deeper blessing to the world.

~ Anonymous participant in the “Mystical and Visionary Thinking of Teilhard de Chardin” Wisdom School with Cynthia Bourgeault (2016)


Retreats offer people on the contemplative path an opportunity to reconnect with the Mystery, strengthen our capacity to let go, and learn to live from love. But the burdens of the retirement stage of life we hope to transform are often compounded by financial constraints. That’s why we started the Margaret Haines Scholarship Fund, to help alleviate this one burden so that the rest may be freed. So if these messages touched you and you want to increase the world’s capacity for transformation, please consider giving to our new Margaret Haines Scholarship.

In This Together

Our retreat participants are diverse: we serve Christians and SBNRs, young and old, wealthy and financially constrained. You might put yourself in one of these categories, or volunteer your own. But one thing we all have in common is our seeking of contemplative Wisdom and our wish to inject the world with love, as well as the need for  practice opportunities to deepen our journey along this path. Going on retreat allows contemplatives to learn and sink into practice in a safe and warm community of support, allowing us to soften our edges and expand our hearts a little more each time. But retreats are costly and the fees (or travel costs) can prevent our Contemplative Society friends from joining us.

Unemployment is an event that strikes most of us sometime in our life. We might be between jobs, transitioning from parenthood to an empty nest, or faultless casualties of fluctuating economies. While often financially problematic, this can also be a time of transformation as we reevaluate ourselves and what we can give to the world. The flip-side to these issues can come as a blessing in the form of more free time. Read on to learn first-hand how The Contemplative Society has helped folks in this position embrace this opportunity for both their own benefit and the world’s.


Returning to Canada after experiencing and attending to the death of both my parents, to the end of a job, and also to the end of a relationship (none of which was my choice) has put me in a place of great transition and loss. In conversation I discovered this retreat – this was a miracle for me, another step along this journey of healing and staying open to the mystery, in a big part because of the introduction to The Contemplative Society and the practice of Centering Prayer (both new to me).

“The right place and time and people…” Photo by Susan Smith

Knowing this was the right place and time and people for me presented the dilemma of not only no longer having the income from my previous work, but also not being yet able to access monies that would be coming to me in the future. Again, in discussion, I was encouraged to apply for a scholarship, which was granted. I felt SO grateful and remain so. Without it I would not have been able to attend.

Every single aspect of the retreat was valuable for me – and is but a stepping stone going forward on this journey.

~ Susan Smith, participant in the “Opening to the Eye of the Heart: Wisdom and the Gospel of Thomas” retreat with Matthew Wright (2017)


I usually feel very alone in my contemplative journey and longed for some time with like-minded people. I felt that finding a contemplative community would strengthen me and help to deepen my practice.

The retreat was a spiritual renewal for me. I cannot overemphasise how healing and encouraging it was to hear Rev. Matthew’s and other participants’ messages of interspirituality, and to experience the gentle openness and love of everyone in the community, wherever they were on their journey.

I would like to give my heartfelt thanks to The Contemplative Society for the opportunity to attend the retreat at Shawnigan Lake. It was a wonderful, challenging, and inspiring experience that will be with me the rest of my life.

~ Jennifer Hall, participant in the “The Wisdom Path: Contemplative Practice and Evolving Consciousness” retreat with Matthew Wright (2015)


It’s because of the support of our membership and donors that we can give out scholarships like these, so if either of these testimonials to the power of a scholarship speak to you, please consider giving a special gift to the new Margaret Haines Scholarship Fund. We’re in this together.

Our Wisdom Lineage

“WHUR WE COME FROM… “

~ Br. Raphael Robin


Teachers of contemplative Christianity, who acknowledged the limitations of human knowledge and the inconstant nature of human sentiment, instead encouraged a commitment to practice. A scripturally grounded commitment to practice and service – rather than a reliance on unsteady belief and feeling – is the fulcrum of contemplative Christianity.” 

~ Paula Pryce, The Monk’s Cell


From time to time in the unfolding life of a lineage, it becomes important to stop and ponder together “whur we come from” (as my teacher Rafe used to call it); i.e., the fundamental understandings that called us into being as a particular expression of the wider tradition of Christian contemplative Wisdom. As The Contemplative Society, our flagsghip Wisdom vessel, now celebrates its twentieth anniversary and a new generation of seekers and board members assume their turn at the helm, it seems like an appropriate occasion for just such a moment of reflection.

Wisdom, like water, is itself clear and formless, but it necessarily assumes the shape and coloration of the container in which it is captured. Between formless essence and manifesting particularity there is a reciprocal dynamism; you can’t have one without the other.

Our own particular branch of the great underground river of Wisdom came to the surface about twenty years ago, flowing within two major riverbanks: a) the Christian mystical tradition of theosis – divinization – particularly as lived into being in the Benedictine monastic tradition; and b) the practical training in mindfulness and non-identification as set forth in the Gurdjieff Work. The fusion of these two elements was the original accomplishment of my spiritual teacher Br. Raphael Robin, who formed me in this path and, just before his death in 1995, sent me off to Canada to teach it. It is a distinct lineage within the wider phylum of sophia perennis – perennial Wisdom – and, as with all particular containers, it has its own integrity and its own heart.

Here, then, is my own quick shortlist of the eight main elements – or defining characteristics – for our particular branch of this Wisdom verticil:

  1. We are founded on a daily practice of sitting meditation, predominantly but not exclusively Centering Prayer, anchored within the overall daily rhythm of “ora et labora”, as set forth in the Rule of St. Benedict.
  2. We are rooted in the Christian mystical and visionary tradition, understanding contemplation in its original sense as “luminous seeing”, not merely a meditation practice or a lifestyle. In service to this luminous seeing, we affirm the primacy of the language of silence and its life-giving connection with the subtle realms, without which spiritual inquiry tends to become overly cognitive and contentious.
  3. We incorporate a major emphasis (much more so than in more conventional contemplative circles) on mindfulness and conscious awakening, informed here particularly by the inner teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff and by their parallels and antecedents in the great sacred traditions, particularly in Sufism.
  4. We are an esoteric or “gnostic” school to the extent that these terms have come to be understood as designating that stream of Christian transmission through which the radically consciousness-transforming teachings of Jesus have been most powerfully transmitted and engaged. But we eschew esotericism as simply mental or metaphysical speculation, and we affirm the primacy of the scripture and tradition as the cornerstones of Christian life.
  5. Also in contrast to many branches of the Wisdom tradition based on Perennial or Traditionalist metaphysics (with its inherently binary and anti-material slant), we are emphatically a Teilhardian, Trinitarian lineage, embracing asymmetry (threeness), evolution, and incarnation in all their material fullness and messiness.
  6. We are moving steadily in the direction of revisioning contemplation no longer in terms of monastic, otherworldly models prioritizing silence and repose but, rather, as a way of honing consciousness and compassion so as to be able to fully engage the world and become active participants in its transition to the higher collectivity, the next evolutionary unfolding.
  7. We are an integral school, not a pluralistic one, (to draw on Ken Wilber’s levels of consciousness); our primary mission field is teal, not green. Our work concentrates not at the level of healing the false-self, woundedness and recovery, substance abuse, equal rights, restorative justice, or political correctness (although we acknowledge the importance of all of these initiatives), but rather at the level of guiding the transition from identity based primarily in the narrative or egoic self to identity stabilized at the level of witnessing presence, or “permeably boundaried” selfhood.
  8. Our most important teachers and teachings are Jesus, St. Benedict, the canonical and Wisdom gospels, The Cloud of Unknowing, the greater Christian mystical and visionary tradition (including Eckhart, Boehme, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Ladislaus Boros, Bernadette Roberts), the Desert and Hesychastic traditions, Bede Griffiths and the Christian Advaitic traditions (including Raimon Panikkar, Henri LeSaux/Abishiktananda and Bruno Barnhart), Rumi, Sufism, G.I. Gurdjieff, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And, of course, my own teacher, Br. Raphael Robin.

Please know that this list is intended to start a conversation, not end it. In the upcoming months I hope to unpack each of these points more fully in a format yet to be determined (blog posts? video? on-the-ground teaching retreat?). I invite others in our Wisdom network to do likewise, both in your larger organizations (The Contemplative Society, Northeast Wisdom, Wisdom Southwest, Wisdom Way of Knowing, etc.) and in your smaller practice circles. Collectively, let’s see what we can discover about our lineage, as we midwifed it through a first generation and now transmit through a second.

Blessings, Cynthia

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

Contemplation and the Christian Faith: An Interview

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


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

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

 

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


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

Contemplation is either:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contemplative practices are always gentle and respectful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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