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.

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.

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.

The Gift of Enroulement

I arrived at the Wisdom School on Lake Cowichan both exhausted and depleted. While I am an advocate for self-care, I have found it very difficult to practice sincerely in this all-consuming stage of motherhood that I am currently immersed. I had not attended a retreat since my first child was born almost five years ago, despite the fact that retreat was the bedrock of my spiritual practice. Retreat was where I found sustenance, insight, and communion with God – quite simply it was where I longed to be. The first evening of the retreat I felt broken. I was missing my family and doubting whether I had made the right choice in attending the retreat. It felt as though I was trying to re-create a time from my past that no longer fit into my new life as a happily devoted mom. I hadn’t done any of the suggested reading on Teilhard and knew very little about the subject at hand. I was worried about not being able to sleep in the dorm-style accommodations; therefore, leaving the five-night retreat even more tired than when I had arrived. I felt I couldn’t muster the energy to connect with fellow retreaters, not because I didn’t long for that connection, but because I simply didn’t have the drive. My heart felt closed. That first night I retreated deep into my own process, grateful for the silence and slow pace that the schedule brought.

The next day Cynthia launched into Teilhard de Chardin. The combination of Cynthia’s presence, the material, and stepping into the age-old model of the Wisdom School (namely, the skillful balance between work, study, prayer, chanting, etc.), evoked something deep inside me. I was transfixed. As we delved into topics such as evolution and the cosmos, I was transported beyond my familiar day-to-day life. Orienting my mind and heart towards this grandest scale of ponderings renewed a latent sense of vision. I was reminded of Mary Oliver’s beautiful question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This question evokes, with such delicate urgency, how relatively fleeting and small life is, joined with the responsibility to live out all that I am. With this, my worries and closed heart began to melt away,as I experienced a renewed sense of strength. The retreat felt like a spiritual empowerment as the group breathed in and out the wisdom of both Cynthia and Teilhard.

As a mama of two young children, my world can seem quite small at times. Reading that same picture book, singing those same songs, building that same fort, making that same taco dinner. This child’s world of simplicity, repetition, and routine is my current reality and my family’s container. From a young age I threw myself into contemplative practice, attending retreat after retreat in silence, meditation, and sometimes solitude. My life with my family looks very different now. While my present container is beautiful in many respects, it also can leave me feeling bored at times. It was at the Wisdom School that I was given a different outlook on this life-stage. The constriction I feel is actually helping me grow, becoming someone who can hold more and find the space and presence in much less. Parenthood for me encapsulates the human experience, as it wavers between being indescribably profound to painfully mundane. Delving into Teilhard’s work for five days inspired me to look at the potential that these polarities contain.

From years of studying the Buddhist concept of emptiness, I became familiar with the skill of seeing things from all different perspectives. For Teilhard, the very things in which our current liberal/progressive society so fears, are the very things that will propel us into more sophisticated levels of consciousness and evolution. To me this shows Teilhard’s mastery over emptiness, proving that things don’t have an inherent self-existence from their own side. Teilhard’s excitement over density, friction, and seemingly destructive forces can be perceived as a catalyst for change and movement on a cosmic scale. This reminded me to muster my years of training in contemplative traditions to help me move past my knee-jerk judgments and see things on a grander scale. 

The most crucial aspect of retreat is my ability to integrate what I have learned/experienced into my everyday life. Without this incorporation, these periods of silence and solitude are in vain. During this Wisdom School, prior to the work period, Cynthia would lead us through a brief grounding exercise. Here we would feel our feet grounded on the earth and from this foundation our roots would sink deep into the earth’s core. This visualization resonated deeply, and I now find myself practicing this invaluable skill. In periods of anxiety or stress I ground in this way, immediately dispelling those surges of anxiety. Another tangible gift of incorporation that I gleaned from my time spent at the Wisdom School is fueled by the parallels I 

drew between the concept of enroulement (‘coiling back on itself’) and walking the labyrinth. The labyrinth has always been an important facet of my spiritual practice as a tangible and embodied outlet to be with God. When Cynthia described enroulement, and its influence in the evolutionary process, I was struck with the labyrinth’s similar pattern (not unlike those referenced airport security lines!). In a labyrinth walk you meander your way to the centre (or the Omega point) through a circuitous route. I have always found it amazing that the labyrinth, as both a symbol and as a spiritual practice, has been found on different continents since time immemorial. These ancient patterns took on that much more meaning for me once reflecting on the possibility that evolution uses a similar pattern. Since the retreat I have exerted consistent effort to walk the labyrinth as an embodied reminder of all that I learned at the Teilhard Wisdom School. Both the grounding exercise and the labyrinth walk are tangible ways that I can continue to incorporate all of the fruits from these precious five days of learning, praying, working, and community.

I was a recipient of one of the generous scholarships that were allocated for this retreat. Without this scholarship it would not have been possible for me to attend.  I am so grateful for the opportunity to return to my roots of retreat, and to be filled with such sustenance to bring back into my life.


Since writing this reflection in 2016, Ruth, who also serves on The Contemplative Society’s board of directors, joined the University of Victoria’s Multifaith Services department. Her role as the Anglican chaplain has allowed her to re-engage with her passion for serving young spiritual seekers, bringing balance back into her life. She is thankful for her experience at the Wisdom School which helped her to say “Yes” to this opportunity (where every semester during exams there’s even a labyrinth!).

Enroulement is an inevitable process, but the quality of the material it works with reflects what we put into the universe. Ruth is an example of how donors to TCS have made a positive impact by funding scholarships to our retreats, the kind of support Ruth needed to reconnect with and shine her own light even brighter. Please consider giving a gift to our new Margaret Haines Scholarship Fund to help others like Ruth shine. Visit our contemplative.org/haines today to invest in the contemplative future.

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

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

Mary Magdalene in Metchosin

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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