Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal

This piece by Cynthia Bourgeault is the second in a series beginning with “A Surprising Ecumenism“, her response to Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica.


In my previous blog post, I invited members of our Wisdom community to begin to engage a conversation on the emotion-charged issue of abortion rights as a means to promote respectful dialogue to think beyond this singular issue. It is with no little “fear and trembling” that I launch a foray into this quintessentially Catholic moral ground. But to the extent that abortion has become the tail wagging the dog, chaining much of the Catholic political conscience to the decidedly un-Christian agendas of the religious right – and to the extent that this “elephant in the room” continues to go unmentioned in the otherwise compelling moral analysis recently emerging from Vatican – I feel some obligation as an American citizen and a wisdom teacher to at least try to get the ball rolling.

Forgive me: this is long for a blog. But take it in small doses, and take your time.

Some preliminary remarks

If my memory serves me correctly, in one of his earliest encyclicals the Pope already laid out some firm groundwork here when he warned against a myopic, single-pointed focus that inevitably twists moral issues out of context. That’s surely what the abortion issue has become in the US, an instantaneous flashpoint. But minus specific guidance as to how to back the Church down off this ledge, I don’t see a practical way to take the first step toward defusing the tension. Is anybody seriously going to be damned fool enough to say, “Hey, we’ve decided that human life doesn’t begin at conception,” or “The rights of the unborn don’t matter”? There seems to be “no way to get from he-ah to they-ah,” as we like to say in Maine, so the issue keeps running in circles.

Some preliminary reflections

Well-nigh universally, the liminal zones bordering life and death – i.e., what happens before birth or after death – have been regarded as a Mystery entrusted to the great spiritual traditions. The traditions offer different perspectives and instructions, but always with a common baseline of 1) respect for the sacredness of these passages; and 2) the need to prepare for these passages, and to live one’s life in conscious relationship with them. The plethora of spiritual practices offered by all sacred traditions are aimed, among other things, at developing a capacity to navigate this territory using more subtle and refined faculties of perception (in Christian tradition this has traditionally been referred to as “faith”).

Across the board, the experience of most committed practitioners is that they eventually “live into” an intimate mystical familiarity with these liminal zones, acquiring the capacity to personally validate spiritual truths inaccessible by the rational intellect alone. Apart from this special training, the rational intellect remains dominant and is the basis of our common social contract. And this, I would say, is a good thing, for the attempt to impose theological dogma concerning the liminal when the inner faculties have not been yet developed to personally validate it leads to the devolution of faith into “blind faith” and opens the doors to theocratic totalitarianism and manifold forms of spiritual abuse to which our culture has become increasingly sensitized.

In former eras, when the population of any given nation was overwhelmingly of the same spiritual tradition, it was fairly simple to conflate these two tracks. The word “catholic ” (as in “Catholic church”) literally means “universal” and, back in the era when the foundations of moral theology were being laid down, the known world was indeed just that. There were Catholics, “heathens”, and missionaries: not much in between.

Nowadays, that is no longer even remotely true. Even in our tiniest nations – and certainly in a nation as vast and sprawling as the United States – there is no longer a single presumed overarching spiritual tradition. There are many – and increasingly none. The fragile glue maintaining civility across increasingly diverse populations is the social contract itself. “Co-exist” is indeed the watchword of our times. Any attempt by one group to reassert its claim that its vision is truly “catholic” – i.e., universally binding – inflicts inevitable misery and violence on the rest.

For this reason, I would propose to offer here what amounts to an essentially two-tier solution governing our deliberations on the abortion issue. The first tier (which one might argue is actually the more “catholic” in the original sense of the term) is consistent with our evolving understanding of human rights and our growing awareness, in a converging world, of the need for our common human family to set universal baselines for sustainable “best practices” with regard to environmental protection, resource allocation, disease control, and population control. The second tier, encapsulating the wisdom carried in the sacred traditions, bears witness to the sacred potential of human life to come to its full spiritual fruition.

I will argue here that this “second tier” wisdom, regardless of the tradition from which it emanates, is binding within that tradition, not beyond it. But within it, lived with fidelity and depth, it has the capacity – indeed, inevitably WILL – serve to redeem and purify the rather clumsier practice lived at the common level.

So here is my six-point proposal. This is clearly – to my mind at least – simply an opening gambit that perhaps opens up a new way of framing the impasse. I eagerly invite your comments and refinements. For the moment I am thinking of this solely in terms of the USA, but hopefully it might have some eventual broader applications as well.

The first tier  (the basic social contract)

  1. We agree that it will be the government’s sacred responsibility to provide for the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” of each of its citizens.

This is the classic social contract built into the foundations of our nation, and for 241 years it has served us well.

  1. We agree that included among the fundamental rights implicit within these freedoms is the right for a woman to control her own body and to hold the decisive vote as to whether a new life will be formed within her body. 

I know that this one will feel like a punch in the gut to those whose sense of moral duty has been firmly pinned in championing the rights of the unborn. But it is the logical and necessary consequence of Point 1, which is in turn the necessary starting point for a social contract founded on a clear separation of church and state. While the government will do its best to provide for the rights of ALL its citizens – including those in utero – nevertheless, in those difficult circumstances when the two are in direct conflict, we agree that the rights of the present and quantifiable members of its citizenry take precedence over the rights of those still under the custody of the liminal sphere.

But we have not thereby disposed of all concern for the unborn! For those feeling punched in the gut, please continue on to Point 4. 

  1. We agree that in a world so deeply threatened by poverty, disease, and overpopulation, the government should exercise responsible stewardship by providing access to birth control and family planning.

These are envisioned not as moral concessions but as fundamental health rights.

This, then, would comprise my version of a sustainable social contract, with strong legal and moral precedent in the American notion of individual freedom.

The second tier

  1. We agree that the spiritual traditions are individually at liberty to invite or impose a higher standard of conduct upon their adherents in accordance with that tradition’s understanding of moral and ethical obligation. 

While this may at first sound like a double-standard, I believe it is one where there is already strong precedent in the spiritual traditions. Already in Catholicism, for example (in fact, in all sacred traditions featuring a monastic expression), marriage is seen as the general baseline while celibacy is seen as a “higher way”. The decision to walk the celibate path is not universally imposed, but on those who choose it, it becomes morally binding.

Traditionally the inducements offered to invite this higher level of commitment were pitched around personal fulfillment or excellence: a higher spiritual attainment, admission to heaven, etc. But as the Wisdom tradition has consistently maintained (and, as modern physics, specifically the concept of quantum entanglement, confirms), the real efficacy of this higher level of practice lies in its leavening effect upon the whole, raising the bar of spiritual energy and available grace for everyone. A spiritual path practiced with high integrity and commitment emits a transforming energy of its own, which goes much further in actually securing a higher level of spiritual understanding than individuals conscripted into a level of moral behavior they neither understand nor personally assent to.

My intuition is that a significant portion of Catholics voluntarily taking on the Church’s traditional moral teachings on family planning and abortion would do more to better the lot of the unborn than a entire nation forced into compliance with laws experienced as coercive and personally injurious. If the active practice of an authentic sacred tradition produces as its fruits “peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”, as Christian tradition (and all traditions) have staunchly maintained, then it is to be expected that these qualities, once actually attained, would percolate through the entire body of our country’s citizenry, if nothing else elevating the climate and respectfulness of the civic discourse. It has always been said that Christians taught first by example – by the fragrance of a life lived with compassionate integrity. It is still our best bet going into the future, particularly where the changes we’re looking to see involve those liminal realms – birth and death – where the spiritual integrity of the gesture is far more impactful than the immediate victory wrested by means which belie their ends.

Click the image for more information. Thank you to PiALOGUE.info.

The last two points are more general, extending beyond the specific abortion issue in order to attempt to establish a climate in which a pluralistic nation, in rapid social transition and spanning at least a three-level gap in levels of consciousness as measured by contemporary evolutionary maps (from amber to green, tribal- to world-centric) might still continue to engage in civil discourse and a healthy give-and-take:

 

 

 

  1. We agree that government will not intervene with the internal standards of conduct imposed by a spiritual tradition upon its adherents, so long as these standards do not directly threaten the public health or safety. Neither will it establish and promote these standards as binding upon all its citizens. 

I would expect this to be a continuing grey area – and rightly so – in that ongoing dance between religious freedom and public safety. There will still be regular legal challenges – as to, for example, whether Christian Scientists should be compelled to seek medical attention for their children or Old Order Mennonites forbidden to use corporal punishment on theirs; whether homophobic town clerks should be required to issue marriage licenses to gay couples or homophobic merchants be required to bake them wedding cakes. In a less polarized society than ours has now become, this would all remain within the realm of healthy give-and-take by which the collective social conscience is slowly nudged ahead.

In order to back down the polarization, however, which by now has escalated to unmanageable levels, I would add in a corollary here which, while it personally breaks my liberal heart, is I believe the only realistic concession that will represent a significant stance of “bargaining in good faith” to ease the present stand-off:

5a. The government agrees not to use its juridical power to impose secular affirmative action standards upon dissenting spiritual groups operating within their own sectarian networks. 

In this matter, I am much guided by the model set by my own Episcopal Church in its landmark decisions to embrace women’s ordination and gay marriage. While these decisions, once passed by the General Convention, became the law of the Church, there was a long timeline for total compliance, and wide latitude was given for dissenting clergy and congregations to slowly acclimatize to the new state of affairs through continued conversation and study, with the right to personally opt out of participation in actions that felt to them morally offensive (bishops opposed to women’s ordination, for example, would be able to place their women postulants under the care of a neighboring bishop, nor would a church adamantly uncomfortable with women priests have one foisted upon them). Time was allowed for healing and assimilation, with responses erring on the side of forbearance rather than a self-righteous pressing of the issue.

  1. Spiritual groups will refrain from seeking to impose their specific moral values or agenda as the law of the land, to the extent that these values either exceed or undercut baseline freedoms already guaranteed above.

A work in progress…

The proposal set forth here is admittedly a compromise. But beyond perhaps easing the polarization, I believe it actually restores a generically rightful balance. In arguing that sacred teachings are binding within a specific spiritual tradition but not beyond it, I believe I am not only acknowledging one of the realities of our pluralistic world, but actually calling on an inherent capacity of these two complimentary streams to counterbalance and bootstrap each other. At its best, the secular state can rescue the sacred traditions from their tendency toward monological thinking and extremism. And at their best, the sacred traditions remind us that the meaning of life is derived from exactly those liminal edges, in the renewed and deeper stabilization of the capacity to live as human beings according to those higher faculties of perception which have never been fully actualized – and by my estimation never will – within purely secular models. Severally and collectively, the spiritual traditions are the evolutionary omega, calling us on to what we have forgotten, or what we may still become.

I realize that many of my Catholic friends will be saying, “yes, but what about all those unborn babies?” As you recall, this proposal began with two assertions, both emerging from my perspective as Wisdom teacher. The first is that pre-birth and post-death belong to those great liminal Mysteries of life, and are best left in the custody of the sacred traditions; the second is that the spiritual practices carefully curated by each of these traditions afford access to these Mysteries in ways that the rational mind cannot comprehend. In the absence of this specific spiritual training (in Christianity, its lineage flows through contemplative prayer), perception will default to the rational mind, where abortion indeed looks like “baby killing”, and emotions instantly bridle at this presumed assault on the innocent. From the more rounded, three-dimensional perspective that opens up from “mind in the heart”, the situation takes on an entirely different coloration. It is this Wisdom perspective that I will exploring in my final blog post.

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.

Substituted Love

Cynthia Bourgeault has been leading a Lenten e-course from Spirituality & Practice titled, “Becoming Truly Human: Gurdjieff’s Obligolnian Strivings”. As Easter approaches, we offer a brief excerpt of Cynthia’s commentary from that course in the midst of Holy Week. To purchase the entire e-course (available on-demand soon), please visit Spirituality & Practice.


The fifth Obligolnian Striving: “the striving always to assist the most rapid perfection of other beings, both those similar to oneself and those of other forms, up to the degree of the sacred ‘Martfotai’; that is, up to the degree of self-individuality.”

It’s one thing to be willing and able to help a fellow being: to send them strength, reassurance, even an energetic boost. But is it possible to actually change places with them so that we take the weight on our own shoulders and they are permanently set free?

Painting by Brian Kershisnik

Definitely not, most spiritual traditions say. In the words of my Sufi teacher, a butcher’s son: “Every mutton hangs by its own leg.” Assistance, yes; baraka, blessing, clarity, counsel, and strength: in all these ways we can help. But spiritual liberation itself is non-transferable. You can’t become conscious unconsciously, by someone else doing it for you. It is the fruit of your own inner work.

I raise this point, obviously, because we are now less than a week out from the beginning of Holy Week. And during that week, Christians universally will be staring straight into the face of the claim that Jesus did precisely what most of the other sacred traditions see as impossible: that he is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the World.”

The usual way in which Christians have come to hear this statement, however, is through the distinctly dark filter of “atonement theology.” In its starkest version, God is seen as being angry with the people of Israel for their repeated backslidings; He requires a human substitute to pay the price. (In Christian fundamentalism this is often languaged as “Jesus died for your sins”.)  The roots of this theology lie in the Old Testament temple ritual, where each year a compulsory scapegoat was sent out into the desert, carrying on its back the collective sin of the Hebrew people. Early Christians simply took over this metaphor and Jesus became the cosmic scapegoat.

The English mystic Charles Williams was working from a whole different model when he brought forward his notion of substituted love, a teaching which had actually been present all along in Christianity, but under-emphasized. Essentially, it overrides the idea of victimhood, that punitive mainstay of atonement theology. Rather than passively enduring a victim’s death at the hands of an angry God, Jesus steps up to the plate and voluntarily offers himself in an intentional act of “lightening the burden of our Common Father” – i.e., taking on his own shoulders a bit of that collective burden of suffering that weighs so heavily upon the human condition.

Fundamentally, for Williams, it’s all about carrying another’s burden. It can be as simple as carrying the shopping bags for an elderly neighbor or as wildly fantastical as taking upon yourself an attack of black magic aimed at your companion (the plot of his own spiritual masterpiece, All Hallows Eve.)  It is widely celebrated in C. S. Lewis’s well-loved fantasy, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe when the innocent lion-king, Aslan, voluntarily offers his life in payment of the debt incurred by the wayward Edmund. But it is also as concrete and historical as civil rights activist Jonathon Myrick Daniels stepping before the gun of a deputy in Haynesville, Alabama, and taking the bullet aimed at his black companion.

These actions make no sense in the world of formal cause and effect. Nothing really changes; the carnage still goes on. And yet, from each of these examples, there rises a certain fragrance, a deeper and more mysterious scent of what it might mean to be a human being. Precisely situated on the line where kenosis (self-emptying love) crosses “exchange” (“love your neighbor as yourself”), they speak powerfully of a love which is deeper than human origin, and hence, not bound by finitude.

When a candle is snuffed out, it sends up a final plume of smoke, bearing the fragrance of all it has been. When Jesus died on the cross, according to the gospels, the fragrance of his being, rising like incense, knocked the Roman centurion on guard right off his feet. “Truly, this man was the Son of God,” he proclaimed. And the strength of that fragrance still lingers in our world to this day; in fact, it continues to rise.  

My friend Kabir Helminski once observed, “Two stones cannot occupy the same space, but two fragrances can.” I offer that image as a way of picturing, perhaps, how this fragrance of substituted love at the heart of the Paschal Mystery might mysteriously intertwine, interpenetrate, and ultimately enfold our sorrowful planet in the at-ONE-ment of its embrace.

“Conscious Circle” Ingathering

I watched them disappear this morning into the snowstorm, making their way home through the Maine winter after an extraordinary weekend of prayer, tears and laughter, teaching, stories, and conversation. My tiny, plucky “conscious circle”…how it tugged at my heart to see them go.

I had called them together, impromptu, about a month ago: a baker’s dozen of the most experienced and steady folks in the Wisdom network, to join me for a weekend here in Stonington (in February, utter madness!) to see if we could collectively begin to discern what the cosmos seems to be up to in the wake of this traumatic election upheaval and what Wisdom might expect of us in response.

The conversation around this topic has of course been flowing nonstop on the social media since well before November 8th, but so much of it has been at the horizontal level, driven by historical and political analysis – and, of course, from the perspective of the now duly-chastened secular intelligentsia. Shock, trauma, disorientation, and/or denial have been the dominant modes in the circles I mostly travel in, a still-dumbfounded inability to fathom what happened and why.

In times such as these, it is a traditional Wisdom practice to convene a small gathering of Wisdom “elders” to assess the situation from a deeper spiritual perspective, and to re-establish contact – through prayer, spiritual practice, sohbet (spiritual conversation), and sincerity of heart – with what Gurdjieff calls “the conscious circle of humanity”: that broader bandwidth of guiding presence always encircling our globe in its compassionate embrace and helping keep the course steady even in the midst of these periodic cavitations. The invitation – in fact, the imperative – to connect with this source of assistance is strongly underscored in Wisdom teaching, and it seemed to me that it was the one stream of input not being heard in our present anguished state of national soul-searching. 

And so our small cohort of “conscious circle” postulants convened at the Stonington Town Hall on February 3rd, having arrived from all over the country. We deliberately chose to meet there, both because of the obvious civic tie-in (yep, the red, white, and blue voting booths still line the east wall), and because the light there happens to be beautiful, streaming in right off the ocean through glorious, ten-foot-high windows. Thanks to the generous underwriting of Northeast Wisdom, we were able to partially subsidize the costs of everyone’s lodging and meals, but the response to my invitation offered by our thirteen participants was an instantaneous “Yes”, long before any funding was secured. It was that pure spirit of “Hineni” – “Here I am, Lord” – that really launched us into orbit and was both the modus operandi of our being together and ultimately the marching orders received.

The first two days were devoted mostly to teaching, as we collectively explored some of the major resources at our disposal for reframing and enlarging perspective. We reviewed the resources in Teilhard’s evolutionary vision, particularly the reassurance that deep hope flows over deep time. We affirmed that the evolutionary imperative toward the higher collectivity (the next level of “complexity consciousness” manifest as the one body of humanity) was still flowing serenely and strong beneath the surface setbacks. 

We then explored Gurdjieff’s Five “Obligolnian Strivings” (an exploration I’ll be offering more widely in a Spirituality & Practice e-course coming right up this Lent), and in particular, his conviction that there is a certain cosmic expectation laid upon the human species as part and parcel of our participation in a dynamic cosmic web of “reciprocal feeding”. Our human contribution is made in the form of those higher energies of compassion and clarity generated as we submit ourselves to the practices of “conscious labor and intentional suffering”. The fruits of this transformed Being-energy are qualities such as peace, love, joy, forbearance, patience, compassion – traditionally known in Christian language as “the fruits of the spirit”. What makes Gurdjieff’s take so interesting is that these qualities are not only moral virtues but actual energetic substances needed for the feeding and building up of our common planetary (and interplanetary) life. When we fail to produce these qualities – or worse, produce the opposite, the “false fruits” of entitlement, greed, deceit, violence, and fear – then the whole cosmic equilibrium is thrown out of whack.

We then took an extended pass through the Ken Wilber “Trump and a Post-Truth Era” article and found both the scale (from the perspective of the evolution of consciousness) and the general analysis helpful. Ken’s ability to zero in on the progressive dysfunction of the “green” or pluralistic level of consciousness, the leading edge of social conscience and evolutionary change, hit home for many of us and offered valuable cues as to how to begin to work with the circumstances now on our plate.

On Monday afternoon the conversation started to flow as we broke into triads and then reunited for deep, searing, imaginative, and energy-filled exchanges. While it would be premature to say that any “charter of action” emerged from our deliberations, a remarkable consensus emerged that whatever the long-term political outcome may be, the instructions remain the same: to hold the post, stand with courage and equanimity, and be able to maintain a resilient space for third force, staying close to that “light within” that is already shining brightly in the midst of this tunnel, not just waiting at the end of it.

Part of the empowerment of the whole gathering was to be able to hold those “unimaginable” conversations, standing lucidly as we stared right into the face of that nameless, paralyzing dread that has so much of our nation in its grip. We discussed with strength and lucidity such mind-bending scenarios as the collapse of democracy, global conflagration, and spiritual resources for self-protection when operating in the presence of unleashed forces of evil.

The greatest reassurance – and I admit, frankly, surprise – came for me in our times of spiritual practice and in a Sunday morning Eucharist which palpably exploded with the presence of the risen Christ. (In fact, it detonated so powerfully that the explosion was picked up all the way in British Columbia by one of our Wisdom intuitives there, who emailed me, “What just happened?”) It was an unmistakable confirmation and teaching from that very conscious circle to which we had humbly presented ourselves for guidance.

While the courses of action that emerge from each one of us may differ, what was eminently clear to each of us was that this protective field of tenderness and responsive concern to our planetary anguish is alive and well, and that we can and MUST turn to it…daily, hourly, with every best. In best of Wisdom fashion, our hope shifted away from outcome and back to source. 

Others in the circle will no doubt offer their own takes, on the Wisdom [School] Community Facebook page, and in blogs of their own. And of course, the real reverberations of the work we did this past weekend will reveal themselves only gradually, as they percolate out through the “circles within circles” in our Wisdom network both by direct transmission and through quantum entanglement. But for me, the heart of what we were about this weekend and where we got to spiritually hovered closely within the words of the haunting melody that Laura Ruth sang for us on our final night:

Though my soul may set in darkness,
It will rise in perfect light.
For I’ve loved the stars too fondly
To be fearful of the night.

Thank you, one and all, who made this gathering possible. I am more than ever convinced that wherever our times have landed us and whatever may be in store, this is indeed Wisdom’s finest hour.  

Meanwhile, I invite you all to collectively ponder these powerful words from Connie Fitzgerald, from her paper From Impasse to Prophetic Hope, delivered in 2009 before the Catholic Theological Society of America. I believe it frames the window of opportunity for all of us, while not mincing words on the challenge:

Any hope for a new consciousness and a self-forfeiture drawn by love stands opposed by a harsh reality. We humans serve our own interests, we hoard resources, we ravage the earth and other species, we scapegoat, we make war, we kill, we torture, we turn a blind eye to the desperation and needs of others, and we allow others to die. Our ability to embody our communion with every human person on the earth and our unassailable connectedness with everything living is limited because we have not yet become these symbiotic “selves”. We continue to privilege our personal autonomy and are unable to make the transition from radical individualism to a genuine synergistic community even though we know intellectually we are inseparably and physically connected to every living being in the universe. Yet the future of the entire earth community is riding on whether we can find a way beyond the limits of our present evolutionary trajectory.

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

Thanksgiving 2016 – by Heather Page and Jennifer England

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


Dear Members and Friends of The Contemplative Society,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bless you all,

Heather


Consciousness Rising

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

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

Photo by Sher Sacks, Wisdom School 2016 participant

Photo by Sher Sacks, Wisdom School 2016 participant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes:

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

The contemplative connection: building a community of unity

In 2014, Meagan Crosby-Shearer received a scholarship to attend the Wisdom School led by Cynthia Bourgeault on The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three held at Lake Cowichan, BC which drew on content from her recent, much-lauded book of the same name. Meagan’s subsequent reflection demonstrates how becoming a member of The Contemplative Society helps to recover the mystical heart of the Christian Wisdom tradition, as well as provide accessible opportunities and resources to those interested in learning and living contemplative Christian wisdom. 


My attendance at this year’s Wisdom school came through pure gift and, perhaps in hindsight, the Law of Three.

I had reached a state of impasse where what was needed in my life was a reorientation to the Spirit of God and an integration of body and soul, and instead I felt locked into a cycle of increasing fragmentation. Into the peak of this intensity came the email invitation to Wisdom School which offered a breath of peace and a shift in focus.

IMG_0017I arrived at Wisdom School in the early evening and stepped into the fragrance of pine and earth, and could feel myself begin to drink in the peace of the setting. I resonated with the opening talk which was both Christ-centered and monastic in approach, and appreciated the language of prayer together, prayer alone, work alone, and work together as being the foundation for our time together as well as forming the rhythm of our lives. The evening meditation was beautiful, and I felt at times as if I was cradling a beating heart in my palms.

The days started with a sunrise walk, and then were full of intense learning punctuated by walks in the beauty of the surrounding area, breathless plunges into the cool water, work that warmed my body and sank my feet deeper into the earth, and times of meditation and song that freed me to discover again the essence of God within me and in those people and places around me. The nights in their silent beauty were brilliantly lit with stars bringing Psalm 19 to mind.

I appreciated the time of work and, in particular, the teaching about how much we give of ourselves to our work. It is something I have reflected on many times since the school and I have begun to seek out better ways of balancing this tendency. Alongside this was the practice of leaving things unfinished to be fully present to the next moment. It was difficult to walk away at the end of our work period and know that there was more to do, but the practice allowed me to realize how often my mind is still wrestling with the last event instead of becoming fully available to be God’s hands and feet in the present moment.

I was fascinated by the teaching on the Law of Three and of Boehme’s process allowing for anguish, desire, and agitation to be the impetus for light. It begins to transform the way we dwell in the world if anguish is no longer seen as something to be fought or eradicated, or as darkness where God is absent but, instead, one of the very materials by which a new creation can occur.

I appreciated that we were sent out to explore the Law of Three both through the exercise of looking back on our life, but also by engaging it within our current contexts. I was struck by its possibility in areas of conflict, be they internal or external, and the call to move from a place of either/or to a place of curiosity and holding situations/conversations lightly. I appreciated the release of identity that this process allowed.

While there was not time to delve into the implications of the Trinity in as much depth as I would have liked, I was struck by the movement of the unfolding Trinity. Instead of a snapshot caught in time I appreciated the idea of the Trinity as ever-creating, dynamic, and self-revealing. I also was caught by the statement that this understanding of the Trinity allows us to view our age not in utter uncontrolled chaos, but as unfolding toward an Omega point.

IMG_0668As our time drew to an end, we had a chance to walk the Enneagram that had been unfolding throughout the week. I was initially worried about knowing which way to go but, as I entered, it was smooth and clear and the energy built until I could feel it ripple across my palms and scalp. It made me think of the law of world creation and the Law of Three and I wondered at what we had loosed into the world by our collective action. The night intensified this question. Sleep was elusive. It made me question again what power was being stirred through our time.

We closed with a profound celebration of the Eucharist that seemed to bring everything together in a beautiful unity. As we received the elements in our time, Cynthia emphasized “Christ growing a new thing within us” and I could feel myself yearning toward that realization, ready and eager to embrace the new life that Christ is able to birth within each of us.

I was thankful that far from leaving us simply to long for the next retreat, we were sent to explore and pay attention to the Law of Three in our lives and to apply the learning we had gained very practically into our own places and spaces.

I am deeply thankful for the opportunity The Contemplative Society provided that allowed me to participate in this Wisdom school. There are many insights still percolating and, as I go back to The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, there are fresh understandings from Cynthia’s talks (and more questions!) that continue to emerge. I am incorporating the insights I have gained not only into my own spiritual life, but in the leadership of the community we are a part of.

Again, my deep gratitude for this time of refreshment and learning, and I will continue to hold the work of The Contemplative Society in prayer as you continue to serve so many with your ministry!

Meagan, walking the Enneagram

Meagan, walking the Enneagram


Hungry for more? Become a member today to ensure more people like Meagan are able to access opportunities like Wisdom Schools, and you’ll receive the opportunity to register for TCS events like the upcoming Wisdom School on Teilhard de Chardin in advance of the public! 

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.

Matthew Wright on the West Coast: A Report

This is a re-post of an article written for Northeast Wisdom by Sher Sacks on December 21, 2015. Shortly after Matthew spent time with us at Shawnigan Lake, BC, he hosted a similar retreat in Sechelt, BC.


“I think some of you will be happy to hear how Matthew is playing in my old British Columbia stomping ground.” ~ Cynthia

On November 23 and 24, 2015, Matthew Wright, an Episcopal priest from St. Gregory’s church in Woodstock, NY (yes that Woodstock) presented a group of about two dozen with a remarkable range of material about the Wisdom teachings of Yeshua (the Hebrew name of Jesus). We have long been taught what we are to believe about Yeshua but far less about how the teachings of Yeshua can transform our lives. And Matthew offered this option.

The workshop was not about knowing more, but about knowing more deeply. We are often told to “get out of our heads and into our hearts” which is problematic given the nature of the English language which equates heart with emotion. As Matthew pointed out, the heart is not the emotional centre, it is rather the organ of spiritual perception. It would be more accurate to say “get into your HeartMind”. This understanding makes Yeshua’s phrase “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (become conscious of God), make more sense.

2015-11-24 - MatthewWrightWmeditationMatthew spent some time discussing what is now being referred to as the second axial age. The first axial age occurred around 800 to 200 BCE, when there was an enormous increase of spiritual understanding. It was the period in which the Buddha taught, Lao-Tzu (the founder of Taoism) was teaching in China , the Rishis (writers of the Vedas) were active in India, and Monotheism arose in Israel (Abraham and Sarah left their tribe to “follow God” and the Abrahamic covenant was born). Out of this incredible upwelling of spiritual awareness came a sense of transcendence and an individual quest for spiritual understanding or enlightenment. The ultimate goal became escape, or liberation from the world of matter, which was considered lesser or even evil. The problem became one of how to escape from samsara (cycle of rebirth in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism) or to repair the rift created by “the Fall” (Christianity). The end result was the sense that something was wrong with this world. Our spiritual consciousness became dominated by images of separation and exile.

However, slowly, over the centuries, according to many thinkers, including Matthew, there has risen the deep indwelling knowledge that “we belong”. We have begun to pick up the very real connection with the earth and each other that existed in pre-axial times. This sense combined with the first axial age sense of transcendence, gives us the opportunity to move into a synthesis of the transcendent and the immanent to create a new world order. During the workshop Matthew pointed out that multiple strands of knowledge point us in this direction. Quantum physicists have discovered the deep interconnection of all things at the most subtle levels of matter; environmentalists are pointing out that we are part of a global ecosystem; evolutionary biologists, reveal that life is unfolding as a vast, single process.

2015-11-24 - MatthewWrightWorshop - groupMatthew also pointed out that this “second axial current” didn’t just start recently. It is present in the Bodhisattva vow of Mahayana Buddhism (the vow to remain in the phenomenal world until all beings are awakened) and in Incarnational theology (elimination of the boundaries between the sacred and the profane – “God so loved the world” and “the Word became flesh”). Yeshua rejected the asceticism of John the Baptizer and pointed us to a path that fully embraces the world. He partied, feasted, and associated with those identified as outcasts and sinners. He broke the purity laws. Yeshua prayed “Thy Kingdom come on Earth”. His teaching indicated that we belong deeply to this world; we are interwoven into its fabric. As a teacher within the Wisdom tradition of the east, Yeshua taught us about compassionate, loving intelligence where attention (alertness, spaciousness) and surrender (a humble letting go) meet in the heartmind. It is not so much about what Yeshua taught but about where he taught from. What he taught was not a moralistic, but a transformative path.

Matthew spent some time describing the reasons why this basic teaching of Yeshua morphed into the moralistic, judgmental teaching within which most of us were raised. He followed the growth of Christianity out of its eastern foundations toward Greece and Rome, with martyrdom leading to “we/they” thinking, and finally to the moment that Christianity became an imperial identity marker within the Roman Empire with its counsels of Bishops. What one believed became all important and led to the inquisition, witch trials, and the crusades. Yeshua’s path of inner transformation was almost lost.

Now we have the opportunity to move beyond a belief and belonging system to the recognition of Yeshua as the archetype of the full union of human and divine – Christ consciousness. Yeshua is not the exclusive union BUT the fullness of the human and divine union (Christ). In reference to this concept we discussed some of the Christian and Sufi mystics and their practices, kataphatic prayer (prayer with content), and apophatic prayer (emptying the mind of words and ideas and simply resting in the presence of God). We discussed how we can learn from each other using homeomorphic equivalency, looking for deep correspondences that go beyond the words and concepts of our distinct religions or cultures to find the same or similar experiences.

We also considered the phrase “the Kingdom of God” not as a place (Heaven) or existing at a particular time (after death), but as a state of consciousness, here and NOW. We turned our minds to Christophany (all reality as a manifestation of Christ) and reflected upon Raimon Panikkar’s concept that reality is Cosmotheandric (a totally integrated and seamless fabric that is the undivided consciousness of the totality). We examined Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of Christogenesis, within which Christianity is not a path of ascent but a path flowing out from God. Matter is not a distraction from God but an outworking of God in form. Incarnation awakens to itself in Christ (Form). The world is not static but constantly changing. God is committed to that change, since as the creator God embedded it in the world and now sustains it. Christ consciousness is its goal. As Paul stated in Romans 8:22, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time”.

Finally we considered the concept of the Sacred Heart of Jesus as the Heart of the universe, the evolutionary driveshaft of all creation; the second coming as the coming of conscious union with the divine. Referring back to the omegaconcept of axial ages we noted the rise in non-dual consciousness. We noted that evolution has been acting unconsciously up till the present but now we have the opportunity to act consciously in it. Evolution has become aware of itself. We must choose to deepen the disclosure of the Heart of God. Christ is the endpoint (the Omega). However this convergence is not inevitable. If the second axial age is to manifest we must choose and act!


Originally posted on NortheastWisdom.org