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.

On Beelzebub’s Tales

Dear Wisdom friends,

Wow! What an amazing heart-outpouring from all of you! I feel the energy, the strength and, most important, the clarity. I believe that in the space of merely a week we have already become a “morphogenetic field” out there in the cosmos. And the space which the “conscious circle of humanity” needed to have occupied is now activated and beginning to make its presence felt.

I see that many of you are already gearing up for the deep dive into Beelzebub’s Tales, so I did want to briefly share with you these few clarifications and tips. Teaching and reading groups are already starting to self-organize, both formally and informally, on the ground and in cyber space. I hope that by shortly into the New Year we will be able to put together a resource directory helping our keen band of wisdom seekers find their way to the most appropriate venue. But meanwhile…

First, you should all know that I will, myself, be offering a Lenten e-course with Spirituality and Practice on “The Obligolnian Strivings”, the heart of Gurdjieff’s brilliant vision of human purpose and accountability, and the ethical climax of the first book of Beelzebub’s Tales. So stay tuned! The course begins with an orientation on February 27, then kicks off on Ash Wednesday, March 1. Shortly after the New Year it should be available for sign-up on the S & P website.

Now, if you’re determined to forge ahead on your own, know that what you’re dealing with here is Gurdjieff’s sprawling cosmological masterpiece: brilliant and outrageous in equal measures – and definitely not an easy read. Beelzebub’s Tales is also the reason Gurdjieff is sometimes hailed as one of the founding fathers of modern-day science fiction! Set in a vast, intergalactic universe and narrated by the now-nearly-redeemed fallen angel Beelzebub, this cosmological epic unfolds the “tragical history of the unfortunate planet earth”, gradually revealing how human conscious development went so badly off course here. It lays out an alternative history which may at first appear totally mad – but it’s curious how many cosmological facts first “spun” by G in this epic yarn have subsequently been scientifically confirmed…So, caveat emptor here!

It’s largely Book I we’ll be concerned with in this study, which basically lays out the mythic narrative. I am interested in it chiefly because it furnishes some important alternative concepts and images as we engage the work I envisioned in my former post: i.e., exploring the ley line (or is it a fault line?) of causality that runs through 800 years of Western intellectual history. The serious questions I want to explore this spring will be easier to grasp if you already have under your belts: 

  1. some idea of what a real Wisdom School is (i.e., the ancient Society Akhaldan of Atlantis versus the later Babylonian “talking heads”);
  2. the roadmap of human purpose laid out through “the saintly labors of the holy and Essence-loving” Ashiata Shiemash; and,
  3. the destruction of those saintly labors by the “democratic” reforms of the “Eternal Hasnamuss” Lentrohamsanin (chapters 25-28). That in and of itself will furnish more than we need to get ourselves to 2020, the year of perfect vision.

That’s what you’ll find in Book I.  Meanwhile, a few more tips:

  1. Unless you’re already a diehard Gurdjieff fan, I’d recommend skipping the Introduction, “The Arousing of Thought”. Begin with Chapter 2. 
  2. Forget “analytical mode”. This is middle-eastern story-telling in flavor, extended to epic scope. Gurdjieff’s father was an ashok, a local bardic poet who could recite the oral history of the world back 1000 years. Think in this mode: playful, mythologic, humorous; not “buttoned down” mental/esoteric.
  3. Take it little at a time. Reading out loud with a partner, at least in certain sections, can extend and awaken the range of meaning.
  4. There is a very good introductory summary in Part II of James Moore’s Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth that will help get you oriented.

Remember that there is some method in my madness here. If this big unwieldy tome doesn’t speak to you, don’t feel obligated to wade through it just to get to some concepts that I’ll be unpacking in my own teaching in due course. But since many of you are itching to get underway, I thought I’d at least throw you these few leads.

With Christmas blessing and love,

Cynthia

Spiritual Practices from the Gurdjieff Work: Online Course with Cynthia Bourgeault – Now Available On-Demand

cynthia-gurdjieff

Originally offered Nov 3rd-28th 2014, this highly popular course is now available in an “On-Demand” basis from Spirituality and Practice. 

Course Overview:

G. I Gurdjieff (1866-1949) was an enigmatic, Armenian-born spiritual teacher whose one-of-a-kind spiritual teaching has been a quiet force in Western spiritual history for nearly 100 years. Spirituality & Practice is pleased to offer you a rare opportunity: a practical, hands-on exploration of Gurdjieff’s powerful spiritual practices minus the intellectual speculation and secrecy! This 12-part email course created by renowned teacher Cynthia Bourgeault plunges you right into the heart of these transformative practices.

“The Work,” as it’s familiarly known, was Gurdjieff’s colossal attempt to recover ancient spiritual wisdom in danger of total eclipse in the West and to pass it on in forms accessible to contemporary men and women without the intermediaries of religion, dogma, or fanaticism. Since Gurdjieff’s first arrival in St. Petersburg, Russia, on the eve of World War I, the Work was displaced westward and organized itself in “below the radar screen” study groups in Europe and North and South America. Its influence has been largely felt through the stature and influence of some of its major proponents, including philosopher Jacob Needleman, playwright/director Peter Brook, and P. L. Travers of “Mary Poppins” fame.

In overall format you could describe the Work as an early type of mindfulness training, but with distinctly Western heart and soul and a flavor all its own! Its core program is designed to bring out of the distracted, self-important, self-preoccupied contemporary personality a conscious human being, capable of presence, freedom, and compassionate action.

While many of the practices are familiar along the path of spiritual transformation, Gurdjieff brings them a flavor all his own. And some of the specialities, such as the Work’s teaching on attention, identification, and self-remembering, are unparalleled in any other spiritual lineage.

In this e-course, Cynthia Bourgeault will lead you through the practices themselves in a cumulative, sequential way that remains concrete and focused on a practical task. She explores what Gurdjieff means by “conscious labor and intentional suffering” and hints at the huge cosmic vision underlying and tying together all these individual practices. She explains looks at where his ideas come from, but much more closely at where they’re going, and how these simple but powerful practices can put teeth on the bones of your present spiritual commitment, whether it’s officially “religious” or not.

Cynthia Bourgeault is one of the foremost contemporary bridgebuilders between the Gurdjieff Work and the contemporary spiritual sensibility. An Episcopal priest and retreat leader, she participated actively in the Gurdjieff Work for ten years and still remains deeply involved in its teaching and articulation. Like Gurdjieff himself, she discovered that these practices opened the door to deepening and grounding her own Christian practice, and she has been committed to extending the interfaces through workshops, writing, and now this e-course.

Join us for this unprecedented online course. You will receive:

• 12 emails from Cynthia Bourgeault
• access to the recording of a one-hour teleconference with Cynthia held when this course was first offered.

Full details to subscribe to this very popular on-demand program from Spirituality and Practice available HERE.

For a full list of Cynthia Bourgeault’s online courses with Spirituality and Practice please see HERE.