As we come down the home stretch in this extended Wisdom inquiry into the abortion issue, I’ve tried to draw together here some of the most important implications and “business arising” out this exploration. Most of my following “top five” have already been touched on in previous blogs, but a few are new (though obviously following from points already raised). Here we go:
The whole conversation around the abortion issue needs to begin with a comprehensive reframing of the metaphysical assumptions on which it rests: away from a substance-theology-driven fixation on nailing down the precise moment when “life” begins (implicitly understood as meaning an individual human soul) and toward a wider appreciation of the entire life journey as a single, interwoven dynamism of “soul-making” in which each stage of the journey is equally vulnerable and precious. When does a daffodil become a daffodil? Is daffodil the bulb? The shoot? The bud? The flower? It is all of the above, yet none insofar as a stage is taken in isolation. In the traditional Wisdom maps – confirmed as well as in the more dynamic relational models emerging from the leading edges of biophysics and evolutionary theology – the term “pro-life” can no longer be usurped by any single phase of the journey, for the soul is the fruit of the entire life journey, not merely of the moment of conception.
This Wisdom understanding of “pro-life” assumes that the boundaries demarcating an individual life from the greater relational field that has supported its gestation/individuation – and will continue to do so for the entire course of its life – are always a bit indistinct, marked by considerable reciprocity at each step of the way. Attempting to establish identity by separating an individual element from the whole is an old, old metaphysical habit that no longer matches the shape of our dynamically interwoven universe. At every phase life makes its way juggling difficult balances and hard trade-offs. To be pro-life – not merely “pro-birth” – implies an acknowledgement of that challenging terrain and the willingness to bring forbearance and mercy to the entire unfolding.
Arthur Russell’s “The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea”
As an important initial step in that direction, we need to become much more forbearing and merciful in our use of language. Precision is necessary – “soul”, “life”, and “individual essence” are NOT synonyms, and when used as if they are, they result in creating what Arthur Lovejoy once defined as emotional pathos – language wielded for sentimental and/or manipulative effect. Christianity is already vulnerable enough to that sort of emotional manipulation; it has been standard devotional and even theological practice for centuries. We need to tread extremely gently here, and to be doubly alert to well-worn rut tracks of associative thinking.
Above all, it seems to me that the word “murder” has no place in any helpful discussion of the abortion issue. Technically, yes, abortion terminates an incipient human life. But when connotation – not merely denotation – is factored in, murder typically implies malevolent intent; it already presumes a crime.1 To impose this set of associations on a decision-making process which virtually always unfolds in the realm of human anguish is inflammatory and cruel. Is it also murder to “put down” a pet? To withdraw life support from a loved one following a catastrophic stroke? Do these decisions – which also terminate a life – always presume malevolent intent?
At very most, we are speaking here of “fetal homicide”. My own preference would be to recognize that in those great liminal zones surrounding birth and death, where life is not yet (or no longer) fully viable on its own, we need a whole different way of languaging those painful but sometimes necessary decisions to end the life of another sentient being. I am not suggesting euphemism here, but rather an honest and compassionate clarity that would serve the goal of healing – not simply anger and blame.
Acknowledging the shadow
That being said, abortion does end the life of another sentient being, and such a decision is never easy or pain-free. It inflicts deep wounds on the human psyche (I believe this is true even in the case of putting down a pet), and these wounds are long in healing and reverberate on many planes; in that sense, abortion is a karmic act. Because of the harm it invariably engenders (to self, fetus, relationship), it is never simply a medical “procedure”, let alone a “normal” method of birth control. It should always be considered exceptional: a “least preferable” option to be invoked only after alternatives have been carefully weighed and rejected.
Since the clearly documented shadow side of abortion still tends to be under-acknowledged in pro-choice presentations, there seems to be an obvious need for a more balanced emphasis in sexual education, together with a concerted effort to make standard forms of contraception readily and blamelessly available: the only strategy to date that has yielded a conclusive and consistent success rate. And yes, here again, it’s a trade-off between high principles and sustainable results. From my admittedly pragmatic angle of vision, it seems that if the Catholic Church could ever see its way clear to constraining the rights of the “potentially conceived” in favor of those already conceived (i.e., contraception as the only realistic “preferable alternative” to abortion), I suspect that the vast bulk of its pro-life agenda would be instantly achieved.
Safeguarding legal access
While abortion is never the preferred option, I believe it needs to remain a protected legal option. The Wisdom model provides additional validation for doing so in affirming the equal importance of all stages of life and exposing the implicit Catholic/evangelical theological bias at work in the presumption that the rights of the unborn take precedence over the rights of the mother. In an increasingly pluralistic America, where many religions and no religion offer competing moral compasses, it is more important than ever to establish a legally protected space in which difficult personal decisions can be arrived at through personal conscience, not through the legal imposition of sectarian dogma. I return here again to my earlier proposal of a “two-tier” systemstipulating that included among the fundamental “first tier” rights 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.
Beyond that baseline – at what I’ve called “second tier” – adherents of specific religious paths would have the full freedom to practice a higher level of moral observance according to the understandings of their particular faith tradition. It simply would not be universally binding.
Creating a wider ethical forum
Beyond those immediate issues raised by the abortion issue itself, the even greater challenge has proved to lie in figuring out a way to hold this conversation at all! And I’m not just talking about the differences of opinion and occasionally painful give-and-take as challenging new ideas are collectively pondered; I’m asking why thoughtful pondering of the kind we’ve been sharing here is such a painful rarity in our cultural conversation nowadays. As I racked my brains to think of a journal, a publishing house, an academic, or retreat setting that might sponsor such a discussion, I quickly realized there were none. “Too far afield” for traditional theological journals; “too political” for academic or contemplative specializations; “too provocative” for retreat or even Living School fare, where one wishes to avoid giving offense to those who might be challenged or made personally uncomfortable by the exchange: “Cynthia is misusing her post as a teacher to wander into such dangerous personal ground”.
It has seemed to me for a long time now that the most urgent long-range need facing our country today is for some cultural forum – beyond an internet blog series – where the important questions and issues impinging on our common humanity can actually be weighed and discussed. A Wisdom chautauqua, as it were. But what sort of forum would that be, and where would it take place?
Traditionally, issues of ethics and morality have been discussed and enforced within specific faith traditions. But today there is no longer a single faith tradition undergirding our civic morality and, given the prevailing contemporary interpretation of the First Amendment, it is no longer easily acceptable to teach subject matter traditionally identified as belonging to the “religious” sector in a secular educational setting. The big questions that have traditionally guided human ethical progress – “Who am I?”, “What am I here for?”, “Who is my neighbor” ,“Is there anything beyond self-interest?”, “Is there a higher purpose or coherence to the universe?” – are perceived as spiritually booby-trapped (alas, often true!) and hence off-limits for the purposes of public education. Meanwhile, given the continuing hemorrhaging in most mainstream religious denominations, it is far from a foregone conclusion that younger generations of Americans will be exposed to these ideas even within a religious setting.
The vacuum is lethal – filled, by default, simply with the clichés and role-modeling available from the entertainment and marketing sectors. The highest and finest of what has traditionally made us human has effectively been closed out of our cultural transmission.
This becomes particularly pressing when we attempt to explore the concept of a developmental soul, for it clearly presumes a sacred context for the human condition, a meaning to life not realized in personal self-maximization but in cosmic obligation and the sense of participation in a larger coherent whole. It is here and only here, the great sacred traditions unanimously affirm, that the ultimate meaning and satisfaction of human life are to be found. It is here and only here, one might add, that the attitudes, vision, and practices that can carry our planet safely into the future are to be found. And it is only at this scale – against the wider backdrop of the meaning of all of life, considered as a unified trans-cosmic whole – that the meaning and gravity of fetal abortion finally come into a rightful perspective. If we are not able even to raise these questions – let alone, wrestle with them, grow into them – what hope do we have in steering our planet wisely through these turbulent times?
Like many citizens in our country today, I’ve come to hate gerrymandering – that political sleight of hand that hacks up functional geopolitical units in order to create political firewalls. But even more than political gerrymandering, I loathe cultural and spiritual gerrymandering, which chops up the unified terrain of the human heart into a thousandfold denominational and academic fiefdoms in such a way that the great river of our collective human wisdom can no longer flow freely through it. The tragedy, of course, is that it is only our collective human wisdom that will save us.
Any bright ideas as to how such a container might be created?
Black’s Law Dictionary defines “murder” as the unlawful killing of a human being by another with malice aforethought, either expressed or implied. A “homicide” is defined as the act of a human being in taking away the life of another human being.
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A brief poetic interlude before the final run-up on a conclusion.
The clear, simple truth: nothing can fall out of God. Where would it go?
God is not somebody (not me) – somewhere else (not here). God is the all, the now, the whole; the undivided, dynamic totality of form and formlessness. As Barbara Brown Taylor pictures it so vibrantly in The Luminous Web (p. 74):
Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light – not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them – but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationship that animates everything that is.
We are pouring from fullness to fullness here.
From the perspective of the cove, the tide rises and falls in great contrasting cycles. A wharf riding gently at sea level on the high tide may be perched fifteen feet above a mudflat when the tide has emptied out. The sea ebbs and flows; the cove appears as “full” or “empty.” But from the perspective of the ocean, the volume of water is always the same; like a great watery amoeba it simply extends and retracts its arms into the nooks and crannies of coastline from its own serenely undiminished magnitude.
When we think about life in terms of rising-and-falling, beginning-and-ending, we are betraying our finite perspective. “The individual drop that we are disappears in time”, writes Raimon Panikkar in Christophany (p. 130) [also see our audio set by Cynthia Bourgeault of the same name]. “But the personal water that we are (the drop’s water) lives eternally – if, that is, we have succeeded in realizing the (divine) water that we are.” If, in other words, we have succeeded in shifting our perspective from cove to ocean.
It’s not easy, for sure. Down here in earth-time, the fleetingness of duration weighs heavily on us. “The paths of glory lead but to the grave”, Thomas Grey famously lamented. So brief the duration of a human life; so quickly over and gone. And when that life is but embryonic, cut off before it is even born, the pathos seems doubly brutal. We feel it as an exception, a violation. We do not see – do not want to see – even the slightest continuity with the universal, impartial agency of those “Ways of Life” Teilhard speaks of – ingenuity, profusion, indifference (!!) – to which all lower orders in the chain of life are bound. Duration seems so precious to us when it comes to human beings; less so, perhaps when we try to extend it to virtual particles or stars exploding in-and-out of existence in distant galaxies – or for that matter, to the millions of un-germinated seeds for every fetus engendered; to the ants, viruses, butterflies, starfish washed up on a beach in a freak flood tide, abandoned pets, livestock en route to the slaughterhouse…Where do our hearts draw the line?
“Only from the spirit, where it reaches its felt paroxysm, will the antinomy clear”, writes Teilhard – “and the world’s indifference to its elements will be transformed into an immense solicitude – in the sphere of the person”. But perhaps not quite in the way we are expecting. Personhood does not change the laws to which the entire created order is bound, but perhaps it gives us some perspective by rescuing consciousness from its captivity to duration.
So what about all those “souls” who don’t get a chance to live this life, spread their wings, even draw their first breath? Is something unbearably precious lost forever? As I ponder, from my own human perspective, the pathos of a life seemingly cut short in time, I find myself drawn back time and again to this haunting poem by Laura Gilpin (entitled “The Two-headed Calf”), which I first came across in Belden Lane’s spiritual classic, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes.
Tomorrow when the farm boys find this freak of nature, they will wrap his body in newspaper and carry him to the museum.
But tonight he is alive in the north field with his mother. It is a perfect summer evening: the moon rising over the orchard, the wind in the grass. And as he stares into the sky, there are twice as many stars as usual.
I offer this poem as a kind of dark solace in the face of that sickening, “punched-in-the gut” feeling that arises whenever we try to fathom a life that will never know the grace of duration in time. All life is one life, ultimately, and this one life is in the hands of God and is the hands of God. As humans, we properly feel grief and immense pathos when a potential life trajectory is suddenly cut off, either intentionally or by accident, and it is right that we should; that is the nature of our human sentiency. But to the extent that we can open our hearts and learn to feel all of life – in all its myriad yet particular forms – as the seamless sentiency of God, then perhaps we can loosen our grip on individual duration and let the unbroken wholeness of life flow according to its own mysterious deeper rhythm. The antidote to hardness of heart (from which our culture certainly suffers) may not lie so much in exaggerating the rights of the unborn as in opening our hearts more deeply to the unity – and free fall – that is divine love.
Nothing can fall out of God. Each and every created essence – whether plant, mineral, animal, human – participates in the symphony of divine self-disclosure in its own way and knows the fullness of divine mercy according to its own mode of perceptivity. Even a stone. Even a blade of grass. Most certainly a fetus. Most certainly at the hour of our death. Duration does not affect that holographic fullness, presumably even in a virtual particle. Even – sometimes especially – in brevity, the intensity of the whole is conveyed in a heightened form – twice as many stars as usual!
Granted, the gift of time gives us the window of opportunity to do some pretty amazing stuff – like developing a soul, for one! But the soul is for cosmic service. Cosmic fullness is something else again. It is the free and gratuitous birthright bestowed by God on every quark and particle of the created order. And we get to participate in it freely, fully, here and now, simply because each one of us is a tiny shareholder in the divine aliveness.
Nor does even an “interrupted life” ever pass out of the knowingness of God. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” says Psalm 139 – and if we turn that promise just slightly sideways, we can see in it a deeper assurance that has slipped by us on the first pass. Each individualized life is a trajectory – a probability wave, quantum physicists would call it – of divine self-manifestation that already exists in the heart of God. The heart of God is the infinite abyss of all possibilities. Its time will come round again.
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The biggest challenge in wrapping one’s head around this Wisdom notion of a developmental soul – at least for traditionally reared religious folks – is that it seems to fly in the face of that well-loved Biblical assurance that God is personally and intimately invested in the creation of each and every human being: “For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb”, the psalm’s text assures. In the face of this apparently explicit assurance that each human soul originates in God and reflects God’s personal handiwork, the alternative version – that developing a soul is the principal business of this life and that not all human lives will get there – seems bleak and impersonal. What could possibly be the advantage of looking at things this way?
The advantage is that it might – just might –knock us out of a cul de sac of sloppy and sentimental thinking based on an antiquated metaphysics that is no longer supported by science.
You may have already noticed how some of this sloppiness has slipped into some of the comments generated by this blog series. There is a strong tendency to use the terms “life”, “soul”, and “human person” interchangeably, as if they are equivalent. They manifestly are not. “Life begins at conception”, some of you have passionately reiterated – but not so: according to contemporary scientific models, life is already well underway at the time of conception; it is a property already shared by sperm and egg since it belongs as a general condition to the biosphere. Nor is the soul created at conception, if the developmental road map is to be taken seriously; soul is the fruit of the journey, not the seed.
What is created in that “ignition” moment at conception – and yes, it is a pivotal moment – is the individual human life, the temporarily separated spark of divine consciousness that will have the option, with tenacity and luck, to return to the divine fullness having realized a very different kind of substantiality within the cosmos.
The Wisdom teaching is clear: below a certain threshold, death brings an end to this temporary sense of individuated selfhood. The “soul” is not destroyed (since it has not yet come into being in the first place); the individual essence components are simply reabsorbed back into the biosphere. As Jesus himself expressed this ancient teaching in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, “All of nature with its forms and creatures exist together and are interwoven with each other. They will be resolved back, however, to their own proper origin, for the compositions of matter return to the original roots of their nature…“
Above this threshold – with the crystallization of what we have been calling “second body” or soul in the true esoteric sense of the term – this dissolution does not take place (not immediately, at any rate). The individuality thus formed as the fruit of “conscious labor and intentional suffering” can hold his or her personhood within a wider spiritual cosmos which is not affected by the dissolution of the physical (earth-plane) body. This attainment is always viewed as being for cosmic servanthood, not for personal glory.
Teilhard and the Personal
Interestingly, Teilhard de Chardin arrives at a remarkably similar assessment from his scientific perspective. There is indeed a dividing line, he feels, and it is integrally related to some threshold of consciousness crossed in the human species. As he writes with astonishing power toward the end of The Human Phenomenon (p. 194):
Certainly the human being appears to disintegrate just like the animal. But here and there the phenomenon functions in reverse. Through death in the animal the radial [energy] is reabsorbed into the tangential. In the human, the radial escapes the tangential and is freed from it. There is an escape from entropy by a sudden reversal toward Omega. Death itself is hominized.1
Yes, the Wisdom tradition would agree, that is precisely what happens. But whereas Teilhard would at first appear to be according this “escape from the law of entropy” to all humans, the developmental model would assert that it in fact occurs to only some of them: those who, in the course of their lives have acquired/developed a soul – or, to put it in Teilhardian language, who have passed from mere individuals to becoming persons.
But is Teilhard in fact conferring this blessing on the entire human species? You have to admit, his “but here and there” is quite a teaser!
We know from elsewhere in The Human Phenomenon –and in fact, throughout his work – that Teilhard draws a very clear distinction between an individual and a person. For him the two terms are not synonymous, but more like progressive stages of a human journey. The individual is simply an autonomous human unit operating in accordance with biological necessity. The person has developed the gift of genuine interiority (in a way that dovetails closely with that Boros quote I shared with you in the last post). This interiority, moreover, is not individualistic or isolationist but is simultaneously the awareness of belonging to a greater whole. It is grounded in a dawning sense of a deeper human collectivity, which is at the same time a new evolutionary emergence.
The journey from individual to person is the essence of what Teilhard means by “hominization”. If this key Teilhardian term is understood to designate not simply the evolutionary appearance of the species homo sapiens, but rather the interior journey within each member of this species as he or she moves toward becoming a person, then we have a model which is essentially in line with the great Wisdom lineage of which Teilhard is our most recent powerful spokesperson.
“An immense solicitude – in the sphere of the person…”
As a biologist, Teilhard knew only too well that the biosphere is characterized by an extravagant wastefulness. Living organisms come into being in astonishing profusion, only to vanish just as quickly. In a powerful philosophical reflection on “The Ways of Life”, tucked into an early chapter in The Human Phenomenon, he designates the three core characteristics of life as profusion, ingenuity, and indifference toward individuals (p. 67):
So many times art, poetry, and even philosophy have depicted nature like a woman, blindfolded, trampling down a dust of crushed existences. In life’s profusion we find the first traces of this apparent hardheartedness. Like Tolstoy’s grasshoppers, life passes over a bridge of accumulated corpses…Life is more real than lives, as it has been said…
Here lost in number. There torn apart in the collective…The dramatic and perpetual opposition in the course of evolution between the element born of the multiple and the multiple constantly being born in the element.
Perhaps this perspective might be of some dark consolation as we step up to the plate and ponder the apparent “heartlessness” of a model in which many individualized essences do indeed “spontaneously abort”, failing to transform that initial individualized essence into a soul that will be cosmically viable beyond the womb of this life. This is, as Teilhard points out, simply the universal condition of the biosphere and, insofar as one remains firmly planted in that realm, its laws will continue to hold sway, no matter how hard we stamp our feet and emote about the “personal” nature of each newly conceived human life. The individual is not yet the personal. That belongs to another sphere.
But, says Teilhard, the value we are obliquely intuiting here does in fact exist; we are simply looking for it in the wrong place, assigning it to the wrong level of consciousness (p. 67):
Insofar as the general movement of life becomes more ordered, in spite of periodic resumptions of the offensive the conflict tends to resolve itself. Yet it is cruelly recognizable right to the end. Only from the spirit, where it reaches its felt paroxysm, will the antinomy clear; and the world’s indifference to its elements be transformed into an immense solicitude – in the sphere of the person.
“We are not there yet,” he cautions. And yet he does hold out for us here a pathway of hope, and a way of potentially resolving the fierce impasse around the personal so categorically invested in the newly conceived fetus. By Teilhard’s standards a fetus is a human individual, but it is not yet a person. And in tasting the difference between the two (and the developmental ground to be covered here which is the true meaning of being “pro-life”), we may finally be able to move forward.
This passage is filled with Teilhard-speak; my apologies. Tangential energy is for him the physical energy routinely measured by science. Radial energy corresponds to what most esoteric maps would call “psychic” energy: the finer energy of consciousness as it expresses itself in attention, prayer, will, or, for Teilhard, increasing self-articulation and complexification. Omega is his evolutionary endpoint, identical with Christ; “hominized” means transformed in the direction of becoming more fully human in its highest sense: coherent, conscious, compassionate.
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According to Gurdjieff, the mysterious “X-factor” that enters in the moment of conception is not yet soul but essence. Think of it as the hand of cards you’re dealt at the start of a card game. It comprises a set of unique characteristics including race, gender (and most likely gender orientation), basic body type and other genetic factors, influences emerging from more distant ancestry and bloodline – and yes, that unquantifiable legacy “from the stars” – all combined primarily according to what Teilhard would call “tatonnement” (“trial and error”): evolution’s predilection for trying out any and all possibilities. Cumulatively, all of the above will combine to confer on you what is commonly known as your “nature”.
Notice how there is no need to stipulate an “artist” God here, specifically designing a unique human being; what’s being pictured here is simply a lawful playing out of a freedom already inherent within Creation itself. Essence is not customized, not micro-managed – at least according to most schools of inner work I’m familiar with. (That may take some getting used to, and for those of you finding yourself already in resistance mode, I encourage you simply to let this new perspective settle in a bit. Rest assured that I do intend to talk about the origin of the personal in due course.)
Once formed, essence will take its place as one of the three constituent terms in an ongoing dynamism of becoming which, not surprisingly, will play out according to the Law of Three. The other two terms, according to modern Sufi master Kabir Helminski (who reflects this same Wisdom lineage that I myself was trained in) are spirit and heart.
Spirit is that ever-roving, unboundaried, invisible divine dancing partner, participating in every movement of our life according to its own deepest teleology, namely, self-disclosure (remember “I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known”?). It generally plays the role of first force, Holy Affirming: ever prodding, nudging, unfolding.
Essence will typically play the role of Holy Denying, the bloc résistant in which Spirit will reveal its face. Through its very embodied finitude, essence provides both the necessary raw material and the necessary friction to allow the pure movement of spirit to reveal itself in time and form.
Heart – or conscience – is the alchemical “third term” that is catalyzed in us through a life lived in growing consciousness, authenticity, obedience (as in ob-audire: “listen from the depths”), and that active cultivation of the self-reflective potential miraculously gifted to human consciousness. Heart is the unique fruit of a life wisely and fully engaged. More important, from the perspective of the road map I’m laying out here, it contributes the crucial third force, or “holy reconciling”, which makes possible that ultimate desideratum, namely, the fully arisen soul. Soul (or as Helminski calls it, “the essential self”) is precisely that “fourth in a new dimension” which arises out of conscious weaving of those other three – spirit, essence, and heart —within the great womb of life.
While this statement may sound jarring, note how it is already well embedded in early Christian tradition. The Gospel of Thomas puts it as starkly as possible in logion 70: “If you bring forth what is within you, that which you bring forth will save you. If you fail to bring forth that which is within you, that which you fail to bring forth will destroy you.” “That which is within you” is your embryonic soul.
Jesus seems to be reinforcing this teaching in his celebrated parable of he talents – once you recognize, of course, that the “talents” are not our aptitudes and gifts (which belong to essence) but, rather, these soul potentialities transformed and quickened in the light of conscience/heart. This message comes through powerfully as well in the medieval mystic Jacob Boehme; it is in fact the driveshaft of his entire metaphysics. But it peers out as well from any number of other Christian mystics, even those of much more theoretically “traditional” metaphysical training and temperaments. One of the most powerful statements of this principle I know comes in contemporary Jesuit Ladislaus Boros’ spiritual classic, The Mystery of Death (p. 60-61):
By Alden Cole
From the facts of existence and the surrounding world an inner sphere of being a human is built up. This inner man is brought about by a never-ending [conscious] daily application, on the treadmill of duties, annoyances, joys, and difficulties. From these insignificant actions freely performed, the decisive freedom is built up – freedom from oneself, freedom to view one’s own existence from outside…From the crowded days and years of joy and sorrow something has crystallized out, the rudimentary forms of which were already present in all his experiences, his struggle, his creative work, his patience and love – namely, the inner self, the individual, supremely individual creation of a man. He has given his own shape to the determinisms of life by a daily conquest of them; he has become master of the multiple relationships that go to make him up by accepting them as the raw material [italics mine] of his self. Now he begins to “be”.
As far as I know, Boros never directly encountered the Christian inner tradition, let alone the teachings of the Asian spiritual traditions. Yet he has eloquently described here what would be easily recognizable in any of these other streams as “Witnessing Self”. He has captured precisely the same nuance articulated by The Gospel of Thomas, Boehme, Gurdjieff, and Jacob Needleman – namely, that our “soul” is not our raw essence per se, but something of an entirely different nature which is alchemized through the active engagement of essence with heart/consciousness. It is not so much a substance (at least in terms of corporeality as we understand it in this life) but more a process – or as Jacob Boeheme had it, a tincture, a quality of our essential aliveness which shines through the lineaments of this life like a shaft of imperishable light. Above all, it is not conferred at the start, but brought into being in this life through the quality of our conscious work.
“Food for the moon”
Within the western Wisdom tradition this imperishable “other” is sometimes known as second body or “the wedding garment”. Actualizing it is seen – with some urgency – as the real business of our earthly sojourn.
Admittedly, there is a hard edge to this teaching, jolting us into responsible stewardship of our own time in human consciousness. We can choose, if we like, to drift downstream on the currents of pain or pleasure. We can invest our whole life’s energy worshiping the golden calf of ego. Or we can get with the cosmic program and come to grips with the real purpose of our time here as we humbly acknowledge that soul is not an automatic birthright but, rather, the final alchemy of a life lived here in conscious alignment with higher cosmic purposes.
Furthermore, the tradition states – essentially unequivocally – that this second body, or wedding garment, must be formed in this life. That is why it is called a wedding garment: because it is the appropriate and necessary regalia for the “wedding banquet” of eternal life – which, incidentally, does not begin after we leave this body, but here and now as this new substantiality we bear within us increasingly allows us to perceive, that the gates of heaven are, truly, everywhere.
This is soulwork in the true sense of the term: not the “soft” version that passes for soulwork today, preoccupied with unraveling dreams and deciphering messages from our “inner guides”, but the adamantine work of bringing something into existence here that will have coherence and substantiality beyond just this realm. Gurdjieff called it our “Real I”. [And, as Sandra brilliantly pointed out in the comments of my seventh post, Margery Williams Bianco’s character the Skin Horse reiterates this same concept in the classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit.]
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco
“You must find that in you that already lives beyond death and begin to live out of it now”, my teacher Rafe taught me, encapsulating the essence of this teaching in his own plain words. To defer this project till after we die is too late; for, as Jacob Boehme bluntly puts it, “everything lies where it has fallen”. This is not, by the way, a question of “final judgment”, of some higher being deciding you are “unworthy”. It’s simply that the conditions in the next realm out, sometimes known as the Imaginal, are finer and drawn to far closer tolerances than in this life. Only something of a similar fineness will pass through the sieve.
I am theologian enough to know that the immediate argument conventionally trained Christians will raise against this is that it seems to defy the promise of Psalm 139 – “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” – and replace the intimate and personal nature of our lifelong human relationship with God with an impersonal and even harsh algorithm. I do not believe this is actually so. I will have more to say about the personal in my next blog, with the intuition that this alternative vision, certainly strongly intimated by Jesus, is actually far more merciful and cosmically nobling.
The second objection, of course, is that this sounds like a classic recipe for spiritual materialism – I can already picture the internet ads for second-body-building nutritional supplements and “wedding garment” consultants! But the checks-and-balances factor, built right into this equation, lies in the fact that the requisite food for building second body is, in Gurdjieff’s famous formula, “conscious labor and intentional suffering”. Second body cannot be attained through self-maximization, but only through the classic route variously known in the sacred traditions as kenosis and humilty. “We ascend by descending,” as the Rule of St. Benedict succinctly observes. There is no other way.
For those who opt out, preferring to live out their days in their egoic comfort zone (a condition known in the inner tradition as “sleep”), the potentiality offered at birth to become a soul is simply returned, stillborn. Nothing has germinated here of permanent substantiality; nothing has become viable beyond the womb of this life. Such existences, in Gurdjieff’s words, become “food for the moon”. At death their temporary selfhood dissolves back into its original physical components and takes its small part in the vast network of reciprocal feeding, by which the cosmos bootstraps itself. Nothing is finally wasted.
From the Work perspective, then, abortion is not something that befalls merely a fetus. It happens at all stages, and is in fact the tragic outcome of most human lives. Lulled into complacency by the illusion that we already “have” souls, we fail to engage the real task of spiritual germination and wind up dreaming our lives away.
Only when this inconvenient truth is finally, fully faced will the real question of what it means to be “pro-life” find its authentic balance.
In this third installment of what now looks to be shaping up as five-part series, I hope to bring a Wisdom perspective to that profound liminal sphere encompassing conception, birth, and the formation of the soul; for it’s in the metaphysical confusion surrounding these mysteries, I believe, that the roots of our present abortion conundrum really have their origin.
Note that I say “a Wisdom perspective” rather than “the Wisdom perspective”, for the Wisdom tradition is by no means monochrome. My comments here reflect the strands of the lineage that have most directly informed my own understanding; specifically, the Gurdjieff Work and the Christian mystical/esoteric lineage running through the Gospel of Thomas, the Philokalia, Jacob Boehme, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. They also reflect some of the thinking at the forefront of contemporary embryology, particularly as represented in the work of Dutch embryologist Jaap van der Wal.
The beginnings of life
The Wisdom tradition would affirm vigorously that life does not merely begin at conception; it is already well underway by the time of conception – “life” here understood not as a purely biological phenomenon, but as flow, dynamism, and intelligent purposiveness. In contrast to earlier, more mechanical models, which tended to see conception in Darwinian terms (“the fittest sperm takes the egg”), contemporary embryological research suggests a much more collaborative model, far more akin to Nash-ian Game Theory than to Darwinian survival of the fittest: a myriad of sperm collaborate to place a single sperm before the egg, which then opens – volitionally – rather than simply being battered or overwhelmed.
There is evidence as well that conception occurs according to a full-fledged Law of Three model. It’s not simply sperm / egg / baby but, rather, sperm / egg / X / baby, where X represents the infusion of some mysterious animating force beyond the immediate biochemistry.
Those of us who participated in the 2012 Tucson Wisdom School will no doubt never forget that powerful moment when Wisdom student Nancy Denman, a research embryologist from British Columbia, described how the process of conception actually occurs: “The egg opens to a single sperm”, she explained, “then closes”. For about twenty-four hours there is stillness. Then, all of a sudden, the egg starts vibrating violently. “‘Ignition!’ we all call it”. Then she added parenthetically, “Those of us of a more religious bent might be inclined to describe it as “the descent of the Spirit.”
However this X-factor is named, it certainly seems to function as a third term in the old “nature versus nurture” conundrum, offering still another line of explanation as to why babies conceived by the same parents and raised in the same household under the same value system frequently wind up displaying such markedly different personality traits. “Our essence comes from the stars”, Gurdjieff always insisted. There is something in the formation of a new life that cannot be reduced to pure biochemistry; it seems to be an emergent property of the act of conception itself.
Life not Soul
So far so good. There is nothing in the above that should raise any eyebrows whatsoever among even the most ardent pro-lifers. “What part of life do you not understand?” If anything, we are pushing back the leading edge of life into even earlier in the process, into the intrinsic purposiveness that Teilhard de Chardin and others would see as part of the irreversible intelligence of evolution itself.
But hang onto your hats – this next step is where we are about to part company rather dramatically with traditional pro-life metaphysics. For the Wisdom tradition would suggest that Life – which indubitably is present at the moment of conception if not well before – is not synonymous with Soul. The terms are often used interchangeably, and it is precisely here, in this confusion, that the Gordian knot is originally tied.
In traditional Catholic metaphysics, this “X-factor” would immediately be identified as “the soul”, the essence of the living human being. The soul is created by God and bestowed at conception. Once bestowed, it is henceforward immortal within the cosmos; death will change its state but will not destroy it. Thus, the soul trajectory is established from the very beginning; from this the moment of conception forward, this uniquely particular and fully formed human identity will make its way through the journey of life, along the way accumulating virtue or vice – in acknowledgement of which it will be assigned its permanent dwelling place in either heaven or hell.
In the light of this venerable but antiquated metaphysical road map (note how it’s steeped in “substance theology”, long since invalidated by contemporary scientific models), it is easy to understand both the urgency and the pathos dominating the “pro-life” strategy. Denying the gift of life to even a two-cell fetus is tantamount to killing a defenseless human soul. The assumption governing much of the pro-life rhetoric seems to be that somehow pro-choice folks don’t “get” that a human life is a human soul, and they need to be shown that it is, often in emotionally exaggerated and manipulative ways; hence those “abortion stops a beating heart” billboards.
The Wisdom tradition – at least the lineage of the tradition I have been formed in – would see it differently. What is bestowed in that moment of “ignition” is not yet a soul but, rather, the potential to develop a soul. Soul does not come at the beginning, it comes at the end, forged and fused in the crucible of life itself (or perhaps better, in the womb of life) through the conscious weaving of that hand which is dealt at the moment of conception.
The notion of a “developmental soul” comes as a shock and perhaps even an affront to traditional Christian metaphysics. But hear me out here: it has been a staple in the Western esoteric tradition from the get-go, as I will document in my next post. But even more compellingly, it holds the potential, I believe, to bring an authentic resolution to the abortion impasse, and to tie together that great desideratum so far escaping us: that integral “pro-life” stance that sees all stages of life as equally compelling and worthy of sacred protection.
Stay tuned for the next installment – to follow promptly.
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This post was originally published at Parabola.org on January 29, 2015.
It is amazing that something so tiny could pack such a punch. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is tantalizingly brief—and, frustratingly, two major sections are missing, reducing the original seventeen manuscript pages by more than half. Yet what remains is more than enough to radically overturn our traditional assumptions about the origins of Christianity. In four tightly written dialogues, the gospel delivers powerful new revelations on the nature of Jesus’ teachings, the qualifications for apostleship, Mary Magdalene’s clear preeminence among the disciples, and the processes already at work in the early church that would eventually lead to her marginalization. Since it also contains a unique glimpse into the actual metaphysics on which Jesus based his teachings, this is a foundational text not only for devotees of Mary Magdalene but for all students of sacred wisdom.
The manuscript was not recovered among the Nag Hammadi trove. It first came to light in 1896, nearly half a century before the Nag Hammadi find, when it was discovered by a German collector in an antiquities market in Cairo. But, due to a series of lengthy publication delays, the first German scholarly edition did not appear until 1955. It would be twenty years longer before an English version appeared and still another twenty years before popular editions became available.
For all practical purposes, therefore, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene entered public awareness at the same time as the Nag Hammadi material, and since they clearly belong to the same spiritual stream, it makes sense to consider them together. Particularly with the Gospel of Thomas, there are striking overlaps in both content and theology.
The manuscript itself is a fifth-century Coptic (i.e., Egyptian) version of what had almost certainly been an earlier Greek or even Syrian text.1 In 1917, and then in 1938, two Greek fragments dating from the third century were indeed discovered, confirming the antiquity of the original text and the esteem in which it was held by the earliest Christian communities (only important manuscripts are recopied)…Karen King assigns the original text to the first half of the second century. If her argument is correct, this would place the Gospel of Mary Magdalene within the earliest strata of Christian writings, roughly contemporaneous with the Gospel of John.
Unfortunately, the Greek fragments did not yield any new material to fill the holes in the Coptic version; barring some unforeseen miracle, what was written on those ten missing manuscript pages (pages 1–6 and 11–14) is lost to us forever. But, because of the thematic and structural tightness of the remaining material, the second of these two holes lends itself easily to imaginative reconstruction and, depending on how closely one assumes that this text echoes the Gospel of Thomas, the first six pages of Jesus’ introductory metaphysical discourse can also be fairly well construed.
Entering the Text
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is in many ways much closer to drama than to narrative. It is constructed entirely in dialogue, and the exchanges are so lively that they lend themselves easily to a staged reading or even a full-fledged reenactment…2
The manuscript’s four dialogues (or “scenes,” if you prefer to think of them that way) lay out as follows:
(Pages 1-6 missing.) 1. Jesus’ final teachings and instructions to his disciples (Manuscript pages 7-9). 2. Mary Magdalene’s words of encouragement to the disciples (page 9). (Pages 11-14 missing.) 3. Peter’s invitation to Mary Magdalene to share with them some of the “secret” teachings of Jesus, and her visionary recital of “the soul’s progress” (pages 10, 15-17).3 4. The dispute among the disciples and its resolution; Levi’s charge and words of dismissal (pages 17-19).
There are several translations now available to choose from…I will be working from The Luminous Gospels, a new translation of the gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdalene, and Philip prepared by Lynn Bauman, Ward Bauman, and myself, published in 2008.4
…”[T]ell us about matter. Will it survive or not?”
The Savior answered:
“All of nature with its forms and creatures exist together and are interwoven with each other. They will be resolved back, however, to their own proper origin, for the compositions of matter return to the original roots of their nature. Those who have ears, let them hear this.”
Then Peter said to him:
“Since you have explained everything to us, tell us one more thing. What is the sin of this world?”
The Savior replied:
“Sin as such does not exist. You only bring it into manifestation when you act in ways that are adulterous in nature. It is for this very reason that the Good has come among you pursuing its own essence within nature in order to reunite everything to its origin.”
Then he continued:
“This is also the reason for sickness and death, because you embrace what deceives you. Consider these matters, then, with your spiritual intellect.
“Attachment to matter gives birth to passion without an Image of itself because it is drawn from that which is contrary to its higher nature. The result is that confusion and disturbance resonates throughout one’s whole being. It is for this reason that I told you to find contentment at the level of the heart, and if you are discouraged, take heart in the presence of the Image of your true nature. Those with ears, let them hear this.”
Having said these things, the Blessed One addressed them:
“Peace be with you. May my peace reside within you. Guard carefully that no one misleads you saying, ‘Look, he is here,’ or ‘He’s over there,’ for the Son of Humanity already exists within you. Follow him, for those who seek him there will find him. Go forth, now, and proclaim the Good News concerning the Kingdom. Beyond what I have already given you, do not lay down any further rules nor issue laws as the Lawgiver, lest you too be dominated by them.”
Having said this, he departed.
As we enter this dialogue, we are literally joining a conversation in midstream. From textual clues in this dialogue and the one following, it appears that the conversation takes place in temporal history sometime between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension—the Gospel of Mary Magdalene’s version of the “upper room” appearances in John and Luke.5 In this energy-charged encounter, Jesus gathers his students around him once again to reflect on the meaning of his passage through death and to leave them final instructions and encouragement before his departure from physical form.
The teaching style is clearly sohbet: “spiritual conversation” between a master and his students. This is a classic Near Eastern teaching style that even today is a mainstay in many schools of Sufism. In contrast to the “Socratic” method more familiar to those of us in the West, sohbet is not merely intellectual discourse, but rather it is a deep meeting of hearts and minds that also includes a direct energy transmission. For those familiar with the art form, the context of this first dialogue is unmistakable and speaks once again to this gospel’s probable Semitic origins.
As manuscript page 7 opens, a student is clearly asking Jesus a question about the permanence of matter, and Jesus responds with a brief but remarkable metaphysical statement—something that occurs nowhere in the canonical gospels and offers a fascinating glimpse into the theoria (theoretical knowledge) on which his practical wisdom rests. The student’s question is probably not theoretical; it follows directly from the resurrection appearance itself with all its inherent paradoxes and consternation. Is Jesus really here? Is this material body in which he stands before them a solid reality or merely a veil that will soon dissolve? Jesus responds by affirming very strongly that the origin of nature (i.e., the material world) does not lie within this earthly plane. What we take for solid reality is a mixtus orbis, a “mixed” (or “mixed up”) realm in which everything is “interwoven” (a statement that contemporary physicists and metaphysicians would heartily applaud). At the end of their physical term, the forms of matter return to the original “roots of their nature.” But by this, we will learn shortly, he does not mean they dissolve into their component atoms, quarks and/or humors. Instead, they return to an original template—or “image”—whose place of arising is in another realm.6
Peter immediately jumps in with the next question. What is sin? This is, of course, the classic Jewish philosophical preoccupation; you will find it vividly imprinted on nearly every page of Old Testament prophetic and wisdom teaching and as the driveshaft of the Pauline metaphysics upon which orthodox Christian theology rests. Whose fault is it that suffering and evil came into the world? Who is to blame? How is it atoned for? Jesus rejects that question out of hand: “Sin as such does not exist.”
His answer would initially seem to place him solidly within what we would nowadays identify as an “Eastern” rather than a “Western” mindset: not sin, but ignorance of one’s true nature, is to blame for the sufferings of this world. But we must listen carefully to where he is headed in his comment. He does not go on to state that sin is therefore an illusion, the typical Eastern thought progression. To the contrary, he affirms that sin does indeed come into existence—that is, it becomes objectively real—when one acts in ways that are “adulterous in nature.” And within his particular frame of reference, acting in ways that are “adulterous in nature” will prove to have a very specific meaning. It signifies a failure to stay in alignment with origin: with that mysterious “root” (or template) of one’s nature he has already alluded to, which, while arising beyond this realm, seeks its full expression here.7
He quickly assures his students that this world is valuable and precious; indeed, this is the very reason the Good has come among them in the first place—“pursuing its own essence within nature [i.e., within this transitory realm] in order to reunite everything to its origin.” There is important integrative work to be done here. But it all depends upon keeping a right alignment along what wisdom tradition typically refers to as the “vertical axis”: the invisible spiritual continuum that joins the realms together. Nearly sixteen centuries later, the German mystic Jacob Boehme would express this cosmological insight with poetic precision and beauty:
“For you must realize that earth unfolds its properties and powers in union with Heaven aloft above us, and there is one Heart, one Being, one Will, one God, all in all.”8
When the realms are in spontaneous resonance—“one Heart, one Being, one Will, one God, all in all”—the music of the spheres bursts forth. When they are not, disease and disharmony inevitably ensue. As he quickly points out (again, with a contemporary feeling to the teaching), “Confusion and disturbance resonate throughout one’s whole being,” and sickness and death are the inevitable result…
Seeing with the Heart
The remedy Jesus sets forth for this cosmic malaise is to “find contentment at the level of the heart…in the presence of the Image of your true nature.” The key to deciphering this all-important instruction lies in recognizing that the word “heart” is being used here in a highly specific way. In the wisdom traditions of the Near East, the heart is not the seat of one’s personal emotional life, but an organ of spiritual perception. I have spoken about this extensively…so I will be brief here, but the essential point is that the heart is primarily an instrument of sight—or insight, as the case may be (“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”). Its purpose is to navigate along the vertical axis and stay in alignment with “the Image of one’s true nature.” Itself a vibrant resonant field, it functions like a homing beacon between the realms; and when it is strong and clear, it creates a synchronous resonance between them.
“Those with ears, let them hear this,” Jesus continues—his characteristic “heads-up.” But as we remember our primary topic of interest,…Mary Magdalene, his warning is particularly well-timed: because how well you are able to grasp his teaching is exactly how well you will be able to grasp the basis of their relationship. To say that their hearts are intertwined is not at all to speak sentimentally. Rather, it is to affirm that Mary Magdalene has fully understood this principle of spiritual alignment through the heart and has been able to personally corroborate it within herself. This will directly explain her ability to stay present when he appears to her in visions and her ability to go about her earthly business with the serene confidence of one whose life is always flowing within that greater life.
The Unitive Ground
How would I characterize this teaching of Jesus? It definitely belongs to the wider stream of sophia perennis in its acknowledgment of many and more subtle realms of being whose energies impact our own—a concept traditionally known as “the great chain of being.”9 But it parts company from classic Gnosticism (and even classic sophia perennis) by refusing to claim that this world is illusion, or fall, or error; or that its density places it at the tail end of the chain. We are not in Plato’s cave. Rather, this world is good, worthy, and fully inhabited by the divine energies—“the Good comes among you”—so long as it stays united with its root. The blending of incarnational and Platonic elements is a distinctive mix, which I believe is Jesus’ original contribution to the metaphysics of the West. It presents itself as a profoundly incarnational, warm-hearted, and hopeful path, where the realms support and interpenetrate each other and divine fullness is accessed simply by keeping the heart in natural alignment with its invisible prototype. Unfortunately, his teaching went right over the heads of nearly all his followers, both then and now.
The subtlety of Jesus’ metaphysics remains largely unknown to Christians—and sadly so, for it is the missing ingredient that makes his path comprehensible and doable. It is no secret that Jesus’ teachings resonate with an extraordinary trust in the divine abundance and generosity, and Christians are asked to emulate that trust. But to try to do so without seeing what it is founded on is a bit like asking an elephant to fly, and Christians find themselves frequently caught in the gap between the incredibly high spiritual ideals of this path and their own ability to carry them out. In reality, the secret is simple. When the heart is aligned with its eternal image, abundance cascades forth from that place of origin, infinitely more powerful than the scarcity and constriction of this world. It is not a matter of believing in flying elephants so much as of purifying the heart.
“Lay Down No Further Rules….”
In the final lines of his discourse Jesus reinforces this teaching yet again. His parting instruction to his disciples opens with the plea that they remain present within themselves rather than chasing after mirages in the outer world, for “the Son of Humanity already exists within you…and those who seek him there will find him.”10 To remain in continuous union—the kind that Mary Magdalene will shortly demonstrate—is a matter of releasing the outer clamor and tuning in again and again through the homing beacon of the heart.
Then, as if knowing already that this is somehow beyond them, he adds a final practical caution: “Do not lay down any rules beyond what I have given you, lest you be dominated by them.” From a textual criticism point of view, as Karen King rightly observes, this instruction situates the Gospel of Mary Magdalene at an early stage in the history of Christianity, when the contours of externally imposed hierarchy are just beginning to become visible in the dawning light of a brave new Christian world. From an artistic standpoint, it moves us directly into the second dialogue while at the same time setting the stage for the gospel’s surprising and decisive conclusion.
His students grieved and mourned greatly saying:
“How are we to go into the rest of the world proclaiming the Good News about the Son of Humanity’s Realm? If they did not spare him, how will they ever leave us alone?”
Mary arose, then, embracing them all and began to address them as her brothers and sisters saying:
“Do not weep and grieve nor let your hearts remain in doubt, for his grace will be with all of you, sustaining and protecting you. Rather, let us give praise to his greatness which has prepared us so that we might become fully human.”
As Mary said these things their hearts opened toward the Good and they began to discuss the meaning of the Savior’s words.
In this second and crucial dialogue, the predictable happens. The subtlety of Jesus’ teaching is lost on his disciples, who return quickly to their conviction that Jesus is gone and that they are in extreme danger. They have completely missed the point of what he has just said.
As Mary Magdalene steps forward to encourage them, she demonstrates that she has fully understood what Jesus is saying and can apply it to her own life. “Do not let your hearts remain in doubt,” she says, cutting immediately to the spiritual chase. For a heart in doubt—in two-ness and self-sabotage—becomes useless as that organ of alignment. To reconnect to the grace he has promised them is as simple a matter of opening to his presence right then and there in their inmost depths—“for those who seek him there will find him.” And as she pointedly reminds them, “He has prepared us for this.”
Becoming Fully Human
In fact, her actual words are, “He has prepared us so that we might become fully human.” “To become fully human” is a modern translation of the words “to become an anthropos,” a completed human being. Both here and in the Gospel of Thomas this notion is at the very heart of Jesus’ vision of transformation.
In modern psychological parlance building on a Jungian foundation, the concept of anthropos is generally interpreted in terms of an integration of the opposites within oneself—specifically, a bringing together of the male and female principles within the individual human psyche…
Obviously, there is far more at stake here than simply integrating masculine and feminine principles within one’s finite humanity. The integration takes place on a cosmic scale and is accomplished through learning how to anchor one’s being in that underlying unitive ground: that place of oneness before the opposites arise. Some traditions would call this the “causal level.”11 However one defines it, its origin is on the vertical axis, in a realm and mode of perception far more subtle than our own. It has less to do with what one sees than with how one sees; it amounts to a fundamental shift in perception.
When this level is attained, either by sudden spiritual insight or by a long, tough slog through the mine fields of ego, a person becomes “a single one” (in Aramaic, ihidaya: one of the earliest titles applied to Jesus): an enlightened or “fully human” being. The union of opposites Jesus is speaking of really pertains to the union of the finite and infinite within oneself, or the bringing together of the vertical axis with the horizontal so that there is “one Heart, one Being, one Will, one God, all in all.” When this happens, the world does not pass away, but one is able to live in it as master, re-creating its external forms (“making one image supersede another”) out of the infinite generativity of the One.
It is important to keep this wider definition of the anthropos firmly in mind because it is the key to everything in this gospel. Mary Magdalene moves among the other disciples as one who has “become fully human.” She does not merely parrot the Master’s teaching back to them, flaunting her specialness. Rather, she serves the situation. Flowing through the spiritual energy of her own alignment is a baraka—a grace that is able to actually shift the other disciples’ emotional state. She is able to “turn their hearts to the good.”
This short dialogue is the thematic epicenter of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene: the apostolic moment par excellence. “Apostle is as apostle does,” one might say, and it is clear that in both her words and her deeds—her ability to comprehend, to calm, to convey blessing—Mary Magdalene has just proven herself an apostle: not just “first among the apostles,” but in fact, the only one of them to authentically merit the title.
As we move into the challenging (and decimated) dialogue 3, it is important to keep firmly centered on this point. If Mary Magdalene does, in fact, enjoy a privileged access to the Master, she has certainly earned it: not because she is his special favorite (as Peter will shortly imply), but because she has been able so deeply to absorb and integrate his spiritual methodology. She has learned the secret of unbroken union with him across the realms, and she teaches from the same fount of living water that flowed in him—in fact, still flows in him, only now in a different energetic form. And thus, doing as real apostles do, she is able to lift her brethren out of their psychological paralysis and focus them once again on “the meaning of the Savior’s words.” Dialogue 2 ends on a note of strength and unanimity; for the moment, all is once again well…
1 For more on this point, see Karen King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003), 184.
2 We in fact did exactly this as a project of the Aspen Wisdom School during the winter of 2008 and in Collegeville, Minnesota, the following summer. The results were rewarding and in some cases enlightening, clarifying interpretive difficulties that could not be resolved by textual analysis alone…
3 It is more typical of modern editors (including Lynn Bauman) to extend dialogue 2 to include all the text up to the second set of missing pages. But Mary Magdalene’s opening words about meeting Jesus in a vision seem so clearly to belong to the third dialogue—in fact, they furnish its underlying theme—that I have divided the sections accordingly…
4 Lynn Bauman, Ward Bauman, and Cynthia Bourgeault, The Luminous Gospels (Telephone, TX: Praxis Institute Publishing, 2008).
5 These appearances take place immediately after the resurrection and are recorded in John 20:19–29 and Luke 24:36–43.
6 In this idea of the “interwoven” material world unraveling at the end of its term into its elemental components, there are fascinating resonances with the teachings of Empedocles and Parmenides as laid out by Peter Kingsley in his remarkable book Reality (Inverness, Calif.: Golden Sufi Center, 2005). Kingsley proposes a radical revisioning of the origins of Western philosophy as lying not in intellectual speculation, but rather in the sacred practices of a long wisdom lineage of shamanic healing. There are distinctive overlaps between this tradition and the teachings and spiritual practices of Jesus….
7 Jean-Yves Leloup perceptively paraphrases: “when you act according to the habits of your corrupted nature” in his The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002), 25.
8 Jacob Boehme, Confessions (Kila, MT: Kessinger, n.d.), 41.
9 For more on the great chain of being, see Ken Wilber’s voluminous writings, particularly The Eye of the Spirit (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 1997), 39–40.
10 This instruction is repeated almost verbatim in the Gospel of Thomas, logion 3. See Bauman, The Gospel of Thomas, 10.
11 That is why one is able to make “one image supersede another”: because one has accessed the level from which the images originally arise….
Unless otherwise noted, all major gospel citations are from The Christian Community Bible (Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications/Claretian Publications, 1995). Short gospel citations and all epistle and Old Testament citations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
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In May 2015, Cynthia Bourgeault shared a recent experience of a sudden health problem through the beautiful letter below. Thank you to Wisdom Way of Knowing (formerly Center for Spiritual Resources) for sharing the letter.
Dear Wisdom Friends,
I guess you’re all wondering what happened to me last week.
The long and short of it is that on Saturday a week ago, while driving down from Maine to Massachusetts for our upcoming Ascensiontide Wisdom retreat at Glastonbury Abbey, I began to feel decidedly strange behind the wheel, needing to muster my entire concentration to keep from passing out. I spotted one of those blue hospital signs at a freeway exit and decided to follow it. A good intuition, it turns out! I was admitted with what’s known as acute third degree heartblock (which means that the heart’s electrical system is essentially in total meltdown), and emerged from the ordeal three days later with a new pacemaker happily ticking away in my chest.
It’s not exactly as if this came out of the blue. For a couple of years now I’d been complaining about difficulty with shortness of breath walking up hills, and I could tell inwardly that something was off. But my cardiologist had been focused on arterial issues rather than electrical ones, and the electrical system gave no outward signs of misbehaving. Just last January I’d been given a clean bill of heart health.
Glad I didn’t take his recommendation to begin a regular cardio fitness regime!
Drawing by Cynthia’s grandchild
This has all turned out as well as possible. While a heartblock is definitely a serious condition (worst case scenario is progression to sudden cardiac arrest), it is also one of the most easily treatable. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I am literally bionically reborn! My new high-tech pacemaker is programmed to cue off my natural atrial electrical impulse (the “top half” of the heartbeat) and help the ventricular impulse (the “lower half,” which was getting blocked) to synchronize. The result is that I am simply, fully “me” again, back in the ballgame with the old familiar pizzazz, and my eyes still blinking in wonder.
There is so much to be grateful for. If you have to have a medical emergency, this is about as cushioned as it gets. I was under 24-hour cardiac surveillance at a fine hospital until the surgery could be arranged, with the emergency pacemaker (if it came to that) right in the room. My daughter Lucy lives nearby, and was there at my side throughout the whole adventure — and now, is providing a wonderful space for recuperation while my new device and I settle in together. Best of all, my brilliant senior wisdom students, spearheaded by Bill Redfield and Patricia Speak, rose to the occasion magnificently and jointly co-created a memorable Ascensiontide retreat.
And from around the world, your love and prayers poured in. I felt deeply “carried” by a higher hand.
Everything being equal, I will receive the “all clear” from my pacemaker surgeon tomorrow and make my way back to Maine over the following two days, slowly resuming my normal activity (on which there should be no limitations). Thank heavens it was already a “hermit time” in my schedule, deliberately left wide open for writing and family visits.
The spiritual implications will take a bit longer to sink in. But for the moment, this is what’s uppermost in my mind:
For many years now during my evening psalmody I’ve chanted the line from Psalm 139: “the number of my days was appointed before one of them came into being.” And I think it’s Ecclesiastes where one finds the line, “Lord, make me to know the number of my days.” I know I’ve sung it in the Brahms Requiem. In fact, just six years ago at my first husband Cal’s memorial service.
Well, for better or worse, I now know the number of my days: 68 years, 2 months, 3+ days. Without being overly alarmist, it’s pretty clear to all concerned that the situation I experienced this weekend was not going to self-correct. Without those equal infusions of grace and modern technology my life would even now be winding down, or wound down already. As it is, I apparently have a 10-15 year medical extension, easily renewable if the rest of the one horse shay holds up.
It’s not like I’m now living on borrowed time, for this second wind that’s been given to me is fully my own life in this skin and bones, on this precious planet, and I intend to make the most of it. But you could say, perhaps, that it’s borrowed time from the Imaginal realm, a bit more space to explore the crucial dimensions of being finite, of bringing this all to a conscious fulfillment. And as I gradually get back into the rushing river of my life, I will try not to let this precious realization slip away.
Boundless thanks to all! In both realms. May I use this extension consciously and gratefully.
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We are told that we have to balance our budget; whether in Washington or at home. On the other hand, we are also told to love your neighbor as yourself. Which self? The budget-balancing self? The self-preserving self? How many would risk safety to help others? Who would give all to the needy?
We are programmed to count our losses. We lock our cars during the day and our church doors at night. Even in giving to charities we wonder what percentage is spent on the administrative cost.
In the material world of limited resources almost all economic and political systems are built on the basis of competition, whether today or two thousand years ago. From childhood we are taught to compete and be successful. If we cannot get more, at least get a fair share. Even in biblical times, the workers in the vineyard ask for fair payment that is proportional to the time worked in the field. The logic of fairness operates in a world of scarcity or perceived scarcity. Counting is the tool of that logic. Abundance renders irrelevant that tool. Do we count the wild flowers in an open field?
How can I sit here and talk about abundance when millions of people are starving in Africa, Somalia last year, South Sudan this year?
But then how did the lord of the vineyard respond to workers’ complaint about unfairness? In what mind frame does one perceive the unfairness? Fairness is an issue constructed in our mind when we compare what we get with what others get.
So long as we live with the need to have more, the need to be right, and the need to be loved or be treated fairly, we participate in a game of competition in which we want to win, or at least not lose. The modern society does not enslave us, so we claim to be free. But we are enslaved by our own need to succeed, to be prosperous — indeed, to be free. We guard vigilantly our liberty to feed our needs. When we are too stuffed of ourselves, can we really be free? True freedom comes only when we can be free from ourselves.
At the Trappist Abbey in Lafeyette, OR, outside the meditation room is an area where a hanging on the wall frames a single sentence:
“God’s love and joy are all around us, but he cannot visit you unless you are not there.’’
The obstacle is we ourselves. Who is our real self? Our capability to think, to feel and to sense are different dimensions of our consciousness. We measure them in binary terms, right, wrong, good, bad, hot, cold. Underneath them all is the inner awareness that has no dimension. If it did, it becomes binary. In the non-dual center there is emptiness. There is no counting to seven, or to eternity. It is now. The present. The Presence. As Thomas Merton has written, the center of our being is a point of nothingness that belongs to God.
Yeshua says: “Dwell in me as I dwell in you”. The living presence of that in-dwelling and our awareness of that presence are what makes the present unchanging. But we are often unaware of the silent presence because of the noise in our lives. Upon arrival at a rented cabin at McKenzie Bridge last summer in a gathering of three generations, we all went immediately to the river’s edge and were transfixed by the roaring rapids. It took a while to find the peace and hear the silent voice in the roaring river when human activities move to the background. That is how it is in our daily lives. Our need to succeed and to find pleasure, health, even virtue, let alone to avoid pain and failure, keeps us away from the awareness of that inner peace. What we really need is to be able to make the transition from the noisiness of our egoic self to the unitive silence within. That deeper reality is invariant, since the divine in-dwelling is not in our control. The practice of making the transition is a process, the outcome of which is not for us to evaluate. Evaluation of success or failure puts us back in the noise.
The inner self is not a place for us to find. It is an abiding state of being. If we set out on a project to find it, we are likely to refurbish our outer faculties in satisfying our needs for the project. All we can do is to disable those faculties, and have the trust that we will be visited by love and joy when we are not there. It is our mystical hope that the inner ground of nothingness springs forth with the abundance that we do not own.
“Abundance that we do not own”: that sounds theoretical or theological. Mystical hope is the kind of hope that is not tied to outcome. At a retreat with Cynthia Bourgeault many years ago, we sat across each other at a dinner table at a time when conversation was allowed. I said to her that I couldn’t understand hope that is not tied to outcome. She looked straight into my eyes and said, “That’s because you are trying to understand it with your egoic mind.” It went directly to the point and no further comment was necessary. “Mystical hope is a flow from the head to the heart.”
We all feel bad about the suffering in the world around us. But if it is a feeling in our ordinary awareness, it stays at that level and we may react with some action from that level. How can we let the world’s suffering enter deeper into our consciousness and become our suffering? To be able to allow that to happen is a gift. Jesus took upon that suffering to be his own and suffered for us. To let God enter our deeper self is to internalize that suffering. All that we can do is to not stand in the way and to let the emptiness in us be filled by God’s love. That domain is non-dual and dimensionless.
Jesus asked the Samaritan woman at the well for a drink. She could have given him some water and that would be the end of his thirst. But as the conversation went on, it became clear that it was really Jesus who was offering the woman a drink of living water. Are not the hungry people in South Sudan not only asking for food, but also offering us living food? To receive that offering we have to tear down our protective wall of questions in the mind about how (as the Samaritan woman asked), to expose our emptiness, and to ask for the living water that can fill us with abundance.
That well spring of living water nourishes our interior landscape where scarcity and abundance merge into a unitive wholeness, and where suffering and joy are fused by Divine Love.
O God, You love us before we knew you, You suffered yet You visit us with joy, You were thirsty, but offer us water. Enter into our heart so that we may live, Give us the abundance that we are not to own. Not as the world gives, do you give. What You give, You take not away, For what is Yours is ours also if we are Yours. Amen
** This blog post is offered by a long-time student of Cynthia’s who prefers to remain anonymous **
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“We fear nothingness. That’s why we fear death, of course, which feels like nothingness. Death is the shocking realization that everything I thought was me, everything I held onto so desperately, was finally Nothing. The nothingness we fear so much is, in fact, the treasure and freedom that we long for, which is revealed in the joy and glory of the Risen Christ. We long for the space where there is nothing to prove and nothing to protect; where I am who I am, in the mind and heart of God, and that is more than enough.” – Richard Rohr
We long for that more than anything, don’t we? – that feeling of absolute security and safety in God. We long for it in this world and hope for it in the next. We long for the deep inner knowing that, as Lady Julian of Norwich says, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”: to know that everything is going to be all right. Scripture says it will: “Since this One has been raised up, there is also a universal resurrection of the dead ”. But no matter how many words we hear, whether from Jesus, our church ministers, or our friends, we’re so often still afraid. Read more
https://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/st-thomas.jpg362334TCS Administratorhttps://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/logo-new-2021.pngTCS Administrator2012-04-03 08:46:142021-09-30 09:26:13GUEST POSTING – The Growing Christ – by Brian Puida Mitchell