Liz Vickers, board member of The Contemplative Society, reflects on her recent experience preparing and “post-holding” for the Quiet Day celebrating the Feast Day of St. Mary Magdalene.
On July 22nd, the Feast Day of St. Mary Magdalene, I drove with a friend out to Metchosin – by my request, in silence, so as to be quiet and grounded for the day. I was well prepared to lead the Quiet Day with Eileen; well prepared, and a bit nervous. I have organized and attended many retreats and Quiet Days with The Contemplative Society, but this was my first time as a “post holder”.
In preparing for the event with Eileen, meeting with her and exchanging ideas to co-create the shape of the day together, I learned so much from her about how to go about constructing a container for our practice. Re-reading The Meaning of Mary Magdalene by Cynthia Bourgeault, I learned a lot about Jesus and about his relationship with his Beloved, and how the church came to deny Mary her true role as Apostle of the Apostles. This process of preparation taught me a lot about myself while deepening my understanding of this saint, but it was only the beginning.
When the day came, we gathered, fifteen of us, both experienced meditators and some who were new to contemplative practice, in St. Mary’s Anglican Church at the top of the trail head to Whitty’s Lagoon. We sat encircling a small round table, an altar with icons, roses and rose petals, and a red candle, red being the colour often associated with Mary Magdalene. After a welcome and overview of the day, we entered more completely into the space with a short guided embodiment practice. We did this briefly at various intervals during the day and were reminded to listen with our hearts, the organ of spiritual perception. The background to the day was silence – it was tangible. We chanted Be Still and Know That I Am God, and sat.
Sitting in silence with others in a beautiful place: I can’t think of anything better to do on a Saturday in the summer. What was it that stirred in me so deeply leading up to and during this day?
No longer the object
of my affections,
he has become the
subject of my truth.
The memory of
no longer clings to
the skin of my life,
he has dissolved
the pure wine of
his presence into
chalice of my heart.
This led into a profound meditation. Sitting and going deep within I saw or felt the image of the chalice that was my heart, open and available for Presence to enter.
During the Quiet Day, I loved the sense of Mary Magdalene that was with us in the celebration of her Feast Day. We chanted inside the church and outside on the grass, prior to meditation and in body prayer. We thought of her as the Samaritan woman at the well whom Jesus asked for a drink from as we chanted in a circle on the grass the chant Let All Who are Thirsty Come. We chanted it as Grace before eating lunch, just as they do at the Taizé community in France, a place where a door opened in me that I never knew I had. France, where legend has it Mary became a hermit in a cave at Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume after Jesus’ death. We poured ourselves into movement as we chanted Take O Take Me As I Am, recalling the Song of Songs, imagining Mary speaking these words to Jesus, her Beloved, and making these words our own.
During the two-hour break at noon, I went down the trail to Sitting Lady Falls and listened to the sound of the cascading water, smelled the green smell of the leaves, and soaked up the beauty and the stillness of the trees.
The idea of being a post holder in today’s world was given meaning through a beautiful ritual. Eileen talked about what it meant to be a post holder, with the example of Mary Magdalene, who stood faithfully by her Beloved in life, through death and resurrection, and who carried his teaching forward as the First Apostle. As we listened, each of us held a twig taken from a basket that was handed round. Then we each placed our twig in a bowl filled with sand and silently made a pledge to be a post holder in our own unique way. My pledge was to show up, and to keep showing up. The twigs formed a beautiful symbol for the day and our group, each one an individual, and all forming together an intricate and beautiful pattern. And, again, the image of a receptacle that was available and ready to be filled came to me. The chant What We Need is Here was followed by a sit.
Spending a day in retreat is one thing. Taking with you what you have experienced into the world of everyday living is the challenge. After our final sit we finished with a reading from an article (“We Were Made For These Times” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes). Then we left the room in silence and stood in a circle outside. A raven talked to us from a branch in a fir tree above us against the backdrop of the deep blue sky. The day was complete.
I loved spending time with this unique group of people. It seemed to me that everyone who was meant to be there was, and that each person present had an equally important role to play. After the lunch break, having spent the morning in silence, we had stood in a circle and each of us in turn said our name, and our name was repeated back to us by everyone present. It was a beautiful expression of the contribution that each of us made, and of the support that we gave and received to and from each other. Feeling that we were all equally responsible for the day, it was much harder – though not impossible – to feel self-conscious.
At the end of the day I felt relief that things had gone so well. I felt refreshed and filled with gratitude: gratitude for the opportunity to be a post holder, to Eileen for inviting me, and for her wonderful teaching, and to Mary Magdalene for lighting our way.
Nancy Van Kirk (cellist, artist, and soon-to-be Scot) offers this report on our recent retreat with the Rev. Matthew Wright, student of Cynthia Bourgeault’s and a big hit with all who experience his teaching! Matthew’s retreat was on the topic of the Gospel of Thomas, and Nancy, a recently-joined member of The Contemplative Society, reflects on her experience of Wisdom School and how we came around to opening to the Eye of the Heart.
For a few days in March, several of us attended a Contemplative Society Wisdom School presented by Matthew Wright. Entitled Opening to the Eye of the Heart,it offered an exploration of the Gospel of Thomas. About twenty of us gathered at this amenable site that was warm and cozy in spite of lingering winter weather. Drifts of snow in the parking lot awaited spring thaw and there were dustings of snow in the night. Some days it was raining but, like a blessing, the sun came out at just the right moment to warm our “labora” efforts at pruning, raking, and sweeping the winter debris away. We left the Cowichan Lake Research Station trim and tidy.
Being a Wisdom School (rather than a retreat), we embraced the four-part Benedictine balance of prayer and work, alone and together, while remaining silent during meals and maintaining the Great Silence at night. The daily practice of centering prayer, chanting, nourishing the body with excellent vegetarian food, grounds work outdoors, and receiving the ever-flowing richness of Matthew’s teachings made for an ideal Wisdom School experience – one whose rewards continue to be felt and remembered.
This is the second time Matthew has presented a Wisdom School sponsored by The Contemplative Society and we certainly hope there will be many more. Matthew Wright is from West Park, NY, an area near Woodstock, where he and his wife live on the grounds of Holy Cross Monastery, integrated into monastic life. He serves as part-time priest at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church. He is young, passionate, and articulate with a vast knowledge of contemplative practice, wisdom teachings, theology, religious history, and inter-spirituality. He responded openly and willingly to all questions and topics asked of him while offering well-structured, sequential teachings using Logia from The Gospel of Thomas and writings in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Philip. The teachings were balanced by embodiment through chanting and, eventually, by dance that moved us out of the circle of chairs and into the centre of the room. Gradually, it became apparent to me that we were opening to the Eye of the Heart – we were beginning to see with the organ of unitive perception. How we got there was through a process of engagement with five practices Matthew taught.
We began with his teaching on the role of silence. Matthew suggested thinking of silence as a container rather than an arbitrary imposition. With silence from the start, we quickly moved away from superficial opening conversations into a consciousness that focused on breath and heartbeat – on our own and those of the others present. Matthew mentioned that Jesus had a practice of silence in his discipline of quiet prayer: he would go to a quiet place to pray early in the morning. With silence we can become aware of our interconnection to all of life. Our opening chant Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me, based on Logion 108, complemented the teaching, setting the stage for an exchange of wisdom – the wisdom we could experience by participating as a group, the wisdom we hoped to acquire through the transformational words of Yeshua in the Gospel of Thomas, and the wisdom Matthew could impart through the teachings he planned to offer.
The second practice then, after silence, was interconnection. Matthew reminded us that interconnection is a focus of the Second Axial Age, the one we are in now, and that Jesus was an early master. This second age rejects the notion of the need to escape matter and the body that characterized the First Axial Age, and shifts us to reconnect with the world – to undertake the important task of belonging. Jesus embodied the fullness of human possibility and taught us about relationship with God, with each other, and with all creation. Thomas was a champion of this unitive, mystical understanding captured in the words of his Gospel. We noted that Teilhard de Chardin was also such a champion with his concept of Christogenesis, the universe itself as the unfolding of Christ. As the Second Axial Age takes hold, the notion of individual salvation is changing into a collective and cosmic salvation; we are also becoming the mystical body of Christ that is cosmic. We are in the early stages of awakening to the interconnection of all.
Matthew’s third practice was to give attention to present moment awareness. We sang the chant Attend to the living presence, here and now (based on Logion 59) that encourages watchfulness and vigilance. From Logion 59, we learned that present moment awareness can lead to greater compassion, knowing from a deeper center, seeing what is hidden, and achieving a unbounded consciousness. Presence, as we know, is an important practice taught by contemporary spiritual teachers such as Eckhart Tolle. Present moment awareness is also intertwined with the fourth practice – awakening to oneness. We were told that Jesus taught a sense of oneness that arises from the practice of attention and surrender. Indeed, it is also called love. Matthew suggested that we think of Jesus not as a priest nor a prophet but, rather, think of him as a healer and a teacher, or mashal in the Jewish Wisdom tradition. Jesus taught the path of inner transformation through aphorisms, parables, and sayings that are often like Zen kōans. It is these teachings that we hear in the Gospel of Thomas, a Gospel that shows us how to follow the contemplative path that Jesus (Yeshua) embodied.
Our understanding of the Gospel of Thomas was further enriched by Matthew’s teachings on related topics. First, he mentioned two historical events that provided important context and, secondly, he discussed several contemporary advances that continue to influence our evolving awareness.
Historically, one event was Constantine’s fourth-century acceptance of Christianity as the Imperial state religion and his call to solidify its creeds and canon. As a result, Christianity increasingly became a belief system rather than a path of transformation. To put it glibly, while the Councils attempted to hammer out the mystery, instead they just hammered the mystery out! Mysticism, in fact, became suspect, but survived secreted away in monasteries. The other historical event was the miraculous survival of the Nag Hammadi Library, discovered in Egypt in 1945. The existence of a Gospel of Thomas was known to the early church, but thought lost forever. Amazingly a Coptic translation of the entire Gospel was among the Nag Hammadi findings. Scholars have needed decades to interpret the Gospel of Thomas and free it from the shackles of a mistaken Gnostic label.
On the influence of contemporary advances, Matthew included several topics that may be familiar to contemplatives. One is our growing knowledge of levels of consciousness as described by Ken Wilber and others, and by the developmental framework of Spiral Dynamics (Graves-Beck). These show that humankind has evolved enough to recognize the interconnectedness of all beings, plus they reveal that the ability to accept spiritual interpretations that differ from one’s own (second tier) is a sign of higher consciousness. Another advance is the idea of inter-spirituality as proposed by Wayne Teasdale, which shows that the path of transformation taught by Jesus is similar to transformative pathways in other traditions such as the Sufi tradition of Islam. A third influence would be scientific research on the neural pathways of the brain and the heart that reveal far greater complexity within and between them than previously recognized. These factors, plus the historical context, may help explain why it has taken two millennia for us to become conscious of our interconnectedness and the contemplative path that Jesus taught.
In addition to silence, interconnection, present moment awareness, and oneness, with the fifth foundational practice that remains we arrive at the Eye of the Heart. Both Cynthia Bourgeault and Matthew tell us that the heart is the organ of spiritual perception, so by drawing the mind into the heart we can learn to perceive wholeness, we can grasp the unity of existence. Thomas’ gospel presents a “map” that gives us clues to the consciousness of Jesus (Yeshua), and by studying this gospel and putting its teachings into practice, we can begin to put on the mind of Christ. This fifth practice is heart-knowing, or to find singleness of heart. The eye of the heart allows us to see from oneness, to leave the ego and its duality behind and become a “single one” or Ihidaya – a title used by early Syriac-speaking Christians. To make ourselves whole we need to see that duality is resolved from within; then when it is resolved we will find that authenticity, honesty, and integrity are the result. Seeing from oneness is to drop our false identity, to find our true self, to find sovereignty, and to be God’s manifestation set from the beginning. Our one true being, our treasure, is the heart. Many familiar sayings point to this primary insight: finding the Pearl of Great Price, or finding the Treasure hidden in the field. To see with the eye of the heart, to arrive at this level of consciousness, is also to experience healing (salvation). From this perspective, sin is not the breaking of rules but a lack of alignment.
Present moment awareness
Matthew had even more teachings to offer to help us on the path of transformation and a new consciousness. One was to see the Gospel of Thomas as laying out a vision of what Raimon Panikkar calls Christophany – seeing all beings as a manifestation of Christ. Another was to see Mystery in the Gospels as experiential – not revealed in words alone but manifest when mind, heart, and body are in alignment. When they are, the human has wholeness and integrity of purpose. The integration of all three will align us with the infinite source and allow the heart of God to flow through. This idea, in turn, leads us to the essential insight that every being is an unfolding of Christ and each of us can enter into the consciousness Jesus had. The incarnation then is in us.
Another teaching involves the intersection of a vertical (eternal) and horizontal (life) line, a simple cross (+). The heart is at the centre of the crossing where time and timelessness meet. Our goal is to live at the center where the intersection is constant.
Matthew discussing the redshift/blueshift model.
Matthew also discussed the contrast between a redshift and a blueshift model applied to the Cosmos and the Divine. Redshift is a physics term that refers to the way light’s wavelength increases (weakens) as it moves away from its source, shifting from the blue to the red end of the colour spectrum in the process. Is the world a mistake (as in Gnostic mythology)? Are we in perpetual exile, increasingly dense and distant from the Divine? A redshift model would say yes, that as we move more deeply into the world, we move further away from God. But what if God is actually moving more fully into form through the world resulting in a blueshift model? In these shift models, red is moving away from the centre and blue is moving towards it. Matthew advises us to stop our up and down thinking, recognizing instead that divine movement is outward from the heart. God is flowing more fully into form as on-going incarnation, reminding me of the beautiful Sufi sentiment, “I was a Hidden Treasure and I longed to be known…”.
This report is just a sampling of the rich teachings Matthew presented and the range of topics we explored during Opening to the Eye of the Heart, through the Gospel of Thomas and supplemented with brief readings from the Gospels of Mary Magdalene and Philip. In no way can my report do justice to the event. Matthew is a pleasure to listen to, offering perceptive answers to questions, supported by his wisdom and experience, and I was reluctant to leave and let go of listening to his wise words.
This Wisdom School also included experiential activities in multiple ways, each well planned and connected. It was insightful to read different editions of Thomas as a group comparing words and possible meanings between them. We chanted and danced to Become all flame, moved into humility and quietness in meditation, practiced action and stillness, dance and rest, life and essence. One woman shared a poem inspired by the event; another led a group to see the old growth forest. Knowing that inter-spirituality is a passionate interest of Matthew’s, we delighted in the chance to try Sufi chants and movement: the tahlīl, shouts of “Hayy” and “Hu”, simple whirling. We knew such practice could only enrich the contemplative path we were exploring by offering connection, however small, to another’s faith. Indeed, we might discover facets of our own soul that would not be possible otherwise.
The Gospels we studied were a natural way to integrate opposites, to awaken to a new humanity. Matthew’s closing words left us with the profound insight that “we are coming into unity in diversity, and diversity remains.”
Thank you, Matthew, for your teachings, and to The Contemplative Society for bringing him here.
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Brian Mitchell, The Contemplative Society’s Audio Ministry Coordinator, connects the relationship between you and the ministry, and how you can play your part. Also, a note from Cynthia Bourgeault, and a selection of our customers’ testimonials.
As you perhaps already know, one of the most unique contributions of The Contemplative Society to the Christian Wisdom path is our Audio Ministry. Each year we take old versions of our recorded talks and retreats, as well as new recordings, and transform them into audio teachings available for purchase on our website ensuring that contemplative Wisdom is transmitted to all who yearn to hear it. Usually, we edit and distribute Cynthia Bourgeault’s teachings (such as 2015’s In the Wake of St. Brendan or 2016’s The Holy Trinity & the Law of Three), but last year we were honoured to expand our offerings to include Matthew Wright (The Wisdom Path: Contemplative Practice & Evolving Consciousness) and look forward to recording his retreat in the spring of 2017. We also continue to revise previous teachings for improved quality and coherence.
I consider my role as coordinator of the Audio Ministry as both a blessing and a little bit of a curse. It’s a blessing because I have the privilege of listening to and disseminating teachings that enliven my body, mind, heart, and spirit. The teachings never get old, as there is no bottom to the Wisdom well from which they emerge, and I also get to work with absolutely wonderful volunteers. On the other hand, it sometimes feels like a bit of a curse because it’s a lot of work to do with very few resources!
What you may not know is that our Audio Ministry operates virtually on volunteer hours alone. Though we have had limited success in the past, last year we decided to once again put a call out for more help to relieve the load on our current volunteers and hopefully to increase the volume and speed at which we produce the teachings. Holy Spirit seemed to have decided to intervene on this occasion, and we found ourselves inundated with people willing to help either in the capacity of editor or final listener.
This last attempt to recruit help has proven to me how important the Audio Ministry is to The Contemplative Society community (check out these testimonials from our customers). This knowing motivates me to remain vigilant and imbues the work with great meaning. And that is why I ask for a different kind of help today.
In addition to volunteer hours, producing these audio sets is also costly in terms of materials, technical equipment, and the occasional service of professionals. The Contemplative Society strives to keep the cost of the recordings as low as feasible in order to have the teachings remain accessible to as wide an audience as possible. With the help of our donors, we have been able to strike a healthy balance. The more support we have, the more we are able to offer.
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Big news, all you Wisdom Seekers. Thanks to the incredible persistence and deft touch of Wisdom student Joshua Tysinger, the priceless collection of unpublished writings by Beatrice Bruteau has come to live at Emery University – alongside comparably priceless collections by such luminaries as Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This is an amazing coup, and a blessing for us all.
Beatrice Bruteau – scholar, nondual Christian teacher, and interspiritual pioneer par excellence – died in November 2014 at the age of 84. Many of you already know of the extraordinary spiritual friendship that developed between Josh, at the time a first-year student at Wake Forest Seminary, and Beatrice, living out her final days behind a thickening veil of dementia. Partly caregiver, partly spiritual son, Josh sensitively helped her navigate the horizontal axis while in return she conferred on him the full luminosity of her spiritual being and wisdom. Josh recounts this remarkable journey in his essay on Beatrice inPersonal Transformation and a New Creation (Orbis, 2016). If you haven’t read it yet, don’t miss it!
And yes, I put Josh onto the assignment of keeping an eye on the voluminous archive that Beatrice had left behind her (she and Jim had no children), seeing if he could get it into safekeeping in an archive worthy of her brilliance and influence.
And that mission has now been brilliantly accomplished…but not without the inevitable touching human element, thanks. Thanks, Josh, for all you have done for Wisdom. And over to you for the backstory…
Through a series of fortunate and serendipitous events, the Special Collection of Beatrice Bruteau came into my possession earlier this year. This acquisition would never have occurred if it were not for the incredible insistence of my mentor Cynthia Bourgeault who guided my formative steps and movements. First noticing the collection while visiting the Bruteau residence in May 2014, Cynthia charged me with the task of collaborating with friends and family to have it archived in a major academic setting. The burden of responsibility fell upon my shoulders to preserve thirteen binders filled with fifty pages each of uncirculated articles, documents, and manuscripts. This was not without its fair share of obstacles and resistance, for Beatrice and Jim had become quite attached to her collection over numerous years and who was I to pawn off their belongings to an impersonal institution?
Although I realized the utter importance of preserving Beatrice’s works for public consumption, I also had to tread a very fine line in securing them. It never crossed my mind that these were ever fully in my possession. As a matter of fact, I attempted to collaborate with Beatrice and her husband Jim to get them housed at an array of potential settings. The universities on my list ranged from Wake Forest University (where they would inevitably have gotten lost in the Baptist Heritage section) to Fordham University (which currently harbors part of her collection), to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. After discussing the situation with Beatrice’s goddaughter Carla and hearing Cynthia’s input, we collectively determined that Emory was the right fit. At the time, Emory University had just acquired the Thomas Keating collection. Highlighting Beatrice’s works alongside other interspiritual luminaries such as Thomas Merton, the Dalai Llama, and Thomas Keating seemed like an ideal situation. For as legendary as Beatrice is in the realm of contemplative studies, her literature only attracted a modest following; therefore, having them placed aside such literary giants would only increase her exposure. Excited as I was to present this option to Beatrice and Jim, what I did not account for was the amount of resistance to my proposal that Beatrice would demonstrate.
Day after day I corresponded with representatives from Emory University, seeking to make sure that we had chosen the right selection. I collected information, heard their offers, and showed the transfer of documents paperwork to Beatrice and Jim. They wanted to ensure that Beatrice’s works were well looked after, managed and used for the advancement of her body of prestigious works. Ever the man of reason, Jim acknowledged the immediate importance of having Beatrice’s works catalogued and archived. He was my best representative in making the case to Beatrice, even when she could not digest its merit. On one occasion while sitting with them in the living room of their apartment, Beatrice, who was at the time in the throes of dementia, became confused by the practicalities of our dialogue. It became increasingly apparent that the logistics of the transfer were too much for her to bear. Engaging in a round dance of circular conversation for over an hour, Beatrice suddenly turned to me and asked if I were a representative from Fordham – in this situation, she had forgotten who I was. From her perspective, someone had sent me into her house as a Trojan horse to confiscate her belongings on behalf of a library. I instantly regretted the mess that I found myself in and questioned whether or not it was better to let the proposal drop. Increasingly agitated, Beatrice pressed on about the issue of my “true identity” and badgered me until I could no longer stomach lingering around. Because Beatrice and Jim had ties to Fordham University, where Jim had taught philosophy, I immediately quipped back, “The only representatives from Fordham that I see are sitting in this living room!” It was the only time I ever challenged Beatrice over an interpersonal dispute and she sat for an instant staring into space, looking as miffed as ever. That day, I walked out of their apartment wondering if I would ever return, yet I felt resolve in my heart not to let the matter of her collection serve as a wedge between the wonderful relationship we had cultivated.
From there on out, I never brought Emory University back into the equation. It was only when I met with Jim and Beatrice’s power of attorney one year later – after Beatrice had passed – that I was informed that Jim was willing her documents to me. To my surprise, Jim had remembered our exchanges approximately one year prior and felt comfortable enough to entrust them to my care. Vaughn John, the power of attorney, instructed me to wait until after Jim’s passing before retrieving the collection. At that time, the binders were one final reminder of his beloved and a source of consolation during his bouts with loneliness.
Jim died earlier this year two days shy of his 101st birthday, and I have since reflected deeply on the immensity of the gift that they have given me. It has been in large part a stroke of fate being involved with this transfer of documents and preserving them for new generations of Beatrice Bruteau enthusiasts. Her life and legacy will now be displayed at Emory University for any pilgrim with enough time and energy to mine through her impressive collection. And after two years of working on this project, I now close a marvelous chapter that has given so much to me. I hope it will with you, too.
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In 2014, Meagan Crosby-Shearer received a scholarship to attend the Wisdom School led by Cynthia Bourgeault on The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three held at Lake Cowichan, BC which drew on content from her recent, much-lauded book of the same name. Meagan’s subsequent reflection demonstrates how becoming a member of The Contemplative Society helps to recover the mystical heart of the Christian Wisdom tradition, as well as provide accessible opportunities and resources to those interested in learning and living contemplative Christian wisdom.
My attendance at this year’s Wisdom school came through pure gift and, perhaps in hindsight, the Law of Three.
I had reached a state of impasse where what was needed in my life was a reorientation to the Spirit of God and an integration of body and soul, and instead I felt locked into a cycle of increasing fragmentation. Into the peak of this intensity came the email invitation to Wisdom School which offered a breath of peace and a shift in focus.
I arrived at Wisdom School in the early evening and stepped into the fragrance of pine and earth, and could feel myself begin to drink in the peace of the setting. I resonated with the opening talk which was both Christ-centered and monastic in approach, and appreciated the language of prayer together, prayer alone, work alone, and work together as being the foundation for our time together as well as forming the rhythm of our lives. The evening meditation was beautiful, and I felt at times as if I was cradling a beating heart in my palms.
The days started with a sunrise walk, and then were full of intense learning punctuated by walks in the beauty of the surrounding area, breathless plunges into the cool water, work that warmed my body and sank my feet deeper into the earth, and times of meditation and song that freed me to discover again the essence of God within me and in those people and places around me. The nights in their silent beauty were brilliantly lit with stars bringing Psalm 19 to mind.
I appreciated the time of work and, in particular, the teaching about how much we give of ourselves to our work. It is something I have reflected on many times since the school and I have begun to seek out better ways of balancing this tendency. Alongside this was the practice of leaving things unfinished to be fully present to the next moment. It was difficult to walk away at the end of our work period and know that there was more to do, but the practice allowed me to realize how often my mind is still wrestling with the last event instead of becoming fully available to be God’s hands and feet in the present moment.
I was fascinated by the teaching on the Law of Three and of Boehme’s process allowing for anguish, desire, and agitation to be the impetus for light. It begins to transform the way we dwell in the world if anguish is no longer seen as something to be fought or eradicated, or as darkness where God is absent but, instead, one of the very materials by which a new creation can occur.
I appreciated that we were sent out to explore the Law of Three both through the exercise of looking back on our life, but also by engaging it within our current contexts. I was struck by its possibility in areas of conflict, be they internal or external, and the call to move from a place of either/or to a place of curiosity and holding situations/conversations lightly. I appreciated the release of identity that this process allowed.
While there was not time to delve into the implications of the Trinity in as much depth as I would have liked, I was struck by the movement of the unfolding Trinity. Instead of a snapshot caught in time I appreciated the idea of the Trinity as ever-creating, dynamic, and self-revealing. I also was caught by the statement that this understanding of the Trinity allows us to view our age not in utter uncontrolled chaos, but as unfolding toward an Omega point.
As our time drew to an end, we had a chance to walk the Enneagram that had been unfolding throughout the week. I was initially worried about knowing which way to go but, as I entered, it was smooth and clear and the energy built until I could feel it ripple across my palms and scalp. It made me think of the law of world creation and the Law of Three and I wondered at what we had loosed into the world by our collective action. The night intensified this question. Sleep was elusive. It made me question again what power was being stirred through our time.
We closed with a profound celebration of the Eucharist that seemed to bring everything together in a beautiful unity. As we received the elements in our time, Cynthia emphasized “Christ growing a new thing within us” and I could feel myself yearning toward that realization, ready and eager to embrace the new life that Christ is able to birth within each of us.
I was thankful that far from leaving us simply to long for the next retreat, we were sent to explore and pay attention to the Law of Three in our lives and to apply the learning we had gained very practically into our own places and spaces.
I am deeply thankful for the opportunity The Contemplative Society provided that allowed me to participate in this Wisdom school. There are many insights still percolating and, as I go back to The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, there are fresh understandings from Cynthia’s talks (and more questions!) that continue to emerge. I am incorporating the insights I have gained not only into my own spiritual life, but in the leadership of the community we are a part of.
Again, my deep gratitude for this time of refreshment and learning, and I will continue to hold the work of The Contemplative Society in prayer as you continue to serve so many with your ministry!
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BONUS! Gabrielle (Brie) Stoner contributes a third installment in her series, inspired by her trip to New York City for the American Teilhard Association’s annual meeting, in which she ties together the liturgical holiday with the dawning of a new “Church”. See Part Iand Part II for more.
We’ve been exploring the idea that we are in the midst of a Planetary Pentecost: the arrival of a new church that is as big as the cosmos. We’ve also been challenging the perception that rising generations lack an interest in God, but may instead be (as Teilhard describes) “unsatisfied theists”. Humanity, it seems, is ready for a larger, more inclusive, and dynamic language of God.
The fact that this Trinity Sunday follows Pentecost illustrates an apt progression in our Teilhardian explorations of a Planetary Pentecost: the Trinity, representing Divinity as a dynamic and creative interdependent community, points us in the direction of how we might begin thinking of world religions in this dawn of the Second Axial Age.
If the language of God doesn’t need to be thrown out but, instead, evolved, what role – if any – does religion have as we continue toward unification in this Planetary Pentecost? Do we ditch existing religious paths and form a new, global, trans-religious amalgam? Or are we being invited into a deeper understanding of the unique role of each spiritual tradition?
This was precisely the topic of Ilia Delio’s talk at the American Teilhard Association gathering: Teilhard de Chardin and World Religions: Ultra Catholic or Ultra Human?In her talk, Delio addressed the question, “Did Teihard have Christian bias?” Did he insist that other religions needed to be Christianized in order to have a role in evolution?
Delio maintained that Teilhard approached world religions primarily as a scientist, interested in the evolutionary role of religions. Teilhard believed that the evolutionary role of religion is to animate the “zest” for life. To that end, Teilhard insisted that we have a critical role to play: we need to be observant of where doctrine and theology have become stuck in outmoded cosmologies and are no longer energizing humanity toward a deeper union with God and with each other.
In other words, we’re being asked – by Teilhard, and perhaps, the Spirit of evolutionary growth herself – notto divest ourselves of the traditions. We’re not being asked to pour all our unique religious colors into one bucket resulting in the murky pigment of the “baby blow-out” variety (if you’re a parent you know the particular glory of this hue). Instead, I believe we are being asked to maintain the essential pigment of each tradition, but bring them all into a greater cohesive wholeness, like that of a vibrant stained glass window.
I would venture to say that each spiritual tradition carries an indispensable “color,” an irreplaceable essence that is integral to the greater whole. Likewise, we could view this transition into the Second Axial Age of religion as the movement out of the individual dye boxes of the traditions, and into the skilled hands of the artist who will sand off rough edges and place us in the same planetary frame, so that we can exist as a collaborative, interdependent whole: forming one vibrant, illuminating vision of God together.
In other words, the key to transcending the cliquishness, strife, and violence that has characterized the worst of humanity’s religious impulse is surrender: it’s the praxis of confidence andhumility that says we can be faithful stewards of ourrevelation while gratefully joining hands with others in theirs.
But imagine, instead, that in the formation of the stained glass masterpiece, the red pieces of glass said, “Sorry, our dye requirements insist we remain in our red box forever! We don’t believe in being taken out of our box and certainly don’t believe in working alongside yellow and blue.”
This is where I think we find ourselves in Christian theology; we must introduce dynamism back into our understanding of God to keep us from being stuck in the box.
Did Teilhard have a Christian bias? Undoubtedly! Could Teilhard have had a more immersive understanding of other religious traditions? Of course!
Buthe would have had to exist in ourtime, or had a radically different life and, therefore, ceased being Teilhard. Let’s not forget that Teilhard was – gasp! – human, and that all of us are limited by our humanity and the constructs of our particular space/time configuration. Teilhard worked from within Christianity because this was his tradition.
Enraptured with a mystical understanding of Christ-as-evolver, Teilhard leveled his theological critiques at the church and did so from a scientific lens with eye toward the trajectory of evolution. Teilhard’s heart was able to perceive beyond duality, and intuited the whole image that was wanting to emerge in our consciousness.
If we want to remain faithful to Christianity’s heart and message, we too must begin the sacred labor of setting loose those aspects of the tradition that are simply incompatible with our revealed cosmos. We must be stewards of the evolutionary responsibility that philosopher Ken Wilber describes as transcending andincluding.
After all, we really only find the depth dimension from within a tradition, not outside it, where we often wind up reinventing the wheel poorly. Kind of like digging to create an artificial pond on a beach so you can swim in water that is “cleaner”: eventually you realize that evolution has been at this a bit longer, so you toss your shovel and plunge into the ocean.
It is up to us to locate and evolve the doctrines in our Christian tradition that continue to create an “intellectual and emotional straight-jacket”¹ within which the creative force of an evolving humanity refuses to be restrained. It is imperative that, as socially responsible, intelligent followers of Christ we ask with Teilhard, “What form must our Christology take if it is to remain itself in a new world?”² What Teilhard meant by this is notthat we must be slaves to each new trend, thus trading chains to orthodoxy to the whims of capriciousness, but rather that we must always use evolution itself as the yardstick by which to measure howwe define orthodoxy. As Teilhard says, “Nothing can any longer find place in our constructions which does not first satisfy the conditions of a universe in process of transformation.”³
What Teilhard invites us into is a non-dual dynamicunderstanding of this next age of religion: one in which we do not simply get together from time to time to show how tolerant we are of one another. Neither are we being asked to dilute the unique gifts of each tradition by giving up on religion, or combining them into an undifferentiated amalgam. We are being invited into an era of understanding our traditions as forming a symbiotic ecosystem, recognizing that our futures are interdependent in forming a new and vibrant whole: together we must deepen human consciousness and collaborate to create lasting solutions to the social and ecological crisis of our times.
As T.S. Eliot describes:
Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion.
Or as Teilhard would describe it, true union differentiates. The more we enter into an era of religious communion and collaboration, the more the essential pigment of each of our traditions will be distilled, highlighted, and become useful to the evolution of our human family.
Is this the Planetary Pentecost? I believe so. Just as in the early church, the winds of change are afoot, and just like the biblical account, the “birth” of this new church makes us all midwives: we must each seek out how we are being asked to mediate this change in our lives, and as participants in the whole system.
We must be still enough to recognize the wisdom alive in our traditions, and “still moving” in the humility that recognizes the work ahead of refining, clarifying, and polishing each unique gift in our lineages. Only then, as we move from the millennia of dye-taking and into our new window “setting”, can we move into another “intensity” and become something entirely new together: a riot of brilliant colors illuminated by the fiery heart of God.
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Hot on the heels of Pentecost and the American Teilhard Association’s annual meeting, Gabrielle (Brie) Stoner ties together the liturgical holiday with the dawning of a new “Church”. This is the second installment in her two-part series (see Part I for more).
St. Ignatius of Loyola, New York City
Being the good Teilhard-geek that I am, and since I found myself near Teilhard’s NYC stomping grounds this past weekend, I figured it would be a momentous experience for me to celebrate communion and Pentecost at one of the churches where he was in residence, St. Ignatius of Loyola on Park Avenue. The church building did not disappoint, and housed a clearly seasoned choir taking on some stunning Gregorian chant to boot. I geared myself up for what I expected would be a totally Teilhardian Pentecost celebration.
But that day, the New York weather had dropped 20°, and it was cold in that building. Even when the pews filled up more, I still found myself shivering a bit. The priest’s homily was on how Pentecost was the continuation of God’s “sticking it out with us”: “God didn’t give up on the disciples, and God isn’t giving up on us yet.”
The idea brought to mind a parent who is still buying their “goth” daughter preppy clothes with the hope that she’ll come around and remove her piercings and die her hair back to blonde. The country club hasn’t given up on you yet, dear! Or a boyfriend who is sticking to his relationship even though his heart has gone out of it, still going through the motions as though his not leaving is the same thing as deep intimacy. He brings her flowers and a card that reads “Don’t worry, I’ve resigned myself to sticking it out with you.”
Shortly after faking being Catholic enough to take communion (which included a nearly empty chalice resulting in a rather difficult time swallowing the wafer), the service concluded. As beautiful as the music and building were, as I walked down the steps of the church, I felt somewhat a sense of relief and glad to be back in the fresh air, cold as it was. Teilhard may have once been in residence at St. Ignatius, but his essence was clearly not hanging around inside those marbled walls.
I decided to cut through Central Park, figuring that Teilhard might have also once taken these very paths, wrapping my jean jacket tightly around me and bracing myself against the wind. I wondered what it would be like to walk alongside Teilhard and talk to him about all the thoughts that were swirling around inside me as I walked: the millennial search for language of a God we can believe in, the sad and rather depressing homily, and how I was still trying to swallow bits of that stubborn wafer down…when suddenly I heard sirens up ahead.
From a distance I also started to make out the sounds of chanted phrases, music, and the sound of people—LOTS AND LOTS of people. Finally, as I rounded the bend, I saw them in the distance: it was hundreds and hundreds of New Yorkers walking in the AIDS Walk.
New York City AIDS Walk – May 15, 2016
The closer I got, the louder the roar of human voices became, like the thunderous sound of a waterfall. I picked out English, Spanish, French, and possibly Mandarin—and those were just the voices that happened to be walking by me. I saw different ages, ethnicities, races, and genders: people singing, laughing, chanting, and talking. Some quietly holding pictures of loved ones lost from AIDS, and some who were celebrating their departed loved one’s lives by dancing their way through the street, and likely some whose lives may not have been directly affected by AIDS but who were walking in solidarity all the same.
Memories wafted in of my own Spanish “uncles” who died of AIDS, and how my parents insisted on bringing us to the hospitals to be with them, defying the hospitals which, in that time, prohibited children from visiting AIDS patients. I remembered being little enough of to be carried on the shoulders of another “uncle” through an AIDS walk in Madrid, and how just a few short years later he, too, lost his fight with the disease.
I had no idea that there was an AIDS walk that day, but the poignancy of it being held on Pentecost was not lost on me. There may not have been literal tongues of fire above the folks that were in the procession before me but, I promise you, I got swept up in the warmth and light that was cascading off them.
This is the Pentecost that is spreading across the planet: people gathered outside church buildings together in solidarity and action, in remembrance and a shared commitment toward a more loving present and a better future. Men, women, gay, straight, queer, transgender, rich, poor, legal immigrants or not…the vibrancy and beauty of the Divine heart seemed to shine diaphanously through every face, every uniqueness, every “difference”, forming a vibrant whole out of all of the many parts.
We need language for the God that is big enough for this church, I thought to myself.
And then, as if he was standing directly behind me, Teilhard’s words came suddenly rushing through me with the heat of a fiery wind, making my heart burn within me:
…let there be revealed to us the possibility of believing at the same time and wholly in God and the World, the one through the other; let this belief burst forth, as it is ineluctably in process of doing under the pressure of these seemingly opposed forces, and then, we may be sure of it, a great flame will illumine all things: for a Faith will have been born (or reborn) containing and embracing all others—and, inevitably, it is the strongest Faith which sooner or later must possess the Earth.¹
“Veni Sancte Espiritus,” I said quietly in response to Teilhard and the happy crowd before me.
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Hot on the heels of Pentecost and the American Teilhard Association’s annual meeting, Gabrielle (Brie) Stoner ties together the liturgical holiday with the dawning of a new “Church”.
Ilia Delio, guest speaker at ATA annual meeting – May 15, 2016
This past weekend, I made a brief escapade to the Big Apple for the American Teilhard Association annual meeting featuring guest speaker, Ilia Delio.
The brief trip was as crammed with experiences as Manhattan is crammed with people, and Pentecost Sunday wound up being an unexpected culmination of the three days.
As many of you know, Pentecost is the celebration in the liturgical Christian calendar of the arrival of the Holy Spirit ten days after the ascension of Jesus, and celebrates the “birthday” of the church. According to the gospels, the Holy Spirit came down in the form of tongues of fire that rested above each of the disciples and, in turn, gave them the capacity to speak in different “tongues”. People who heard them started gathering and, as they heard all these languages being spoken, it created a lot of confusion (like it would), and some even chalked up these “fiery fluent crazies” as being drunk (a most rational conclusion). The traditional phrase that you’ll often hear on Pentecost is “Veni Sancte Spiritus” which translates as “Come Holy Spirit,” an ancient invocation of the “Bring it on!” variety.
American Teilhard Association annual meeting – May 15, 2016
While I have been following the liturgical calendar a bit more closely this year, I wasn’t thinking particularly about the unique correlation between this special day and the American Teilhard Association gathering. During the question and answer time following Ilia Delio’s address, however, someone raised the question about why young people don’t seem interested in the church, and what that might mean evolutionarily for the future of world religions. Ilia gave a response in which she criticized (as Teilhard did) the outdated theology and doctrine that is simply becoming incompatible with the future generations of humanity.
Mary Evelyn Tucker (a board member of the ATA and one of the hosts of the event) jumped in to add that this is why she, Mary Evelyn, believed it was important to just “take the God language out” in projects such as her “The Journey of the Universe” project to make it more appealing to younger generations.
While I do agree that “God language” is often off-putting to those of us who might be in the “spiritual but not religious” camp, I have to disagree that the answer is to simply take “God language” out of the equation. Omission is not evolution, and while many among us are atheists, there are also many who, as Teilhard describes, might be more aptly called “unsatisfied theists”:
We are surrounded by a certain sort of pessimist who continually tells us that our world is foundering in atheism. But should we not rather say that what it is suffering from is unsatisfied theism?…are you quite sure that what they are rejecting is not simply the image of a God who is too insignificant to nourish in us this concern to survive and super-live to which the need to worship may ultimately be reduced?¹
Rather than throwing out “God” with the dirty bathwater of what no longer serves humanity in religion, it is our task to transcend and evolve the language of a “God who is too insignificant for us to worship”. Our ideas must expand and deepen in order touch upon the mystical heart that so enraptured and informed Teilhard: the fiery center of the universe he called the heart of God, the beating personal center of all traditions and whose fabric we shape with our very lives.
I happen to think that many of us in the Millennial cohort believe in God, just not of the white-bearded-up-in-the-sky variety. What we are leaving behind is tribal exclusionary religion and instead intuiting our way forward into a faith that believes whomever God is, God has to be the dynamism and sum of all relationships in this great system in the process of evolution. Whomever God is, God has to be intimately and inextricably shining through every facet of this incredible material world. And whatever that faith is, it has to include everyone, everywhere, and must offer us solutions of the salvation of the planet NOW, not later.
Some scholars describe this as the birth of Second Axial age religion and, unsurprisingly, this new vision and language of God is spreading like wildfire and is creating a lot of confusion for those that prefer the older language of God.
Fire, new language, translation issues, confusion. Now where have we heard that before?
Welcome to the Planetary Pentecost and the birth of a church as big as the cosmos itself.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Activation of Energy, p.239-240.
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This piece was originally posted on Christopher Page’s blog, In A Spacious Place. Christopher was interviewed by a Year 11 Australian student in Brisbane. Her class was investigating contemplation as the highest expression of intellectual and contemplative life, identifying the intra-religious connections of contemplation between three religious traditions.
Recently I received an email from a student in a Study of Religion class asking me “to answer some questions about contemplation and the Christian faith.” She may have got a little more than she bargained for as my reply to her questions exceeds 1,000 words.
Having put down these thoughts, it seemed worthwhile to share them here:
Responses to a Study of Religion Class Students Questions on “Contemplation and the Christian faith”
– What is contemplation to Christianity? It is important to be clear about how we are using words. The noun “contemplation” is not synonymous with “contemplative practice”.
Contemplation is either:
a state of awareness of God’s presence and action in all of life to which we open through contemplative practices, or
one form of silent spiritual practice in which the practitioner intends to open to an awareness of the presence and action of God at work in all of life.
In these two senses, “contemplation” in Christianity is used to refer to the inner path of faith and practice in which a person of faith seeks to open more deeply to an awareness of the Divine at the heart of all creation and to surrender to God.
– Is contemplation/contemplative practice the best way to connect to God as the suprasensuous (above/inaccessible to the physical senses)? Why/why not? There is no “best way to connect to God”. In fact there is no way “to connect to God.” All human beings are connected to God. There is no way to be alive and NOT be connected to God. God is the breath of life, the well-spring of all being, apart from Whom there is no life.
The issue is NOT “connection”; the issue is awareness. The question is not, “Are we connected to God?” but “Are we conscious of God, open to God’s work in our lives, and responsive to God’s Spirit?” All spiritual practice aims to enable the practitioner to open more deeply to the presence and action of God and to live more responsively to the flow of love that is the fundamental life-force of the universe. Every person must find the path that works best for them to help them become more sensitive to the secret hidden inner stirrings of the Spirit.
The anonymous author of the 14th-century English spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, wrote:
Should it seem that the way of prayer I have described in this book is unsuited to you spiritually or temperamentally, feel perfectly free to leave it aside and with wise counsel seek another in full confidence.
(Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing And The Book of Privy Counselling. trans. William Johnston, S.J. NY: Image Books, 1973, 143)
This is wise and gracious advice. Every person needs to be encouraged to find the way that resonates with their lives to deepen their consciousness of God.
– What are the spiritual benefits of actively participating in contemplative practices? It is important to be cautious in speaking about “spiritual benefits”. Spiritual practice is NOT just one more form of self-help discipline. The aim is NOT to make us better people. The aim is to open to an awareness of the presence and action of God in all of life. Contemplative practice seeks to help the practitioner become more sensitive to the subtle moving of God in all of life. It aims to support us in surrendering more deeply to the energy flow of life and loosening our resistance to the realities of life as they are.
With this caution in mind, it is likely that following a spiritual path that genuinely nurtures surrender and acceptance will deepen a sense of peace and groundedness in our lives. Faithfully following a life of spiritual practice will probably make us more compassionate, more open, more flexible, and help us to live more gently in this world. We will likely find ourselves less bound to external circumstances, less dependent upon the feedback of other people as a source of motivation for our lives, and less anxious and driven. We will probably find that we are able to live more freely independent of the constant driving power of likes and dislikes.
There is always a danger of turning any practice into an idol. Jesus said, “It is written,’Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him'” (Luke 4:8). This means that God is the only goal of spiritual practice. The orientation of spiritual practice is letting go, not getting somewhere. We do not aim at peace, harmony, a sense of well-being; we aim at God. These qualities for which we long may follow, but they are NOT the goal.
The goal is to surrender to God and to open more fully to God.
– How often should someone participate in contemplative practices? One of the goals of spiritual practice is to move beyond “should.” There are no “shoulds” in spiritual practice. Every person’s life is different. We are all at different places in our spiritual journey. The Spirit of God works in every person’s life in unique ways that are particularly suited to that person. God is a great respecter of persons and honours where each person is in the journey of life.
We need to be deeply aware of our personal life circumstances and to respect the realities of our lives. It is not realistic to ask a young parent with small children to spend twenty minutes twice a day in silent prayer. A retired person who lives alone and has a relatively orderly life may have the freedom and space to give more time to intentional spiritual practices than a person who is in the early stages of establishing themselves in the world.
Life has seasons. There are some seasons in which some practices are appropriate and feasible. There are other seasons when such practices are not possible. We each need to open to the guidance of God’s Spirit and find the practice that is suitable for our lives in the season in which we are living.
Contemplative practices are always gentle and respectful.
– How does Centering Prayer connect to contemplation? Centering Prayer is one particular form of contemplative prayer practice. It aims to develop in the practitioner a greater ability to surrender to the presence and action of God at work in all of life.
– How do you know the right time to do contemplative practices, and how do you prepare yourself for them? See comments above on “should”.
There is no “right time” to do any practice. The only goal is to find a life pattern that works for the particular person. The spiritual life is guided and governed by the Spirit at work in the person’s life. There is no pattern that fits every person. We must live in response to the specific working and call of God’s Spirit in our lives.
Having said all that, it is important to note that setting aside a specific time and place for one’s practice does help to develop regularity and discipline. We are more likely to develop healthy life-giving spiritual habits if we regularly sit in meditation and reinforce this intention by showing up consistently in the same place at the same time every day. We humans are embodied spiritual beings; so our physical surroundings, time of day, and body patterns will help or hinder our spiritual practice.
It can also be a substantial support in meditation practice to connect with a community of people who regularly sit together. The exercise of meditation in a group deepens the experience of silence and is a great encouragement to regular practice.
All of life is preparation for contemplative practice and all contemplative practices are preparation for life. Spiritual life is a sacred circle into which we are drawn when our hearts are open.
– Why is it important to understand our spirituality? It is not “important to understand our spirituality”. When we enter the realm of spirituality, we are entering the realm of mystery. Spiritual practice draws us to the limits of the human capacity to understand. In spiritual practice we stand on the edge of the great deep darkness of unknowing that resides at the heart of all existence.
Spiritual practice may lead to greater wisdom; but it is not a path to understanding in any rational, cognitive sense.
In spiritual practice we intend to open to human faculties that are deeper than the intellectual and emotional functions we use to navigate a great deal of life. This is what Jesus was speaking about when he said, “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).
We go into the “room” of the human heart when we step aside for a moment from the distractions and preoccupations of daily life and open to an awareness of the deeper moving of God’s Spirit. This awareness comes not primarily at a cognitive or emotional level. It comes “in secret,” in a subtle hidden realm that, while including thought and feeling, transcends both thought and feeling. Spiritual life aims to open to and be sensitive to this subtle hidden realm that is the true nature of all human existence.
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