Our Wisdom Lineage

“WHUR WE COME FROM… “

~ Br. Raphael Robin


Teachers of contemplative Christianity, who acknowledged the limitations of human knowledge and the inconstant nature of human sentiment, instead encouraged a commitment to practice. A scripturally grounded commitment to practice and service – rather than a reliance on unsteady belief and feeling – is the fulcrum of contemplative Christianity.” 

~ Paula Pryce, The Monk’s Cell


From time to time in the unfolding life of a lineage, it becomes important to stop and ponder together “whur we come from” (as my teacher Rafe used to call it); i.e., the fundamental understandings that called us into being as a particular expression of the wider tradition of Christian contemplative Wisdom. As The Contemplative Society, our flagsghip Wisdom vessel, now celebrates its twentieth anniversary and a new generation of seekers and board members assume their turn at the helm, it seems like an appropriate occasion for just such a moment of reflection.

Wisdom, like water, is itself clear and formless, but it necessarily assumes the shape and coloration of the container in which it is captured. Between formless essence and manifesting particularity there is a reciprocal dynamism; you can’t have one without the other.

Our own particular branch of the great underground river of Wisdom came to the surface about twenty years ago, flowing within two major riverbanks: a) the Christian mystical tradition of theosis – divinization – particularly as lived into being in the Benedictine monastic tradition; and b) the practical training in mindfulness and non-identification as set forth in the Gurdjieff Work. The fusion of these two elements was the original accomplishment of my spiritual teacher Br. Raphael Robin, who formed me in this path and, just before his death in 1995, sent me off to Canada to teach it. It is a distinct lineage within the wider phylum of sophia perennis – perennial Wisdom – and, as with all particular containers, it has its own integrity and its own heart.

Here, then, is my own quick shortlist of the eight main elements – or defining characteristics – for our particular branch of this Wisdom verticil:

  1. We are founded on a daily practice of sitting meditation, predominantly but not exclusively Centering Prayer, anchored within the overall daily rhythm of “ora et labora”, as set forth in the Rule of St. Benedict.
  2. We are rooted in the Christian mystical and visionary tradition, understanding contemplation in its original sense as “luminous seeing”, not merely a meditation practice or a lifestyle. In service to this luminous seeing, we affirm the primacy of the language of silence and its life-giving connection with the subtle realms, without which spiritual inquiry tends to become overly cognitive and contentious.
  3. We incorporate a major emphasis (much more so than in more conventional contemplative circles) on mindfulness and conscious awakening, informed here particularly by the inner teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff and by their parallels and antecedents in the great sacred traditions, particularly in Sufism.
  4. We are an esoteric or “gnostic” school to the extent that these terms have come to be understood as designating that stream of Christian transmission through which the radically consciousness-transforming teachings of Jesus have been most powerfully transmitted and engaged. But we eschew esotericism as simply mental or metaphysical speculation, and we affirm the primacy of the scripture and tradition as the cornerstones of Christian life.
  5. Also in contrast to many branches of the Wisdom tradition based on Perennial or Traditionalist metaphysics (with its inherently binary and anti-material slant), we are emphatically a Teilhardian, Trinitarian lineage, embracing asymmetry (threeness), evolution, and incarnation in all their material fullness and messiness.
  6. We are moving steadily in the direction of revisioning contemplation no longer in terms of monastic, otherworldly models prioritizing silence and repose but, rather, as a way of honing consciousness and compassion so as to be able to fully engage the world and become active participants in its transition to the higher collectivity, the next evolutionary unfolding.
  7. We are an integral school, not a pluralistic one, (to draw on Ken Wilber’s levels of consciousness); our primary mission field is teal, not green. Our work concentrates not at the level of healing the false-self, woundedness and recovery, substance abuse, equal rights, restorative justice, or political correctness (although we acknowledge the importance of all of these initiatives), but rather at the level of guiding the transition from identity based primarily in the narrative or egoic self to identity stabilized at the level of witnessing presence, or “permeably boundaried” selfhood.
  8. Our most important teachers and teachings are Jesus, St. Benedict, the canonical and Wisdom gospels, The Cloud of Unknowing, the greater Christian mystical and visionary tradition (including Eckhart, Boehme, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Ladislaus Boros, Bernadette Roberts), the Desert and Hesychastic traditions, Bede Griffiths and the Christian Advaitic traditions (including Raimon Panikkar, Henri LeSaux/Abishiktananda and Bruno Barnhart), Rumi, Sufism, G.I. Gurdjieff, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And, of course, my own teacher, Br. Raphael Robin.

Please know that this list is intended to start a conversation, not end it. In the upcoming months I hope to unpack each of these points more fully in a format yet to be determined (blog posts? video? on-the-ground teaching retreat?). I invite others in our Wisdom network to do likewise, both in your larger organizations (The Contemplative Society, Northeast Wisdom, Wisdom Southwest, Wisdom Way of Knowing, etc.) and in your smaller practice circles. Collectively, let’s see what we can discover about our lineage, as we midwifed it through a first generation and now transmit through a second.

Blessings, Cynthia

Which Enneagram Type is Cynthia?

For almost thirty years the standing joke has been, “What enneagram type is Cynthia?” Leading teachers in all the various schools have typed me variously (frequently categorically) as a Four, Five, or Six. While I can see certain points of congruence (after all, my mom was a Four, my dad a Six, and most of my partners Fives, so I know these types well), none of them really resonated – and more important, none of them really captured my interest. They failed to paint for me any authentic description of where I was pinned, or the road to authentic freedom – more authentic, at least, than what I already knew in my own heart of hearts. And thus, I simply lost interest in the entire psychometric. When people ask me my type nowadays, I usually just smile and say, “I’m a Ten.”

On my very first encounter with this system nearly thirty years ago – through Helen Palmer’s book, The Enneagram – I initially self-identified as a Seven. The story starts out right: perceived lack of parental nurturance, Puer Aeternus (eternal youth), planning (gottcha!). But the narrative runs off the rails when it comes to the core passion (gluttony) and the reason behind it: self-distraction from pain, the need to maintain a cheery, spontaneous, excitement- and adventure-laden dance card. This simply never resonated; it still doesn’t. (Either I am totally un-self-aware or else the person who invented the Seven story was clearly not a Seven.) And so again and again I would approach the Seven story as intrinsically energetically congruent, only to be thrown back by the mountain of narrative evidence arguing against it.

I would add that in the various tests I’ve taken online (RHETI and otherwise), the Seven doesn’t usually come up as a strong contender. That’s because the choice points presented for discernment always feature “pleasure,” “excitement,” “fun-loving,” “spontaneous.” When these are set against responsibility, goal-orientedness, concern for others, capacity to face pain, and willingness to make and keep long-term commitments, I always wind up getting parceled out among more dutiful types. (As for the celebrated enneagram panels – forget them! All players know their scripts and simply arrange the evidence, and even their voice tone to confirm their prior self-identifications…)

But what if the Seven type were to prioritize restlessness, compulsive motion, fear of constriction, underlying existential anxiety? What then? When I asked Helen Palmer if there was any possibility that the type narrative was inaccurate or incomplete, she responded that that pretty much clenched the case that I was a Four (the need to be a special case).

Anyway, thirty years later – and spurred into action by a review copy of Christopher Heuertz’ new book, The Sacred Enneagram (which I found insightful but still basically recycling the old typologies) – I am finally getting around to taking that risk. If in trying to elucidate the deeper waters of the Seven I prove myself indubitably a Four, so be it. But I think there is something here that is still not being seen by enneagram afficionados, and if these deeper waters were better understood, a lot of people like myself, who still find themselves without a home base in the enneagram, might find a way in.

This is a first gambit, but see what you think. Over the course of the summer I’ve shared it privately with several of my enneagram colleagues including Richard Rohr, Russ Hudson, Jeanine Siler-Jones, and Leslie Hershberger, and their comments have been enormously helpful as I continue to fine-tune my observations.

So now, for all of you out there: in your experience, do you know any Sevens that work the way I’m laying out here? I’m mostly interested in whether you think there’s enough merit in what I’m suggesting here to warrant a more comprehensive re-evaluation of this particular personality type… 

(By the way, if my typology here is correct, I think there’s absolutely no doubt that Teilhard de Chardin was a Seven. Maybe that’s why he keeps pulling me in…)

Anyway, here’s my report, with a couple of short personal vignettes at the end to flesh things out. And yeah, after all these years, I’m finally claiming Seven as my home plate.

Enneagram Type Seven (Bourgeault Revision)

  • HOLY IDEA            Freedom
  • VIRTUE                   Presence
  • BASIC FEAR           Annihilation
  • BASIC DESIRE       Fullness of Being
  • FIXATION              Planning
  • PASSION                Accidie (existential restlessness, “the noonday demon”)

As children, sevens felt trapped, subject to the authority of caregivers who seemed unresponsive or even inexplicably hostile to their deepest being needs. While from the outside, the nurturing received during their childhood may have appeared stable and conventional, from the inside it registered as hollow, frequently duplicitous, and sometimes downright treacherous. An underlying sense of disconnection – between call and response, appearance and reality – became the filter through which the seven learned to view the world, leading to a chronic (and at times acute) sense of existential dread.

Resilient and inherently life-loving and optimistic, Sevens learned early on to become skilled self-nurturers – but always with that signature Seven wound: a restless addiction to forward motion and hyper-vigilance against any form of confinement that would appear to limit their options, cut off their escape routes, or impinge upon their ability to “help themselves.” Sevens need to “feel the wind whistling in their ears” to outrun a pervasive sense of existential dread and emptiness, an inability to rest comfortably in their own skins.

The Core Passion

The passion classically assigned to the Seven is gluttony, but I believe this assignation rests on a misunderstanding of the true motivation driving the Seven typology, plus a comparable misunderstanding of the true nature of the passion in question. The correct match-up is actually accidie, typically but incorrectly understood as sloth (and hence assigned to the Nine). Famously characterized by the early desert fathers as “the noonday demon,” accidie is not primarily sloth (i.e., passivity or sluggishness) but the sense of paralyzing dread called forth by the engulfing immediacy of the present where the egoic escape route of “flight into the future” is cut off and one is face to face with the inescapable reality of the NOW. It is against this noonday demon that Evagrius issued his counsel, “Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything.” But it is exactly this sitting in your cell that is so terrifying to the Seven, for it means sitting in that primal place of annihilation, where the child’s desperate cries for succor went unheard.

For many sevens, the profile of gluttony may indeed appear to fit – superficially, at least. Some do indeed wind up piling up a lifetime full of high living and endless exciting adventures. But the real driving motivation, I believe, is never the self-nurturing itself, but maintaining the freedom-of-motion which the Seven believes is required in order to perform these self-nurturing rituals. In the midst of a banquet, the Seven will already be mentally orchestrating the next banquet; what is missing is not the nurture but the NOW. The hollowness and emptiness of that primordial experience of neglect continues to replay itself endlessly as the Seven reaches for the stars – and comes up with only a hand full of stardust.

Sevens hide in time. It is in the relentless planning, orchestrating, designing, creating options and possibilities, that the Prospero’s castle that passes for their life is constructed and maintained. To deconstruct it appears to them like sure and certain death. But unfortunately, the fullness of Being that they so desperately seek can only be found in the Now. This is their great spiritual challenge.

The real pathology is not “distraction from their pain” and dissipation, as the classic Enneagram Seven story reads. Most sevens I know are actually intensely focused and have high levels of tolerance for personal pain and the painful inner scrutiny to be paid for self-knowledge. The core pathology is not distraction but flight. Cessation of motion – i.e., stillness – feels like death to them, and they are too adept, too wary, to die in an ambush, even by Infinite Love.

Transformation for the Seven: The Holy Idea and Virtue

“Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything.” This is indeed the terrifying eye of the needle the Seven will have to thread to move from “choice freedom” (as both Thomas Merton and Beatrice Bruteau call it) – i.e., freedom experienced as “keeping my options open,” to “spontaneity freedom:” freedom experienced as the capacity to say “yes” wholeheartedly to NOW; freedom to trust the primordial nurturing to be found only in the plenitude of presence. In such a way, and only in such a way, does the Seven finally come to rest – and in the simple immediacy of the presence there find, as St. Augustine (probably himself a Seven) so profoundly summarized: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.”

Two personal vignettes to illustrate the above points 

Trapped!!

At the age of seven months I suffered a nearly fatal bout with pneumonia at the hands of my Christian Science mother, who refused on religious principle to call a doctor. When the doctor was finally summoned, at the insistence of my grandmother (herself a Christian Science practitioner), he examined me gravely and concluded that I was beyond help. “But you were simply too stubborn to die,” my Father recalls, as breath by breath I fought my way back to life.

I have no direct memory of this incident, of course. But the trauma still lives on in my body in a nervous swallow and residual anxiety around breathing. And even before I could think or speak, I already knew as a core datum of my life that my mother could not be counted on as my protector; I would have to “help myself.”

Hiding in Time

When I was three years old, I was formally enrolled in Christian Science Sunday school. The preschool class was intentionally located a bit out of earshot of the other groups, and after opening exercises, our small group of toddlers was led by the teacher up a narrow stairway to a tiny, closet-like classroom at the end of the hall. I panicked. Where were they taking me? Would I ever be released? I screamed in terror for my parents, but my cries elicited no response – neither from my parents (who were actually right on the other side of the classroom wall), nor from the teacher, who simply informed me that the longer I misbehaved, the longer it would take for the class to be over.

As I tried desperately to avoid a total meltdown, my attention fell on something that looked like a big dinner plate hanging on the wall, with numbers painted around the edge and two hands that moved in what seemed like a slow but regular way. And as I began to pay attention to this strange object over the next few weeks, I began to notice that when the big hand moved around the dial to the place where it pointed directly at the ceiling, then the teacher offered a closing prayer and we were led back downstairs.

So that was it! No more panic helplessness. I’d learned that all I had to do was to wait ’til the big hand pointed straight up at the ceiling, and my release would be assured. I’d learned the secret of their game, and knew that I could count on it to protect me.

Thus began my addiction to “tempus fugit” as a surrogate form of nurturing and an escape route from the existential terror I, by this time, knew only too well.

Substituted Love

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


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

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

Painting by Brian Kershisnik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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