The following reflection has been provided by Linda Coggin from Victoria BC. Linda was one of 100 people who participated in the recent virtual event with Matthew Wright, where he offered his heartful and profound insights, teaching, and practices on the theme of “Julian of Norwich…A Voice for Our Times.” For a prior post from another participant at Matthew’s retreat please see Sacred Virtual Retreat Space – Reflection by Martha Keller.
Thank you so much Linda, for sharing your experience here!
Julian of Norwich seems to be everywhere. At least, since The Contemplative Society’s online retreat in August, I have noticed this. I have noticed Julian’s presence in conversations with friends, in books I’m reading, and while listening to podcasts. Since the retreat, Julian’s teachings have woven their way into my everyday contemplative practice.
In Isaiah 37:5, the prophet reminds, “Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard.” This year more than usual, it seems, I have been lost in the words I hear, in the paralyzing rhetoric of these times, and in the personal what-ifs and unless-es of the story I’m narrating about my life now.
So, when Matthew Wright began the first session with his own sense of spiritual disconnection during this time and offered that Julian of Norwich is stepping forward to teach us, I was listening.
Matthew went on to say that:
“the fear and disconnect brought on by the pandemic, the divisiveness and sense of incoherence heightened by the global political moment describe our experience, valid as it may be, but not reality, that is Reality with a capital R.”
Matthew reminded us not to mistake our experience of fear and confusion for the reality of love and trust calling to us. With this awareness, I was opened to Julian’s teaching about prayer that has urged me forward in that call to trust.
The first realization that engendered deeper trust in my practice was Julian’s teaching that the highest form of prayer is the Goodness of God. Chapter VI of Julian’s Revelation of Divine Love begins:
“This showing was made to learn our soul wisely to cleave to the Goodness of God… the Goodness of God is ever whole; and more near to us, … and that we be evermore cleaving to His Goodness. For all things that the heart may think, this pleaseth most God, and soonest speedeth [the soul].”
For me, “cleaving” has taken the physical form of holding my prayer hands open at the palms to invite awareness of that Goodness, or I imagine being surrounded by God’s Goodness like the warm wool blanket I use for praying on cooler days. In centering prayer I abide in that goodness where, as Julian says, God is the doer.
Matthew explained that Julian invites us to trust this gaze of Love that never judges us. That “meaningless incoherence” we sometimes feel is from our side and so are my what-ifs. Julian teaches that the Goodness of God keeps us in all circumstances, in “woe as well as weal.” Love is the ground that holds both. In my own experience of “woes” and “weal,” I can trust that unfolding.
I was unsure how the online retreat would compare to the other Contemplative Society Wisdom School and day retreats I have attended. I joined the “Voice for Our Times” from my contemplative corner in my basement with almost 100 other people from around the globe. Matthew intuitively created a purposeful balance between teaching and practice and, alongside the community of participants, generated a welcome that was palpable. Matthew lead from heart filled chants and centering silence that surrounded guided teaching and discussion. His leadership threaded the “Goodness of God” through the introduction of Julian of Norwich’s life and path through her teaching on prayer, the parable of Lord and Servant, and revealing understanding of the Cross.
As we began with what Matthew called “the thick veils” of incoherence, fear, and confusion that is now, in the last session he ended with Julian’s wisdom that God is at work in both weal and woe. Matthew summarized that Julian:
“is inviting us to really see and trust that what we experience in time is only the surface of reality, and that we are eternal souls unfolding eternally in God.”
Note: I am grateful to The Contemplative Society’s recordings of events that enabled me to more faithfully reflect and return to this experience.
Julian of Norwich (window in Norwich Cathedral) from Wikipedia
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The following reflection has been provided by Martha Keller from Victoria BC. Martha was one of 100 people who participated in the recent virtual event with Matthew Wright, where he offered his heartful and profound insights, teaching, and practices on the theme of “Julian of Norwich…A Voice for Our Times.”
Thank you so much Martha, for sharing your experience, and Matthew for guiding the event so beautifully!
In August, with a global pandemic in full swing, I signed in to an online Zoom retreat sponsored by The Contemplative Society. I felt a certain amount of trepidation. It was titled, “Julian of Norwich…A Voice for Our Times”. I knew little of the Christian mystic, Julian, and had never attended a virtual retreat. Needless to say, I felt a little out of my depth. One by one, others from as far away as Australia joined the Zoom gallery of attendees, some perhaps feeling apprehensive as I did.
Soon Matthew Wright, the retreat leader, appeared and filled the screen with his generous spirit of grace and good will. He welcomed us to the retreat against an image of the church in Norwich where Julian spent much of her life. I knew he was a gifted teacher and spiritual leader and suddenly felt I was in a sacred space. As he led our first silent meditation, doubts about a Zoom retreat began to dissolve.
But I still wondered about spending 3 days with a Christian mystic I had barely heard of. Who was she, and why was she being lauded as “a voice for our time”? Matthew helped us understand: Julian was a woman who lived through waves of the plague that swept through Europe in the 1300’s. As many as half the inhabitants of her own town of Norwich died. At the age of 30, she had her own health crisis. Near death, she had a series of revelations, or “showings”, that fueled her lifelong passion to share her mystical vision and minister to the spiritual needs of others.
In mid-life, she became an anchorite, voluntarily secluding herself in an “anchorhold”, a sealed cell, attached to the local church. She lived as an anchoress for the rest of her life, meditating, praying, writing, and giving spiritual counsel to townspeople through a window in her cell. It was in this period of her life that she found the greatest sense of joy and freedom.
Oh!…I was beginning to see why Julian might have something to say to us as we sheltered-in-place during our own pandemic. Peering out from the Zoom gallery, we appeared to be in cells of our own, isolated from one another, but still connecting through a window into the retreat community of around 100 participants.
What followed were three days of Matthew’s deeply engaging teaching about Julian’s words, along with periods of silent meditation and restful Taize music. I cannot do justice to this special time in a blog post, but here are some of the words and thoughts that offer spiritual sustenance for the days ahead:
Essentially, Julian reset the dial from a wrathful, punitive God she had known as a child, to one of Divine Love– a love that was expansive, generous, and endless. All the “fruits of the spirit” flowed from this Source.
She spoke of the “falls” that we all suffer in life as “behovely”, an archaic term meaning “necessary or advantageous”. Through the parable of the Lord and the Servant, she illustrated that faults and failure can be helpful for greater connection and spiritual deepening.
She counseled that life’s repeating cycle of “weal” and “woe”, joy and pain, is education for the soul, a way of learning to trust a Divine Love that is deeper than everything. We were challenged with the question: How would your life be different if you learned to trust the Source who called you into being?
Matthew reminded us that the contemplative Prayer of the Heart practice is essential for cultivating the “fruits of the spirit” — hope, faith, love, kindness, compassion, and trust. It is what allows us to work on ourselves so we can serve from within and engage with healing in the world. As Julian wrote, “Prayer soothes the soul and shapes us for grace”.
In this retreat Matthew opened a path forward for us with a comforting and hopeful message:
“Julian brings us back to trust, coherence, love, and meaning in a bewildering time.”
Gratitude to Matthew Wright for his exquisite blend of scholarly teaching and heart wisdom. And gratitude to The Contemplative Society for trusting that even Zoom could create a sacred retreat space!
https://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Matthew-retreat.jpg593956TCS Adminhttps://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/logo-new-2021.pngTCS Admin2020-10-05 16:50:052021-09-30 09:27:45Sacred Virtual Retreat Space – Reflection by Martha Keller
You wander from room to room Hunting for the diamond necklace That is already around your neck
Wandering, hunting, seeking, yearning…sometimes I think that what is around my neck is a heavy burden…yet I am invited to treasure the beautiful necklace that is there, and has always been there.
My 65th year has been a year of wandering, pilgrimaging, seeking to make sense of my life of yearning, seeking. I started the year by walking the Camino de Santiago and shared in the pain and exaltation of thousands of other pilgrims, with thousands of different reasons for pilgrimaging. I began to get a very slight but visceral sense of embodiment…could this be what it is to embody Christ? How could I sustain this? I came home to a deeper commitment to my Catholic roots and my contemplative practice in the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM) tradition.
But it is so hard to be Catholic in these times and, while I feel an enduring whisper to stay, there is also anger and deep frustration, despite positive changes in recent years. So the questions always are there: Is this what Christ intended? Is this what God created us to be? Why is change taking so long? In seeking answers, I am drawn to Christian mysticism and Sufism, particularly the teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and Rumi.
So I was very interested when I learned that the “Way of Union” retreat was to be offered on Vancouver Island by The Contemplative Society. Nonetheless, I hesitated about going because of time and cost. But everything seemed to conspire to draw me there, including the generous offering of a scholarship, so I signed up. As the weekend began, I felt immediately embraced into a community of spiritual explorers, men and women of diverse ages seeking understanding of how to bring Christ’s love into our day to day lives and thus be “agents of social change”.
Shortly after the retreat was over, and with barely time to gather my breath, I left for three months to volunteer at the new WCCM community at Bonnevaux, France. And with three times per day meditation and physical labour, I unpacked what the learning of the Way of Union retreat, and this whole year of wandering, means to how I should live each day, indeed each minute. And I saw that they are integrally connected.
The day I left Canada, Fr. Thomas Keating died. The WCCM honored his life in prayer and in virtual participation in the celebration of his life. Bonnevaux sits on the French Camino and we explored ways that we can support pilgrims on their way to Santiago. I began reviewing my notes from our time with the “Way of Union” teacher, Matthew Wright.
The notes from the retreat highlight that community is “grist for the mill of transformation.” What transformation am I invited to in community with The Contemplative Society and the WCCM? I am reminded that, in contemplative practice, wisdom is recognized as perennial. How do I reconcile that with ubiquitous suggestions within Christianity that Christ alone is our Saviour? What does it mean to embody the “bridal chamber” or place of union in a world dominated by separateness and power-over? I often feel deep fatigue with the need to turn away from dominant messages. Our days of exploration with Matthew encouraged us to hold our emerging awareness in spaciousness, as non-identified witnesses. It reminded us that, in the perennial traditions, there are several levels of self-hood or different mansions. And the level I am at in this moment is where I need to be. Right here. Right now.
According to the Gospel of Thomas:
Jesus said: Let him who seeks not cease from seeking until he finds; and when he finds, he will be disturbed, he will marvel, and he shall reign over the All.
One month after the retreat, I am beginning to embrace what it might feel like to be disturbed in this search and look forward to continued exploration.
But most importantly, I am much more appreciative of the diverse contemplative traditions within Christianity and outside of it, the support The Contemplative Society provides through scholarships and other accessible resources, and the role it plays in fostering interfaith dialogue and mysticism around the world. The people supporting The Contemplative Society truly are diamonds on my necklace.
With deep and heartfelt gratitude!
To support people like Kathleen, give a gift to The Contemplative Society this Giving Tuesday*! In addition to providing scholarships, the support of our donors helps to bring world-renowned teachers like Cynthia Bourgeault and Matthew Wright to our community, fund the recording and production of audio teachings from these contemplative masters, and provide other free or inexpensive resources on our website. Give a gift on Giving Tuesday*, and receive a special bonus:
brand new donors and members who renew will receive access to either an exclusive video from Matthew Wright OR an exclusive video from Cynthia Bourgeault!
previous donors/members who top up their previous 2018 gift, renew their membership with an increased gift, or become a monthly donor will receive access to both exclusive videos from Matthew Wright and Cynthia Bourgeault!
Reward yourself and human consciousness – give today!
*Only donations received by TCS (or postmarked) on November 27, 2018 from 12:00 am to 11:59 pm PST are eligible for video access. Access to videos expires December 20, 2018.
Kathleen’s perspectives are shaped by a diverse background living and working in Canada’s North and in inner-city communities in Vancouver, BC. Having raised three sons as a single mother, she has an enduring commitment to social justice and community development. Now retired, Kathleen seeks to link her passion for contemplative experiences with a commitment to inclusive communities and her family involvement as a grandmother. She now lives in Gibsons, BC and co-facilitates a weekly Christian meditation group there.
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Retirement: often lauded as a time to enjoy what we have worked for all our lives, taking trips, cultivating hobbies, and being with friends and family. Many use their freedom for kicking back and pampering, while others take advantage of the extra time to engage in transformational contemplative work. It can be a time of great joy and pleasure, but it’s not always smooth sailing; it can also be a time of great loss, whether of career, health, or loved ones, and often concurrently. It is in these desperate times that our capacity for transformation is greatest, and that’s where retreats come in. Read our collection of testimonials below to see how the majority of our community is taking life’s beatings and turning them into gifts.
The five-night Gospel of Thomas retreat allowed us to go more deeply into contemplative silence and the contemplative mind. Matthew provided the perfect balance of silence, practice, and teaching. Practice consisted of mindfully working in the garden while attempting to pay attention to the movement of our thoughts, emotions, and bodies as we worked with others and worked alone. In the physical movement of raking leaves, sweeping the sidewalk, or pulling weeds, one has the opportunity to practice maintaining contact with one’s body, noticing reactions to the work itself as well as to those working nearby. This spiritual lab is an excellent opportunity to experiment and offers skills which are applicable to life beyond retreat…I continue to be grateful for the presence and work of TCS on Vancouver Island and beyond. Many thanks for providing this opportunity as well as the financial support provided.
~ Anonymous participant in the “Opening to the Eye of the Heart: Wisdom and the Gospel of Thomas” retreat with Matthew Wright (2017)
Mary-Clare pictured with Cynthia Bourgeault at the “Living the Mysteries” retreat in 1999
The combined wisdom of 21 people plus Matthew’s teaching was absolutely extraordinary. This created a very intense time of learning for me. The work group periods turned out to be the most challenging part of the retreat for me, as there was someone in my work group who really pushed my buttons. For various reasons I developed a real resistance to this person, so I knew this was where the work for me was at this retreat.
I am extremely grateful to those who have supported The Contemplative Society community by funding scholarships, and to those responsible on the board of The Contemplative Society for awarding the financial assistance. It was very much appreciated and I almost certainly would not have come to the retreat without that help. I believe retreat scholarships are very important to The Contemplative Society and give life and growth to it and the world through them.
~ Mary-Clare Carder, participant in the “Opening to the Eye of the Heart: Wisdom and the Gospel of Thomas” retreat with Matthew Wright (2017)
I sincerely appreciate the generosity of The Contemplative Society for awarding me with a scholarship to attend this retreat. I wanted to go to a retreat but I am on a fixed income and couldn’t afford registration so I ate humble pie and applied for a scholarship. I was delighted to receive it and am so thankful for it!
When Mirabai read the beautiful piece on page 33 from her book Mother of God, I had a spiritual awakening. The words of the new Pentecost spoke to my heart. I felt a releasing and a letting go of my tight grip on life. It was the beginning of a transformed relationship with the feminine Divine. My devotion was to Jesus, the Christ but now I also rest in the safe haven of Mother God. Now at home, in the morning I light a candle, sit, and meditate. I have wanted to use this for a long time but rarely found the discipline. It is with gratitude I now enjoy a morning sit. I attribute this to receiving the scholarship that allowed me to attend the retreat.
~ Anonymous participant in the “One Heart: Weaving a Tapestry of Interspiritual Community” retreat with Mirabai Starr (2017)
Her authentic nature enabled me to assimilate new truths and already known spiritual practices into developing new, dynamic ways of viewing my spiritual practice. Sitting in stillness, as we did daily, was wonderful, especially in such a peaceful, sacred place. Mirabai’s talks were enlightening, especially the ones about the Christian mystics, pushing me further to reflect and study their time-honoured truths.
At the end of the retreat we were asked to think about what we would be taking with us, what we have been called to do in the world. I was convicted to continue to write more poetry about the bleeding earth, a call to social justice, and increased consciousness of the world’s environmental problems.
Finally, I would like to say that I felt very privileged to attend this retreat and to participate with other like-minded women. I am so grateful for the scholarship and will treasure the insights that attending this retreat have given me.
~ Jane Jennings, a participant in the “One Heart: Weaving a Tapestry of Interspiritual Community” retreat with Mirabai Starr (2017)
Altar to Teilhard de Chardin, who describes the the power of transformation in Christian and evolutionary terms
I experienced the first dream visitation from my Dad since he passed away. I feel sure that our Wisdom School’s daily extended time in group meditative prayer was the vehicle which provided a “thin place” where such a blessed connection could occur.
Another particularly memorable moment occurred during a longer period of chanting on the final evening of the Wisdom School. Standing and using simple gestures to accompany our words, we sang as one body. I sensed a tapestry of spiritual community – though composed of many different strands – which awakened again in me the desire for deeper faith community. That experience resulted directly in a decision to align myself with a soul-nourishing worshiping community on a weekly basis as often as possible, even though it means travel beyond my local sphere and requires significant time expended to do so.
I am thus committed to further study, to continue exploring intentional community, and to worship where my soul is fed. My heart is filled with gratitude for The Contemplative Society scholarship which made possible my attendance. My prayerful hope is that my experience will give rise to offering – in some way – a deeper blessing to the world.
~ Anonymous participant in the “Mystical and Visionary Thinking of Teilhard de Chardin” Wisdom School with Cynthia Bourgeault (2016)
Retreats offer people on the contemplative path an opportunity to reconnect with the Mystery, strengthen our capacity to let go, and learn to live from love. But the burdens of the retirement stage of life we hope to transform are often compounded by financial constraints. That’s why we started the Margaret Haines Scholarship Fund, to help alleviate this one burden so that the rest may be freed. So if these messages touched you and you want to increase the world’s capacity for transformation, please consider giving to our new Margaret Haines Scholarship.
Our retreat participants are diverse: we serve Christians and SBNRs, young and old, wealthy and financially constrained. You might put yourself in one of these categories, or volunteer your own. But one thing we all have in common is our seeking of contemplative Wisdom and our wish to inject the world with love, as well as the need for practice opportunities to deepen our journey along this path. Going on retreat allows contemplatives to learn and sink into practice in a safe and warm community of support, allowing us to soften our edges and expand our hearts a little more each time. But retreats are costly and the fees (or travel costs) can prevent our Contemplative Society friends from joining us.
Unemployment is an event that strikes most of us sometime in our life. We might be between jobs, transitioning from parenthood to an empty nest, or faultless casualties of fluctuating economies. While often financially problematic, this can also be a time of transformation as we reevaluate ourselves and what we can give to the world. The flip-side to these issues can come as a blessing in the form of more free time. Read on to learn first-hand how The Contemplative Society has helped folks in this position embrace this opportunity for both their own benefit and the world’s.
Returning to Canada after experiencing and attending to the death of both my parents, to the end of a job, and also to the end of a relationship (none of which was my choice) has put me in a place of great transition and loss. In conversation I discovered this retreat – this was a miracle for me, another step along this journey of healing and staying open to the mystery, in a big part because of the introduction to The Contemplative Society and the practice of Centering Prayer (both new to me).
“The right place and time and people…” Photo by Susan Smith
Knowing this was the right place and time and people for me presented the dilemma of not only no longer having the income from my previous work, but also not being yet able to access monies that would be coming to me in the future. Again, in discussion, I was encouraged to apply for a scholarship, which was granted. I felt SO grateful and remain so. Without it I would not have been able to attend.
Every single aspect of the retreat was valuable for me – and is but a stepping stone going forward on this journey.
~ Susan Smith, participant in the “Opening to the Eye of the Heart: Wisdom and the Gospel of Thomas” retreat with Matthew Wright (2017)
I usually feel very alone in my contemplative journey and longed for some time with like-minded people. I felt that finding a contemplative community would strengthen me and help to deepen my practice.
The retreat was a spiritual renewal for me. I cannot overemphasise how healing and encouraging it was to hear Rev. Matthew’s and other participants’ messages of interspirituality, and to experience the gentle openness and love of everyone in the community, wherever they were on their journey.
I would like to give my heartfelt thanks to The Contemplative Society for the opportunity to attend the retreat at Shawnigan Lake. It was a wonderful, challenging, and inspiring experience that will be with me the rest of my life.
~ Jennifer Hall, participant in the “The Wisdom Path: Contemplative Practice and Evolving Consciousness” retreat with Matthew Wright (2015)
It’s because of the support of our membership and donors that we can give out scholarships like these, so if either of these testimonials to the power of a scholarship speak to you, please consider giving a special gift to the new Margaret Haines Scholarship Fund. We’re in this together.
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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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