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)
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)
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).
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.
I arrived at the Wisdom School on Lake Cowichan both exhausted and depleted. While I am an advocate for self-care, I have found it very difficult to practice sincerely in this all-consuming stage of motherhood that I am currently immersed. I had not attended a retreat since my first child was born almost five years ago, despite the fact that retreat was the bedrock of my spiritual practice. Retreat was where I found sustenance, insight, and communion with God – quite simply it was where I longed to be. The first evening of the retreat I felt broken. I was missing my family and doubting whether I had made the right choice in attending the retreat. It felt as though I was trying to re-create a time from my past that no longer fit into my new life as a happily devoted mom. I hadn’t done any of the suggested reading on Teilhard and knew very little about the subject at hand. I was worried about not being able to sleep in the dorm-style accommodations; therefore, leaving the five-night retreat even more tired than when I had arrived. I felt I couldn’t muster the energy to connect with fellow retreaters, not because I didn’t long for that connection, but because I simply didn’t have the drive. My heart felt closed. That first night I retreated deep into my own process, grateful for the silence and slow pace that the schedule brought.
The next day Cynthia launched into Teilhard de Chardin. The combination of Cynthia’s presence, the material, and stepping into the age-old model of the Wisdom School (namely, the skillful balance between work, study, prayer, chanting, etc.), evoked something deep inside me. I was transfixed. As we delved into topics such as evolution and the cosmos, I was transported beyond my familiar day-to-day life. Orienting my mind and heart towards this grandest scale of ponderings renewed a latent sense of vision. I was reminded of Mary Oliver’s beautiful question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This question evokes, with such delicate urgency, how relatively fleeting and small life is, joined with the responsibility to live out all that I am. With this, my worries and closed heart began to melt away,as I experienced a renewed sense of strength. The retreat felt like a spiritual empowerment as the group breathed in and out the wisdom of both Cynthia and Teilhard.
As a mama of two young children, my world can seem quite small at times. Reading that same picture book, singing those same songs, building that same fort, making that same taco dinner. This child’s world of simplicity, repetition, and routine is my current reality and my family’s container. From a young age I threw myself into contemplative practice, attending retreat after retreat in silence, meditation, and sometimes solitude. My life with my family looks very different now. While my present container is beautiful in many respects, it also can leave me feeling bored at times. It was at the Wisdom School that I was given a different outlook on this life-stage. The constriction I feel is actually helping me grow, becoming someone who can hold more and find the space and presence in much less. Parenthood for me encapsulates the human experience, as it wavers between being indescribably profound to painfully mundane. Delving into Teilhard’s work for five days inspired me to look at the potential that these polarities contain.
From years of studying the Buddhist concept of emptiness, I became familiar with the skill of seeing things from all different perspectives. For Teilhard, the very things in which our current liberal/progressive society so fears, are the very things that will propel us into more sophisticated levels of consciousness and evolution. To me this shows Teilhard’s mastery over emptiness, proving that things don’t have an inherent self-existence from their own side. Teilhard’s excitement over density, friction, and seemingly destructive forces can be perceived as a catalyst for change and movement on a cosmic scale. This reminded me to muster my years of training in contemplative traditions to help me move past my knee-jerk judgments and see things on a grander scale.
The most crucial aspect of retreat is my ability to integrate what I have learned/experienced into my everyday life. Without this incorporation, these periods of silence and solitude are in vain. During this Wisdom School, prior to the work period, Cynthia would lead us through a brief grounding exercise. Here we would feel our feet grounded on the earth and from this foundation our roots would sink deep into the earth’s core. This visualization resonated deeply, and I now find myself practicing this invaluable skill. In periods of anxiety or stress I ground in this way, immediately dispelling those surges of anxiety. Another tangible gift of incorporation that I gleaned from my time spent at the Wisdom School is fueled by the parallels I
drew between the concept of enroulement (‘coiling back on itself’) and walking the labyrinth. The labyrinth has always been an important facet of my spiritual practice as a tangible and embodied outlet to be with God. When Cynthia described enroulement, and its influence in the evolutionary process, I was struck with the labyrinth’s similar pattern (not unlike those referenced airport security lines!). In a labyrinth walk you meander your way to the centre (or the Omega point) through a circuitous route. I have always found it amazing that the labyrinth, as both a symbol and as a spiritual practice, has been found on different continents since time immemorial. These ancient patterns took on that much more meaning for me once reflecting on the possibility that evolution uses a similar pattern. Since the retreat I have exerted consistent effort to walk the labyrinth as an embodied reminder of all that I learned at the Teilhard Wisdom School. Both the grounding exercise and the labyrinth walk are tangible ways that I can continue to incorporate all of the fruits from these precious five days of learning, praying, working, and community.
I was a recipient of one of the generous scholarships that were allocated for this retreat. Without this scholarship it would not have been possible for me to attend. I am so grateful for the opportunity to return to my roots of retreat, and to be filled with such sustenance to bring back into my life.
Since writing this reflection in 2016, Ruth, who also serves on The Contemplative Society’s board of directors, joined the University of Victoria’s Multifaith Services department. Her role as the Anglican chaplain has allowed her to re-engage with her passion for serving young spiritual seekers, bringing balance back into her life. She is thankful for her experience at the Wisdom School which helped her to say “Yes” to this opportunity (where every semester during exams there’s even a labyrinth!).
Enroulement is an inevitable process, but the quality of the material it works with reflects what we put into the universe. Ruth is an example of how donors to TCS have made a positive impact by funding scholarships to our retreats, the kind of support Ruth needed to reconnect with and shine her own light even brighter. Please consider giving a gift to our new Margaret Haines Scholarship Fund to help others like Ruth shine. Visit our contemplative.org/haines today to invest in the contemplative future.
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?
For lectio Eileen chose a reading from a beautiful poem by Robert T. Pynn (which can also be found on p. 163 of Cynthia’s The Meaning of Mary Magdalene):
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
- Heart knowing
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 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.”
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.
This is a re-post of an article written for Northeast Wisdom by Sher Sacks on December 21, 2015. Shortly after Matthew spent time with us at Shawnigan Lake, BC, he hosted a similar retreat in Sechelt, BC.
“I think some of you will be happy to hear how Matthew is playing in my old British Columbia stomping ground.” ~ Cynthia
On November 23 and 24, 2015, Matthew Wright, an Episcopal priest from St. Gregory’s church in Woodstock, NY (yes that Woodstock) presented a group of about two dozen with a remarkable range of material about the Wisdom teachings of Yeshua (the Hebrew name of Jesus). We have long been taught what we are to believe about Yeshua but far less about how the teachings of Yeshua can transform our lives. And Matthew offered this option.
The workshop was not about knowing more, but about knowing more deeply. We are often told to “get out of our heads and into our hearts” which is problematic given the nature of the English language which equates heart with emotion. As Matthew pointed out, the heart is not the emotional centre, it is rather the organ of spiritual perception. It would be more accurate to say “get into your HeartMind”. This understanding makes Yeshua’s phrase “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (become conscious of God), make more sense.
Matthew spent some time discussing what is now being referred to as the second axial age. The first axial age occurred around 800 to 200 BCE, when there was an enormous increase of spiritual understanding. It was the period in which the Buddha taught, Lao-Tzu (the founder of Taoism) was teaching in China , the Rishis (writers of the Vedas) were active in India, and Monotheism arose in Israel (Abraham and Sarah left their tribe to “follow God” and the Abrahamic covenant was born). Out of this incredible upwelling of spiritual awareness came a sense of transcendence and an individual quest for spiritual understanding or enlightenment. The ultimate goal became escape, or liberation from the world of matter, which was considered lesser or even evil. The problem became one of how to escape from samsara (cycle of rebirth in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism) or to repair the rift created by “the Fall” (Christianity). The end result was the sense that something was wrong with this world. Our spiritual consciousness became dominated by images of separation and exile.
However, slowly, over the centuries, according to many thinkers, including Matthew, there has risen the deep indwelling knowledge that “we belong”. We have begun to pick up the very real connection with the earth and each other that existed in pre-axial times. This sense combined with the first axial age sense of transcendence, gives us the opportunity to move into a synthesis of the transcendent and the immanent to create a new world order. During the workshop Matthew pointed out that multiple strands of knowledge point us in this direction. Quantum physicists have discovered the deep interconnection of all things at the most subtle levels of matter; environmentalists are pointing out that we are part of a global ecosystem; evolutionary biologists, reveal that life is unfolding as a vast, single process.
Matthew also pointed out that this “second axial current” didn’t just start recently. It is present in the Bodhisattva vow of Mahayana Buddhism (the vow to remain in the phenomenal world until all beings are awakened) and in Incarnational theology (elimination of the boundaries between the sacred and the profane – “God so loved the world” and “the Word became flesh”). Yeshua rejected the asceticism of John the Baptizer and pointed us to a path that fully embraces the world. He partied, feasted, and associated with those identified as outcasts and sinners. He broke the purity laws. Yeshua prayed “Thy Kingdom come on Earth”. His teaching indicated that we belong deeply to this world; we are interwoven into its fabric. As a teacher within the Wisdom tradition of the east, Yeshua taught us about compassionate, loving intelligence where attention (alertness, spaciousness) and surrender (a humble letting go) meet in the heartmind. It is not so much about what Yeshua taught but about where he taught from. What he taught was not a moralistic, but a transformative path.
Matthew spent some time describing the reasons why this basic teaching of Yeshua morphed into the moralistic, judgmental teaching within which most of us were raised. He followed the growth of Christianity out of its eastern foundations toward Greece and Rome, with martyrdom leading to “we/they” thinking, and finally to the moment that Christianity became an imperial identity marker within the Roman Empire with its counsels of Bishops. What one believed became all important and led to the inquisition, witch trials, and the crusades. Yeshua’s path of inner transformation was almost lost.
Now we have the opportunity to move beyond a belief and belonging system to the recognition of Yeshua as the archetype of the full union of human and divine – Christ consciousness. Yeshua is not the exclusive union BUT the fullness of the human and divine union (Christ). In reference to this concept we discussed some of the Christian and Sufi mystics and their practices, kataphatic prayer (prayer with content), and apophatic prayer (emptying the mind of words and ideas and simply resting in the presence of God). We discussed how we can learn from each other using homeomorphic equivalency, looking for deep correspondences that go beyond the words and concepts of our distinct religions or cultures to find the same or similar experiences.
We also considered the phrase “the Kingdom of God” not as a place (Heaven) or existing at a particular time (after death), but as a state of consciousness, here and NOW. We turned our minds to Christophany (all reality as a manifestation of Christ) and reflected upon Raimon Panikkar’s concept that reality is Cosmotheandric (a totally integrated and seamless fabric that is the undivided consciousness of the totality). We examined Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of Christogenesis, within which Christianity is not a path of ascent but a path flowing out from God. Matter is not a distraction from God but an outworking of God in form. Incarnation awakens to itself in Christ (Form). The world is not static but constantly changing. God is committed to that change, since as the creator God embedded it in the world and now sustains it. Christ consciousness is its goal. As Paul stated in Romans 8:22, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time”.
Finally we considered the concept of the Sacred Heart of Jesus as the Heart of the universe, the evolutionary driveshaft of all creation; the second coming as the coming of conscious union with the divine. Referring back to the concept of axial ages we noted the rise in non-dual consciousness. We noted that evolution has been acting unconsciously up till the present but now we have the opportunity to act consciously in it. Evolution has become aware of itself. We must choose to deepen the disclosure of the Heart of God. Christ is the endpoint (the Omega). However this convergence is not inevitable. If the second axial age is to manifest we must choose and act!
Originally posted on NortheastWisdom.org
An interview with Cynthia Bourgeault by Keely Bays, a teacher and devoted practicioner of the contemplative path in Victoria, BC.
The Question: How to practice “so that life becomes, just by its very frustratingness, a wonderful opportunity to pray without ceasing”
Cynthia: You’ve hit the nail on the head with what people should be asking. I think the whole purpose in the spiritual journey is to narrow the gap between prayer and life, not increase the gap between prayer and life.
Keely: How do you use Centering Prayer, the Welcoming Prayer, or other practices in your daily life? Aside from your regular practice sit, how does your practice show up in your activities of daily life?
Cynthia: “The first thing is to really realize what you’re doing when you’re actually sitting in Centering Prayer itself. And it’s such a simple fact that it’s often overlooked by people. It’s the wheat that most people think is the chaff. So what you’re doing in Centering Prayer if you’re a typical human being is you have a fair number of thoughts in a 20 minute period so you’re letting them go as much as you remember to and are willing to do it, and as you do that you’re making a subtle energetic gesture. You’re moving your attention from a subject-object relationship to an open attentiveness. You’re moving from a state of inner constriction to a state of inner openness and awareness. You’re practicing this over and over and over in Centering Prayer and imprinting this capacity to make this releasing gesture, and to recognize it as the very pathway of prayer.
I love the story that Thomas Keating tells, when the nun who tried Centering Prayer for the first time says, “Oh, Father Thomas, I’m a failure at this prayer. In twenty minutes I’ve had ten thousand thoughts.” And he says, “How lovely – ten thousand opportunities to return to God.” So what we’re doing in Centering Prayer, during the prayer time, is practicing release. I call the prayer “Bootcamp in Gethsemane” sometimes because we’re doing this releasing of our thinking, of our attachment to our stuff, in solidarity with Jesus’ “not my will but thine be done oh lord,” and we’re imprinting this as a predisposition in our neural system, in our brain-heart wiring.
So all that remains then is to carry this out into daily life, and since we’ve been already laying down the foundation, it’s sort of like practicing scales in your piano practicing period and now all you have to do is apply them to the sonata when you’re actually playing it. What happens is that life tends to delivers us an amazing amount of opportunities to practice recovering from irritation and frustration. So then when you get in a situation in life where your typical default position would be to get angry or to be pushed right out of your spiritual practice, because you’re really mad at how these people did this to you, that same little gesture comes up from Centering Prayer often with your sacred word right attached to it to remind you, oh yes, here’s an opportunities when we can move from constriction to openness again.
So we learn to practice it and that’s the ground that’s covered particularly in this welcoming practice, so that all the frustrations and things that life coughs up on our plate, and all the constrictions and all the tensions become opportunities to apply this gift of consciousness, rather than just have buttons that are pushed reactively.
That’s the second step, and then the third step is to realize you can do this equally well and even more forcefully when you get in those occasional situations that happen to even the worst of us, when our false self programmes are appeased and we best an opponent, or we’ve convinced the rest of the crew that our scheme is the best, and you feel those feelings of inflation and say ‘oh, it’s just the holy spirit…’ Then we can use that same practice to restore the equanimity inside because being attached to self-satisfaction is just another form of attachment. So in other words, by recognizing the heart of Centering Prayer is practicing this release motion, in solidarity with Christ, and that releasing your thoughts during prayer time and releasing your emotions during life time are all a part of that same release that you’ve begun to imprint in yourself as the pathway of prayer, that’s how you practice so that life becomes, just by its very frustratingness, a wonderful opportunity to pray without ceasing.
Keely: I was talking to a teacher and healer of a shamanic tradition the other day and she really emphasized not only sitting in contemplation but having practices that are active as well, such as tai chi and chi gong, or things that serve as a bridge between the inward-focused, still, contemplative state, and active, physical movement.
Cynthia: I would say that there’s a false dichotomy there because we have contemplation in moving form and sitting form, and when contemplation is in moving form it’s still contemplation. So that contemplation and action dichotomy, if one even exists, doesn’t fall down the line of whether you’re sitting still or whether you’re moving. You can sit still and have your mind totally preoccupied with useless meanderings, and you can be moving in tai chi, sailing a sail boat, stacking firewood, taking people in at a homeless shelter, still in what you would call a deep sense of contemplation.
It’s been some of the great practices, particularly in Sufi traditions, to really insist on this, that they aren’t two separate modes. But I know a lot of people think that contemplation happens only when you’re sitting in deep rapt adoration and I know that’s one definition of it but it’s not one I particularly agree with. I think contemplation is really being carried on when there’s no resistance of the oppositional self-reflecting egoic self talking back at you all the time. And of course the sitting meditation trains us to do a certain part of it, and of course your shamanic teacher is exactly right because until the body is participating in our transformation, it’s unbalanced. But the trick is simply to carry contemplation into and through the entire physical body and moving form rather than sitting form, rather than saying we’re moving from contemplation to action.
Keely: I’ve noticed for myself that it can be easy to form this contemplative ‘bubble’ and then there’s still a turning away from the world and a resistance.
Cynthia: Exactly. And if you get the idea that a lot of meditation has been about in the past, that you have to be very very quiet before God comes and that God can only get to you in the stillness, this winds up taking us down that primrose path where it looks like everything that is silent and navel-gazing and bubble-enshrouded is holy and anything that is messy and noisy and dynamic is unholy. And that’s exactly the misconception that Jesus came to heal. But we slip into it quite easily.
And as point of fact, we will say that people often do use noise and busyness as ways of escaping themselves and from God and from compassion, and so the work of the silence and the outer methodology of meditation that says ‘go to a quiet place and turn off your mind and sit and meditate’ is really intended to end the evasion, not to enforce that God’s only there in silence. We have to be on a kind of learner’s curve where we get comfortable with silence or otherwise we just go back into evasion mode. But once we begin to get comfortable with our own silence, the idea is never to enshrine that as a hallowed place we go to. We have to bring it inside and use it as a place we come from as we move out into the world, bringing that spaciousness of a silent heart to the concerns and the brokenness and the jumpiness and the bitterness of the world that is around us. So we move from the silence as healing agents. And that should be, I believe, the trajectory that mature spiritual practice is always looking at.