Foundational Points for the Five Pandemic Homework Exercises

I am very grateful to Joseph Azize for his willingness to make five of the Gurdjieff exercises available to us within the cyber confines of our Wisdom School Community. These exercises are powerful tools of healing, cleansing, and clarity, and even when practiced individually or in small groups, they have a power to significantly shift our present planetary atmosphere. They are something you can actually DO: to steady yourself and ready yourself for the deeper energetic work that actually connects us and empowers us as a human species to do the alchemical work we were placed on this planet to do.

The five exercises I have recommended are all examples of what Gurdjieff  calls “transformed contemplation.”  For now—and in direct cognizance of the needs of our present global crisis—let me offer a slightly different definition than even Azize gives. “Transformed Contemplation” is contemplation that actually transforms something, both in ourselves and in the world. It is a kind of sacred alchemy, which is to be understood within the context of Gurdjieff’s great vision of “reciprocal feeding,” the exchange of physical/energetic substances between the realms which maintains the whole cosmic ecosystem in a state of dynamic equilibrium. We receive something for ourselves; we offer something back.  Each of these exercises highlights a slightly different aspect of this  and works on a slightly different skill set.

Before you dive in, you will need two foundational pieces:

  1. A basic familiarity with the notion of three-centered awareness. If you’re reading this post on the Wisdom School community page, you will already have made its acquaintance in the Introductory Wisdom School, but if you haven’t actually been to Wisdom School—or simply want to refresh yourself—the gist of the teaching is there in Chapter 3 of my The Wisdom Way of Knowing.
  2. A familiarity with the basic body-rotation sensing exercise, which is foundational in the Gurdjieff Work and figures prominently in four of these five exercises. We have worked on this exercise a bit in the Introductory Wisdom School and extensively in the intermediate school (The Divine Exchange), but those of you who know me only as a teacher of Centering Prayer may not yet have been exposed to this particular practice. So here’s the quick and dirty version;

First of all, SENSING. For the sake of this exercise, it means using your directed attention to awaken a sense of aliveness (often experienced as an actual subtle tingling) in a specific body part, while at the same time allowing that part to be the full container for your attention.

As a pilot run, bring your attention to your right hand. Try not to beam your attention down from outside, like a searchlight; rather, invite it gently to fill in from within. It will.

Notice how, under the beckoning power of your attention, your arm suddenly seems to “come online.” You are directly connected to it; you feel its vibrancy as a vitalization of your own being. (Isn’t it amazing how you can use this mysterious power always at your disposal, your attention, to fill up your hand with sensation; to increase the direct experience of your own aliveness?)

The rotation, then, typically goes; right arm, right leg; left leg; left arm. As your attention moves sequentially to each part, it also stays put there. If you see yourself wandering, daydreaming, judging…return to the direct sensation of the body part you are attending to.

For more on attention, I’m sure Bob Sabath will readily direct you to the marvelous excerpt  “The Force of Attention” by William Segal.

Okay, with those two background pieces in place, you’re good to go. Over the next few posts, I’ll try to add a few very brief commentaries about the specific exercises themselves.

This 

More on the instruction to decrease internet use

(Posted by Cynthia Bourgeault on Facebook, March 24, 2020.)
 
As I expected, I am receiving plenty of raised cyber-eyebrows about my instruction 3 in yesterday’s posting, to “radically decrease or discontinue altogether your use of internet technology to support social distancing.” Please don’t jump to the conclusion that I am calling for an immediate cold turkey here: more like a gentle challenging of some assumptions we’ve all bought into a bit too automatically, and a phased step-down as we learn to shift to the REAL network of global intercommunion.
 
I continue to believe that the only authentic “worldwide web” exists in the Imaginal realm: i.e., in that subtler and quantumly more powerful bandwidth of energetic communion which links not only all beings of this planet, but also beings in all realms, including those on the other side of the life/death “divide.” It is from here that we receive our help—and it is here, too, that we give it! it is where our real human contribution to calming the inflamed heart of our planet can be must efficaciously offered.
 
This is in fact the subject of my forthcomng book, which ironically would have had its maiden teaching voyage next week at Valle Crucis. It elucidates the part I believe we Wisdom students can most fruitfully contribute to the present planetary upheaval. But playing that part is counterintuitive and it is a learned skill.
 
My invitation as I invited you to consider slowly weaning yourself from the internet is to do so proportionately as you re-boot your innate skills for imaginal communion (skills, incidentally, that have been vigorously discouraged and numbed in our contemporary Western culture. ) The problem with the internet zoom groups as an antidote to physical gathering is that they are a simulacrum, substituting fellowship and information exchange for authentic communion and gnosis. We are losing not only our skills for but our taste for the real deal, and the continued electromagnetizing of our planetary atmosphere by this sudden surge in “social distancing”-motivated electronic communication is aggravating the conditions in which the covid-19 virus spreads. Call me a nutcase here, but disregard at your own peril!
 
So if some of you are inclined to take me up on this wager and boost your component of “imaginal bandwidth” participation during this pres crisis and beyond it, how do you go about doing that? Traditionally, of course, this teaching was transmitted only one-on-one; from initiated teacher to prepared student. That it is how it was transmitted to me by my own teacher Rafe. I categorically refuse to put it out there in the form of an online course! But I am willing to share some general orientation, and perhaps a few specific suggestions for those of you who want to take it to the next step.
 
First of all, a little general theory:
First and foremost, in this vast inter-realmic cosmos (meaning not just this physical earth, but all cosmoses and planes of consciousness in this great eclosion of divine purposiveness we call the created order), all hearts—all individual lives and beings—are merged and flow out of that great ocean of life. Our individual beings participate in this individually, but always AS AN EMERGENT PROPERTY OF THE WHOLE. Our individual life is an instantiation of that one divine life. And because of this, we can always find one another. We are never out of contact. There are no walls,; there are no barriers.
 
But to see this and work with it, we must move beyond our automatic human orientation toward “the individual” as designating a specific corporeal unit with a fixed identity and position in space and time. As long as we insist on that orientation, we wind up in necromancy, not intercommunion. To be fully present in communion with a beloved, whether in another corner of this world or in another world altogether, we must ironically completely let go of that beloved as an object, and allow his or her heart to wash gently upon us like waves of the ocean washing gently on the shore. Any attempt to make precise will result immediately in engaging the personal imagination and will; the whole exchange immediately degenerates into illusion and sentimentality. A very delicate touch is required, and this is where the learning curve comes in.
 
We are really talking about stabilizing in ourselves a higher state of being, exactly in line with Mauric Nicoll’s celebrated dictum, “As your being increases, your receptivity to higher meaning increases. As your being decreases, the old meanings return.” (Psychological Commentaries, 1245). This higher level of being, which accesses the imaginal bandwidth not by raiding it but by MATCHING it, has traditionally been known in Christian spirituality as ‘vigilance’ or “recollection.” It is a higher bandwidth of spiritual attentiveness, in which imaginal intercommunion becomes possible.
 
To do this requires spiritual work on self. It is not a technique that can be taught, but a transformation that must be undergone. Gurdjieff called it “Being partkdolg duty:” our obligatory human contribution to the planetary wellbeing, whose twin pillars are conscious labor and intentional suffering. Only in the refiners’ fire of these two foundational practices (which are actually foundational attitudes) do we gradually attain to purity of heart—which, remember, is the precondition, according to Jesus, for “seeing God.”
 
Each of the four instructions I offered you yesterday are building blocks for stabilizing these foundational underpinnings of imaginal seeing. I will circle back in a forthcoming post to unpack a little bit more of the “how,” But this should serve to get you started.
 
By the way, Jacques Lusseyran gets this exactly. Check out AND THERE WAS LIGHT, pages 259-60.

From the Eagle’s Nest by Cynthia Bourgeault, March 24, 2020

(the background to Instructions, posted on Cynthia Bourgeault’s Facebook page, March 23)

I am keenly aware of the irony in all this. Here I sit on my prayer cushion in the remote seclusion of Eagle Island, more than twenty-four hours now elapsed since the island’s only other occupant headed ashore for an undisclosed period of time, taking the mailboat with him.  It’s me, the eagle, the deer herd, the communion of saints. And nothing much in between.

But I did not come out here for social distancing, I came for listening. The way hermits have been doing it for millennia, at the intersection of the worlds, the intersection of the timeless with time. The way Rafe taught me to do it during our human years together, the way I for too long now have honored more in the breach than the observance.

I did not want to come out here. If I had my druthers, I would by now have been well on my way to North Carolina, to our eagerly-awaited Imaginal Wisdom School.  But the planet forced my hand, and I got dragged out here by my gumboots. I realized almost immediately it was the place I really needed to be.

“It takes about four days for things to shift,” Rafe always told me. Even for him, the relatively gentle transition from the monastic cloister to his mountain hermitage two miles away was always a qualitative shift, a whole different atmosphere. Restlessness, thinking, structuring, doing… all those human functions to mask our human terror of the naked immediacy of the present have to slowly fade away before the listening sets in a different bandwidth, before you discover that the silence is immensely, vastly connected to presence, wisdom, compassionate guidance. Before it starts to speak.

During those four days I got a lot done: cut up a huge maple limb that had fallen, stacked wood, answered correspondence, caught up on old books, systematically checked in with my immediate circle of family and friends, and even did a bit of zooming before my always-delicate solar system finally buckled under the strain. Prayer was good, filled with rich, compassionate connectivity. Rafe was around, as he always is out here. And yes, I startled for a moment when the mailboat captain informed me Sunday morning he was heading ashore and gave me the option to go or stay. But I knew I was not going. The airspace between the realms was beginning to clear.

The next morning at prayer the downpour began.

I wrote up the instructions first—the “homework”—in case the last gasps of solar and internet connectivity decided to give up altogether, as they looked certain to do for about three hours after I was finally released from my prayer cushion. I wanted to make sure that folks in the Wisdom community at least had the bottom line and could begin to work as they chose with the materials, even if I am shortly forced into complete social incommunicado.  But the instructions grow out of a wider picture, a picture that had been gradually coming to me over the weekend as I moved rocks and logs, as I walked the bare March earth marshalling in almost dizzying exhilaration for the imminent explosion of spring…

This is what I came out here to learn, to receive. And this is in turn what I pass on to you, the fuller version of the seeing, of which the earlier instructions are the practical applications. Make of them what you will. This is pretty much raw revelation, though I have tried to tone it down a bit.

The Oracle on Eagle Island

WHAT HAS BEFALLEN

  1. The covid-19 pandemic is a massive, planetary catastrophe whose roots are primarily ecological and evolutionary, not simply cultural (let alone political). This is one of those Teilhardian evolutionary tipping points where the planet itself, from within its inherent telluric intelligence, moves in a spontaneous paroxysm to correct an imbalance that taken the whole planetary ecosystem seriously off track.
  2. A single species—our human horde—has now become dangerously invasive, threatening the stability not only of the noosphere (the world of human culture and economics), but of the biosphere and also the geosphere: the foundational, invisible chemical and electromagnetic forces that maintain the conditions that maintain the possibility of life. We have pressed too far into the inner fastnesses of things, and the earth has spontaneously risen up to cleanse and rebalance itself. This is not merely a moral chastisement but a biological pruning, an ecological cleansing. That is the scale at which this pandemic is playing out. It is not being sent “from outside,” “to punish us,” as in Old Testament judgment. It has been generated spontaneously out of the conditions we have created on the earth, as a completely legitimate outcome of what Teilhard called “taonnement,” trial and error.  This disease is not happening TO us, it is happening BECAUSE of us.
  3. Social distancing is not a preventative measure; it merely puts the brakes on the rate of spread. Even as a braking system its effectiveness has not been proven. We huddle in our homes, and the contagion continues to spread. The infection will run its course until it has completed its biospheric work. We can slow it down, but we cannot outrun it, either individually or collectively.
  4. There is a very strong electrical involvement in the generation and transmission of this virus. It would be naïve to say that 5G technology has CAUSED it, and I distance myself from that type of rhetoric, which only further polarizes scientists and mystics at just the point where they need to unite. Still, it is growingly evident that this new virus is not being spread solely by traditional person-to-person contact, as was first assumed. There is a significant body of scientific data (vigorously downplayed and in fact actively demonized in the media) supporting the hypothesis that the worldwide circle of cellphone towers and GPS satellites circling overhead is inescapably implicit in this mix, not only in spreading social attitudes, but in the actual transmission of the virus itself. That is why our approach of “social distancing” is not only primitive (like trying to put out the Chernobyl nuclear reactor fire with water buckets), but may actually be aggravating the situation. The planetary atmosphere has become electrically inflamed, and we must calm the inflammation here before the rate of disease begins to come under control. The worldwide web may not be the cause of the pandemic, but it is the environment in which the disease is most aggressively spreading.
  5. Our planet itself will be fine. The earth is proving herself extremely resilient, fully capable of rebalancing herself in a remarkably short order. Already the streams are running clearer, the air is purer. It’s the human species that will take the principal hit: not only in physical attrition but in social, economic, and cultural chaos. We must be prepared for this. The readjustment will be long-term, and it will cut to the bones.

WHAT WE CAN DO

  1. There is no escape on the front end: not by social isolation, not by “flattening the curve,” not by using our cleverness yet again to invent some stunning new vaccine that takes us all off the hook (until the next round of even more vaccine-resistant viruses appears.) The way out is through, and what we human beings potentially have to bring to the situation, to put out the fires and calm the inflammation, are the gifts that actually lie close at hand in the human spirit: courage, self-sacrifice, equanimity, forbearance, joy, gentleness, humility, compassion; conscious labor, intentional suffering, substituted love, recollection, purity of heart. Jesus names these qualities in the beatitudes. Paul talks about them as “the fruits of the spirit.”
  2. The Wisdom traditions I work within teach that these are not only qualities, not even energies, but subtle physical substances; nutrients desperately needed not just for our own planet, but for the entire inter-realmic ecosystem. It is our human task to generate them through the alchemical transformation of our own “animal” (i.e., survivalist) nature.
  3. When we begin to receive our individual marching orders, I suspect many of us in the Wisdom community are going to find ourselves on the front line in being asked to re-establish actual physical links in the human chain, for it is here that these alchemical qualities will be most intensely replenished. That is why I have asked you all during this time to work deeply with the “Whether I live or die, I am the Lord’s” promise: in preparation. As always, the poor are taking the most direct hit in the “social distancing” strategy, which inherently favors the economically privileged. If the social fabric is not to be entirely unraveled, some of us will be called to stand directly in that breach, no matter the personal risk.
  4. The only REAL worldwide web takes place within the imaginal bandwidth. To access it requires training, and it requires purity of heart. What we are settling for in our current zoom communications is a simulacrum. It glitters, but it is not gold. Employ it as you need to as a temporary patch-through, but don’t get enthralled. The real alchemy is still one-on-one. I will speak to you more about that shortly.
  5. And it requires, finally, pulling the plug on horizontal connection (or at least trimming it down substantially) and turning into—not away from—our own loneliness, our own fear, our own disconnection.  And out here on Eagle Island, my solar power dropping rapidly as the first of three stormy days settle in, I suspect the question is about to be called on me. Like it or not, I will finally be a hermit.

With love to all, c

Cynthia has added further explanations on NorthEast Wisdom: Foundational Points for the five pandemic homework exercises 

Instructions from Cynthia Bourgeault

Dear Wisdom friends:

Here is my own recommendation for inner work during this time of profound planetary readjustment. I will send you a fuller explanation as soon as I can, but the internet system has just gone very wonky out here on Eagle Island, and you may need to be patient for my further elucidations of this admittedly countercultural prescription. For those of you who have seen an advance manuscript of my book, this would be a course of action founded on the laws of World 24 (Imaginal) and above, not the laws of World 48 (our earth plane at its rational apogee) and below that are presently running the show—futilely, in my estimation.

What we’re facing here is not a temporary crisis to “flatten the curve.” This is a permanent and collective reset of our collective human conscience and will resolve itself only as a few more of us become willing and able to step up to the plate to live a different reality.

More on that to follow. For now, my “to do” list:

1. Get Joseph Azize’s new book, GURDJIEFF: MYSTICISM, CONTEMPLATION, AND EXERCISES (Oxford University Press, 2020, ) and work diligently with some of the Gudjieff exercises here assembled for the first time,  particularly the “Make Strong” (pp. 178-82), “Atmosphere Exercise” (192-3), “Four Ideals,”(231-240), “Lord have Mercy” (241-251), and “Clear Impressions” (261-269.)
2. Continue your own daily practice of Centering Prayer, and within its gentle and surrendered atmosphere, try to work into your being as deeply as you possibly can the truth of the Pauline affirmation  “Whether I live or die, I am the Lord’s.”  Work it in until there is no discrepancy between how it falls on your mind, your emotions, and your amygdala. Work it in until you realize with all of yourself that it confers the only spiritual immunity, the only source of right action.
3. Radically decrease or discontinue altogether your use of internet technology—zoom groups, zoom church—to support social distancing. It is actually aggravating the problem by further intensifying the electromagnetic inflammation of the planetary atmosphere which is actually driving the contagion. 
4. Physically connect (I mean in real space time) with at least one person whose life is already being physically impacted by this crisis (food shortage, income stream dried up, and try to help as best you can.

Lord have mercy on us all. Cynthia

 

Joseph Azize, Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation, and Exercises

If you order online at www.oup.com/academic, use the promo code AAFLYG6 to save 30% .

Introductory Wisdom School Online from the Center for Action & Contemplation

Dear Friends, 

If the wisdom path calls to you, I am delighted to share with you an opportunity to participate in an online course created in partnership with the Center for Action and Contemplation. Introductory Wisdom School, a 14-week online module that emerged from an in-person event I led for 200 students, integrates Christian wisdom teachings and contemplative practices for an embodied experience. Registration ends soon—Feb. 28, 2020— and the course runs from March 4 – June 9, 2020. 

The webpage for the course reminds us that: Wisdom isn’t something you get from a guru or a reward for performing certain actions. Wisdom is about inner work and transformation. Wisdom isn’t knowing more; it’s knowing more deeply, with more of yourself. Wisdom is caught more than taught. This course explores the Wisdom way of knowing and growing.  

In this unique, 14-week online course, you will have opportunities to: 

    • Interact with fellow learners from around the world. 
    • Participate in a guided study through videos and readings from Cynthia Bourgeault and others. 
    • Engage in personal reflection and contemplative practice. 
    • Enjoy 24/7 access to the course material. 
    • Explore new material every week (released Wednesday mornings, US Mountain Time). 
    • Invest 2-4 hours per week in the reading, online discussion, and personal reflections. 
    • Course content will be available until one week after the course end date, or until Midnight, U.S. MT on the Tuesday following the course end date. 

For those of us yearning to awaken to a different kind of PresenceIntroductory Wisdom School can open new avenues for personal transformation.  

All blessings, 

Cynthia 

 

cross-posted from Cynthia’s Blog

The Birth of Aliya Mariam by Seemi Bushra Ghazi

Cowichan Lake, BC, Canada, September 2019

Recently I had the great pleasure of teaching with Reverend Matthew Wright in a retreat on the Divine Feminine wisdom expressed through Mary and Sophia. Much of my teaching felt deeply intimate for myself and the community present, and we have not included it in the weekend recordings. I did wish however to share this piece which I performed that weekend. It is simultaneously a feminist birth narrative, an embodied exegesis of the Qur’anic story of Mary’s birthing Jesus, and an immigrant arrival story. I hope you will listen for the drumming, chanting and singing I offered in performance and the whirling of my dervish sister, Anna, in our midst. May the rustle of her swirling skirts reach you. May the light breath of the Compassionate Rahman animate and illuminate this season. If you have any responses to this piece or any of the retreat, I am glad to receive them at seemi.ghazi@ubc.ca.  I give gratitude for you all, especially Cynthia and Matthew who have so generously nurtured our Christian- Muslim- Sufi contemplative collaborations over so many years.


The Birth of Aliya Mariam
Seemi Bushra Ghazi

Gracious are the gardens in which in winter
New fruits ripen for every Mary
(Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi)

I.

My lineage goes back to Adam (upon him be peace). In this respect, I am no different than anyone. I read once in a family manuscript, flowing in rivulets of elegant nastaliq script, the threads of imputed origin, Prophets, scholars, pilgrims and holy men, who moved from Yemen to Yathrib (present-day Medina) before the coming of Islam, who hosted the Prophet at their table in Medina, and arrived in India soon after the first Arab merchants. There they dispersed, taught, and preached, and established religious schools or madrasas. When I think of these men in my father’s family as I encountered them in visits to India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, they bore no resemblance to the wildeyed mullahs of CNN with their hateful small-time religion. My “uncles” seemed powerful and delicate, majestic and fluid, with features of perfect Chinese brushwork and the poise of the blue heron on our shoreline at low tide.

The shoreline where my family and I live is the coast of British Columbia, where a renegade tropical current moderates the frigid Pacific as it narrows into the Burrard Inlet entering the city of Vancouver. It is a long way from the steppes of my Central Asian forbears, the dry riverbeds of Yemen, the mustard fields of Haryana. It is far even from the London of my birth, and the Boston and Chicago of my childhood. Mostly it is far from the cities that had always seized my imagination— Damascus, Cairo, Istanbul. I arrived here nine years ago wondering how it came to be that this ancient soul had been flung out onto the furthest rim of the newest world.

Click here to continue reading The Birth of Aliyah Mariam by Seemi Ghazi, 2019

A Reflection From The Heart by Charlotte Futcher

Charlotte Futcher participated in Holy Wisdom, the Mother of God with Matthew Wright in September, 2019 at the Cowichan Lake Research Station on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. She generously shared her experience.



During that crisp and sunny week spent at the Lake Cowichan Forest Research Station, with the lake lapping and greens transforming to reds all around us, I went through a reintroduction to and transformation in the relationships with both myself and the Divine Feminine. I was held in warm smiles, the notes of Mary’s harp, the protection of the forest, the beauty of the beach’s pebbles, and the quiet-ness of shared silence. I was held by Sophia.

It was the kind of embrace with a secureness that doesn’t restrict you, but makes you feel loved and limitless. Matthew and Seemi’s teachings lulled me into a peace that I didn’t know I was so hungry for. I couldn’t have anticipated any of what I would take out of 2019’s retreat with The Contemplative Society, yet I feel like it was so crucial to my growth at this time of my life. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have attended that week. I felt surrounded by wisdom, curiosity, and inspiration.

On the last morning of the retreat, I walked into Lake Mesachie and rested into the coolness. Floating at the surface, the sun warmed my face and the front of my body while the brisk water lifted me up. It was an interesting kind of balance. I swam down into the vastness of the lake, deeper and deeper and deeper. The water was a deep and alluring turquoise. Turning and looking up towards the surface, the sun crept through the ripples and turned a strip of that turquoise colour into a pure and piercing white. I wished I could’ve stayed there forever. Everything below the surface felt so perfect. I felt so weightless. So held. But I returned to the surface to immediately feel the warmth of the sun on my face and to see the rolling hills that hug the lake, in a gold cloak of light.

“Hello, Sophia.”

Lake Mesachie, Vancouver Island, BC

What is the Christian Wisdom Lineage?

by Heather Page, St Philip, OB. June 2019

In April 2019 I attended a unique “retreat”, known as a Wisdom School (WS). This five-day event led by The Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, PhD and sponsored by The Contemplative Society (contemplative.org) was held at the Lake Cowichan Education Centre and filled to capacity. Although it rained for four of the five days and I was sleeping in a tent, the WS was filled with a light and joy, carried in many radiant hearts.

In her teaching Cynthia clarified and expanded on eight points she had drafted defining the particular branch of Christian Wisdom in which she teaches. Her blend of Wisdom teaching was formulated over 20 years ago in her early work with The Contemplative Society on Vancouver Island and Salt Spring Island. During this time these contemplative teachings and practices began to take root among a dedicated group of people, particularly within the Anglican community. Under the leadership of Bishop Barry Jenks, The Contemplative Society received a generous annual donation of seed money for three years to help establish this teaching and life practice within the Diocese of BC.

This Wisdom teaching has roots in both mystical and monastic traditions particularly the Benedictine emphasis on a daily rhythm of work and prayer and in the teaching of G.I Gurdjieff which blends Orthodox Christianity, Sufism, and middle eastern influences. Central to the Gurdjieff teaching is work with attention, self-observation, and non-identification combined with inner practices which aim to support work on the stuck places where we are asleep to the subtle ways our unconscious and automatic self manifests, obvious to others but frequently hidden to us. At the heart of the Wisdom teaching is a daily meditation practice particularly Centering Prayer as developed by Father Thomas Keating and his work with Contemplative Outreach. Centering Prayer emphasizes the kenotic gesture of surrender, a dying to self and letting go.

Now twenty years later, it had become clear that it was important to clarify and articulate the particular flavour of the Christian Wisdom lineage Cynthia teaches from. Thus she drew up eight Wisdom verticil which she expanded upon during the April WS. I have abbreviated these points below; for the full version see: https://www.contemplative.org/our-wisdom-lineage/.

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

Each of these points is vital to this unique heritage. But I would like to focus on two.

In point five, Cynthia contends that “Christianity has never looked at why the material world is so important”. Within this dense and constricted realm kenotic self-surrender, a laying down of one’s life becomes the activation and beginning of the spiritual path. It is easy to be tempted to view this dense and coarse realm as inferior and to desire an escape to “climb out of the pit” in Cynthia’s words. This view is in conflict with incarnation and results in a “static binariness”. God is fully available and realized at all connection points at all levels, even the most dense says Cynthia. “God is this unity. You can’t say God is responsible for this unity, as he is the unity.” The aim is not self-realization but love. “There is no self-realization apart from love.”

Cynthia writes in her book The Wisdom Jesus,

               Could it be that this earthly realm, not in spite of but because of its very density and jagged edges, offers precisely the conditions for the expression of certain aspects of divine love that could become real in no other way? This world does indeed show forth what love is like in a particularly intense and costly way. But  when we look at this process more deeply, we can see that those sharp edges we experience as constriction at the same time call forth some of the most exquisite dimensions of love, which require the condition of finitude in order to make sense – qualities such as steadfastness, tenderness, commitment, forbearance, fidelity, and forgiveness. These mature and subtle flavors of love have no real context in a realm where there are no edges and boundaries, where all just flows. But when you run up against the hard edges and have to stand true to love anyway, what emerges is a most precious taste of pure divine love. God has spoken his most intimate name. (100)

Point six explores a shift which has occurred over the years in the contemplative community. When I first began attending contemplative retreats the emphasis was on creating a monastic hermitage type experience. Retreats ranged from weekends to ten days, typically in full silence except for teaching and minimal communication during Benedictine work periods. There were a number of silent sits some as long as one and a half hours with only a couple of short breaks for meditative walking. Custody of the eyes was practiced (no eye contact) and held throughout the retreat.

Over the years the format of the WS has shifted. Meditation remains important but with encouragement beyond the WS to participate in regular private practice or peer led intensive meditation retreats. The emphasis of the teaching shifted to the question of how I as a contemplative will manifest outwardly bringing the fruit of my practice into daily living. Are the fruits of the Spiritgentleness, patience, forbearance, humility etc.finding their way into how I relate to my family and my neighbour? How does the contemplative stance express itself in my interactions in the world? And how might this contemplative stance affect world consciousness and find its identity in the cosmic Christ? This is an important development that is still being processed by the contemplative community. Meditation is a daily practice in the art of laying down identification with our personal agenda, letting go of one’s ever-demanding wants and needs. It is only through deepening surrender that genuine altruistic outpouring becomes possible. How can the fruits of sustained contemplative practice, the regular act of letting go become a vehicle for compassionate expression in the world?

We are blessed to have such wise teaching on the island. This teaching offers hope to the world and a possible way forward in the church that at times may appear to resemble the orchestra on the Titanic. All generations long for authentic expression and practice, as well as guidance in living integrated and fully embodied lives. I see the Christian Wisdom teaching in part, as the way forward.

I am extremely grateful to the Educational Trust Boards for their generous grant toward my participation in this Wisdom School.

NOTE: An edited version of this post was published in the October 2019 edition of the Diocesan Post.  Thank you to Heather for sharing her knowledge and wisdom.

THE MONK’S CELL: RITUAL AND KNOWLEDGE IN AMERICAN CONTEMPLATIVE CHRISTIANITY BY PAULA PRYCE (PART 8 OF 8)

Excerpts from The Monk’s Cell Chapter 8:

Cell

The Porous Self: Community and Intersubjectivity from the Inner Room

 

This is the eighth and final post from an 8-week cycle drawing excerpts from my book, The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2018). Gratitude to all at The Contemplative Society for inviting me to participate. 

 

 


The eighth chapter, Cell, is a narrative of the illness and death of Helen Eberle Daly, one who was dear to many of us in the Wisdom community. Beginning with our pilgrimage together to Assisi, Helen’s story beautifully illustrates how solitude and silence are profoundly communicative acts, and how devoted practitioners have the potential to courageously work towards contemplative maturity regardless of life’s jagged edges.

That first afternoon, Helen and I walked out of the towering eastern gate of the medieval walled town of Assisi and headed toward San Damiano. I was sketchy about the story of Francis, but this much I knew: San Damiano was the little church that Francis had rebuilt from ruins when he first felt the call to a religious life. The story goes that in the rubble of a chapel ruin that was ancient in his own time, Francis was praying before the dilapidated altar when the crucifix hanging above said to him, “Repair my house.” Francis took the imperative literally and restored San Damiano stone by stone, then later turned it into a convent for Clare and the women who followed her.

The cobbled path took Helen and me down a hillside covered in gnarled olive trees. Some were so old that their trunks were nothing more than perforated husks barely capable of supporting their leathery silver-green leaves, so old that some might have been there when Francis himself walked that road 800 years ago. We passed a few trinket stalls, modest stone farmhouses with hand-lettered signs advertising “Olio di oliva in vendita,” a fourteenth-century iron-gated shrine displaying its candlelit fresco of the Madonna and Child, and shiny outdoor escalators rising from a sizable parking lot for some of the many air-conditioned coaches that brought tourists and pilgrims to Assisi every day.

During the forty-minute walk, Helen stopped several times. Her back was really bothering her, she said, probably due to the many hours of wandering around Rome for three days when they first arrived in Italy, after being relatively inactive at home in Vermont during a particularly harsh winter.

Notices requesting “Silenzio per favore— tenere in riverenza” told us we were getting closer. San Damiano appeared around the bend of a curving monastery wall and a line of cypress trees. It was tiny and simple, with a finely worked rose window, terracotta roof tiles, sheltering cloister arches, and a small stone piazza with banks of votive candles. Two bronze statues depicted Francis, one walking barefoot with staff in hand toward the church’s portico and another meditating cross-legged on the hillcrest before an expansive view of the rural landscape below. How different from the magnificent thirteenth-century basilica, adorned by the likes of Giotto, Cimabue, and Martini, that was built later on the other side of town in reverence for (and also in spite of) Francis’s simplicity and radical poverty.

Threading our way through a scrum of photo-snapping visitors and past a young black-bearded friar who was sweeping the outer courtyard’s stone pavements, we entered through a side chapel, which featured a gruesome, life-sized Baroque crucifix, then made our way into the nave of San Damiano proper. Helen and I stopped in our tracks: the sanctuary’s low plaster vault was so organically irregular, the dusky filtered light so pensive, the early medieval starry-night frescoes so intimately drawn, the rickety wooden choir stalls so clearly made by the hands of those who used them centuries ago. The floor tiles were worn glossy from the thousands upon thousands who had stepped through, and the plaster walls were seasoned with the touch of so many who had remained there in prayer. Above the diminutive altar was the painted, iconic Syrian-Christian crucifix that people all around the world, including those in my research, hold in special reverence.

It seemed more than the evocative minimalist charm of early medieval Umbrian aesthetics that moved Helen and me, however. Wide-eyed, I turned to my companion to find her in tears. She was also shaking, then I realized the same was true of me. We stood at length in the middle of the chapel with people moving all around us until we finally eased our way through the throng to a place in the narrow wooden pews. A few of the visitors stayed in the chapel, but more surged by in a steady stream, first looking about, then heading on past the altar for a self-guided tour of the cloister where Clare and her adherents once lived. Meanwhile, my entire body shook, not a little but rather violently. I felt as though I were on fire. I placed my hands and forehead against the cool plaster wall to try to steady myself. This was rather unexpected.

We stayed there a long time, but finally got our bearings. Moving out of the chapel toward Saint Clare’s cloister, I felt some return of composure. We stepped through the nuns’ private brightly frescoed choir, where they would have performed their daily offices and received communion, and climbed narrow, turning stairs to an upper dormitory cell with low slanted ceilings and a wall of arched windows opening onto an enclosed courtyard below. There, sunny geranium-filled balconies had a settling effect on me. But Helen responded differently. One corner of the dormitory was cordoned off with silk rope. On the floor was a ceramic hand-painted plaque telling us that this was the place of Chiara’s (Clare’s) death. Helen’s breath caught. She stopped and knelt there, gazing with bowed head and parted lips.

A group of Bolivian nuns came through, led by a priest who gave them tidbits of history in Spanish. The breach of silence annoyed me, but Helen told me later how moved she was by their devotion. A few of the nuns rubbed their rosaries over the place where Chiara had died, a gesture of sanctification that I saw many times at sacred sites in Assisi. When the black-habited women had moved on, Helen stretched her torso and arms forward until her forehead touched the ground in the Islamic-style posture of half-prone prostration. I went to sit in the window arch and wondered about the severity of sensation that had overtaken me when we first entered the chapel of San Damiano. It wasn’t as if I had a devotion to Francis, or any other saint, for that matter. I knew very little about them. Below in the enclosed cloister garden, tourists milled about a stone well and flower beds. Helen remained some time in prayer.

Both of us left San Damiano feeling a little shattered. We spoke with astonishment about the strange, visceral, and unexpected response. Helen said she deeply felt the presence of Francis and Clare, but that an especially strong sensation of connectedness came over her in Clare’s cell. “It was like Chiara had her arms around me in sanctuary,” she said. “Something big happened here,” said Helen, looking out at the Umbrian plain. “And it’s still happening.”

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