Reflections on Luminous Wisdom with Cynthia Bourgeault

By Carmie Verdone

I have been a seeker/yearner since I was a teenager looking for a spiritual path that really spoke to me. I was raised Roman Catholic and left the church when I was 17. And although I tried a few times to renew my faith and understanding of Catholicism, for most of my adult life, I have called myself a recovering Catholic. I became very involved with Buddhism for many years and found a lot of it very helpful but it was missing something important—mysticism. In the last 3 years, I came to find myself drawn slowly, steadily and surprisingly to St. Philip Anglican Church and to the Contemplative Society. I started reading a lot of Cynthia Bourgeault’s books and practicing Centering Prayer as guided by her in her book and I became determined to be a participant in her 5-day retreat, Luminous Wisdom, held at Cowichan Lake April 2-5, 2019. The Contemplative Society’s Margaret Haines’ Scholarship was a very generous assistance in making that a reality and I am so grateful to the Society for this gift.

Part of the offer of receiving a scholarship was that I would write something of my experience afterwards to go on the Society’s blog. Knowing that, I started feeling some anxiety—a very familiar behaviour pattern—even before I left home for the retreat, wondering how I’d ever be able to do the retreat justice with my writing. After our first supper together as a group at the retreat and then our first teaching from Cynthia that evening, I felt my body tension start to ease as some of Cynthia’s words landed deep inside me, like a deep gentle vibration when sounding OM or the sound of the space between the a and m in Amen, the mmm sound. The next morning, a new sacred word, the touchstone of Centering Prayer, came to me—trust. I had previously tried out a few different words and hadn’t found any of them to really resonate with me and now I had trust and trust had me. I had a felt sense that it was the sacred word I needed. Cynthia said that “centering prayer grows an inner ground of receptivity, a place to rest and assimilate”. With trust, I felt my heart turning towards the unknown, the cosmic heart. I will speak more about turning farther along.

As I was experienced in the daily routine of Buddhist retreats, I found the routine at this Wisdom retreat similar in some aspects but I was surprised that there wasn’t more silence, perhaps during lunch and supper times. We did morning sits before breakfast and afternoon sits before Cynthia’s teaching and the energy in the meditation hall was always so full and deep. I treasured those times of silent communion with all of us sitting together. We also did some chanting at each sit which always stirred my heart.

Each day there was conscious outdoor work—moving chopped wood to another location and stacking it or preparing garden beds for planting, as examples. Work was to be done with mindfulness and attention to our body felt senses, trying to be present in the moment. I was not able to participate in that because of back pain but I incorporated the practice into the daily walks that I took during that time. I noticed that as I focused my attention on the soles of my feet and the sensations there, as one foot landed and the other foot lifted to take another step, I felt a spaciousness around me and in me and then I’d let go of that sense and bring my focus back to my feet trying not to get caught up in any of it but just observe it. Cynthia spoke of the three key points of practice: Attention, Self-Observation and Non-Identification.

I found throughout the retreat days that the anxiety about writing about my experience of the retreat would pop up again and again and I sometimes was able to catch it, be aware of it without falling into the pattern of judging it and pushing it away. If I caught it when it appeared, I sometimes said, “Welcome”, to it as Cynthia suggested and sometimes said, “And this too”, as a Buddhist teacher had suggested once. By saying one or the other of these phrases, I was able to take a step away from the anxiety, look at it more objectively and see that anxiety wasn’t who I was but it was an old behaviour pattern from childhood conditioning. This step away gave me space to breathe, to hold the anxiety with compassion and then let it go, to be able to find some equanimity, at least for a while. This is the practice of self-observation. It can be done alone or while in the company of others, as in conscious conversation. Cynthia encouraged us to expand our attention while listening to someone talk, to what is around us, the noise level, other single people or groups of people.

Cynthia talked about the influence of Sufism in her teachings, about seeing with the eye of the heart, entraining the mind in the heart. She invited 2 women in our retreat group who were experienced in turning—the Sufi meditative movement of turning or whirling in one spot, turning toward the heart—to guide us through the chanting and turning practice. And it all began first by sweeping the floor clean in a conscious slow manner which was so touching to watch. It was Holy Work to me. I had the opportunity to sweep the floor the next evening before we did more turning and I felt so humble and present in the moment. I was very grateful for that experience. After the sweeping, we started chanting, La illaha ilallah, and then we slowly added turning. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to do the turning because of lingering vertigo symptoms but I was so happy to find that if I kept turning slowly, I was fine. I’ve always loved the beauty, devotion, and sacredness of the turning. Deeply moving to have my own experience of it.

There are so many more teachings and experiences during the retreat to mention but I think I’ve written enough—well, almost. I need to say that with Cynthia’s teachings about Jesus and his path of consciousness….bringing the rising tide of consciousness to the world, we are all one—cracked open my heart and filled it up. For me to hear of Jesus in that way throughout the retreat, lifted me out of my experience of teachings of sin, shame blame and guilt into the spacious, sacred practices of consciousness, Centering prayer, Lectio Divina, chanting, devotional rituals and turning, to name a few. 


Oh and one more thing—the Contemplative Eucharist after our last morning sit was devoted to Mary Magdalene and I wept with the depth of spirit and love with which Cynthia acknowledged and honoured her.

Well, another one more thing—I know that a significant part of how I was able to dive deep down inside during the retreat beside Cynthia, her presence, wisdom, humility, breathtaking speaking ability and humour, was because of the devoted group of seekers/participants from experienced to inexperienced that filled the room. It became apparent to me in the first full day of the retreat that we were a cohesive group with energy waves, love waves going out to each other, co-mingling, supporting each other, loving our neighbour as ourselves.

By the way, when it was time for me to write about my experience, I had a strong bout of anxiety and judgement that stopped me in my tracks. And then I remembered to take a step back and do the practice and after 2 days of practice and letting go, I felt a possibility, an opening. Hallelujah!

THE MONK’S CELL: RITUAL AND KNOWLEDGE IN AMERICAN CONTEMPLATIVE CHRISTIANITY BY PAULA PRYCE (PART 6 OF 8)

Excerpts from The Monk’s Cell Chapter 6:

Sacristy

Prayer without Ceasing: The Ritualization of Everyday Life

Continuing with the series of excerpts from The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2018), the sixth chapter, Sacristy, looks at how contemplative Christians use conscious work – the labora of Benedictine ora et labora – to cultivate contemplative attentiveness in all aspects of life. 

    At the House of Prayer Wisdom School in August 2011, Brigid had learned her lessons on keeping attention particularly well. Teachers and students alike recognized her as having an unusual capacity to employ ritualized postures as a way of attuning herself to the ambiguous flow of the divine. After a long day of silent meditation, liturgies, sohbet seminars, and work periods, Brigid sat a little off to the side of the Common Room’s haphazard circle of chairs and sofas during the evening discussion period. A small woman in her forties, Brigid was soft-spoken and gave the impression of being shy. However, when she found an opening in the conversation to convey her experience of kitchen duty, she spoke so deliberately and with such focus that the whole room listened with uniform stillness. Brigid compelled the attention of others by carefully selecting each word, unafraid of lengthy pauses as she sought the right way to relay her observations. There appeared to be a concentration of meaning in each precise word, as though she were reliving the moments she had experienced earlier in the day. Her way of speaking itself seemed to be an act of attention and staying present.

  Brigid told us that she had been assigned to kitchen duty for the week’s experimental work periods. That morning Ward Bauman, the retreat house director, had asked her to chop vegetables for a dish to be served at the evening meal. Brigid described the cucumber, the wood grain of the cutting board, the weight and feel of the cleaver, the pressure of hand against knife and the positioning of fingers; she described the intensity of the cucumber’s colors meeting in concentric circles of deep green skin, near-white inner flesh, and translucent innermost seeds: how the blade bit through resisting skin, then sank through the firm but giving inner flesh, its varied densities and leniencies. “Not the green or the white,” she said pausing again and visibly shaking now, eyes bright with the immediacy of her recollection, “but in their meeting place – where they came together – was their place of surrender.”

   Brigid sat silently for a few moments but had something more to add. Because of the noisy kitchen bustle at the beginning of the work period, she had been unable to hear exactly how Ward wanted the cucumber to be sliced. Ward had passed by her side-counter station in the middle of the work period, had taken a quick look, and said, “Smaller.” But Brigid had not wanted to cut the pieces smaller. She said, “I’d cut these perfect circles and stacked them three pieces high in perfectly aligned rows at the edge of the cutting board.” Recalling a Sufi poem that praised seeds at the center, she had resisted Ward’s request to cut through the seed circle. Yet Brigid had sliced into them anyway, letting go of the desire to preserve a form that had meaning for her.

As she cut, her board had become wet with cucumber juice and the slices wouldn’t stay put. “The cucumbers were slippery and the pieces went everywhere!” she said. In the midst of ineffectually trying to corral them, she had stopped with sudden realization: “Abundance!” exclaimed Brigid, “a gravitational outpouring of abundance everywhere around us!” She then returned to her measured, concentrated way, saying, “I could see the beauty in the cucumber, but if I had kept to what I knew and what I thought I wanted, I would not have understood the abundance.”

  No one made a sound. All motion seemed to have been arrested by the intensity with which Brigid had conveyed her experiments with intentional kitchen work. The way she spoke and the intensity of her listeners’ focus together profoundly changed the atmosphere of the room. Brigid’s ritualized act of deliberate speech seemed to offer a glimpse of the divine that bound the community, even more than the details of her observations. The air itself seemed to shimmer. After a while, Cynthia said in almost a whisper, “Someone’s paying attention, wow.” Helen then glanced over to me and quietly said, “Our very own T.S. Eliot.”

The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity by Paula Pryce (Part 5 of 8)

Excerpts from The Monk’s Cell Chapter 5:

Choir

Silence––StillnessMovementSound:

Ritual, Attention, and Refinement of the Senses


This is the fifth 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).  Chapters five, six, and seven work together as a kind of Triduum (the three-day rite of Easter, beginning with Maundy Thursday, following with Good Friday, and concluding with the Easter Vigil).  They together describe the relationship of formal ritual, conscious work, and knowledge (especially the phenomenon of interconnectedness that contemplatives call “unitive being”). The fifth chapter, Choir, looks particularly at the ora of Benedictine ora et labora:  how contemplative Christianity uses cycles of formal ritual – silence, stillness, movement, sound – to hone attention and contemplative senses.

Keenly aware that scripture describes the human body itself as a temple and sacred space, Christian contemplatives with whom I worked considered ritual practices and attunement exercises to be ways of establishing and sharpening their capacity to perceive divine presence through the senses. People engaged in formal ritual and the ritualization of everyday life in an effort to become more aware of an immanent divine in both their individual bodies and the collective body, that is, the practicing, observant community that the apostle Paul called ‘The Body of Christ.’ In contemplative Christianity, the idea of incarnation and the development of contemplative senses thus underlay the importance of formal practice and aesthetics at the sites of ritual action. Chapel, person, and community were symbolically and phenomenologically linked.

Under the sheltering solidity of stone arches, the choir became a vessel that stirred contemplative senses by marking the shifting tone of liturgical seasons and by giving form to the ephemeral in sound, gestures, and objects. It was the place where monks created a ground of silence into which they sowed chant and spoken word. The choir offered the pungent aroma of frankincense, rising high in paisley helixes from simple bronze dishes, or in voluptuous billows from ornate silver censers as a priest blessed the altar for the Eucharist. It was the place where one felt the shock of cold on face and hands when the Abbot made the rounds of the choir stalls at the end of Compline, showering the people with holy water, and where sharp wine helped dissolve a crumbly, sweet, oversized piece of unleavened bread. There in the choir, shifting medallions of color cast down from stained-glass windows to a checkerboard marble floor, and a monk’s warm touch combined with cool, slick oil or gritty soot as he placed the sign of the cross on people’s foreheads; candles, few or many, towered on the altar in silver, laid low on the floor in ceramic, flickered in jewel-toned glass high on granite ledges, or moved like a river of light in the hands of processing congregants. There one also felt the weighty Daily Office book, held in both hands and braced against torso, or set upon the smooth oak of a well-worn choir desk. Flowers added notes of color and scent: a handful of mauve lilacs at the statue of Mary in Ordinary Time, bowers of red peonies at the choir’s center at Pentecost, or nothing, only their absence, in the depths of Lent. Add to this aesthetic world the sometimes wrenching physical effort of waking at dawn or earlier, then sitting, standing, bowing, and kneeling with the community’s ceaseless tide of liturgy, ever moving regardless of one’s energy, lethargy, engagement, or indifference.

Reminder: For those who are interested in purchasing a copy of The Monk’s Cell, you can receivea 30% discount by ordering online at global.oup.com/academic with promotion code AAFLYG6.

The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity by Paula Pryce (Part 4 of 8)

Excerpts from The Monk’s Cell Chapter 4:

Gate

Stabilities, Innovations, Diversities

– photo by Robbin Brent Whittington

Continuing with the series of excerpts from The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2018), the fourth chapter, Gate, describes the charismatic appeal of teachers and diversity within the American contemplative Christianity movement. Exploring the limits of variability in this dynamic, open-minded movement, the chapter compares the distinctive ethos – penitence and eros – of monastic and Wisdom rites for Holy Week.

Apparent in their liturgy for the Wednesday of Holy Week, Wisdom Christianity’s approach to the re-enactment of the events leading to Jesus’ death and resurrection differed significantly from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist’s more standard Tenebrae service. Both described the crucifixion of Jesus as “the Passion of Christ,” but the tones of that passion – eros and despair – had quite different connotations.

These differences were clear in distinct liturgical ‘bookends’ in each group’s rites. SSJE began Holy Week with a ritual diminishment of light in Wednesday’s Tenebrae, the Service of Shadows, and concluded it with increasing light at the Easter Vigil when, in pre-dawn darkness, the monks kindled the sacramental fire from which the great Paschal candle was lit. People then spread the flame from taper to taper until the chapel became a universe of stars. By the time the priest had proclaimed ‘Christ is risen!’ some hours later, every light in the chapel had been turned on and daylight of the newly risen sun streamed through the clerestory windows. The entire three-day Triduum was thus ritually bracketed with Wednesday’s light to darkness and the Easter Vigil’s darkness to light. The light and darkness symbolized the people’s journey through Holy Week as a passage of cosmic scale, in some way well beyond the imaginings and experience of ordinary human beings, despite the centrality of its very human story of betrayal and death.

While the Wisdom community also included this ancient ‘light out of darkness’ rite with the lighting of the sacred fire and Paschal candle at the Easter Vigil, Cynthia Bourgeault, Ward Bauman, and Darlene Franz emphasized another kind of ritual bookending. The Anointing Ceremony on Wednesday in Holy Week was paired with Easter morning’s gospel story of Mary Magdalene and another woman approaching the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. These ritual brackets are not the meaningful yet impersonal cosmic symbols of light and darkness, but the personal and intimate actions of sacramental touch at the hand of a devoted disciple, ritualized as gestures of cosmic significance. Focusing on alternative historical references (the scriptural accounts of loyal women anointing Jesus as well as anointing rites in general), the Wisdom liturgists hoped to reframe the Easter story from one of abandonment and betrayal to one of stalwart, attentive, and fearless passion. By highlighting different historical passages and using standard liturgical elements like sacred drama, anointing, and chanting in alternative ways, Cynthia Bourgeault hoped to shift ‘the emotional epicenter of Holy Week from blame and guilt to freely offered transfiguring love.’

Thus, while American contemplative Christianity had strong unifying points, the movement also had internal diversity. With their ‘orthodox’ tone, monasteries had the advantage of implicit authenticity in the weighty imagery of a substantial historical lineage, despite the reality of periodic stability, rupture, and renewal that has brought contemporary monastic communities into being. More overtly innovative, Christian Wisdom teachers like Cynthia Bourgeault worked at the grassroots level to encourage their versions of history by writing books, teaching online, and offering workshops, retreats, and Wisdom Schools all over the United States and abroad. One long-time practitioner of contemplative Christianity in my research marveled at how their determined efforts, practical skill, and ‘phenomenal knowledge’ had ‘sown seeds all over the place to get the Wisdom network to grow and flourish.’”

The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity by Paula Pryce (Part 3 of 8)

Excerpts from The Monk’s Cell Chapter 3:

Grille

Silence and Seclusion: Contemplative Environments of Interiority and Receptivity

– photo courtesy of St. Benedict’s Monastery

Continuing with the series of excerpts from The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2018), the third chapter, Grille, describes the aesthetics of the silence and interiority that help foster a distinctive, intentional way of life, and how that silence paradoxically communicates hospitality, warmth, and community.

Varieties of Silence

3:30am – St. Benedict’s Monastery, Snowmass, Colorado:

Stepping into the frosty air, I gasped. The stars! At this altitude, in this cold, the stars really did have points, five crisp points just like a child’s drawing. Except for the faint starlight, the earth rested silent in deep moonless dark. Periodic flashes from my light helped me keep to the unplowed gravel road. The beams caught the hoary frost, glittering, almost magical, on the sagebrush, grasses, and fence posts.

Entering the austere Trappist chapel, then edging my way to a side bench up against the brick wall, I moved into another variety of silence. It was dark except for a few starry votives at the tabernacle and icons. The monks, in hooded, ivory-colored habits, sat motionless on wooden benches in the antechapel. Their quiet seemed to blossom through space. A “pungent silence,” our retreat leader, Cynthia Bourgeault, had called it on a previous visit. It had a kind of density, not accidental but filled with intention and potency.

With their initiation of the Vigil office, the monks approached the conclusion of that night’s Great Silence. A clock chimed from the cloister walk outside. The monks rose, then the cantor toned, “Lord, open our lips.” The community used their thumbs to make the sign of the cross over their mouths, then chanted in response, “That our mouth shall show forth thy praise.”

The plainsong seemed to greet the silence rather than diminish it. Their words were inward, muted, and perfectly synchronized; the unified sound emerged from them effortlessly. It was not beautiful in the way of a stunning, magnetic performance of an accomplished concert choir, but was arresting in its simplicity and ease and intercorporeality. Their sound inhabited the silence as from a single body.

After the office of Vigils and a lengthy period of meditation, I walked back to the guesthouse. The monks’ intentional silence and sound made the quietude of the valley seem even more apparent. I heard not the slightest rustle in the frozen grasses. These two hours later, the air was colder and the stars had shifted, some constellations having set, others risen. My eyes adjusted to find that the sky had just perceptibly lightened. I could make out the edges of snow banks along the gravel road and discerned the slightly darker mass of mountains against the retreating night. I stopped to listen to the extraordinary lack of sound.

Just then, a lonely call cast itself across the valley from a high ridge. An interlude. Moments later, yips, howls, and yaps came bounding from an opposite hillside. I laughed at their versicle and responsory, cantor and choir Rocky Mountain style. A shooting star burst across the night sky as if in silent appreciation of the coyotes’ early morning office.

The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity by Paula Pryce (Part 2 of 8)

Excerpts from The Monk’s Cell Chapter 2: Antechapel

photo courtesy of The Society of Saint John the Evangelist

Antechapel

Gathering and Grounding Contemplative Christians in a Pluralistic Society

Continuing with the series of excerpts from The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2018), the second chapter, Antechapel, describes how monastic and non-monastic teachers convey contemplative principles, like detachment and humility, and offer tools, such as rules of life, to help stabilize their students’ intentions to follow alternative life ways.

A teacher in the American contemplative Christian movement, Br. Curtis Almquist of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist used the motifs of detachment and humility to get across the contemplative Christian ethos. Through them, he showed how the intentional cultivation of ambiguity and paradox can prompt people to see past their usual boundaries. In a public lecture about his monastery’s stained-glass windows, Br. Curtis described how the glass artist and the archi­tect together created structural juxtapositions that fostered a feeling of liminality. Their work prompted those who entered the chapel to cross the limen (Latin for threshold) into another way of being. When one passes over the threshold, he said, one enters a “place of in-between” that brings together earthly and divine realms. This ambiguous place of “both/and” potentially acts as an “icon,” he said, a kind of window or conduit through which the human and the divine make contact.

Expanding on the notion that ambiguity and paradox have the transformative potential to take people beyond usual frames of knowledge and experience, Br. Curtis highlighted the chapel’s contrasting architectural qualities. The paradoxical union of weighty stone and weightless light, for example, simultaneously fostered stability and effervescence. He said,

“Nothing could be heavier than a floor of undressed slate and polished mar­ble, and the serene walls of granite. No matter how much you may feel your life is adrift, when you come into this space, you are grounded . . . but then the limestone Gothic arches, columns, pillars, and capitals lift your gaze to the light of the heavens with the beautiful rose window that crowns the antechapel, and the clerestory windows that line the choir.”

The designers intentionally created an admix­ture of darkness and light in the chapel, which further expands a feeling of in-betweenness, unknowing, and wonder. Shadowy recesses contrasted with the danger of too much light, said Br. Curtis, the glare and exposure that he called “the wound of knowledge” after the words of Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas. Sanctification and holiness come through “an intermingling of light and darkness, enough of both.” The mystery of ambiguous “holy shadow” is as primary to awaken­ing to the divine as the dazzle of overt knowledge.

The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity Paula Pryce (part 1 of 8)


This 8-part blog offers excerpts from my book, The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2018).

— photo courtesy of The Society of Saint John the Evangelist

To begin, let me introduce myself: my anthropological research has been shaped by childhood experiences among interreligious contemplatives, particularly my Anglo-Indian father. An early exposure to meditation prompted me to seek deeper knowledge about the extraordinary power of the human capacity for connectedness with the divine and one another. The Monk’s Cell is the result of four years of ethnographic research I did in the Wisdom community, American monasteries, and overseas pilgrimages, where I listened closely for the nuances of the experiential communion that rises through contemplative practices. My intention was to bring a complex depiction of this world to those who do not understand it, especially working to get past academics’ divisive framing of religion as non-rational. Many thanks again to Cynthia Bourgeault and all who have welcomed me into their midst during this research, and also to friends at The Contemplative Society for inviting me to make this contribution.

The Monk’s Cell’s chapters are modeled on an architectural metaphor for “deepening into the divine,” similar to Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle. The first chapter, Portico, describes how longing for the divine draws people to contemplative Christianity.

Excerpts from The Monk’s Cell Chapter 1:

Portico

Finding a Way to the Door of American Contemplative Christianity

My inner heart was yearning desperately for something I could not name, a space for falling in love . . . I simply knew that the God of my heart was calling me deeper and deeper into silence and solitude. My Beloved was yearning for me . . . and so I sat and listened. As St. Benedict names it, I listened “with the ear of my heart.” . . . I knew I had to go.


— Brigid’s e-journal

Eros and the Call for Intimacy with the Divine

. . . The wall between self and God can become extraordinarily permeable for contemplative Christian practitioners as they work toward an experiential, non-objectified understanding of the divine arising from the “mutuality of desire” between themselves and God . . .

We see their yearning in St. Anthony, the fourth-century Egyptian desert hermit who lived in extreme asceticism, staving off all desire except a passion for God, in the monk St. John Climacus’s seventh-century depiction of divine love as “an abyss of illumination, a fountain of fire, bubbling up to inflame the thirsty soul,” in St. Hildegard von Bingen’s twelfth-century experience of “a fiery light of the greatest brilliancy coming from the opened heavens . . . [which] kindled in my heart and my breast a flame” and in her contemporary, St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s eager search for the “spiritual kiss of Christ’s mouth,” in St. Catherine of Siena’s fourteenth-century visions of her mystical marriage to Jesus, and in the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin’s twentieth-century confession that in his pursuit of the physical sciences and evolutionary theory, including the discovery of Peking Man, he sought Christ and “saw, as though in an ecstasy, that through all nature I was immersed in God.” So, too, the thirst for intimacy with God arose in Brigid’s e-journal, written in the American Midwest in the twenty-first century especially for this research. Together these writings reveal how eros for the divine has had an enduring place in the history of Christianity. Such desire continues to work through the impulses and actions of contemplative Christians today.

For those who are interested in purchasing a copy of The Monk’s Cell, you can receive a 30% discount by ordering online at global.oup.com/academic with promotion code AAFLYG6.

Kamloops Contemplative Group Evolution

Our Kamloops contemplative group has evolved through several incarnations over the years. Initially we were simply four people in our local parish who were getting together weekly to share our stories and to “pray”. That was some twenty-five years ago. Four years into our existence I found myself at a week-long workshop-retreat on Centering Prayer given by Cynthia Bourgeault and was profoundly affected by both the practice and the teachings upon which it was built. After what was, for me, fifty years in the spiritual wilderness I felt that I was being given an utterly new way of approaching and even entering the Mystery that we called “God”.

When our group commenced meeting again that fall, the other folks had the courage to leap into the void with me and we began meditating at our weekly gatherings. As anyone who has done the practice knows it was not an easy undertaking. Simple, yes. Easy, no. We had differing responses to the practice: I took to it (*seemingly) like a fish to water; someone else had monkey-mind; one found that her thoughts were utterly relentless; and another found it distressing in the extreme – all but impossible given his personality. Nonetheless, we each of us persisted.

Flash forward five years we decided to open the doors to the wider Christian community (through personal invitations as well as church bulletins) in the hopes that this contemplative meditation/prayer practice might find some fertile soil outside of our small group. To that end we asked Cynthia to come and meet with us and give us her advice. Out of that time together, we decided to begin meeting twice a month as a larger group. That group came to be made up of people active in many Christian spiritual traditions (Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Baptist and Quaker). Over time it has also included Unitarian Universalist and others.

We’ve continued meeting twice a month for an hour and a half for the following fifteen years. (Monday evenings seem to be when most people are free, and we hold them on the second and fourth Mondays of each month from September through May regardless of whether they fall on a holiday or not – moving the Mondays to accommodate for holidays proved too confusing for folks.) We held our gatherings for a long time in a small Roman Catholic church after which we moved to the local Anglican cathedral – where we now meet.

The structure of the two Mondays has varied over the years – although our bedrock every time is twenty-five minutes of Centering Prayer and as much chanting as we can manage. We began by doing multi-yearbook studies on Cynthia’s first Centering Prayer book, on Kabir Helminski’s “Living Presence (aided by Lynn Bauman’s workbook) and on The Gospel of Thomas (using Lynn Bauman’s translation and commentary). There have been shorter explorations of other books as well – in particular “The Cloud of Unknowing”.

What we discovered over time is that there seemed to be a desire to go deeper than a head “understanding” of what the texts were saying. To that end we would break off into groups of four or five and apply the teachings to what we were experiencing in our own lives. While there was a good deal of discussion there were two difficulties: one was that while some people were more extroverted and willing to share, others were more introverted and reluctant to do so; the other was the issue of having to have one person in the group act as a leader – which put undue pressure on that person.

After much trial and error, we’ve come to something that works for us. What we’ve been doing for the past half-dozen years is the following: Our fourth Mondays are almost exclusively meditation and chanting – two twenty-five-minute sits are broken up with a walking meditation plus chanting at the beginning, the end and between the two sits. We discovered that people wanted more and more silence. And simple chanting,chanting, chanting.

Our second Mondays have one twenty-five-minute sit along with chanting at the beginning and the end. The rest of the time is spent doing Lectio Divina. Typically, it’s the Gospel reading for that Sunday –although all that’s required is that the reading is from scripture. The format is whatever the individual leading the evening chooses – but, again, silence is key. One format is: reading once through when we simply be with the reading followed by silence of a couple of minutes; the next reading (from either the same translation or a different one) is followed by more silence but this time we engage with our senses and feelings; after the final reading we speak the word or phrase that struck us and ask “What’s moving inside me? Inside my heart?” People can then choose to speak to whatever emerges from that place.

We can ask questions of ourselves, identify what we’re feeling or speak directly to God or to Jesus. There are no rules here beyond those of voluntary participation, confidentiality and no crosstalk. Perhaps something that someone else says might speak to what you’ve needed to hear. Perhaps you’re lost or frustrated. No rules. We simply open to the movement of God in our hearts – as best as we are able at this moment.

At the end of each gathering we have prayers of intercession/thanksgiving followed by chanting the Aramaic Our Father.

There have been times during the group’s evolution when “thlipsis” was the order of the day. It hasn’t always been easy. We’re human beings attempting to move beyond the small, narrative selves of personality and into our True-Selves-in-Christ. It’s a leap – and struggle and conflict do arise. The issues that people have raised have, almost exclusively, to do with the format of our gatherings. We’ve actually used Survey Monkey to make certain that we were moving in the direction which the group wanted to head. It’s an ongoing discernment.

We also gather one Sunday a month to hold what we call a “Eucharistic Communion”. It follows the typical Mass structure (chanted Kyrie; chanted Psalm refrain; Gospel read twice; Lectio; reflection by the presider and others as they see fit; Communion; and a chanted Aramaic Our Father– the fewer words the better). The presider is typically a lay person. The Communion itself includes chanting the Hebrew blessing over the bread and before drinking wine – which, presumably, Jesus intoned at the Last Supper.

Finally, we hold a year-end celebration – beginning with a Eucharistic Communion followed by a potluck supper and much joy and reverie.

Whatever it is that happens in our little contemplative community one thing is for certain: It is authentically responding to the moving of Spirit. Of that I am certain.

*My experience of Centering Prayer must wait for another day.

P.S. We also have a library of eighty-plus titles purchased over the years on the Christian contemplative Wisdom tradition. Teachers include Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr, Matthew Wright, Michael Fish and others.

Reflections of a Wanderer: Unpacking the “Way of Union” Retreat

You wander from room to room
Hunting for the diamond necklace
That is already around your neck

~ Rumi

Wandering, hunting, seeking, yearning…sometimes I think that what is around my neck is a heavy burden…yet I am invited to treasure the beautiful necklace that is there, and has always been there.

My 65th year has been a year of wandering, pilgrimaging, seeking to make sense of my life of yearning, seeking. I started the year by walking the Camino de Santiago and shared in the pain and exaltation of thousands of other pilgrims, with thousands of different reasons for pilgrimaging. I began to get a very slight but visceral sense of embodiment…could this be what it is to embody Christ? How could I sustain this? I came home to a deeper commitment to my Catholic roots and my contemplative practice in the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM) tradition.

But it is so hard to be Catholic in these times and, while I feel an enduring whisper to stay, there is also anger and deep frustration, despite positive changes in recent years. So the questions always are there: Is this what Christ intended? Is this what God created us to be? Why is change taking so long? In seeking answers, I am drawn to Christian mysticism and Sufism, particularly the teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and Rumi.

So I was very interested when I learned that the “Way of Union” retreat was to be offered on Vancouver Island by The Contemplative Society. Nonetheless, I hesitated about going because of time and cost. But everything seemed to conspire to draw me there, including the generous offering of a scholarship, so I signed up. As the weekend began, I felt immediately embraced into a community of spiritual explorers, men and women of diverse ages seeking understanding of how to bring Christ’s love into our day to day lives and thus be “agents of social change”.

Shortly after the retreat was over, and with barely time to gather my breath, I left for three months to volunteer at the new WCCM community at Bonnevaux, France. And with three times per day meditation and physical labour, I unpacked what the learning of the Way of Union retreat, and this whole year of wandering, means to how I should live each day, indeed each minute. And I saw that they are integrally connected.

The day I left Canada, Fr. Thomas Keating died. The WCCM honored his life in prayer and in virtual participation in the celebration of his life. Bonnevaux sits on the French Camino and we explored ways that we can support pilgrims on their way to Santiago. I began reviewing my notes from our time with the “Way of Union” teacher, Matthew Wright.

The notes from the retreat highlight that community is “grist for the mill of transformation.” What transformation am I invited to in community with The Contemplative Society and the WCCM? I am reminded that, in contemplative practice, wisdom is recognized as perennial. How do I reconcile that with ubiquitous suggestions within Christianity that Christ alone is our Saviour? What does it mean to embody the “bridal chamber” or place of union in a world dominated by separateness and power-over? I often feel deep fatigue with the need to turn away from dominant messages. Our days of exploration with Matthew encouraged us to hold our emerging awareness in spaciousness, as non-identified witnesses. It reminded us that, in the perennial traditions, there are several levels of self-hood or different mansions. And the level I am at in this moment is where I need to be. Right here. Right now.

According to the Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said: Let him who seeks not cease from seeking until he finds; and when he finds, he will be disturbed, he will marvel, and he shall reign over the All.

One month after the retreat, I am beginning to embrace what it might feel like to be disturbed in this search and look forward to continued exploration. 

But most importantly, I am much more appreciative of the diverse contemplative traditions within Christianity and outside of it, the support The Contemplative Society provides through scholarships and other accessible resources, and the role it plays in fostering interfaith dialogue and mysticism around the world. The people supporting The Contemplative Society truly are diamonds on my necklace.  

With deep and heartfelt gratitude!


To support people like Kathleen, give a gift to The Contemplative Society this Giving Tuesday*! In addition to providing scholarships, the support of our donors helps to bring world-renowned teachers like Cynthia Bourgeault and Matthew Wright to our community, fund the recording and production of audio teachings from these contemplative masters, and provide other free or inexpensive resources on our website. Give a gift on Giving Tuesday*, and receive a special bonus:

  • brand new donors and members who renew will receive access to either an exclusive video from Matthew Wright OR an exclusive video from Cynthia Bourgeault!

  • previous donors/members who top up their previous 2018 gift, renew their membership with an increased gift, or become a monthly donor will receive access to both exclusive videos from Matthew Wright and Cynthia Bourgeault!

Reward yourself and human consciousness – give today!

*Only donations received by TCS (or postmarked) on November 27, 2018 from 12:00 am to 11:59 pm PST are eligible for video access. Access to videos expires December 20, 2018.


Kathleen’s perspectives are shaped by a diverse background living and working in Canada’s North and in inner-city communities in Vancouver, BC. Having raised three sons as a single mother, she has an enduring commitment to social justice and community development. Now retired, Kathleen seeks to link her passion for contemplative experiences with a commitment to inclusive communities and her family involvement as a grandmother. She now lives in Gibsons, BC and co-facilitates a weekly Christian meditation group there.