Where do I start, with Margaret Haines or with the contemplative vision that sustained her every step of her long and fruitful journey? Margaret was the spiritual mother of The Contemplative Society, our tiny, “can-do” organization she founded to bring me to British Columbia, and she was my own spiritual mother, midwifing my emergence as a contemplative teacher. In fact, Margaret was midwife all the way; everything she touched, from plants to people to fledgling organizations, grew sturdy and strong in her graciously nurturing hands. When she died at age 85 in 2011, she could look back with justifiable pride on having launched not only an organization, but the thousands of people this organization has touched over the years.
Fr. Thomas Keating, Cynthia Bourgeault, and Margaret Haines (March 2002)
What many may not know is that Margaret was a lifelong seeker herself. After completing her “first half of life” duties as a faithful wife, mother, and arborist in the Okanagan, she turned in the second half to a rigorous embrace of the path of transformation, walking parallel tracks in contemplative Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism. She had considerable experience in the Gurdjieff Work under her belt as well, gathered while she and her family still lived in the UK. Her seamless inner integration of Buddhist and Gurdjieffian mindfulness with Christian contemplation furnished the creative matrix in which my own Wisdom teaching came to birth. It all began on Salt Spring Island, BC, in July 1997: the headwaters of a movement that has now spread worldwide.
To all appearances, Margaret, as she began her journey, was simply a “housewife”, a “lay person”, a seeker among hundreds of other seekers, with no particularly distinguishing features other than her innate clarity and her persistence on the path. It was that persistence that brought her to fullness in her own journey and gradually transformed her from postulant to post-holder. That’s how wisdom transmission works; always has and always will. You show up with dogged faithfulness and a constantly rekindling beginner’s mind, and something gradually crystallizes in you. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, you gradually become real, on that same pathway of faithful love.
I mention this because all our spiritual journeys begin at the beginning when both the time and funds needed to support those formative forays into the world of contemplative transformation nowadays often come at prohibitive cost. Younger seekers in particular need scholarship help if they are to take those first steps which even for Margaret, back a half century ago, came at a gentler and kinder time in our planet’s economic history. The same goes for people entering the path later in life or seeking out retreat to renew a path already begun; retirement on a limited income presents similar financial challenges.
There are many Margaret Haineses waiting out there, keen to be formed in the tradition in order to serve their term as post holders and carry the torch to the next generation. All it takes is persistence. And funding.
We hope that each of you reading this message will be moved to support Wisdom transformation by giving as generously as you can of both. A more appropriate tribute to Margaret Haines I cannot imagine.
With warm wishes,
To join Cynthia in supporting the Margaret Haines Scholarship Fund, and help us reach our goal by the deadline of June 30, visit contemplative.org/haines today!
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.
https://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/UVIC-labyrinth2.jpg268358TCS Adminhttps://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/logo-new-2021.pngTCS Admin2018-04-12 12:52:222021-09-30 09:26:59The Gift of Enroulement
According to Gurdjieff, the mysterious “X-factor” that enters in the moment of conception is not yet soul but essence. Think of it as the hand of cards you’re dealt at the start of a card game. It comprises a set of unique characteristics including race, gender (and most likely gender orientation), basic body type and other genetic factors, influences emerging from more distant ancestry and bloodline – and yes, that unquantifiable legacy “from the stars” – all combined primarily according to what Teilhard would call “tatonnement” (“trial and error”): evolution’s predilection for trying out any and all possibilities. Cumulatively, all of the above will combine to confer on you what is commonly known as your “nature”.
Notice how there is no need to stipulate an “artist” God here, specifically designing a unique human being; what’s being pictured here is simply a lawful playing out of a freedom already inherent within Creation itself. Essence is not customized, not micro-managed – at least according to most schools of inner work I’m familiar with. (That may take some getting used to, and for those of you finding yourself already in resistance mode, I encourage you simply to let this new perspective settle in a bit. Rest assured that I do intend to talk about the origin of the personal in due course.)
Once formed, essence will take its place as one of the three constituent terms in an ongoing dynamism of becoming which, not surprisingly, will play out according to the Law of Three. The other two terms, according to modern Sufi master Kabir Helminski (who reflects this same Wisdom lineage that I myself was trained in) are spirit and heart.
Spirit is that ever-roving, unboundaried, invisible divine dancing partner, participating in every movement of our life according to its own deepest teleology, namely, self-disclosure (remember “I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known”?). It generally plays the role of first force, Holy Affirming: ever prodding, nudging, unfolding.
Essence will typically play the role of Holy Denying, the bloc résistant in which Spirit will reveal its face. Through its very embodied finitude, essence provides both the necessary raw material and the necessary friction to allow the pure movement of spirit to reveal itself in time and form.
Heart – or conscience – is the alchemical “third term” that is catalyzed in us through a life lived in growing consciousness, authenticity, obedience (as in ob-audire: “listen from the depths”), and that active cultivation of the self-reflective potential miraculously gifted to human consciousness. Heart is the unique fruit of a life wisely and fully engaged. More important, from the perspective of the road map I’m laying out here, it contributes the crucial third force, or “holy reconciling”, which makes possible that ultimate desideratum, namely, the fully arisen soul. Soul (or as Helminski calls it, “the essential self”) is precisely that “fourth in a new dimension” which arises out of conscious weaving of those other three – spirit, essence, and heart —within the great womb of life.
While this statement may sound jarring, note how it is already well embedded in early Christian tradition. The Gospel of Thomas puts it as starkly as possible in logion 70: “If you bring forth what is within you, that which you bring forth will save you. If you fail to bring forth that which is within you, that which you fail to bring forth will destroy you.” “That which is within you” is your embryonic soul.
Jesus seems to be reinforcing this teaching in his celebrated parable of he talents – once you recognize, of course, that the “talents” are not our aptitudes and gifts (which belong to essence) but, rather, these soul potentialities transformed and quickened in the light of conscience/heart. This message comes through powerfully as well in the medieval mystic Jacob Boehme; it is in fact the driveshaft of his entire metaphysics. But it peers out as well from any number of other Christian mystics, even those of much more theoretically “traditional” metaphysical training and temperaments. One of the most powerful statements of this principle I know comes in contemporary Jesuit Ladislaus Boros’ spiritual classic, The Mystery of Death (p. 60-61):
By Alden Cole
From the facts of existence and the surrounding world an inner sphere of being a human is built up. This inner man is brought about by a never-ending [conscious] daily application, on the treadmill of duties, annoyances, joys, and difficulties. From these insignificant actions freely performed, the decisive freedom is built up – freedom from oneself, freedom to view one’s own existence from outside…From the crowded days and years of joy and sorrow something has crystallized out, the rudimentary forms of which were already present in all his experiences, his struggle, his creative work, his patience and love – namely, the inner self, the individual, supremely individual creation of a man. He has given his own shape to the determinisms of life by a daily conquest of them; he has become master of the multiple relationships that go to make him up by accepting them as the raw material [italics mine] of his self. Now he begins to “be”.
As far as I know, Boros never directly encountered the Christian inner tradition, let alone the teachings of the Asian spiritual traditions. Yet he has eloquently described here what would be easily recognizable in any of these other streams as “Witnessing Self”. He has captured precisely the same nuance articulated by The Gospel of Thomas, Boehme, Gurdjieff, and Jacob Needleman – namely, that our “soul” is not our raw essence per se, but something of an entirely different nature which is alchemized through the active engagement of essence with heart/consciousness. It is not so much a substance (at least in terms of corporeality as we understand it in this life) but more a process – or as Jacob Boeheme had it, a tincture, a quality of our essential aliveness which shines through the lineaments of this life like a shaft of imperishable light. Above all, it is not conferred at the start, but brought into being in this life through the quality of our conscious work.
“Food for the moon”
Within the western Wisdom tradition this imperishable “other” is sometimes known as second body or “the wedding garment”. Actualizing it is seen – with some urgency – as the real business of our earthly sojourn.
Admittedly, there is a hard edge to this teaching, jolting us into responsible stewardship of our own time in human consciousness. We can choose, if we like, to drift downstream on the currents of pain or pleasure. We can invest our whole life’s energy worshiping the golden calf of ego. Or we can get with the cosmic program and come to grips with the real purpose of our time here as we humbly acknowledge that soul is not an automatic birthright but, rather, the final alchemy of a life lived here in conscious alignment with higher cosmic purposes.
Furthermore, the tradition states – essentially unequivocally – that this second body, or wedding garment, must be formed in this life. That is why it is called a wedding garment: because it is the appropriate and necessary regalia for the “wedding banquet” of eternal life – which, incidentally, does not begin after we leave this body, but here and now as this new substantiality we bear within us increasingly allows us to perceive, that the gates of heaven are, truly, everywhere.
This is soulwork in the true sense of the term: not the “soft” version that passes for soulwork today, preoccupied with unraveling dreams and deciphering messages from our “inner guides”, but the adamantine work of bringing something into existence here that will have coherence and substantiality beyond just this realm. Gurdjieff called it our “Real I”. [And, as Sandra brilliantly pointed out in the comments of my seventh post, Margery Williams Bianco’s character the Skin Horse reiterates this same concept in the classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit.]
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco
“You must find that in you that already lives beyond death and begin to live out of it now”, my teacher Rafe taught me, encapsulating the essence of this teaching in his own plain words. To defer this project till after we die is too late; for, as Jacob Boehme bluntly puts it, “everything lies where it has fallen”. This is not, by the way, a question of “final judgment”, of some higher being deciding you are “unworthy”. It’s simply that the conditions in the next realm out, sometimes known as the Imaginal, are finer and drawn to far closer tolerances than in this life. Only something of a similar fineness will pass through the sieve.
I am theologian enough to know that the immediate argument conventionally trained Christians will raise against this is that it seems to defy the promise of Psalm 139 – “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” – and replace the intimate and personal nature of our lifelong human relationship with God with an impersonal and even harsh algorithm. I do not believe this is actually so. I will have more to say about the personal in my next blog, with the intuition that this alternative vision, certainly strongly intimated by Jesus, is actually far more merciful and cosmically nobling.
The second objection, of course, is that this sounds like a classic recipe for spiritual materialism – I can already picture the internet ads for second-body-building nutritional supplements and “wedding garment” consultants! But the checks-and-balances factor, built right into this equation, lies in the fact that the requisite food for building second body is, in Gurdjieff’s famous formula, “conscious labor and intentional suffering”. Second body cannot be attained through self-maximization, but only through the classic route variously known in the sacred traditions as kenosis and humilty. “We ascend by descending,” as the Rule of St. Benedict succinctly observes. There is no other way.
For those who opt out, preferring to live out their days in their egoic comfort zone (a condition known in the inner tradition as “sleep”), the potentiality offered at birth to become a soul is simply returned, stillborn. Nothing has germinated here of permanent substantiality; nothing has become viable beyond the womb of this life. Such existences, in Gurdjieff’s words, become “food for the moon”. At death their temporary selfhood dissolves back into its original physical components and takes its small part in the vast network of reciprocal feeding, by which the cosmos bootstraps itself. Nothing is finally wasted.
From the Work perspective, then, abortion is not something that befalls merely a fetus. It happens at all stages, and is in fact the tragic outcome of most human lives. Lulled into complacency by the illusion that we already “have” souls, we fail to engage the real task of spiritual germination and wind up dreaming our lives away.
Only when this inconvenient truth is finally, fully faced will the real question of what it means to be “pro-life” find its authentic balance.
In this third installment of what now looks to be shaping up as five-part series, I hope to bring a Wisdom perspective to that profound liminal sphere encompassing conception, birth, and the formation of the soul; for it’s in the metaphysical confusion surrounding these mysteries, I believe, that the roots of our present abortion conundrum really have their origin.
Note that I say “a Wisdom perspective” rather than “the Wisdom perspective”, for the Wisdom tradition is by no means monochrome. My comments here reflect the strands of the lineage that have most directly informed my own understanding; specifically, the Gurdjieff Work and the Christian mystical/esoteric lineage running through the Gospel of Thomas, the Philokalia, Jacob Boehme, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. They also reflect some of the thinking at the forefront of contemporary embryology, particularly as represented in the work of Dutch embryologist Jaap van der Wal.
The beginnings of life
The Wisdom tradition would affirm vigorously that life does not merely begin at conception; it is already well underway by the time of conception – “life” here understood not as a purely biological phenomenon, but as flow, dynamism, and intelligent purposiveness. In contrast to earlier, more mechanical models, which tended to see conception in Darwinian terms (“the fittest sperm takes the egg”), contemporary embryological research suggests a much more collaborative model, far more akin to Nash-ian Game Theory than to Darwinian survival of the fittest: a myriad of sperm collaborate to place a single sperm before the egg, which then opens – volitionally – rather than simply being battered or overwhelmed.
There is evidence as well that conception occurs according to a full-fledged Law of Three model. It’s not simply sperm / egg / baby but, rather, sperm / egg / X / baby, where X represents the infusion of some mysterious animating force beyond the immediate biochemistry.
Those of us who participated in the 2012 Tucson Wisdom School will no doubt never forget that powerful moment when Wisdom student Nancy Denman, a research embryologist from British Columbia, described how the process of conception actually occurs: “The egg opens to a single sperm”, she explained, “then closes”. For about twenty-four hours there is stillness. Then, all of a sudden, the egg starts vibrating violently. “‘Ignition!’ we all call it”. Then she added parenthetically, “Those of us of a more religious bent might be inclined to describe it as “the descent of the Spirit.”
However this X-factor is named, it certainly seems to function as a third term in the old “nature versus nurture” conundrum, offering still another line of explanation as to why babies conceived by the same parents and raised in the same household under the same value system frequently wind up displaying such markedly different personality traits. “Our essence comes from the stars”, Gurdjieff always insisted. There is something in the formation of a new life that cannot be reduced to pure biochemistry; it seems to be an emergent property of the act of conception itself.
Life not Soul
So far so good. There is nothing in the above that should raise any eyebrows whatsoever among even the most ardent pro-lifers. “What part of life do you not understand?” If anything, we are pushing back the leading edge of life into even earlier in the process, into the intrinsic purposiveness that Teilhard de Chardin and others would see as part of the irreversible intelligence of evolution itself.
But hang onto your hats – this next step is where we are about to part company rather dramatically with traditional pro-life metaphysics. For the Wisdom tradition would suggest that Life – which indubitably is present at the moment of conception if not well before – is not synonymous with Soul. The terms are often used interchangeably, and it is precisely here, in this confusion, that the Gordian knot is originally tied.
In traditional Catholic metaphysics, this “X-factor” would immediately be identified as “the soul”, the essence of the living human being. The soul is created by God and bestowed at conception. Once bestowed, it is henceforward immortal within the cosmos; death will change its state but will not destroy it. Thus, the soul trajectory is established from the very beginning; from this the moment of conception forward, this uniquely particular and fully formed human identity will make its way through the journey of life, along the way accumulating virtue or vice – in acknowledgement of which it will be assigned its permanent dwelling place in either heaven or hell.
In the light of this venerable but antiquated metaphysical road map (note how it’s steeped in “substance theology”, long since invalidated by contemporary scientific models), it is easy to understand both the urgency and the pathos dominating the “pro-life” strategy. Denying the gift of life to even a two-cell fetus is tantamount to killing a defenseless human soul. The assumption governing much of the pro-life rhetoric seems to be that somehow pro-choice folks don’t “get” that a human life is a human soul, and they need to be shown that it is, often in emotionally exaggerated and manipulative ways; hence those “abortion stops a beating heart” billboards.
The Wisdom tradition – at least the lineage of the tradition I have been formed in – would see it differently. What is bestowed in that moment of “ignition” is not yet a soul but, rather, the potential to develop a soul. Soul does not come at the beginning, it comes at the end, forged and fused in the crucible of life itself (or perhaps better, in the womb of life) through the conscious weaving of that hand which is dealt at the moment of conception.
The notion of a “developmental soul” comes as a shock and perhaps even an affront to traditional Christian metaphysics. But hear me out here: it has been a staple in the Western esoteric tradition from the get-go, as I will document in my next post. But even more compellingly, it holds the potential, I believe, to bring an authentic resolution to the abortion impasse, and to tie together that great desideratum so far escaping us: that integral “pro-life” stance that sees all stages of life as equally compelling and worthy of sacred protection.
Stay tuned for the next installment – to follow promptly.
https://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Knot.png632669TCS Adminhttps://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/logo-new-2021.pngTCS Admin2017-08-23 15:57:562021-09-30 09:27:00When does life begin?
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?
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.
In my previous blog post, I invited members of our Wisdom community to begin to engage a conversation on the emotion-charged issue of abortion rights as a means to promote respectful dialogue to think beyond this singular issue. It is with no little “fear and trembling” that I launch a foray into this quintessentially Catholic moral ground. But to the extent that abortion has become the tail wagging the dog, chaining much of the Catholic political conscience to the decidedly un-Christian agendas of the religious right – and to the extent that this “elephant in the room” continues to go unmentioned in the otherwise compelling moral analysis recently emerging from Vatican – I feel some obligation as an American citizen and a wisdom teacher to at least try to get the ball rolling.
Forgive me: this is long for a blog. But take it in small doses, and take your time.
Some preliminary remarks
If my memory serves me correctly, in one of his earliest encyclicals the Pope already laid out some firm groundwork here when he warned against a myopic, single-pointed focus that inevitably twists moral issues out of context. That’s surely what the abortion issue has become in the US, an instantaneous flashpoint. But minus specific guidance as to how to back the Church down off this ledge, I don’t see a practical way to take the first step toward defusing the tension. Is anybody seriously going to be damned fool enough to say, “Hey, we’ve decided that human life doesn’t begin at conception,” or “The rights of the unborn don’t matter”? There seems to be “no way to get from he-ah to they-ah,” as we like to say in Maine, so the issue keeps running in circles.
Some preliminary reflections
Well-nigh universally, the liminal zones bordering life and death – i.e., what happens before birth or after death – have been regarded as a Mystery entrusted to the great spiritual traditions. The traditions offer different perspectives and instructions, but always with a common baseline of 1) respect for the sacredness of these passages; and 2) the need to prepare for these passages, and to live one’s life in conscious relationship with them. The plethora of spiritual practices offered by all sacred traditions are aimed, among other things, at developing a capacity to navigate this territory using more subtle and refined faculties of perception (in Christian tradition this has traditionally been referred to as “faith”).
Across the board, the experience of most committed practitioners is that they eventually “live into” an intimate mystical familiarity with these liminal zones, acquiring the capacity to personally validate spiritual truths inaccessible by the rational intellect alone. Apart from this special training, the rational intellect remains dominant and is the basis of our common social contract. And this, I would say, is a good thing, for the attempt to impose theological dogma concerning the liminal when the inner faculties have not been yet developed to personally validate it leads to the devolution of faith into “blind faith” and opens the doors to theocratic totalitarianism and manifold forms of spiritual abuse to which our culture has become increasingly sensitized.
In former eras, when the population of any given nation was overwhelmingly of the same spiritual tradition, it was fairly simple to conflate these two tracks. The word “catholic ” (as in “Catholic church”) literally means “universal” and, back in the era when the foundations of moral theology were being laid down, the known world was indeed just that. There were Catholics, “heathens”, and missionaries: not much in between.
Nowadays, that is no longer even remotely true. Even in our tiniest nations – and certainly in a nation as vast and sprawling as the United States – there is no longer a single presumed overarching spiritual tradition. There are many – and increasingly none. The fragile glue maintaining civility across increasingly diverse populations is the social contract itself. “Co-exist” is indeed the watchword of our times. Any attempt by one group to reassert its claim that its vision is truly “catholic” – i.e., universally binding – inflicts inevitable misery and violence on the rest.
For this reason, I would propose to offer here what amounts to an essentially two-tier solution governing our deliberations on the abortion issue. The first tier (which one might argue is actually the more “catholic” in the original sense of the term) is consistent with our evolving understanding of human rights and our growing awareness, in a converging world, of the need for our common human family to set universal baselines for sustainable “best practices” with regard to environmental protection, resource allocation, disease control, and population control. The second tier, encapsulating the wisdom carried in the sacred traditions, bears witness to the sacred potential of human life to come to its full spiritual fruition.
I will argue here that this “second tier” wisdom, regardless of the tradition from which it emanates, is binding within that tradition, not beyond it. But within it, lived with fidelity and depth, it has the capacity – indeed, inevitably WILL – serve to redeem and purify the rather clumsier practice lived at the common level.
So here is my six-point proposal. This is clearly – to my mind at least – simply an opening gambit that perhaps opens up a new way of framing the impasse. I eagerly invite your comments and refinements. For the moment I am thinking of this solely in terms of the USA, but hopefully it might have some eventual broader applications as well.
The first tier (the basic social contract)
We agree that it will be the government’s sacred responsibility to provide for the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” of each of its citizens.
This is the classic social contract built into the foundations of our nation, and for 241 years it has served us well.
We agree that included among the fundamental rights implicit within these freedoms is the right for a woman to control her own body and to hold the decisive vote as to whether a new life will be formed within her body.
I know that this one will feel like a punch in the gut to those whose sense of moral duty has been firmly pinned in championing the rights of the unborn. But it is the logical and necessary consequence of Point 1, which is in turn the necessary starting point for a social contract founded on a clear separation of church and state. While the government will do its best to provide for the rights of ALL its citizens – including those in utero – nevertheless, in those difficult circumstances when the two are in direct conflict, we agree that the rights of the present and quantifiable members of its citizenry take precedence over the rights of those still under the custody of the liminal sphere.
But we have not thereby disposed of all concern for the unborn! For those feeling punched in the gut, please continue on to Point 4.
We agree that in a world so deeply threatened by poverty, disease, and overpopulation, the government should exercise responsible stewardship by providing access to birth control and family planning.
These are envisioned not as moral concessions but as fundamental health rights.
This, then, would comprise my version of a sustainable social contract, with strong legal and moral precedent in the American notion of individual freedom.
The second tier
We agree that the spiritual traditions are individually at liberty to invite or impose a higher standard of conduct upon their adherents in accordance with that tradition’s understanding of moral and ethical obligation.
While this may at first sound like a double-standard, I believe it is one where there is already strong precedent in the spiritual traditions. Already in Catholicism, for example (in fact, in all sacred traditions featuring a monastic expression), marriage is seen as the general baseline while celibacy is seen as a “higher way”. The decision to walk the celibate path is not universally imposed, but on those who choose it, it becomes morally binding.
Traditionally the inducements offered to invite this higher level of commitment were pitched around personal fulfillment or excellence: a higher spiritual attainment, admission to heaven, etc. But as the Wisdom tradition has consistently maintained (and, as modern physics, specifically the concept of quantum entanglement, confirms), the real efficacy of this higher level of practice lies in its leavening effect upon the whole, raising the bar of spiritual energy and available grace for everyone. A spiritual path practiced with high integrity and commitment emits a transforming energy of its own, which goes much further in actually securing a higher level of spiritual understanding than individuals conscripted into a level of moral behavior they neither understand nor personally assent to.
My intuition is that a significant portion of Catholics voluntarily taking on the Church’s traditional moral teachings on family planning and abortion would do more to better the lot of the unborn than a entire nation forced into compliance with laws experienced as coercive and personally injurious. If the active practice of an authentic sacred tradition produces as its fruits “peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”, as Christian tradition (and all traditions) have staunchly maintained, then it is to be expected that these qualities, once actually attained, would percolate through the entire body of our country’s citizenry, if nothing else elevating the climate and respectfulness of the civic discourse. It has always been said that Christians taught first by example – by the fragrance of a life lived with compassionate integrity. It is still our best bet going into the future, particularly where the changes we’re looking to see involve those liminal realms – birth and death – where the spiritual integrity of the gesture is far more impactful than the immediate victory wrested by means which belie their ends.
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The last two points are more general, extending beyond the specific abortion issue in order to attempt to establish a climate in which a pluralistic nation, in rapid social transition and spanning at least a three-level gap in levels of consciousness as measured by contemporary evolutionary maps (from amber to green, tribal- to world-centric) might still continue to engage in civil discourse and a healthy give-and-take:
We agree that government will not intervene with the internal standards of conduct imposed by a spiritual tradition upon its adherents, so long as these standards do not directly threaten the public health or safety. Neither will it establish and promote these standards as binding upon all its citizens.
I would expect this to be a continuing grey area – and rightly so – in that ongoing dance between religious freedom and public safety. There will still be regular legal challenges – as to, for example, whether Christian Scientists should be compelled to seek medical attention for their children or Old Order Mennonites forbidden to use corporal punishment on theirs; whether homophobic town clerks should be required to issue marriage licenses to gay couples or homophobic merchants be required to bake them wedding cakes. In a less polarized society than ours has now become, this would all remain within the realm of healthy give-and-take by which the collective social conscience is slowly nudged ahead.
In order to back down the polarization, however, which by now has escalated to unmanageable levels, I would add in a corollary here which, while it personally breaks my liberal heart, is I believe the only realistic concession that will represent a significant stance of “bargaining in good faith” to ease the present stand-off:
5a. The government agrees not to use its juridical power to impose secular affirmative action standards upon dissenting spiritual groups operating within their own sectarian networks.
In this matter, I am much guided by the model set by my own Episcopal Church in its landmark decisions to embrace women’s ordination and gay marriage. While these decisions, once passed by the General Convention, became the law of the Church, there was a long timeline for total compliance, and wide latitude was given for dissenting clergy and congregations to slowly acclimatize to the new state of affairs through continued conversation and study, with the right to personally opt out of participation in actions that felt to them morally offensive (bishops opposed to women’s ordination, for example, would be able to place their women postulants under the care of a neighboring bishop, nor would a church adamantly uncomfortable with women priests have one foisted upon them). Time was allowed for healing and assimilation, with responses erring on the side of forbearance rather than a self-righteous pressing of the issue.
Spiritual groups will refrain from seeking to impose their specific moral values or agenda as the law of the land, to the extent that these values either exceed or undercut baseline freedoms already guaranteed above.
A work in progress…
The proposal set forth here is admittedly a compromise. But beyond perhaps easing the polarization, I believe it actually restores a generically rightful balance. In arguing that sacred teachings are binding within a specific spiritual tradition but not beyond it, I believe I am not only acknowledging one of the realities of our pluralistic world, but actually calling on an inherent capacity of these two complimentary streams to counterbalance and bootstrap each other. At its best, the secular state can rescue the sacred traditions from their tendency toward monological thinking and extremism. And at their best, the sacred traditions remind us that the meaning of life is derived from exactly those liminal edges, in the renewed and deeper stabilization of the capacity to live as human beings according to those higher faculties of perception which have never been fully actualized – and by my estimation never will – within purely secular models. Severally and collectively, the spiritual traditions are the evolutionary omega, calling us on to what we have forgotten, or what we may still become.
I realize that many of my Catholic friends will be saying, “yes, but what about all those unborn babies?” As you recall, this proposal began with two assertions, both emerging from my perspective as Wisdom teacher. The first is that pre-birth and post-death belong to those great liminal Mysteries of life, and are best left in the custody of the sacred traditions; the second is that the spiritual practices carefully curated by each of these traditions afford access to these Mysteries in ways that the rational mind cannot comprehend. In the absence of this specific spiritual training (in Christianity, its lineage flows through contemplative prayer), perception will default to the rational mind, where abortion indeed looks like “baby killing”, and emotions instantly bridle at this presumed assault on the innocent. From the more rounded, three-dimensional perspective that opens up from “mind in the heart”, the situation takes on an entirely different coloration. It is this Wisdom perspective that I will exploring in my final blog post.
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Dear Members and Friends of The Contemplative Society,
Advent: a time of waiting, of drawing more inward, a season of contemplation. It is easy for our personal energies to be dispersed and scattered, especially at this time of year. In the midst of the restlessness, fear, and general noise of day-to-day living, I am mindful of the need to consciously and honestly take a closer look at how we manifest our own energies. Advent is an opportunity to take time, to pause in the midst of all that calls us outward. We have an opportunity at this very moment as we read this to sense the activity and energies within our own minds, emotions, and physical bodies. Can we practice being here now in the midst of all that pulls our attention away from the present moment?
Advent is an opportunity to open to that place within where the deep, the holy, the inexpressible resides. Soon the festivities, celebrations, and joyful outpouring will be upon us providing much opportunity to manifest outwardly in abundance, gratitude, and thanksgiving. The weeks of Advent are a perfect container for allowing the soul to hibernate and quieten for a time. During these last days of Advent might we, like Mary, “treasure up these things and ponder them” in our hearts, or as Fr. Bruno says below, “allow yourself to be gathered into it”, into that place where “you know within yourself the perfect stability of the universe”?
Fr. Bruno Barnhart died a year ago, on November 28th, the eve of the first Sunday in Advent last year. Fr. Bruno was a Roman Catholic priest at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, and has been on my heart and mind this Advent. Cynthia and Bruno were two of my earliest contemplative teachers. Contemplatives on Vancouver Island were blessed to have a group who annually brought Fr. Bruno here to lead and teach at extended silent retreats at the Sisters of St. Ann’s retreat house, Queenswood, and later at Bethlehem Retreat Centre. The extended sitting, as well as the teaching, deeply nourished me as well as challenged my pre-existing assumptions of what defined a spiritual life. I am deeply grateful to have been the recipient of Fr. Bruno’s words and his remarkable presence which gave witness to a life lived deeply. Those times of deep retreat laid a firm foundation and continue to inform my spiritual practice and growth today. This section from Fr. Bruno’s book, Second Simplicity(p. 20-21) seems timely for this season of year:
Friend, just for a moment, allow your mind to disengage itself from its surface and to be drawn inward by the pull of its root, its invisible ground and stem. There at the center you are aware of something uncircumscribed, which is one with yourself, which is yourself illimitable. There: we should say here, for in this place there is only here. This is the here of being, the place of the burning bush, the crossing of time and space, of history and possibility, of experience and cosmos.
You cannot think of this, it is not an object of thought. You cannot focus on it, but from time to time it enkindles, it becomes conscious within you, and you can allow yourself to be gathered into it.
…What if it is not a place but everyplace, what if it surrounds you, so that the problem is not that of finding a way to it, but of finding the way out of the ways in which you are stuck? What if is the everywhere that we are imprisoned from, blinded from, the burning reality that we reach toward at every moment through the strong vertical bars of our mind, our will?
But still there are these moments of consciousness. There are moments when you know within yourself the perfect stability of the universe and the absolute sufficiency, the intrinsic rectitude of light.
…Maybe the way is a crazy multiple of love for this thing inside us: the pearl, the treasure. But be careful not to name it in such a way that you bring it home. For you do not live where you think you do. Instead, let it lead you. Let it be wild, an eccentric center, a city hidden in the wilderness, an unspoken name, an unspeakable syllable, a fire burning all the words into a wild and weaving script of smoke. Come back to this again and again.
One practice that can support our intention to open and receive is Centering Prayer. Cynthia’s first book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening is one of the best books available on this practice and I eagerly await the follow-up to this book, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice, which is now available for pre-order from Shambhala Publications. Fr. Thomas Keating writes of Cynthia’s newest book, “A masterpiece of spiritual wisdom firmly rooted in the Christian mystical tradition. A brilliant analysis of nondual Christianity in theory and in practice and a major contribution to the Centering Prayer movement and to interspiritual dialogue.”
I am grateful to contemplatives around the world who continue to support the mission of The Contemplative Society in its efforts to encourage contemplative practice and wisdom teaching. May this Advent and Christmas be a holy time for you filled with abundance and joy.
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I want to make very clear to all of you that the “keep calm and carry on” tone of my earlier (immediately post-election) post does not imply that I’m feeling sanguine about the course of events now facing our country and our world. Quite to the contrary, I believe over the next several months we’re in for some hard reversals, probably harder than most Americans born post-World War II have ever seen in their lifetime.
I’ve been out here on Eagle Island for a few days of Advent deep listening, trying to second-guess myself. But the premonition remains.
And it’s still Wisdom’s hour. Because I believe that those of us seriously committed to walking the Wisdom path have something to bring to the mix which most of our culture – either secular or spiritual – is simply not going to be able to get at. And it’s the missing piece, I believe, where clarity and resolve are to be found, if at all.
As you know, the two main influences on my overall metaphysical bearings are Teilhard and Gurdjieff. From Teilhard I get the reassurance that deep hope takesplace over deep time. So much of our human terror and horror comes from trying to compress the timescale too tightly, insisting that coherence must be found over the course of only a few generations, or at best a few centuries. That’s like a pressure cooker without a steam valve; it will inevitably blow up.
From Gurdjieff, I’ve come to understand that all planetary evolution operates under the sway of the Law of Three – and that, once again, we must look beyond immediate “good and bad” / ”winners and losers” modes of thinking in order to see the deeper lines of causality actually directing the unfolding from within a still-coherent field. What looks in the short-range to be unmitigated catastrophe can prove in the longer range to be addressing serious systemic malformations that need to be confronted and corrected before the evolutionary mandate can truly move forward.
It’s exactly this kind of long-scale and impartial visioning that we need to bring to these up-ended times.
My stubborn foreboding is that in the upcoming months we will witness the substantial dismantling not only of the past eight years of Obama progressive liberalism, or even the past eighty years of New Deal social welfare, but something far more resembling eight hundred years of the Western intellectual tradition – all the way back to the 13th century when the rise of scholasticism and the secular university began to displace the hegemony of the faith-based dogmatism in favor of free inquiry based on rational empiricism.
And the centerpiece in this domino chain of destruction is of course democracy itself, whose whole foundation lies in the sanctity of the above-mentioned principles.
Faced with threats – already underway – to what most of us still take for granted as the unshakable foundation of our national life – freedom of speech, freedom of the press, civility of discourse, and a commonly agreed-on factual data base – I believe that the great American liberal progressive establishment will almost inevitably lose heart. I am seeing it happening already: people simply too numb and disoriented to even know what’s hit them. The possibility that democracy itself might fall victim to the collective insanity now massing on its horizon is too devastating even to ponder; we either dig in our heels, give up in despair, or distract ourselves in a dwindling oasis of “business as usual”.
Let there be no mistake about this: what has just come to pass is a serious blow to the foundations of Western Civilization. To name it at a lesser degree of magnitude is to set ourselves up for mere reactivity rather than understanding. We need to name it for what it is and be able to hold our footings as the edifices of post-Enlightenment culture reel-and-tumble in this seismic shift.
And yet, I think it is precisely at this scale – i.e., eight hundred years – that we can discover the real ley lines of the Law of Three at work, in the situation, and we can understand more powerfully, impartially, and strategically what needs to be done as we hold the space for the course corrections which have necessarily arisen. This is not the destruction of consciousness, but a legitimate and ultimately propitious reconfiguration. We must not lose sight of that hope. If nothing else, we need to keep saying it so that it does not vanish from the face of the earth.
I invite all who feel so moved to join me in the work awaiting at this other scale of magnitude. It will involve a combination of deep practice and wider reading and thinking.
The deep practice is about collecting our hearts so as to be more directly and acutely in alignment with “the conscious circle of humanity” – those of all ages and faiths who help hold the bandwidth of compassionate and wise presence around this fragile earth. It is in this imaginal bandwidth that wisdom comes magnificently into her own, but only as our own hearts grow wide and gentle and calm enough to receive her.
Over the next few months, I will be listening further into how our work wants to take shape “on the ground”: independent small groups? A new round of Wisdom retreats? Online learning formats? Officially rebooting the Omega Order? Road not clear at this point. But I do know that the real Wisdom step is not to pre-design the format, but simply to put the heart out there and see how it seeds itself.
So that’s what I’m doing here, dark and cold time of the year, commemorating this weekend Advent III and the 21st anniversary of the crossing over, into that conscious circle, of Rafe [see Love is Stronger Than Death], in all things my teacher and lightholder.
Let me hear from you if you’re in.
Blessings and love,
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I’d like to share with you some reflections on what’s happening in this (post-) election cycle here in the United States. There has been so much pain and confusion these last few days and, at the same time, I have felt an amazing upsurge of deeply grounded, newly energized, committed and emboldened hope, rising up through my heart as if from the heart of the earth itself – and I see it rising up and radiating out through so many others as well. I’m naming it an upsurge of “bodhisattva consciousness” – a deep and resolved commitment to work in the world for the liberation of all beings, and particularly for the most silenced and oppressed among us.
After December 19th, when the Electoral College electors cast their ballots, it is almost certain that Donald Trump will be our president-elect. How did we get here, and what is happening? First, let’s scale way back and take the big-picture, long-range view (or, at least, MY big-picture view!): this planet, this entire cosmos, is the unfolding and awakening of God-Incarnate, God-embodied, God-in-form. For those of us who work in a Christian stream, there is the particular point of Incarnate-awakening and initiation that begins and unfolds from the heart of Jesus, and we take our stand and work in that lineage.
At the same time, there is a cosmic dimension to Incarnation – the universe itself, the whole shebang of material existence, is God-Incarnate – and through a fourteen-billion-year process of unfolding, God has been evolving outlets with the capacity for self-reflexive consciousness. That’s us. Through us, evolution is awakening to itself. As our hearts stretch, expand, grow, we’re developing the capacity to bear and express, to speak into being the very names, the qualities, closest to the Heart of God – universal love, infinite mercy, tender compassion. Through us, the Heart of God is speaking itself into form. And through our very bearing of those names – in and as that bearing – we awaken in Love, and Love awakens in us, to the absolute unity of all that is. This has been the goal of the entire fourteen-billion-year unfolding.
We, along with this planet, are the deepening self-disclosure of God-in-form. We are the revelation of the Heart of God. We are the manifest, incarnate life of God – ever-moving, through evolution, towards a deeper, fuller, and more conscious expression of Incarnation, of oneness and love awakened-in-form. And for the past 100 years, through the process of globalization, that process has been accelerating, as our hearts grow to embrace a deepening experience of unity-in-diversity (religious, ethnic, cultural, sexual), and a softening or erasure of old boundary lines.
At the same time, fear arises. We feel safer behind our old lines. They are comfortable, familiar. The forces of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia – they are the denying forces pushing back against the arising unity. These forces experience themselves as “protecting” the world-as-it-has-been. When that world feels threatened, these forces express themselves as fear, dig in, and work to maintain the old boundary-lines at all cost. THIS IS A NATURAL AND UNAVOIDABLE PROCESS. It is the road by which evolution winds. While taking our clear stand with the forward movement, can we hold even these denying forces in compassion as they enter their death throes – yes, even as they inflict violence and pain on others in the process? It is a high calling to hold to this kind of seeing, and it cannot always be maintained. But simply knowing that it’s possible is an achievement.
As for where we are now: over the past decade, following the election of a (fairly) progressive president, progressive, global values have been the affirming force within our wider culture – resulting in marriage equality, increased climate change awareness, etc. Conservative values have been the denying force, pushing back and resisting (Read Cynthia Bourgeault’s post on the Law of Three and the election). That grinding, painful process is simply the way a gradual, growing shift in consciousness takes place.
With progressive values in the ascendant these past eight years, the fear-based currents of racism, homophobia, etc. have been pushed underground – where they’ve been brewing and building. And now, with the advent of this election cycle – and it must be seen and named clearly: through the rhetoric of Donald Trump’s campaign – those forces, previously suppressed, have been given voice and hope: “Yes, we can take the world back to what it was! We can maintain the old lines!”
This, however, isn’t possible. The evolution of consciousness and the forces of globalization are simply a rising tide. The current of evolution can be resisted, but not ultimately prevented or diverted (short of global, nuclear destruction) – quite simply because God is the One driving it (and to be clear: from WITHIN, not from “above”), not us. We awaken into and serve the current that is already coursing through the planet. Or we resist it. But it is building.
This is seen both in Hillary Clinton’s staggering win in the popular vote (well over one million now and continuing to grow as absentee votes are counted) and (even more so) in the profound surge of energy from Millennials around Bernie Sanders’ campaign. And to be honest, a great deal of the denying force comes from an older generation that is dying out, and from a privileged white population that is rapidly losing sway as our country’s demographics shift. Given time, it will quite simply fall away.
As for those of us standing with the rising tide of global, progressive values, we have in many ways become complacent – and many of us (mostly white) naïve as to the degree to which regressive values are still alive, well, and entrenched within the wider culture. And now with this flip in the affirming/denying poles seen with the rise of Trump, all of that changes.
Now our collective shadow has been unleashed and brought clearly into the light. That shadow includes, yes, the forces of conscious racism, etc. but also unconscious, systemic racism bolstered by white privilege not consciously wielded for the good. It includes complacency hidden behind self-righteousness, blame, and judgment. While this shadow remained hidden, lurking, it was easy enough to ignore. But now that we are seeing it, WE MUST KEEP SEEING IT. We must keep shining clear, clear light. There are constant siren calls now for “peace” and “unity” – which are really calls to silence the oppressed. A “unity” achieved by pushing the oppressed back into silence is no kind of unity at all.
We must be clear: minority populations are not in a state of denial because “their candidate lost” – they are in deep fear because Donald Trump won. We have seen a massive rise in hate-crimes since election night, and this is tied directly to the hate-rhetoric used by the Trump campaign. These suppressed forces have now been given permission to come into the public discourse and are fighting to be normalized.
We have unleashed our shadow. In one sense, this is necessary – because it’s happening. It’s easy to point fingers and find someone to blame (out-of-touch liberal elites! racist homophobes!), but can we instead step back and see this as life unfolding, as God awakening, through a very painful and messy evolutionary process? The gift is that now we are SEEING. Seeing what’s been there all along. Seeing our shadow. And so our work now is to simply keep shining light where it needs to be shined. We must not let this rhetoric become normalized, and we must not let it go back into hiding.
Two-thousand years ago Jesus said, “There is light within a person of light, and it enlightens the whole world. But if you fail to become light, there is darkness.” We must hold in light and clear-seeing the forces at play, not backing down but also remaining grounded deeply in love and in our own contemplative hearts. When truly seen, darkness cannot long survive.
Anti-Semitism was a powerful undercurrent within Christian thought and theology for almost 2,000 years – and it is still not dead. But following the horrors of the Holocaust during the 20th century (lest we forget, THIS PAST CENTURY), a bright and terrifying light was shined on where those forces can and WILL take us. And almost overnight, in response, the mainstream Christian traditions worked to expunge anti-Semitism from their theologies. It took truly seeing. Would the churches have done this work if both the light and the terror had not reached such intensity? While the transformation can in no way justify the immense pain and suffering, it does show us how we can harness our moments of clear and terrifying seeing and use them as opportunities for change.
We are being called out of our complacency. Bodhisattva consciousness is rising. And without this flip of poles, that might never have happened. This moment is a terrifying gift. In the words of my friend Bob Sabath, posted the morning after: “Trump does not know it yet, but he just gave birth to a movement, just not the movement that he thinks. I imagine that a lot of people woke up this morning, got down on their knees, and asked what is theirs to do at this time. Business as usual is over. Time to weep. Time to dig deep and find ways to connect our lives more fully with what is broken in the world. Time for risk-taking in our own lives. Time to quiet our fears and panic and despair, and listen deeply for the third force needed in our own lives and in the world.”
Listen deeply, friends. I am no fan of militaristic metaphors used for the spiritual life. Nevertheless, a battle is coming, and is now here. Our weapons are light (sharp, clear-seeing), love (non-judging, compassionate awareness), resistance (refusing to fall backwards into complacency, instead joining the forward movement of evolution on its messy way through struggle and pain), and relationship (holding our hearts open – within our capacity – so as to allow for authentic connection, born of deep and vulnerable listening). As Jesus constantly says in the Gospels: be sober, be vigilant, be watchful. But do not fear.
I’m reminded of the assurance given by the Blessed Virgin Mary to the shepherd children at Fatima at the onset of WWII: “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.” Yes, in the end the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the One Heart of God – the One Heart of Humanity – will triumph, and is triumphing even now. Truly, I feel it as an immense hope surging through our planet. Breathe into and through that hope, and let it take flesh in your life. The work ahead of us will not be without pain and struggle. In the face of it all, let us speak into being the names of God: mercy, compassion, and love.
Ring out the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack, a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in
(Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016)
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