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Fullness of Life

This piece by Cynthia Bourgeault is the sixth in a series beginning with “A Surprising Ecumenism“, her response to Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica. The second is “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal“, the third is “When Does Life Begin?“,  the fourth is “The Developmental Soul“, and the fifth is Teilhard, the Personal, and the Developmental Soul“.


A brief poetic interlude before the final run-up on a conclusion.

The clear, simple truth: nothing can fall out of God. Where would it go?

God is not somebody (not me) – somewhere else (not here). God is the all, the now, the whole; the undivided, dynamic totality of form and formlessness. As Barbara Brown Taylor pictures it so vibrantly in The Luminous Web (p. 74):

Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light – not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them – but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationship that animates everything that is.

We are pouring from fullness to fullness here.

From the perspective of the cove, the tide rises and falls in great contrasting cycles. A wharf riding gently at sea level on the high tide may be perched fifteen feet above a mudflat when the tide has emptied out. The sea ebbs and flows; the cove appears as “full” or “empty.” But from the perspective of the ocean, the volume of water is always the same; like a great watery amoeba it simply extends and retracts its arms into the nooks and crannies of coastline from its own serenely undiminished magnitude.

When we think about life in terms of rising-and-falling, beginning-and-ending, we are betraying our finite perspective. “The individual drop that we are disappears in time”, writes Raimon Panikkar in Christophany (p. 130) [also see our audio set by Cynthia Bourgeault of the same name]. “But the personal water that we are (the drop’s water) lives eternally – if, that is, we have succeeded in realizing the (divine) water that we are.” If, in other words, we have succeeded in shifting our perspective from cove to ocean.

It’s not easy, for sure. Down here in earth-time, the fleetingness of duration weighs heavily on us. “The paths of glory lead but to the grave”, Thomas Grey famously lamented. So brief the duration of a human life; so quickly over and gone. And when that life is but embryonic, cut off before it is even born, the pathos seems doubly brutal. We feel it as an exception, a violation. We do not see – do not want to see – even the slightest continuity with the universal, impartial agency of those “Ways of Life” Teilhard speaks of – ingenuity, profusion, indifference (!!) – to which all lower orders in the chain of life are bound. Duration seems so precious to us when it comes to human beings; less so, perhaps when we try to extend it to virtual particles or stars exploding in-and-out of existence in distant galaxies – or for that matter, to the millions of un-germinated seeds for every fetus engendered; to the ants, viruses, butterflies, starfish washed up on a beach in a freak flood tide, abandoned pets, livestock en route to the slaughterhouse…Where do our hearts draw the line?

“Only from the spirit, where it reaches its felt paroxysm, will the antinomy clear”, writes Teilhard – “and the world’s indifference to its elements will be transformed into an immense solicitude – in the sphere of the person”.  But perhaps not quite in the way we are expecting. Personhood does not change the laws to which the entire created order is bound, but perhaps it gives us some perspective by rescuing consciousness from its captivity to duration.

So what about all those “souls” who don’t get a chance to live this life, spread their wings, even draw their first breath? Is something unbearably precious lost forever? As I ponder, from my own human perspective, the pathos of a life seemingly cut short in time, I find myself drawn back time and again to this haunting poem by Laura Gilpin (entitled “The Two-headed Calf”), which I first came across in Belden Lane’s spiritual classic, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes.

Tomorrow when the farm boys find this
freak of nature, they will wrap his body
in newspaper and carry him to the museum. 

But tonight he is alive in the north
field with his mother. It is a perfect
summer evening: the moon rising over
the orchard, the wind in the grass. And
as he stares into the sky, there are
twice as many stars as usual. 

I offer this poem as a kind of dark solace in the face of that sickening, “punched-in-the gut” feeling that arises whenever we try to fathom a life that will never know the grace of duration in time. All life is one life, ultimately, and this one life is in the hands of God and is the hands of God. As humans, we properly feel grief and immense pathos when a potential life trajectory is suddenly cut off, either intentionally or by accident, and it is right that we should; that is the nature of our human sentiency. But to the extent that we can open our hearts and learn to feel all of life – in all its myriad yet particular forms – as the seamless sentiency of God, then perhaps we can loosen our grip on individual duration and let the unbroken wholeness of life flow according to its own mysterious deeper rhythm. The antidote to hardness of heart (from which our culture certainly suffers) may not lie so much in exaggerating the rights of the unborn as in opening our hearts more deeply to the unity – and free fall – that is divine love.

Nothing can fall out of God. Each and every created essence – whether plant, mineral, animal, human – participates in the symphony of divine self-disclosure in its own way and knows the fullness of divine mercy according to its own mode of perceptivity. Even a stone. Even a blade of grass. Most certainly a fetus. Most certainly at the hour of our death. Duration does not affect that holographic fullness, presumably even in a virtual particle. Even – sometimes especially – in brevity, the intensity of the whole is conveyed in a heightened form – twice as many stars as usual!

Granted, the gift of time gives us the window of opportunity to do some pretty amazing stuff – like developing a soul, for one! But the soul is for cosmic service. Cosmic fullness is something else again. It is the free and gratuitous birthright bestowed by God on every quark and particle of the created order. And we get to participate in it freely, fully, here and now, simply because each one of us is a tiny shareholder in the divine aliveness.

Nor does even an “interrupted life” ever pass out of the knowingness of God. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” says Psalm 139 – and if we turn that promise just slightly sideways, we can see in it a deeper assurance that has slipped by us on the first pass. Each individualized life is a trajectory – a probability wave, quantum physicists would call it – of divine self-manifestation that already exists in the heart of God. The heart of God is the infinite abyss of all possibilities. Its time will come round again.

Teilhard, the Personal, and the Developmental Soul

This piece by Cynthia Bourgeault is the fifth in a series beginning with “A Surprising Ecumenism“, her response to Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica. The second is “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal“, the third is “When Does Life Begin?“, and the fourth is “The Developmental Soul“.


But what about Psalm 139?

The biggest challenge in wrapping one’s head around this Wisdom notion of a developmental soul – at least for traditionally reared religious folks – is that it seems to fly in the face of that well-loved Biblical assurance that God is personally and intimately invested in the creation of each and every human being: “For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb”, the psalm’s text assures. In the face of this apparently explicit assurance that each human soul originates in God and reflects God’s personal handiwork, the alternative version – that developing a soul is the principal business of this life and that not all human lives will get there – seems bleak and impersonal. What could possibly be the advantage of looking at things this way?

The advantage is that it might – just might – knock us out of a cul de sac of sloppy and sentimental thinking based on an antiquated metaphysics that is no longer supported by science.

You may have already noticed how some of this sloppiness has slipped into some of the comments generated by this blog series. There is a strong tendency to use the terms “life”, “soul”, and “human person” interchangeably, as if they are equivalent. They manifestly are not. “Life begins at conception”, some of you have passionately reiterated – but not so: according to contemporary scientific models, life is already well underway at the time of conception; it is a property already shared by sperm and egg since it belongs as a general condition to the biosphere. Nor is the soul created at conception, if the developmental road map is to be taken seriously; soul is the fruit of the journey, not the seed.

What is created in that “ignition” moment at conception – and yes, it is a pivotal moment – is the individual human life, the temporarily separated spark of divine consciousness that will have the option, with tenacity and luck, to return to the divine fullness having realized a very different kind of substantiality within the cosmos.

The Wisdom teaching is clear: below a certain threshold, death brings an end to this temporary sense of individuated selfhood. The “soul” is not destroyed (since it has not yet come into being in the first place); the individual essence components are simply reabsorbed back into the biosphere. As Jesus himself expressed this ancient teaching in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, “All of nature with its forms and creatures exist together and are interwoven with each other. They will be resolved back, however, to their own proper origin, for the compositions of matter return to the original roots of their nature…

Above this threshold – with the crystallization of what we have been calling “second body” or soul in the true esoteric sense of the term – this dissolution does not take place (not immediately, at any rate). The individuality thus formed as the fruit of “conscious labor and intentional suffering” can hold his or her personhood within a wider spiritual cosmos which is not affected by the dissolution of the physical (earth-plane) body. This attainment is always viewed as being for cosmic servanthood, not for personal glory.

Teilhard and the Personal

Interestingly, Teilhard de Chardin arrives at a remarkably similar assessment from his scientific perspective. There is indeed a dividing line, he feels, and it is integrally related to some threshold of consciousness crossed in the human species. As he writes with astonishing power toward the end of The Human Phenomenon (p. 194):

Certainly the human being appears to disintegrate just like the animal. But here and there the phenomenon functions in reverse. Through death in the animal the radial [energy] is reabsorbed into the tangential. In the human, the radial escapes the tangential and is freed from it. There is an escape from entropy by a sudden reversal toward Omega. Death itself is hominized.1

Yes, the Wisdom tradition would agree, that is precisely what happens. But whereas Teilhard would at first appear to be according this “escape from the law of entropy” to all humans, the developmental model would assert that it in fact occurs to only some of them: those who, in the course of their lives have acquired/developed a soul – or, to put it in Teilhardian language, who have passed from mere individuals to becoming persons.

But is Teilhard in fact conferring this blessing on the entire human species? You have to admit, his “but here and there” is quite a teaser!

We know from elsewhere in The Human Phenomenon – and in fact, throughout his work – that Teilhard draws a very clear distinction between an individual and a person. For him the two terms are not synonymous, but more like progressive stages of a human journey. The individual is simply an autonomous human unit operating in accordance with biological necessity. The person has developed the gift of genuine interiority (in a way that dovetails closely with that Boros quote I shared with you in the last post). This interiority, moreover, is not individualistic or isolationist but is simultaneously the awareness of belonging to a greater whole. It is grounded in a dawning sense of a deeper human collectivity, which is at the same time a new evolutionary emergence.

The journey from individual to person is the essence of what Teilhard means by “hominization”. If this key Teilhardian term is understood to designate not simply the evolutionary appearance of the species homo sapiens, but rather the interior journey within each member of this species as he or she moves toward becoming a person, then we have a model which is essentially in line with the great Wisdom lineage of which Teilhard is our most recent powerful spokesperson.

“An immense solicitude – in the sphere of the person…”

As a biologist, Teilhard knew only too well that the biosphere is characterized by an extravagant wastefulness. Living organisms come into being in astonishing profusion, only to vanish just as quickly. In a powerful philosophical reflection on “The Ways of Life”, tucked into an early chapter in The Human Phenomenon, he designates the three core characteristics of life as profusion, ingenuity, and indifference toward individuals (p. 67):

So many times art, poetry, and even philosophy have depicted nature like a woman, blindfolded, trampling down a dust of crushed existences. In life’s profusion we find the first traces of this apparent hardheartedness. Like Tolstoy’s grasshoppers, life passes over a bridge of accumulated corpses…Life is more real than lives, as it has been said…

Here lost in number. There torn apart in the collective…The dramatic and perpetual opposition in the course of evolution between the element born of the multiple and the multiple constantly being born in the element.

Perhaps this perspective might be of some dark consolation as we step up to the plate and ponder the apparent “heartlessness” of a model in which many individualized essences do indeed “spontaneously abort”, failing to transform that initial individualized essence into a soul that will be cosmically viable beyond the womb of this life. This is, as Teilhard points out, simply the universal condition of the biosphere and, insofar as one remains firmly planted in that realm, its laws will continue to hold sway, no matter how hard we stamp our feet and emote about the “personal” nature of each newly conceived human life. The individual is not yet the personal. That belongs to another sphere.

But, says Teilhard, the value we are obliquely intuiting here does in fact exist; we are simply looking for it in the wrong place, assigning it to the wrong level of consciousness (p. 67):

Insofar as the general movement of life becomes more ordered, in spite of periodic resumptions of the offensive the conflict tends to resolve itself. Yet it is cruelly recognizable right to the end. Only from the spirit, where it reaches its felt paroxysm, will the antinomy clear; and the world’s indifference to its elements be transformed into an immense solicitude – in the sphere of the person.

“We are not there yet,” he cautions. And yet he does hold out for us here a pathway of hope, and a way of potentially resolving the fierce impasse around the personal so categorically invested in the newly conceived fetus. By Teilhard’s standards a fetus is a human individual, but it is not yet a person. And in tasting the difference between the two (and the developmental ground to be covered here which is the true meaning of being “pro-life”), we may finally be able to move forward.


Notes:

  1. This passage is filled with Teilhard-speak; my apologies. Tangential energy is for him the physical energy routinely measured by science. Radial energy corresponds to what most esoteric maps would call “psychic” energy: the finer energy of consciousness as it expresses itself in attention, prayer, will, or, for Teilhard, increasing self-articulation and complexification. Omega is his evolutionary endpoint, identical with Christ; “hominized” means transformed in the direction of becoming more fully human in its highest sense: coherent, conscious, compassionate.

Pentecost and Pacemakers

In May 2015, Cynthia Bourgeault shared a recent experience of a sudden health problem through the beautiful letter below. Thank you to Wisdom Way of Knowing (formerly Center for Spiritual Resources) for sharing the letter.


Pentecost 2015

 

Dear Wisdom Friends,

I guess you’re all wondering what happened to me last week.

The long and short of it is that on Saturday a week ago, while driving down from Maine to Massachusetts for our upcoming Ascensiontide Wisdom retreat at Glastonbury Abbey, I began to feel decidedly strange behind the wheel, needing to muster my entire concentration to keep from passing out. I spotted one of those blue hospital signs at a freeway exit and decided to follow it. A good intuition, it turns out! I was admitted with what’s known as acute third degree heartblock (which means that the heart’s electrical system is essentially in total meltdown), and emerged from the ordeal three days later with a new pacemaker happily ticking away in my chest.

It’s not exactly as if this came out of the blue. For a couple of years now I’d been complaining about difficulty with shortness of breath walking up hills, and I could tell inwardly that something was off. But my cardiologist had been focused on arterial issues rather than electrical ones, and the electrical system gave no outward signs of misbehaving. Just last January I’d been given a clean bill of heart health.

Glad I didn’t take his recommendation to begin a regular cardio fitness regime!

Drawing by Cynthia's grandchild

Drawing by Cynthia’s grandchild

This has all turned out as well as possible. While a heartblock is definitely a serious condition (worst case scenario is progression to sudden cardiac arrest), it is also one of the most easily treatable. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I am literally bionically reborn! My new high-tech pacemaker is programmed to cue off my natural atrial electrical impulse (the “top half” of the heartbeat) and help the ventricular impulse (the “lower half,” which was getting blocked) to synchronize. The result is that I am simply, fully “me” again, back in the ballgame with the old familiar pizzazz, and my eyes still blinking in wonder.

There is so much to be grateful for. If you have to have a medical emergency, this is about as cushioned as it gets. I was under 24-hour cardiac surveillance at a fine hospital until the surgery could be arranged, with the emergency pacemaker (if it came to that) right in the room. My daughter Lucy lives nearby, and was there at my side throughout the whole adventure — and now, is providing a wonderful space for recuperation while my new device and I settle in together. Best of all, my brilliant senior wisdom students, spearheaded by Bill Redfield and Patricia Speak, rose to the occasion magnificently and jointly co-created a memorable Ascensiontide retreat.

And from around the world, your love and prayers poured in. I felt deeply “carried” by a higher hand.

Everything being equal, I will receive the “all clear” from my pacemaker surgeon tomorrow and make my way back to Maine over the following two days, slowly resuming my normal activity (on which there should be no limitations). Thank heavens it was already a “hermit time” in my schedule, deliberately left wide open for writing and family visits.

The spiritual implications will take a bit longer to sink in. But for the moment, this is what’s uppermost in my mind:

For many years now during my evening psalmody I’ve chanted the line from Psalm 139: “the number of my days was appointed before one of them came into being.” And I think it’s Ecclesiastes where one finds the line, “Lord, make me to know the number of my days.” I know I’ve sung it in the Brahms Requiem. In fact, just six years ago at my first husband Cal’s memorial service.

Well, for better or worse, I now know the number of my days: 68 years, 2 months, 3+ days. Without being overly alarmist, it’s pretty clear to all concerned that the situation I experienced this weekend was not going to self-correct. Without those equal infusions of grace and modern technology my life would even now be winding down, or wound down already. As it is, I apparently have a 10-15 year medical extension, easily renewable if the rest of the one horse shay holds up.

It’s not like I’m now living on borrowed time, for this second wind that’s been given to me is fully my own life in this skin and bones, on this precious planet, and I intend to make the most of it. But you could say, perhaps, that it’s borrowed time from the Imaginal realm, a bit more space to explore the crucial dimensions of being finite, of bringing this all to a conscious fulfillment. And as I gradually get back into the rushing river of my life, I will try not to let this precious realization slip away.

Boundless thanks to all! In both realms. May I use this extension consciously and gratefully.

~ Cynthia