Star at the Centre by Paula Pryce
Outside, Douglas fir and larch are dancing in a brisk wind, ruffling themselves like chickadees in winter…
Outside, Douglas fir and larch are dancing in a brisk wind, ruffling themselves like chickadees in winter…
Mercy. An old-fashioned word that conjures up so many contrasting images. Mercy is “a bond,” writes Cynthia Bourgeault in Mystical Hope, “an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together.” Far from condescension or political power, the origin of the word mercy points instead to a flow of connectedness, reciprocity, and exchange.
Mercy is the great weaver that binds us together. With your assistance we will continue to work on the tapestry of conscious belonging, connectedness, and reciprocity – the binding love – that our world so needs.
Your ongoing support of The Contemplative Society is especially important this Advent. For many years, we have been grateful recipients of annual resources. A number of those resources are no longer available, and we are increasingly dependent on you, our donors, to help fund our work of supporting and teaching Wisdom Christianity.
Please consider a monthly, annual, or single donation to The Contemplative Society. Your donation matters.
“During these days when it’s hard to know what we can actually do for each other,” she and her local contemplative group have been practicing remotely to enkindle “the dialysis machine of which Cynthia has spoken: breathing in the suffering of the world into our own deepest heart, which is the heart of Christ, and breathing out compassion.”
“We are an improbable gathering, but a COVID-induced blessing. With the intensity of isolation now stretching over many months our holy and healing space in contemplation has strengthened my practice and given true solace – like a deep, clear pool of water.”
“I now trust more than ever in the connective tissue that I have with my contemplative community – within The Contemplative Society and in the world at large. No matter how alone this little old self may sometimes feel, I know more fully now that my ‘Real I’ is never alone.”
Our Kamloops contemplative group has evolved through several incarnations over the years. Initially we were simply four people in our local parish who were getting together weekly to share our stories and to “pray”. That was some twenty-five years ago. Four years into our existence I found myself at a week-long workshop-retreat on Centering Prayer given by Cynthia Bourgeault and was profoundly affected by both the practice and the teachings upon which it was built. After what was, for me, fifty years in the spiritual wilderness I felt that I was being given an utterly new way of approaching and even entering the Mystery that we called “God”.
When our group commenced meeting again that fall, the other folks had the courage to leap into the void with me and we began meditating at our weekly gatherings. As anyone who has done the practice knows it was not an easy undertaking. Simple, yes. Easy, no. We had differing responses to the practice: I took to it (*seemingly) like a fish to water; someone else had monkey-mind; one found that her thoughts were utterly relentless; and another found it distressing in the extreme – all but impossible given his personality. Nonetheless, we each of us persisted.
Flash forward five years we decided to open the doors to the wider Christian community (through personal invitations as well as church bulletins) in the hopes that this contemplative meditation/prayer practice might find some fertile soil outside of our small group. To that end we asked Cynthia to come and meet with us and give us her advice. Out of that time together, we decided to begin meeting twice a month as a larger group. That group came to be made up of people active in many Christian spiritual traditions (Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Baptist and Quaker). Over time it has also included Unitarian Universalist and others.
We’ve continued meeting twice a month for an hour and a half for the following fifteen years. (Monday evenings seem to be when most people are free, and we hold them on the second and fourth Mondays of each month from September through May regardless of whether they fall on a holiday or not – moving the Mondays to accommodate for holidays proved too confusing for folks.) We held our gatherings for a long time in a small Roman Catholic church after which we moved to the local Anglican cathedral – where we now meet.
The structure of the two Mondays has varied over the years – although our bedrock every time is twenty-five minutes of Centering Prayer and as much chanting as we can manage. We began by doing multi-yearbook studies on Cynthia’s first Centering Prayer book, on Kabir Helminski’s “Living Presence (aided by Lynn Bauman’s workbook) and on The Gospel of Thomas (using Lynn Bauman’s translation and commentary). There have been shorter explorations of other books as well – in particular “The Cloud of Unknowing”.
What we discovered over time is that there seemed to be a desire to go deeper than a head “understanding” of what the texts were saying. To that end we would break off into groups of four or five and apply the teachings to what we were experiencing in our own lives. While there was a good deal of discussion there were two difficulties: one was that while some people were more extroverted and willing to share, others were more introverted and reluctant to do so; the other was the issue of having to have one person in the group act as a leader – which put undue pressure on that person.
After much trial and error, we’ve come to something that works for us. What we’ve been doing for the past half-dozen years is the following: Our fourth Mondays are almost exclusively meditation and chanting – two twenty-five-minute sits are broken up with a walking meditation plus chanting at the beginning, the end and between the two sits. We discovered that people wanted more and more silence. And simple chanting,chanting, chanting.
Our second Mondays have one twenty-five-minute sit along with chanting at the beginning and the end. The rest of the time is spent doing Lectio Divina. Typically, it’s the Gospel reading for that Sunday –although all that’s required is that the reading is from scripture. The format is whatever the individual leading the evening chooses – but, again, silence is key. One format is: reading once through when we simply be with the reading followed by silence of a couple of minutes; the next reading (from either the same translation or a different one) is followed by more silence but this time we engage with our senses and feelings; after the final reading we speak the word or phrase that struck us and ask “What’s moving inside me? Inside my heart?” People can then choose to speak to whatever emerges from that place.
We can ask questions of ourselves, identify what we’re feeling or speak directly to God or to Jesus. There are no rules here beyond those of voluntary participation, confidentiality and no crosstalk. Perhaps something that someone else says might speak to what you’ve needed to hear. Perhaps you’re lost or frustrated. No rules. We simply open to the movement of God in our hearts – as best as we are able at this moment.
At the end of each gathering we have prayers of intercession/thanksgiving followed by chanting the Aramaic Our Father.
There have been times during the group’s evolution when “thlipsis” was the order of the day. It hasn’t always been easy. We’re human beings attempting to move beyond the small, narrative selves of personality and into our True-Selves-in-Christ. It’s a leap – and struggle and conflict do arise. The issues that people have raised have, almost exclusively, to do with the format of our gatherings. We’ve actually used Survey Monkey to make certain that we were moving in the direction which the group wanted to head. It’s an ongoing discernment.
We also gather one Sunday a month to hold what we call a “Eucharistic Communion”. It follows the typical Mass structure (chanted Kyrie; chanted Psalm refrain; Gospel read twice; Lectio; reflection by the presider and others as they see fit; Communion; and a chanted Aramaic Our Father– the fewer words the better). The presider is typically a lay person. The Communion itself includes chanting the Hebrew blessing over the bread and before drinking wine – which, presumably, Jesus intoned at the Last Supper.
Finally, we hold a year-end celebration – beginning with a Eucharistic Communion followed by a potluck supper and much joy and reverie.
Whatever it is that happens in our little contemplative community one thing is for certain: It is authentically responding to the moving of Spirit. Of that I am certain.
*My experience of Centering Prayer must wait for another day.
P.S. We also have a library of eighty-plus titles purchased over the years on the Christian contemplative Wisdom tradition. Teachers include Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr, Matthew Wright, Michael Fish and others.
A letter from Cynthia Bourgeault, January 3, 2015
Dear Wisdom Friends,
Here’s an unusual New Year’s resolution! I’d like to propose that all of us in the Wisdom network declare 2015 The Year Of Teilhard de Chardin and take on the collective task of getting to know his work better.
There’s no specific milestone to celebrate here. This year will mark the 60th anniversary of his death, but that’s probably looking in the wrong direction. The important thing is that Teilhard’s star is now rising powerfully on the horizon, heralding the dawn of an entirely new kind of Christian theology. Misunderstood in his own times, silenced and exiled by his Jesuit superiors, he is finally coming into his own as the most extraordinary mystical genius of our century and the linchpin connecting scientific cosmology and Christian mystical experience on a dynamic new evolutionary ground.
Teilhard is not easy, but there are very good guides out there who will ease the entry shock. My recommendation is that you begin with Ursula King’s Spirit of Fire: The Life and Vision of Teilhard de Chardin. King is probably the foremost Teilhard scholar of our times, and her very well-written biography gives a good overview of Teilhard’s developing vision and a useful way of keeping track of the chronology of his works. Kathleen Duffy’s Teilhard’s Mysticism is also an insightful introductory guide, introducing the major phases and themes of Teilhard’s work in five expanding “circles.” And of course, for a succinct and clear overview, you can hardly do better than Ilia Delio’s chapter on Teilhard in her Christ in Evolution.
From there, I’d dive directly into Teilhard by way of Ursula King’s stellar anthology, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (in the Modern Spiritual Masters series, Orbis Books, 1999). King’s well-chosen selections and helpful introductory commentary will help get you up to speed as painlessly as possible. From there, go to The Heart of Matter, Teilhard’s magnificent spiritual autobiography, written near the end of his life, which offers a moving recapitulation of his lifelong themes as well as a reflection on his earlier work.
From there, wander as you will. Those of more devotional temperament will find his The Divine Milieu, Hymn of the Universe, and “The Mass on the World” moving and accessible. Those of more scientific temperament may gravitate toward Christianity and Evolution and The Future of Man. His magnum opus, The Phenomenon of Man, is notoriously challenging, but if you’ve worked your way up to it gradually, you’ll be more able to take it in stride.
Most of these volumes are easily available at Amazon.com and other internet websites, and Hymn of the Universe, officially out of print, is available for download.
During my upcoming Wisdom Schools this year, I will be intending to “ease in” some Teilhard where appropriate: particularly in our Glastonbury Ascensiontide retreat and our Advanced Wisdom School in North Carolina this April—so if you’re signed up for either of those schools, be sure to get an early jump of the reading trajectory I’ve just laid out. I’ll also be introducing these materials in the some of the “Communities of Practice” sessions in New England later this year, and probably in an official Teilhard Wisdom School in 2016. So be sure to stay tuned.
“Our duty, as men and women, is to proceed as if limits to our ability did not exist. We are collaborators in creation.”
~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
I’m a relative newcomer to Teilhard myself, still working my way through this remarkable corpus like a neophyte spelunker in a vast crystal cave. Not surprisingly, it’s “the kids” in the Wisdom Network—Matthew Wright, Brie Stoner, and Josh Tysinger—who seem to have the best handle on the material and are already grasping its implications for the future (their future!) and unlocking its potential in sermon, song, and drama. I mention this simply to encourage you not to be intimidated by the material, or the apparent lack of an authority figure to interpret it for you. Form a reading group, use your well-patterned lectio divina method to break open a short section of text, and dive in with your energy, your insights, and your questions. How you get there is where you’ll arrive.
Okay, who wants to take me up on this New Year’s Challenge?
Love and blessing,
On November 16 The Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation presented its 2014 Contemplative Voices Award to the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault. The Shalem Contemplative Voices Award was created to honor those individuals who have made significant contributions to contemplative understanding, living and leadership and whose witness helps others live from the divine wellspring of compassion, strength, and authentic vision. Past honorees have been Father Richard Rohr, OFM, the Rev. Margaret Guenther and Rev. John Philip Newell. The evening included a web-streamed (video-taped) recording of Cynthia’s presentation. Cynthia Bourgeault, a modern-day mystic, writer and internationally known retreat leader was honored by Shalem with a special benefit evening on November 16, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Rockville, MD. Cynthia is an Episcopal priest and a founding director of both The Contemplative Society and the Aspen Wisdom School. She continues to contribute to The Contemplative Society in her role as principal teacher and advisor and is dedicated to promoting the practice of Centering Prayer. She is a past Fellow of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN, and an oblate of New Camaldoli Monastery in Big Sur, CA. Cynthia is also the author of eight books including: The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three; The Meaning of Mary Magdalene; The Wisdom Jesus; Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening; Mystical Hope; and The Wisdom Way of Knowing. In addition, she has authored or contributed to numerous articles and courses on the Christian spiritual life. “Cynthia is passionate about recovering the Christian contemplative and Wisdom path and is one of the clearest contemplative voices today,” says Leah Rampy, Shalem’s executive director. “By her life as a hermit and teacher, she witnesses daily to the value of the contemplative path, and we are honored to acknowledge her in this way.” From Cynthia’s presentation:
“Contemplation was originally in the Greek and early patristic understandings reserved for a kind of higher or noetic knowing, knowing through the nous, the eye of the heart. Sometimes it takes the form of visionary seeing, images, but more typically it is simply a kind of luminous, situational knowingness that can’t be attributed to any outside source. It becomes part of one’s own being… …We need to begin to claim the slowly growing collecting reservoir of noetic insight and draw on it consciously in service of the continuing evolution of humanity and the life of the planet. Contemplative reawakening may have begun on the ground of personal healing and transformation, but it has now found its authentic wingspan in the prophetic and the collective.”
Originally offered Nov 3rd-28th 2014, this highly popular course is now available in an “On-Demand” basis from Spirituality and Practice.
G. I Gurdjieff (1866-1949) was an enigmatic, Armenian-born spiritual teacher whose one-of-a-kind spiritual teaching has been a quiet force in Western spiritual history for nearly 100 years. Spirituality & Practice is pleased to offer you a rare opportunity: a practical, hands-on exploration of Gurdjieff’s powerful spiritual practices minus the intellectual speculation and secrecy! This 12-part email course created by renowned teacher Cynthia Bourgeault plunges you right into the heart of these transformative practices.
“The Work,” as it’s familiarly known, was Gurdjieff’s colossal attempt to recover ancient spiritual wisdom in danger of total eclipse in the West and to pass it on in forms accessible to contemporary men and women without the intermediaries of religion, dogma, or fanaticism. Since Gurdjieff’s first arrival in St. Petersburg, Russia, on the eve of World War I, the Work was displaced westward and organized itself in “below the radar screen” study groups in Europe and North and South America. Its influence has been largely felt through the stature and influence of some of its major proponents, including philosopher Jacob Needleman, playwright/director Peter Brook, and P. L. Travers of “Mary Poppins” fame.
In overall format you could describe the Work as an early type of mindfulness training, but with distinctly Western heart and soul and a flavor all its own! Its core program is designed to bring out of the distracted, self-important, self-preoccupied contemporary personality a conscious human being, capable of presence, freedom, and compassionate action.
While many of the practices are familiar along the path of spiritual transformation, Gurdjieff brings them a flavor all his own. And some of the specialities, such as the Work’s teaching on attention, identification, and self-remembering, are unparalleled in any other spiritual lineage.
In this e-course, Cynthia Bourgeault will lead you through the practices themselves in a cumulative, sequential way that remains concrete and focused on a practical task. She explores what Gurdjieff means by “conscious labor and intentional suffering” and hints at the huge cosmic vision underlying and tying together all these individual practices. She explains looks at where his ideas come from, but much more closely at where they’re going, and how these simple but powerful practices can put teeth on the bones of your present spiritual commitment, whether it’s officially “religious” or not.
Cynthia Bourgeault is one of the foremost contemporary bridgebuilders between the Gurdjieff Work and the contemporary spiritual sensibility. An Episcopal priest and retreat leader, she participated actively in the Gurdjieff Work for ten years and still remains deeply involved in its teaching and articulation. Like Gurdjieff himself, she discovered that these practices opened the door to deepening and grounding her own Christian practice, and she has been committed to extending the interfaces through workshops, writing, and now this e-course.
Join us for this unprecedented online course. You will receive:
• 12 emails from Cynthia Bourgeault
• access to the recording of a one-hour teleconference with Cynthia held when this course was first offered.
Full details to subscribe to this very popular on-demand program from Spirituality and Practice available HERE.
For a full list of Cynthia Bourgeault’s online courses with Spirituality and Practice please see HERE.
Sharing the legacy of Helen Daly—beloved wife, psychotherapist, wisdom friend and teacher—who made passage from one form of living to another on November 15, 2012. The following six videos were filmed at a gathering that took place at her home in Vermont a week before she died, videotaped at her request, and are being offered to the larger Wisdom community. Scroll down to watch all 6 video segments. Video #1: Introductions/The Work That This Configuration Provides
Video #2: Remembering: The Ground of Being Present
Video #3: Teaching from Helen
Video #4: On Being a Lab: Questions and comments
Video #5: Anointing Liturgy
Video #6: The Eucharist
Originally published by Center for Spiritual Resources on March 31, 2014.