What is the Christian Wisdom Lineage?
by Heather Page, St Philip, OB. June 2019
In April 2019 I attended a unique “retreat”, known as a Wisdom School (WS). This five-day event led by The Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, PhD and sponsored by The Contemplative Society (contemplative.org) was held at the Lake Cowichan Education Centre and filled to capacity. Although it rained for four of the five days and I was sleeping in a tent, the WS was filled with a light and joy, carried in many radiant hearts.
In her teaching Cynthia clarified and expanded on eight points she had drafted defining the particular branch of Christian Wisdom in which she teaches. Her blend of Wisdom teaching was formulated over 20 years ago in her early work with The Contemplative Society on Vancouver Island and Salt Spring Island. During this time these contemplative teachings and practices began to take root among a dedicated group of people, particularly within the Anglican community. Under the leadership of Bishop Barry Jenks, The Contemplative Society received a generous annual donation of seed money for three years to help establish this teaching and life practice within the Diocese of BC.
This Wisdom teaching has roots in both mystical and monastic traditions particularly the Benedictine emphasis on a daily rhythm of work and prayer and in the teaching of G.I Gurdjieff which blends Orthodox Christianity, Sufism, and middle eastern influences. Central to the Gurdjieff teaching is work with attention, self-observation, and non-identification combined with inner practices which aim to support work on the stuck places where we are asleep to the subtle ways our unconscious and automatic self manifests, obvious to others but frequently hidden to us. At the heart of the Wisdom teaching is a daily meditation practice particularly Centering Prayer as developed by Father Thomas Keating and his work with Contemplative Outreach. Centering Prayer emphasizes the kenotic gesture of surrender, a dying to self and letting go.
Now twenty years later, it had become clear that it was important to clarify and articulate the particular flavour of the Christian Wisdom lineage Cynthia teaches from. Thus she drew up eight Wisdom verticil which she expanded upon during the April WS. I have abbreviated these points below; for the full version see: https://www.contemplative.org/our-wisdom-lineage/.
- We are founded on a daily practice of sitting meditation, predominantly but not exclusively Centering Prayer, anchored within the overall daily rhythm of “ora et labora”, as set forth in the Rule of St. Benedict.
- We are rooted in the Christian mystical and visionary tradition… In service to this luminous seeing, we affirm the primacy of the language of silence and its life-giving connection with the subtle realms, without which spiritual inquiry tends to become overly cognitive and contentious.
- We incorporate a major emphasis…on mindfulness and conscious awakening, informed here particularly by the inner teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff and by their parallels and antecedents in the great sacred traditions, particularly in Sufism.
- We are an esoteric or “gnostic” school…through which the radically consciousness-transforming teachings of Jesus have been most powerfully transmitted and engaged. But we eschew esotericism as simply mental or metaphysical speculation, and we affirm the primacy of the scripture and tradition as the cornerstones of Christian life.
- Also in contrast to many branches of the Wisdom tradition based on Perennial or Traditionalist metaphysics (with its inherently binary and anti-material slant), we are emphatically a Teilhardian, Trinitarian lineage, embracing asymmetry (threeness), evolution, and incarnation in all their material fullness and messiness.
- We are moving steadily in the direction of revisioning contemplation no longer in terms of monastic, otherworldly models prioritizing silence and repose but, rather, as a way of honing consciousness and compassion so as to be able to fully engage the world and become active participants in its transition to the higher collectivity, the next evolutionary unfolding.
- We are an integral school, not a pluralistic one… Our work concentrates not at the level of healing the false-self, woundedness and recovery, substance abuse, equal rights, restorative justice, or political correctness (although we acknowledge the importance of all of these initiatives), but rather at the level of guiding the transition from identity based primarily in the narrative or egoic self to identity stabilized at the level of witnessing presence…
- Our most important teachers and teachings are Jesus, St. Benedict, the canonical and Wisdom gospels, The Cloud of Unknowing, the greater Christian mystical and visionary tradition…the Desert and Hesychastic traditions, Bede Griffiths and the Christian Advaitic traditions,…Rumi, Sufism, G.I. Gurdjieff, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And, of course, my own teacher, Br. Raphael Robin.
Each of these points is vital to this unique heritage. But I would like to focus on two.
In point five, Cynthia contends that “Christianity has never looked at why the material world is so important”. Within this dense and constricted realm kenotic self-surrender, a laying down of one’s life becomes the activation and beginning of the spiritual path. It is easy to be tempted to view this dense and coarse realm as inferior and to desire an escape to “climb out of the pit” in Cynthia’s words. This view is in conflict with incarnation and results in a “static binariness”. God is fully available and realized at all connection points at all levels, even the most dense says Cynthia. “God is this unity. You can’t say God is responsible for this unity, as he is the unity.” The aim is not self-realization but love. “There is no self-realization apart from love.”
Cynthia writes in her book The Wisdom Jesus,
Could it be that this earthly realm, not in spite of but because of its very density and jagged edges, offers precisely the conditions for the expression of certain aspects of divine love that could become real in no other way? This world does indeed show forth what love is like in a particularly intense and costly way. But when we look at this process more deeply, we can see that those sharp edges we experience as constriction at the same time call forth some of the most exquisite dimensions of love, which require the condition of finitude in order to make sense – qualities such as steadfastness, tenderness, commitment, forbearance, fidelity, and forgiveness. These mature and subtle flavors of love have no real context in a realm where there are no edges and boundaries, where all just flows. But when you run up against the hard edges and have to stand true to love anyway, what emerges is a most precious taste of pure divine love. God has spoken his most intimate name. (100)
Point six explores a shift which has occurred over the years in the contemplative community. When I first began attending contemplative retreats the emphasis was on creating a monastic hermitage type experience. Retreats ranged from weekends to ten days, typically in full silence except for teaching and minimal communication during Benedictine work periods. There were a number of silent sits some as long as one and a half hours with only a couple of short breaks for meditative walking. Custody of the eyes was practiced (no eye contact) and held throughout the retreat.
Over the years the format of the WS has shifted. Meditation remains important but with encouragement beyond the WS to participate in regular private practice or peer led intensive meditation retreats. The emphasis of the teaching shifted to the question of how I as a contemplative will manifest outwardly bringing the fruit of my practice into daily living. Are the fruits of the Spirit—gentleness, patience, forbearance, humility etc.—finding their way into how I relate to my family and my neighbour? How does the contemplative stance express itself in my interactions in the world? And how might this contemplative stance affect world consciousness and find its identity in the cosmic Christ? This is an important development that is still being processed by the contemplative community. Meditation is a daily practice in the art of laying down identification with our personal agenda, letting go of one’s ever-demanding wants and needs. It is only through deepening surrender that genuine altruistic outpouring becomes possible. How can the fruits of sustained contemplative practice, the regular act of letting go become a vehicle for compassionate expression in the world?
We are blessed to have such wise teaching on the island. This teaching offers hope to the world and a possible way forward in the church that at times may appear to resemble the orchestra on the Titanic. All generations long for authentic expression and practice, as well as guidance in living integrated and fully embodied lives. I see the Christian Wisdom teaching in part, as the way forward.
I am extremely grateful to the Educational Trust Boards for their generous grant toward my participation in this Wisdom School.
NOTE: An edited version of this post was published in the October 2019 edition of the Diocesan Post. Thank you to Heather for sharing her knowledge and wisdom.