“I am so grateful for this labor of love by The Contemplative Society, which once again makes accessible Raimon Panikkar’s extraordinary teaching on the universal mysticism of Jesus Christ.”
~ Cynthia Bourgeault
In addition to Cynthia’s encouraging words above, we also want to share Brian Mitchell’s wholehearted endorsement for our updated audio release of CHRISTOPHANY: Experiencing the Fullness of Christianity, a recorded teaching by Cynthia based on the 2004 book by Raimon Panikkar.
Brian serves to coordinate the various steps and people involved to bring forth the audio content produced by The Contemplative Society. As a longtime member of TCS and dedicated practitioner, he describes himself as “… following the Christian Wisdom path (knowingly or unknowingly) all my life. Encountering teachers such as Cynthia Bourgeault, Bruno Barnhart and Raimon Panikkar have lit that path brightly enough that I am no longer afraid of walking it.”
Here Brian expresses his deeply held belief in the significance of this Christophany offering, which he consistently names as “Cynthia’s quintessential teaching.”
I’ve been listening to Cynthia Bourgeault – at various retreats, Wisdom Schools and on each and every one of her audio recordings (multiple times) – for a quarter of a century now. There are so very many peak experiences I’ve had in listening to her wisdom, so to focus on one doesn’t seem quite proper. And yet it must be said that her work in investigating Raimon Panikkar’s Christophany: The Fullness of Man* (a very dense text which she clarifies magnificently) takes us more deeply into the full, radical meaning of Christianity than anything else she has done – or, in my opinion, than anything done elsewhere by anyone (although I admit to a certain prejudice in this matter).
Raimon Panikkar 2007, Wikipedia
I believe that Panikkar’s Christophany text and Cynthia’s analysis of it, has the potential, as she has said, “to change the face of Christianity”. That is not an idle boast.
For me personally Cynthia and Panikkar, working hand-in-glove together, have broken down doors on which I, at least, have been knocking all my adult life, but which have stubbornly resisted many of my attempts to open. I cannot thank her and Panikkar adequately for helping to bring my understanding (heart and head) more fully into alignment with that which was here all along: the manere, the manere, the manere**.
I strongly encourage anyone interested in our Christian Wisdom tradition to give the time and energy to entering into this mystery – and, if at all possible, to do so with a group of like-hearted souls. Having one another as support will help tremendously.
*Cynthia explains Panikkar’s insistence on the use of the word “man” as opposed to “humanity” in her recording.
**the manere is simply the inter-abiding which Jesus speaks of constantly: “You in me and me in you and me in the Father and the Father in us” etc. etc. etc.
In addition to the attentive care and many hours provided by Brian to guide the steps necessary to make this updated version of the recorded teaching available, TCS would also like to acknowledge Peggy Zimmerman for her countless hours of editing and titling and tending with such dedication and wisdom to every detail, and to our reviewers who provided their time and feedback throughout the extensive 10 year process. In addition we are deeply appreciative of the momentous effort by Susan Filyer who painstakingly transcribed the original recording so we can now offer a full text copy to supplement the audio products. Deep bow of gratitude to you all!
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“Teachers of contemplative Christianity, who acknowledged the limitations of human knowledge and the inconstant nature of human sentiment, instead encouraged a commitment to practice. A scripturally grounded commitment to practice and service – rather than a reliance on unsteady belief and feeling – is the fulcrum of contemplative Christianity.”
From time to time in the unfolding life of a lineage, it becomes important to stop and ponder together “whur we come from” (as my teacher Rafe used to call it); i.e., the fundamental understandings that called us into being as a particular expression of the wider tradition of Christian contemplative Wisdom. As The Contemplative Society, our flagsghip Wisdom vessel, now celebrates its twentieth anniversary and a new generation of seekers and board members assume their turn at the helm, it seems like an appropriate occasion for just such a moment of reflection.
Wisdom, like water, is itself clear and formless, but it necessarily assumes the shape and coloration of the container in which it is captured. Between formless essence and manifesting particularity there is a reciprocal dynamism; you can’t have one without the other.
Our own particular branch of the great underground river of Wisdom came to the surface about twenty years ago, flowing within two major riverbanks: a) the Christian mystical tradition of theosis – divinization – particularly as lived into being in the Benedictine monastic tradition; and b) the practical training in mindfulness and non-identification as set forth in the Gurdjieff Work. The fusion of these two elements was the original accomplishment of my spiritual teacher Br. Raphael Robin, who formed me in this path and, just before his death in 1995, sent me off to Canada to teach it. It is a distinct lineage within the wider phylum of sophia perennis – perennial Wisdom – and, as with all particular containers, it has its own integrity and its own heart.
Here, then, is my own quick shortlist of the eight main elements – or defining characteristics – for our particular branch of this Wisdom verticil:
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, understanding contemplation in its original sense as “luminous seeing”, not merely a meditation practice or a lifestyle. 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 (much more so than in more conventional contemplative circles) 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 to the extent that these terms have come to be understood as designating that stream of Christian transmission 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, (to draw on Ken Wilber’s levels of consciousness); our primary mission field is teal, not green. 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, or “permeably boundaried” selfhood.
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 (including Eckhart, Boehme, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Ladislaus Boros, Bernadette Roberts), the Desert and Hesychastic traditions, Bede Griffiths and the Christian Advaitic traditions (including Raimon Panikkar, Henri LeSaux/Abishiktananda and Bruno Barnhart), Rumi, Sufism, G.I. Gurdjieff, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And, of course, my own teacher, Br. Raphael Robin.
Please know that this list is intended to start a conversation, not end it. In the upcoming months I hope to unpack each of these points more fully in a format yet to be determined (blog posts? video? on-the-ground teaching retreat?). I invite others in our Wisdom network to do likewise, both in your larger organizations (The Contemplative Society, Northeast Wisdom, Wisdom Southwest, Wisdom Way of Knowing, etc.) and in your smaller practice circles. Collectively, let’s see what we can discover about our lineage, as we midwifed it through a first generation and now transmit through a second.
As we come down the home stretch in this extended Wisdom inquiry into the abortion issue, I’ve tried to draw together here some of the most important implications and “business arising” out this exploration. Most of my following “top five” have already been touched on in previous blogs, but a few are new (though obviously following from points already raised). Here we go:
The whole conversation around the abortion issue needs to begin with a comprehensive reframing of the metaphysical assumptions on which it rests: away from a substance-theology-driven fixation on nailing down the precise moment when “life” begins (implicitly understood as meaning an individual human soul) and toward a wider appreciation of the entire life journey as a single, interwoven dynamism of “soul-making” in which each stage of the journey is equally vulnerable and precious. When does a daffodil become a daffodil? Is daffodil the bulb? The shoot? The bud? The flower? It is all of the above, yet none insofar as a stage is taken in isolation. In the traditional Wisdom maps – confirmed as well as in the more dynamic relational models emerging from the leading edges of biophysics and evolutionary theology – the term “pro-life” can no longer be usurped by any single phase of the journey, for the soul is the fruit of the entire life journey, not merely of the moment of conception.
This Wisdom understanding of “pro-life” assumes that the boundaries demarcating an individual life from the greater relational field that has supported its gestation/individuation – and will continue to do so for the entire course of its life – are always a bit indistinct, marked by considerable reciprocity at each step of the way. Attempting to establish identity by separating an individual element from the whole is an old, old metaphysical habit that no longer matches the shape of our dynamically interwoven universe. At every phase life makes its way juggling difficult balances and hard trade-offs. To be pro-life – not merely “pro-birth” – implies an acknowledgement of that challenging terrain and the willingness to bring forbearance and mercy to the entire unfolding.
Arthur Russell’s “The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea”
As an important initial step in that direction, we need to become much more forbearing and merciful in our use of language. Precision is necessary – “soul”, “life”, and “individual essence” are NOT synonyms, and when used as if they are, they result in creating what Arthur Lovejoy once defined as emotional pathos – language wielded for sentimental and/or manipulative effect. Christianity is already vulnerable enough to that sort of emotional manipulation; it has been standard devotional and even theological practice for centuries. We need to tread extremely gently here, and to be doubly alert to well-worn rut tracks of associative thinking.
Above all, it seems to me that the word “murder” has no place in any helpful discussion of the abortion issue. Technically, yes, abortion terminates an incipient human life. But when connotation – not merely denotation – is factored in, murder typically implies malevolent intent; it already presumes a crime.1 To impose this set of associations on a decision-making process which virtually always unfolds in the realm of human anguish is inflammatory and cruel. Is it also murder to “put down” a pet? To withdraw life support from a loved one following a catastrophic stroke? Do these decisions – which also terminate a life – always presume malevolent intent?
At very most, we are speaking here of “fetal homicide”. My own preference would be to recognize that in those great liminal zones surrounding birth and death, where life is not yet (or no longer) fully viable on its own, we need a whole different way of languaging those painful but sometimes necessary decisions to end the life of another sentient being. I am not suggesting euphemism here, but rather an honest and compassionate clarity that would serve the goal of healing – not simply anger and blame.
Acknowledging the shadow
That being said, abortion does end the life of another sentient being, and such a decision is never easy or pain-free. It inflicts deep wounds on the human psyche (I believe this is true even in the case of putting down a pet), and these wounds are long in healing and reverberate on many planes; in that sense, abortion is a karmic act. Because of the harm it invariably engenders (to self, fetus, relationship), it is never simply a medical “procedure”, let alone a “normal” method of birth control. It should always be considered exceptional: a “least preferable” option to be invoked only after alternatives have been carefully weighed and rejected.
Since the clearly documented shadow side of abortion still tends to be under-acknowledged in pro-choice presentations, there seems to be an obvious need for a more balanced emphasis in sexual education, together with a concerted effort to make standard forms of contraception readily and blamelessly available: the only strategy to date that has yielded a conclusive and consistent success rate. And yes, here again, it’s a trade-off between high principles and sustainable results. From my admittedly pragmatic angle of vision, it seems that if the Catholic Church could ever see its way clear to constraining the rights of the “potentially conceived” in favor of those already conceived (i.e., contraception as the only realistic “preferable alternative” to abortion), I suspect that the vast bulk of its pro-life agenda would be instantly achieved.
Safeguarding legal access
While abortion is never the preferred option, I believe it needs to remain a protected legal option. The Wisdom model provides additional validation for doing so in affirming the equal importance of all stages of life and exposing the implicit Catholic/evangelical theological bias at work in the presumption that the rights of the unborn take precedence over the rights of the mother. In an increasingly pluralistic America, where many religions and no religion offer competing moral compasses, it is more important than ever to establish a legally protected space in which difficult personal decisions can be arrived at through personal conscience, not through the legal imposition of sectarian dogma. I return here again to my earlier proposal of a “two-tier” systemstipulating that included among the fundamental “first tier” rights 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.
Beyond that baseline – at what I’ve called “second tier” – adherents of specific religious paths would have the full freedom to practice a higher level of moral observance according to the understandings of their particular faith tradition. It simply would not be universally binding.
Creating a wider ethical forum
Beyond those immediate issues raised by the abortion issue itself, the even greater challenge has proved to lie in figuring out a way to hold this conversation at all! And I’m not just talking about the differences of opinion and occasionally painful give-and-take as challenging new ideas are collectively pondered; I’m asking why thoughtful pondering of the kind we’ve been sharing here is such a painful rarity in our cultural conversation nowadays. As I racked my brains to think of a journal, a publishing house, an academic, or retreat setting that might sponsor such a discussion, I quickly realized there were none. “Too far afield” for traditional theological journals; “too political” for academic or contemplative specializations; “too provocative” for retreat or even Living School fare, where one wishes to avoid giving offense to those who might be challenged or made personally uncomfortable by the exchange: “Cynthia is misusing her post as a teacher to wander into such dangerous personal ground”.
It has seemed to me for a long time now that the most urgent long-range need facing our country today is for some cultural forum – beyond an internet blog series – where the important questions and issues impinging on our common humanity can actually be weighed and discussed. A Wisdom chautauqua, as it were. But what sort of forum would that be, and where would it take place?
Traditionally, issues of ethics and morality have been discussed and enforced within specific faith traditions. But today there is no longer a single faith tradition undergirding our civic morality and, given the prevailing contemporary interpretation of the First Amendment, it is no longer easily acceptable to teach subject matter traditionally identified as belonging to the “religious” sector in a secular educational setting. The big questions that have traditionally guided human ethical progress – “Who am I?”, “What am I here for?”, “Who is my neighbor” ,“Is there anything beyond self-interest?”, “Is there a higher purpose or coherence to the universe?” – are perceived as spiritually booby-trapped (alas, often true!) and hence off-limits for the purposes of public education. Meanwhile, given the continuing hemorrhaging in most mainstream religious denominations, it is far from a foregone conclusion that younger generations of Americans will be exposed to these ideas even within a religious setting.
The vacuum is lethal – filled, by default, simply with the clichés and role-modeling available from the entertainment and marketing sectors. The highest and finest of what has traditionally made us human has effectively been closed out of our cultural transmission.
This becomes particularly pressing when we attempt to explore the concept of a developmental soul, for it clearly presumes a sacred context for the human condition, a meaning to life not realized in personal self-maximization but in cosmic obligation and the sense of participation in a larger coherent whole. It is here and only here, the great sacred traditions unanimously affirm, that the ultimate meaning and satisfaction of human life are to be found. It is here and only here, one might add, that the attitudes, vision, and practices that can carry our planet safely into the future are to be found. And it is only at this scale – against the wider backdrop of the meaning of all of life, considered as a unified trans-cosmic whole – that the meaning and gravity of fetal abortion finally come into a rightful perspective. If we are not able even to raise these questions – let alone, wrestle with them, grow into them – what hope do we have in steering our planet wisely through these turbulent times?
Like many citizens in our country today, I’ve come to hate gerrymandering – that political sleight of hand that hacks up functional geopolitical units in order to create political firewalls. But even more than political gerrymandering, I loathe cultural and spiritual gerrymandering, which chops up the unified terrain of the human heart into a thousandfold denominational and academic fiefdoms in such a way that the great river of our collective human wisdom can no longer flow freely through it. The tragedy, of course, is that it is only our collective human wisdom that will save us.
Any bright ideas as to how such a container might be created?
Black’s Law Dictionary defines “murder” as the unlawful killing of a human being by another with malice aforethought, either expressed or implied. A “homicide” is defined as the act of a human being in taking away the life of another human being.
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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.
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.
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I watched them disappear this morning into the snowstorm, making their way home through the Maine winter after an extraordinary weekend of prayer, tears and laughter, teaching, stories, and conversation. My tiny, plucky “conscious circle”…how it tugged at my heart to see them go.
I had called them together, impromptu, about a month ago: a baker’s dozen of the most experienced and steady folks in the Wisdom network, to join me for a weekend here in Stonington (in February, utter madness!) to see if we could collectively begin to discern what the cosmos seems to be up to in the wake of this traumatic election upheaval and what Wisdom might expect of us in response.
The conversation around this topic has of course been flowing nonstop on the social media since well before November 8th, but so much of it has been at the horizontal level, driven by historical and political analysis – and, of course, from the perspective of the now duly-chastened secular intelligentsia. Shock, trauma, disorientation, and/or denial have been the dominant modes in the circles I mostly travel in, a still-dumbfounded inability to fathom what happened and why.
In times such as these, it is a traditional Wisdom practice to convene a small gathering of Wisdom “elders” to assess the situation from a deeper spiritual perspective, and to re-establish contact – through prayer, spiritual practice, sohbet (spiritual conversation), and sincerity of heart – with what Gurdjieff calls “the conscious circle of humanity”: that broader bandwidth of guiding presence always encircling our globe in its compassionate embrace and helping keep the course steady even in the midst of these periodic cavitations. The invitation – in fact, the imperative – to connect with this source of assistance is strongly underscored in Wisdom teaching, and it seemed to me that it was the one stream of input not being heard in our present anguished state of national soul-searching.
And so our small cohort of “conscious circle” postulants convened at the Stonington Town Hall on February 3rd, having arrived from all over the country. We deliberately chose to meet there, both because of the obvious civic tie-in (yep, the red, white, and blue voting booths still line the east wall), and because the light there happens to be beautiful, streaming in right off the ocean through glorious, ten-foot-high windows. Thanks to the generous underwriting of Northeast Wisdom, we were able to partially subsidize the costs of everyone’s lodging and meals, but the response to my invitation offered by our thirteen participants was an instantaneous “Yes”, long before any funding was secured. It was that pure spirit of “Hineni” – “Here I am, Lord” – that really launched us into orbit and was both the modus operandi of our being together and ultimately the marching orders received.
The first two days were devoted mostly to teaching, as we collectively explored some of the major resources at our disposal for reframing and enlarging perspective. We reviewed the resources in Teilhard’s evolutionary vision, particularly the reassurance that deep hope flows over deep time. We affirmed that the evolutionary imperative toward the higher collectivity (the next level of “complexity consciousness” manifest as the one body of humanity) was still flowing serenely and strong beneath the surface setbacks.
We then explored Gurdjieff’s Five “Obligolnian Strivings” (an exploration I’ll be offering more widely in a Spirituality & Practice e-course coming right up this Lent), and in particular, his conviction that there is a certain cosmic expectation laid upon the human species as part and parcel of our participation in a dynamic cosmic web of “reciprocal feeding”. Our human contribution is made in the form of those higher energies of compassion and clarity generated as we submit ourselves to the practices of “conscious labor and intentional suffering”. The fruits of this transformed Being-energy are qualities such as peace, love, joy, forbearance, patience, compassion – traditionally known in Christian language as “the fruits of the spirit”. What makes Gurdjieff’s take so interesting is that these qualities are not only moral virtues but actual energetic substances needed for the feeding and building up of our common planetary (and interplanetary) life. When we fail to produce these qualities – or worse, produce the opposite, the “false fruits” of entitlement, greed, deceit, violence, and fear – then the whole cosmic equilibrium is thrown out of whack.
We then took an extended pass through the Ken Wilber “Trump and a Post-Truth Era” article and found both the scale (from the perspective of the evolution of consciousness) and the general analysis helpful. Ken’s ability to zero in on the progressive dysfunction of the “green” or pluralistic level of consciousness, the leading edge of social conscience and evolutionary change, hit home for many of us and offered valuable cues as to how to begin to work with the circumstances now on our plate.
On Monday afternoon the conversation started to flow as we broke into triads and then reunited for deep, searing, imaginative, and energy-filled exchanges. While it would be premature to say that any “charter of action” emerged from our deliberations, a remarkable consensus emerged that whatever the long-term political outcome may be, the instructions remain the same: to hold the post, stand with courage and equanimity, and be able to maintain a resilient space for third force, staying close to that “light within” that is already shining brightly in the midst of this tunnel, not just waiting at the end of it.
Part of the empowerment of the whole gathering was to be able to hold those “unimaginable” conversations, standing lucidly as we stared right into the face of that nameless, paralyzing dread that has so much of our nation in its grip. We discussed with strength and lucidity such mind-bending scenarios as the collapse of democracy, global conflagration, and spiritual resources for self-protection when operating in the presence of unleashed forces of evil.
The greatest reassurance – and I admit, frankly, surprise – came for me in our times of spiritual practice and in a Sunday morning Eucharist which palpably exploded with the presence of the risen Christ. (In fact, it detonated so powerfully that the explosion was picked up all the way in British Columbia by one of our Wisdom intuitives there, who emailed me, “What just happened?”) It was an unmistakable confirmation and teaching from that very conscious circle to which we had humbly presented ourselves for guidance.
While the courses of action that emerge from each one of us may differ, what was eminently clear to each of us was that this protective field of tenderness and responsive concern to our planetary anguish is alive and well, and that we can and MUST turn to it…daily, hourly, with every best. In best of Wisdom fashion, our hope shifted away from outcome and back to source.
Others in the circle will no doubt offer their own takes, on the Wisdom [School] Community Facebook page, and in blogs of their own. And of course, the real reverberations of the work we did this past weekend will reveal themselves only gradually, as they percolate out through the “circles within circles” in our Wisdom network both by direct transmission and through quantum entanglement. But for me, the heart of what we were about this weekend and where we got to spiritually hovered closely within the words of the haunting melody that Laura Ruth sang for us on our final night:
Though my soul may set in darkness,
It will rise in perfect light.
For I’ve loved the stars too fondly
To be fearful of the night.
Thank you, one and all, who made this gathering possible. I am more than ever convinced that wherever our times have landed us and whatever may be in store, this is indeed Wisdom’s finest hour.
Meanwhile, I invite you all to collectively ponder these powerful words from Connie Fitzgerald, from her paper From Impasse to Prophetic Hope, delivered in 2009 before the Catholic Theological Society of America. I believe it frames the window of opportunity for all of us, while not mincing words on the challenge:
Any hope for a new consciousness and a self-forfeiture drawn by love stands opposed by a harsh reality. We humans serve our own interests, we hoard resources, we ravage the earth and other species, we scapegoat, we make war, we kill, we torture, we turn a blind eye to the desperation and needs of others, and we allow others to die. Our ability to embody our communion with every human person on the earth and our unassailable connectedness with everything living is limited because we have not yet become these symbiotic “selves”. We continue to privilege our personal autonomy and are unable to make the transition from radical individualism to a genuine synergistic community even though we know intellectually we are inseparably and physically connected to every living being in the universe. Yet the future of the entire earth community is riding on whether we can find a way beyond the limits of our present evolutionary trajectory.
This letter comes from Cynthia Bourgeault in a time when many are celebrating new hope, while others are struggling to barely hold on. Her words of wisdom, drawing on Gurdjieff’s Law of Three and the Teilhardian Synthesis help us to remember that we are all united in the universe’s unfolding of consciousness, that this time is for all of us.
Dear Wisdom friends,
I want to thank you all for the beauty of the work you are collectively doing around this election. There have been torrents of words already, and I am loathe to contribute to the stream, particularly so many of you have spoken so eloquently and succinctly about it. Honestly, I think Bob Sabath pretty much nails it in his short reflection: that combination of courage, openness, forgiveness, renewed commitment, and compassion that will be required of each of us as we pick up the pieces and move ahead.
I am so grateful to be working with you all in this bandwidth, with the tools and perspectives we have been gradually developing in our wisdom work over the past years. From Teilhard, we have the reassurance that evolutionary change flows over deep time. Events which, viewed at the wrong scale (i.e., too close up), look like devastating upheavals, actually turn out to be relatively minor systemic adjustments. Beneath the surface ripples and rapids, the river itself is still flowing smoothly in its channel. Hope does not divert course.
From Gurdjieff we have the Law of Three and a powerful set of tools for processing and applying (a.k.a., invoking, channeling, mediating, etc.) third force. Many of you are already doing this. It seems clear (to me anyway) that by election night, the Trump candidacy carried the affirming force (i.e., pushing, initiating); the liberal progressive establishment carried the denying (i.e., resisting, holding back, status quo). From a Work perspective (i.e., through identifying lines of action), my initial take is that Donald Trump carried third force, breaking up the political logjam and achieving forward movement again. It seems that he also did this in a classic way: by reversing the lines of action. What had heretofore been the “conservative” or “denying” force was suddenly catalyzed as the affirming in a paradigmatic Law of Three upset – and remember, these forces are lines of action in and of themselves morally neutral. That’s where we come in.
As of November 9th, we are all in a new ball field. Now that the shake-up has occurred, it is our Wisdom calling to use our heads and hearts in a broader, Teilhardian sort of way, to look at what is needed now and how we might collaborate with it.
The vision of a single, unified humanity burns as strongly as ever as these tectonic plates of consciousness and culture grind up against each other. I sense very clearly that my own work calls me strongly to continue to work in this task of strengthening and deepening the international and interspiritual aspects of my teaching work. It was very meaningful to be in the UK on election night, to meditate with a group of nearly 300 seekers in Bristol, and to reaffirm palpably the power and presence that quietly unstoppable Christ-Omega, drawing us along to that fullness of love that has been the trajectory, the sole trajectory throughout these 14 billion years. That is the corner of this vineyard in which I feel personally the most impelled to work.
Back in our home turf, am I totally off-base in my intuition that the missing, underlying third force has something to do with SAFETY? Remember the example I give in The Holy Trinity and The Law of Three of my friend Jane before the grant adjudication board, recognizing clearly that the scarcity base had to be transformed into an abundance base before anything could shift? Viewed from a slightly longer range and slightly out-of-left-field perspective, I keep seeing that this election of Donald Trump in a way completes an octave that began on September 11, 2001. For more than fifteen years now – the whole lifetime of three of my four grandchildren – the country has struggled under a pervasive sense of vulnerability, impotence, and helplessness, of having been subjected to a collective rape which still paralyzes the resolve, the “gout de vivre” as Teilhard calls it. It expresses itself across the board: in the obsession with guns and gun violence, in the addictive power of realityTV, and, in the more privileged classes, with the neurotic hysteria around food, security, and child safety. I really believe that at a subliminal level, Trump’s “Make America great again” speaks to that sense of releasing the paralyzed, hang-dog fear which is the only America we have come to fear. It’s not really about economics. It’s about something way deeper…
At least a basis on which to begin…If we could quit calling each other idiots and “deplorables” and begin to deal with the deep terror, the desperation and helplessness which is felt across the board, we might begin to sense the ways to draw together….
What will be required of us all working in this particular wisdom bandwidth, I believe, is that old quality metis, which Peter Kingsley described so well in his book Reality. It really means an alert, supple shrewdness – like Jesus, when cornered by the question, “Must we pay taxes to Caesar?” It’s an ability to be present in our bodies and in our hearts, to live beyond fear and judgment, and because of this non-identification, to be able to use the materials immediately at hand in the moment to see what must be done – again, immediately in the moment.
If anything has been the victim of this election, it’s pluralistic consciousness: the “mean green” sense of sanctimony, moral rectitude, urgency, and judgmentalism that has infected so much of the liberal progressive culture where so many of us have tried, with the very best of intentions, to do our work. Weighed in the balance, alas, and found wanting. We have to learn to work from a more skillful place, reading the signs of the times, trusting love, finding our voices once again to “speak truth to power”.
Yes, a lot of precious sacred cows are about to be slaughtered, I fear. We will see social and environmental benchmarks we have worked for for decades summarily undone. (I don’t need to enumerate; WAY too depressing.) We must understand this in advance and not let every defeat become an Armageddon, a reason for falling on our swords. The earth herself has a will, and the one body of humanity has coalesced too far to be deconstructed. They will be our partners. They have intelligence and resilience we can draw on, if we can only not lose the way in fear and despair.
And so, Wisdom crew, “Allons!” Let us go forward. There is work to be done; prayer, joy, courage, and strength are deeply needed. And we DO know the way there. This is Wisdom’s hour.
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