The peace of Sophia, given a chance, heals the violence within. This violence can be obvious and crying out to be worked with. It can also be hidden, unawarely latent, insidiously shaping both words and actions. In Thomas Keating’s language, such violence “reduces and can even cancel the effectiveness of the external works of mercy, justice and peace” (1). It is an argument he uses for promoting contemplative practice within the Catholic Church and Christian communities more widely.
In my exploration of contemplative traditions, Cynthia Bourgeault is the Christian writer to whom I have paid the most attention. An Episcopalian priest based in the USA, she is a long-term associate of Father Keating in the development and teaching of centering prayer. This is a modern contemplative practice modelled partly on Theravadin Buddhist insight meditation, and partly on the contemplative approach recommended in The Cloud of Unknowing, an English text from the later fourteenth century. “For heaven ghostly is as nigh down as up, and up as down: behind as before, before as behind, on one side as other. Insomuch that whoso had a true desire for to be at heaven, then that same time he were in heaven ghostly. For the high and the next way thither is run by desires and not by paces of feet” (2).
I think of Bourgeault as a Sophian teacher working within a Christian framework. I get this sense through a reading of three of her books: The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, The Wisdom Jesus and Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. She has incorporated ‘Gnostic’ Nag Hammadi texts into her recommended sacred literature, especially The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. In her references to what Christians call ‘The Old Testament’ I see a leaning towards The Psalms, The Book of Proverbs and The Song of Solomon. I am neither qualified nor inclined to discuss her theology. But I do get the flavour of a Sophian sensibility that seems to me to inform her view and practice of (to use my language) meditation.
Bourgeault speaks of “a warm practice, a bit sloppier and dreamier than the classic methods of attention and awareness practices. You lose some time in day-dreaming, at least at the start, and that vibrant tingling sense of ‘I am here’ prized in so many meditation practices is not really a goal in Centering Prayer” (2). The key word is intention rather than attention, and the specific intention is to be deeply available – Bourgeault would say to God, I would say to a deeper nature. This means “available at the depths of being, deeper than words, memories, emotions, sensations, deeper even than your felt sense of ‘I am here’”.
Bourgeault counsels against the aim of making ourselves empty or still, saying that it is “like trying not to think of an elephant” and pretty much assures a constant, non-stop stream of thoughts. Instead, once the intent is established, it is a surrender method, “not working with mind at all, but going straight to the heart”. She says that “for most people, a typical Centering Prayer period looks like a sine wave: lots of ups and downs. There are moments when the mind is more restless and jumpy and thoughts come one on top of another. There are also moments of stillness, sometimes very deep stillness. You won’t be able to retrieve these moments of stillness directly, of course, because as soon as you start thinking about them they’re gone. But you will ‘remember’ them through a certain quiet gathered-ness that accompanies you as you get up and move about your day. Through the cumulative energy of this gathered stillness, Centering Prayer gradually imprints itself upon the heart”.
I’ve been drawn back to Cynthia Bourgeault’s work because of my inner promptings about peace, and the peace of Sophia. I will continue my exploration of her work. Whilst engaging I will of course be conscious of her theistic and Christocentric framework and the knowledge that I do not share it. This I think will make the experience all the richer, because it will include the challenge of fully accepting difference, and fully accepting the gift within it.
- Cynthia Bourgeault Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening Lanham, MD, USA: Cowley Publications, 2004 (from the Foreword by Thomas Keating)
- A Book of Contemplation the which is called The Cloud of Unknowing, in which the Soul is Oned with God Anonymous (edited from the British Museum MS. Harl. 674 with an introduction by Evelyn Underhill) London: John M. Watkins, 1922
- Cynthia Bourgeault Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – a New Perspective on Christ and His message Shambhala: Boston & London, 2011