contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Contemplative Christianity

POEM: WONDER

10 October is dedicated to the 17th century Anglican mystic Thomas Traherne. Here are the first three verses of his poem, ‘Wonder’, where he sees the world through the eyes of a child. He seems never to have lost this capacity, and this was a factor in his mysticism.

How like an Angel came I down!

How bright are all things here!

O how their GLORY me did Crown?

The World resembled his Eternitie,

In which my Soul did Walk;

And evry Thing that I did see,

Did with me talk.

 

The Skies in their Magnificence,

The Lively, Lovely Air;

Oh how Divine, how soft, how Sweet, how fair!

The Stars did entertain my Sence,

And all the Works of GOD so Bright and pure,

So rich and Great did seem,

As if they ever must endure,

In my esteem.

 

A Native Health and Innocence

Within my Bones did grow,

And while my GOD did all his Glories show,

I felt a Vigour in my Sence

That was all SPIRIT. I within did flow

With Seas of Life, like Wine;

I nothing in the World did know,

But ‘twas Divine.

 

From: Happiness and Holiness: Thomas Traherne and his Writings edited by Denise Inge Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2008

THE PEACE OF SOPHIA REVISITED

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.

References:

  1. Cynthia Bourgeault Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening Lanham, MD, USA: Cowley Publications, 2004 (from the Foreword by Thomas Keating)
  2. 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
  3. Cynthia Bourgeault Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – a New Perspective on Christ and His message Shambhala: Boston & London, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: THE NEW MONASTICISM

New_MonasticismHighly recommended. I knew I would be in business with this book as soon as I got wind of it, and it will take further contemplation and inward digestion before I fully understand my relationship with it. I believe that this is the kind of effect that what The New Monasticism: an Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Living intends to create.

‘Monasticism’ is refreshingly used here “simply to denote a level of commitment to a spiritual life”. It is not about specific beliefs or a specific lifestyle. It asks us to free ourselves from our cultural conditioning and an unquestioning and un-questing life. Avoiding identification with material success, living in the midst of a contemporary society that does not support such a calling, we may enter a space of “radical profundity and divine transformative energy”. We seek simplicity not through renunciation but through ‘integration’.  We do need retreat space, so some people will indeed be called as specialists to hold the “containers of silence”. But most will pursue vocation in the world, in a life made up of contemplative practice, heartfelt conversation and sacred activism.

Authors Rory McEntee and Adam Bucko are situated within the Roman Catholic tradition, in an emancipatory strand which is reaching out to others and hoping to transcend itself. The term ‘interspirituality’ was coined by Brother Wayne Teasdale, an ordained Christian Sannyasin who  presided over an ashram in India. The authors see interspirituality as “humbly placing itself in partnership and collaborative discernment with our time-honoured religious traditions”.  In the last decade we have also seen the linking of Father Thomas Keating (who developed ‘centering prayer’ as a Christian answer to Buddhist-style meditation) with Ken Wilber’s Integral Life project, which is itself increasingly seeking alliance with like-minded Christian communities. Indeed a lot of the philosophy, psychology and social science in this book comes straight from Ken Wilber and the stance of the Integral movement. The authors come from a collectively confident and mature spiritual base, and there are advantages in that. The book is rich with specific suggestions about life and practice in the new monasticism, drawing for its core inspiration on an ‘Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Life in the 21st. Century’ following a week long dialogue with Father Thomas Keating at his monastery in Colorado in 2012.

McEntee and Bucko are both “under 40” and feel a connection with the younger generation now coming into adulthood. Bucko works with young homeless men in New York City. They see a potentially emergent spiritual culture that is: “spiritual not religious”; this worldly and concerned with nature and the fate of the earth; has (post) modern commitments to personal ‘authenticity’; and finds the sacred in the secular. They believe that these values can be championed within a further development of their own tradition, transforming the tradition itself. For them the path is as much about the life and health of the earth as it is with an individual communion with the Divine: indeed, it is false to separate the two. Realisation is less a “gnostic quest for truths beyond the world” than “a reflection on certain processes taking place within the world”. Interspirituality wants to be the midwife of this, and in doing so become attractive to people, especially young people, who would not be drawn to more traditional approaches.

The New Monasticism is a valuable contribution to the re-visioning of spirituality and concomitant life practices. Given its provenance, it is not surprising that the reaching out to other traditions is quite selective. Beyond Christianity, the traditions being engaged with are neo-Vedanta, Tibetan Buddhism and to a lesser extent Zen, modern Sufism and to some degree the Hasidic movement in Judaism and Martin Buber. ‘Indigenous religions’ are mentioned in two inclusivity lists, without definition or description. Shamanism is mentioned as a particular model of spiritual service. There is nothing specific from the Western Way outside Christianity.  Within Christianity, much is drawn from the contemplative strand in Orthodoxy, including an understanding of theosis (or divinisation) and the role of Sophia as guide. This is accompanied by an intent to “claim the wisdom dimension of all traditions and let the wisdom guide you” – a view which they attribute to Matthew Fox. Ethics is seen as “the call to active co-operation with the sophianic transfiguration of the world”. Quaker processes also get a mention because of their democratic and dialogical way of bringing people into Presence with each other. Since I am personally positioned in modern Druidry, Paganism and Earth Spirituality I have to express some disappointment here. However I don’t feel deliberately excluded. It’s just that these authors have their attention focused elsewhere.

I do have a worry, all the same, an area where I think that Earth and Goddess traditions could do with being heard. This is when McEntee and Bucko talk about ‘axial ages’, a view of spiritual/religious history once again taken from Ken Wilber. It depends on an evolutionary view of human culture as an aspect of a Divine awakening. In this view, the first axial age, from 800 BCE – 200 CE was a time of radical transformation marked by the appearance of great teachers who catalysed major literatures: Lao-Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Mahavir (of the Jains), Zoroaster, the Jewish prophets and Greek philosophy, as well as Jesus and the gospels. These people could stand apart from the tribe, question the worldview they had been given, and think for themselves. They could also wake up from the trance of complete immersion in nature and objectify it – seen here as a positive step, albeit one with a shadow side. They represented the coming of reflexive subjectivity and the technology (writing) that made it sustainable. Admittedly, the narrative goes, this tended to take world denying, sex denying, misogynist and more generally oppressive forms. But overall it is read as a cultural gain. Now we are seen to be in a second axial age where the perceived challenge is to transcend the limitations of the first whilst preserving the gains, and thus renew our overall movement onward. “We need both our individuality … and an understanding of our intrinsic belonging within a vast Kosmos”. I’ve been aware of Wilber’s position on this since he wrote Up from Eden in the mid 1980’s. It has always read to me as a one-eyed narrative, the mirror image of the primitive matriarchy still espoused by many Pagans.  One of its effects has been to offer a language of canny and limited concession by hitherto dominant traditions as they respond to an unstoppable shift in culture. Here is where the Earth traditions could have a role in the dialogue, to support a view of individuality and inter-connectedness, indeed, but which is less masculinist in language (I’m thinking about how the book suggests “dialogical sophiology” as the way of meeting with the divine feminine), more open, and more widely informed than this.

I am glad to be living in a time of spiritual ferment. It breathes life and hope in an otherwise darkening time. I acknowledge and celebrate the achievement of The New Monasticism and am already involved in exploring contemplative life in Druidry. I notice that I, and others who I have been linked with, have in some ways come to similar conclusions about life and practice, if not entirely of view. This book, although from a very different background, has stimulated and encouraged me. I hope it has this role for many other readers.

ENTERING SILENCE

Sometimes, as over the turn of the year, I feel like blogging fairly frequently.  At other times, like now, I don’t.  I’m still integrating my work with the Ceile De paidirean (beads) and fuinn (chants).  It takes a while.  I suspect that I’m entering a quiet period.

Yet as I do so I want to say a little bit about what contemplative practice means to me now. Centring in silence is the essence of the practice. In sitting meditation I enter silence with a contemplative intent. The process is one of self-emptying, but not in a self-wounding spirit of renunciation, of holy war on ‘ego’, of pushing away the immature self-sense like an unwanted child.

Self-emptying is simply the will to let things come and go without grabbing on, making room for something else to be.  Warmly spacious, it invites a more expansive way of being.  We do not let go in order to get something better.  The letting go is itself the something better, freeing us from our habitual self-protectiveness and contracted activities like taking, defending, hoarding, and clinging. For this reason Cynthia Bourgeault talks of ‘kenosis’ (self-emptying) as “primarily a visionary tool rather than a moral one; its primary purpose is to cleanse the lens of perception”*.

Having said that, I am finding that the contemplative shift into self-emptying does tend to open up states of acceptance (including self-acceptance), gratitude, peace, joy and love.  They come in and are present, just naturally there, not in any way willed or dutiful, some of the time. They come and go, while contemplation remains centred in stillness and silence, and “looks at the world through a single lens of wholeness”*.

* The meaning of Mary Magdalene: the woman at the heart of Christianity. Cynthia Bourgeault. Shambhala: Boston & London, 2010

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