contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Cynthia Bourgeault

I WE THEY YOU

I read recently that Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf includes an ‘I’, a ‘we’ and a ‘they’, but no ‘you’. The same writer (1) also reflects on the bible story of Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, and how it can be seen to place the origin of human violence in the elimination of the ‘you’.

I am interested in how this insight can be applied to non-dual spirituality, and find help in the Gospel of Thomas (2). Here, Thomas is described as Jesus’ twin. How are we to understand this? There is a point at which Jesus says:

“’I am not your teacher. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended’.

“And he took him and withdrew and spoke three sayings to him. When Thomas came back to his friends, they asked him, ‘what did Jesus say you?’”

Thomas feels unable to tells his friends, because the three sayings seem so shocking, and they are not recorded. However, a persuasive commentary (3) on this text suggests that the three sayings are: ‘I am God; You are me. We are the kingdom of God’. The already existing human connection between Jesus and Thomas is raised to another level because they are able to recognise the divine both in themselves and in each other. This is the view also recognised in the Sanskrit greeting Namaste.

Cynthia Bourgeault makes a similar same point in the context of the connection between Jesus and Mary Magdalene (4). Singleness is not all.  “There is still one greater mystery to be revealed. … Deeper than at-one-ment lies communion …. the nondualism of the Western metaphysical stream is a flowing unity – a ‘not one, not two, but both one and two’ in which the continuous exchange of twoness and oneness in the dance of self-giving love captures the very dynamism of the divine life itself”.

(1) Karl Ove Knausgaard The End (My Struggle: 6) Vintage Digital, 2018 (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett & Martin Aitkin)

 (2) The Gospel of Thomas in The Nag Hammadi Scriptures San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007 (ed. Marvin Meyer)

(3) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introduction to ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013

(4) Cynthia Bourgeault The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity Boston & London: Shambhala, 2010

THE COMPLETED HUMAN BEING

22 July is dedicated to Mary Magdalene, and this post is a short extract from The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, by Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest based in the United States (1). Her understanding draws heavily on Gnostic Gospels banned in the 4th century and recovered in the 20th. It articulates a Sophian, or Magdalenian, Christianity – a Gnostic Christianity – in a modern form. At the very least, it deserves space in our cultural memory, as a treasure not to lose again through carelessness, forgetting, or organised misrepresentation.

“In the Gospel of Philip, as in the Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene, the backdrop against which everything unfolds is the quest for the Anthropos ‘the completed human being’.   Philip makes it expressly clear, however, that this two-becoming-one is not simply a union of opposites as we understand it nowadays: not simply the integration of the masculine and feminine, or any of the other great binaries. … The primordial union is   [that of ]   one’s temporal humanity with its eternal prototype or ‘angel’… one Heart, one Being, one Will.”

But this is not all. Singleness is not all.  “There is still one greater mystery to be revealed. … Deeper than at-one-ment lies communion, love come full in the act of giving itself away. The nondualism of the Western metaphysical stream is a flowing unity – a ‘not one, not two, but both one and two’ in which the continuous exchange of twoness and oneness in the dance of self-giving love captures the very dynamism of the divine life itself. To discover myself as a divine being is certainly a spiritual attainment, but to discover myself as the divine beloved is to discover something even more intimate and profound”.

(1) Cynthia Bourgeault The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity Boston & London: Shambhala, 2010

SOPHIA THE CATALYST

bcf2c26ec7720ed734fccc2b13534310In my universe, Sophia primarily acts as a catalyst for what Cynthia Bourgeault (1) calls ‘singleness’ – the spacious mind of non-dual awareness.  I find that gazing into the eyes of my icon (2), or at the image as a whole, triggers me into the Seeing state that I first fully entered with Headless Way (3) exercises. I make a slight shift into what they call the ‘one eye’ perspective, and there I am.

Of course this isn’t dependent on the icon, but the timeless, momentary, gaze in this instance connects with the imaginal realm where I find feelings and intuition to be most present, with a diminished foregrounding of the sensations and thoughts that predominate in other exercises. The experience is the same, yet the feeling-tone is different.

I am still clear awake space, and capacity for the world. I remain grounded in silent stillness. But the passing content, or form, which the changeless emptiness also is and interweaves, is different. A different constellation of human characteristics is brought into the cosmic play. I value and cherish this. The archaic Gaelic tradition spoke of the Oran Mor (Great Song, or Song of the World). I’ve always thought of a Silence being key, holding the Song, and giving it – in a sense – shape; preventing it from being just noise. Yet the distinctions between individual notes also matter – small and transient though they may be. The Song depends on them, too, for its coherence.

At the human level, I have an abiding sense that my true individual note in the Song is Sophian. I do not experience Sophia as simply an abstract Wisdom figure. Nor am I a conventional believing theist (whether unitarian, trinitarian or polytheist) – yet to a degree I am a Sophian devotee, under the tutelage of a psychopomp.

Overall, I associate the Sophian note with a modern Gnosticism, “based in an affirmation of nature and the world and a positive relation to embodiment, not the classical Gnosticism of world denial and pure transcendentalism. It is a gnosis based on bringing the world fully to life, while also enjoying the state of embodiment and sensual pleasure, without excess or obsessive appetite. This affirmation of the world also requires an affirmation of the World-Soul in all its vast complexity as the primary ground of a living and animate nature. This also includes higher orders of perception and awareness leading to more mystical states of unity and participation in the creative founding of human experience” (4).

Through Seeing, I have learned that the “higher orders of perception” are more accessible than usually suggested, hidden by their obviousness and simplicity, yet entering into empty awareness, recognised as original nature or divine ground. This is why it has become my primary practice. I think there is something of this in earlier Sophian tradition. In the ancient Jewish text The Wisdom of Solomon (5), characteristics of clear and empty awareness are at least intimated, and are linked to Her name.

She is the mobility of all movement;

She is the transparent nothing that pervades all things.

She is the breath of God,

A clear emanation of Divine Glory.

No impurity can stain Her.

She is God’s spotless mirror

Reflecting eternal light

And the image of divine goodness.

Although She is one,

She does all things.

Without leaving Herself

She renews all things.”

Wisdom of Solomon 7: 24-27

Cynthia Bourgeault comments: “This remarkable passage envisions Wisdom as the primordial reflective principle, simultaneously creating and created in a seamless dance of divine becoming. There is a goddess aspect to her portrayal, to be sure – the hint of a divine co-creator – but the important thing to keep in mind is that Sophia/wisdom is presented not as a divinity to be worshipped but as a transformational force to be actualized … Wisdom is about transformation and transformation is about creativity; the three form an unbroken circle.”

Moving forward into the early days of Christianity, Bourgeault says: “The logos (Word) of St. John’s Gospel is merely the grammatically masculine synonym for exactly the same job description as has already been ascribed to Sophia in The Wisdom of Solomon; or, in other words, it is wisdom minus the feminine personification. Functionally, the terms are equivalent, and the gospel text could just as easily have begun, ‘In the beginning was the Wisdom, and the Wisdom was with God, and the Wisdom was God … and the Wisdom became flesh and dwelled among us’. In so doing, it might better have conveyed the context and mystical lineage out of which this insight actually emerges. There is no ‘male’ ordering principle counterbalancing a ‘female’ ordering principle – only grammatically masculine and feminine synonyms for a single ordering principle.”

Sophian teaching stands for the transcendence of polarities, as made clear by the Jesus of the St. Thomas Gospel. “When you are able to make the two become one, the inside like the outside, the higher like the lower, so that a man is no longer male and a woman female, but male and female become a single whole … then you will enter in” (6).

Likewise, the Gospel of St. Philip says: “the embrace of opposites occurs in this world: masculine and feminine, strength and weakness. In the Great Age – the Aion – something similar to what we call embrace occurs as well, but though we use the same name for it, forms of union there transcend what can be described here. For in that place … Reality is One and Whole” (6).

‘This world’ and ‘that world’ are not different places – but the same one seen in different ways. In a similar way, Sophia can be described as “the transparent nothing that pervades all things” and also presented anthropomorphically and mythically, as in my icon. Both understandings have value to me. The world of ‘normal’ perception: embodied, of the earth – albeit ‘re-enchanted’ as we say in Druidry, and the setting for a nature mysticism (7); the world of what S. T. Coleridge called the ‘primary imagination’, and of Sophia as image of the divine (8); and the world of Seeing are the same world seen through three different lenses: all to be savoured, all to be enjoyed, all to be known as One.

(1) Cynthia Bourgeault The meaning of Mary Magdalene: discovering the woman at the heart of Christianity Boston & London: Shambala, 2010

(2) Artist Hrana Janto at http://hranajanto.com/ (This image is used with her permission.)

(3) http://www.headless.org/

(4) Lee Brown Gnostic tarot: mandalas for spiritual transformation York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1998

(5) Rami Shapiro (translator) in The divine feminine in biblical wisdom literature Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths, 2005 (The Wisdom of Solomon was originally written in Greek, probably by a Jewish sage writing in Alexandria during the intertestamental era.)

(6) Lynn Bauman, Ward Bauman & Cynthia Bourgeault The luminous gospels Telephone, TX: Praxis Institute Publishing, 2008

(7) http://www.druidry.org/

(8) S. T. Coleridge Biographia Literaria London: Everyman’s Library, 1956 (First published 1817)

KEY WORDS

My very best wishes for 2016 to all readers of this blog. May your year be blessed with peace and loving-kindness.

Like many people I find the change of calendar year a good moment for revising and re-framing what I do. This includes my personal contemplative inquiry.  I remain strongly engaged with my Sophian Way and I am finding means of strengthening it.

At the beginning of contemplative practice I’m now saying: “I open myself to the divine breath: the movement of that breath and the stillness in that breath. I open my heart to the grace of Sophia”.  The key words are breath, movement, stillness, heart, grace and Sophia.

‘Divine breath’ translates the Greek word pneuma which could mean either ‘breath’ or ‘spirit’. It was a favourite with the Gnostics of late antiquity. For me, the divine breath is ordinary breath transformed through practice, awareness and understanding. I feel and taste the knowledge that breath enables life, and that it does so through transcending  the boundary between me and not-me. It allows me an individual life, embodied yet not sealed off. It also connects me to a larger system.

When I follow the movement of the breath, I am  attentive to its inhalation and exhalation. I breathe the cosmos; the cosmos breathes me. The movement of the breath is inherently active, life-giving and relational. There are practices in both Gnosticism and Tantra involving breath exchange with another person which emphasise these aspects of breathing.

The stillness in the breath, in my experience, is held within the movement of the breath. They are not polarised. It is the still point at the heart of being, always present as the activity of breathing is going on. It’s like an inner silence inside a context of sound, or an inner calm inside a context of energetic or emotional arousal. Truly to become open to the divine breath involves a simultaneous awareness of both dimensions.

Opened up to the experience of divine breath (rather than breath awareness as an arbitrary attentional focus) I can open my heart, in the sense offered by Cynthia Bourgeault: “In the wisdom traditions of the Near East, the heart is not the seat of one’s personal emotional life, but an organ of spiritual perception … its purpose is to stay in alignment with the Image of one’s true nature.” (1) Here, the grace of Sophia is Her presence and energy in support of that alignment.

The words cue me in to the experience, though not as a formula, for true contemplative experience is not formulaic. They represent a sensibility of practice, or a culture of practice, rather than a road map. The value of these words, as I continue to use them, will be in what emerges as a result of using them in the coming weeks and months.

 

(1) Cynthia Bourgeault The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2010

 

 

 

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

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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