Cynthia Bourgeault, Author at Center for Action and Contemplation
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The Wisdom of the Passion

Scapegoating and the Cross

The Wisdom of the Passion
Thursday, April 1, 2021
Holy Thursday

CAC teacher Cynthia Bourgeault invites us to consider the meaning of the passion from a wisdom perspective, not as a spectator watching what Jesus did, but understanding what each of us is called to do:

The passion is really the mystery of all mysteries, the heart of the Christian faith experience. By the word “passion” here we mean the events which end Jesus’s earthly life: his betrayal, trial, execution on a cross, and death. . . .

The spectacle of an innocent and good man destroyed by the powers of this world is an archetypal human experience. It elicits our deepest feelings of remorse and empathy (and if we’re honest, our own deepest shadows as well). . . . It’s been used to stir anger and scapegoating. It’s been used to fuel anti-Semitism, to induce personal guilt—“Christ died for your sins”—and to arouse devotion in a sentimental and even fanatical way.

From a wisdom point of view, what can we say about the passion? . . .  The key lies in . . .  reading Jesus’s life as a sacrament: a sacred mystery whose real purpose is not to arouse empathy but to create empowerment. In other words, Jesus is not particularly interested in increasing either your guilt or your devotion, but rather, in deepening your personal capacity to make the passage into unitive life. If you’re willing to work with that wager, the passion begins to make sense in a whole new way. . . .

The path [Jesus] did walk is precisely the one that would most fully unleash the transformative power of his teaching. It both modeled and consecrated the eye of the needle that each one of us must personally pass through in order to accomplish the “one thing necessary” here, according to his teaching: to die to self. I am not talking about literal crucifixion, of course, but I am talking about the literal laying down of our “life,” at least as we usually recognize it. Our only truly essential human task here, Jesus teaches, is to grow beyond the survival instincts of the animal brain and egoic operating system into the kenotic joy and generosity of full human personhood. . . .

What is the meaning of the passion? First of all, God wasn’t angry. Again: God wasn’t angry! Particularly in fundamentalist theology, you’ll often hear it said that God got so fed up with the sins and transgressions of Israel that he demanded a human sacrifice in atonement. But of course, this interpretation would turn God into a monster. How can Jesus, who is love, radiate and reflect a God who is primarily a monster? And how can Christians theoretically progressing on a path of love consent to live under such a reign of terror? No, we need to bury once and for all those fear-and-punishment scenarios that got programmed into so many of us during our childhood. There is no monster out there; only love waiting to set us free.

Reference:
Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—a New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambhala: 2008), 104, 105–106, 107. Emphasis in original.

Story from Our Community:
When I read these daily meditations God speaks directly to my heart in a language beyond words. After the sudden and unexpected death of my husband, little provides comfort like these meditations, which we enjoyed together before he died. It is right to ask, what will I do with this pain? It really does seem so much easier to deny it, blame others, or run. But I am aware now, so I can choose to give it to God. On a deeply spiritual level, I can feel Fr. Richard’s words coming from my husband as well—“death is not final and it takes the form of love.” — Melissa S.

Image credit: Dorothea Lange, Village dwelling. Escalante, Utah (detail), 1936, photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Closed and shuttered, this house offers no welcome to a passerby. The sharp shadows of an unseen tree evoke the shadow of our often unacknowledged biases about who is “in” and who is “out.”

The Benedictine Wisdom of “Ora et Labora”

Wisdom

The Benedictine Wisdom of “Ora et Labora”
Tuesday, February 23, 2021

If Jesus was a wisdom master who sought to transform the consciousness of his disciples through a way of life, the desert communities that sprung up in the fourth century may have been an attempt to carry on that traditional way of teaching. Cynthia Bourgeault, an accomplished wisdom teacher in her own right, traces the movement of Wisdom from the desert to the monasteries and into the present moment, honoring it as one of the foundations of her own wisdom schools:

One of the streams of Wisdom comes from very, very deep in the Christian tradition—the Wisdom of Benedictine Monasticism. Saint Benedict, in the fifth century, drew from an already well-established stream of transformational Wisdom that came out of the deserts of Egypt and Syria via a first generation of people who really wanted to practice what it means to put on the mind of Christ. Saint Benedict became heir to this and shaped it into a massive, stable container, which has been the foundation of Christian monasticism and monastic transformational practice in the West for 1,500 years. Its brilliant and stable legacy of “Ora et Labora”: “Prayer and Work,” offers a fundamental rhythm for the balancing and ordering of human life, and for the growing of that beautiful rose of Wisdom.

Joan Chittister, a vowed religious sister of the Order of Saint Benedict, explains how the Rule of Benedict provides an opportunity for transformation for everyone who chooses to follow its wisdom:

All in all, the Rule of Benedict is designed for ordinary people who live ordinary lives. It was not written for priests or mystics or hermits or ascetics; it was written by a layman for laymen. It was written to provide a model of spiritual development for the average person who intends to live life beyond the superficial or the uncaring. [1] . . .

Benedict was quite precise about it all. Time was to be spent in prayer, in sacred reading, in work, and in community participation. In other words, it was to be spent on listening to the Word, on study, on making life better for others, and on community building. It was public as well as private; it was private as well as public. It was balanced. No one thing consumed the monastic’s life. No one thing got exaggerated out of all proportion to the other dimensions of life. No one thing absorbed the human spirit to the exclusion of every other. Life was made up of many facets and only together did they form a whole. Physical labor and mental prayer and social life and study and community concerns were all pieces of the puzzle of life. Life flowed through time, with time as its guardian. [2]

References:
[1] Joan D. Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (HarperSanFrancisco: 1991), 4.

[2] Chittister, 74­–75.

Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, An Introductory Wisdom School: Course Transcript and Companion Guide (Wisdom Way of Knowing: 2017), 4. Learn about and register for Cynthia’s online Introductory Wisdom School.

Story from Our Community:
My transformation story has sudden, short bursts of enlightenment and long, slow, gentle awakenings. During my journey I have discovered Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault. I am eternally grateful to these spiritual giants who continue to guide and inspire me. —Jude M.

Image credit: Mark Kauffman, Howard Thurman (detail), photograph, copyright gettyimages.com, used with permission.
Image inspiration: Pictured here are the hands of the Howard Thurman, revered theologian and inspiration for civil rights in the 20th century. We see a profound gentleness in the way Thurman holds his glasses; the same timeless and human gentleness that permeates his writings and teachings. 

Unveiling Christianity

A Time of Unveiling

Unveiling Christianity
Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Another way to look at “unveiling” is as a sort of “recognition event,” where something we thought we knew reveals itself to be radically different than our long-held assumptions. Our friend and CAC teacher Reverend Cynthia Bourgeault explores how this is a gospel phenomenon, one that takes place repeatedly, especially for Jesus. When people are attuned and awake, reality is often “unveiled” for them. Cynthia suggests that this might be a necessary step for all Christians in the twenty-first century. We’ve become so used to the “story” of our faith that a veil has been pulled over our eyes and we no longer experience its power to change our lives. She writes:

Perhaps the most deadening aspect of our Christianity . . . is that we live it with twenty-twenty hindsight. We know the story. We know how the plot comes out. We know who the winners are. . . . The Bible contains the complete and divinely authorized biography of Jesus and furnishes the complete guide to what [we] should do to become his disciple. Everything needed for [our] personal salvation is right there. . . .

We’re living in an era right now which some would call a major paradigm shift, where there’s an opportunity as perhaps there hasn’t been before to really open up the core questions again and ask, “What is it that we mean by ‘Christianity’? What is this filter [or veil] that we’re looking through? Who is this Master that we profess and confess in our life as we call ourselves Christian?” . . .

When we approach the [Jesus] story with the attitude, “I’ve heard that already, I know what that means,” we fall asleep rather than allowing ourselves to be shocked awake. . . . For all such spiritual sleepwalking bypasses that crucial first step, that moment when the heart has to find its way not though external conditioning but through a raw immediacy of presence. Only there—in “the cave of the heart,” as the mystics are fond of calling it—does a person come in contact with his or her own direct knowingness. And only out of this direct knowingness is sovereignty born, one’s own inner authority.

Richard here: This is what Jesus offers people through his ministry—an experience of inner authority, powerful enough to heal them and set them free from whatever was keeping them trapped. Often it seems as if Jesus is simply “parting the veil” between them and God. Cynthia offers this quote from Father Bruno Barnhart:

As we accompany Jesus through the gospels, we are present at one dramatic meeting after another. One person after another experiences a mysterious power in Jesus that, from this moment, changes the course of his or her life. If we are fully present at the moment when we read such a narrative, we ourselves experience the liberating power of this awakening. [1]

References:
[1] Bruno BarnhartSecond Simplicity: The Inner Shape of Christianity (Paulist Press: 1999), 48. Bourgeault, 8–9.

Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—a New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambhala: 2008), 2, 3–4, 7.

Story from Our Community:
Recently my 47-year-old son died by suicide. The true cause of death was mental illness, substance abuse and the inability to feel worth in simply existing. Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations have been part of my morning routine for a few years, as I struggle to rebuild a bridge to belief. Now, these daily messages are my lifeline. If not to faith, then to hope and, most especially, to love. I can’t say that I understand how suffering provides the pathway to being one with all things in love, but they help me to stop trying to understand and start laying the paver stones. I am grateful. —Mary S.

Image credit: Basket and Tree Root (detail), Photograph by Thomas Merton, copyright the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with Permission.
Like the exposed roots of a tree, reality unveiled can be many things at the same time: sharp, smooth, ugly, beautiful, painful, and healing.

Giving Away Every Gift

Self-Emptying

Giving Away Every Gift
Monday, December 14, 2020

A focus on self-emptying or “letting go” might seem like a call to self-denial or “making do with less,” but as Cynthia Bourgeault points out in her description of Jesus’ teaching, it can also lead to radical generosity and abundance. When we cling to less—of our possessions and even our lives—we are free to give it away for the sake of others.

[Jesus] certainly called us to dying to self, but his idea of dying to self was not through inner renunciation or guarding the purity of his being but through radically squandering everything he had and was. John the Baptist’s disciples were horrified because he banqueted, drank, and danced. The Pharisees were horrified because he healed on the Sabbath and kept company with women and disreputables, people known to be impure. . . .

What seemed disconcerting to nearly everybody was the messy, freewheeling largeness of his spirit. Abundance and a generosity bordering on extravagant seemed to be the signatures of both his teaching and his personal style. . . . When he feeds the multitudes at the Sea of Galilee, there is not merely enough to go around; the leftovers fill twelve baskets [John 6:13]. When a woman anoints him with expensive ointment and the disciples grumble about the waste, he affirms, “Truly, I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (Matthew 26:13). He seems not to count the cost; in fact, he specifically forbids counting the cost. “Do not store up treasures on earth,” he teaches; do not strive or be afraid— “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). All will come of its own accord in good time and with abundant fullness, so long as one does not attempt to hoard or cling.

It is a path he himself walked to the very end. In the garden of Gethsemane, with his betrayers and accusers massing at the gates, he struggled and anguished but remained true to his course. Do not hoard, do not cling—not even to life itself. Let it go, let it be— “Not my will but yours be done, O Lord. Into your hands I commend my spirit.” [1]

Richard again: Jesus came into the world and gave himself fully into a poor life and a humiliating death. As Cynthia writes, he was “squandering himself” [2], which is really what the entire Trinity does: each self-emptying into the other! He revealed the poverty of God, who gives everything away. Yet most of us would probably not think of God as poor at all.

References:
[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—a New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambala: 2008), 69–70.

[2] Ibid., 70.

Image credit: Ajanta Caves (detail mural of the Buddha), Aurangabad, Maharashtra State, India.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: When we meditate consistently, a sense of our autonomy and private self-importance—what we think of as our “self”—falls away. Little by little, it becomes unnecessary, unimportant, and even unhelpful. The imperial “I,” the self that we likely think of as our only self, reveals itself as largely a creation of our mind. —Richard Rohr

The Kingdom as Consciousness

Jesus and the Reign of God

The Kingdom as Consciousness
Wednesday, November 18, 2020

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul offers a puzzling injunction to the new Christians. He writes, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus Christ” (2:5). CAC faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault explores how developing this kind of “Christ-consciousness” is the key to understanding Jesus’s teaching on the “Kingdom of Heaven.”

How do we put on the mind of Christ? How do we see through his eyes? How do we feel through his heart? How do we learn to respond to the world with that same wholeness and healing love? That’s what Christian orthodoxy really is all about. It’s not about right belief; it’s about right practice. . . .

Jesus uses one particular phrase repeatedly: “the Kingdom of Heaven.” You can easily confirm this yourself by a quick browse through the gospels; the words jump out at you from everywhere. . . .

So what do we take it to be? . . . [Jesus] says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you” (that is, here) and “at hand” (that is, now). It’s not later, but lighter—some more subtle quality or dimension of experience accessible to you right in the moment. You don’t die into it; you awaken into it. . . .

The Kingdom of Heaven is really a metaphor for a state of consciousness; it is not a place you go to, but a place you come from. It is a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place. . . The hallmark of this awareness is that it sees no separation—not between God and humans, not between humans and other humans. And these are indeed Jesus’s two core teachings, underlying everything he says and does. . . .

When Jesus talks about this Oneness . . . . what he more has in mind is a complete, mutual indwelling: I am in God, God is in you, you are in God, we are in each other. His most beautiful symbol for this is in the teaching in John 15 where he says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Abide in me as I in you” [see John 15:4–5]. A few verses later he says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love” [John 15:9]. . . . There is no separation between humans and God because of this mutual interabiding which expresses the indivisible reality of divine love. . . .

No separation between human and human is an equally powerful notion—and equally challenging. One of the most familiar of Jesus’s teachings is “Love your neighbor as yourself” [Matthew 22:39] . . . as a continuation of your very own being. It’s a complete seeing that your neighbor is you. There are not two individuals out there . . . there are simply two cells of the one great Life.

References:
Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—A New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambhala: 2008), 29­­­, 30–32.

Image credit: 芥子園畫傳 Mountainside View (detail of print from The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting), Juran (960–), China, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed which a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the biggest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air can come and shelter in its branches. —Matthew 13:31–32

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace, Part Two: Weekly Summary

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace, Part Two

Summary: Sunday, October 25—Friday, October 30, 2020

To begin this second week exploring Thomas Keating’s final poems, I offer a basic overview of the stages of spiritual development that Thomas so authentically modeled in his life and teaching. (Sunday)

All emotional drama has dropped out, since there is no longer a fixed point of selfhood to be “happy” or “unhappy” about a situation. Time no longer rushes on into the future, but rests comfortably in a more spacious now.  —Cynthia Bourgeault (Monday)

When there is no fixed point of reference to “take it home to,” to make it about “my experience of “I AM,” then there is only the bare “I AM.” —Cynthia Bourgeault (Tuesday)

The contemplative state enables one to rest and act at the same time because one is rooted in the source of both rest and action. —Thomas Keating (Wednesday)

We are neither isolated nor helpless but immersed in a great web of belonging in which divine intelligence and compassion are always at our disposal if our courage does not fail us. —Cynthia Bourgeault (Thursday)

The only path forward for the survival of our species and perhaps even our planet is a path of nonviolence, of contemplation and action prioritizing justice and solidarity, an affirmation of Oneness and the interconnectedness of all things, which science confirms, and spirituality has always known on its deepest level. (Friday)

 

Practice: Centering Prayer

Both Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgeault have made great contributions to the Christian contemplative tradition, perhaps most significantly through their dedication to the practice and teaching of Centering Prayer. To close this week, Cynthia offers further instructions on Centering Prayer.

Since [Centering Prayer] works entirely with “intention, not attention” (as Thomas Keating repeatedly emphasizes), there is no focal point for the attention, not even the breath or a mantra. Practitioners must learn early how to maintain their attention in (or more often, return it to) that inner, undifferentiated state. Anything that serves as an object for the attention, no matter how pious or holy—a vision, intercessory prayer, an itch on your nose—is considered in this practice to be a “thought” and must be let go of. As practitioners gradually learn the art of withdrawing energy from all objects of attention, they are at the same time (and largely unbeknownst to themselves) developing an inner capacity to distinguish by feel the difference between attention in and attention on. Letting go is first and foremost a gesture—a subtle inner drop and release—and every opportunity to practice it strengthens the patterning. . . .

Like most beginners, I thought that the aim in Centering Prayer was to let go of my thoughts so that God could “fill” me with [God’s] presence. One day I suddenly realized that the God story was the sideshow and the letting go was the main event. That was when the practice flipped for me, as I recognized that thoughts were not the obstacle; they were the raw material, as every opportunity to practice releasing that focal point for attention deepened the reservoir of “free attention” within me and strengthened the signal of the homing beacon of my heart.

Sooner or later a tipping point is reached . . . when the strength of this signal becomes stronger than the attraction exerted by the thoughts. When a thought arises at the surface of the mind, a countering pull from the depths becomes so strong that letting go is effortless; in fact, it is impossible to do otherwise. At about this time, typically, one also begins to experience this “tug” outside of the prayer period itself, as events of daily life offer themselves as reminders of (rather than distractions from) the deeper yearning of the heart. . . .

[Centering Prayer’s] great strength as a practice is that it begins to build (or quicken) within a person a new center of gravity through which that traditional cul-de-sac of most witnessing practice—the mind spying on itself—can be surmounted by a new ability to remain rooted in being through sensation, not reflection. This is a huge milestone. It begins to approximate the capacity for that ancient desideratum of the Song of Songs: “I sleep, but my heart is awake” [5:2]. All that now remains is to transpose the usual seat of one’s identity from the narrative self to this native ground of witnessing presence.

Reference:
Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice (Shambhala Publications: 2016), 87–88, 89–90.

For Further Study:
Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating’s The Secret Embrace (2020), online on-demand course. Full details available from Spirituality & Practice at https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/ecourses/course/view/10274/thomas-keatings-the-secret-embrace

Thomas Keating, Consenting to God as God Is (Lantern Books: 2016). From Keating’s introduction: “This book is addressed primarily to people with some personal experience of the spiritual journey and especially to those engaged in some form of contemplative service.”

Thomas Keating, Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: ©1994, 2009).

Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel, 20th anniversary ed. (Continuum: 2006).

Bernadette Roberts, The Experience of No-Self: A Contemplative Journey (Shambhala Publications: 1984, ©1982).

Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2009).

Richard Rohr, What the Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2015).

Spirituality, Contemplation, and Transformation: Writings on Centering Prayer, Thomas Keating and others (Lantern Books: 2008).

Image credit: Alta Pink (detail), James Turrell, 1968, installation.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: To be nothing / Is to consent to being a simple creature. / This is the place of encounter with / “I AM that I Am.” / When there is no more “me, myself, or mine,” / Only “I AM” remains. / Then the “I” may fall away, / Leaving just the AM. . . . —Thomas Keating, “Out of Nothing”

Everything Matters

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace, Part Two

Everything Matters
Thursday, October 29, 2020

Only the Divine matters,

And because the Divine matters,

Everything matters.

                                                                 —Thomas Keating, “What Matters”

The simplicity of the final poem in The Secret Embrace speaks eloquently of what I (Richard) know more deeply to be true with every passing year. It’s the incarnational message at the heart of the Gospel: everything belongs! It is a Christ-soaked universe. As we near the end of this series, Cynthia Bourgeault shares her understanding of Thomas Keating’s final legacy to us.

In October 2018, two weeks before he died, Thomas Keating emerged briefly from four days in what appeared to be a coma to deliver an extraordinary final message beamed straight to the heart of the world. [1] Acknowledging that “an extraordinary moment of civilization seems to be overtaking us,” he urged the human family to scrap old approaches based on religious or political dogma and “begin a new world with one that actually exists,” a world whose truth is guided by “silence and science” and whose heart is revealed in a universal resurgence of human compassion and creativity. “We need to find ways to make these really happen,” he said. “I leave this hope in your hands and hearts coming as a real inspiration from the heart of God.”

Two momentous years later, his words seem more prophetic than ever.

Of the many insights Thomas Keating has given us in these poems, two gifts stand out in particular. The first is that he has completely reframed the traditional Christian notion of God, offering us a powerful new roadmap with which to make spiritual sense of our contemporary world. In this short poem of eleven laser-like words, Thomas smashes through centuries of theological barricades separating God from the world and contemplation from action, offering instead a flowing vision of oneness within a profoundly interwoven and responsive relational field.

To have this universal wisdom affirmed so forcefully by one of Christianity’s most revered elders creates a powerful new incentive for a compassionate re-engagement with our times. Practically speaking, the map affirms that our actions, our choices, our connections bear more weight than we dare to believe. We are neither isolated nor helpless but immersed in a great web of belonging in which divine intelligence and compassion are always at our disposal if our courage does not fail us.

The second gift awaiting us in these poems is their powerful reaffirmation that the access route to all new beginning comes by leaning into the diminishment, stripping, and emptiness. Not by trying to distract ourselves, anesthetize ourselves, or use our spiritual tool kit to re-establish the status quo. New beginning is intrinsically disorienting and anguishing; it builds on the wreckage of what has been outgrown but not yet relinquished. As the veils are lifted and our familiar reference points dissolve, it is only on the timeless path of surrender (a.k.a. “letting go,” “consenting to the presence and action of God”) that we find our way through the darkness and into the new beginning. Godspeed and know that we travel the path together!

References:
[1] Thomas Keating, Fr. Thomas Keating’s Last Oracle (Contemplative Network: 2020), transcription (October 2018), YouTube video.

Excerpted with permission from Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating’s The Secret Embrace (2020), online on-demand course. Full details available from Spirituality & Practice at https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/ecourses/course/view/10274/thomas-keatings-the-secret-embrace

Epigraph: Keating, “What Matters,” The Secret Embrace (Temple Rock Company: 2018), poem VIII.

Image credit: Alta Pink (detail), James Turrell, 1968, installation.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: To be nothing / Is to consent to being a simple creature. / This is the place of encounter with / “I AM that I Am.” / When there is no more “me, myself, or mine,” / Only “I AM” remains. / Then the “I” may fall away, / Leaving just the AM. . . . —Thomas Keating, “Out of Nothing”

An Interspiritual Guide

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace, Part Two

An Interspiritual Guide
Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Our true nature is stillness,
The Source from which we come.

. . . .

The deep listening of pure contemplation
Is the path to stillness.

All words disappear into It,
And all creation awakens to the delight of
Just Being.

                                                       —Thomas Keating, “Stillness”

From Richard: In the title of my book Dancing Standing Still, I was trying to capture the harmonious balance between action and contemplation. If we try to move without being attuned to the music of God and our True Self, what we do will not be beautiful, helpful, or possibly even worth doing. And, of course, we cannot follow the “tune” of either of those sources without aligning ourselves with them through committed practice. Cynthia Bourgeault interprets this poem by Thomas Keating in that light, though she says it much more eloquently than I.

This poem seems to meet people wherever they are, from beginning meditators to folks who’ve been on the path for decades. Thomas returns once again to his earlier assertion that silence is not simply an absence. On the contrary, it is personal, intimate, filled with aliveness and subtle relationality. Most of us, I imagine, still use the words “silence” and “stillness” pretty much interchangeably, both designating an absence of external noise and a state of inner emptiness. For Thomas, the two are subtly different from one another—and distinctly different from our usual perception of emptiness.

For Thomas, stillness is not even remotely a void. We tend to think of it as motionlessness, but in a quantum universe whose nature is to be in constant motion it really comes closer to dynamic equilibrium. It is T. S. Eliot’s “still point in a turning world,” [1] the Sufi dervish’s fierce inner repose as the outer world goes flying by, the Buddhist’s “effortless action.” It does not imply lack of motion, but the harmonious balance of opposites. You are neither imposing nor resisting, but simply present, flowing in oneness with whatever is. You are the dancer at one with the dance. You are still.

We have been trained to think that the purpose of stillness is to lead us to “pure contemplation,” long regarded in mystical theology as a highly exalted state. But here Thomas turns the table on traditional theology; in a dynamically interactive universe the purpose of contemplation is to lead us beyond all stages, states, and roadmaps—beyond empty silence and stillness—into that great, flowing oneness which is our own true nature and the true nature of all that is.

Thomas himself specifically comments on this point:

The contemplative state is established when contemplative prayer moves from being an experience or series of experiences to an abiding state of consciousness. The contemplative state enables one to rest and act at the same time because one is rooted in the source of both rest and action. [2]

Flowing oneness again. Flowing out from the Sacred Embrace, “The Source from which we come.”

References:
[1] T. S. Eliot, “Four Quartets: Burnt Norton,” The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909–1950 (Harcourt Brace and Co.: 1980), 119.

[2] Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel (Amity House: 1986), 75.

Excerpted with permission from Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating’s The Secret Embrace (2020), online on-demand course. Full details available from Spirituality & Practice at https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/ecourses/course/view/10274/thomas-keatings-the-secret-embrace

Epigraph: Keating, “Stillness,” The Secret Embrace (Temple Rock Company: 2018), poem VII.

Image credit: Alta Pink (detail), James Turrell, 1968, installation.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: To be nothing / Is to consent to being a simple creature. / This is the place of encounter with / “I AM that I Am.” / When there is no more “me, myself, or mine,” / Only “I AM” remains. / Then the “I” may fall away, / Leaving just the AM. . . . —Thomas Keating, “Out of Nothing”

Falling Away from I AM

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace, Part Two

Falling Away from I AM
Tuesday, October 27, 2020

To be nothing
Is to consent to being a simple creature.
This is the place of encounter with
“I AM that I Am.”

When there is no more “me, myself, or mine,”
Only “I AM” remains.

Then the “I” may fall away,
Leaving just the AM. . . .

                                                              —Thomas Keating, “Out of Nothing”

In her latest book, Cynthia Bourgeault talks about the significant position Thomas Keating held in her life as a teacher and spiritual father [1]. Their relationship makes her reflections on his poetry a poignant example of how to be a compassionate witness to the suffering and transformation of someone we love. Here Cynthia describes Thomas’ journey through all the dark nights a human can experience:

In this poem, one of the last in the collection, there can be no doubt that Thomas Keating is indeed talking about an elusive third dark night, what Bernadette Roberts called “the experience of no-self.” [2] Its radical stripping is far deeper than the dismantling of our “emotional programs for happiness” that occurs in the Dark Night of Sense. It is even deeper than the fruit of the Dark Night of Spirit, which is the dissolution of the separate self into unitive consciousness. Thomas is here alluding to a third and yet more fundamental dissolution: the collapse of the self-reflective mechanism itself, that unique property of human consciousness which makes me realize “It is I who am experiencing this.” Oneness is attained not through an even more intense experience of union, but through a simple suspension of the subject/object polarity that created the perception of twoness in the first place. There is a whole new operating system at work now.

As Thomas writes, “When there is no more ‘me, myself, or mine,’ / Only I AM remains.”

When there is no fixed point of reference to “take it home to,” to make it about “my experience of I AM,” then there is only the bare “I AM.” Then even that may shed its skin. “Then the ‘I’ may fall away, / Leaving just the AM.” . . .

Those who have reflected on the biblical account will quickly catch the double meaning of the repeated use of “I AM” in this poem. It describes not only our own self-reflexive awareness; it is also the name by which God reveals Godself to Moses in the wilderness. “Who shall I tell them has sent me?” asks Moses. To which God replies, “I Am that I Am” [Exodus 3:14]. (In Hebrew, YHWH is the sacred, unutterable name of God.)

Thomas Merton said something quite like this shortly before his own death. He stated,

You have to experience duality for a long time until you see it’s not there. . . . Don’t consider dualistic prayer on a lower level. The lower is higher. There are no levels. Any moment you can break through to the underlying unity which is God’s gift in Christ. In the end, Praise praises. Thanksgiving gives thanks. Jesus prays. Openness is all. [3]

That, I believe, is the real teaching awaiting us in this poem and manifest in Thomas Keating’s own life.

References:
[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, Eye of the Heart: A Spiritual Journey into the Imaginal Realm (Shambhala Publications: 2020), 173.

[2] Bernadette Roberts, The Experience of No-Self: A Contemplative Journey (Shambhala Publications: 1984, ©1982).

[3] Thomas Merton, conversation before his trip to Bangkok (1968), See David Steindl-Rast, “Man of Prayer,” Thomas Merton, Monk: A Monastic Tribute, ed. Patrick Hart (Sheed and Ward: 1974), 89.

Excerpted with permission from Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating’s The Secret Embrace (2020), online on-demand course. Full details available from Spirituality & Practice at https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/ecourses/course/view/10274/thomas-keatings-the-secret-embrace

Epigraph: Keating, “Out of Nothing,” The Secret Embrace (Temple Rock Company: 2018), poem VI.

Image credit: Alta Pink (detail), James Turrell, 1968, installation.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: To be nothing / Is to consent to being a simple creature. / This is the place of encounter with / “I AM that I Am.” / When there is no more “me, myself, or mine,” / Only “I AM” remains. / Then the “I” may fall away, / Leaving just the AM. . . . —Thomas Keating, “Out of Nothing”

A Silent Love

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace, Part Two

A Silent Love
Monday, October 26, 2020

Nowhere is my destination.
And no one is my identity.

My daily bread is powerlessness.
Temptations can be overwhelming.
Gone is every hope of help.

An abyss opens up within me.
I am falling, falling,
Plunging into non-existence.

Is this annihilation?
Or, is it the path to the Silent Love
That we are?. . .

                                                                        —Thomas Keating, “The Last Laugh”

Cynthia Bourgeault continues to lead us through The Secret Embrace, a book of poems composed by Father Thomas Keating at the end of his life. Today she engages with what I (Richard) believe is one of the most challenging poems in the collection. Cynthia writes:

In both its poetic and spiritual subtlety, this poem, excerpted above, marks a later stage in Thomas Keating’s journey. Though he clearly attained to “unity consciousness” by the final decade of his life, I believe this poem is a living confirmation that, in the words of Christian contemplative mystic Bernadette Roberts (1931–2017), the unitive stage of the journey is itself a passage. [1]

Contrary to what most of the saints and mystics seem to imply, the stage of “union with God” is not a permanent state or a spiritual rank acquired. It has a beginning and an end. In “The Last Laugh” we are witnessing the end of a journey, as the final veil of separate selfhood—“self” consciousness itself—is drawn back to reveal at last the riddle of the true self.

As the poem opens, Thomas is clearly in liminal space, midway between tedium and transfiguration. Dark night and unitive dawn are no longer all that different; reality simply is as it is. All emotional drama has dropped out, since there is no longer a fixed point of selfhood to be “happy” or “unhappy” about a situation. “Nowhere is my destination and no one is my identity,” he remarks simply, and while this may sound awful to our egoic minds, still fixed on defining ourselves by “who we are” or what lies ahead, there is also a solemn freedom here: no longer any buttons to be pushed, no dog in the fight. Time no longer rushes on into the future, but rests comfortably in a more spacious now.

Final union or ultimate annihilation, he wonders. What if they turn out to be the same? The line is pretty startling. “Annihilation” is a very strong word in the Christian spiritual vocabulary. You don’t find it used often, even in classic descriptions of the Dark Night of the Spirit. It is more frequently mentioned within the Sufi tradition, where fana—total annihilation—means something way beyond simply the death of the ego self. It is more like the extinguishing of our most primordial sense of selfhood or “I-ness.” Toward that abyss Thomas finds himself now rapidly plunging.

And then, out of nowhere, the turn . . .

It all begins with that tiny word “or.” Linger over it. It is as sacred and subtle as that moment when outbreath turns back into inbreath and the cycle miraculously begins again.

Or, is it the path to the Silent Love / That we are?

And you realize that the final veil of selfhood is actually a bridal veil, but now you are standing in the nuptial chamber. With a joyful laugh, you let it go.

References:
[1] Bernadette Roberts, The Path to No-Self: Life at the Center (State University of New York Press: 1991). The Preface, Introduction, and first chapter describe “viewing union as a transitional rather than a definitive stage” (p. 7) of mature spirituality.

Excerpted with permission from Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating’s The Secret Embrace (2020), online on-demand course. Full details available from Spirituality & Practice at https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/ecourses/course/view/10274/thomas-keatings-the-secret-embrace

Epigraph: Keating, “The Last Laugh,” The Secret Embrace (Temple Rock Company: 2018), poem V.

Image credit: Alta Pink (detail), James Turrell, 1968, installation.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: To be nothing / Is to consent to being a simple creature. / This is the place of encounter with / “I AM that I Am.” / When there is no more “me, myself, or mine,” / Only “I AM” remains. / Then the “I” may fall away, / Leaving just the AM. . . . —Thomas Keating, “Out of Nothing”
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