Cynthia Bourgeault, Author at Center for Action and Contemplation
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Simple Trust in God’s Presence

Living Inside God’s Great Story

Simple Trust in God’s Presence
Friday, September 3, 2021

Living School emeritus teacher Cynthia Bourgeault shares how her early exposure to a simple form of quiet prayer impacted her spiritual journey.

“Prayer is talking to God”: with these words nearly all of us receive our first religious instruction. Certainly I did. As a child, I learned the usual first prayers and graces (“Now I lay me down to sleep” and “God is great, God is good. . .”), followed, a bit later, by the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-Third Psalm. I was also encouraged to speak to God in my own words and instructed that the appropriate topics for this conversation were to give thanks for the blessings of the day and to ask for assistance with particular needs and concerns.

But for all this, I was also one of the relatively rare few who also had it patterned into me that prayer was listening to God. Not even listening for messages, exactly, like the child Samuel in my favorite Old Testament story [1 Samuel 3:3–10], but just being there, quietly gathered in God’s presence. This learning came not from my formal Sunday School training, but through the good fortune of spending my first six school years in a Quaker school, where weekly silent “meeting for worship” was as an invariable part of the rhythm of life as schoolwork or recess. I can still remember trooping together, class by class, into the cavernous two-story meetinghouse and taking our places on the long, narrow benches once occupied by elders of yore. Occasionally, there would be a scriptural verse or thought offered, but for long stretches there was simply silence. And in that silence, as I gazed up at the sunlight sparkling through those high upper windows, or followed a secret tug drawing me down into my own heart, I began to know a prayer much deeper than “talking to God.” Somewhere in those depths of silence I came upon my first experiences of God as a loving presence that was always near, and prayer as a simple trust in that presence.

Almost four decades later, when I was introduced to Centering Prayer through the work of Father Thomas Keating, it did not take me long to recognize where I was. In a deep way I’d come home again to that place I first knew as a child in Quaker meeting.

What I know now, of course, is that the type of prayer I was being exposed to during those meetings for worship was contemplative prayer. In Christian spiritual literature, this term all too often has the aura of being an advanced and somewhat rarified form of prayer, mostly practiced by monks and mystics. But in essence, contemplative prayer is simply a wordless, trusting opening of self to the divine presence. Far from being advanced, it is about the simplest form of prayer there is. Children recognize it instantly—as I did—perhaps because, as the sixteenth-century mystic John of the Cross intimates, “Silence is God’s first language.”

Reference:
Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (Cowley Publications: 2004), 4‒5.

Story from Our Community:
I begin each day with the joy of these reflections. Full of wisdom and insight, new ways of looking and longing, I share them with friends, family, and grandchildren. I love Fr. Richard’s Franciscan incarnation theology of the “Christ-soaked world.” Nothing is wasted. Everything is sacred. —Liz M.

Image credit: Raul Diaz, White Sands New Mexico (detail), 2006, photograph, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Image inspiration: The natural grandeur of this photo reveals the creative and mysterious aspects of the Divine. But it doesn’t capture the dryness of the air, the heat of the sand, the sounds, the smells, and the tastes. That requires us to be there, present inside the landscape and story.

Good and Bad Power: Weekly Summary

Good and Bad Power

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Week Thirty-Two Summary and Practice

Sunday, August 8—Friday, August 13, 2021

Sunday
Once we come into contact with the Holy Spirit, our Inner Source, we become living icons of true, humble, and confident power.

Monday
When we haven’t experienced or don’t trust our God-given “power within,” we are either afraid of power or we exert too much of it over others. Enduring structures of “power-over,” like patriarchy, white supremacy, and rigid capitalism, have limited most individuals’ power for so long that it is difficult to imagine another way.

Tuesday
The theme that I believe is basic to many of our political ills is domination. . . . Domination is a relation that does not work the same in both directions. One commands, the other obeys. One shows respect, the other accepts it but does not return it. One gains privileges from which the other is excluded. —Beatrice Bruteau

Wednesday
God does not play favorites. God loves all equally. Children of God are supremely safe in this love (but not protected in the world), and children of God are themselves capable of this kind of loving. —Beatrice Bruteau

Thursday
When you take something you possess—your bread and power, your abilities and identities, your comfort and control, your treasured structures and even life itself—and release your attachment to it and make it useful to God’s movement, you are practicing kenosis. —Stephanie Spellers

Friday
What if we actually surrendered to the inner Trinitarian flow and let it be our primary teacher? Our notion of society, politics, and authority—which is still top-down and outside-in—would utterly change.

 

Learning to Let Go

Centering Prayer is a devotional practice, placing ourselves in God’s presence and quieting our minds and hearts, but as Cynthia Bourgeault explains, it doesn’t only work on that level. What the desert abbas and ammas, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, and even Thomas Keating could not have known when he formally started teaching the practice five decades ago, was that it works on a physiological level as well, strengthening neural pathways, and making “letting go” that much easier. When it comes to releasing our strong preferences, especially our desire for power and control, it seems safe to say that some practice of kenosis is necessary for any movement forward.

The theological basis for Centering Prayer lies in the principle of kenosis, Jesus’s self-emptying love that forms the core of his own self-understanding and life practice. . . .

The gospels themselves make clear that [Jesus] is specifically inviting us to this journey and modeling how to do it. Once you see this, it’s the touchstone throughout all his teaching: Let go! Don’t cling! Don’t hoard! Don’t assert your importance! Don’t fret. “Do not be afraid, little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom!” (Luke 12:32). And it’s this same core gesture we practice in Centering Prayer: thought by thought by thought. You could really summarize Centering Prayer as kenosis in meditation form. . . .

Fascinating confirmation that kenosis is indeed an evolutionary human pathway is emerging from—of all places—recent discoveries in neuroscience. From fMRI data collected primarily by the California-based HeartMath Institute, you can now verify chapter and verse that how you respond to a stimulus in the outer world determines which neural pathways will be activated in your brain, and between your brain and your heart. If you respond with any form of initial negativity (which translates physiologically as constriction)—freezing, bracing, clinging, clenching, and so on—the pathway illumined leads to your amygdala (or “reptilian brain,” as it’s familiarly known) . . . which controls a repertory of highly energized fight-or-flight responses. If you can relax into a stimulus—opening, softening, yielding, releasing—the neural pathway leads through the more evolutionarily advanced parts of your forebrain and, surprisingly, brings brain and heart rhythms into entrainment. . . .

Every time we manage to let go of a thought in Centering Prayer, “consenting to the presence and action of God within,” the gesture is actually physically embodied. It’s not just an attitude; something actually “drops and releases” in the solar plexus region of your body, a subtle but distinct form of interior relaxation. . . . And in time, this gentle and persistent “inner aerobics,” undertaken under the specific banner of Centering Prayer and in solidarity with Jesus’s own kenotic path, will gradually establish that “mind of Christ” within you as your own authentic self.

We invite you to spend some time today practicing “letting go” through Centering Prayer or another practice of kenosis.

Experience a version of this practice through video and sound.

Reference:
Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice (Shambhala: 2016), 33, 34, 35–36.

Image credit: Charles O’Rear, A Hundred Mile Ribbon of Sand Dunes (detail), 1972, photograph, California, National Archives.
Image inspiration: A desert has the potential for phenomenal beauty—but if you want to survive, you wouldn’t enter it without food and water. Likewise, power in itself is neither good nor bad, but requires our precautions and awareness to navigate and apply with great care.

Finding Presence

Doorways to Christian Contemplation

Finding Presence
Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Chanting is one of the most traditional methods of contemplation. While some traditions repeat a single word or sound, Benedictine and Gregorian chant within the Christian tradition draw their inspiration from the Psalms. Cynthia Bourgeault describes how chant works as a contemplative method. She is one of the best teachers in this regard:

Chanting is at the heart of all sacred traditions worldwide, and for very good reason: it is fundamentally a deep-immersion experience in the creative power of the universe itself. Because to make music, you must engage those three core elements out of which the earth was fashioned and through which all spiritual transformation happens.

The first element, of course, is breath. Many of the great world religions picture the earth as being created and sustained by the steady, rhythmic “breathing” of God. Virtually every tradition starts you off on a spiritual practice by bringing attention to your breath and teaching you to breathe fully and consciously. [Benedictine monk] Father Theophane . . . liked to remind his retreatants, “Every breath you take is the breath of God.”

The second element is tone, or vibration, the sound you make when you add voice to that breath. Again, many of the world’s sacred traditions tell us that creation came into existence through the power of vibration. . . . [including] the ancient Christian insight, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1)—for what else is “word” but vibration combined with intentionality? Mythologically, the world was “spoken” into existence. And when we add our tone, we join this speaking.

The third element, which I just mentioned above, is intentionality. . . . When you chant, the quality of your intention and attention is what makes the difference between boredom and beauty. As you give yourself to the words you are chanting, their spiritual power comes alive in you. . . .

Not even melodies and choir books are required. In traditional Sufi prayer, for example, a single word is chanted over and over—one of ninety-nine names (spiritual attributes) of God: “mercy,” “truth,” “life,” “peace,” and so forth. With nothing but a single word, sometimes an accompanying drumbeat, and the conscious attention of the participants, a chant of enormous power and beauty rises in remembrance of God.

Perhaps no community has done more to reclaim the sacred Christian practice of chanting than Taizé, the small ecumenical community in France founded in the late 1940s. They remind us that “through [the songs], little by little, our being finds an inner unity in God. They can continue in the silence of our hearts when we are at work, speaking with others or resting. In this way prayer and daily life are united. They allow us to keep on praying even when we are unaware of it, in the silence of our hearts.” [1]

References:
[1] “Meditative Singing,” article from Taizé website.

Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—A New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambhala: 2008), 161–162, 169.

Story from Our Community:
Three years ago I finished 7 months of chemotherapy; the treatment was very powerful and I had to stay home from my job. Though I often felt physically miserable, the time alone was peaceful and rich. I watched the sun sweep across my room, listened to the Canada geese fly overhead, lost myself in a book, and listened to the breathing of my three dogs sleeping near me. I am not a formal churchgoer and don’t attach to one belief. But this experience and others I have had are not different from those of the religious I admire. The path is wide. —Laura C.

Image credit: Oliver, Magnolia (detail), 2014, photograph, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Image inspiration: The quick blooming colors of the saucer magnolia invite us to move beyond the pressures of time. Whether we are surrounded by the constant motion of the city, or in the midst of a bare branch season, we still have the choice to pause and be here, in this moment, with these blooms.

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”
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