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The Kingdom of Heaven

Jesus: Wisdom Teacher

The Kingdom of Heaven
Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Guest writer and CAC faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault continues exploring Jesus as a wisdom teacher.

Throughout the Gospel accounts, Jesus uses one particular phrase repeatedly: “the Kingdom of Heaven.” The words stand out everywhere. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like this,” “The Kingdom of Heaven is like that,” “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,” “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Whatever this Kingdom of Heaven is, it’s of foundational importance to what Jesus is trying to teach.

So, what is the Kingdom of Heaven? Biblical scholars have debated this question for almost as long as there have been biblical scholars. Many Christians, particularly those of a more evangelical persuasion, assume that the Kingdom of Heaven means the place you go when you die—if you’ve been “saved.” But the problem with this interpretation is that Jesus himself specifically contradicts it when he 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.

Others have equated the Kingdom of Heaven with an earthly utopia. The Kingdom of Heaven would be a realm of peace and justice, where human beings lived together in harmony and fair distribution of economic assets. For thousands of years, prophets and visionaries have labored to bring into being their respective versions of this kind of Kingdom of Heaven, but somehow these earthly utopias never seem to stay put for very long. Jesus specifically rejected this meaning. When his followers wanted to proclaim him the Messiah, the divinely anointed king of Israel who would inaugurate the reign of God’s justice upon the earth, Jesus shrank from all that and said, strongly and unequivocally, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

Where is it, then? Author Jim Marion’s wonderfully insightful and contemporary suggestion is that 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. [1] It is a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place.

Marion suggests specifically that the Kingdom of Heaven is Jesus’ way of describing a state we would nowadays call “nondual consciousness” or “unitive consciousness.” The hallmark of this awareness is that it sees no separation—not between God and humans, not between humans and other humans. These are indeed Jesus’ two core teachings, underlying everything he says and does.

References:
[1] See Jim Marion, Putting on the Mind of Christ: The Inner Work of Christian Spirituality (Hampton Roads Publishing Company: 2000; 2nd ed., 2011).

Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—A New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambhala: 2008), 29-31.

Image credit: Christ Among Teachers (detail), Vasily Polenov, 1896, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Within the wider Near East (including Judaism itself), there was a third, albeit unofficial, category of spiritual occupation: a moshel moshelim, or teacher of wisdom, one who taught the ancient traditions of the transformation of the human being. —Cynthia Bourgeault

Putting on the Mind of Christ

Jesus: Wisdom Teacher

Putting on the Mind of Christ
Monday, January 14, 2019

Guest writer and CAC faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault continues exploring Jesus as a wisdom teacher.

A well-known Southern Baptist theologian quips that the whole of his Sunday school training could be summed up in one sentence (delivered with a broad Texas drawl): “Jesus is nice, and he wants us to be nice, too.” Many of us have grown up with Jesus all our lives. We know a few of the parables, like those about the good Samaritan or the prodigal son. Some people can even quote a few of the beatitudes. Most everyone can stumble through the Lord’s Prayer.

But what did Jesus actually teach? How often do you hear his teaching assessed as a whole? When it comes to spiritual teachers from other traditions, it seems right and fair to ask what kind of path they’re on. What does the Dalai Lama teach? What did Krishnamurti teach? But we never ask this question about Jesus. Why not? When we actually get below the surface of his teaching, we find there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. And it doesn’t have much to do with being “nice.”

Jim Marion’s book Putting on the Mind of Christ addresses this misunderstanding. [1] His title is a statement in itself. “Putting on the mind of Christ” is a direct reference to St. Paul’s powerful injunction in Philippians 2:5: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” The words call us up short as to what we are actually supposed to be doing on this path: not just admiring Jesus, but acquiring his consciousness.

For the better part of the past sixteen hundred years Christianity has put a lot more emphasis on the things we know about Jesus. The word “orthodox” has come to mean having the correct beliefs. Along with the overt requirement to learn what these beliefs are and agree with them comes a subliminal message: that the appropriate way to relate to Jesus is through a series of beliefs. In fundamentalist Christianity, this message tends to get even more accentuated, to the point where faith appears to be a matter of signing on the dotted lines to a set of creedal statements. Belief in Jesus is indistinguishable from belief about him.

This certainly wasn’t how it was done in the early church—nor can it be if we are really seeking to come into a living relationship with this wisdom master. Jim Marion’s book returns us to the central challenge Christianity ought to be handing us. Indeed, 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.

References:
[1] See Jim Marion, Putting on the Mind of Christ: The Inner Work of Christian Spirituality (Hampton Roads Publishing Company: 2000; 2nd ed., 2011).

Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—A New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambhala: 2008), 28-29.

Image credit: Christ Among Teachers (detail), Vasily Polenov, 1896, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Within the wider Near East (including Judaism itself), there was a third, albeit unofficial, category of spiritual occupation: a moshel moshelim, or teacher of wisdom, one who taught the ancient traditions of the transformation of the human being. —Cynthia Bourgeault

Teacher of Wisdom

Jesus: Wisdom Teacher

Teacher of Wisdom
Sunday, January 13, 2019

This week Cynthia Bourgeault, Episcopal priest and one of CAC’s core faculty members, reflects on Jesus as a wisdom teacher, drawing from her rich understanding of the ancient wisdom tradition.

When I talk about Jesus as a wisdom master, I need to mention that in the Near East “wisdom teacher” is a recognized spiritual occupation. In seminary, I was taught that there were only two categories of religious authority: one could be a priest or a prophet. That may be how the tradition filtered down to us in the West. But within the wider Near East (including Judaism itself), there was also a third, albeit unofficial, category: a moshel moshelim, or teacher of wisdom, one who taught the ancient traditions of the transformation of the human being.

These teachers of transformation—among whom I would place the authors of the Hebrew wisdom literature such as Ecclesiastes, Job, and Proverbs—may be the early precursors to the rabbi whose task it was to interpret the law and lore of Judaism (often creating their own innovations of each). The hallmark of these wisdom teachers was their use of pithy sayings, puzzles, and parables rather than prophetic pronouncements or divine decree. They spoke to people in the language that people spoke, the language of story rather than law.

Parables, such as the stories Jesus told, are a wisdom genre belonging to mashal, the Jewish branch of universal wisdom tradition. Jesus not only taught within this tradition, he turned it end for end. Before we can appreciate the extraordinary nuances he brought to understanding human transformation, we need first to know something about the context in which he was working.

There has been a strong tendency among Christians to turn Jesus into a priest—“our great high priest” (see the Letter to the Hebrews). The image of Christos Pantokrator (“Lord of All Creation”) dressed in splendid sacramental robes has dominated the iconography of both Eastern and Western Christendom. But Jesus was not a priest. He had nothing to do with the temple hierarchy in Jerusalem, and he kept a respectful distance from most ritual observances. Nor was he a prophet in the usual sense of the term: a messenger sent to the people of Israel to warn them of impending political catastrophe in an attempt to redirect their hearts to God. Jesus was not that interested in the political fate of Israel, nor would he accept the role of Messiah continuously being thrust upon him.

His message was not one of repentance (at least in the usual way we understand it; more on that later this week) and return to the covenant. Rather, he stayed close to the ground of wisdom: the transformation of human consciousness. He asked timeless and deeply personal questions: What does it mean to die before you die? How do you go about losing your little life to find the bigger one? Is it possible to live on this planet with a generosity, abundance, fearlessness, and beauty that mirror Divine Being itself?

These are the wisdom questions, and they are the entire field of Jesus’ concern.

Reference:
Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—A New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambhala: 2008), 23-24.

Image credit: Christ Among Teachers (detail), Vasily Polenov, 1896, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Within the wider Near East (including Judaism itself), there was a third, albeit unofficial, category of spiritual occupation: a moshel moshelim, or teacher of wisdom, one who taught the ancient traditions of the transformation of the human being. —Cynthia Bourgeault

Kenosis: Letting Go

Contemplation: Week 2

Kenosis: Letting Go
Friday, December 21, 2018

[Contemplative] practices beckon earthbound bodies toward an expanded receptivity to holiness. . . . Receptivity is not a cognitive exercise but rather the involvement of intellect and senses in a spiritual reunion and oneness with God. . . . [The] contemplative moment is a spiritual event that kisses the cognitive but will not be enslaved to its rigidities. —Barbara Holmes [1]

Over the past two weeks I’ve shared how contemplation is a way (or many ways) of opening our hearts, minds, and bodies to God’s presence. It helps us recognize and surrender our egoic, small self and live into our True Self, made in the image and likeness of God.

Cynthia Bourgeault, one of CAC’s core faculty members, describes the power of contemplative practices such as Centering Prayer to instill in us the mind of Christ.

[Centering Prayer’s] simple but powerful pathway of transformation illumines . . . what it means to “put on the mind of Christ.” . . . 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. . . .

Saint Paul explains this principle by way of his beautiful hymn in Philippians 2:6-11, prefacing his comments by saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”:

Though his state was that of God,
yet he did not deem equality with God
something he should cling to.

Rather he emptied himself,
and assuming the state of a slave,
he was born in human likeness. . . .

The phrase “emptied himself” in line 4 is the English translation of the Greek verb kenosein, which is where the word kenosis comes from. In context, you’ll see exactly what it means: it’s the opposite of the word “cling” in line 3. Jesus is practicing gentle release. And he continues to practice it in every moment of his life, as the next verse of the hymn makes clear:

He being known as one of us
humbled himself obedient unto death,
even death on a cross.

How beautifully simple—the path of Jesus hidden right there in plain sight! While some Christians are still reluctant to think of Jesus as teaching a path (isn’t it enough simply to be the Son of God?), in fact, the Gospels themselves make clear that he 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.

References:
[1] Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd edition (Fortress Press: 2017), 3.

Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice (Shambhala: 2016), 33-34.

Image credit: Dancers in Green and White Dresses, Vinicius Vilela.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The word contemplation includes but does not require silence or solitude. Instead, contemplative practices can be identified in public prayers, meditative dance movements, and musical cues that move . . . toward a communal listening and entry into communion with a living God. —Barbara Holmes

Mystical Hope

Joy and Hope

Mystical Hope
Friday, November 30, 2018

Cynthia Bourgeault, one of our core faculty members at the Center for Action and Contemplation, writes about the unshakable depths of hope:

Must we be whiplashed incessantly between joy and sorrow, expectation and disappointment? Is it not possible to live from a place of greater equilibrium, to find a deeper and steadier current?

The good news is that this deeper current does exist and you actually can find it. . . . For me the journey to the source of hope is ultimately a theological journey: up and over the mountain to the sources of hope in the headwaters of the Christian Mystery. This journey to the wellsprings of hope is not something that will change your life in the short range, in the externals. Rather, it is something that will change your innermost way of seeing. From there, inevitably, the externals will rearrange.

The journey to the wellsprings of hope is really a journey toward the center, toward the innermost ground of our being where we meet and are met by God.

Meditation, more than any other spiritual practice, nurtures the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to divine hope. In the classic language of our tradition, these capacities are known as the “spiritual senses.”

Deeper than our sense of separateness and isolation is another level of awareness in us, another whole way of knowing. Thomas Keating, in his teachings on centering prayer, calls this our “spiritual awareness” and contrasts it with the “ordinary awareness” of our usual, egoic thinking. The simplest way of describing this other kind of awareness is that while the self-reflexive ego thinks by means of noting differences and drawing distinctions, spiritual awareness “thinks” by an innate perception of kinship, of belonging to the whole.

The only thing blocking the emergence of this whole and wondrous other way of knowing is your over-reliance on your ordinary thinking. If you can just turn that off for a while, then the other will begin to take shape in you, become a reality you can actually experience. And as it does, you will know . . . your absolute belonging and place in the heart of God, and that you are a part of this heart forever and cannot possibly fall out of it, no matter what may happen.

[I]n the contemplative journey, as we swim down into those deeper waters toward the wellsprings of hope, we begin to experience and trust what it means to lay down self, to let go of ordinary awareness and surrender ourselves to the mercy of God. And as hope . . . flows out from the center, filling us with the fullness of God’s own purpose living itself into action, then we discover within ourselves the mysterious plenitude to live into action what our ordinary hearts and minds could not possibly sustain.

Reference:
Cynthia Bourgeault, Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God (Cowley Publications: 2001), 2-3, 42, 43, 48, 52, 98.

Image credit: Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan (detail), Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 2013.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Dear Child of God, you are loved with a love that nothing can shake, a love that loved you long before you were created, a love that will be there long after everything has disappeared. . . . And God wants you to be like God. Filled with life and goodness and laughter—and joy. —Desmond Tutu

The Law of Three

Creativity

The Law of Three
Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Today, Cynthia Bourgeault, a faculty member at the Center for Action and Contemplation, explores the profound metaphysical Law of Three. Understanding and consciously participating in this principle can help us welcome new, surprising resolutions that free us from our usual binary and oppositional way of operating in every arena of life from personal relationships to politics.

Cynthia explains the foundational principles of the Law of Three:

  1. In every new arising there are three forces involved: affirming, denying, and reconciling.
  2. The interweaving of the three produces a fourth in a new dimension.
  3. Affirming, denying, and reconciling are not fixed points or permanent essence attributes, but can and do shift and must be discerned situationally.
  4. Solutions to impasses or sticking points generally come by learning how to spot and mediate third force, which is present in every situation but generally hidden.

Let’s consider a simple example. A seed, as Jesus said, “unless it falls into the ground and dies, remains a single seed” (see John 12:24). If this seed does fall into the ground, it enters a sacred transformative process. Seed, the first or “affirming” force, meets ground, the second or “denying” force (and at that, it has to be moist ground, water being its most critical first component). But even in this encounter, nothing will happen until sunlight, the third or “reconciling” force, enters the equation. Then among the three they generate a sprout, which is the actualization of the possibility latent in the seed—and a whole new “field” of possibility.

The Paschal Mystery is another example, with affirming as Jesus the human teacher of the path of love; denying as the crucifixion and the forces of hatred driving it; and reconciling as the principle of self-emptying, or kenotic love willingly engaged. The fourthnew arising revealed through this weaving is the Kingdom of Heaven, visibly manifest in the very midst of human cruelty and brokenness.

Imagine how the energies of our planet would shift if we as Christians took seriously our obligation to work with the Law of Three as our fundamental spiritual praxis. Face to face with the vast challenges of our times—environmental, economic, political—we would avoid making judgments (because according to the Law of Three, denying force is a legitimate player in every equation), set our sights higher than “winners and losers” (or even negotiated compromise), and instead strive in all situations to align our minds and hearts with third force.

Third force is not easy to attune to because our usual consciousness is skewed toward the binary, toward “either/or.” The dualistic mind lacks both the sensitivity and the actual physical capacity to stay present to third force, which requires an established ability to live beyond the opposites. The capacity to recognize and consciously mediate third force belongs to what we would now call unitive or nondual consciousness, “the mind of Christ.” Consistent contemplative practice is a non-negotiable in developing the alert and flexible presence that can midwife third force.

References:
Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three (Shambhala Publications, Inc.: 2013), 16, 24-25, 32, 74, 206-207; and

Cynthia Bourgeault, “A New Arising” (March 16, 2017) and “Law of Three as Contemplative Practice” (March 24, 2017) in Daily Meditations, Center for Action and Contemplation.

Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Contemplation hastens the evolution of the human species. Whoever finds this out and practices it will hasten the evolutionary future of the human family. —Thomas Keating

Love Endures

Relationships

Love Endures
Wednesday, May 2, 2018

CAC core faculty member, Cynthia Bourgeault, beautifully describes growth in “conscious love” in her sermon, given at her daughter’s wedding. I hope you will find it quite profound, as I did.

It’s easy to look at marriage as the culmination of love—the end point of the journey that begins with “falling in love.” . . . [But] marriage is not the culmination of love, but only the beginning.

Love remains and deepens, but its form changes. Or, more accurately, it renews itself in a different way. Less and less does it draw its waters from the old springs of romance, and you should not worry if over time these dimensions fade or are seen less frequently. More and more, love draws its replenishment from love itself: from the practice of conscious love, expressed in your mutual servanthood to one another. . . .

It will transform your lives and through its power in your own lives will reach out to touch the world. . . . But how to stay in touch with that power? At those times when stress mounts and romance seems far away, how do you practice that conscious love that will renew itself and renew your relationship? . . .

Here is the one [practice] that works for me . . . :

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

“Love bears all things.” This does not mean a dreary sort of putting-up-with or victimization. There are two meanings of the word bear, and they both apply. The first means “to hold up, to sustain”—like a bearing wall, which carries the weight of the house. . . . To bear [also] means “to give birth, to be fruitful.” So love is that which in any situation is the most life-giving and fruitful.

“Love believes all things.”. . . .  [This] does not mean to be gullible, to refuse to face up to the truth. Rather, it means that in every possible circumstance of life, there is . . . a way of perceiving that leads to cynicism and divisiveness, a closing off of possibility; and there is a way that leads to higher faith and love, to a higher and more fruitful outcome. To “believe all things” means always to orient yourselves toward the highest possible outcome in any situation and strive for its actualization.

“Love hopes all things.”. . . In the practice of conscious love you begin to discover . . . a hope that is related not to outcome but to a wellspring . . . a source of strength that wells up from deep within you independent of all outcomes. . . . It is a hope that can never be taken away from you because it is love itself working in you, conferring the strength to stay present to that “highest possible outcome” that can be believed and aspired to.

Finally, “love endures all things.” . . . Everything that is tough and brittle shatters; everything that is cynical rots. The only way to endure is to forgive, over and over, to give back that openness and possibility for new beginning which is the very essence of love itself. And in such a way love comes full circle and can fully “sustain and make fruitful,” and the cycle begins again, at a deeper place. And conscious love deepens and becomes more and more rooted. . . .

Reference:
Cynthia Bourgeault, Love Is Stronger than Death: The Mystical Union of Two Souls (Monkfish Book Publishing: 2014, 2007, 1999, 1997), 171-174.

Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Love is the most powerful force or energy in the universe. That power is multiplied in relationships. Love’s potency is released most powerfully among people who have formed a relationship. —Louis Savary and Patricia Berne

Lent: Awake and Paying Attention

Lent: Awake and Paying Attention
A faculty reflection by Cynthia Bourgeault

“Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”

As this alumni newsletter wends its way to you, we have barreled past Ash Wednesday, which this year—February 14—happened to coincide with Valentine’s Day. Does it strike you that there’s something deliciously ironic here: that in this of all years, the feast of love and the solemnity of self-examination and repentance come so closely intertwined?

I have to admit that I’ve always loved the Ash Wednesday liturgy. Antiquated, gender-challenged though its language may be, it inevitably and forcibly calls me back, as the ash is smeared on my forehead, to the palpable remembrance that we belong to earth: we are formed of her and will all too swiftly return to her. In a religion that seems to spend so much of its time getting out of the body, this fleeting remembrance of our universal habitat in the biosphere has always struck me as grounding, honest, and strangely comforting.

Damaged La Casa de Maria in Southern California after a devastating mudslide.This year, the planet has clearly beat us to Lent. There’s no evading karma; our cumulative centuries of human greed and entitlement have finally elicited a response, a wrenching NO from the heart of Mother Nature herself. Climate cycles grow steadily more violent and volatile–the last months of 2017 and beginning of 2018 were marked by an unremitting series of natural catastrophes. Hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, torrential rain are no longer confined to remote corners of our planet, but press hard against our own all too safe and privileged backyards.

In Southern California—where my daughter and her family reside and where I regularly teach at La Casa de Maria in Montecito—Advent began with ashes, as wildfires burned out of control and thousands were evacuated or lost their homes. La Casa de Maria squeaked through the fires only to succumb to the horrific mudslides a month later which swept through the property with volcanic force, wrenching away buildings and devastating grounds gently manicured over the years to be a “safe” and “welcoming” space for spiritual work.

There was a stunning incongruity to the whole scene. It was a little eerie to notice how the very baroque and anguishing crucifix in the Chapel—which in recent years has been deemed by some to be a little too harsh for the more genteel, interspiritual tone now being set by the retreat center—finally came at last into its own. The crucifix presided over a river of mud and destruction with the graphic reminder that spiritual work—particularly contemplative spiritual work—is never either completely “welcoming” or “safe.”

Welcome to our brave, new world.

For many decades now, as the contemplative renewal has gathered steam and developed its own interpretive lens on the world, contemplation itself has often been presented as something “safe” and “welcoming”—an invitation to sequester ourselves in beautifully gated monastic compounds perched on fabulous hunks of real estate to sit on our prayer cushions, keep silence, and attend to the serenity of the inner kingdom. The gnawing intuition in the pit of my stomach keeps telling me that this is all about to be swept away before our eyes. Actually, it is being swept away even as we speak—in the great mudslide of divine grace and evolutionary imperative which will pitilessly remove the gated communities of “our little closed loves” (as Teilhard calls them) to prepare for the advent of something infinitely stronger, more collective, more flowing, for which every sinew of our contemplative nerve is being prepared.

Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday: Great love and deep remorse of conscience, indissolubly joined in the human heart. This year, more than ever, may Lent find us awake and paying attention.

Love and blessings,

Cynthia Bourgeault's Signature

Cynthia Bourgeault

God’s Heartbeat

Cosmology

God’s Heartbeat
Friday, November 3, 2017

CAC’s core faculty member, Cynthia Bourgeault, shares insights from other mystics—current and past—to reveal mercy at the heart of the universe. She shares the theological implications of quantum physics from contemporary Episcopal preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor:

Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light—not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them—but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationship that animates everything that is. . . . At this point in my thinking, it is not enough for me to proclaim that God is responsible for all this unity. Instead, I want to proclaim that God is the unity—the very energy, the very intelligence, the very elegance and passion that make it all go. [1]

Cynthia reflects:

Barbara’s point may seem like a nuance, but it is a crucially important one. Our visible, created universe is not simply an object created by a wholly other God in order to manifest God’s love, but the created universe is that love itself—the very heart of God, fully expressive in the dimension of time and form.

When we speak in these terms, of course, we begin to use the classic language of the mystics, the language of visionary utterance. For Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) the name in German for mercy was Barmherzigkeit—“warmheartedness.” Boehme saw mercy as “the holy element”: the root energy out of which all else in the visible universe is made. The Mercy is “holy substantiality”—the innermost essence of being itself. It is that “river of God,” running like the sap through the tree of life. [2]

Lest we be inclined to discount this insight as merely the rambling of a God-intoxicated mystic, it is astonishing to discover virtually an identical insight revealed by the eminently sane psychotherapist Gerald May (1940-2005). May affirms that from a clinical standpoint, once the various differentiations and feeling-tones have been stripped away from our subjective emotional life, what remains is a raw, root energy that is, finally, none other than divine love. “It is as if agape [divine love] were the base metal, irreducible and unadulterated,” he writes. “The universe runs on an energy that is, at its core, unconditionally loving.” [3]

May’s vision of agape—divine love—is very close to Boehme’s (and my own) notion of the Mercy. Far from pity or condescension, it is the very heartbeat of God resonant in creation; the warmth that pulses through all things as the divine Mystery flows out into created form.

Gateway to Silence:
We live, move, and have our being in love.

References:
[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion (Cowley Publications: 2000), 74.
[2] See Jacob Boehme, The Way to Christ (Paulist Press: 1978).
[3] Gerald May, Will and Spirit (Harper and Row: 1982), 172. May was the cofounder of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Direction in Bethesda, Maryland, shalem.org.

Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God (Cowley Publications: 2001), 28-31.

Image credit: The Starry Night (detail), Vincent van Gogh, Saint Rémy, June 1889. Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York.

Swimming in Mercy

Cosmology

Swimming in Mercy
Thursday, November 2, 2017
(All Souls Day)

As we read yesterday, Ilia Delio sees love as the foundation of the universe. Cynthia Bourgeault, one of CAC’s core faculty members, describes mercy as a quality of this love, the unmerited and unconditional energy that gives life to all things. Cynthia writes in her book, Mystical Hope:

[W]hen we think of mercy, we should be thinking first and foremost of a bond, an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. The mercy of God does not come and go, granted to some and refused to others. Why? Because it is unconditional—always there, underlying everything. It is literally the force that holds everything in existence, the gravitational field in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Just like that little fish swimming desperately in search of water, we, too “swim in mercy as in an endless sea.” [1] Mercy is God’s innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love.

To think this way perhaps takes some getting used to. From our traditional theological models, we are used to thinking in terms of God “up there” and ourselves “down here”—God wholly unknown to us and of a fundamentally different substance, of which we are but a very distant reflection. But as the language of modern quantum physics penetrates increasingly into the basic metaphors of theology, allowing us to think more freely in terms of “conservation of energy,” we can begin to see how God and creation actually exist in an energetic continuum. Just as we now know that matter is actually “condensed” energy (i.e., energy in a more dense and slow-moving form), would it be too great a leap to say that energy as we experience it—as movement, force, light—is a “condensation” of divine will and purpose? In other words, energy is what happens when divine Being expresses itself outwardly.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1:1-3)

If we understood Word to mean at root vibration—the out-speaking of the divine will and purpose—then the Word is that which makes manifest the fullness of divine purpose as it moves outward into form. This “energetic” reading of the Gospel text might help explain the persistent mystical intuition undergirding so much of the New Testament that Jesus Christ, as the human incarnation of the divine Word (or Logos), is the fundamental ordering principle of the cosmos “in whom all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).

Gateway to Silence:
We live, move, and have our being in love.

References:
[1] Psalm 103:11, from the Psalter in The Book of Common Prayer (The Episcopal Church: 1979).

Cynthia Bourgeault, Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God (Cowley Publications: 2001), 25-26, 27-28.

Image credit: The Starry Night (detail), Vincent van Gogh, Saint Rémy, June 1889. Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York.
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