Ring out the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
–Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016
Dear Wisdom seekers,
I’d like to share with you some reflections on what’s happening in this (post-) election cycle here in the United States. There has been so much pain and confusion these last few days, and at the same time I have felt an amazing upsurge of deeply grounded, newly energized, committed and emboldened hope, rising up through my heart as if from the heart of the earth itself–and I see it rising up and radiating out through so many others as well. I’m naming it an upsurge of “bodhisattva consciousness”–a deep and resolved commitment to work in the world for the liberation of all beings, and particularly for the most silenced and oppressed among us.
After December 19th, when the Electoral College electors cast their ballots, it is almost certain that Donald Trump will be our president-elect. How did we get here, and what is happening? First, let’s scale way back and take the big picture, long-range view (or, at least, MY big-picture view!): this planet, this entire cosmos, is the unfolding and awakening of God-Incarnate, God-embodied, God-in-form. For those of us who work in a Christian stream, there is the particular point of Incarnate-awakening and initiation that begins and unfolds from the heart of Jesus, and we take our stand and work in that lineage.
At the same time, there is a cosmic dimension to Incarnation–the universe itself, the whole shebang of material existence, is God-Incarnate–and through a fourteen billion year process of unfolding, God has been evolving outlets with the capacity for self-reflexive consciousness. That’s us. Through us, evolution is awakening to itself. As our hearts stretch, expand, grow, we’re developing the capacity to bear and express, to speak into being, the very names, the qualities, closest to the Heart of God–universal love, infinite mercy, tender compassion. Through us, the Heart of God is speaking itself into form. And through our very bearing of those names–in and as that bearing–we awaken in Love, and Love awakens in us, to the absolute unity of all that is. This has been the goal of the entire fourteen billion year unfolding.
We, along with this planet, are the deepening self-disclosure of God-in-form. We are the revelation of the Heart of God. We are the manifest, incarnate life of God–ever-moving, through evolution, towards a deeper, fuller, and more conscious expression of Incarnation, of oneness and love awakened-in-form. And for the past 100 years, through the process of globalization, that process has been accelerating, as our hearts grow to embrace a deepening experience of unity-in-diversity (religious, ethnic, cultural, sexual), and a softening or erasure of old boundary lines.
At the same time, fear arises. We feel safer behind our old lines. They are comfortable, familiar. The forces of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia–they are the denying forces pushing back against the arising unity. These forces experience themselves as “protecting” the world-as-it-has-been. When that world feels threatened, these forces express themselves as fear, dig in, and work to maintain the old boundary-lines at all cost. THIS IS A NATURAL AND UNAVOIDABLE PROCESS. It is the road by which evolution winds. While taking our clear stand with the forward movement, can we hold even these denying forces in compassion as they enter their death throes–yes, even as they inflict violence and pain on others in the process? It is a high calling to hold to this kind of seeing, and it cannot always be maintained. But simply knowing that it’s possible is an achievement.
As for where we are now: over the past decade, following the election of a (fairly) progressive president, progressive, global values have been the affirming force within our wider culture–resulting in marriage equality, increased climate change awareness, etc. Conservative values have been the denying force, pushing back and resisting (Read Cynthia Bourgeault’s post on the Law of Three and the election). That grinding, painful process is simply the way a gradual, growing shift in consciousness takes place.
With progressive values in the ascendant these past eight years, the fear-based currents of racism, homophobia, etc. have been pushed underground–where they’ve been brewing and building. And now, with the advent of this election cycle–and it must be seen and named cleary: through the rhetoric of Donald Trump’s campaign–those forces, previously suppressed, have been given voice and hope: “Yes, we can take the world back to what it was! We can maintain the old lines!”
This, however, isn’t possible. The evolution of consciousness and the forces of globalization are simply a rising tide. The current of evolution can be resisted, but not ultimately prevented or diverted (short of global, nuclear destruction)–quite simply because God is the One driving it (and to be clear: from WITHIN, not from “above”), not us. We awaken into and serve the current that is already coursing through the planet. Or we resist it. But it is building.
This is seen both in Hillary Clinton’s staggering win in the popular vote (well over one million now and continuing to grow as absentee votes are counted) and (even more so) in the profound surge of energy from Millennials around Bernie Sanders’ campaign. And to be honest, a great deal of the denying force comes from an older generation that is dying out and from a privileged white population that is rapidly losing sway as our country’s demographics shift. Given time, it will quite simply fall away.
As for those of us standing with the rising tide of global, progressive values, we have in many ways become complacent–and many of us (mostly white) naïve as to the degree to which regressive values are still alive, well, and entrenched within the wider culture. And now with this flip in the affirming/denying poles seen with the rise of Trump, all of that changes.
Now our collective shadow has been unleashed and brought clearly into the light. That shadow includes, yes, the forces of conscious racism, etc. but also unconscious, systemic racism bolstered by white privilege not consciously wielded for the good. It includes complacency hidden behind self-righteousness, blame, and judgment. While this shadow remained hidden, lurking, it was easy enough to ignore. But now that we are seeing it, WE MUST KEEP SEEING IT. We must keep shining clear, clear light. There are constant siren calls now for “peace” and “unity”–which are really calls to silence the oppressed. A “unity” achieved by pushing the oppressed back into silence is no kind of unity at all.
We must be clear: minority populations are not in a state of denial because “their candidate lost”–they are in deep fear because Donald Trump won. We have seen a massive rise in hate-crimes since election night, and this is tied directly to the hate-rhetoric used by the Trump campaign. These suppressed forces have now been given permission to come into the public discourse and are fighting to be normalized.
We have unleashed our shadow. In one sense, this is necessary–because it’s happening. It’s easy to point fingers and find someone to blame (out-of-touch liberal elites! racist homophobes!), but can we instead step back and see this as life unfolding, as God awakening, through a very painful and messy evolutionary process? The gift is that now we are SEEING. Seeing what’s been there all along. Seeing our shadow. And so our work now is to simply keep shining light where it needs to be shined. We must not let this rhetoric become normalized, and we must not let it go back into hiding.
Two-thousand years ago Jesus said, “There is light within a person of light, and it enlightens the whole world. But if you fail to become light, there is darkness.” We must hold in light and clear-seeing the forces at play, not backing down but also remaining grounded deeply in love and in our own contemplative hearts. When truly seen, darkness cannot long survive.
Anti-Semitism was a powerful undercurrent within Christian thought and theology for almost 2,000 years–and it is still not dead. But following the horrors of the Holocaust during the 20th century (lest we forget, THIS PAST CENTURY), a bright and terrifying light was shined on where those forces can and WILL take us. And almost overnight in response the mainstream Christian traditions worked to expunge anti-Semitism from their theologies. It took truly seeing. Would the churches have done this work if both the light and the terror had not reached such intensity? While the transformation can in no way justify the immense pain and suffering, it does show us how we can harness our moments of clear and terrifying seeing and use them as opportunities for change.
We are being called out of our complacency. Bodhisattva consciousness is rising. And without this flip of poles, that might never have happened. This moment is a terrifying gift. In the words of my friend Bob Sabath, posted the morning after: “Trump does not know it yet, but he just gave birth to a movement, just not the movement that he thinks. I imagine that a lot of people woke up this morning, got down on their knees, and asked what is theirs to do at this time. Business as usual is over. Time to weep. Time to dig deep and find ways to connect our lives more fully with what is broken in the world. Time for risk-taking in our own lives. Time to quiet our fears and panic and despair, and listen deeply for the third force needed in our own lives and in the world.”
Listen deeply, friends. I am no fan of militaristic metaphors used for the spiritual life. Nevertheless, a battle is coming, and is now here. Our weapons are light (sharp, clear-seeing), love (non-judging, compassionate awareness), resistance (refusing to fall backwards into complacency, instead joining the forward movement of evolution on its messy way through struggle and pain), and relationship (holding our hearts open–within our capacity–so as to allow for authentic connection, born of deep and vulnerable listening). As Jesus constantly says in the Gospels-be sober, be vigilant, be watchful. But do not fear.
I’m reminded of the assurance given by the Blessed Virgin Mary to the shepherd children at Fatima at the onset of WWII: “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.” Yes, in the end the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the One Heart of God–the One Heart of Humanity–will triumph, and is triumphing even now. Truly, I feel it as an immense hope surging through our planet. Breathe into and through that hope, and let it take flesh in your life. The work ahead of us will not be without pain and struggle. In the face of it all, let us speak into being the names of God: mercy, compassion, and love.
Ring out the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
An earlier version of this article appeared in Contemplative Journal
Writing forty-eight years ago, Roman Catholic Archbishop Fulton Sheen predicted, “It is very likely that within fifty years when all the trivial, verbose disputes about the meaning of Teilhard’s ‘unfortunate’ vocabulary will have died away or have taken a secondary place, Teilhard will appear like John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, as the spiritual genius of the twentieth century.”
Following the same trajectory of sight, earlier this month my own friend and teacher Cynthia Bourgeault declared 2015 “The Year of Teilhard de Chardin,” and challenged her network of students in the Christian Wisdom tradition to begin working their way through his corpus.
She wrote: “Teilhard’s star is now rising powerfully on the horizon, heralding the dawn of an entirely new kind of Christian theology. […H]e is finally coming into his own as the most extraordinary mystical genius of our century and the linchpin connecting scientific cosmology and Christian mystical experience on a dynamic new evolutionary ground.”
Archbishop Sheen’s “fifty years” are almost up, and certainly his words seem to have been prophetic. For those of you who don’t know him, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French Jesuit and paleontologist who lived from 1881-1955. Largely silenced by the Vatican during his lifetime, today Christian thinkers are beginning to discover how vital his voice and vision are for a Christianity that will have any serious traction in the 21st century. My own sense is that this is because Teilhard—unlike any thinker before him—united in a single vision devotional fire, mystical depth, scientific and evolutionary thought, and Christian faith.
He brings these various strands of truth together in a way that each strengthens and supports the other, each coming into its own hidden fullness through the encounter. Not only does Christian mystical hope take on deeper resonance and meaning in light Teilhard’s scientific and evolutionary thought, but evolution’s processes and trajectory become clear and focused in light of his mysticism. Once the synthesis has been achieved, the connections seen, they can never be unseen. Today, the number of seers is reaching a critical mass.
My own encounter with Teilhard began six years ago, of all places, in India. I was staying near an ashram dedicated to the nondual teachings of Advaita Vedanta, and struggling with what seemed to be the other-worldly emphasis of this tradition: You are not the body. The world is illusion. I was convinced that Advaita had realized a significant truth, but I was also confident that this couldn’t be the whole picture—that our manifestation in this world of form and duality was profoundly important. One morning, wrestling with this tension, I hiked to the top of the sacred hill where the ashram sat, listening to a lone monk chant his morning prayers along the way. The whole time I felt a profound unease with what seemed like a disembodied spirituality.
When I reached the top, something prompted me to walk back down the mountain a different way. I found myself arriving right smack in the middle of town, surrounded by the colors, sounds, and smells of the market, children playing, an elephant in the temple courtyard, everything bursting with life. I felt an overwhelming sense that this was where God was happening, that God had poured God’s self out into matter, as matter, in order to be known through the beauty and diversity of creation. The goal of life could not be simply escape or the realization that the world was illusion.
I made my way back to the ashram, to the quiet side of the mountain, and wandered into the library, looking for a book. I was certainly not looking for a Christian book. Something on Hinduism, maybe Buddhism. But my eye, almost against my will, fell on a title along a spine that read Hymn of the Universe by Teilhard de Chardin. I pulled the book off the shelf, read the first few words, and my whole being glowed with recognition. I devoured the first section, The Mass on the World.
Finding himself in the steppes of China without bread or wine or altar to celebrate the Mass, Teilhard wrote: “I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labours and sufferings of the world.” He prayed, “Over every living thing which is to spring up, to grow, to flower, to ripen during this day say again the words: This is my Body.” I saw the spices and fresh fruit in the market, the elephant at the temple, the children playing.
He sang: “For me, my God, all joy and all achievement, the very purpose of my being and all my love of life, all depend on this one basic vision of the union between yourself and the universe. Let others, fulfilling a function more august than mine, proclaim your splendours as pure Spirit; […] I have no desire, I have no ability, to proclaim anything except the innumerable prolongations of your incarnate Being in the world of matter; I can preach only the mystery of your flesh…” Matter was not a distraction from God, but the very outworking of the life of God in form: a cosmic Incarnation.
Reading Teilhard’s words, my heart sang with his. What I found in his Hymn was a profound spiritual love of matter, of body and form; it was the balance I so desperately needed to complement the teachings of Advaita. This was not a nonduality that said “The world is illusion” or “You are not the body.” This was a nonduality that said, “You are the body of God.” Teilhard struck right at the heart of a tension felt by spiritual seekers throughout history, and one that I was certainly feeling: a pull between a spirituality that is all about swimming back “upstream” to a rarefied, nondual awakening (with little relation to the world and the body), and a spirituality that is about fully embracing life in form, duality and diversity.
Teilhard felt this tension in himself between the classical mystical pull towards the “Absolute” and his deep love for matter and the Earth, and he found that these seemingly contradictory “upward” and “downward” currents could be reconciled and united in a forward movement: that of an evolving universe. In a static universe (or worse, as some traditions have it, a degenerative universe), it makes perfect sense that the goal of the spiritual journey is to swim back “upstream” to God. But in an evolving and converging universe, the goal shifts dramatically: our spiritual work is not about escape, but instead about driving the whole creation forward toward that which is becoming.
Teilhard saw this forward movement at the heart of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation—God becoming flesh and form in Jesus of Nazareth. The Incarnation, however, was not an isolated, one-time event, but rather an ongoing process, carried forward uniquely in each human being. In Teilhard’s words: “each of us is our own little microcosm in which the Incarnation is wrought independently with degrees of intensity and shades that are incommunicable.” Each instance of Incarnation, however, while unique, is not discrete, but part of a single, vast unfolding, initiated in Jesus and continuing as an awakening and expanding collectivity: an organic, growing Body of Christ. “Christ,” Teilhard wrote, “is not yet fully formed: he has not yet gathered about him the last folds of his robe of flesh and of love…” In this light, Christianity becomes not simply a path of ascent or return to God, but a path flowing out from God, as God flows more and more fully into form.
While the New Testament authors could not have framed this movement in evolutionary terms, Teilhard found in them a profound sense of the forward momentum that drove his own vision. St. Paul spoke of the whole creation “groaning in labor pains” as it worked to bring forth something new and glorious, “the revealing of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-22). Teilhard stepped in and connected the evolutionary dots. Charting the course of evolution, he saw the development of a geosphere (the planet), a biosphere (organic life), and finally the emergence of what he called the noosphere—from the Greek nous, or mind—a sphere of conscious awareness, which finds its greatest outlet and expression in humanity.
For Teilhard, the next phase of evolution would be primarily within the noosphere, and it was here that he located the work of Christ: the initiation of a new phylum of love within the consciousness of the planet, unfolding as the deepening Incarnation of God. He wrote: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, humankind will have discovered fire.” These energies of love, this fire, Teilhard believed, would drive the noosphere into its next evolutionary leap: the “christification” of the human species.
For Teilhard, the whole movement was towards a convergence on what he called “Christ-Omega” or the “Omega Point.” The deeply personal, intimate, nondual center of the universe, what Teilhard called the “Heart of God”—revealed for him in the life of Jesus—was also the point of convergence towards which the whole planet was moving. Again, he turned to the words of St. Paul: “With all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of God’s will, […] a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:8-10): a convergence of spheres, a coincidence of opposites, the union of the human and divine in the unfolding Body of Christ. This convergence he identified with what has traditionally been called the “Second Coming of Christ”—Christ’s coming in fullness and glory through the noosphere of the planet.
Today we might identify this next evolutionary phase as the emergence of “nondual consciousness” at increasing levels within the noosphere: a deepening, lived awareness of the profound unity at the heart of existence. This will not, however, be a dissolution out of matter and back into a pre-existent unity, but a movement forward, towards something new: an ultimately global expression of conscious unity in matter. Teilhard saw that for the first time in planetary history, evolution (heretofore operating unconsciously) had become conscious of itself in and through the human species. Now evolution is ours to guide, and our conscious efforts to advance the growing phylum of love within the life of our planet will determine our future.
Teilhard wrote towards the end of his life, “I can see quite clearly that the reason I can have influence does not come at all from what I have ‘invented,’ whatever that may be, but simply from the fact that I have found myself ‘resonating’ in the right way to a certain vibration, a certain human and religious note, which is now in the air everywhere.” During this Year of Teilhard de Chardin, we are being invited to move into this resonance, to further the growing phylum of love, to join this great apostle of the Incarnate God in the work of evolving our human family and our planet.
Teilhard states in the boldest terms what our work in this great work is: “it is no longer a matter of simply seeing God and allowing oneself to be enveloped and penetrated by God—we have to do more: we have to disclose God (or even in one sense of the word ‘complete’ God) ever more fully.” For Teilhard, each of our lives is potentially a deepening of the disclosure and a completing of the Incarnation of God. We serve—and become—this disclosure through the evolutionary energies of love. Teilhard knew that to arrive at the fullness of this work would take time, and looking back at the long history of cosmic and planetary evolution, that this time could be long. But he was not one to lose hope. Our current global crises he saw, not as signs of the end, but as the birth pains of a new beginning.
“Above all,” Teilhard wrote, “trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We would like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet, it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stage of instability—and that it may take a very long time. Above all, trust in the slow work of God.”
And so I pray: May we not only trust, but join in, the slow work of God, and may the deepening Incarnation of the Heart of God, through us, flow into form. Amen.