Fr. Bruno Barnhart, former prior of New Camaldoli Monastery, mystic, hermit, and my friend and spiritual father for more than thirty years, is now officially on the other side. He chose the auspicious occasion of the eve of Advent for his transition to the infinite. I imagine him now happily reunited with his old friends Beatrice Bruteau, Raimon Panikkar, and Bede Griffiths, who are no doubt already showing him the ropes in his new celestial habitat.
It does seem that Bruno died a conscious death. When his physical body could no longer do what was needed to sustain his hermit independence, he simply let it go in slow and gentle increments. Over the course of the fall he slowly dwindled, until his monastic brethren finally carted him off to a hospital for emergency restabilization, and then to a nursing care facility for appetite enhancement and physical therapy. When neither did any good, they brought him back to hospice care at his beloved New Camaldoli, no doubt expecting to hunker down for at least a few more weeks over Christmas for final farewells and blessings. But Bruno evidently had other plans. The very next morning he embarked upon his transition, and just before midnight his consummatum est was achieved. He departed this earth plane, surrounded by his monastic brethren, to greet the dawn of Advent in his new and infinite corporeity. As always, his timing was exquisite.
As I reflect back on my own years with Bruno, I can’t remember actually meeting him for the first time. It must have happened, but I can’t for the life of me remember when. Our parallel tracks just sort of converged, I guess, during my increasingly frequent visits to the monastery during the 1980s. Suddenly he was in my life, and it was as if it had always been that way. What I do know is that he was powerfully, fiercely present during the decade or so of my own explosive spiritual awakening from 1987 onwards. He was spiritual father and mother both, guiding me with a gentle and deeply intuitive clarity. He was there to receive me when I finally released myself from my decade of self-imposed exile on Swan’s Island to return to the seeker’s path. He was there when I discovered Centering Prayer and the Gurdjieff Work, when I began my work as a spiritual teacher, when my marriage broke up, when my friend Tony Burkart and I first launched the Maine Monastic foundation. He and I grew particularly close during those years he served as prior at Epiphany Monastery, the Camaldolese experimental community in New Hampshire, when he made himself regularly available as a retreat leader for our earliest proto-Wisdom Schools on Eagle and Placentia islands. He helped me work through my anguished decision to cast it all to the wind and move to St. Benedict’s Monastery to be with my hermit teacher Rafe, counseling me wisely in words I’ve never forgotten:
“All those magical, predestined, and irreplaceable people and places are not really that, not really the answer. Rather, we have to stay with the hunger of the question and from its energy fill the space with our own choices, and then with the new things that will be called forth from us in the unexpected new poverty and limitation in which our own necessarily imperfect choices necessarily situate us.”
He was there as well to help me pick up the shattered pieces of my life when Rafe died in Advent 1995, and to begin to shape my grief into a life’s path of teaching and writing. He read all my books and contributed endorsements for a few of them. And he championed my move to British Columbia and offered himself as retreat master at one of our first Contemplative Society retreats on Salt Spring Island in 2001 and periodically thereafter. Many of our British Columbia retreatants became his personal students as well, and several became oblates of the monastery. He blazed a brilliant path for us all, and the bonds he forged have proved to be strong and enduring.
Bruno did not write that prolifically—his continuing monastic duties and voracious correspondence and spiritual direction network kept his waking hours pretty well occupied, and his nights disappeared into luminous depths of solitary prayer. But what he did write is extraordinary, books that you return to again and again to refresh your soul and renew your faith in truth.
More than any other spiritual writer I know, he is the one who has perhaps best integrated the distinctly different Western and Eastern understandings of nonduality. As a personal friend of Bede Griffith and Henri LeSaux (Abishiktananda), Bruno understood deeply the Advaitic nonduality of the East and was powerfully attracted to it. But his deep grounding in Christianity’s incarnational epicenter made him unwilling to conflate Christian Wisdom with the basically monistic traditions of Sophia Perennis, or “perennial wisdom.” As he wrote perceptively in his The Future of Wisdom (p. 186), “The wisdom of Christianity does not find itself quite at home among the sapiential traditions of the world.” In contrast to that great upward thrust of the perennial philosophy, he asserts, “The unitive wisdom that has become manifest in Christ disappears into—more boldly we might say, metamorphoses into—an immanent historical dynamism that transforms all of created reality.”
Even more boldly, he suggests that our modern Western world in all its sprawling untidiness is not a deviation from the path of Christ but its legitimate and in fact inevitable trajectory. His innate grasp of the incarnational dynamism allowed him to embrace all those things which classic sapiential monism rejects: modernity, Teilhard, technology, secularity. Better than anyone I know, he weaves together a robust sense of incarnational Christianity with a piercingly brilliant grasp of nondual consciousness to blaze the trail toward an authentic Christian nonduality. I suspect he will be increasingly discovered and revered as our planet blazes toward its imminent axial leap. For the meantime, he is one of our own best kept and most cherished contemplative secrets.
I remember him as well for his wry, fiv-ish humor (which featured Calvin and Hobbes right up there alongside John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart as attained spiritual masters), his gentle art of understatement, and his piercing but sly capacity to see where I was at any point in time no matter how hard I tried to hide from myself. “There’s something in a person that knows when they’re not free…” he would simply comment, leaving me to find my own way out of the corner I’d painted myself into. And yes, those sermons of his that packed the monastery church with everyone literally straining on the edges of their benches to catch those bursts of pure radiant brilliance mumbled rapid-fire, and almost always, with his hands directly in front of his mouth. I hope the amplification system is better in heaven.
Bruno was the prior of New Camaldoli for nearly twenty years and raised up many spiritual sons. One of my favorite of these sons is Fr. Isaiah, longtime guestmaster, who conveyed his sense of Bruno to me in a comment that pretty much nails the essence of Bruno— not just in what it says, but where it comes from.
“Fr.Bruno,” says Isaiah, “ reminds me of a line from Tolkien: “He was as noble and fair as an elf-lord, as strong as a warrior, as wise as a wizard, as venerable as a king of dwarves, and as kind as summer.”
Thank you, beloved teacher, and blessings on the next phase of your unfolding. The cosmos is richer for your sojourn here.
By Cynthia Bourgeault, OSB cam oblate