What follows is a recent portrait of Bob Sabath, offered through his invitation to us to practice with him, and through sharing the heart of his experience in a recent practice circle. In September of 2019, Bob joined the Wisdom Council. He was already serving as a much beloved consultant to the Council’s questions about how to update the website. This discussion centers around who are we and who do we serve? What do we bring to the Wisdom community and how can the website best reflect that? Beyond that, Bob brings to the Council his deep insight and experience, born from his earnest work with the Fourth Way of G.I. Gurdjieff, intentional community and spiritual practice for all of his adult life.
Only a few months after he joined the Wisdom Council, Bob learned he was “taking a new class, from Dr. Burkitt, of Burkitt’s Lymphoma.” What follows are notes from his path, and an invitation to practice that Bob offered to the Wisdom community as he was facing the aftermath of treatment, at the end of May 2020. In his words:
June 1, 2020
This past Thursday, May 28, was the final day of my sixth and last chemo cycle. I was hoping to pass the final exam with ease, but it appears that my professor “Dr. Burkitt” is not so willing to let me out of his class. He says I need to do a more thorough study of helplessness and uncertainty, and that there are yet things that I can only learn under these troubling conditions. He says that the “stretcher from grace” will only gather me up when I am dumbfounded and unable to say yes or no. He says that miraculous Beings will only come running to help when I am not sure of anything. He says before I can become a “mighty kindness,” I must spend more time in the “zero circle.”
He says there is no sense asking him why he is so harsh. He is pleading with me not to jump out of the boiling just now, that it is the only way to give me “flavor” and the “lovely vitality of a human being.” It is the only way for me to become Servant and Teacher. He says that I can only receive his help if I feel a compelling need for it. He says that the uncertainty and not knowing the outcome is the real work that I must do.
He gave me some reading assignments to complete before my next meeting with him, when he will test me again. I have included the assignments below. You may want to tackle them with me during the next few weeks.
Assignment One: The Zero Circle by Rumi
Be helpless, dumbfounded,
Unable to say yes or no.
Then a stretcher will come from grace
to gather us up.
So let us rather not be sure of anything …
Then miraculous beings come running to help.
Crazed, lying in a zero circle, mute,
We shall be saying finally,
With tremendous eloquence,
When we have totally surrendered to that beauty,
We shall be a mighty kindness.
Assignment Two: Chickpea to Cook by Hafiz
A chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot
where it’s being boiled.
“Why are you doing this to me?”
The cook knocks him down with the ladle.
“Don’t you try to jump out.
You think I’m torturing you.
I’m giving you flavor,
so you can mix with spices and rice
and be the lovely vitality of a human being.”
Eventually the chickpea
will say to the cook,
“Boil me some more.
Hit me with the skimming spoon.
I can’t do this by myself.”
The cook says,
“I was once like you,
fresh from the ground. Then I boiled in time,
and boiled in the body, two fierce boilings.”
To become servant,
Let your animal soul grow powerful.
Tame it with practices.
Then boil some more,
And boil once beyond that.
Then you become servant and teacher.
“My animal soul grew powerful.
I controlled it with practices,
and boiled some more, and boiled
once beyond that,
and became servant and teacher.”
Assignment Three: The Reality of Being by Jean de Salzmann
“I wish to be present, to remain present. But I feel powerless, that I cannot wish, cannot be. I do not have a strong desire, a strong will. I need help, a force of another quality.
Help appears in the form of a more active feeling, with more conviction, a feeling that comes from the higher emotional center. In this moment I know a new possibility of being present which situates me differently in relation to what surrounds me and gives meaning to my Presence.
But I only receive this help if I feel a compelling need for it. The call comes from the vision, the experience of my powerlessness as I am. Then there is something right, true in my awareness of my situation, and I can wish for the help of this force, for another possibility of being.”
Assignment Four: Our Real Work by Wendell Berry
It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
June 9, 2020
In a small group we gather to practice Gurdjieff’s Lord Have Mercy exercise, turning off our screens to practice, turning them on again to share before going on with our days. This day, Bob speaks following the exercise, beginning slowly and deliberately, choosing each word as he offers the words below to the group. Andrew Breitenberg put the words into written form from the zoom recording. Here are Bob’s written words, on the Lord Have Mercy exercise, with his spoken word sharing from the practice circle, in verse, directly following:
The Lord Have Mercy exercise is a sensing rotation exercise around the perimeter of the body—right arm, right leg, left leg, left arm—quietly “saying” Lord Have Mercy while feeling one’s inner need for help. The sensing and feeling rotation often leads to a whole-body sensation, where sometimes all the cells of the body are touched—the whole dry field of my being is set ablaze, the water is turned to wine, and the empty bowl is filled.
I am an empty bowl
(we are an empty bowl)
I am a wine glass filled with water
(we are a wine glass filled with water)
As we move our attention around the rim of the bowl
as we wet our finger and circle the rim of the glass
we discover a vibration
the possibility of resonance
the creation of a sound
(that turns water into wine)
I am a dried field of grass
(we are a dried field of grass)
We deepen our attention
and a small fire starts at the edge of the field
soon to spread
Something in us tries to run and extinguish it
before it’s too late:
a passing thought, an anxiety.
But let it leap
and in an instant the whole field is on fire
and the empty bowl is singing
and the glass is full of wine
and every cell of our body is touched
whether by a slow burn that spreads
or a pulse out of nowhere
(that travels like a rocket)
Our helplessness calls the helpers
(not only words like “lord have mercy”)
for everything begins in poverty
and the poor in spirit see the holy one
within whom we live and move
within whom we have our being
Our being is so incapacitated and small
yet we no longer care
for we know that we are contained
(we learn this slowly, slowly)
within that singing bowl
that glass of new wine
(that incandescent field)
So celebrate your poverty
exult in your weakness
(that you are not as you want to be)
For all of this helps us
(all of this helps us)
And before you know it
(before words and thoughts)
I am ringing with joy
and we are water becoming wine
and all being is set ablaze.
With his many years of technical experience, Bob has been a blessing to the Council, generous with his time and presence and dedicated to supporting the website and to the archiving of Cynthia’s work across the web. In addition to his commitment to the Wisdom lineage of Cynthia Bourgeault Bob has held life-long post holding relationships with Sojourners, Friends of Silence, Rolling Ridge, and has worked closely with Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation to host wilderness-based wisdom retreats for men in the mountains of West Virginia. He is one of the Conveners of the regional work of Illuman which has carried on Richard’s work with men in the DC region.
Bob initiated the ongoing Fourth Way Wisdom Retreats with Cynthia Bourgeault at the Claymont Center in West Virginia in 2010, working closely with her and the staff at Claymont to facilitate week-long retreats there. For most of his adult life Bob has lived in intentional community—as one of the founding members of Sojourners Community in Washington DC, and then later Circle Community Church, Rolling Ridge Study Retreat Community, and now Shepherd Village co-housing community in Shepherdstown WV. He has also been part of a weekly Fourth Way community in Washington DC since 2006.
Bob still works as the Director of Web and Technology at Sojourners Magazine, and is part of a small team of people at Rolling Ridge that publishes the monthly Friends of Silence newsletter. Bob brings his technical skills and Fourth Way inner work to the board of Northeast Wisdom.
Image credits from the top: watercolor portrait painting of Bob Sabath in his Snoopy googles by Lee Wilkinson Warren, courtesy of Bob Sabath; exploding zero typography courtesy of Bob Sabath; image from Persian drawing Musicians, 654 – 1256, courtesy of Serving the Guest: A Sufi Cookbook by Kathleen Seidel; white ceramic bowl photo by Tan Erica, courtesy of Unsplash; photo of Bob and Jackie courtesy of Bob Sabath.