Not a mistake. Not a disaster. Not over. This summarizes my reflection on Bruno’s analysis of the Western Turn in the re-emergence of Christian Wisdom in our time. I begin by noting that for those of us who are not scholars or academics, or who are old enough to have forgotten most of what we learned in our Western Civilization courses, the term “modern” calls up notions not much longer ago than the last hundred years or so: the age of automobiles and airplanes; of instant and constant communication through radio and television, email and internet; of quarks and quanta and other things we don’t really understand. That observation is perhaps a commentary on what is often perceived as the audaciously arrogant character of the West.
But Bruno situates the modern Western turn as beginning nearly a thousand years ago, and he sees within that millennium the radical unfolding of the Christ-event in the arc of history of Western civilization. More particularly, it is precisely in, rather than in spite of, the predominantly horizontal-axis trajectory of that history, that he finds the deepening descent of the incarnation—of God coming into this world in ever-wider immanence and universality.
He calls out what he refers to as the Western Axial period characterized by the “emergence of the individual person from the collective matrix of religion, society, and culture.” With this emergence came a new autonomy in the intellectual sphere—leading to a sense of personal freedom and creativity, a permission to engage in critical thought and free discussion, a questioning of tradition and institutions, and a realization of the power to bring about changes in the structures of society.Collectively these movements gave birth to what we now know as the secular world.
Before tracing the shape of Western history, Bruno pauses to discuss the distinction between the Eastern “self” and the Western “person.” The former being “realized through detachment from this world and from the ego, and ultimately by absorption of the individual into the beginning, the Absolute; one’s individual self lost…in a return to the One, to the uncarved block.” The latter, the Western person, he describes as, “relational, active, projected into the world and making a home here…creative, participating in a significant story, and a progressive history.” He notes that our Western spiritual traditions have “wavered between Eastern self and Western person, with little theological understanding of the territory.” For Bruno, “Jesus, in whom God is manifest as a human person, reveals the unity and continuity of the Eastern and Western.”
Having painted this background, Bruno puts forth the following cautionary and prescriptive statements to consider: “A Christian wisdom, to be adequate today, must open itself both eastward and westward: to the nondual self and its uncontained consciousness and to the emergent conscious, free and creative person in the world—as well as to the dynamism of history, understood as centered in the Christ-event.” He continues, saying, “These westward elements, I believe, are the fruits of the Christ-event. The church must open itself in the same two opposing directions.”
As I reflect on the entirety of this chapter on the Western Turn, what I see as its power and resonance is Bruno’s masterful exposition and juxtaposition of the thought of a wide-ranging group of theoretical historians, philosophers, sociologists, and theologians, through which he draws, develops, and expounds his own keen insights.
I readily admit that for me, with no formal training in these areas, it was sometimes frustratingly tedious to slog through to a glimmer of understanding of some of these difficult ideas, and that I frequently sat with dictionary and iPad Wikipedia at hand. But with Bruno as guide and companion, it was attainable and nourishing.
Complex themes emerge, themes which inform our Wisdom journey and are true to the incarnational lineage we claim:
Descent: In characterizing the “Vocation of the West,” Bruno identifies as its critical paradigm, the fact that “the genesis and development of the European (and now North American) West have unfolded under the influence of Christianity.” This cultural arising after the Christ-event as opposed to assimilation of the Christ-event into a pre-existing culture is a monumental sea-change and sets the directional development of the west along the horizontal axis of historicity and descending incarnation. He sees in this descending dynamic of incarnation a “humanizing process in the evolution of the Western sense of the person, of justice, of human rights, and human potential in this world as well as in the still more material flourishing of science and technology in the West.”
Personal Autonomy: “In the act of creation,” Bruno says, “God places the creature outside the divinity, in a distinctness which is identical with freedom. In the new creation which takes place…in the Christ-event, this distinctness is actualized in a new depth and fullness of autonomy.”
Participation: “To be reborn as a child of God is to be born as ‘God outside God,’ in a radical freedom—which is yet a participation in God.”
Freedom: The freedom of the autonomous person is not “choice freedom,” in the sense of being able to choose among already existing alternatives. Rather, it is the “creative freedom” of a freely-acting subject in noncompetitive and nondual participation in the Godhead open to the infinite. As Rahner frames it, “freedom is never only the free repetition of what is already there; it is no endless copying of the same models in a neutral space and time.”
For many of us on this Wisdom path and in this Future of Wisdom study group, Cynthia Bourgeault has been our teacher. In these themes of descent, personal autonomy, participation, and freedom explicated here by her own beloved teacher Bruno Barnhart, I see the genesis of some of her powerful teachings.
One of these, which has always resonated deeply within me, appears in her Wisdom Jesus book under the heading, “Down Here on the Edge”:
“So we find ourselves on this plane of existence, at or near the bottom of the great chain of being. What are we to make of our position?” She asks, “What are we doing ‘down’ here in a world that seems so dense and sluggish, so coarse and fragile and finite… is this constriction a punishment?…I believe not. I believe…that this constriction is a sacrament, and we have been offered a divine invitation to participate in it.”
I find Cynthia’s teaching here to be the perfect segue into Bruno’s concluding thoughts on the Western turn, where the Greek legend of Icarus also comes bubbling up in my mind. Here, like Icarus’ father Daedalus, Bruno warns of complacency, pride, and arrogance as he considers the Shadow and Destiny of the West. We, too, sometimes have flown too low and too high, where the sea’s dampness has clogged our wings and the sun’s heat has melted our wax. We, too, face the possibility of falling out of the sky.
With poignant and unvarnished prose he nails the dichotomy: “…the West occupies the unique position of being the one great civilization that has been united and formed by the Christ-event and that has mediated the unification of humanity. It is largely through the peoples and civilization of the West that the gifts of the incarnation have been distributed to the world. These gifts include not only Christian faith but…the human and social values, the rationality and freedom, the science and technology, that gradually humanize the world and bring it together as one world. In this light, the shadow of the West derives from the self-serving appropriation of that which had been given to the West for all humanity.”
Continuing, he names the stark reality that the “…message transmitted to the world—more in deeds than in words—has often been the anti-gospel of raw power and exploitation, of blind collective narcissism, and irresponsible self-indulgence.”
The imperative to those of us in this nascent but growing Wisdom community is equally stark. In the particularity of the horizontal time in which we find ourselves, we have been graced to stand on the cusp of the transition between Movements III and IV. Having lived in the closing days of the Western Turn, we have the opportunity to leave behind those things that have corrupted its promise, gather up those things that truly flow from the Christ-event, and go crashing into the Global Turn. Let us pray for the humility and wisdom to know which things fall into which category.
I close as I began: Bruno shows us that this Western turn is not a mistake; not a disaster; and not over—unless, that is, those of us who find ourselves the custodians of this particular chunk of the historical axis, fail to actualize in our time and for our world the potentiality of the goodness of the fruits of deepening descent, personal autonomy, participation, and freedom inherent in the Western turn.
Echoing my friend Matthew Wright: Thank you, Fr. Bruno! Now bring on Movement IV!
A year ago in this space I posted a blog on behalf of the Board of Northeast Wisdom—a piece entitled “What’s Next for Northeast Wisdom: A Short History to An Emerging Vision.” Again, I write on behalf of the Board, but this time my focus is on some of the “Emergents” that are arising from that vision. Note that I say “are arising, “rather than “have arisen.” For we are Teilhardian at heart and embrace an evolving notion of who we are and who we are becoming as a community.
The sense that Northeast Wisdom is to serve as the Gathering Thread for our particular branch of the broader Wisdom lineage grows ever stronger as the image which best encapsulates the work we are called to do. Which, of course, leads to the obvious next questions—the how, the what, and the where this thread gathers.
This branch of the Wisdom tree we serve is a diverse community. Our connection is not one of geography, of organizational membership, of educational achievement, of employment, or of affiliation with a particular religious tradition—though our roots are decidedly Christian. Yet we are deeply connected through bonds stronger than these or any other outwardly visible manifestation of belonging can confer.
A thread is composed of many strands—each with its own particularity. In the gathering of the strands into the thread, each is strengthened and enlivened—profoundly connected, yet not assimilated. As a board we regard this distinction between connection and assimilation as not a trivial one.
I think of it as something a bit like the difference between the type of milk of my childhood, which came in bottles with the cream floating on top and the homogenized version which came along later. From the one bottle we could have cream, skim milk, or by shaking it all together whole milk—preserving the richness of particularity amidst wholeness in the one container.
Earlier this year we posted on this website Cynthia’s “Whur We Come From…” a synthesis of the defining characteristics of this branch of the Wisdom tree. In it she makes the observation that, “Wisdom, like water, is itself clear and formless, but it necessarily assumes the shape and coloration of the container in which it is captured. Between formless essence and manifesting particularity there is a reciprocal dynamism; you can’t have one without the other.”
In Northeast Wisdom’s InGatherings in Stonington we come together—each to be fed in the reciprocal dynamism of our own particularity enmeshed in the formless boundaries of our diverse Community.
Consider for a moment: How many of us can easily articulate when we return from a Wisdom event like the InGathering what we mean when we say that we are part of an emerging Wisdom community flavored by a common initial formation centered in the writings and teachings of Cynthia Bourgeault; how many of us simply dissolve into incoherence when asked to describe what it’s all about? This, even while proclaiming its centrality in our lives?
I sometimes wonder if it isn’t this very incoherence, this inability to put words around this “knowing” that validates its reality. Perhaps what draws us to such events is the exhilarating experience of inhabiting even briefly the common space we create when we are together, where this collective incoherent knowing permeates the air we breathe.
This is a long way of saying that, one of the ways we see to gather this thread is by attending to the shape and coloration of the container through which the formless essence of what we call Wisdom can manifest into form. Going further into our lineage—becoming a resource for helping all of us access material, and places, and insights to support our own work and practices. Seeking ways to extend across the miles that capacity to breathe deeply from the rich reservoir of our collective knowing that we experience so viscerally when we come together physically in the same place.
We continue to develop the Northeast Wisdom website as a lively and interactive hub of exchange, connection, and communication. As Cynthia noted in her posting of the eight defining characteristics of our niche in the wider Wisdom tradition, these points were intended to start a conversation, not end it.
We plan an ongoing project to publish or collaborate in the publishing of works of significance to our Wisdom lineage and our evolving future. Our first publication earlier this year was a collection of Cynthia’s recent writings and presentations in Love is the Answer: What is the Question? Through Matthew Wright’s initiative, we have collaborated with Paul Cohen of Monkfish Book Publishing Company in the re-publication of Bruno Barnhart’s The Future of Wisdom: Toward a Rebirth of Sapiential Christianity.
Our board chair Bill Redfield is experimenting with new forms of interactive Wisdom work via non-local venues; board member Marcella Kraybill-Greggo is launching into Wisdom School Law of Three teaching; Matthew Wright is preparing to lead a pilgrimage to India, furthering inter-spiritual connections; Laura Ruth is coordinating our publishing and community building activities; Guthrie Sayen has been working to bring into being a collaborative teaching project, “Reclaiming the Mystical Heart of Christianity: How Centering Prayer Can Deepen Your Experience of God,” designed to bring the contemplative streams of our branch of the Wisdom tree into closer harmony with the centering prayer focus of Thomas Keating’s Contemplative Outreach organization.
And, of course, board member Cynthia Bourgeault, continues to do what Cynthia does best—connecting with, synthesizing, and drawing from the conscious circle of humanity—writing, teaching, nurturing, and loving Wisdom seekers the world over as we find our own voices and posts in this evolving circle.
These are some of the current threads we are gathering in support of Wisdom’s progression in our world. Bill Redfield has described that progression as one which moves from hearing Wisdom, to integrating Wisdom in our lives through practice, and then to sharing Wisdom’s reality with others.
Like Wisdom itself, Northeast Wisdom continues to evolve.
I conclude these thoughts with a thank you to all who have who have already made contributions to Northeast Wisdom’s 2018 Annual Fund appeal and a request to those of you who have not, to consider doing so.
What’s Next? This is the question the Northeast Wisdom Board came together in early November to consider. But before delving into those deliberations, a little background might be helpful. For those of you who have been involved from the beginning, this will be just a quick review of the highlights; for those of you newer to Northeast Wisdom, I hope it will give you some missing context to enrich your involvement and participation.
The genesis of Northeast Wisdom as an organization occurred in 2012 and came about because of the untimely death of Helen Daly, one of Cynthia Bourgeault’s ardent, long-time advanced Wisdom School students. During the last months and weeks of her life, Helen, herself a gifted teacher of Wisdom Christianity, took steps to enable and sustain its teachings by setting aside seed money in a trust with funding designated “to further and sustain the teachings of Cynthia Bourgeault, and the Wisdom Schools with which she is associated, known as Wisdom Work.” In the typical, high energy, get it done fashion which had always characterized Helen’s activities, she gave direction that the work be commenced quickly, suggesting that the funds were to be spent wisely, well, and speedily—hopefully within three to five years.
In accordance with the guidance Helen had expressed, the work began soon after her death in November of 2012, with Helen’s husband John Daly managing the legal details of incorporating the organization in the state of Vermont in early 2013. Following Helen’s wishes, the generous initial seed money she provided has now been expended over the period she specified, establishing a firm foundation for the work she envisioned and bringing us to the subject of this blog post: What’s Next?
In transitioning from this summary of our beginnings to where we are going, I mention a small but not trivial item. As John Daly moved quickly after Helen’s death to set in motion her visionary plan, he chose the name, “Northeast Wisdom, Inc.” It came naturally to him and was appropriate. After all, his entire personal experience with the Wisdom community, had centered around Helen’s work near her home base and the people she had gathered around her there.
Equally natural and now appropriate will be to give consideration to adopting a “working name” more broadly descriptive and inclusive of who we are and where we are going.
Indeed, this thought of who we are and where we are going is the perfect jumping off point to discuss the “Visioning” process the leadership of Northeast Wisdom is undertaking. Having navigated the initial challenges of establishing a structure and achieving the tax favored status of a charitable 501(c)(3) corporation through which our work can be sustained and supported financially, it was time to grapple with the real point of it all. Board chair Bill Redfield put it simply and directly:
What is our calling? What do we exist to do?
And so began a remarkable two-day visioning session guided by Guthrie Sayen, who, in his dual role of fellow wisdom seeker and skilled professional in the art of coaching for spiritual transformation, helped us collectively and consciously to draw on and receive from Wisdom sources beyond our conscious minds, the beginnings of a new NEW.
I say beginnings, because perhaps the strongest of the “receivings” bubbling through our time together was the sense of nurture—that the calling of this entity that we call NEW is to nurture the emerging web of Wisdom seekers through all of the avenues and paths such seeking is flowing.
And by its very nature, flowing flows. Though it cannot be constrained in a container of fixed dimensions, there exist channels that enhance flow—obstacles that restrict flow can be moved aside; valves that are closed can be opened; new pathways can be explored.
It has been said, that nature abhors a vacuum. The same could also be said of nurture. What would nurture look like outside of its vacuum-like theoretical construct? What would be its tools and tastes, its fragrances and flavors, its heart and home, its lineage and life?
These and other such notions shimmered around us as we looked to our Wisdom guides—each of us to whomever or whatever had shown up to us as we asked for assistance with the question: What do we exist to do? And, the answers began to flow. Here, unfiltered and without editorial comment, it is my privilege to share the first few miles of the new roadmap for NEW. (Including a few received words of wisdom and encouragement along the road.)
Living Wisdom: An Organism rather than an Organization
To engage with the Conscious Circle of Humanity—to sing, to connect to our core as we listen, to serve those we are given to serve with a still mind and a calm heart, to reclaim the mystical heart of Christianity, to respond to God’s yearning, to share in and lighten the sorrow of our Common Father…
To nourish Cynthia and our emerging teachers and post holders—you are loved, you have multitudes supporting you, with fun and lightness…together as a collective…embodied serving together, share the load, more going on than you know…more change happening than you can see, the children are the keepers of the dream…
To be present to/with/ and to nourish/sustain “colleague-ship” for our Wisdom community—do not forget that you are not alone, look to the support you have and remember it, the work is for the sake of all, you are held in God’s hands, you each have a specific role to play…keep listening, be wise as serpents, guileless as doves…
To serve the need (on behalf of) of spiritual awakening, ground-truthing spiritual awareness in the body—step forward and trust that everything you need will be given to you, you know how and where to step forward, trust the process…your power is not in your heads…it is in your bodies, there is no telling where the seeds of Wisdom may fall…all will eventually be gathered…
To be a vehicle through which others are invited into and sustained in Wisdom Living—to be the gathering thread of communal support and deepening connection to a growing Wisdom network; to listen to what others need; to expect change, to replace that which no longer has life in it, to expand the horizons of a participatory community of mutual seeking, to seek fruitful new directions…releasing the structure, serving the relationships…
On this Advent morning, this time of preparation, of watchful waiting and hope, the words of Marty Haugen’s beautiful hymn, “All Are Welcome,” come wafting through my heart and mind, entraining themselves with the words our collective listening brought forth from our Wisdom sources during our What’s Next for NEW visioning process:
Let us build a house where hands will reach
beyond the wood and stone
to heal and strengthen, serve and teach,
and live the Word they’ve known.
All are welcome, all are welcome in this place.
I conclude this post with some thoughts from NEW’s new treasurer—umm…that would be me. We don’t need enormous amounts of money to build this house, but we do need some:
- Cynthia and our emerging teachers and post holders at times need some financial support to make it possible for them to take the time to write, to prepare, and to teach us;
- Another Ingathering is planned this summer in Stonington, where large numbers of our community (many with their whole families) will come together for a week-long intentional immersion experience of living Wisdom 24/7 outside of a retreat setting. The infrastructure to support such an undertaking will require funding;
- Our website, more and more is becoming an interactive tool to sustain our Wisdom practice, build the bonds of love and connection among us, and disseminate information about the who, what, where, when, and how to participate in of the growing number of activities and opportunities springing forth in our Wisdom community; the technology and technical support to make this happen has to be paid for.
- Support to enable participation in Wisdom Schools, mentoring activities, and for academic training of our emerging leaders when personal resources are strained is sometimes urgently needed;
These are the things that come to mind as I think about what lies ahead in the coming year as we lean into the vision of the house we are building with and through Cynthia and the transmission of her lineage.
Earlier this year, Cynthia wrote these words:
“…what our planet desperately needs right now is a larger picture; a renewed vision of what a human being is really intended to be, of what we are here for, and of whether there really is a planetary baseline for a common morality and ethical vision.”
That the transmission is indeed moving forward can be seen in the encouraging words of Matthew Wright, one of the emerging young teachers for the next generation of Wisdom seekers:
“…the truth of interconnection is pouring in from every field of knowledge …slowly we are beginning to discover that there is ultimately no separation within the field of existence—we belong deeply to this world and to each other…we are one tribe, one human family, one planet Earth.”
Once each year we conduct an annual fundraising campaign. We are in the midst of that campaign right now. The details of how to make a gift and Bill Redfield and Cynthia’s message about it are here on this website. I invite each of you to make as generous a gift as the stirrings of your heart prompt – after taking into consideration your own personal circumstances.
All Are Welcome in this house…built of hopes and dreams and visions.
Mary Ellen Jernigan
Mary Ellen Jernigan is a long time Wisdom student of Cynthia Bourgeault and is serving now as Treasurer of the Northeast Wisdom Board of Directors living in Maryland. She served as Executive Director for Operations at the National Center for the Blind for over 30 years. Mary Ellen brings to the board years of experience enlivened by her loving, pragmatic, and heart-felt commitment to this Wisdom lineage, which she has found has changed her life in ways she never imagined. Over a few short months, in her new role as board Treasurer she has already become an essential member of the board, contributing her Wisdom far beyond the treasurer role with honesty and insight.