I loved this chapter!—particularly the way it weaves together and synthesizes the voices of Teilhard de Chardin, Ewert Cousins, and Karl Rahner—each of them pointing in their own way (planetization, a 2nd Axial age, and the “world church”) to a truly universal, incarnate, global understanding of Christian spirituality. Wow! I’ll share a few words by way of summary here, before our Zoom book study group meets this Friday… but know that they’re rushed and inadequate to the wonders Fr. Bruno actually unfolds in these final pages.
In this fourth movement, Fr. Bruno explores Teilhard’s vision of a coming human unity: in Teilhard’s words, “there is only one way in which the tide can flow: the way of ever-increasing unification”… the present “social in-folding” is simply an extension of the “process of cosmic in-folding which gave birth to the first cell and the first thought on earth.” Barnhart points to the ways in which large scale human tragedies and disasters (the two World Wars, for example) “rather than fracturing and dispersing humanity, have forced it more tightly together.” We can only hope our current climate crisis will do the same. There is an insistence here that there is no ultimate going backwards (words that will sound either hopeful or naive in the Age of Trump!).
For this new human unity to truly emerge, however, Barnhart says we will need “the attainment of a new degree of love, a shift from the emergent ‘global brain’ to a still undiscovered ‘global heart.’” Can we begin to feel, see, as one heart? Not only one human but one planetary heart? Expanding the sphere of our love is the most crucial and planetarily necessary thing any of us can do at this moment. Our sphere of care and concern must extend beyond “our kind” (race, religion, nationality, species) if we want “our kind” to survive at all. For as it turns out, the conditions for the world’s flourishing are also the conditions for our own flourishing—a point we’ve majorly missed these last few centuries.
Barnhart then brings Ewert Cousins into the picture with his vision of a “Second Axial age,” a period (which Cousins envisions us entering now) when the collective- and earth-centered sensibilities of tribal and indigenous spiritualities are coming forward once more to be integrated with (not simply to replace) the rational and individual focuses of First Axial spiritualities—but now at the global level (we are one tribe, one earth). Finally, Barnhart brings in Karl Rahner, who specifically envisions the Church within this emerging, global and integrative understanding, seeing the Gospel more fully and authentically proclaimed in a new context of openness and pluralism.
For Barnhart, the visions of Teilhard, Cousins, and Rahner are “three expressions of a single awakening process of divine incarnation taking place in history, an awakening that, in our time, has been dramatically accelerated.” He then points us toward a complementary transcultural understanding of holiness, human maturity, and wisdom rooted in the visions of Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, and Bede Griffiths.
Weil argues that a universality once implicit in the lives and teachings of Christian saints must now become explicit: “It has to permeate our language and the whole way of our life.” Merton presents a vision of “final integration”—a state of human maturity that transcends “the ego and all cultural limitations,” that is “cosmic and universal,” and in which a person is “identified with everybody.” And finally, Griffiths “affirms the objective existence of a unitive—and universal—spiritual and philosophical tradition within the world religions” which the religions themselves must recover. Each author is pointing in their own way to spiritual knowledge and transformation as something nonexclusive, a human and global process.
Barnhart then ties this into his understanding of incarnation—the cornerstone of his entire project—and explores the ways in which human beings (and our byproduct, institutionalized religion!) too often resist the incarnational movement. From the spiritual ladders of Platonized Christian spirituality to the institutional ladders of rigid religious hierarchies, we keep putting things between ourselves and God, moving God “up and out”—thereby missing the entire point (or direction) of the evolutionary and cosmic unfolding itself (God has spent 14 billion years working to get down and into all of this!).
Because the Church didn’t often seem to get this, Fr. Bruno argues that “the incarnational movement of Western history had to move outside the church” into what he calls “secular incarnation.” He sees this happening in movements like Marxism and in all secular currents that work toward “universal human rights, civil rights without racial distinction, the universal dignity of the human person, the injustice of slavery, the freedom and equality of women, etc.” He boldly concludes that “to the extent that the ‘formal’ church (both of East and of West) has resisted incarnation, history has moved beyond it, pursuing its incarnational trajectory.”
Fr. Bruno then ties incarnation back into nonduality, the focus of Movement II. He writes:
“Incarnation is the ‘event of nonduality’ in this world. Further, our nondual baptismal identity is ‘identical’ with the event of incarnation. Incarnation is also the principle of history, or of the intelligibility of history. The converse of incarnation is divinization, or ‘birth in God,’ which is experienced as the awakening of the person. Therefore, our two principles or dimensions (horizontal and vertical)—history and identity—intersect or coincide at this point of incarnation, which becomes the center of a cross.”
And again, “The Christ-event is a descent of the ‘center’ from […] the nondual Absolute, the One, into the whole human person: body, soul, and spirit; into the human center—the heart, where body, soul, and spirit are one.” This is not only the individual heart, but the global heart that Fr. Bruno has already told us must now be awakened: the heart of the world, the heart of the entire evolutionary, incarnational process. The “center” descends first into the heart of individuals (Jesus is the “icon” of this process), but gradually and now increasingly (expansively, outwardly) into our collective (global, cosmic) heart. And so “the Christ-event” is not only an individual (uniquely “Jesus”) occurence, but a collective (global, cosmic) event. And we are it, and it is everything.
There’s so much more in this chapter! But this is a start (and Laura Ruth tells me she already has another blog post on this same chapter cooking in her heart, so stay tuned…). I hope you’ve all enjoyed and been enriched by our shared journey with this text—and if you haven’t read it yet, that these posts may inspire you to do so. Thank you all so much for making this exploration possible and alive! I’m overjoyed that it’s happened, and feel so grateful for the wisdom that Fr. Bruno has left behind for us all.
I’ll give him the last word: “While history will continue to flow forward, downward, and outward as incarnation, a perennial spiritual wisdom will continue to swim back, upward, and inward toward its unitive source. The gift of our time is an opportunity to see the whole living picture and to orient ourselves consciously within it.” May we use this gift, this seeing, well. And may we give all that we are to the awakening of our global heart, to the ongoing Incarnation of Christ, world without end. Amen.
Each month, a Northeast Wisdom voice is offering a reflection on a chapter from Bruno Barnhart’s The Future of Wisdom. This month, it’s my turn with Chapter 3, “Movement II: The Eastern Turn.” I admittedly found Chapters 1 and 2 a bit of a slog (somewhat overly academic and technical in language), but not without enough incandescent gems scattered along the way to keep me turning the pages. For me, Chapter 3, however, hit the ground running!
Here, Bruno brings the experience of nondual consciousness front and center, and (fascinatingly) ties it to baptismal identity (of all things!). When I first read this book over a decade ago, this linking didn’t make much sense to me—it felt strange and forced, and left me scratching my head. Reading it now, the same idea lit up for me beautifully. “Little by little…” they say. I’ll summarize and comment on some of Bruno’s main points from this chapter as we go.
Bruno begins by looking at the 20th century encounter of Christianity with what he calls “the Asian spiritual traditions”—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. He points out that this encounter has significantly altered the way Christians think of “meditation”—less as “a process of reflection on revealed realities” or “a quiet gazing” and more and more as “a silent descent into the depths of the person” and “an experience of nonduality or pure consciousness.” This reorients our understanding of contemplative practice away from “the key of relationality and intentionality to the key of identity or pure interiority.” This shift is monumental.
This “key of identity” has been largely underdeveloped in the Christian West, where we’ve tended to focus on a fairly dualistic “relationship” with God, who is imagined as eternally separate and other. To claim identity with God is just as blasphemous in most Christian quarters today as it was when Jesus claimed it 2,000 years ago in Judaism (and we know how that turned out). The Christian solution, of course, was to allow Jesus, and Jesus alone, to speak so blasphemous a claim, and then to go right back to the status quo of a dualistic God.
Our 20th century encounter with the nondual traditions, however, has created an opening in Christianity the likes of which we haven’t seen before, allowing radical new ways of framing, imagining, and theologizing the Gospel. This has gifted us with what Bruno calls “the recovery of a unitive interpretation,” which he finds particularly in the writings of St. Paul and St. John. For Bruno, then, nonduality doesn’t represent an alien invasion into Christian soil, but rather the recovery of an underdeveloped and oft-forgotten thread (perhaps we should even say a linch-pin or tie-rod!) of Christian self-understanding.
Bruno turns to Fr. Henri Le Saux (Swami Abhishiktananda) and Fr. Bede Griffiths (Swami Dayananda) as representative of two different (and positive) Christian approaches to nonduality, specifically in relation to Advaita’s teaching on pure identity. Le Saux ultimately embraced Advaita without qualification, seeing it as one with the essence of the Gospel. He wrote: “The discovery of Christ’s I AM is the ruin of any Christian theology, for all notions are burnt within the fire of experience,” and again, “I feel too much, more and more, the blazing fire of this I AM, in which all notions about Christ’s personality, ontology, history, etc., have disappeared. And I find his real mystery shining in every awakening man, in every mythos.” For Le Saux, all was burned away in the pure identity and oneness that everything shares with Christ’s essential I AM.
Fr. Bede was somewhat more reserved in his approach to Advaita, emphasizing instead “unity in distinction” over pure identity. For Bede, preserving distinction, even in unity, “is what distinguishes the Christian experience of God from that of the Hindu. The Hindu in his deepest experience of advaita knows God in an identity of being. ‘I am Brahman.’ ‘Thou art that.’ The Christian experiences God in a communion of being…” We see Bede “hedging his bets” and taking an approach that was more easily squared with Christian orthodoxy.
Rather than pick a side between these two positions, Bruno states, “I believe that the models of Christian nonduality proposed by Abhishiktananda and by Bede Griffiths are both valid.” He sees each as representing one facet of the Christian experience, labeling them as “radical” and “interpersonal” nonduality, respectively. For Bruno, radical nonduality points to our experience of baptismal identity (which we’ll explore further below), in which we share in Jesus’ experience of oneness with “the root or ground, the Source, the Father.” Interpersonal nonduality we experience in the Christian koinonia, the unfolding community that is the Body of Christ. One is an experience of oneness along the vertical axis; the other, along the horizontal (the “Cross of Christ” in which, Bruno says, “Trinity and creation become one”). For Bruno, either vision is incomplete without the other.
But what was that about baptism? Bruno claims that in this 2nd Movement “the first pivotal meeting point of Hindu Vedanta with Christianity is to be found in bringing together the realization of the nondual Self and baptismal initiation.” For Bruno, baptism is a sacramental initiation into nondual selfhood—the egoic, separate self is drowned or buried, and we are raised into the one unitive Self of Christ. Bruno admits that the full force of this symbolism (and its initiatory power) faded in the Church as adult baptism became secondary and infant baptism the norm.
He writes of the baptismal awakening: “Our new birth, the birth into our truest, deepest identity, is an awakening to the divine nonduality, to our being in God, our birth and life in the Only-begotten of God.” Notice what he so elegantly does here: the language of “Only-begotten”—which in so much of Western Christianity is used exclusively and dualistically (i.e., “Jesus is the Only-begotten and so you’re not!”)—becomes nondual and inclusive (i.e., “We all participate in the Only-begotten, because there’s only One!”). In baptism, we enter into identity with Jesus, who shares in identity with the Source. Baptism is the initiatory doorway into our deepest Self.
This, Bruno argues, undoes much of the general trajectory of Western spirituality, which has focused on a spirituality of ascent, of the ladder, of a great exitus-reditus. In most of our spiritual roadmaps, he writes, “Divine union, if attained, was to be experienced as the fruit of a life of holiness, rather than as the initial gift of identity in Christ.” Baptismal identity subverts this however, as “it is implicit in this baptismal identity with the divine-human Jesus that the fullness is present at the beginning.” Fullness isn’t found at the top of a ladder, up and out of the world; it isn’t acquired or achieved or attained, but simply given, here and now: “The fullness is yourself, what you are in Christ and in God. To know this in actuality is freedom.”
This is the crux of reclaiming Christian baptismal identity, understood in light of nonduality:
Now we discover, as did the first Christians, that God is within us, one with our very being, our self. Not only do we have a personal relationship with God in and through Christ but a union—even an identity—with Christ and thereby with God. Through baptism, we are originally one with God in Jesus Christ: here is the core of Christianity.
While this immediate, given fullness is present from the beginning (not earned or obtained), it nevertheless unfolds in and through time and human relationship: “We discover that the pattern of life is a movement from an original, seminal fullness to a mature fullness: from baptism to eucharist.” And so again, Christian nonduality must always include both the horizontal and vertical axes: “In Jesus himself, in his church, and in each of his disciples, these two axes intersect. At every moment Christian life is the meeting place of divine immediacy and of history. Our being-with-God is at once relationship and identity, dual and nondual.”
I’m amazed at how easy, obvious, and natural Bruno makes this integration appear, when Bede and Abhishiktananda struggled for years to find a comfortable point of meeting between these two poles (Abhishiktananda’s journals show us a soul tortured by his attempt to reconcile Christianity and Advaita). Surely it’s a sign of how far we’ve come, and of the value and validity of the work these great pioneers engaged in, that Bruno can sum it all up in what amounts to a “D’uh!”
But where again is this all taught in the New Testament? I found Bruno’s location incredibly helpful. While the unitive principle can be found in the writings of Paul or John, Bruno emphasizes that “the New Testament is anything but an abstract textbook on unitive reality or knowledge; it is often, however, a mystagogy: an initiation into unitive experience.” The stories and encounters we inhabit in Scripture are not a handbook, but an initiation into the Unitive, as we take the journey they symbolize into ourselves: “we must expect ultimately to know it less as an objective concept than as the very reality-density of our reading of these Scriptures. It will be manifest in our own resonance with the word, in our own progressive union with the word, our personal unity realized in contact with the word: as our own assimilation to the One.” Take that with you the next time you pick up your Bible!
Finally, I was incredibly moved by Bruno’s summation of the Christian life as a movement “from baptism to eucharist,” which he sees as the sacramental movement of Jesus’ own life. In baptism, we discover our own divine identity, our original fullness; from that discovery, our life overflows as self-giving, as eucharist. Again, these two movements correspond to the vertical and horizontal axes, to radical and interpersonal nonduality. So often it seems that approaches to “radical nonduality” emphasize this discovery of “pure identity” as an end in itself–the entire goal of the journey. Here, Bruno shows it to be only a beginning, out of which life overflows as “This is my Body, given for you…” Amen to that!
What a wild and beautifully integrative ride this “Movement II: The Eastern Turn” was. Thank you, Fr. Bruno! Now bring on Movement III!
Dear Wisdom community,
In January 2015 we launched “The Year of Teilhard de Chardin” and tasked our network with becoming more and more acquainted with Teilhard’s expansive body of writing. Since then, Teilhard’s stunning evolutionary mysticism and cosmovision have become a central thread in our Wisdom understanding.
During that same Year of Teilhard, one of the planet’s Christian contemplative giants quietly passed into the unseen—the Camaldolese monk and priest Fr. Bruno Barnhart. In many ways, Fr. Bruno’s work picked up where Teilhard’s left off—integrating Teilhard’s world-affirming, evolutionary, “Western” vision with the nondual depths of the “Eastern” traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism) into a powerhouse of Christian mystical synthesis.
Bruno believed that contemporary Christianity was severely diminished, having lost touch almost entirely with our own depth dimension—“this depth of life and consciousness that has so largely disappeared from our Western civilization, and from our Western Christianity,” he wrote, “is wisdom.” And so he gave himself to the midwifing of a new sapiential, or Wisdom, understanding of the Christian path.
Significantly, Bruno did not believe we could go backwards. Having fully internalized Teilhard’s forward-looking roadmap, he did not see the unfolding of Western civilization, secularity, and modernity as dead-ends or wrong-turns but (shockingly to many spiritual ears) as the natural and inevitable outcome of the incarnate, descending trajectory of the Christ-mystery itself. Modernity and secularity were not ends in themselves, but neither were they simply mistakes. The goal, therefore, could not be a simple return to some earlier, primitive wisdom, but only a forward movement of integration and new equilibrium—the emergence of what he called a “second simplicity.”
Fr. Bruno mapped his vision as a quaternary mandala over the Cross—spanning, in St. Paul’s words, the “breadth, length, height, and depth” (Eph. 3:18) of the Christ-Mystery. These dimensions break down as follows: the nondual, apophatic, unitive (Father/Silence); the logoic, rational, “masculine” (Son/Word); the dynamic, intuitive, “feminine” (Spirit/Music); and the embodied, incarnate, “earthed” (Cosmos/Dance).
Our various cultures and religious traditions tend toward imbalance, shrinking our spirituality to one quadrant or the other. For some time, the West has been locked in “Word”; the East in “Father”; indigenous traditions hold the much needed wisdom of “Cosmos”; Teilhard embraced the dynamism of “Spirit.” What is called for now is a new, full-on integration of these dimensions: oneness and manyness, Spirit and matter, stillness and movement, apophatic depth and historical dynamism. Bruno’s mandala is a Cross planted deep in the earth, reaching to the heavens, all-embracing in its span. He called the resulting wisdom eucharistic.
For whatever reason, Bruno’s legacy has not been well-known in today’s Christian Wisdom reemergence, and we’ve spent little time as a community exploring his centrality to our own lineage. As one of Cynthia’s primary mentors, she says of her first encounter with Bruno: “Suddenly he was in my life, and it was as if it had always been that way. […H]e 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.”
When the Northeast Wisdom Board (or, as we prefer to call ourselves, “Wisdom Council”!) gathered this past month to vision for the year to come, we realized that it was time to bring Bruno to the foreground. Our Year of Teilhard, and the years intervening, have laid the groundwork for a new “Year of Bruno Barnhart.” We encourage all of you to begin reading through his work—in Cynthia’s words, “books that you return to again and again to refresh your soul and renew your faith in truth.”
To that end, we are sending as a gift to our donors who give $150 or more to this year’s annual campaign a copy of Bruno’s recently republished The Future of Wisdom: Toward a Rebirth of Sapiential Christianity. Out-of-print for some years and hard to find, Cynthia describes this work as:
Bruno’s final and in some ways most theologically daring masterpiece. For the thirty years that I was privileged to call him my friend and teacher, I knew full well that he was one of Christianity’s best kept and most cherished contemplative secrets. Now it is time for him to be more widely known, and this re-publication is a solid step in the right direction. I suspect he will be increasingly discovered and revered, as our planet blazes toward its imminent axial leap.
Join us this year in reading this essential Christian Wisdom text, or pick up Bruno’s equally beautiful and important Second Simplicity: The Inner Shape of Christianity or The Good Wine: Reading John from the Center. We’ll soon be sharing quotations from these works on our facebook page, and posting more about Bruno in the year to come.
Just last week, Cynthia visited Bruno’s former cell at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, CA. While there, she donned his old work jacket (pictured here). “Feeling a bit like Elisha,” she wrote. Perhaps the mantle has been passed—not just to Cynthia, but to all of us. We are now the midwives of a new Wisdom, of a second simplicity. And so, Fr. Bruno, pray for us—and aid us in the work at hand.
An earlier version of this article first appeared at Contemplative Journal
Happy Feast of the Holy Trinity, Wisdom Community! Today is the day the Christian calendar dedicates to the Dance of Life, God as Lover, Beloved, and Love Overflowing—the divine dynamism unfolding creation as the disclosure of the Heart of God. As we contemplate this mystery, I’d like to share with you some thoughts inspired by a teacher our Wisdom lineage claims: the late Raimon Panikkar, easily one of the most significant Christian thinkers of the past century.
Born in 1918 to a Spanish, Roman Catholic mother and an Indian, Hindu father, interreligious dialogue was in Panikkar’s DNA. In 1946 he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest, and in 1954 made his way to India to explore more deeply his Hindu roots. Years later, he would joke “I left Europe as a Christian; in India, I discovered I was a Hindu; and I returned as a Buddhist—without ever having ceased to be a Christian.” That gives you a sense of his expansive spirit.
Panikkar coined for us the word “christophany.” Like “theophany”—a manifestation of God (theos)—christophany literally means “a manifestation of Christ.” Panikkar uplifted christophany as an alternative to “christology,” the traditional term for our theology (thoughts, concepts, beliefs) about Jesus. Instead, he wanted to call us into the mystical experience of Jesus. Not “How do we think properly about Jesus?” but “How do experience reality like Jesus?” That’s the task of christophany.
Panikkar said that, for Christians, Jesus can be seen as “the symbol of the whole of reality.” In other words, the mystery disclosed in Jesus—traditionally defined as the full and perfect union of the “human” and the “Divine”—that mystery is, in fact, the mystery at the heart of the entire cosmos, and of every being. “A non-reductive Christian vision,” Panikkar wrote, “should be able to assert that every being is a christophany, a manifestation of the christic adventure of the whole of reality on its way to the infinite mystery.” Jesus shows us what we truly are.
And so Panikkar asked the question: If Jesus prayed to the Father, the Source, “May they all be one, as you and I are one” (John 17:21), and St. Paul admonished the earliest Christians to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5), are Christians not explicitly called into the very consciousness of Jesus, and into the same Divine-human relationship that he experienced? Why then have we so often placed Jesus on a pedestal somewhere above our heads, installing a glass ceiling through which we can lovingly adore him, while preserving his experience as eternally separate from our own?
And what, exactly, was that experience? The Gospel accounts give us second-hand glimpses into Jesus’ understanding of God, and he’s recorded as having talked about his relationship to the Divine in a number of different ways. Taking a stroll through John’s Gospel, we find such varied expressions as: “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28); “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:11); and “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Often the glass ceiling is installed right at the last (if not the second) of these sayings, with its explicit declaration of Divine-human unity—only Jesus is allowed to say that (entirely negating the prayer “May they all be one, as you and I are one”).
The other risk, however, is to turn these different expressions into a ladder—“The Father is greater than I” being the low rung (kindergarten spirituality) and “The Father and I are one” being the high rung, the “goal” (advanced, grown-up spirituality). What if, instead, these various expressions are not a ladder, but a circle? What if they’re the various facets of the Divine-human relationship that we cycle through, not just in the course of a lifetime, but in the course of a day? And what if each is necessary in cultivating different facets and qualities of our souls?
“God is greater than I” can certainly be important medicine for the ego, cultivating that all-important spiritual quality of humility. And there are times in our lives when all we can do is call on a God greater than ourselves, surrendering our will entirely. But with this relationship alone, we have a purely hierarchical encounter with the Divine, which can all too quickly devolve into legalistic and fear-based spirituality. We also need the intimacy of lover and Beloved, of “I am in God, and God is in me.” This opens a whole new playing field of dance and mutual delight.
These two alone, however, do not allow for the deepest experience of unity, the truth of oneness. And so, “I and God are one” is the final turn of the wheel, dissolving the individual into the ocean of unity. Until, from out of the stillness, the dance of lover and Beloved begins yet again. Of course, the risk here is that having glimpsed unity the ego will return and claim the encounter for itself—and there’s little that’s more dangerous than an inflated ego proclaiming “I am God.” And so, as long as the experience of individual selfhood persists (and why should it not?), we also need the medicine, “God is greater than I.”
All three of these facets of Divine-human relationship are needed in a balanced spirituality—the God who is greater; the God with whom we interabide; and the God who is our own deepest “I,” in whom every hint of separation is lost. Humility, intimacy, and union—these three, interwoven, form “the mind of Christ.” All three are essential to the fabric of the Divine-human relationship revealed in Jesus. Not a ladder, but a circle, a dance: the unfolding movement of becoming that is the “christic adventure of the universe.”
It was the experience of this dance, Panikkar held, that was ultimately framed as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: a staggering leap beyond traditional monotheism that the Church has never really caught up with. Jesus’ own experience of God could not be confined to a rigid monotheism that preserved an eternal divide between creature and Creator. But neither could it be understood in terms of a simple monism or pantheism that dissolved all distinction and relationship. Instead, it was a nondual vision: “not one, not two; both one and two.” This, Panikkar, believed, was the intuition behind the Trinitarian mandala—understood not as abstract doctrine, but as mystical experience.
Panikkar maintained: “…the whole of reality could be called, in Christian language, Father, Christ, Holy Spirit—the Font of all reality, reality in its act of being (that is, its becoming, the existing reality which is “the whole Christ,” not yet fully realized), and the Spirit (the wind, the divine energy that maintains the perichoresis [circle dance] in movement).” The Trinity, then, is not a description of a God “out there,” but the deep, triadic structure of reality itself: “God the Father,” the Unmanifest ground of all potentiality; “God the Son,” Divinity incarnate as cosmos (“the whole Christ” in its act of becoming and unfolding); “God the Spirit,” the principle of manifestation and return, of perichoretic motion. Unmanifest, Manifest, and (Un)Manifesting—the whole of Reality in its eternal dance: God the Holy Trinity.
Approached in this way, the Trinity is not a doctrine to be opposed to other doctrines—a way for Christianity to play one-upmanship with other religions. It’s instead an experience to be entered into. Panikkar challenges us to join in the fullness of this Trinitarian dance that is life itself: to cultivate humility, intimacy, and union, both with and as the Divine. He calls us to live consciously as christophany, a manifestation of the christic adventure of the whole of reality, on its way to the infinite mystery. May we with boldness take up the call.
 Raimon Panikkar, Christophany: The Fullness of Man (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), p. 144.
 Ibid., p. 146.
Dear Wisdom Community,
I was asked by our own dear Laura Ruth if I’d share my Pentecost sermon from St. Gregory’s in Woodstock with our community here. Of course! I’m copying the text below; you can also listen to an audio recording here, if you’d prefer that. And here are the Scripture readings for the day.
If you’d like to explore a bit more about the roots of Pentecost in Judaism, as well as my own reflection on this particular feast day’s relationship to our contemporary interspiritual movement, check out my article Pentecostal Fire, which first appeared over at Contemplative Journal.
Come Holy Spirit, set our hearts on fire,
I speak to you in the Name of the Holy Spirit, the holy Breath of God who breathes in all things, giving life, shaping justice, and calling us all into the fullness of love. Amen.
Happy Pentecost, Church! Happy birthday, Church. Happy Feast of the Holy Spirit. Today is the day when the disciples of Jesus—that’s us—when the disciples of Jesus, scared and waiting and in prayer, keeping vigil in the Upper Room, bereaved of their Jesus, today is the day when they are charged with the Holy Spirit, set on fire with the Spirit, and sent out to proclaim good news, to proclaim the liberating, life-giving love of God that they have known in Jesus, and that this morning they find poured, overflowing, into their hearts—despite the brokenness of the world, for the brokenness of the world.
This morning the fire that they feel and that they see resting on one another, burns away their fear, their despair, and they are sent.
And it’s this morning that we call the “birth of the Church.” The birth of the Holy Spirit-filled, charged, energized people of God who are sent out to change, to heal, to renew the face of the earth through the power of love. The birth of the Church is not the birth of Jesus, it’s not the calling of the Twelve, it’s not even the Resurrection; no, it’s today, when we are sent.
We live in the same broken and hurting world. This past Friday in Texas, 10 more were killed, 10 wounded, in yet another school shooting. This past Monday, as the United States opened a new embassy in Jerusalem, after we were begged by the Christian churches there not to do so, this past Monday 1,350 protestors were wounded by gunfire, 58 were killed, including teenagers and a baby who inhaled too much tear gas. We live in the same broken and hurting world.
And we gather this morning to pray Come, Holy Spirit. Come, set our hearts on fire, to make a difference in this world.
We gather to rekindle the fire. To see the fire resting on one another, to be charged again and sent out with love to heal God’s broken world.
Pentecost is the “christing” of the disciples. In the Gospel this morning, Jesus says, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send her to you.”
She will arise within you, she will be poured into your hearts.
This has something to do with the growing up of the disciples. As long as they have Jesus there beside them, Jesus who will be their hero, Jesus who will do all of the work for them, they won’t be able to find the fire of the Spirit within themselves.
It is to your advantage that I go away, because only then will you discover me within you. He’s pushing them out of the nest. And he’s pushing all of us out of the nest this morning too.
He’s saying, It’s your turn, Church—it’s your turn, together, to be Christ for the world.
And it takes time—ten days in the story, maybe ten years for you and me—but the fire smoldering beneath their grief at his departure—it finally catches, and they see it in each other, and they know, and they are sent. Today, on this Feast of Pentecost, we are christed. Jesus Christ, and Margo Christ, and Julia Christ, and Ted Christ, and St. Gregory’s Christ. Today, we are christed and sent to be Jesus’ love in the world. Today the Church is born. In the reading we heard for the Feast of the Ascension, the angel said,
“Why do you stand looking into heaven?” Look around yourself, look within yourself. It’s all right here.
Back in the 12th century, there was a wild and crazy mystic named Joachim of Fiore who imagined all of history unfolding in three great ages—the Age of the Father, the Age of the Son, and the Age of the Holy Spirit. The Age of the Father was for humankind in our infancy, based on rules and laws and obedience to a paternalistic, external God—which, perhaps, we needed at that stage. But he said that with the coming of Jesus, the Age of the Son had come, things were changing, human spirituality was moving out of a rigid legalism, and he said that in his own time he was still living in the Age of the Son. But he looked forward to what he called the Age of the Holy Spirit, which he believed would be a time when all people would know God directly, when we would each be aware of our own innate connection to the Holy, and there would be less of a need for institutional church structures, for clergy.
When I think of Joachim’s vision, I can’t help but think of the times we live in—when the institutional church, which once reigned supreme, is struggling and declining. When more and more people say they’re “spiritual but not religious,” say that the Church as it has been does not meet their heart’s longing. Could it be that God is calling us as Church into a new way—a less hierarchical, less patriarchal, a less institutionally heavy—way of being Church?
On Friday at Morning Prayer, we heard these words from the Prophet Jeremiah: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant… It will not be like the covenant that I made with [your] ancestors… But this is the covenant that I will make… I will put my law within [you], and I will write it on [your] hearts… No longer shall [you] teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for [you] shall all know me, from the least of [you] to the greatest…” (Jer. 31:27-34).
That sounds an awful lot like the Age of the Holy Spirit to me! You may remember, Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospel that if you blaspheme against the Father, it will be forgiven you, and if you blaspheme against the Son, it will be forgiven you. But if you blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, it cannot be forgiven. I wonder if he’s saying that if we blaspheme against the Father—against our externalized God concept—well, no big deal, really. And if we blaspheme against the Son—against our externalized Savior-hero—well, Jesus certainly doesn’t have an ego that needs protecting, and he’s already said “It’s to your advantage that I go away.”
But if you blaspheme against the Holy Spirit—against your own direct, innate connection, the very breath of God within you—that can’t be brushed off, that’s serious stuff.
Now when the Scriptures say that something “can’t be forgiven” it doesn’t mean it can never be repaired, what it means is that you can’t escape the consequences of that kind of action. The consequences of blaspheming against your own innate holiness, of God moving and living and breathing within you—that’s big.
It seems to me that most of the people who are leaving the Church these days—and they’ve been going in droves for decades—that it’s because the Church feels far too externalized, that the institutional Church itself is perhaps guilty of the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who is alive and well and moving in all people, outside of any structures, the Spirit who Jesus promised will “guide us into all truth.”
Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading, “I have many things to say to you, but you can’t bear them now”—you can’t understand them now—but revelation is not over! Truth and love and justice are still unfolding—“When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all the truth.” You’re not ready for it yet, but she will teach you about the equality of women within the life and leadership of the Church, she will teach you that slavery and racism in every form is an abomination, she will teach you about the beauty and dignity of her lesbian and gay and transgender children. She will teach you how big this love of God is. Hohoho, you are not ready for everything she has to teach you!
She’s still unfolding in the world today. We’re still not ready for all she has to teach us. The Holy Spirit that we celebrate today is the most feminine and fluid of the persons, the faces, of the Trinity. She’s associated with wind and fire, with birdflight. She can’t be pinned down.
Her pronoun in the Hebrew Scriptures is “she”; in the Greek New Testament it is “it” not “he.” So of course we’ve focused on the Father and the Son and not on this mysterious, fluid, impossible to capture Holy Spirit. But, Jeremiah is right, and Joachim is right. It’s her time now. She’s leading us into the future. And where is she calling the Church? Today we celebrate the birth of the Church.
What Church is God wanting to give birth to now?
It won’t be the same one God birthed two-thousand years ago, or even the same one God birthed yesterday.
“You must give birth to your images. They are the future waiting to be born. Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter you long before it happens. Just wait for the birth, for the hour of the new clarity.”
The Holy Spirit planted God’s longing, God’s dream, God’s future in our hearts long before this birth-day. St. Paul said in our epistle reading, “The whole creation is groaning in labor pains”—the whole creation is in an act of birthing God. Our opening hymn said:
“She sighs and she sings, mothering creation,
Waiting to give birth to all the Word will say.”
I believe she is birthing something today, in this community, in St. Gregory’s. I believe that St. Gregory’s—and the Church at large—is in a time of Pentecost; that the Spirit is seeking to light a fire within our collective heart, and within the world’s heart—at a time when it is so needed.
We’re birthing an image planted in the earth long before we were here.
An image called Jesus; an image called Mary and Mary Magdalene and Salome, and Peter and James and John; an image called Pentecost, when all of the disciples gathered together and were set on fire with the Holy Spirit and sent out to proclaim God’s liberating, life-giving love for a broken, fear-filled, and hurting world.
We must give birth to our images, to God’s image. We must see the fire in each other—look around, and see it!—the fire in everyone here, and together let it kindle us into a blaze.
“We intend to celebrate the Eucharist continually in our lives as well as in the liturgy, to offer ourselves in all that we do or suffer to God…”
— from The Rivendell Rule
Two years ago I found myself in British Colombia in November, there to lead a retreat for The Contemplative Society. On the way to the retreat center, my host asked, “Would you like to see the salmon spawning?” As it turned out, we would be passing by a river where the salmon run was active, and the spawning season was almost over.
I had seen images of these fish making their annual swim upstream from the ocean, journeying back to the place of their birth to lay their eggs. And, to be honest, I wasn’t all that interested in seeing them in person—but I figured, “Why not?”—it was on the way. I had no idea how powerful the encounter would be.
As we approached the river, the few remaining salmon still making the journey—throwing themselves against the current as they worked their way upstream—looked utterly exhausted, like it was taking every tired fiber of their being to continue onward. A few were finally settling into a spot to lay their eggs. Some were clearly dying. And scattered all along the riverbanks—corpses. Hundreds and hundreds of salmon corpses.
The air reeked of dead salmon, and all around wings were flapping as gulls tore flesh from their carcasses and plucked out their eyes. And to my surprise, with a fierceness and a tenderness that seemed exhausted and inexhaustible, I heard the whole scene before me speak Christ’s words at the Last Supper, “This is my Body, given for you.” I was dumbfounded.
The few remaining, living salmon, beating their bodies against the current, saying to their young— “This is my body, given for you.” Those who had finished the journey and were now dying— “This is my body, given for you.” Those now days dead, as their flesh was torn and their eyes plucked out— “This is my body, given for you.”
I was standing smack-dab in the middle of a living icon of the Eucharistic universe. “Jesus our Mother,” as Julian of Norwich called him (and who knows this kind of self-giving better than a mother?)—Christ our tired and exhausted mother and brother and lover and friend—speaking through every facet of the whole, long, painful and messy unfolding of creation, “This is my Body, given, and given, and given for you.” Brutal and beautiful and broken and whole—a circle-dance of sacrifice, without which life would simply cease to be.
With striking clarity, I saw how the meal Jesus gave us sums up what the Heart of Life is always saying, always doing, and always calling us to: “Do this to remember me”—to make me present, to continue unfolding my love. “This is my Body given… This is my Blood poured out… Do this… Do this…” Give yourself, pour yourself out, in love, in surrender, in service to the unfolding of something so much bigger than any one of us, but to which each of us is nevertheless utterly integral—the ongoing self-disclosure of the Heart of God.
In a recent post at my personal blog, I shared about the powerful impact Sufi chanting and dance has made on my spiritual life. For the longest time, there’s been an intuitive linking in my mind of this practice with Eucharist. The Arabic word for this ceremony—zikr—means “remembrance”—the same word used by Jesus in the institution of the Eucharist—”do this in remembrance of me.” And significantly, remembrance in the biblical languages (zakar in Hebrew, anamnesis in Greek) doesn’t imply simply calling to mind a thing from the past, but making such a thing (a person, an event) present in the here and now.
In the Jewish Passover liturgy, it’s said, “What makes this night [not that night!] different from all other nights?” The mighty acts of God are present here and now. “Do this to re-member me, to make me truly present”—and to make yourself truly present as well.
This linking of zikr and Eucharist, the great Christian and Sufi sacraments of remembrance, was cinched for me when I stumbled across a scene in the second-century Christian text The Acts of John. In the canonical Gospels, we’re told that after sharing the Last Supper, Jesus and the disciples “sang a hymn” (Matt. 26:30), but no further details are given.
In The Acts of John, the scene is completed. Having shared the meal, Jesus asks the disciples to form a circle around him, holding hands. He then sets the circle in motion, initiating a dance, and bids them call out Amen in response as he sings from the circle’s center. The lines of his song emphasize the reciprocity and exchange that lie at the heart of life, and that are exemplified in his own self-giving and in the Eucharist. He sings:
I would be saved, and I would save. Amen.
I would be borne, and I would bear. Amen.
I would eat, and I would be eaten. Amen.
I would be washed, and I would wash. Amen.
I would pipe; dance you all! Amen.
I would mourn; lament you all. Amen.
The Whole on high has part in our dancing. Amen.
Whoever does not dance, does not understand. Amen.
I am a mirror to you who perceives me. Amen.
I am a door to you who knocks. Amen.
And on he goes singing, a chorus of Amens ringing around him as he does. Against the backdrop of his song, the meaning of the meal comes into clear relief: This is my body given for you: I would eat and I would be eaten. This is my blood poured out for you: I would be borne, and I would bear. Do this in remembrance of me: Whoever does not dance, does not understand.
Meal and dance both call for participation—neither can be known at a distance. And while Jesus has done his part in initiating these movements, he makes it clear that we must continue the work of self-giving (and receiving) if the Heart of God is to go on unfolding. All creation is engaged in the dance. Will we do our part?
While The Acts of John may not reflect historical memory (i.e., “this is what really happened at the Last Supper”), what it does tell us is that second-century Christians were writing about circle-dancing in the context of the Eucharist—which means there’s a high likelihood they were circle-dancing in the context of the Eucharist. This scene gives us a glimpse of what their worship may have looked like—and it looks very Sufi! Or, rather, Sufi worship looks very early-Christian. Because although this form of worship may have died out as Christian gatherings increasingly took on the flavor of the Roman Imperial court, it stayed alive in Near Eastern lands, and resurfaced—and continues—in Sufic Islam.
The central teaching of Sufism is the oneness of existence—the oneness we share with each other, with creation, and with God. In the Eucharist, and the Eucharistic exchange that we see at the heart of all life, the same truth is affirmed. As the elements of bread and wine are shared around the circle of the faithful, we’re reminded that all of life is interwoven—each of us into the other, all of us into creation, creation into God. Christ in broken bread and out-poured wine, in grapes and wheat, in earth and water, in you and me.
I opened this reflection with words from the Rule of Life used by members of The Rivendell Community, a body within the National Association of Episcopal Christian Communities (if you find yourself looking for a more intentional way to ground your spiritual practice in communal accountability, I encourage you to explore these and other forms of Rule-based living). As with my salmon encounter, it was also two years ago that I applied for postulancy (a period of discernment towards becoming a vowed member) with Rivendell. It’s been a less direct process than I ever imagined (actual discernment has been involved!), and I’m happy to find myself saying “Yes!” to the Community’s Rule and rhythms, in which members are called “to celebrate the Eucharist continually in our lives.”
The picture above is of my novice cross, itself a symbol of the Eucharistic universe. As the Community’s Founding Guardian, Mother Virginia Brown, writes: “The design represents the natural products with which the Eucharistic elements are made: stalks of wheat form the cross itself, and grapes form a circle as in a Celtic cross. Thus the cross symbolizes the Eucharist as the pattern of our life.”
She continues, with a particularly Teilhardian note, “the whole wondrous process by which seed is transformed into grain, grain milled into flour, flour baked into bread, and bread laid on the altar, consecrated and filled with the very life of Christ, broken, and given” is “an enacted parable, a model or paradigm, of our own lives. Grace builds on nature, zoe on bios, Christification on the most ordinary, mundane circumstances. As we offer ourselves to God, our little offering is taken up into the great, all-sufficient self-offering of Christ”—taken up into the Eucharistic Universe.
From the salmon spawning, to Christ dancing, to each and every meal we share—in all our pain and love-making—the same pattern is present: give and receive, and give, in love. And from this, the Heart of God unfolds.
May it be so in each of our lives, and may we each celebrate Eucharist in—and as—every moment. Amen.
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.