Dear friends, and you who are following or joining us in our online The Wisdom Jesus book study,

We meet early next week to take a deep dive into Chapters Three-Five, “The Kingdom of Heaven is Within You,” “The Path of Metanoia,” and “A Gospel of Thomas Sampler.” All three of these sections revolve around the question that opens Chapter Three—”What did Jesus actually teach?” Cynthia points us back to the words of St. Paul: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5), and then reminds us that what is central to the Jesus path is “not just admiring Jesus, but acquiring his consciousness.”

How do we put on the mind of Christ?  How do we see through his eyes?  How do we feel through his heart?  How do we learn to respond to the world with the same wholeness and healing love?”

 

These questions, Cynthia says, are at the heart of Christianity—and they’re more about right practice than right belief.

Crucially, she argues that the “Kingdom of Heaven”—the very heart and bedrock of all Jesus’ preaching—is not “the place we go when we die” but rather a state of consciousness. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom is “within you” (that is, here) and “at hand” (that is, now). It’s reality perceived through a different “operating system” that does not see from separation—no separation between God and humans, between humans and other humans, or between humans, God, and creation. This mode of seeing is what today we would call unitive or nondual consciousness.

We come into the world with an egoic or binary operating system—we perceive by way of either/or, this and that, us vs. them. This mode of perceiving isn’t a problem, per se—it’s a useful tool for functioning in this realm—but it is limited, and too often we mistake it for our only mode of perception. We have the capacity, however, to bring online another mode of perception, called in the Christian tradition “seeing with the eye of the heart.”

The heart in this tradition is understood not simply as the seat of our emotions, but as an organ of spiritual perception—the faculty within us that has the ability to see from oneness. Rather than reading the quantitative universe (that’s the job of our rational intellect), the heart reads the qualitative universe—that realm of qualities that can’t be measured by the mind—things like love, truth, and beauty.

The heart sees from wholeness, and reads reality by way of resonance—from the inside out. Jesus spoke to this capacity when he said: “Blessed are the pure [or unified] in heart, for they shall see God.” In other words, when the heart is purified we literally see God—not in an afterlife when we die, but here and now as the very Oneness of Being, or “the One in whom we live, and move, and have our being,” again in the words of St. Paul (Acts 17:28).

The early Desert Mother and Fathers tell us that they worked in their own spiritual practice to “put the mind in the heart”—moving attention from the head, where we tend to stake our seat of selfhood, and into the heart center. Little by little, they found, this purifies the heart and strengthens its knowing. Working within this tradition, St. Theophan the Recluse writes:

Attention [placed in the heart] gives birth to warm tenderness of heart, which in turn increases attention. They grow in strength together, supporting each other. They give depth to prayer, gradually quickening the heart: banishing distraction and wandering thoughts, they bestow on prayer its purity.

And again:

When attention descends into the heart, it attracts all the powers of the soul and body into one point there. This concentration of all human life in one place is immediately reflected in the heart by a special sensation that is the beginning of future warmth. This sensation, faint at the beginning, becomes gradually stronger, firmer, deeper.

You might try working with this practice now—perhaps first feeling the way in which attention can be moved through the body—placed in the hands, or the feet—and then moving attention into the space of your chest, feeling that you are “breathing through you heart.” Let the breath and the heartbeat serve as anchors for your awareness, allowing the mental center to quieten down. If you work with a sacred word, as in Centering Prayer, you might try placing the word “in the cave of the heart” as you repeat it, rather than in your head.

St. Theophan writes:

Whether it be the Jesus prayer or any other short prayer, it is good if it is always in the mouth. Only take care that the attention is in the heart and not in the head, and hold to this not only when standing in prayer but at all other times as well.

The heart is the doorway to repentance, which Cynthia takes up in Chapter Four. As Jesus continually cries, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” This does not mean, however, “Emotionally beat yourself up for your sins because the world is about to end!” Cynthia reminds us that our English word “repentance” comes from the Greek word metanoia, from meta (beyond, or larger) and noia (mind). And so, repentance might well be translated as “to go beyond the mind” or “to go into the Larger Mind.” And so Jesus is saying, “Go beyond the dualistic mind, and discover that the Kingdom of God is right here and now.”

Cynthia reflects beautifully on the Beatitudes and their centrality to the Jesus path (pp. 42-47), which I will not summarize here. Then she opens a conversation about Jesus’ parables, noting that they are in many ways like Zen koans—stories that can’t be worked out at the level of the rational mind, but that are instead meant to short-circuit it, opening another way of seeing—opening the heart.

Take, for example, the parable of the workers who enter the vineyard at different times of day, and at the day’s conclusion are all paid the same amount. The calculating mind is left screaming, “That’s not fair.” Only the heart can understand.

This finally leads to a discussion of those teachings known as “the hard sayings” of Jesus—sayings that don’t fit into our picture of “nice Jesus” who “welcomes everyone”; these are parables like the story of the man thrown out of the wedding banquet for not wearing a “wedding garment” or the “wise bridesmaids” who refuse to share their oil with the “foolish bridesmaids” who are similarly cast out of the wedding for not having their lamps lit when the bridegroom arrives.

Cynthia points out that these teachings are not about the outer, social dimension of the Gospel (be kind, share, etc.) but are rather about the inner work we all must do, which no one else can do for us. She writes: “The oil stands for the quality of your transformed consciousness, and unfortunately, it’s impossible to become conscious unconsciously, through a donation from somebody else.” This emphasis on inner work becomes all the more explicit in The Gospel of Thomas, which brings all of these “hard sayings” into clear focus. In the remaining section, Cynthia offers commentary on some core Thomas teachings.

For the uninitiated, The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus; in its opening words, it claims to have been recorded by “Judas Didymos Thomas.” This likely refers to Thomas the apostle, known from the New Testament (a.k.a. “Doubting Thomas”). Thomas is not a narrative gospel like the more familiar texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—that is, it doesn’t tell the story of Jesus. Instead, it presents itself as a collection of his Wisdom teachings, most of them introduced simply with the words, “Jesus said.”

For centuries, Thomas had been assumed lost. We knew it once existed because early Christians mentioned it in their writings, but we had no surviving copies—until one showed up in 1945, discovered by a farmer in a cache of manuscripts buried in a large clay jar in the Egyptian desert. These texts are now known as the “Nag Hammadi Library,” and the version of Thomas recovered from them is a Coptic translation of an originally Greek text. It has revolutionized our understanding of what Jesus taught.

About half of the sayings of Jesus in Thomas have an equivalent in the canonical Gospels; the other half are “new” sayings—and they round out masterfully the inner dimensions of Jesus’ teaching. If you’d like to explore Thomas a bit further, I’ve written three introductory pieces on the text which you can find here:

Approaching Thomas;
Engaging Thomas;
Becoming Thomas.

In Thomas, the nondual understanding of the Kingdom of God doesn’t need to be guessed at—it is stated with stunning clarity. For example, Saying 22:

Jesus said to them, “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that male will not be male nor female be female… then you will enter the kingdom.”

This is of course reminiscent of St. Paul’s words, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We see Jesus pointing us here to the deep down Oneness, beneath the surface appearance of things—the truth that is always seen with the eye of the heart. The Sufi poet Rumi, standing in that long lineage of heart-centered Wisdom of which Jesus was so obviously a master, says it more beautifully than I ever could; I’ll give him the last word:

You have two hands, two legs, and two eyes,
But if your heart and the Beloved are also two,
what good is that?

You call out, I am the lover,
But these are mere words.
If you see lover and Beloved as two,
you either have double vision
or you can’t count.

May we each, little by little, and more and more, open the eye of our hearts; may we repent—that is, go beyond the mind—and discover, here and now, the kingdom of Oneness, spread out all around us. Amen.


A Note:

Welcome to a monthly series of posts from the friends and leaders of the Northeast Wisdom/ Wisdom Waypoints Book Circle Series on: The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—A New Perspective on Christ and His message by Cynthia Bourgeault.
Check out the first post in the series here:
The Wisdom Jesus Book Circle & Opening to the Slow Work of God by Jeanine Siler Jones.
You may also be interested in the Inner Task, a post given for January 26 ~ February 23, 2021 to accompany your study: Wisdom Jesus Inner Task Month I by Jeanine Siler Jones.

And stay tuned for the next post in the Wisdom Waypoints Wisdom Jesus Book Circle series!

Won’t you join us? Please note that the Book Circle is now full. We encourage individuals and groups of all kinds to take up this study, and follow along with these monthly postings through June 2021, and would love to hear your reflections about this post and the book in the comments below. Thank you!

 

Images from the top: Cover of The Wisdom Jesus, courtesy of Northeast Wisdom; Icon of St. Theophan the Recluse, Copyright © 2014 Orthodox Christian Supply. All rights reserved, courtesy of their website; Solomon Raj, “Jesus on the Lotus Flower” (1998), copyright credit to Solomon Raj, courtesy of the New York Times; First page of Gospel of Thomas Codex II, public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia; The Chinese-born artist James He Qi’s “Peace, Be Still” (1998), copyright credit to James He Qi, courtesy of the New York Times.

Dear Northeast Wisdom Community,

Shiftings are afoot!  First of all, with immense gratitude for his years of service, we announce Bill Redfield’s retirement from the Northeast Wisdom Council.  In a recent letter to the Council, Bill wrote:

It is with mixed emotions that I announce that I am stepping down from my work on the Board (Council). Having served since its inception, I have seen the growing stability of our organization in promoting the proliferation of Wisdom in our time. We are serving as an anchor for the various outposts in our greater Wisdom community. I can sense the future growth of our organization in a wider reach that may end up being national and, even perhaps international, in scope.

Because of the demands of my own Wisdom work, I feel unable to give to this post the time and energy it deserves. While relinquishing this board position, I do want to assure you that I remain committed to NEW and will continue to vigorously support it in every way I can.

I offer deep bows of appreciation to Cynthia and her teaching over these many years. She continues to chart a path forward toward deeper being and presence. And I am thankful also for our greater lineage stream as it grows in both breadth and depth. May we all continue to contribute everything we can.

Finally, I am grateful to call each and every one of you my friend. My love remains with you always.

Apart from Cynthia, this leaves me the longest serving member of our Wisdom Council (how did that happen?!), and I have never known our NEW board without Bill Redfield’s generous presence–as Vice President since late 2013 and as President since 2017.  I have learned so much from Bill’s leadership, which has been steady, calm, compassionate, and wise.  Bill showed us all again and again how to hold space as a leader who did not center himself or his own authority, but rather held the post in such a way that allowed the wisdom of the group to fully emerge–holarchy rather than hierarchy.

He’s also navigated the ship for us through a number of transitions and organizational growing pains.  Northeast Wisdom would not be what it is without Bill.  His heart is woven fully into our DNA, and as a Council we trust his discernment in these next steps in his own Wisdom calling and work, and look forward to supporting him along the way.  Bill may now be an “emeritus” Council member, but he continues among us fully as an active Wisdom community member and teacher.

This transition in leadership also comes at a major inflection point in our life as an organization.  We’ve been aware as a Council over the past few years that our mission has exceeded our regional naming as Northeast Wisdom.  With that reality in mind, and much behind-the-scenes discernment, we’re happy to finally announce our upcoming rebranding as Wisdom Waypoints.  According to National Geographic, “A waypoint is a reference point that helps us know where we are and where we’re going. Whether we’re driving, sailing, or flying, waypoints help us find our way.”  It was Cynthia who brought “Waypoints” to us an a new name possibility, and we all loved it–waypoints, not endpoints; dynamic, rather than static; a journey, not a destination.

With this new naming, we are more committed than ever to serving as a Waypoints resource and community hub for our growing Wisdom network, nationally and internationally.  To that end, we’ve recently been engaging in some wonderful conversations with the board of The Contemplative Society in Victoria, British Colombia, a sister organization in Cynthia’s lineage, whom we look forward to working with in increasingly collaborative and creative ways.

MarcellaAnd finally, I’m happy to announce that at our Council meeting this past week Marcella Kraybill-Greggo and I were elected as Council Co-Chairs for the coming year (it’s going to take two of us to fill Bill’s shoes!).  We’re both so honored to be entrusted with the opportunity to serve the community in this way.  Stay tuned as our expanding vision manifests more fully through an updated and renamed website, which we hope to launch early in the coming year.

With you on the Wisdom way,

Matthew

 

 

Dear Wisdom Community,

Interested in an introduction to (or a refresher on) the Gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdalene, and Philip?  If so, join us for a three-day online romp through these “Luminous Gospels”—next week!  We’ll be gathering twice a day at 10:00 and 2:00 EDT, Tuesday-Thursday, 6/9-11.  These three Wisdom Gospels came to light in the mid-20th century and give us new insight into the development of early Christianity, the metaphysics undergirding Jesus’ teaching, and the apostolic authority of Mary Magdalene.

We’ll begin by exploring Jesus as Master of Wisdom and Master of the Heart, and then unfold that vision Gospel by Gospel.  Used as essential texts within our Wisdom School community, these gospels offer a coherent and luminous map of the journey from timelessness into time, and finally into integration and conscious union–a journey that unfolds within what Jesus calls “the bridal chamber” of the human heart.

How does one become a “complete” or “fully” human being?  What is the “kingdom of God”?  How do we awaken the heart?  Come join us as we ask these questions, chant, pray, and learn together.

If you’d like to join, please register through the following link. There is a suggested donation of $90 for the three days, or $15 per sessionbut please note that this is truly a suggestion and everyone is invited to donate what they are able.

Register online here: https://holycrossmonastery.com/events/luminous-gospels/

The Reverend Matthew Wright is an Episcopal priest, retreat leader, and long-time student of Cynthia Bourgeault.  He serves as priest-in-charge at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Woodstock, NY and as a teacher for Northeast Wisdom and the Contemplative Society, non-profits dedicated to the renewal of the Christian Wisdom tradition.  Matthew and his wife, Yanick, live alongside the brothers of Holy Cross Monastery.

Our Northeast Wisdom study of The Wisdom Way of Knowing by Cynthia Bourgeault is off and running!  If you missed Bill Redfield’s reflection on Chapter I, you can find it here.  If you’re not participating in the online group, we’d still love to have you join the study in imaginal space, connecting from wherever you are with the energy of our collective engagement with one of our community’s core texts.  As you read along, touch back here each month for a chapter synopsis and reflection from a Northeast Wisdom council member and feel free to share your reflections below.

This month we’re exploring Chapter II, “How the Christian West Lost Its Wisdom.”  Cynthia begins by reminding us that the earliest followers of Jesus didn’t follow him because they’d read about him in the Gospels–that he was the Son of God who rose from the dead–no, all of that lay up ahead.  There could be no “enlightened self-interest” at work.  Rather, they followed Jesus because something in them recognized something in him–“a meeting of hearts in the present moment that somehow conferred full knowledge and consent.”

Here Cynthia quotes Bruno Barnhart, who reminds us that Jesus’ power as Wisdom master lies in his ability to “awaken that which lies at the core of my own being.”  This is what the earliest disciples met in Jesus (and through that meeting, met in themselves)–first in Jesus as a person of history, and then, increasingly, as a living, imaginal presence–available directly through the heart.

But little by little, connection with that direct, living presence began to fade.  In the fourth century, the Jesus movement merged with the forces of Empire, became the official state-religion, and this direct, intimate mode of heart-knowing was increasingly replaced by the “vicarious knowledge” of creedal statements.  “Following Jesus” began to mean “believing the right things about him.”  As a monastic friend of mine says about this period, “In the great creeds and councils of the Church, we attempted to hammer out the Mystery; instead, we just hammered the Mystery out.”  Heart-centered, transformative knowing increasingly gave way to head-centered, intellectual assent.

A small movement that took commitment and practice to follow quickly became an imperial identity marker.  It was impossible to entrain and maintain “receptivity to higher meaning” on such a vast scale, and there’s little to suggest that Emperor Constantine was interested in such a project.  In reaction, the first Christian Wisdom Schools began emerging in the Egyptian and Syrian deserts, where the desert abbas and ammas strove to maintain that earlier, deeper mode of knowing.

What was at risk, and eventually lost in the Western Church, was the vision of theosis, the divinization or deification of the human person (summed up succinctly by St. Athanasius with the words “God became human in order that humanity might become God”).  It’s a vision laid out clearly in early texts like The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and maintained still in the monastic spirituality of the Eastern Church.  But with the rise of a heavy-handed understanding of “original sin” in the West–and its later Calvinist offspring, the doctrine of “utter depravity”–Western Christianity quickly lost its Wisdom roadmap.  In Cynthia’s words, “as they say back in Maine, ‘You can’t get there from here.'”

Theologically, we shifted from seeing the way (and being) of Jesus as the roadmap for human transformation, and instead enshrined him as our divine rescuer–the one who does all the heavy-lifting for us.  In The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Mary says, “Let us give praise to his greatness, which has prepared us so that we might become fully human.”  It’s the second half of this statement that we’ve lost sight of–we’ve stopped at praising Jesus’ greatness, without embracing the call to become fully human ourselves.

This imbalance is captured perfectly by Br. John Martin Sahajananda, OSB Cam. (a disciple of Fr. Bede Griffiths) in his book You Are the Light: Rediscovering the Eastern Jesus; he writes:

Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world,’ and ‘You are the light of the world.’  These two statements are different sides of the same coin, for when Jesus discovered that the foundation of his being, God, was the light of the world, he also discovered that the foundation of every being, which is God, was also the light of the world.  These two statements are like two wheels of a cart, and to proclaim the Good News one has to proclaim both at the same time.

Unfortunately, Christianity has concentrated on ‘I am the light of the world,’ and has neglected ‘You are the light of the world,’ the statement that Jesus addressed to the whole of humanity.  We have been dragging the one-wheeled cart of Christianity in such a way that the burden has fallen completely on the side without the wheel, that is, on humanity.

If we are to do the work of Wisdom, we have to put the other wheel back on the cart, embracing a vision of our full human potential. 

Cynthia then explores Benedictine monasticism as one of the vehicles in the West that came closest to rolling with both wheels, but without the full metaphysical framework needed to truly turn over the engine.  Even with this tradition’s limitations, the Benedictine container of ora et labora (“work and prayer”) has long guarded Wisdom’s threshold, and forms the backbone of our Wisdom Schools today. 

In the next section (“The Sufi Connection”), Cynthia invites us to look further afield to find where Wisdom was most fully alive during its eclipse in the West.  She argues that “While it may be politically incorrect to say so, the case can be made from a Wisdom standpoint that Islam arose in part as a corrective to a series of wrong turns that had jeopardized Christianity’s ability to follow its own Wisdom master and hence to carry the torch of Wisdom into the world. […]  At any rate, Sufism really serves as the bridge between the Islamic and Christian worlds, which belong together as the two halves of one soul.”

She makes this same argument a bit more fully in her Foreword to Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee’s Prayer of the Heart in Sufi and Christian Mysticism.  Here’s a lengthy quotation:

Sufism and Christianity are joined at the heart; of that there can be little doubt. I have come to that conclusion in my own right, in the course of my own twenty-year quest to recover Christianity’s authentic Wisdom tradition. […] In my mind’s eye, I often imagine a kind of hand-off, which may be both historically and politically incorrect but continues to ring with inner truth: that as institutional Christianity became increasingly dogmatic and propositional in its formulations in those centuries following its elevation to the official religion of the Roman Empire, Sufism arose in the cradle of Islam to receive and nurture those teachings on the heart that had first been planted in those near-eastern lands directly from the living heart of Jesus.

Cynthia’s understanding resonates deeply with my own experience, having walked the dervish path now for a decade within the Mevlevi Order (Jalaluddin Rumi’s lineage), while also serving the work of recovery and creative renewal in the Christian Wisdom path.  In Sufism, the vision of Insan-i Kamil, or the Completed Human Being, along with a clear metaphysical framework and path, have remained front and center.  Christian engagement with Sufism (and other Wisdom lineages) can sometimes serve as a reboot or jumpstart for Christian Wisdom work, offering an experience of the fragrance of an authentic Wisdom milieu.

After some years of study, I’ve come to believe that the Wisdom Gospels (specifically Thomas, Mary Magdalene, and Philip) are a bridge–the missing puzzle piece–connecting the Christian and Sufi worlds.  These texts bear the clearest expression of the metaphysics that will later reemerge as Sufism, and Sufism offers a living framework of teaching and practice that can breathe life and understanding back into these texts, which have for too long existed outside the context of living communities of practice and transmission.

Cynthia then turns to the work of G. I. Gurdjieff (1866-1949), an Armenian Wisdom teacher who traveled and studied throughout Egypt, the Near East, and Central Asia, eventually offering his own synthesis of Wisdom teaching (drawing from Eastern Orthodoxy, Buddhism, Sufism, and other mysterious sources) that has subtly influenced the spiritual landscape of Europe and North America now for several decades.  She explains that the wisdom and influence of Gurdjieff, and great Sufis like Rumi and Ibn Arabi, is present in the teachings she will unfold in the coming chapters.

Finally, she concludes with a reminder that we do not ultimately find Wisdom by tracing a lineage “backwards” through time, but rather more deeply into the Now, into our ever-present Source.  She points out that “original” doesn’t mean “first in time” but rather “closest to the Origin.”  Wisdom may appear to have gaps and dormancies in its transmission throughout history–it breaks down, goes underground, and sometimes seems to totally disappear.  But no matter; Wisdom is not dependent upon linear causality and transmission.  It arises as needed, and as we are ready to receive it.


Northeast Wisdom encourages local Wisdom Practice Circles to revisit
The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart
in your own local gatherings this year. May we all glean the ‘next layer accessible for each of us’ as we engage more deeply. May this book re-inspire our Wisdom Community this year! To find out how to get the book, and view other recommended books, please go to our Resources page or click here for the book.

Last November, nearly a year ago now, a large number of us gathered at the Garrison Institute in Garrison, NY to participate in Cynthia Bourgeault’s retreat on Centering Prayer and Nondual Consciousness, “From Narrative Self to Witnessing Self: Crossing the Threshold.”  It happened to fall the same weekend that Fr. Thomas Keating’s memorial service was live-streamed, and several of us gathered that Saturday afternoon to watch and join in the energy of that event.  Out of that gathering was born the seed of the idea that became the interspiritual celebration of Thomas’ life this past July.  At the same time, Laura Ruth and I left the Garrison weekend feeling that Cynthia—or the weekend itself—had commissioned us to step up our game in engaging the fourth point of Northeast Wisdom’s Mission Statement:

ENGAGE with the other great sacred Wisdom traditions of humankind through interSpiritual dialogue, shared practice, and worship, always cognizant of our deep rootedness in the Christian tradition.

How might we serve NEW in witnessing more fully to the interspiritual edge of our mission?  Over the past year, I had been working to integrate my own commitment to Sufism into my public ministry, while my inner life was also astir with energy from a recent trip to India taken in preparation for the contemplative pilgrimage that happened in January; of particular highlight was my growing reacquaintance with the life and teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, who I’d first encountered while in India in 2006.  Laura and I had dates on the calendar for a Hallelujah Farm retreat the next October, and when she asked me for a topic, these strands suddenly wove themselves together into a program that I had not foreseen.

It was clear from the get-go that we would focus on what contemplative Christian, Sufi, and Advaitic teachings had to tell us about our fundamental humanness, and particularly about the human heart.  And so this past month, twenty souls gathered for a long weekend and together tended a seed that over four days germinated into beautiful green life in our hearts, even as the leaves were falling from the trees all around us.  How it will continue to grow, God knows!

As the weekend wound down, I realized that I wanted to ask one of the participants to write a reflection on the experience.  Keith Kristich is 30 years old, and himself an emerging leader in the wider contemplative movement.  Grounded in the Contemplative Outreach lineage of Thomas Keating, Keith’s work has a growing interspiritual edge, and I have no doubt we will be hearing much more from him in the years to come!

What would one of my peers think of the work we’d done over this weekend?  I was curious to find out—and deeply heartened when I read Keith’s words.  They capture the intention and spirit of our gathering beautifully.  I commend them to you here!

 

Opening the Heart:

A Retreat on Christian, Sufi and Hindu Practice of Heartfulness

by Keith Kristich

I look out at rolling hills with trees holding leaves of fire. It’s autumn, and the heart of fall colors shine forth at Hallelujah Farm in New Hampshire. With leaves of yellow, orange and red—the field looks to be on fire with life.

Twenty or so of us gather for four days of sacred presence by way of Heart practice.

By weaving together the sacred traditions of contemplative Christianity, mystic Islam in Sufism, and the Hindu nondual philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, Matthew Wright and his co-leader, Laura Ruth, seamlessly guided our sacred family into the spiritual heart—home to not only our truest selves, but the divine Presence.

Coming together in community we nourished one another by adding harmony during chant—sometimes deeply harmonious and resonate, and sometimes with dissonance—but always together. 

And from chant we would move into deep silence, allowing each person in their own way to open the Heart to the Universal. Though totally personal and unique, we each found our own way into the Cosmic and Universal Body. 

Each of us a wave; each wave the ocean.

From the very start we were invited into taking an interspiritual approach in both theory and practice of spirituality. The weekend wasn’t about interfaith—different religious traditions sharing on the conceptual, or social level—but rather about interspirituality, the term coined by Wayne Teasdale in The Mystic Heart

Interspirituality is a term Teasdale uses to describe when religious practitioners gather and open-heartedly share and receive the gifts of another spiritual practice and tradition. Interspirituality isn’t head knowledge but participatory heart knowledge. 

During retreat, we weren’t invited into mere theory or idea, but rather into holding such a radical openness and basic trust that the divine can be experienced in the faith and practice of another tradition. 

Maybe I am not a Sufi, but by practicing sacred dance in a zhikr ceremony while chanting “La ilaha illallah” (meaning “There is no God but God” or alternatively, “There is only God”), I, among others, was able to touch and be touched by the divine in the Heart. It mattered not whether one “identified” as a Sufi—no, what mattered here was the cultivation of a radical openness and willingness for the immediacy of the divine in the heart.

For those moments, the Sufi zhikr (Arabic for “remembrance”) was an opportunity for this radical openness.

 

Opening the Heart

Throughout the weekend we were invited into the presence of the heart, both the literal, physical heart as well as the spiritual heart that rests beyond mere emotion and sentimentality. 

We attended to the heart, which as Cynthia Bourgeault teaches, is an “organ for spiritual perception.” As we put attention in the literal heart, we opened the spiritual heart, and integrated the emotional heart. We discussed the need to purify the passions, what the early Christians called the mental and emotional tendencies that keep us from deep prayer, and the “three poisons” of the Sufi tradition: envy, resentment and pride.

By investigating our own inner passions and poisons we would be able to find what gets the better of us and explore ways to be free from—and in—them as a way of further opening.

Through teaching and practice we investigated how heart is at the heart of all religions and how the heart is at the center of the human being.

By living from the heart, we are able to live from “the threshold between worlds,” integrating the horizontal plane of time and unique personhood with that of the vertical plane of timelessness and Spirit. The human fully alive is one who is able to rest in the heart, integrating the finite with the Infinite.

Matthew even spoke to how science is showing that the physical heart is proving to be more expansive and holds a larger energetic field than the human brain.

Very literally, the energetic field of our hearts are bumping up against one another every day. On retreat, during times of prayer and meditation, our hearts rested together.

 

Christian Wisdom

Early on in the retreat we began looking into the sacred practice of Jesus, who we are told had a routine: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35).  Jesus acted as a classic contemplative by not escaping the world, but rather getting centered in infinite awareness before moving into the finite world.

We were also invited into the heart by way of integrating what the Greeks and early church called soma, psyche and Pneuma or body, mind and Spirit. 

Perhaps you or I have a particular bent or fixation on one of these integral dimensions of self. Many in our culture certainly love and attend to the body. Excessive focus on body often leads to the lack of nourishment of the spirit,  leading further to spiritual poverty (but not the way Jesus spoke of spiritual poverty). Alternatively one may neglect the body and excessively fill the spirit by way of excessive prayer and meditation.

Regardless of our preferences or blind spots, the weekend’s invitation was into integration and alignment—the process of honoring each of these integral parts of our being by intentional practice. We weren’t giving attention to one and not the other, but rather bringing them all “online” and using them in their proper way.

Soma, or body, psyche, or soul, and Pneuma, Spirit, were all meant to be brought into sweet harmony so as to be in integrity with the entirety of our being and in so doing, opening to the Heart.

 

Conscious Work

One method of integration was our group practice of conscious work. By mid morning, we had broken up into small groups of four to five and given simple tasks like stacking wood, raking leaves or weeding the garden. 

We worked as a silent collective, communicating with words only when necessary. In the conscious work we were invited to hold the inner task of staying open and attuned to the Heart.

We did this by practicing presence by attending to sensation in the body. How is my body feeling? Stay in the heart, stay in Presence.

Throughout the hour of work, Laura would make her rounds to sound a bell at which point we were instructed to pause as we were, and feel the physical sensations present. This simple practice, allowed for a reminder to be here now—and not only that—but to be here from the heart.

I had the pleasure of stacking wood with Matthew. During this time I would pass wood from the pile on the ground to Matthew who organized it in a shed. This was a special invitation into shared presence, shared sensation and shared heart. 

As I felt the hardness of the wood by hand, and the beauty of each unique piece by sight, I passed to Matthew a similar sensation. From my hands to his, sensation here, sensation there. Shared Presence.

 

Wisdom Teachers

Throughout the day’s two major teaching sessions, we learned from various Wisdom Teachers.

We learned from the Russian Orthodox priest and monk, Theophane the Recluse. We then moved to the famous Sufi mystic, Jalaluddin Rumi and finally on to the Advaita Vedanta master, Sri Ramana Maharshi.

We found that each of the sacred traditions put special emphasis on “heart.” For example, Heart for Sri Ramana was synonymous with the words God, Guru, and Self. 

Regardless of the tradition or religion, all the contemplative teachings seemed to point to heart as the center of the human person, and the doorway between two worlds. On one side the finite, the human, the earth and the other the infinite, the divine and the heavenly. To live from the heart, these traditions teach, is to be in both worlds.

As Rumi writes, “You are not just a drop in the ocean, you are the mighty ocean in the drop.”

 

Objectless Love

A special conversation opened as we discussed Cynthia Bourgeault’s notion of objectless awareness, and the dropping out of “I” in deep prayer and meditation. To sink into the spiritual heart opens one to a love without object—the space of “recognizing” God, not as an object of devotion but the source and Ultimate Subject of love itself.

God is not so much a thing to be in relationship to, but the space and relationality itself. God isn’t a “thing” to love, but the process and basic fact of love.

In heartful objectless awareness we may experience Love Loving Love, or as Thomas Keating points us to, “the place to which we are going is one in which the knower, the knowing, and that which is known is all one.” 

Matthew mentioned briefly a short meditation practice which I will never forget:

First, begin by repeating “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

At some point, drop you: “I love, I love, I love, I love.”

Finally, drop I: “Love, Love, Love, Love, Love”

Slowly but surely, the subject-object relationship of the egoic operating system may come to rest, temporarily dissolving the finite mind of “me” and sinking the mind into the heart where all is perceived as and from oneness. Love.

There is no longer subject-I loving object-you.

The Lover is Loving Love.

 

Heart In Community

A common chant sung throughout the weekend went: “Slowly blooms the rose within.”  This short chant was inspired by a poem from Hafiz:

How did the rose ever open its heart
And give to this world all of its beauty?
It felt the encouragement of light against its being,
Otherwise we all remain too frightened.

In this simple poem, I learned the power of not only opening my own heart, but how the openness of an other impacts me.  In the openness of another, in the “shining” of another, I open. It was as if the beating heart and love of another warmed my own inner light, allowing me to cultivate and tend to the fire within.

Chanting “slowly blooms the rose within,” was an invitation not only to my inner being, but to all inner beings to bloom and blossom to our full potential. Together, as we bloom, we encourage others to do the same. As our heart starts to shine, it warms the heart of the “other” to slowly bloom themselves. 

I found a real sacredness in this shared blooming. It wasn’t about me and “my spiritual journey” so much as it was about coming together as a sacred family, as one rose bush, opening together in God.

If I was able to adequately bloom, open, and attend to the heart, I came to the place of open, transparent personhood, grounded in “my” preexisting union with God and all things.

Keith Kristich lives in Buffalo, NY where he teaches meditation, contemplative prayer and the Enneagram of personality. As a lover of spirituality and world religions, Keith seeks to help people slow down and connect with their deep self and the divine within. You can find more about Keith’s work at https://www.keithkristich.com/

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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.”

IncarnationIt 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).”[3] 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.

 


[1] Raimon Panikkar, Christophany: The Fullness of Man (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), p. 144.

[2] Ibid., p. 146.

[3] Ibid.

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,

Matthew


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.

Rainer Maria Rilke once said,

“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.

And then be sent as Christ for the world that is Christ. And so we pray, Come, Holy Spirit… Come, Holy Spirit… Come, Holy Spirit! Amen.