Cynthia Bourgeault (second from right) is joined by Suzanne Friedericks (far right), Richard Friedericks (second from left), and myself (far left) in front of an image of St. Francis. Cynthia along with Richard Rohr taught a week-long course in Assisi about the contemporary relevance of St. Francis and Claire to our lives and work.
“Jesus was a contemplative, by which I mean that the intentional alternation between contemplation and action is one of the fundamental rhythms of his being . . . .
Finite action flows out of infinite spaciousness.”
– Cynthia Bourgeault
At the noon break of the first full day session of Cynthia Bourgeault’s teachings, I turned to Richard, one of my traveling companions on this pilgrimage, and asked out of a sense of amazement: “Have you ever heard anything like this before?” Shaking his head, Richard simply responded, “No.” Throughout our four-day retreat in Assisi, we came to the conclusion that the teaching we were receiving had greater clarity and power than anything we had ever heard. Like the Gospel claims about Jesus, it was radically new in its insight, and its credibility was embodied in our teachers Cynthia Bourgeault and Richard Rohr. Yet what we were heard also seemed a fulfillment of words and ideas spoken from long ago, and confirmation of the path that we have followed for some years. This seemed in the spirit of Jesus who said, “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17).
The goal of the Assisi 2012 conference was to consider St. Francis’ received message at the site of the Church of San Damiano, “My church is in ruins; rebuild my church,” and to reflect on its meaning as part of the emerging church movement. Led by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, head of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Cynthia Bourgeault, Episcopalian priest and mystic, the 150 people who gathered in Assisi sought to understand the essential meaning of the Christian message and to bring this word to a world searching for multi-dimensional redemption. This entry offers a summary, organized into nine sections, of these perspective-enhancing and life-giving teachings.
The Teachings in Assisi
1) Perennial Philosophy: The foundation of the CAC is that it follows in the tradition of the Perennial philosophy. The CAC defines this philosophy as
recurring themes in all of the world’s religions and philosophies that continue to say: there is a Divine Reality underneath and inherent in the world of things; there is in the human soul a natural capacity, similarity, and desire for this Divine Reality; the final goal of existence is union with the Divine Reality.
Cynthia furthered our insight into these ideas by explaining that the creative order is an act of self-disclosure by a God who yearns to be discovered, and that human fulfillment is found in pursuing union with God. Seeking answers to all the big questions of human existence derive from this reciprocal yearning to know and be known. Thus, the ultimate entity along the matter-spirit continuum of reality is relationship.
2) First Axial Age: During what is termed the Axial Age, 800 BC- 200 BC, a spiritual leap occurred in which humans across the globe understood themselves as individuals who could have some type of personal revelation concerning the nature of reality or have a relationship with God. From Lao Tzu to Buddha to Plato to the Old Testament prophets, mystics perceived that God could be encountered in new and fulfilling ways. Whether it was to be one with the Tao, realize universal forms, experience enlightenment through non-attachment, or love God by acting for justice for all people, during this period the dominant animating forces of today’s world religions came into existence.
3) Present Moment: Richard and Cynthia both believe that today we are on the cusp of a second Axial Age. This new period has two defining characteristics:
(a) Global Interconnectedness: In the last several decades global society has come to understand its interconnectedness in tangible ways. From global warming to the Great Recession to terrorism to epidemics, it can be seen that all human activity is interlinked, and that human civilizations can no longer consider their achievements from a zero-sum perspective. An emphasis on the catastrophic effects of globalization alone fails to perceive the powerful positive correlates of an interrelated world: a human rights revolution, empowerment of the previously disenfranchised, the decline of violence (as Steven Pinker documents), and the spread of other nourishing ideas and practices throughout the world.
(b) Growth in Consciousness: For the first time in history, a critical mass of individuals around the globe from every culture and religion are rejecting the old dichotomies of self and other, right and wrong, male and female, us and them, left and right, nationals and foreigners, and replacing these dualistic tendencies with non-dual consciousness. This new way of thinking is the primary mark of the second Axial Age. In the past ego-driven desires resulted in winners and losers, and even justice-motivated actions oftentimes created enemies unnecessarily. Such perspectives need to be transcended in the quest to maintain viability of a global community.
4) Jesus and the Path of Surrender: Both Richard and Cynthia emphasize that recovery of an authentic Christian path is essential to redeem the earth’s biosphere as well as human communities. However, this requires a re-visioning, first, of the person of Jesus as well as the trajectory of the Christian tradition. From this new perspective, Jesus’ humanity and divinity combined to create the first individual in the Mediterranean world to understand non-dual consciousness. In trying to come to terms with his new teachings, he was often asked where he came from, but his answer was not primarily a matter of geography; rather, his authenticity originated from his unparalleled level of consciousness. Key passages which are explications of his master metaphor, the Kingdom of Heaven, can only be comprehended and implemented from a holistic understanding. “Love your neighbor as yourself” literally means to love others as extensions of one’s own self. “Love your enemies and pray for them” or “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” cannot be understood by binary patterns of culturally acceptable thought. In sum, Richard and Cynthia believe that Christianity cannot be properly understood from the perspective of the egoic operation system. The Christian vision was non-dualistic from its inception.
(a) Kenotic Path: Richard and Cynthia both agree that the way of Jesus is the path of kenosis, which in its simplest form means to “let go.” Paul’s great christological hymn instructs, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant . . . and humbled himself and became obedient to death” (Philippines 2:5-8). Rather than ascending the traditional path of holiness through conserving purity, Jesus gave himself away through the releasing of costly love. Jesus’ letting go, which still remains striking in Gospel stories, turned the traditional path toward holiness on its head.
The kenotic path can be communicated quite easily, simple enough for a child to comprehend. Cynthia repeatedly used hand gestures to illustrate: the egoic operating system grasps and clings, while the non-dual system offers open hands. Cynthia advises practitioners to do nothing from a brace position; rather, practice letting go of the ego and receive the gifts that come from aligning oneself with the way of God.
(b) Agape: Cynthia suggests that the ultimate Christian virtue of agape, or unconditional love, is found in this cosmic equation: A = EK. When Eros (E), human yearnings, is purified with the kenotic path of surrender (K), the result is agape (A). One of Cynthia’s favorite quotes from Gerald May speaks of this purification process:
“As attachment ceases to be your motivation, your actions become reflections of compassion absolute.”
Although agape cannot be precisely defined, but rather needs to be experienced, practitioners should nonetheless rest assured that the path of conscious love is never wasted.
5) Practice of Centering Prayer: Following the kenotic path today means to upgrade the egoic operating system to non-dual consciousness. The catalyst of this upgrade, or what could be called the “key to the kingdom,” is an ancient form of Christian contemplation called Centering Prayer. Through the daily practice of consciously letting go of thoughts in the posture of prayer, the mind is brought into the heart, the literal organ of spiritual perception, and practitioners begin in subtle, but significant ways to manifest Kingdom characteristics: greater flexibility, more staying power, and increased sense of impartiality.
While many find the practice frustrating or even initially confounding, beginners can be encouraged that new neurological research is demonstrating that a regular practice of Centering Prayer (or other forms of meditation) can re-wire the brain in only 8 weeks time. Establishing new brain pathways opens up innovative solutions to personal and social issues. These new connections also increase sensitivity to the continuum of energetic vibrations that exist between the binary and exclusive concepts of pure matter and pure spirit. In contrast, this more inclusive perception of reality opens new personal, social, and cosmic possibilities.
Cynthia illustrated how this transfer of energy along the matter-spirit continuum can occur. For example, she explained that visiting a holy place such as Assisi, if used properly, can help retreat participant to receive positive vibrations that emanate from this city of peace, and they then can draw upon these as sources of strength as they return home.
6) Experiencing and Growing in the Kenotic Path: Cynthia emphasizes in her teaching that the path of kenosis never becomes a steady state experience. Rather, the non-dual self is like the crescent moon that illuminates brilliantly in one sliver, but is inextricably joined to the darker, less visible portion, symbolic of our human frailties. We need to live in the gap between this God-empowered self and our limitations, abandoning the self-judgmental nature of the binary operating system. Rather than engaging in the classic prescription of spirituality, to always work harder (e.g., self-flagellation), this is a path of grace. If practiced over time, the self constricted within its “soul cage” will eventually take flight.
Cynthia emphasized that this is not a path to be embarked upon only by those considered “spiritually mature.” When I asked her about my desire for a ten-year plan towards growth in this inner tradition, Cynthia had only two recommendations for me: learn more about brain research, and deepen my spiritual practice. Remaining constant in entering the “cave of the heart” reconnects oneself to God’s power. This allows the practitioner to hear the still, small voice of God. As the psalmist writes, “Be still and know that I am God” (46:10). Beyond these basics, she advises people to simply trust that teachers and teachings will come their way.
Finally, this path can be embarked upon in relationship with others or with the cosmos directly. Intimacy, which is more important to most of us than finding ultimate truth, is something paradoxically developed within oneself; it is not dependent upon whether a person has found a “soulmate” or not. For some such as Francis and Clare, a soulful relationship may quicken the kenotic path. For others without such confidants, their spiritual energy should seek other trajectories, for which there is no lack. Regardless, the place to develop and deepen intimacy is going within through Centering Prayer.
7) Impacting the World: One myth about Christian contemplatives is that they have escaped the world and care little about its destiny. However, as Cynthia explained, devotees such as Thomas Merton often come to be purified of this binary response to the world’s ills and in time experience an intensified concern for society. The church and the world is in dire need of mystics and contemplatives who become prophets and visionaries.
The best lack all conviction
and the worst are filled with passionate intensity.
As Richard explained, conservatives may be the “party of no” and are willing to fight, while liberals assert moral superiority as they take flight from conflict. Those conservatives and liberals using the egoic operating system are held by the dualities of the past. This includes church structures, which may explain why the church discourages the prophetic vocation, despite its prominent place second only to apostles in Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts (Ephesians 4:11). By contrast, what is needed is what Cynthia called “ordination from experience:” lay leadership that uses non-dualistic consciousness to effect change. This third way of reconciliation doesn’t simply make a Hegelian compromise, but actually births something new to solve problems systemically.
8) Ecological Crisis: One of primary ways to impact global society is for spiritual practitioners to advocate on behalf of the planet. This message was especially well-received by retreat participants, for being in a place of stunning beauty during an Umbrian spring imprinted all with joy. We marveled at the ever-present bird-song, the waving fields of grain, the azure sky, the pure air and water, and the pink Assisi stone. This captivation set into relief what we know of the planet’s environmental condition. The occasion of this retreat was “Pentecost,” the festival in the church year that celebrates the outpouring of God’s Spirit which birthed the church following Jesus’ ascension. During our final Pentecost worship service, Cynthia read the Romans 8 passage which explains how all creation groans awaiting redemption. St. Francis’ love for animals, his relationship with “brother sun” and “sister moon,” and his forsaking of human garments, his father’s profession, to nakedly join mother earth, all speak to his vision of care for and connectedness with the cosmos. In the Basilica of St. Francis, a dove, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, flies downward towards the earth rather than upward to the sky. In this time of ecological crisis, Cynthia called upon the church to consider a Pentecost of the earth, urging those gathered to seek the planet’s ecological redemption.
9) Eternity: In this re-interpretation of the Christian story, eternity comes to be redefined not as a place one only goes to after death, but also a place one wakes up to in this life. This vision enables a person to realize God’s Kingdom on earth.
Eternity begins in the present, and extends beyond physical death into another form. Those who have lost spouses or other soulmates may experience that a change in form has not diminished spiritual intimacy. Sometimes the one remaining comes to be the embodied spirit of the one who has passed on. The two simply experience different, but still connected, forms of spiritual energy.
In light of our Assisi retreat, I would like to pull back to the theme of this blog, and offer a few concluding comments about implications for the field of social conscience education. As defined in earlier entries, social conscience education is a consideration of one’s role and responsibility in society in the context of a emotionally-engaged understanding of the world. This week’s pilgrimage to Assisi offers a potential refinement of that definition, for Centering Prayer along with other spiritual practices within the Perennial Tradition suggest that there is something more essential and influential than the power of what I found in my research: informed awareness, stirred emotions, or compassionate action. From this new perspective, teachers and students need to get to the root of the problem: egoic attachment. Teachers should consider providing a contemplative practice in social conscience classes to challenge binary thoughts, feelings, and actions and find a deeper and truer place of equanimity from which to do service. While reflection that we often speak of is undoubtedly a facilitator of much personal growth, only a spiritual practice seems to get at the source of our personal and global issues.
Thus, this Assisi retreat has caused me to ponder whether recognition of a deeper and more powerful spiritual presence can be developed to enhance social conscience education. It can be suggested that the heart of good teaching is a synthesis of curricula created by non-dual consciousness with teacher embodiment of course goals. Both curricular planning and personal growth would appear to be strengthened by spiritual practices. Thus, the teacher of social conscience cannot afford not to practice Centering Prayer/some form of meditation. Just as a river cannot rise above its source, so too does a teacher’s spiritual level determine the degree to which students can grow. It is hoped that the reader can agree that the teaching unveiled in Assisi was truly revelatory, and may offer possibilities for deepening the good work of social conscience education.
Additional information of interest:
- Richard and I have completed a 13-minute video called, “The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere: Visionary Images of Education,” that includes an interview with Cynthia in Assisi. Click here for the page that contains the video link and two transcripts, a short and long version, of our production.
- Pilgrimage to Assisi: Course description with pictures of a one-week visit to Assisi from Wisdom University
- Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life by Adrian House
- Reluctant Saint: The Life of St. Francis of Assisi by Donald Spoto
- To read a hypothetical conversation between myself and Cynthia based on her visit to one of my high school classes in November 2011, please click here.
The two pictures above come from the Church of San Stefano. St. Francis preached here, and this church has not been substantively altered since that time. Today it remains a place for prayer and reflection. This was the perfect place to practice Centering Prayer during the retreat.
On Saturday night we had a beautiful worship service in St. Peter’s church. Along with a few others who spoke in various languages, I offered a prayer in Cantonese near the close of the service. This was a moving and meaningful moment – to bring my Hong Kong ministry into the Assisi retreat.