St. Francis, Pentecost, and Assisi 2012: A Christian Vision of Contemplative Action

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

Introduction

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).

ImageThe 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.

In her talk on becoming a prophetic voice, Cynthia quoted Yeats’ “The Second Coming:”

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.

Conclusion 

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 Suzanne in front of Pica and Pietro di Bernardone, the parents of St. Francis, who had to let him leave so that he could commit himself to his vocation.

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.

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About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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33 Responses to St. Francis, Pentecost, and Assisi 2012: A Christian Vision of Contemplative Action

  1. Pingback: Assisi | Contemplative Society Blog

  2. Julia Lacon says:

    Thank you, Marti, for this very thoughtful summary of the teaching we received from Cynthia and Richard in Assisi. I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet you there. Great photos too! I just want to point out that the statuesque couple standing behind Suzanne and Richard in your lovely photo are actually Pica and Pietro di Bernardone, the parents who had to let go of St Francis.
    Blessings on your important work with young people.
    Julia Lacon in Wales

    • Thanks, Julia, for your comment – Assisi 2012 will live on in our memories for years. And while I’ll try to practice what Cynthia calls “spiritual non-possessiveness,” I certainly plan on integrating her teachings into my ministry.

      And thanks for the correction – I’ll make sure to edit that.

      Marty

  3. Wow! This blog entry is like a refresher course on Wisdom from a unique new perspective, Martin’s, detailing the richness of duos Cynthia and Richard, and Francis and Clare.

    Each blog section contains its own gifts. In the Implications section I was especially struck by the importance placed on EMBODIMENT, and couldn’t agree more, having practiced two kenotic methods which instill embodiment. One is the Welcoming Practice and it is covered in Cynthia’s books The Wisdom Jesus and Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. The other is BioSpiritual Focusing, and it is covered in the workbook Rediscovering the Lost Body-Connection within Christian Spirituality by Edwin McMahon and Peter Campbell, http://www.biospiritual.org.

    I am writing from the perspective of a twenty year practitioner of Centering Prayer and related methods such as those mentioned above, and a grateful participant in the Holy Week retreat that Cynthia gave with Ward Bauman in the U.S. this year.

    Re embodiment, I’m reminded that Cynthia charged us at the end of the Holy Week retreat to participate in the Great Easter Fast, balancing the 40 days of Lent with the 50 days of Eastertide by holding our joy in enough Silence so it can percolate rather than dissipate, and also to continue to be faithful to our practices. I.e., if we do it (practice), we get it (embodiment).

    The Assisi retreat ended on Pentecost, the final day of Eastertide. We now participate in Ordinary Time. I believe that the Assisi blog can serve as spiritual food for this liturgical season.

    With a grateful heart,

    Carole Pentony
    Houston, Texas USA

  4. Dear Carole,

    Thanks for adding new insights to this entry! I have been especially taken by the idea of embodiment. I felt this sense, as I said, in Richard and Cynthia as our leaders, and it has been a theme that I’ve been thinking a lot about in my personal life as well as my teaching. Coming into our bodies in order to better understand the Divine was not a message I grew up with! I’ll follow up on what you have to say here, and if you have other resources that would be useful, please add to what you have here.

    Such a life-affirming message is one that not only I find attractive, but I believe students would welcome as opposed to an emphasis on our thorough sinfulness in which one can have no confidence in the flesh. Although I understand why this teaching has developed in the church, this kind of binary thinking confuses a lot of our students whose thinking is in the orange-green domain.

    Percolate away!

    Marty

  5. Dear Marty,

    Thanks very much for your kind words. It may well be the right time for you to follow up on experiencing embodiment, given that you already had that sense with Cynthia and Richard and that you have found yourself reflecting on it. I would love to hear how that happens for you.

    You asked for any other resources that would be useful. so I want to let you know about The Focusing Institute, http://www.focusing.org. This is the foundation from which all ways of teaching Focusing, including BioSpirituality, developed. I am not sure if there is a BioSpiritual Focusing teacher in Hong Kong, but there is a Focusing teacher. You can get the basics from either type of teacher. As it happens, the Focusing master teacher who brought it to Hong Kong, Nada Lou, began in the BioSpiritual Focusing community many years ago and continues to teach from both perspectives. In any event, just click on the Find A Focusing Teacher link to get to Hong Kong. Another possibility to get you started is to follow the teaching steps available on the Focusing site and on the BioSpiritual site.

    Re the Welcoming Practice, also known as the Welcoming Prayer, you can go to Contemplative Outreach, http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org, for resources such as a link to a Welcoming Prayer workshop co-hosted by Contemplative Outreach and Spirituality and Practice.

    Blessings on the journey,

    Carole P.

    • Thanks, Carole, I’ll check into all of these contacts. In our interview with Cynthia, she rightly described our school as “mindy.” Living in your to the detriment of body and heart leaves us with a yearning for something that we have a hard time naming. When I took a group of students to a school for tsunami survivors in the southern Thai rain forest, the students, prompted by excerpts from Cynthia’s The Wisdom Way of Knowing, were able to find personal insight that was different from the other trips I’ve led. I think it had to do with embodiment. This also reminds me of holding babies at an orphanage in China. It’s a simple thing, but I can’t help but think that there’s another example of getting out of your mind and really experiencing embodiment with babies and children. Much to explore here. I’ll certainly check out the HK contact.

      Marty

      • Ah, yes. Holding babies. My grandson definitely accelerated my experience of embodiment, and living in the now in his first three months, and still does as he approaches his second birthday. What a blessing it is to have been on that path for nearly two decades when he came along and to continue to experience the fruits in that way. The warmth is there even as I write and as I anticipate seeing him this afternoon.. So, thanks!

        Blessings,

        Carole

  6. Richard Friedericks commented:

    Cynthia talked about our moment in history as the beginning of the second axial age. The first being the one that brought about our current dualistic, individualistic civilization – with all it’s marvelous external developments – and the second being the shift to a non-dualistic world community in which we see our selves as totally interdependent and responsible for the planet.

    Nations and religions are the product of the dualistic power structure. Neither nations nor religions in competition with each other can solve the problems they have heaped on us. A new mindset – a non-dual one – is required and is only developed by rewiring the human brain to reconnect with the heart and body. This is done through meditation and most effortlessly through Centering Prayer.

    As the Dalai Lama says of the Chinese Communist Party, those in power need to “retire gracefully” so those with better ways of fixing the world can organize all of us to recreate the world.

    Assisi was awesome!

    Richard

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  10. Mike Todd says:

    Marty – Thanks for sharing this great summary… fantastic.

  11. Thanks for this great summary.I was wondering if you could write some more about what Richard said specifically about St Clare.
    Blessings

    • Thanks, Philomena. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the last four days of the conference, so I missed the early parts of the week where Richard did most of the presenting. I read the The Reluctant Saint: The Life of St. Francis of Assisi by Donald Spoto this summer, in part hoping to learn more about Francis and Clare, but the book doesn’t offer much about Clare or their relationship. Having also read Cynthia’s book on Mary Magdalene this summer, I’ve become intrigued with the special kind of relationship that can develop in the pursuit of a deeper spiritual life.

      • Thanks Martin.
        I agree that the available literature shows a dearth of material on her relationship apart from speculative stuff.Like you say, Clare and Mary Magdalene both intrigue.I have a feeling that we need to see something allegorical in this. Perhaps they represent the hidden anima of the church that is still yet to be brought to fulfillment ? :-))
        Blessings

  12. Carole Pentony says:

    Hi, Marty,

    I keep returning to the photo of San Stefano, and the graced energy of St. Francis contained there. Thanks so much to the photographer and his/her sacred vision.

    With gratitude,

    Carole Pentony

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