With the exception of a summer religion class in Bhutan, this past year had little of note in the externals of my life, teaching the same classes at HKIS in my 25th and 26th year at the school. However, something was astir internally that I’ve struggled with throughout the year. I had a distinct sense, beginning in late fall of 2014 and becoming most palpable in the early months of 2015, of a rising energy. It was as if something inside was trying to break through an invisible ceiling. It became such a preoccupation that I sought out the counsel of three friends in separate conversations in February and March, but to no avail.
I wondered if this energy was an indication of some kind of imminent change my station in life; however, in my retreat with Cynthia Bourgeault in May, her teaching seemed to directly address this one night when she explained how people in liminal states often expect dramatic change in the horizontal dimension of life when, in fact, it is in the vertical, or in relationship to the world of spirit, where one should search.
Reflecting on my reading journey of 2015, then, I’m hypothesizing that the rising energy in the vertical was, paradoxically, of a downward, participatory turn. Less abstractly, the message in my books was: come to earth, come to the body, come to the present moment. As evidence of this pivot, the most significant innovation of my teaching this year was recognition of bodily intelligence in my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” curriculum, inspired in part by McMahon and Campbell’s Rediscovering the Lost Body-Connection within Christian Spirituality. My retreat with Cynthia on the Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4th-5th century further confirmed this turn, focusing on the mundane directive to “sit in your cell” and face the noon-day demons of boredom, something that I experienced personally in the 4-day silent retreat. Clark Strand’s book, too, spoke of a similar descent, exploring literal walking in darkness to find greater clarity.
Most recently in reading the work of Teilhard de Chardin, I followed his query: where is the divine? His answer is that it is right here in the body and in the present, most alive in the “heart of matter.” In Belden Lane’s Backpacking with the Saints, he makes the same argument by analogy: the life of a tree is in its outermost one-inch layer that interacts with the natural world, not in its center, which is by comparison an inanimate record of years’ past. This image heralds a reversal of a long-held image of the soul at the center of my body. Rather, these passages suggest that the body lies inside the soul, which is most tangibly present just beyond the body’s demarcation, extending into and meeting the physical-social world. It is these open tendrils that want connectedness, or kanyini, as Aboriginal elder Bob Randall calls it. This is Teilhard’s “divine milieu.”
Last year’s reading theme was the “turn towards the vertical,” which has a continuity with this year’s rising energy; yet paradoxically, the path towards vertical growth has been redefined as a descent – coming into the body, the natural world, this moment. For someone who has always preferred the life of the mind, this participatory turn is in the opposite direction of my natural inclinations. Such a worldview shift, then, requires spiritual practices to ground the new reality. The newest addition to my practice has been the “Presence Process,” which provides a simple mantra (“I am here now in this”) to the moments in life when the mind typically wanders. Finally, perhaps no one single resource better represents this downward shift than Mark Williams’ Three-Minute Breathing Space, which gently concludes with, “Coming home to the body, coming home to this moment.”
With this prelude, here are the best books and resources that I encountered in 2015.
- “Out of Our Heads” (April 2013) by Philip Shepherd, based on his book New Self, New World: Recovering Our Senses in the 21st Century” (2010).
Simply reading this article by Philip Shepherd for the first time was an “out of my head” experience, a visceral feeling of rising, almost bursting, energy. Of all the resources that I read this year, this is the one that provided the most insights per page. This Sun Magazine interview summarizes Shepherd’s life journey in which he comes to understand that we have a second brain in our gut. The future of civilization, Shepherd believes, depends upon balancing head intelligence with other embodied ways of knowing. Rational intelligence has given us an unparalleled perspective on our life on the planet, akin to an astronaut’s view from space, but now we need to return to the earth/the body to complete the journey. Ultimately, “you cannot reason your way into being present. You cannot reason your way into love. You cannot reason your way into fulfillment” (1). Like the Presence Process, the overall aim is to live in “harmony with the whole,” but the “tragedy of our culture is that we misunderstand harmony to mean order, because when you’re living in your head, order is all you can perceive”(8). I used this as my lead article to introduce the body-mind-heart framework in my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” class this past semester.
It seems impossible to read this book and have one’s relationship with the biosphere remain unchanged. Abram argues that we have lost our previous “spell” experience in which we were entranced by our participation in the “more-than-human” world and have progressively over millennia come under the spell of the written word. Abrams, an astute academic in his own right, is not denying that study can be a thrilling experience. However, in giving ourselves over to disembodied abstraction, we have cut ourselves off from the natural world, leading us to not only our environmental crisis, but even to dehumanization of our own species as well. Our love affair with the written word has alienated us from the biosphere that we once were connected to through breathing, hearing, pre-linguistic biomimicry, and visual perception. Humans shared their subjective experience of the natural world with other animated beings, all together inhabiting and participating in an intersubjective world. In the end, Abrahms wants us re-imagine our place in the biosphere, re-balancing our mental perception from overemphasis on abstract distance to visceral participation in the total life world. (Thanks to Richard Friedericks for suggesting this one!)
- Rediscovering the Lost Body-Connection within Christian Spirituality (2010) by Edwin M. McMahon and Peter A. Campbell.
When I think of exploring the body and spirituality, my home faith of Christianity does not spring to mind, even though of all the world religions, it has the strongest claim to a theology of incarnation. The two authors of this unusual book, both Jesuits with Ph.D’s and with many years’ experience of leading workshops, share their understanding of the body as the gateway to spiritual development. “During more than 45 years of our team research, we have discovered that the way in which people treat their own bodies and feelings are a reliable predictor of how they will then treat and interact with those around them . . . how they will fashion the social and political structures in their societies, their business communities, systems of economic and education, even how they will design and live out their religious aspirations” (xiii). Although parts of the book are repetitive, there are numerous valuable personal anecdotes that demonstrate how this body-connection helps heal individuals of personal traumas and come to a balanced relationship with their bodies, minds, and hearts. (To read more on Christianity and incarnation, see Richard Rohr’s inspired comment that I’ve posted at the bottom of the entry.)
This is an excellent introduction to the work of French paleontologist and Catholic priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). For Teilhard, the battle for his heart’s deepest affections was a rivalry between his search for the presence of God and his passionate love of the world of matter. The two jockeyed for Teilhard’s soul early on, but while at seminary his study of evolution allowed these two competitors to meld into one pursuit. Like Thomas Berry’s remark that he had turned from a “theologian” into a “geologian,” Teilhard came to sense a spiritual essence in matter. This inspiring book describes how Teilhard developed this vision through his life. (For additional information, see this blog entry on Teilhard.)
- The Presence Process (2010) by Michael Brown.
Discovered by South African Michael Brown as a method to heal a decade-long chronic disease, the Presence Process describes a breathing method to help practitioners stay in the present moment. Brown’s book prescribes a 10-week program in which a single mantra – “I am here now in this” – is incorporated into one’s daily life. Similar to the Lost Body-Connection by McMahon and Campbell below, the fundamental ailment that causes us to suffer is that emotional trauma remains trapped as unintegrated energy in our physical bodies. In order to come into presence, we need to make contact with that emotional energy and re-integrate it into the body system. What sets this book apart from many others like it is how Brown combines simple, but highly intelligent teaching with a practical method that unfolds over an extended period of time. Most attractively, Brown’s direct and confident style mediates the very physical sense that he hopes readers will gain through the practice. Reading the Presence Process is a spiritual practice in itself.
Strand’s exploration is memorable for its deep query into the antithesis of a seemingly unquestioned religious truth: light is superior to darkness. What he discovers will forever put an asterisk next to this darkness-to-light symbolism for me. From his youth Strand has always loved to walk in the middle of the night. In trying to understand his own odd behavior, he found that every religious tradition also includes prayer and meditation in the middle watch of the night. Most intriguingly, this universal practice is supported by a scientific study which found that participants, in the 4th week of experiencing no artificial light, began to divide their sleep into two segments – with a nightly interlude between these periods of spiritual insight, regardless of the participants’ religious background. What these findings suggest is that humans are naturally predisposed to experiences beyond the ordinary plane of existence, suggesting that modern people have traded away supernatural insight for hours of artificial light. The book concludes with Strand’s own mystical experiences with the divine feminine. This, as the back cover claims, is an “exhilaratingly original work.” (You may read a recent NY Times op-ed, “Bring on the Dark,” on this theme by Strand.)
In this book University of St. Louis theology professor Belden Lane faces the painful psychological task of dealing with the long decline of his mother in a nursing home through his spiritual practice of hiking in foreboding terrains. Through this multifaceted exploration, Lane offers a deep and paradoxical look at the spiritual journey, reflecting, for instance, on how divine disinterest attracts that which it initially repels (53), Israel’s God as fierce mother and gentle father (56), absence of God as presence (63), and love as the fruit of indifference (149). Is there a center that holds? Barely, it appears, for only at the end Lane can say, “What, finally, have I learned in this prolonged desert sojourn? That it’s only in the empty place, in the place where everything appears to die – there in the place of the Lion, that any of us are ever loved . . . and set free to love as well” (229, ellipsis in original). I can’t think of a better tribute for this book than what my dear mentor-at-a-distance Basil Pennington wrote, “This is theology at its most fruitful best and an exquisitely beautiful read.”
Having read all of Cynthia’s other books, I was least interested in this one, a story that I perceived as a love romance, which – bizarrely, it seemed – continued after the death of her partner. Now having read it, however, I understand how much of what she has written subsequently about Jesus and the spiritual life emerged from her own relationship with her hermit lover Rafe, as recounted in this one-of-a-kind spiritual romance, her first book. The story that is told is incredibly frank in its emotional detail, as grounded as their unforgettable wrestling match only weeks before Rafe’s death, yet at the same time strikingly sublime in its spiritual reflection on the meaning of life, death, love, sacrifice, and the afterlife. There is so much wisdom in this stranger-than-fiction account. Apart from the rich content, Cynthia’s writing is by turns eloquent and erudite throughout the tale.(Read an insightful interview with Cynthia about the book here.)
As an aside, another highlight of my year, especially as a follow-up to the New Zealand retreat, was Cynthia’s “A Simple Immediacy,” an online Advent course in 2015, studying the Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers. It is available on demand at the Spirituality and Practice website.
Can a textbook be a page-turner? Welcome to the articulate, entertaining, and gently iconoclast workings of Rice University religion scholar Jeffrey Kripal. Like everything else in this book, picking up Kripal’s Comparing Religions requires a re-thinking of a good number of conventional paradigms. Most usefully for me, Kripal structures this textbook around how I teach my World Religions classes. He employs a tripartite structure very similar to Campbell’s Heroic Journey motif that involves leaving the ordinary world, going to a special world, and returning with an elixir back to ordinary reality. The first section is about orientation to religion in which the goal is for readers to come to some understanding of their own worldview. Then the middle content section brings what he calls “dangerous” study of the exceptional, the fantastic, and the impossible in religion, which causes the reader to question secular assumptions about how the world works. Kripal suggests that this middle section material is optional, encouraging instructors to supplement with material they know best themselves. The third section helps individual readers understand what they have learned, bringing objective study and subjective impressions together in reconsidering one’s on worldview. In the end, the goal is to use religious study as a vehicle to offer transformative learning experiences to students.
- “The Bhagavad Gita” with Philip Goldberg.
One of the top professional growth experiences for me this year was taking this Spirituality and Practice online course. Philip Goldberg, author of the excellent American Veda, leads readers through 28 days of reflections on key passages of the Gita. Many of the most important themes of Eastern religions – reincarnation, karma, attachment, spiritual paths, non-duality, and more – are addressed in easily understandable ways. As is the Spirituality and Practice habit, Goldberg includes practical ways to implement these ideas into daily life. This course can also be accessed on demand on the Spirituality and Practice website. (See this comment for Huffington Post, “The Gita and Me” by Goldberg, April 28, 2015.)
Incarnation: Week 1
God Is Not “Out There”
Sunday, January 10, 2016
I often say that incarnation is the Christian trump card. It is the overcoming of the gap between God and everything else. It is the synthesis of matter and spirit. Without incarnation, God remains separate from us and from creation. Because of incarnation, we can say, “God is with us!” In fact, God is in us, and in everything else that God created. We all have the divine DNA; everything bears the divine fingerprint, if the mystery of embodiment is true.
God, who is Love, incarnates as the universe beginning with the Big Bang approximately 13.8 billion years ago. Then 2,000 years ago, God incarnates as Jesus of Nazareth, when humanity was ready for what Martin Buber would call the “I-Thou” relationship and to personally comprehend that this mystery could be met, engaged with, and even loved. So matter and spirit have always been one, ever since God decided to manifest God’s self in the first act of creation (Ephesians 1:3-10; Colossians 1:15-20).
It is crucial that we understand the importance of incarnation. This became so clear to me in a chance encounter with a recluse near the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, when I did a retreat at Thomas Merton’s hermitage in 1985. A recluse is a hermit’s hermit. Recluses come into the community only for Christmas and Easter. The rest of the time, they stay in the forest alone with God and themselves.
I was walking down a little trail when I saw this recluse coming toward me. Not wanting to interfere, I bowed my head and moved to the side of the path, intending to walk past him. But as we neared each other, he said, “Richard!” That surprised me. He was supposed to be a recluse. How did he know I was there? Or who I was?
He said, “Richard, you get chances to preach and I don’t. When you’re preaching, just tell the people one thing: God is not ‘out there’! God bless you.” And he abruptly continued down the path. Now I have just told you what he ordered me to do. God is not out there!
The belief that God is “out there” is the basic dualism that is tearing us all apart. Our view of God as separate and distant has harmed our understandings of our sexuality; of our relationship to food, possessions, and money; and of our relationship to animals, nature, and our own incarnate selves. This loss is foundational as to why we live such distraught and divided lives. Jesus came precisely to put it all together for us and in us. He was saying, in effect, “To be human is good! The material and the physical can be trusted and enjoyed. This world is the hiding place of God and the revelation of God!”
The final stage of incarnation is resurrection! This is no exceptional miracle only done once in the body of Jesus. It is the final and fulfilled state of all embodiment. Now even the new physics tells us that matter itself is a manifestation of spirit, and spirit or shared consciousness is the real thing.  Matter also seems to be eternal. We do say in the Creed that we believe in “the resurrection of the body,” whereas many of us—still followers of Plato more than Jesus—only believe in the eternal nature of the soul.
Gateway to Silence:
God is not “out there.”
 For more on quantum physics and incarnation, see Diarmuid O’Murchu, Quantum Theology: Spiritual Implications of the New Physics (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 1997, 2004).
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2003), 117-119.