It was Sunday morning of the final day of our 5-day retreat at Holy Isle, Scotland, studying the work of French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin, as seen through the eyes of spiritual teacher Cynthia Bourgeault. She had led us through Teilhard’s understanding of the three most important Christian virtues – purity, faith, and fidelity – which he describes in his most personally reflective book, The Divine Milieu. She then turned to us and suggested that this was our task – to define these for ourselves.
With this exhortation fresh in our minds, we then proceeded to what would be the high point of the week for many participants. Cynthia led us through a celebration of the Eucharist, remembering Jesus’ final hours before his death when he consecrated the bread and wine as his body and blood at the Last Supper, symbolically giving of himself to his disciples only hours before his death on a Roman cross. Cynthia commented that in shamanic traditions, when a great teacher is leaving the planet, this person will discharge a certain power into objects that can serve as tangible links to the person and the teaching. For two thousand years this most powerful of Christian rituals has been practiced by communities across the continents and epochs, and we were adding to that constituency in this moment. Cynthia’s invocation, sharing, singing, and prayers led us into a time of passing bread and wine among the 50 people sitting in two concentric circles.
Blessed are the Pure in Heart
The experience seemed fully charged with an energy that seemed to manifest what Cynthia had been teaching all week. A key theme of her interpretation of Teilhard is summarized in Jesus’ famous beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Here is a typical excerpt from the week’s teaching, as she riffed about what it means to open the heart to the presence of God:
“The universe is saturated and suffused with a natural holiness that is rising up to meet us; the spiritual realms are not way beyond us, but rather that deep, natural, intelligent energetic support is always available, if we know how to attune to it. Unfortunately, our egoic selves create a tunnel vision that can’t perceive or receive the world, or we get lost in our mental stories, out of touch with the sensations of our bodies. We become “absurd,” which literally means to be deaf. The world is charged with the glory of God, but we aren’t attuned to it. Your whole body is built to be a sensing antenna for divine realities, to receive the beauty and intricacy and the help that is there all the time – guidance, energy, affirmation. It’s right there beneath our feet. We need to open to sensation, grounded in the earth, allowing the heart to open as the electromagnetic receiver it is meant to be.“It is to this vision that I return over and over again, a message consistent with that of the mystics across time and ages: if we purify the heart, we are able to be receivers of divine energy that is always present, always accessible at every moment. It seems to me, as I hinted at the end of my last entry, that 21st century people are looking for such an inward tangible quality rather than affirming the church’s more common emphases on moral integrity and social ministry. I continue to explore this energetic spirituality, not only personally, but also for my students who for the most part are not drawn to the church’s contemporary message. Is this the missing piece?
Christian Virtues Re-Interpreted
Cynthia concluded our Eucharistic celebration with a benediction, and we sat as a community silently observing the moment. My whole body felt as if it were gently vibrating at a higher energetic state. My hands were tingling, and the rest of me felt alive, quivering perhaps, as Cynthia often says, like a bead of mercury, in a state of open expectation. This is what Cynthia had been teaching all week – that the whole body was meant to be a “sensing antennae for divine realities.” Sitting in this energized state, I asked myself Cynthia’s earlier question: how would I define Teilhard’s three virtues at this moment? This is what came to me:
Purity. Purity in this state suggested a total openness, a permeable cell membrane that opens itself to the “divine milieu,” as it were. This state, I reflected, was produced in part this week by joining a living community of volunteers at the Holy Isle retreat center who not only offered us hospitality, but engaged in daily prayers and chants that permeated the center with a calm energy. In contrast to common perceptions of holiness or chastity, purity in this context meant simply opening to and participating in the momentary flow of spiritual energy.
Faith. Teilhard’s second virtue, faith, also took on a new understanding in this state. Rather than the common sense of mentally affirming certain tenets to be true, faith here meant being empowered by the energy of love and presence. I am reminded of a recent teaching of Cynthia’s in which she defined that central Old Testament concept of the “righteousness of God”, or hesed, as a force field of Yahweh’s fierce covenant love. To have faith, then, meant to transmit this highly energized state of hesed. Faith should be considered as a dynamism and flow, far more verb than noun.
Fidelity. The third Teilhardian virtue, fidelity, also changed in the afterglow of the Eucharist. I perceived myself as the fortunate recipient of a long, often underground, wisdom heritage, put into motion within Christianity by Jesus himself in the creation of this Last Supper ritual. Fidelity in this moment meant being faithful to the past, purifying myself as an instrument of this energy, and then sharing this hesed with those through my life and teaching. To these first two virtues, fidelity added a chronological sense of understanding the rare privilege of accessing this teaching, as experienced powerfully in the Wisdom School community, and finding means by which to pass this lineage of insight on into the future.
Finally, participating in this precious Eucharist experience gave me a chance to explore a key element of Cynthia’s teachings regarding the difference between an emotion and a feeling. An emotion is ego-directed, while a feeling is the heart’s experience when self-centeredness has been diminished. Paradoxically, the Wisdom Tradition teaches that feelings have an objective sense of what may be considered subjective experiences. In that moment of reflection, I understood the difference: the Eucharist held among this group of humble seekers was profoundly felt in my body as sensation, but it was not overly emotional. Rather, it felt that I was simply seeing what was true, sensing it in my body, valuing it as a fully felt state. Less drama, more integrity.
As I sit here a mere 4 days after the initial event, I’m deeply grateful that I wrote the rough draft of this entry immediately after the experience, for now it has already slipped away into one of those very positive memories, but lacking in anything more substantive. And that would be a shame, for redefining key Christian concepts for oneself based on an intimate communal experience gathered around an ancient ritual offers me a whole new way of considering my spiritual life. My experience seems entirely consistent with Jesus’ profound teaching, the last of his life with his disciples, infusing the common elements of bread and wine – “Take eat, this is my body, given for you. Take drink, this is my blood, shed for you” – with a power that appears to still be accessible. The key, resonant with mystical teaching across ages and cultures, is to remove the barriers to experiencing life in the present moment, and then receiving, transmitting, and passing onto the next generation that spiritual power in all its immediacy.