A Conversation with Reverend Cynthia Bourgeault
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault is a renowned Christian contemplative, author, retreat leader and Episcopal priest. She divides her time between solitude on Eagle Island, Maine, and a more extroverted schedule that takes her all over the world to present her ideas about transformational Wisdom.
Bourgeault is the author of numerous books, including Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, Chanting the Psalms, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, Mystical Hope, The Wisdom Way of Knowing, Love is Stronger Than Death and The Wisdom Jesus. She is also responsible for many articles and CDs on Christian spiritual life. She is a past fellow of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural research at St. John’s Abbey, in Collegeville, Minnesota, and an oblate of New Camaldoli Monastery in Big Sur, California.
Bourgeault is passionately committed to the recovery of the Christian contemplative path and has worked closely with Fr. Thomas Keating as a teacher of centering prayer, Fr. Bruno Barnhart, and other Christian contemplative masters, as well as in Sufism and the Christian inner traditions.
What brought you to this profound study of Christianity?
Gradually, over the course of two decades of ministry, I became more and more discontented with what I saw as a dissonance between the teachings of Jesus and how these teachings are understood and transmitted in the everyday life of the church. Christianity, at its heart, reveals one of the most loving, inclusive nondual masters the planet has ever seen, and yet the religion has tended to express itself in institutional formats that are so rigid, judgmental and exclusive. So I got to wondering, “What is the missing piece that was causing the cosmic disconnect?” and I began to immerse myself in the mystical tradition in which I saw some answers that were not out there in classical theology or institutional morality.
The process of meditation and centering prayer, over time, certainly opened up a new mode of perception, as it does with anyone who gives themselves to this fundamental mind and heart rewiring.
Something is arising in our time, known by many names, through many generations and clearly a central aspect of your Christian theology and philosophy. Would you please explain what is happening?
A critical mass of people around the world is attaining what you would call a nondual way of seeing and understanding, accessing what we could call upper level stages of consciousness.
The cutting edge of the new consciousness can be called “bodhisattva consciousness,” and is well beyond the notion of achieving just my own individual salvation; to the whole collective species of sentient beings. Jesus exemplified this dawning awareness that has also been developed and preserved in Buddhism. In Christianity, there was a good, strong movement in that direction at the start, but it lost its way in institutional religion over time.
We need to unlock those closed vaults of knowledge and realization, and show that if people want to engage the practices leading toward nondual transformation on the Christian path, that there is a legitimate and authentic way to do so. It just hasn’t percolated down very far into organized religion as yet.
What is the Wisdom Way of Knowing, and is it available to everyone?
Oh sure, this is available to everyone.
It is not knowing more, but knowing with more of you. The Wisdom tradition assumes that Wisdom is hidden in plain sight, and human beings have been confused for so long with mistaking their identity with their thinking function described by Descartes: “I think, therefore, I am.” We have been unable to access, process or even value the holistic and harmonizing inputs that come from these other ways of knowing. We have dumbed them down and tuned them out.
The Wisdom Way of Knowing is opening up the whole range of our being to this God-given faculty, or whole perception, of harmonious action.
What is the approach used by the Wisdom schools and how does that work?
It is grounded basically in classical monastic principles on the Christian path. St Benedict, in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, described his “school for the Lord’s service,” as ora et labora, or prayer and work. So, we simply organize our days with that template in a learning pattern that goes from contemplative prayer and sacred chanting to study, to an hour of mindful, practical work as a means of integrating the intelligences of the body, mind, and heart. Then the pattern repeats.
It is a classic rhythm, not substantially different from what you find in the spiritual paths of any of the great faith traditions, which all ask us to balance our intellectual learning and our deepest yearning, grounded in passionate service, silence and reflection.
We are living in a time of extreme duality with many good people on opposing sides. What will provide the needed reconciliation and how can we support that result?
There is an affirming and a denying force, appearing to be opposites. In conjunction with these two forces, a reconciling force, or energy, emerges as a totally independent force out of a capacity to hold these opposites. It’s important to remember that the denying force is never the problem. We tend to demonize the enemy, however, and say, “If we could just get rid of these stupid people, then everything will be okay,” and you know, it’s funny how the stupid people are always the ones that have the opposite opinion from our own. Nor will what emerges look exactly like the affirming, or pushing, force—the thing we think that is going to become the master solution that solves everything. But you realize it takes those two lawful and very different forces to generate a respectful capacity to include each other, and something emerges out of there that throws the thing into a whole new ballpark.
I cannot predict what will happen, but it grows out of a kind of almost chance and random infusion of a new quality of possibility. We cannot control how this will arise and we need to realize that almost nobody sets out deliberately to be a bad person, and everybody is doing what they’re doing in their own deepest sense of, “This is the highest good,” and “This is right.”
Wisdom teaches that to the degree that there are a stable number of people who are able to serenely and impartially hold the opposites with compassion, then perhaps ground can begin to emerge for a compassionate and respectful listening to each other’s hearts which then becomes the seedbed for this new reconciliation.
The work we are doing with centering prayer and inter-spiritual dialogue are all efforts in this direction. If you can create unity, where your life happens to intersect with these opposite forces, a new harmony and possibility can arise and our actions will have a cumulative effect throughout the planet.Edit ModuleShow Tags