SPIRITUAL TEACHER Cynthia Bourgeault seeks not only wisdom but also wholeness in her work and practice. As a modern-day mystic, she teaches countless Christians how to mine the streams of contemplative Christianity to foster spiritual and social transformation. Bourgeault—an Episcopal priest, author, and leader for various “wisdom schools”—is cultivating a new generation of Christians who can deeply develop their faith and sustain their work in the world. Sojourners’ resident contemplative and web technologist Bob Sabath talked with Bourgeault last spring about why it is vital to integrate spirituality and prophetic witness.
Bob Sabath: What need is your vocation responding to in the world today?
Cynthia Bourgeault: I would say that I’m creating a bridge between contemplative Christianity and action. I bring forth some of the skills in the contemplative path to help avoid the usual pitfalls of burnout, violence, judgment, and hypocrisy, and also to bring forth some of the prophetic and compassionate skills in the action traditions to help contemplatives move beyond the sense that the domain of their wisdom is “inner” work. There really is no inner and outer: There’s one world.
Some people talk about the church needing three energies to really be the church: an inner, an outer, and a together—or spirituality, mission, and community. In my experience, churches and individuals major in one of these energies, minor in a second, and have a blind spot on the third. How can individuals and churches do a better job of holding these energies together?
The reason why that map flies apart is because those three divisions are all at the same level. What is missing in Christianity is the real understanding that practice doesn’t just mean people going inward to do their own little spiritual trip. It is a way of repatterning the whole physical, neurological, emotional, devotional animal so that it understands what it’s doing.
The real inner map that’s classically used—the tri-part division—is the exoteric, the mesoteric, and the esoteric. The exoteric is the threshold, the door, where you invite people in through the liturgy, tradition, and sacramental worship. The mesoteric level is about practice. It’s where you begin to really develop an understanding of the inner and more-sophisticated heart transformation that lies behind the external practice. And then there is the esoteric level, which really happens when the exoteric portals are taken deep into a heart that’s been awakened through mesoteric practice.
Community, which is really the important point, is the threshold for the oneness in the collective body of Christ. It will almost inevitably be saturated and infected with lower agendas—clinging ego esteem, affection programs, power, control—until the mesoteric level has kicked in to help people see what they’re doing because of unidentified emotional and spiritual needs. The mesoteric takes the questions deeper, and it begins to till the soil for a whole different level of understanding, in which you see that these three things are organically intertwined. They can’t be separated.
What would you say to Christian social justice activists who see themselves primarily concerned with faith and action, who perhaps have had a difficult time working with the inner journey and almost see it as getting in the way?
I’d say come back and see me in 15 years. I don’t think anybody ever becomes a prophet thinking that they may be wrong and the rest of the world is right. There’s this real sense that, by virtue of my mantle as a “prophet,” I have the moral high ground. I see what’s wrong. I have to take it on myself to speak up about the ills and the excesses. Along with that, from the point of view of that mesoteric level, is identification. I’m very bound up in the energy of my role. I’m actually using that role as a source of motivation and that creates identification, which is a violence in its own right. It also quickly lands a person in burnout and anger, which are the basic shadow sides of social action. It’s very hard for people to understand how to work like a Gandhi, like a Dag Hammarskjöld, or even like Jesus. The very zeal that impels us toward action also fatally skews it.
The shadow side of contemplative practice can be a quietism and a spiritual narcissism, a kind of premature oneness with God. But that’s not where it’s intended to go. I would say that everybody needs to sit down on the cushion of practice, whether their initial temperament is toward the more activist side or the more contemplative side, and to understand how each of these pillars holds the space for one another and for something new to begin.
The media have been talking about the “nones,” the increasing segment of young people and others who are checking “none of the above” as their religious affiliation. What might you say to them?
I’d say, stay your course. For the past 100 years, churches have been so reactionary, self-preoccupied, and stuck that the younger generation has passed them by. It’s also quite true that the level of morality, ethical responsibility, and inclusiveness that’s being struck in the culture at large is far higher than in the churches. My grandkids and most people I know don’t have a problem with ordaining women or gay marriage. It’s live and let live. There’s a fundamental current of civility there. But the church is so pumped up on its own agendas that it seems compelled to defend them at the cost of its life.
There is a new kind of consciousness that’s beginning to arise in critical mass nowadays that allows a significant number of people to think from the whole to the part. The shorthand we often use for it is non-dual thinking, which basically includes the capacity to see from a higher collectivity that doesn’t sacrifice the part but can move from whole to part in a spontaneous engendering rhythm. You give up autonomy at one level in order to realize majesty at a higher level of collectivity. Jesus and Paul talked about it. Paul said we are all parts of the body of Christ—an intimation of that higher collectivity.
Kids growing up today are far more steeped in that and think globally and interconnectedly. More and more are able to sustain the “one universe, higher collectivity” vision.
I’m not invested in keeping alive old dinosaurs. What will survive in all the traditions is exactly what’s shaping up now—the understanding and the unanimity—which is reached through the mesoteric and into the esoteric groups. The trappings of old relig-ion survive, but they will survive only to the extent that they purify themselves of these dinosaur elements.
Tell me about the “wisdom schools” that you have been doing for more than a decade. What makes them unique?
They’re a hybrid between traditional contemplative practice and self-awareness retreats, as it’s come to us through the esoteric tradition. We roughly and loosely adopt the rule of St. Benedict. We look at prayer alone and together and work alone and together as a rhythm for establishing balance and harmony in whatever place you are in your life. You don’t have to go to a monastery to do it.
We take these Benedictine experiences as our form. But what makes ours a little different is that we take the inner traditions of the West to that quadrant of work. How do we become consciously alive? How do we use every moment in our life as a moment to awaken to this different possibility, to this consciousness that’s emerging, and to the things that block it inside us? It really brings this whole element of presence, inner observation, and three-bodied awareness that’s been maintained in Christian practice but often without that dimension of conscious awareness.
Can you tell me more about the Living School and what you hope to accomplish?
Richard Rohr’s original idea was this deep sense that we have a need for an “underground seminary.” What he means by that is really what I call that mesoteric level of development: hands-on formation that allows people to connect the dots in their Christianity to truly carry forward the pattern of its master—love and compassion, feeding the poor and hungry, caring for our world.
In general, many seminaries have gotten co-opted to the point where they serve the institution. It’s not rocket science to say that the institutional agendas are in variance with the gospel. As the institution and its official functions turn inward and become impacted in serving its own needs, people who are attuned to and empowered to listen to the cry of the world and who have a solid grounding in the scripture and the mystical traditions are not being tended.
The goal of the Living School is to form people cognitively in a responsible and responsive, gospel-based, mystically interpreted, non-dual, wisdom-rooted understanding of their own Christian tradition. And to root them in it formationally as well, because it’s through the practices—such as meditation, chanting, and lectio divina—that the heart opens and can hear the cry of the world and respond to it without violence or self-righteousness. We’re not into “lifelong learning” in the sense that people just come and take seminars. The whole idea is to create people who can do deeply grounded work, and not just be in reactive mode.
What other people or places are doing work that encourages you?
I continue to be deeply rooted in and grateful to the witness that comes through the Christian Benedictine tradition, particularly as it’s exercised in two contemplative branches: The Camaldolese Benedictines and the Trappists. I still find that the whole tradition holds a stability and a compassion that water me very deeply. I’m also grateful to the witness of places such as Taizé and Iona, which are experimenting with the interface between monastic practice, prophetic witness, and beauty. So these are my first line of defense.
I still come back to Quakerism, which has always insisted that the social and prophetic witness not be forgotten. Having gone to Quaker schools as a kid, I simply can’t separate contemplation and action, because they’re one. That was imprinted in me from the start. In my immediate sphere of action, that’s what is closest to my heart.