I first encountered Cynthia Bourgeault through her book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. I found it to be surprisingly rich, delving into the practice in detail, offering not only advice for practitioners of centering prayer but also nuanced commentary on the spiritual life in general. Her book, Wisdom Jesus, which I just finished, did not disappoint. Bourgeault once again discusses practices but spends more time building the case for a larger concept—drawn largely from apocryphal, early Christian texts and Eastern religious philosophy—that she feels ought to overlay one’s understanding of Jesus and the spiritual life.
Bourgeault proposes that a sophiological, or wisdom perspective, vs. a soteriological, or salvation perspective, is the key to understanding Jesus’ true mission. The wisdom perspective suggests that Jesus came to demonstrate for us a new way of perceiving and being in the world, a way of understanding our deep connectedness with one another and with God. The salvation perspective, which is the traditional perspective in Western Christianity, puts distance between Jesus and ourselves, seeing Jesus is a divine rescuer—someone who once served a purpose—rather than an eternal bridge for us to come know a higher order of being.
Bourgeault’s key concept for grasping this sophiological perspective is Kenosis, or Jesus’s “self-empyting,” and subsequent receptivity to God’s divine will. Paul’s description of “the mind of Christ” from Philippians 2:9-16 is the biblical root for this notion. Jesus teaches, and demonstrates, that we must practice metanoia or “going to the larger mind,” effectively releasing the grip on our own ego (subject to the ways and whims of the world) and uniting with divine abundance. Two illustrations supporting this concept in particular were especially helpful for me: the paradoxical, simultaneous existence of emptiness and fullness, and a fresh take on John 3:16.
Wisdom teaching insists that one can only enter the “divine mind” from a point of nothingness. Bourgeault quotes Merton: “At the center point of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin an illusion, a point of pure truth, a point of spark which belongs entirely to God.” Only by shedding our ego can we begin to hear God out of this nothingness (the practice of centering prayer aims to help us with this, by the way). Bourgeault echos an Eastern concept here. In Chapter 11 of the Te-Tao Ching, Lao-Tzu writes, “Thirty spokes unite in one hub; It is precisely where there is nothing, that we find the usefulness of the wheel.” Like a wheel, our lives are built around this empty center, particularly reserved for God. We come to know that space by getting out of the way (This may be of particular interest to the philosophically-minded cyclist!). Complimenting Bourgeault and Merton, another contemporary voice on this concept is Belden Lane. In The Great Conversation, Lane suggests that canyons are landscapes that naturally represent this idea of emptiness. In a section entitled “Canyon Running at Midlife,” he applies this concept to relationships: “Amid all of these challenges [of life] the temptation is to try and fill the void instead of resting within it. My wife and I learned that we can’t look to another person to fulfill us, to make us whole. We can’t even do that for each other. No human being–no number of distractions–can fill the hole. It’s a necessary hollow–a true void–at the soul’s center. Ultimately, it’s where only God dwells.”
In considering John 3:16—“For God so loved the world…”—Bourgeault also draws from Eastern thought, reading an ancient Sufi verse as a spark for interpretation: “I was a hidden treasure and I loved in order to be known.” Viewed from this perspective, God’s purpose for creating the world can be entirely reimagined. If God created this world in order to be known, and one must love to be known, it follows that this world was created precisely in a way to enable love to be shown. “Our jagged and hard-edged plane,” writes Bourgeault, “is the realm in which [love] is the most deeply, excruciatingly, and beautifully released.” In this sense, our very finitude and fragility is sacramental. The divine is revealed when we experience life in this world—when we love.
When I think of this earth as a “jagged and hard-edged plane,” images of mountain ranges come to mind. How might traveling among, over, and beyond them (or within the negative space of their canyons) serve as a natural catalyst for divine revelation? As we encounter the hardships of hills and the satiation of summits, are we not moved to love ourselves and our companions–coming to know God in the process?
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