Tag Archives: Cynthia Bourgeault

The Language of the Heart

We are creatures of the word, we humans. We know ourselves by our names first of all, and our least thought comes ready dressed in words. And yet it is in silence that we draw close to God, becoming open in the stillness to the presence that is always with us, nearer than our own breathing.

The apostle John wrote,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

John 1.1-4 NRSV

In contemplative prayer, we drop below the threshold of thought, and yet words remain, perhaps reflections of the words we have spoken since we learned to speak. The stream of consciousness passes, glittering with words, fragments of thoughts, commentary, witterings. How hard it is not to look, not to be caught by the glittering surfaces that flicker past. This is why, in Centering Prayer, in Christian Meditation, above all in the Jesus Prayer, it is words (or a word) themselves that are used to still the twinkling stream.

But why would that work?

It seems to me that there are two kinds of language, at least as they are at work here: the language of thoughts, and the language of the heart. There is a phrase often used in the literature around the Jesus Prayer, “Keep the mind in the heart before God.” This does not mean “get out of your mind and into your emotions” – anything but. As Cynthia Bourgeault writes,

According to the great wisdom traditions of the West (Christian, Jewish, Islamic), the heart is first and foremost an organ of spiritual perception. Its primary function is to look beyond the obvious, the boundaried surface of things, and see into a deeper reality, emerging from some unknown profundity, which plays lightly upon the surface of this life without being caught there: a world where meaning, insight, and clarity come together in a whole different way. Saint Paul talked about this other kind of perceptivity with the term “faith” (“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” [Hebrews 11.1 KJV]), but the word “faith” is itself often misunderstood by the linear mind. What it really designates is not a leaping into the dark (as so often misconstrued) but a subtle seeing in the dark, a kind of spiritual night vision that allows one to see with inner certainty that the elusive golden thread glimpsed from within actually does lead somewhere.

So, in placing the attention into the field of these words, whether the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, or intent that underlies the chosen “sacred word” of centering prayer, the words themselves, as the means of attention in fact, descend quite naturally and peacefully into the heart.

This, of course, explains why those who practice the Jesus Prayer so often continue to use the terminal words a sinner (they are omitted in some versions), for it is, at least in my experience, only in repentance that the heart is purified sufficiently so to be blessed.

The great spiritual directors of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions have explained in figurative language how the structure of the human soul enables the mind to be drawn upwards (the will consenting) to its own apex, at which point it comes into contact and communion with God’s descending Spirit. This “apex”, which can equally well be described as the “centre”, is that “place of the heart” wherein we dwell in the state of prayer. To enter that state it is necessary for the heart to be purified by repentance (represented in the baptism of Jesus by John), so that it may reflect, as in a clear mirror, the Holy Light that pours on it from above. Then, by God’s mercy, the soul will, in the course of time, in this life or in some other dimension as yet unknown, become so perfectly commingled with that Light that, as Julian says, there will seem to be no difference – although there must still remain a clear distinction – between the reflection and its heavenly Source.

Lois Lang-Sims, The Mind in the Heart – Thoughts on Prayer

All this sounds perhaps either dry and academic, or mystical to the point of dottiness, depending on the point of view of the reader! But it is a simple thing really. The Jesus Prayer, like the nembutsu, is a prayer for simple people.

Mystical experience, the direct, unmediated encounter with God central to Quaker worship, and to all contemplative prayer, is not a strange or technical exercise, reserved for professional clergy or vowed monastics, but an ordinary, straightforward thing common to our identity as human beings. There is, after all, that of God in each of us: all that is necessary is to become aware of it, and somehow to live within that awareness, which is all that the phrase “the mind in the heart” is trying to say, really.

 

At the Cross

Many people these days, some Quakers among them, seem to find it easy enough to conceive of God – or at least a god – as the source and ground of existence, and perhaps the Spirit – or at least a spirit – as humankind’s sense of God’s presence among us or within us. But Jesus – with or without his Christ title – seems all too often too much to take. It is hard to reduce to a metaphor or to a spiritual influence one who had so demonstrably historical an existence, and it is hard to confine to a distant historical figure one to whom the New Testament so stubbornly refers as Lord, saviour, risen one, logos…

I am not theologian enough to attempt an effective Christology, let alone one in the space of a blog post – Rowan Williams, among recent writers, does this most succinctly and comprehensibly in his God With Us (2017) – but I do know that my own encounter with God in prayer would not be possible without Jesus. Let me explain, if I can. God as the metaphysical ground of being seems to me to be a proposition without which nothing makes sense at all, and yet God in this sense is on the one hand so abstract, and on the other so vast and so beyond comprehension, that addressing him (it?) in prayer would be like engaging in conversation with the Standard Model of particle physics, only more so. Subjectively, for me at any rate, the Spirit is too much like the New Testament image of the wind – pneuma – invisible and intangible, except as it affects what it touches. But Jesus… If Jesus somehow embodied the love, and the presence, of God, and if his crucifixion remains a sign and a medium – a sort of spiritual hyperlink – to the love of God, then everything would be different. Is different, if my experience is anything to go by.

Rowan Williams:

The cross is an example to us but also an example for us. It is, in the old sense of example, a ‘sample’ of the love of God. This is what the love of God is like: it is free and therefore it is both all-powerful and completely vulnerable. All-powerful because it is always free to overcome, but vulnerable because it has no way of guaranteeing worldly success. The love of God belongs to a different order, not the order of power, manipulation and getting on top, which is the kind of power that preoccupies us… It allows us to say that the love of God is the kind of love that identifies with the powerless; the kind of love that appeals to nothing but its own integrity, that doesn’t seek to force or batter its way through. It lives, it survives, it ‘wins’ simply by being itself. On the cross, God’s love is just what it is…

God’s love for us, temporary and powerless as we are, somehow reaches us through this spiritual hyperlink that is the cross, and it is the crucified Jesus to whom we turn for mercy.

Mercy is to me the heart of prayer – and not only because it is the Jesus Prayer that is the centre of my own prayer. Cynthia Bourgeault writes:

…When we think of mercy, we should be thinking first and foremost of a bond, an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. The mercy of God does not come and go, granted to some and refused to others. Why? Because it is unconditional – always there, underlying everything. It is literally the force that holds everything in existence, the gravitational field in which we live and move and have our being. Just like [the] little fish swimming desperately in search of water, we, too – in the words of Psalm 103 – “swim in mercy as in an endless sea.” Mercy is God’s innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love.

The cross is “God’s innermost being turned outward… in love” – and it is at the cross that, in the words of the Vineyard song, we find mercy and grace.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

[Also published on The Mercy Blog]

Holding God fast…

Sometimes I believe that as Quakers we can tend to overthink things, things in our practice and procedures, in our response to politics, our response to other communities of faith. There are many possible reasons for this, and almost as many reasons why it’s one of the Quakerly traits I am most prone to living out myself. In the same way as our being of a certain age, and educational background, and, in some places at least, a certain race, it’s a self-perpetuating thing. Like attracts like, and is strengthened.

I don’t propose, though, to spend this blog post analysing Friends, nor even analysing myself, nor to spend it looking for reasons or excuses or corrections for this sometimes unhelpful tendency to subject everything to analysis. I want to call us home.

George Fox, as a young man, spent several years travelling through the East Midlands and the East and West Ridings of Yorkshire, and there he encountered religious groups of various kinds. You can read some of his journal entries in the first few sections of Quaker faith & practice Chapter 19. Fox spoke with priests, with separated preachers, and with “the most experienced among the dissenting people”, to paraphrase his own words, and heard many of their arguments and their learned disquisitions. He came close to despair, realising that,

there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus, when God doth work who shall let [i.e. hinder] it? And this I knew experimentally.

Ofp 19.02

It is in this direct encounter with God, through this experimental faith, that our flustered, overburdened minds find rest. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote, “God can be held fast and loved by means of love, but by thought never.”

Cynthia Bourgeault writes,

“Love” is this author’s pet word for that open, diffuse awareness which gradually allows another and deeper way of knowing to pervade one’s entire being.

Out of my own three decades of experience in Centering Prayer, I believe that this “love” indeed has nothing to do with emotions or feelings in the usual sense of the word. It is rather the author’s nearest equivalent term to describe what we would nowadays call nondual perception anchored in the heart.

And he is indeed correct in calling it “love” because the energetic bandwidth in which the heart works is intimacy, the capacity to perceive things from the inside by coming into sympathetic resonance with them. Imagine! Centuries ahead of his time, the author is groping for metaphors to describe an entirely different mode of perceptivity.

Here is the key, I think, to our contemporary heart-searchings over theism and nontheism, Christian Quaker and universalist Quaker. If God is God, then by definition he is “beyond all definition of ours” (Samuel Fisher, 1661).

We are small and very temporary creatures on a small planet somewhere in the vast web of a universe thought to be in the region of 91 billion light-years in diameter, containing around 300 sextillion stars. How would we be able to hold in our dear and glittering minds the ground of all that being – and all that is, unimaginably, besides?

All we can do, it seems to me, is to keep silence, and wait. Only in the dark of that unknowing – that relinquishment of knowing – will come our own most real and lived experience, the presence and Light of that which is within and beyond us, as it is within and beyond all things. In itself it is No Thing, for it is without limit or beginning, and is not dependent; yet within it all things live, and move, and have their being – loved even, and held beyond time and distance.

All we can do is find some way – whether it be sinking down into the silence of our joined worship, down to the seed of which Isaac Penington spoke, or whether it be the a practice like watching the breath, centring prayer, or the Jesus Prayer or the Nembutsu – of ceasing to try and know or be or do anything, and let God’s Spirit come into the heart in God’s own time. All we can do is be still; all we can give is love.

Reading Qfp 20 – An Afterthought

To me, being a Christian is a particular way of life, not the unquestioning acceptance of a particular system of theology, not belief in the literal truth of the Virgin birth, or the Resurrection and Ascension, but being the kind of person that Jesus wanted his followers to be and doing the things he told them to do…

Nor, it seems to me, can you live a Christian life unless, like Jesus, you believe in the power of goodness, of justice, of mercy and of love; unless you believe in these so strongly that you are prepared to put them to the acid test of experiment; unless these constitute the real meaning of life for you, more important than life itself, as they were for Jesus.

Kathleen Lonsdale, 1967 – Qfp 20.26

From time to time I have been troubled by the fact that on the one hand, I find I have been led to live as a member of the Society of Friends; and on the other hand, my lifelong calling has been to pray the Jesus Prayer, a prayer which developed among the monastic communities of Egypt and Syria in the 4th century, and which is assumed, by all its teachers, to be prayed within a eucharistic community – i.e. a church.

The word “church” is very often taken to imply a community called together to worship God (from the Greek ἐκκλησία – ecclesia), and generally assumed to be equipped with creeds, dogma, and at least some formal practice of the Eucharist – Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper or whatever the local expression may be. But it was not always so, it seems. The very early church appears simply to have been a local community of worshippers, gathered together by a common love of Jesus and his teachings.

In this sense, the community of Friends fits the bill as well as any other – better, perhaps, than some for whom membership involves passing through some more or less stringent filter (catechism, statement of faith, etc.) of doctrine as a test of belonging.

I have written elsewhere of the “eucharistic community of silence” that is a Quaker meeting, and so I believe it to be. Cynthia Bourgeault writes of Jesus as a “recognition event” –

In the gospels, all the people who encountered Jesus only by hearsay, by what somebody else believed about him, by what they’d been told, by what they’d hoped to get out of him: all those people left. They still leave today. The ones that remained–and still remain–are the ones who have met him in the moment: in the instantaneous, mutual recognition of hearts and in the ultimate energy that is always pouring forth from this encounter.

In this sense, Kathleen Lonsdale’s “real meaning… more important than life itself, as they were for Jesus” carries the full weight of this shock of recognition – the unarguable, holy presence within the gathered meeting. More than that, the link she makes to the cross, the inescapable (Luke 9.23) link between “the power of goodness, of justice, of mercy and of love” and the death of the self, brings us to the heart of the meaning of the eucharist: the shock of recognition present, to the contemplative heart, in just the same way in communion as in the gathered meeting.

 

Sailing in the Fog

In her small book Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God, Cynthia Bourgeault quotes Dom Bede Griffiths as saying that there are three “pathways to the centre” the “innermost ground of our being where we meet and are met by God”: near-death experience, falling desperately in love, and meditation. She speaks of the “visceral remembrance of how vivid and abundant life is when the sense of separateness has dropped away”, but goes on to describe meditation as “go[ing] down to the same place, but by a back staircase deep within [our] own being.”

I’m aware of a slight gap in my posts here, and I can only ascribe that to a time of navigating in the mist. Cynthia Bourgeault, a little further on in her book than the Bede Griffiths quote, mentions the experience of sailing in the fog of the coast of Maine, and realising (as I have myself when I was young and spent time messing about in boats) that in the absence of a clear sight of one’s landfall other senses develop: the smell of land, the sound, and the feel beneath one’s feet, of the waves’ shortening and quickening near the shore. She draws a parallel with the spiritual life:

If egoic thinking [normal, everyday consciousness] is like sailing by reference to where you are not—by what is out there and up ahead—spiritual awareness is like sailing by reference to where you are. It is a way of “thinking” at a much more visceral level of yourself—responding to subtle intimations of presence too delicate to to pick up at your normal level of awareness, but which emerge like a sea swell from the ground of your being once you relax and allow yourself to belong deeply to the picture.

Bourgeault goes on to describe meditation (Christian contemplation, whether by centring prayer, the Jesus Prayer, or another similar method) as, once it is driven by “the yearning for truth [having] become… overwhelming in us, and we have the sense that everything done in the ordinary way of consciousness merely ends in lies and disillusionment”, wagering everything on the trust that there is this other sense in us, “that knows how to sail in the fog, see in the dark.”

We are so used, especially in our goal-oriented society, even among Friends all too often, to knowing, with our surface reasoning, where we are going and why, that sailing in the fog can seem like a fruitless, even foolhardy endeavour. But where we are going, if we truly are “yearning for truth”, cannot be found with binoculars, in the sunlight. There are so-called charts, but they are scribbles, like The Cloud of Unknowing, on the backs of envelopes, ‘x’ marks the spot on a scrap of salt-stained parchment, and in any case the sands have shifted over the long years and their tides. (I was amused to see, on Thesaurus.com, that one the antonyms listed for “reasoning” was “truth”!)

I have been growing used to sailing in the fog, sneaking down the back stairs of my mind. Sometimes I find it hard to have to pop up and start writing prose when I have been drifting like a seabird in the haar. Listen, the waves do change near landfall. Listen, you can smell the trees, the damp earth. But you must be very quiet, and stop straining your eyes in the mist.

It only costs everything…

There is nothing to be renounced or resisted. Everything can be embraced, but the catch is to cling to nothing. You let it go. You go through life like a knife goes through a done cake, picking up nothing, clinging to nothing, sticking to nothing. And grounded in that fundamental chastity of your being, you can then throw yourself out, pour yourself out, being able to give it all back, even giving back life itself. Very, very simple. It only costs everything.

Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus

On the face of it, this could seem almost self-delusory, characterising oneself, perhaps, as some kind of spiritual ninja. But it needs to be balanced by something else Cynthia Bourgeault once wrote:

Mercy is the length and breadth and height and depth of what we know of God—and the light by which we know it. You might even think of it as the Being of God insofar as we can possibly penetrate into it in this life, so that it is impossible to encounter God apart from the dimension of mercy.

The choice of term may seem a bit odd. Today “mercy”—along with so many other classic words in our spiritual tradition—has developed a negative connotation. It seems to suggest power and condescension, a transaction between two vastly unequal parties. A friend of mine, in fact, was told by her spiritual director that she should not pray the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” the mainstay of Eastern Orthodox contemplative spirituality—because “it reinforces medieval stereotypes of paternalism and powerlessness.” Modern people, this spiritual director felt, need to be told that they are worthy, “that they can stand on their own two feet before God.”

But the word “mercy” comes profoundly attested to in our Judeo-Christian spiritual heritage. Aside from the fact that the Jesus Prayer, hallowed by two millennia of Christian practice, has been consistently singled out… as the most powerful prayer a Christian can pray, we simply cannot get away from the Mercy without getting away from the Bible as well. The word confronts us at every turn, as a living reality of our faith…

From the outside, the Quaker way might seem to some to be inclined towards “stand[ing] on [our] own two feet before God” (something that has always seemed profoundly silly to me – I mean, have you ever glimpsed the living God in prayer or worship?) but consider this from one of our founders, George Fox, writing in 1652:

Friends, whatever ye are addicted to, the tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then you are gone. Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and then doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the Light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone; and then content comes.

You will see that Fox is saying something very similar to Cynthia Bourgeault’s first passage. Content comes not in rejecting, or attempting to drive away our temptations – whether from the world around us, or from our own hungry hearts – but from surrendering to God in the midst of them. Perfectly simple, only “costing not less than everything” as Eliot says at the very end of Four Quartets:

Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.