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Centering Prayer ~ Silence and (part 3) Friendship with God


Centering Prayer and the Need for Silence in our Lives (Part three) Friendship with God

In the past two issues of this Blog on Centering Prayer, we looked at the basics at how to get into it. In this one, we go a little deeper to take a look at where Centering Prayer is leading—towards real abiding friendship with God at the center of our being. I turn here to another book by Episcopalian priest Cynthia Bourgeault Wisdom Jesus. It was recommended by Father Bill Sheehan, O.M.I. at the last retreat I made with him this past January at the Passionist Retreat Center in North Palm Beach, Florida, He quoted extensively from it and I will do so here. (The image above is Father Bill teaching a group at that retreat with the traditional Passionist cross in the background. I captured the image but was a little nervous because I didn’t want to disturb the proceedings. Father Bill was at the moment talking about Cynthia Bourgeault’s teachings.

In her first chapter, she gives a bit of her story and says that she needed to learn not what to seek but how to seek.”

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks again and again throughout the gospels. Which really means, according to Bourgeault, “Who or what in you recognizes me?

In West civilization, we all grew up with the notion of St. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin that had so pervaded Protestant and Catholic teaching that many of us grew up with a sense of man’s depravity rather than goodness,

This mindset still can have a powerful hold on us today. I recall a dear old lady-friend telling me she couldn’t receive communion because “She flatuated and enjoyed it.” Now, that’s a bit of scrupulosity but it’s an indication of what Cynthia is saying here. This lady thought such a minor thing was a sin that would make her liable for the fires of hell!

And Cynthia was saying that when she gives Centering Prayer workshops, she’s utterly dismayed that when she speaks of the divine indwelling (“The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,” someone in the audience vigorously corrects her.

In the East, there was not a soteriology—a theology that Jesus is Savior—but a sophiology—a word that has its root in wisdom.

Later, Cynthia tells us that for the earliest Christians Jesus was not Savior but Life-Giver.

“In the original Aramaic of Jesus and his followers there was no word for salvation. Salvation was understood as a bestowal of life, and to be saved was to be made alive.”(p.21.)

 Bourgeault suggests this may seem strange to us, maybe even heretical. As the evidence is collected from the Gospel of Thomas, and the Nag Hammadi collection, from the Syriac liturgies, from the African desert fathers and mothers, from Celtic poetry, the same sophiological messages emerge.

The point is that the primary task of the Christian is not belief in theological premises but to put on the mind of Christ. In the West—both in Catholicism and in much of Protestantism our emphasis is on correct dogmatic teaching. (Perhaps we ought to re-think the recitation of the Nicean Creed at Mass on Sundays for something that reflects, “putting on the mind of Christ?)

The Hebrew equivalent Life-Giver is da’arth—the same word used for “love-making”—as in “David entered Bathsheba’s tent ‘knew’ her.”

The Greek word Gnosis is used in the New Testament and St. Paul uses it repeatedly to describe the intimate experiences of being known in Christ. (Throughout my blog writings, it has been my fervent hope and prayer to draw my readers into a closer friendship with Jesus. To get to know and love him personally and richly.)

Now let’s fix Jesus geographically because this is important to his education. Jesus grew up in Galilee. The Silk Road ran right through Capernaum where Jesus did a lot of his learning and teaching. He would’ve been exposed to a lot of ideas—as Cynthia says seemed “as the New Age of the time.” She thinks he “soaked up spiritual teaching like a sponge.” Jesus was his own person, doing his own thinking, but his mind was expanded beyond his Jewish upbringing to include other spiritual traditions that were brought to him from traders on the Silk Road, particularly Buddhism and Persian light mysticism. (p.25.)

Now let’s take a look at this teaching of Jesus from the Gospel of St. Luke . . . .

 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  Do to others as you would have them do to you. [ . . . .]  “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.  And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.  But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

In this passage we can see the“razor edge of Jesus’ brilliance”, as Cynthia puts it. He’s transforming proverbs into parables. A parable is not a moral lesson—the closest thing to it is a Zen koan—as I’ve offered before in my Blogs—“a deliberately subversive paradox aimed at turning our usual mind upside down.” One of her colleagues referred to parables as “spiritual hand grenades;” their job is not to confirm but to uproot.

Throughout all four gospels, we hear people saying, “Where did he get this teaching? Where did he come from? No one ever said anything like this before.”

Jesus response to these questions was always the same: “Come and see.” And this will be true for us as well as we complete our journey through Centering Prayer—and this the point of this third and final blog on this subject.

Within his Near Eastern context he emerges as a fully attuned, even cosmopolitan teacher, yet recognized fully to his Hebrew audience. We begin to see it’s not proverbs for every day living or ways of being virtuous that he’s laying before us.

No. “He’s proposing a total meltdown and recasting of human consciousness, bursting through the tiny acorn selfhood that we arrived on the planet with into an oak tree of our full realized personhood. (p.27,)

So the question is: How do we put on the mind of Christ? How do we see through his eyes? How do we learn to think and feel as Jesus did? Or as a friend has on his email address, “WWJD”—What would Jesus do? Or as I have often prayed, “let your Body and mine become as one and your Blood course through my bloodstream.”

Ms. Bourgeault is saying that, “Putting on the mind of Christ is what Christian orthodoxy is really all about. “It’s not about right belief; it’s about right practice!

So what about the phrase Jesus uses, “The kingdom of heaven is within you?” “”The kingdom of heaven is at hand?” That is, it’s here, now. “You don’t die into it; you awaken into it,” Cynthia suggests.

Where is it then? Relying on a colleague of hers, Jim Marion—and this makes a lot of sense to me—the Kingdom of Heaven is a metaphor for a state of consciousness; it’s not a place you go to, but a place you come from. It’s what we would call today non-dual consciousness or unitive consciousness, which sees no separation—not between God and humans and not between humans and other humans.

I have a major piece of writing on this, called “Spirituality in the Balance” as opposed to Either-or Spirituality that has a tendency to cause unhealthy splits in human behavior. I’d like to enter some of it here . . . .

The curse which affects all of us is dualism, which pervades both Church and Society.   It is also the curse of a deceptive spirituality. Earlier in my writings I wrote, I “was inwardly split ~ torn apart by two opposing forces,” In that, I embody the culture. My struggle has roots common to us all. Diabolein—to dispel or disperse—is a force that wants to tear us asunder—personally, ecclesially and societally. Dualism has been with us for a long time, running through the works of Plato, then Augustine, down to the present time. Symbolein—to draw together—is the opposite of diabolein and is a positive force. What we need is a “Both—And ” spirituality, both inside and outside the church that draws us toward wholeness and that sees that disparate elements contain each other and each has value.

Both—And is the spirituality of God and Jesus:

God has given us the wisdom

to understand fully the mystery,

the plan he was pleased to decree in Christ.

A plan to be carried out

in Christ, in the fullness of time,

to bring all things into one in him,

in the heavens and on the earth.  

            (Ephesians 1:8-10)

And again:

It pleased God to make absolute fullness reside in him

and, by means of him, to reconcile everything in his person,

Both on earth and in the heavens,

making peace through the blood of his cross.

                        (Colossians 1:19-20.)

The political scene in our country is split wide apart. Factions and divisions abound. We grow very weary of this. Government grinds to a halt by a refusal to cooperate. And then can we ever get beyond the dualism of pro-life and pro-choice so that there can be real healing? (This written in 2004!)

The Church also sees its factions and divisions. We become scandalized.

In our selves, we are often torn between “either / or” polarities.   Should we end a bad marriage? Should we get out of an oppressive job? We get discouraged.

Jesus is Redeemer of both the left and the right—and both darkness and light. No one captures all of the truth, except Jesus. He’s the Stillpoint, the center of the whole universe and all of us who are contained therein! He calls each of us to wholeness and holiness.

Consider the following sets of antitheses:

Both body and soul. Soul and body. We are human, after all, which is to be known as being a body and a soul; we are neither pure flesh nor pure spirit. We must learn to tend to both body and soul.

Both good and bad . . . Bad and good. There would not be good without bad, nor bad without good. Those who say there is no bad within them are hypocrites (they like to portray themselves as filled with truth and light. and, therefore, can be evil incarnate. The hypocrites crucified Jesus; they still do.)

Church and world . . . World and church. There would not be church without world, and the world needs the church to call it back to God.

Left and right . . .Right and left.   A person who is missing one of his arms misses something important. A church that does not embrace left and right misses part of the truth. So, too, a politic that does not embrace both left and right also misses part of the truth.

Sin and grace . . . Grace and sin. Jesus teaches us that it is the one who realizes he is a sinner is the one who is open to grace.

Spirituality and sexuality . . .Sexuality and spirituality. Every one of us has a body, and by that reason, are sexual beings, whether we are celibate or not. Spirituality needs a wholesome sexuality and sexuality needs spirituality to be redeemed and meaningful.

Heaven and earth . . . earth and heaven. As we strive for heaven, a place of bliss and fulfillment we remain rooted in our earthiness — “Dust thou art and unto dust we shall return.”

And finally to top off our reflection on all this . . . .

Cynthia shows us that Jesus’ most beautiful symbol for this in his teaching is in John 15 when he says,

“I am the vine; you are the branches, Abide in me as I in you. A few verse later, he says, As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love.”

There is no separation between humans and God, which expresses the indivisibility of divine love. We flow into God—and God into us because it is the nature of love to flow.

And our final word will be from St. Paul . . . .

For this reason I kneel before the Father,  from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,  so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,  may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,  and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:14-19)

But before you go, here’s the full version of the Eucharistic hymn, Adoro Te Devote as it’s sung accompanying a Eucharistic procession in a Latin country with English subtitles. Click here.

With love, 

Bob Traupman

Contemplative Writer

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