Cynthia Bourgealt: Encountering the Wisdom Jesus
Tami Simon: You’re listening to “Insights at the Edge.” Today my guest is Reverend Cynthia Bourgeault. Cynthia is the principal teacher and advisor to the Contemplative Society and the founding director of the Aspen Wisdom School. She is an Episcopal priest, a teacher of prayer, and a retreat and conference leader. She passionately promotes the practice of Centering Prayer, and has worked closely with Father Thomas Keating, Bruno Barnhart, Richard Rohr, as well as many other contemplative teachers and masters within Christianity and other spiritual traditions.
Cynthia is the author of the The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming An Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart and Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, and with Sounds True, a six-session learning series on Encountering the Wisdom Jesus: Quickening the Kingdom of Heaven Within as well as an audio program on Singing the Psalms: How to Chant in the Contemplative Christian Tradition.
In this episode of “Insights at the Edge,” Cynthia and I spoke about kenosis, or self-emptying, as the center point of Jesus’s message, how we can understand Jesus’s life as a sacrament, and how love lives beyond death. Here’s my conversation with the very intelligent and brilliant Cynthia Bourgeault.
In Encountering the Wisdom Jesus, you talk about Jesus as a recognition event. Can you tell me what you mean by the term “a recognition event”?
Cynthia Bourgeault: What I mean by this term is that perhaps the biggest [misunderstanding] that Christianity makes is to approach Jesus with 20/20 hindsight, that since about the fourth century we’ve approached him by what we believe about him, by creeds that are polished, that are crammed into our heads, and so it gives us the sense that we know the story. But when early people who were attracted by his message first heard him, they didn’t have resources. They didn’t have the canons, creeds, and proper things, and they had to decide for themselves, by either recognizing something in themselves that corresponded [to him], [something] that they could see as true, or not.
And this is an interesting point, it’s exactly the way we recognize teachers today. That it’s something in your heart that in the moment has to say “yay” or “nay” to an idea, a presence, a person, before you.
TS: And what was your own recognition experience? How did that happen for you? What did you recognize?
CB: With Jesus?
TS: Yes, with Jesus.
CB: Yes, well, it happened totally by accident when I went to what I thought was a Sunday morning concert at an Episcopal church, and found myself in a communion line. I hadn’t at this point a clue what communion was, and I was just more afraid of the usher than I was of damnation by taking the bread and the wine perhaps illegitimately. So I went up, and by copying the rest of the people in the reception line, I received my first, completely bootleg communion.
On my way back to my pew, I was like, “Oh, I get it. I know this person.” And it was very small and subtle, but it was a very clear understanding. And I give it some credibility because I was so totally ill-informed, or uninformed; I was totally a liturgical virgin at that point. So something from deep within that presence engaged my presence.
There’s a line in one of the Psalms that says: “One deep calls to another.” And it was that kind of an experience.
TS: So even though it was subtle, I’m curious if you could describe in more detail what it was that you felt.
CB: Well, it was just a kind of “Oh, there you are!” Just a sort of sense that I’d finally met something absolutely real, and that it was the piece that I had been missing in my life for 20 years—I was 20 years old at the time. It’s just like reality when [you] “clunk!” into a new level. You know, it wasn’t like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, or falling down or being slayed in the spirit; it was just an understanding that the whole level of reality was true and a bit perceivable.
TS: Now, in Encountering the Wisdom Jesus, you make the statement that everything about the path of Jesus and the practice of what he taught centers around kenosis, or emptying oneself, self-emptying. What is that? Can you describe that?
CB: Well, the Greek word kenosis is used in that famous hymn in the New Testament that Paul uses in Philippians. And from the context clues, it means very clearly nonclinging. The text goes something like, “Though his state was that of God, yet he didn’t deem equality with God as something he should cling to, rather he emptied himself.” There’s the kenosis word: “Therefore he emptied himself and assuming the state of a slave, was born in human likeness.”
So the idea is that it’s not airy-fairy; it doesn’t mean any kind of great making of oneself [into] nothing, existentially and metaphysically. It doesn’t talk about any state of altered consciousness. It’s just simple, what the Buddhists would call nonclinging.
TS: How is this made real in your life, this act of self-emptying?
CB: It cuts across the board. It begins in my practice of centering prayer, where the meditational form that we use in centering prayer is simply the letting go of the thoughts as they come. For me, the self-emptying or nonclinging is really about letting go and loosening the grip—loosening at the simplest level, the grip that you have on a thought when you are meditating. You know, the thought comes up and you let it go. And that’s the method of centering prayer. So the centering prayer is a meditational form of kenosis.
And then when you move into life, it simply very much is recognizing when you are stuck in a position of insisting or clinging or identifying, or putting your need or will against a situation, so that what you are doing is imposing on the situation and resisting. And it’s simply a matter of letting go. It doesn’t even mean renouncing, like pushing away; it’s much closer to what the folks in Alcoholics Anonymous call “being willing to have it taken away.” So it’s going through life, situationally, with a nonpossessive attitude.
TS: Now of course this all sounds wonderful, and there are many instances when I can imagine just letting go as you are describing, but I’m curious, how do you work with situations where it seems like there’s something that has a hold of you, more so than you are even holding on to it? It just doesn’t seem like it wants to let go, despite our best efforts.
CB: Well, I don’t know. It’s been awhile since I’ve found such a situation. You know, I’ve been at this for a very long time. Whether it’s an obsession, a compulsion, or an addition, there’s always—you know, it takes two to touch. If you are able to release—and once again it doesn’t mean renouncing. It means recognizing from what amounts to a witnessing place, but a witness that’s not carried in the mind, but deeper in the body and the heart. Just seeing the thing go rolling by, and if there’s no “you” there, it can’t really catch you.
TS: Now, in this teaching on kenosis, you make a link that I found extremely intriguing, and filled me with ideas I’d never had before, which was an explanation of the Trinity within the Christian faith as an icon as self-emptying love. I’d love if you could just slowly, Cynthia, be gentle with us, and explain this for our listeners.
CB: Yes. Well, you have to deconstruct the Trinity first, because most people, if they’ve heard of it at all, they think about it as three points—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and that it’s used to explain in some way that nobody can really figure out, how a man Jesus can also be a god, but not the same God as God, and not the same God as the spirit.
So all the emphasis is on trying to define the persons, but what the tradition has always said is that you’ve got to think of the Trinity in movement. It talks about a flow of relationship, of love, and that these three persons are just the points in the direction that the love flows. So the tradition has always said that the Father self-empties—and it’s the same word kenosis—in the Son, and the Son self-empties into spirit, and the Spirit self-empties into Father. So what you’ve got is kind of a great circle, in which each one moves into the other by practicing this letting-go love.
And so the tradition says that these constant things—and I always kind of imagine a paddle wheel on the Mississippi River steamer, where one bucket sort of flows into a bucket that flows into another, and that turns the paddle wheel that creates the energy. And the energy is about love. So what the Trinity really does when you are looking at it not like a frozen kind of theological mantra, but as a bundle of how love moves, it talks about how this great interpenetrating love flows between the forms.
You know, God is what you’d call “pure formlessness,” and Jesus is like total human, total form, and spirit is somewhere in the energy. So it talks about love by this constant self-giving motion—[that’s what] I practice in my meditation, and that connects and interpenetrates and interconnects the realms. So it’s a wonderful, wonderful dynamic metaphor of “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form,” caught in the act of creating form out of emptiness, and emptiness out of form, by applying this same self-giving love.
TS: Once again, because it helps my understanding, and because to be honest with you, I’ve never really had a good embodied and rich appreciation of the Trinity and it’s something that I’d really like, can you describe how this movement, this dynamism, this paddle wheel of love, works in you, in some way that can make it more real for me?
CB: Well, I think that you don’t have to look any further than your own breathing. You draw in a breath, and you draw out a breath. And where does it come from? And we live all our life slightly asymmetrically. Someone whacks us and we draw in a first breath, and then there’s this final out-breath at our death, and another breath is not drawn in.
The great mystics and the Sufis and the teachers—and it doesn’t even take advanced mystical practice to really see that you are constantly being breathed through. And that some life, from some form and some place that is not of your biological making, is constantly in your being, and connecting you on all levels. And we are very aware of energetic reality. We know of connections, nonlocalized actions of the heart, which I know that without too much effort, I can just open my heart and be present to my grandkids in Hong Kong.
So love is always carrying us and carrying me between various forms of solidity. You know, like my cat is here and I pat her. So that’s love experienced in form. But where does my breath come from? And how can love from halfway across the planet be so real? So you know, we are always in our life drawing our subsistence, our sustenance, and giving back the stuff of our life—our creativity, our will, our energy, our commitment—along the whole gamut of embodiment. From very, very physical and tangible and mechanical, to much more nonlocalized. And we’ve done it since the get-go, but only in recent centuries are we able to talk about it in terms that aren’t just incomprehensibly mystical.
TS: And when you take something like the breathing process and you understand it in terms of the principle of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, can you make that explicit for me?
CB: I would say that the names—I mean, I think that you have to just take the eraser out and erase the names, because they have connotations for you. But if you take “Father” as being love in a formless state; “Son” as being love in form, here he is in a body; and spirit being love in energetic form, then the Trinity is really talking about how all these loves are moving as a single continuous flow through all the realms. So it’s not like a classic entry into form and exit of it of the perennial philosophy, but in every minute and in every nanosecond, all dimensions of reality are exchanging along a whole line of the most manifest to the most unmanifest. And I think the Trinity just gives a wonderful personal way of picturing that.
TS: You go into quite some detail about Jesus’s life itself as a teaching, of what you call a sacrament, that we could read his life as a sacrament. What does that mean?
CB: At the simplest level, it means he walked the talk—and that we’ve talked about kenosis, about the letting go, and he modeled it consistently. It’s the theme of most every teaching, every parable, and in the end it became the path he walked when he was faced with the choice of resistance, or fleeing or yielding at one level, of surrendering or self-emptying into the power structure that had him cornered, to make the point at another level, that there’s something more powerful than the forces of this world. So his whole life is a living example of kenosis in motion.
And what the Church has done—and it’s been one of the better things it’s done over 2,000 years of pondering and living with the personhood of Jesus writ large—is it’s kind of broken up our approach to him into times, seasons in his life, which are experienced in a deep way annually in seasons in the Church year. And each one of these seasons contains a mystery that if you explore it and integrate it in your own being, you discover a little bit more about the path that he was teaching. You discover where it lives in yourself, and you develop a deepening intimacy with him and with the reality that he is connected to at that level.
So there’s a season around his birth, which is called incarnation, where we really get to ponder what it means that full divinity takes form and lives in human form. So that divinity doesn’t overpower or eliminate form, but form can live within it, like the bush that burns but is not consumed, which is an Old Testament image for that. And then you have a season where you look at the Paschal mystery, which is the heart of the Christian year where we really try to understand how one willingly gives oneself up to death, and where one comes out on the other end, which is the resurrection part.
And then in the season of the church year that we’re living right now, we are just coming up on Ascension and Pentecost, which is getting used to how the resurrection of the person really works and how one stays in continuous communion with something that doesn’t have physical embodiment anymore, at least gross physical embodiment.
So that’s what I mean, that if you give yourself to these slices of his life reinforced by the liturgical season when it’s happening, there’s much to learn about the real metaphysics of Christianity—how Christianity understands the relationship between the infinite and the finite to be working itself out.
TS: Well, of course what you are saying is—there’s so much in it, Cynthia, and I wonder if we can just break it down a little bit. You’ve worked so deeply with each phase of the major points of Jesus’s life as a sacrament, and starting with the incarnation, you talk here about this relationship between the infinite and the finite, about how difficult incarnation can be, how hard it can be for the infinity to take a finite form. And I’m wondering if you can say some more about that.
CB: Yes. I love what Bernadette Roberts said at one point—you know, that wonderful Christian mystic. She said crucifixion wasn’t the problem, because that’s just divinity going back home; she said it was incarnation that was the bitch!
But yes, it’s very interesting that Christianity—I think incarnation is its strong suit, but by and large it does the right things for the wrong reasons. It knows there’s something very important about this: “The word became flesh and dwelled among us,” as it says in the prologue to the Gospel of John.
But much of Christianity, and in fact most of the world religions that come from about that period in time, the whole axial religion phases, all have in common that there’s this idea that there’s something really flawed with this dimension of form. Whether it’s illusion or sin or exile, pick your poison, but most of the religions set this world up as a bad scene that you’ve got to get out of as fast as possible—whether it’s a finishing school, or pay off your karma and run, or realize its manifest illusoriness, or whatever. But there’s very few cultures, except for aboriginal cultures, that see anything of real beauty and dignity and seriousness here.
But I think implicit in Christianity is the capacity to say, “Yes, [this world is] not only beautiful and dignified, but so precious. [It is] to be explored or learned or experienced or made manifest from God, of what the heart of God really looks like. It can only be made manifest at this particular level of density and form.” Because this is so hard, Jesus comes to accompany us, and to not only point the way, but in a very deep way light the way so that we don’t collapse these conditions into a kind of unitive, shadowless, undifferentiated oneness. Because there’s something very, very deep and very precious about the quality of love that is manifest of the brokenness of this sphere.
TS: Now when you say that Jesus comes to accompany us, what do you mean by that?
CB: We might give up hope otherwise. It seems that if you live genuinely in this life, you have your heart broken. And that if you protect your heart, you don’t live genuinely. And I think that what he shows us with his deep conviction, and with his lived experience, is that love and true personhood are greater than death. He shows us that it’s OK to live at the depth of vulnerability and passion and authenticity and sincerity and have your heart broken, because it isn’t the end of the story.
And that you know, as I experienced myself when I had my accidental communion back there when I was twenty, is that it’s not just a demonstration—he doesn’t come to be an Einstein for us to applaud. The quality of the love that takes up the gap between the outer edge of what we can do as human beings and what’s there to meet us, is somehow in a band that’s covered by him, that he’s there in a deep and steadfast way. When one reaches out, with one’s heart broken and crushed, yet one’s spirit yearning, one meets an infinite tenderness in Christianity that we identify as the living Christ.
TS: I want to talk to you about the different aspects of Jesus’s life as a sacrament, but before I do, I just have a question, because it seems that each one of these aspects of his life that we are talking about are interpreted so differently by different people. And personally, I like your interpretation; it’s exciting to me, it opens worlds of discovery, but yet the same life story has so many different interpretations. You’re offering what works for you. I mean, how do you understand that?
CB: I think one of the most useful tools that has been given to us recently is Ken Wilber’s differentiation between the line of religion and the level of it. And that any given tradition can be expressed at any level, from your mythical and your magical, up through your mythic membership, to your rational, to your integral, and on beyond into your nondual.
Christianity has by and large settled, and I think it was a tragic mistake when it did it, it settled and it kind of reified itself at what you would call the mythic membership level, sometimes heading down into magic. And very, very early on in its Christian life, it demonized what would be its nondual edge—call it Gnosticism—and ridiculed it, and this characteristic exists to this day.
So the understandings of Christianity from a much more nondual and much more unitive basis, which was the basis that Jesus himself was coming from, those ideas have always been out there. But there’s not a very auspicious history of the folks that gave these other stories, if you look at Meister Eckhart or Hildegard of Bingen, or the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, who wrote anonymously so that he didn’t get thrown on the fires. Christianity has been perversely insistent on reifying its fundamentalist edge as the only game in town, and that still goes on today.
And what so often happens, since that’s the level that has all the talk shows and basically is the most influential in putting its message out, is that a lot of people have no idea that there’s any gamut at all, that there’s any spectrum of interpretations. They’ve heard of atonement theology such as “Jesus died for your sins,” and they don’t realize that that’s really one of a whole spectrum of positions, some of which are much more luminous.
And so some of the work that I’ve been trying to do is to network and just get the word out that there are other positions. I’m not making them up out of thin air; I’ve got my sort of visionary side, I don’t deny it, but the stuff that I’m coming up with, I’m really just putting new spins on stuff that’s actually been in the tradition from the first century, right through the mystical tradition, but people are just not aware that it’s there.
TS: So you’re digging it out and bringing a fresh language and imagery to it.
CB: Exactly. In a great book called Roots of Christian Mysticism by an Eastern Orthodox writer, Olivier Clement, he says his issue is not to justify Christianity but to make it known in the first place. Because so many people are just dealing with caricatures that they don’t understand, and they don’t have access to the places where the great, living, transformational, and mystical texts are actually there, hidden in plain sight.
TS: In that spirit, making it known, we’ll go back to Jesus’s life itself as a teaching. What for you has been the most important lessons from Jesus’s betrayal and his execution on the cross?
CB: For me, the lesson has to do with the voluntary nature of it. The understanding that for most of us, the survival instinct is so strong in us, and that finally defines the limit of our being. We can be magnanimous, we can be friendly, we can be very spiritual, until the moment when our ass is on the line and then bang! It’s backtrack fast. And what is constantly reassuring to me is the realization that when you go through that and you don’t take that as the bottom line, and you don’t deter from love because of your fear for your own life, that continuance exists, because love becomes the stronger principle.
I saw that once again in my own teacher in his death. And I’ve seen it of course in all the great ones. It’s the reminder that this kenotic path is not a luxury you apply during the time in your life when you’re trying to be spiritual, but is really the attitude of soul and body that takes you through the things that most terrify you.
TS: Now, you made a sort of interesting little aside there that I want to follow up on, when you said, “I saw that in my own teacher in his death.” Can you tell us a little bit about that?
CB: Well yes, just a little. He knew that there was nothing that was formally diagnosed, but we both knew for the last three months of his life that he was coming down to the end. And he didn’t resist; he continued to work teaching me. He said that he wanted to, as he put it, “share in the sufferings of Christ.” In the voluntary giving back of what’s been given to you, there’s a luminosity that certainly radiates back in yourself, but is also of benefit to the whole planet. And it was just so gorgeous of him that there was no way that he could shrink from the consummation of it in his own life.
TS: Now, being nailed up to a cross doesn’t sound very voluntary. What was the voluntary part here that you’re emphasizing?
CB: Well, the voluntary part was not to get the hell out of town two days before. You know, there would have been plenty of opportunity to resist, to strike deals, to coerce, to betray in any sort of ways. But the tradition has made clear that the whole part of it that takes place classically in the scriptures in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus has a good long meditation and wrestles with the Father and he says, “Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me. Not my will, but thine be done,” is how the text runs.
So the tradition has always held that he agreed to this, that there was nothing taken that caught him unaware or took him unwillingly. That he understood in a deep way that this was in a sense what he’d come for, because without the ability and the capacity to give himself back in this way, that everything he would be teaching would be just fair-weather Christianity.
TS: Now, I’m curious once again in your own life, have you ever found yourself at that type of crossroads where you felt that you had to overcome a survival instinct that was maybe at play, and choose love? Something dramatic, something interesting?
CB: Well, I remember, not in huge ways, but I think the decision to leave Colorado and go to a very, very sketchy and high-risk seat of your pants [situation] in British Columbia was that kind of an example, where every part of me wanted to stay with my familiar ground and the place where my teacher had been. But there was a knowing that if I did that, it was essentially aborting my capacity to move deeper into love, and that I had to let go and trust it. And I did. And my life changed.
TS: Ah, that’s interesting when you say “move deeper into love.” Somehow going to British Columbia you knew included that? Tell me about that.
CB: Moving deeper into love is simply the opposite of resisting. So it’s not like there was something out there that was calling me, that I could go running toward and say, “This is my life, this is my passion, I’m coming toward you.” It had a very sort of gray and foggy quality, like setting out on your boat when you can’t see across the harbor. But the opposite of resistance is love.
TS: Yes. Yes. OK, so now moving into the next phase of Jesus’s life as a sacrament, the resurrection, how is that meaningful to you, and in what language?
CB: Well, not in the language that the Church has settled on. It was about the third century that the Church decided that the resurrection meant the resurrection of the body, that the fully enfleshed Jesus got up out of the grave and walked about.
But the earlier Church hedged its bets on that, and what they believed in absolutely was the resurrection of the person. They knew absolutely that the Jesus that they’d given up for dead was alive, vital, present, and intimately with them. And they spoke of different forms in which he manifested his presence. For some, like in the story in Thomas, “I carry fully and flesh body.” But you know he sometimes also just had a visual appearance, like for Mary Magdalene. And sometimes there was no real appearance at all; there was just a certainty that he was there, such as for the beloved disciple in witnessing the empty tomb. Saint Paul talks with no hesitation whatsoever about the resurrection body.
So what resurrection means for me is that a person who has achieved a full individuality through conscious work in this life, with grace and with a need to do so, is still present to this life. They don’t disappear, they don’t dematerialize, they don’t go away, or go into cold storage like some of our images have. But there is a vibrant reality of life that continues what looks like the end at this level, and that as we begin to live out of the vibrant reality—you know my teacher said to me shortly before he died, he said, “You have to find within you that which already lives beyond death, and start to live out of it now, because that’s the only way you can live a life on this earth.” And he’s so right. But for me, the resurrection is about the absolute triumph that truly realized personhood trumps death, and trumps physical dissolution and decay.
TS: How do you experience Jesus’s presence? I know it’s a personal question. You seem to be rolling with my personal questions, and I really appreciate that.
CB: Well, you know there’s a warm, tender band of presence that has just sort of gradually grown over the years, since before I was 20, because I at least recognized the person when I met him. It’s a presence; it’s a presence among other presences. There are many that are no longer in the body that I know with distinct and significant presences. But his is a kind of master field of love that holds these presences together, yet while being personally himself.
TS: And in terms of connecting to what in you is deathless, what does that feel like to you? You mentioned that your teacher said to you that we need to find what in ourselves is beyond death. What does that feel like in you? What is beyond death in you?
CB: It’s not substantially different from what any number of teachers who talk about present-moment awareness say. It’s a sense of a kind of infinite depth dimension flowing through the river of time, which gives things a vibrancy. I can’t say anything other than just a depth dimension to the now.
TS: OK. Now, as part of the series Encountering the Wisdom Jesus, you also talk about various practices. You talk about centering prayer, about lectio divina, and about some other practices that people may be familiar with. And you offer something that I’d never heard of before, which something called the Welcoming Practice, and I wondered if you can share what that is.
CB: Well, that was developed within the Contemplative Outreach Network as a companion piece to Centering Prayer. It was developed in the late eighties and early nineties by a woman named Mary Mrozowski, who was for many years a close associate of Thomas Keating.
She worked to actually create an active component so that you could take the letting-go attitude that you practice during the Centering Prayer Meditation, and practice it situationally when you get what the Buddhists call “unseated,” either by an afflictive physical or emotional ailment, or by the opposite, by your peacock feathers, by that sort of sleazy feeling of satisfaction when your false-self system has been appeased. So it’s a way that combines the biofeedback technique of being deeply present in your body with that letting-go attitude that welcomes the sensation of the moment, and then lets go of our false-self desires to make it other than it is.
TS: OK, so let’s say I’m in a moment when I’m feeling my peacock feathers coming out and strutting their stuff, and I know it’s a little fishy. What would I do?
CB: What you would do is start by becoming very aware of where in the body that is manifesting. So you just go and be present, and bring your attention inside to what is happening in your body. And without trying to change it or edit it, you just go live in it. Then you begin to say very quietly, “Welcome, peacock feathers, welcome.”
The whole idea—a lot of people think it’s crazy, why would you welcome something that you’re trying to get rid of, that you see as a problem? But what this is really doing is that you are backing into witnessing consciousness when you do this. What you are saying is, that what lives with you as sensation in this moment, you as conscious witness can wrap yourself around. So that is what the welcoming does; it restores the wholeness of what was a broken field when your emotional reactivity got out of control.
And then when it begins to calm down, you go back and forth between being aware of where you are, and the sensation in the body, and the light, naming welcoming. Then you begin to say, “I let go.” You can say, “I let go of this peacock feather,” but Mary also liked to do a litany that I think is neat, once you know what it is about. Whether it was a physical or an emotional thing, or whether it was pain or peacock feathers, she always said, “I let go of my desire for security and survival. I let go of my desire for power and control. I let go of my desire for affection and esteem. I let go of my desire to change the situation.” This is what Thomas Keating has called the energy centers that run the false self-system. So she said she liked to use everything that came on her plate as an opportunity to send the false self a strong message, that these needs, which lead us around in our life like a chain in our nose, are not really compatible with human freedom.
TS: And as you mentioned, in our survival instincts that are biologically wired, we’re actually letting go of some of our biological drives here. We’re moving up in a sense, yes?
CB: Yes. Consciousness is a wonderful evolutionary principle.
TS: Finally, moving into the end of our conversation, one of the other practices that you mention is chanting the Psalms, signing the Psalms. You’ve done quite a bit of work, creating a book and a program with Sounds True on how to chant in the Christian contemplative tradition. Can you say a little bit about this, how you were introduced to signing the Psalms?
CB: I got introduced to this by going to monasteries. When I first went to my favorite monastery at St. Benedict’s in Snowmass, Colorado, and then out in Big Sur, California, at New Camaldoli, [I saw that] it’s classic monastic practice. And it’s been in the tradition from time immemorial, and it’s chanted. This is really, I believe—to talk about it not theologically but just descriptively—it’s the Christian yoga. It’s the place where we’re working with breath and tone, in full embodiment of devotion, and the Psalms have been the classic text in the Christian tradition from the very start. To do this very important embodied dimension that really connects all in one place—the yearning, the prayer, and the embodiment.
TS: Now, signing obviously has some level of embodiment, but to compare it to yoga, where you’re moving in different postures, what gives it that real physicality?
CB: It’s the yoga of the breath. And basically all the spiritual traditions work with breath. And particularly when you look at what was the classic work with Gregorian chant, which for more than a thousand years was the way the Psalmody was sung in the monastic career, you’re working with very extended out-breaths. So you’re working with intentional, artificial breathing patterns that have extended out breaths. And the amount of work that has to be done—there’s also a whole science of placing the sounds correctly in the chest, throat, and in the vocal cavities, so that your whole body becomes a vibrant, resonating chamber for the divine sacred words. So the asanas may not be outward, but they certainly are a good word for the subtle energy centers.
TS: And do you do this just as part of your practice? You’ll chant the Psalms, sign a psalm by yourself?
CB: Oh, yes. As soon as we finish our conversation, that’s what I’ll do next.
TS: Would you be willing as part of our conversation to sign a brief piece of a Psalm?
CB: Well, let’s see what’s up to bat tonight. Ah, yes, I’d be OK to do that if you’d like me to.
TS: I would!
CB: And once again, you’ll be able to see that being an operatic star is not a requirement. I will chant you a little bit of the Psalm for Friday evening because it’s a lovely Psalm—Psalm 138.
[Sings] “I thank you Lord, with all thy heart. You have heard the words of thy now. In the presences of the angels, I will bless you. I will adore before your holy temple. I thank you for your thankfulness and love, which confirms all we ever knew of you. On the day I called you, you increased the strength of my soul. All earth’s kings shall thank you. When they hear the words of your mouth, they shall sing of the Lord’s ways. How great is the glory of the Lord. The Lord is high, yet he looks on the lowly, and the haughty he knows from afar. Though I walk in the midst of affliction, you give me life and frustrate my foes. You stretch out your hands in safety; your hand will do all things for me. Your love is eternal; discard not the work of your hands.”
So there you have it.
TS: What a beautiful psalm. And it reminds me of your point about discovering through Christianity the relationship of our finiteness with the infinite, just hearing, “Take my hand.”
CB: Yes, oh yes. Of course, the Christians have dickered with these images: “Are they Jewish texts or are they Christian texts?” And it’s still hotly contested, but the sense that these were the poetry, the songs of the soul that Jesus himself grew up singing, has just been so powerful, that it has been the epicenter of the Christian monastic devotional practice.
TS: And then, Cynthia, just one final question: our program is called “Insights at the Edge,” and I’m always curious what people’s current edge is, meaning what might be for you something you might consider a growing edge, or an edge of discovery for you, that you are particularly interested in?
CB: Well, I’m looking at the relationship between the—we’ve had since time immemorial the demonizing of the ego, that the ego is bad. [There is] the increasing realization that this is not just the development of the mind, but it really requires a whole new structure of consciousness grounded in the heart. And that there have been typologies coming out of the Sufi and early Christian tradition that talk about this, that are being strongly confirmed by modern neuroscience. So I’m really interested in that, and taking a look at what is attention of the heart, and is there an inherently Western understanding of what enlightenment looks like through the structures of the heart? So that’s an edge for me.
And I’m also really interested in continuing to pursue the Gospel traditions of early France and the whole Magdalena tradition there, which I think has great wisdom to bring back to our Christianity, which early on got so hopelessly confused about human relationship and human intimacy. So that’s been an edge I’m working on, too.
TS: Wonderful. I’ve been speaking with Reverend Cynthia Bourgeault, in a very generous conversation. Thank you for giving so much of yourself to the conversation. She’s the creator of a six-session Sounds True learning program called Encountering the Wisdom Jesus: Quickening the Kingdom of Heaven Within, as well as a CD series called Singing the Psalms: How to Chant in the Christian Contemplative Tradition.
Cynthia, maybe just some final good words or a blessing if you would be so kind—once again, I ask so much, but I can’t help myself—for our listeners who have tuned in today. We’ll end on the note.
CB: Yes. May all you who have tuned in be blessed. Remember that the eye with which you see is the eye with which God is seeking you. So even before you start, you’re found.
TS: Cynthia Bourgeault. Soundstrue.com: many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.