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Wisdom Jesus III: Good news & not-so-good news

Posted by Ron George on December 13, 2009

“The Word was made flesh” by Bob Gilroy

First, the good news. Chapters 12-15 in Part Three of Cynthia Bourgeault’s Wisdom Jesus are succinct and helpful, even for those who have read many books on centering prayer, lectio divina and the like. It’s helpful, sometimes, to take a refresher course – but frankly, there’s not much more to say about these practices than what Bourgeault has written. All those trees need not have fallen for the sake of going on and on about simple matters. It’s their elegance that make them so appealing, and Bourgeault has written elegantly of them. Otherwise, as the preacher says, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

The writer’s maxim, “Write about what you know,” clearly operates in Bourgeault’s chapter on centering prayer. No gobbledygook here; just a few well-chosen words rooted in her decades of experience. I can’t imagine what she may have added in her book on the subject, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. (WJ, p. 142) Perhaps the most helpful insight for those of us who yearn not for contemplative prayer is Bourgeault’s association of centering prayer with the theological concept of kenosis, the pouring out of one’s thoughts, as it were, to get to the heart of the matter. I doubt that meditation is the only way to do this, but the reminder is sufficient that, for Christians, prayer expresses a relationship with God in Christ Jesus, a two-way conversation not simply of asking and receiving, seeking and finding, knocking and opening, but also of pouring out, giving up, letting go and letting God love me, which is faith (a term oddly missing from Bourgeault’s index).

Perhaps all Christian prayer, at root, is what might be called “surrender prayer,” if, as Bourgeault eloquently argues, letting go of one’s self in God, the fundamental kenotic act, is indeed the heart of Jesus’ own way of life. If so, then it’s not just about surrendering one’s thoughts (WJ, p. 142) but also one’s very soul and body, as we love God and our neighbor with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. (Luke 10:27) How “contemplative” one’s prayer must be to live in Christ this way is probably debatable, but there is no doubt that Christian life must have some manner of prayer at its core; otherwise, following Christ is impossible. Centering prayer seems to be a good place to start, perhaps better than most as a method – but only if it leads to action; otherwise, contemplative silence is no more sacred than a noisy gong.

“Healing” by Julie Lonneman

I wonder why Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest, doesn’t make more of the Daily Office in her discussion of lectio divina and psalmody, if not as a practice in and of itself (which it is), then at least as a form within which to practice personal chant and scripture-based meditation – with the added dimension of acknowledging one’s prayerful membership in the Body of Christ through participation in the church’s liturgical prayer. Perhaps it’s asking too much of an author so dubious of a tradition (and, ironically, of which she is an ordained minister), but the Daily Office of the Book of Common Prayer, for lack of use, is virtually unexplored as a venue for the kind of deep spirituality Bourgeault proposes. If nothing else, it is a comprehensible, adaptable framework for psalmody, lectio divina and centering prayer, a ready-made answer to that fundamental question posed by all beginners, “Where do I start?” (WJ, p. 156)

As for the rest of Bourgeault’s discussion of psalmody and lectio divina, there are nothing but quibbles from this section of the peanut gallery. There’s that unnecessary smear of bias against those of our sister and brother Christians who are said to ram scripture down our throats. (WJ, p. 157) There’s just a whiff of Gnostic speculation as to whether Jesus had human needs. (WJ, p. 153. Of course he did! What else can the Incarnation possibly mean?) There is also, however, a proper ordering of things when Bourgeault, perhaps inadvertently, groups the so-called Gospel of Thomas with other non-Christian scripture as a source for lectio divina. (WJ, p. 156)

 

We don’t know the mind of Christ, but we do know what came of that last supper with his disciples – a tradition that has persisted in innumerable forms (albeit not all of them especially edifying) for more than two millennia, not because Jesus “opened up a classic ‘subtle body’ channel” but because his clueless disciples finally got it, somehow, that they were to “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19) That’s Jesus’ theology, not the harebrained, impenetrable, speculations of G.I. Gurdjieff. (Read Bourgeault’s citation here.)

Overall, Wisdom Jesus fails to propose a compelling “new perspective on Christ.” First, there’s nothing new about Bourgeault’s perspective; indeed, it is ancient, perhaps as old as those “cleverly devised myths” that rankled authentic New Testament writers. (2 Peter 1:16) Second, Bourgeault’s case is not compelling because it is rooted in dubious sources, which becomes strikingly clear in the last chapter. Any Christology that begins with the so-called Gospel of Thomas and wends its way to Gurdjieff simply can not be taken seriously.

Even when Wisdom Jesus sparkles with practical insight, a cloud wrought by Bourgeault’s more disingenuous discourse shadows the landscape, dulls the color and, unfortunately, erodes the author’s credibility. Christianity doubtless needs an overhaul, and so does traditional Christology, but this is not the way to do it. Whatever and whoever Jesus of Nazareth may or may not have been, he was neither a “tantric master” (WJ, p. 75ff) nor an emanation from another realm of light. These categories are meaningful to Buddhists and Gnostics ancient and modern, but they fall considerably short of making sense as Christian theology in the 21st century.

 

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One Response to “Wisdom Jesus III: Good news & not-so-good news”

  1. Bob Horner said

    Dear Ron…thanx for your distilling some wisdom from Sister B..she certainly covers the waterfront..some good stuff on meditation..tho sometimes I think we/she intellectualize and try to label/explain our faith and miss the point of just being a servant..I think of good old Henri who gave it all up to take care of folks at LArche.. I relate to the call to action…and am reminded of Richard Rohr’s CAC community in Albuquerque..TheCenterfor Action and Contemplation..ur no doubt familiar…if i were 30 yrs younger i’d become an intern there for a spell..they do great work ministering to the poor..your inclusion of some powerful art pieces is most welcome..pls continue your pelican stuff..its great…

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