There are so many rich resources on the contemplative life available to us. Here at the Abbey we are going to start offering an occasional review of books we think are especially worth exploring, starting with The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart* by Cynthia Bourgeault.
This review is written by long-time fellow monk in the world Edith O’Nuallain:
This book, penned by a modern day mystic and internationally known writer and teacher, offers a clear and concise introduction to Wisdom teachings as they manifest across a variety of faith traditions. Though its primary locus of practice is based on Christian monastic traditions, specifically Benedictine monasticism, the author, Cynthia Bourgeault, imbues her teachings with flavours from other sources, most notably Sufism and Gurdjieff’s ‘Work’. Bourgeault identifies Jesus as a “moshel meshalim”, a master of Wisdom teaching. Few of us are familiar with this face of Jesus.
Bourgeault begins by defining Wisdom as the “science of spiritual transformation” which includes a theory of cosmology – “a vision of human purpose”, presented along with a systematic training practice, which ultimately leads to an awakened heart. While elements of Wisdom teaching have been evident in all the world’s major religions, none contain a complete and whole Wisdom cosmology. Bourgeault’s significant contribution is to pull together many of the missing pieces of the puzzle, pieces which have gone underground over the centuries, but never completely disappeared.
Bourgeault distinguishes between ordinary, egoic, ‘dual’ mind, on the one hand, and unified, transcendent consciousness, on the other. The aim of Wisdom teachings is to effect spiritual transformation, a process which involves moving our awareness from its focus on ‘lower’ or ego based thinking and feeling, to ‘higher’ or awakened heart. Since we cannot access Wisdom with our minds on their own, the ‘first principle’ of awakening is to bring the entirety of one’s being to the table, including our hearts, bodies and minds. The gateways to enlightened perception include “mindful work, sacred chanting, meditation, prayer and above all an intentional rhythm and balance to the day.” The ancient Benedictine practice of ‘ora et labora’ (prayer/silence and work/activity) is a necessary rhythm for engagement with what Bourgeault names “participative knowledge”, a knowing which reaches beyond the limitations of our minds to incorporate the vibrational knowingness and deep recognition which occurs at the level of the awakened heart. But be warned – heart doesn’t refer to what we normally consider to be heart-based feelings in our culture; we’re not talking about feel-good sentimentality here. It is not the seat of our emotions. In fact, emotions, or ‘passions’, as the Desert Mothers and Fathers called them, “obscure and confuse” Wisdom. Rather than aid the unification of our being, they “divide our heart in two.” Instead, the heart is “an organ for the perception of divine purpose and beauty. It is our antenna, so to speak, given to us to orient us toward the divine radiance and to synchronize our being with its more subtle movements. The heart is not for personal expression but for divine perception.” [p. 34]
The ancient teachers of Wisdom believed that the physical world we inhabit is encompassed and penetrated by the realm of the divine, which is invisible to the mind, but which can be directly perceived by an awakened heart. The world resonates “with the imprint of a unifying and coherent intelligence” as if it is a “divine hologram”, each tiny element reflecting the unity of the whole. But since the operating system of the mind is ‘binary’, defined as linear, logical thinking, it is useless to attempt to perceive this unity with our minds alone. This divine, or ‘imaginal’, realm manifests characteristics of ‘psychic force’, including energies such as attention and will, prayer and love. The qualities of ‘aliveness’ of these psychic fields are only visible to the ‘awakened heart’. But there is a magical twist here. The very duality which blocked our perception of these manifestations of the Divine can now lead us to the qualities or states we seek to find.
“The names of God lie coiled within the physical forms of things; our particular and uniquely human task is to spring the trap and set them free. They cannot manifest apart from the physical realm (that’s what the sensible world is here for), but neither will they manifest automatically within it unless there is a further act of conscious transformation. That is our job….We are midwives of the Spirit.” [p. 55]
Still there is a high price to be paid for enlightenment – we must die to our carefully constructed personal identities. Transformation cannot occur without first dying to one’s old self. This is the core message in Jesus’ teachings: “Whoever would save his life shall lose it, and whoever shall lose his life for my sake will save it.” [Luke 9:24] The Sufi message is similar: “Die before you die.” Here we are engaged in an inner gesture of surrender. Surrender is a
“state of permanent inner “yieldedness”….in any situation, confronted by an outer threat or opportunity, you can notice yourself responding inwardly in one of two ways. Either you will brace, harden, and resist, or you will soften, open and yield. If you go with the former gesture, you will be catapulted immediately into your smaller self…If you stay with the latter…you will remain in alignment with your innermost being, and through it, divine being can reach you. Spiritual practice …is a moment by moment learning not to do anything in a state of internal brace.” [p. 74 + 75]
Bourgeault concludes her small, but valuable, book by offering brief summaries of a number of spiritual practices which together constitute consciousness changing tools, the regular practice of which will carry the spiritual seeker from limited and finite ego-based mind to transformative, unified consciousness. These tools of Wisdom include the ancient Benedictine practice of ‘lectio divina’, or sacred reading; the intentional and mindful practice of presence through the harmonious balance of ‘ora et labora’; the daily sacred gesture of surrender through regular periods of meditation; and the purification of the heart through sacred chanting, especially of the psalms. The final pages of the book are given over to a list of practical resources for awakening the heart, as well as a selected reading list, both invaluable if the reader wishes to pursue the author’s many leads sprinkled throughout her book.
Edith Ó Nualláin lives with her family in a small village on the east coast of Ireland, snuggled between the mountains and the sea, where she reads, writes occasional reviews,
and spins exotic fibres into yarn. Some day she hopes to learn how to spin straw into the gold.
*using the Amazon link provided means Abbey of the Arts receives a small percentage of the purchase price at no added cost to you. All proceeds go to support the Earth Monastery Project and scholarship fund.