Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader. She divides her time between solitude on Eagle Island, Maine, and a demanding schedule traveling globally to teach and spread the recovery of the Christian contemplative path. Cynthia has worked closely with Thomas Keating, Bruno Barnhart, Richard Rohr, as well as many other contemplative teachers and masters within Christianity and other spiritual traditions.

Yesterday she spoke as part of “The Future of the Church” Lent series at the Church of St. John the Divine. Her address was called “Mystics and Contemplatives as Visionaries and Prophets”.

The introductory blurb for Cynthia’s talk described it saying,

In this new percolation of the spirit that is often being called nowadays “The Emerging Church,” it is the mystics and contemplatives who will emerge as the prophets and visionaries— because their contemplative practice makes this evolution virtually inescapable.

Cynthia presented a beautifully crafted paper. The nature of her paper made it difficult to take notes. So, what follows are mostly my understanding of her presentation, with apologies for any misrepresentations of her content. At the end there is a section that is made up of some notes taken directly out of the discussion that followed her presentation.

Cynthia argued that contemplative practice is the ground out of which emerges a new way of seeing. As the subtle faculty that is the eye of the heart begins to emerge, the spiritual practitioner begins to be able to perceive the imaginal realm.

The imaginal realm is not to be confused with the imaginary. The imaginal realm is actual and real but only perceptible to those subtle faculties with which we have largely lost contact in our culture. We have been trained not to trust these deeper faculties.

The imaginal realm begins to become familiar territory as we consistently practice the gesture of opening and letting go which lies at the heart of all spiritual practice. As we consistently let go of clinging and grasping we discover that our entire consciousness begins to shift. We move from duality to the unitive. We create a space within ourselves where it is possible to hold all of life.

She used as an example the illustration of being invited to dinner at the home of a couple we have known for a long time. As soon as we arrive, although on the surface everything appears normal and in order, we have an inner awareness that something seems to be wrong. Our heart is reading the situation and picking up clues that might not otherwise be available to our senses operating simply in the tangible physical realm.

This is the level of consciousness that holds the only hope for the renewal of the church. It is only as we return to this deeper way of seeing that we will be able to hold the deep mysteries of the faith without collapsing them into the polarities of rigid fundamentalist dogmatism or liberal progressive intellectualism.

In the question period, Cynthia was asked to respond to the increasing presence of a feeling of vulnerability in peoples’ lives. She said,

We are surrounded by fear and fear based behaviour. We must not give in to the cliche that would have us believe that we can only risk being vulnerable when we finally have found a place that allows us to feel safe.

In fact the way we open or don’t open precedes and shapes our perception of the world that is out there. The world is never going to make you feel safe enough to let down your guard. You have to start by letting down your guard. This is the means that enables us to move to that place of deeper knowing in which we uncover that dimension within ourself that experiences safety, no matter what is happening on the surface.

As we stay in that place within ourselves that knows we are safe, we begin to see a world that is no longer dominated by threat. We become able to draw upon a strength that comes to us from a different place.

We need to transform our consciousness first. This transformation is facilitated by our spiritual practice.

Eckhart Tolle says that to be a victim means you choose to take your identity from the past. As we practice again and again the simple act of surrender, we discover that our identity comes to us from our awe. We are not determined by what has gone before.

You have to make the first step. You must choose to open your heart. You practice opening at exactly the place where you are at this moment, no matter what is going on. You start with the small things that you might be tempted to resist, or that cause you to clinch, then move on to things that seem to pose a more serious threat.

As you open where you are, a whole new sense of self is beginning to be constructed, a self that knows it is secure and does not need the world to change in order to support its sense of identity.