By Grace Ogden
Do you ever wonder how prayer fits with meditation, or wish that it would? Modern-day mystic Cynthia Bourgeault teaches the ancient spiritual path of Christian contemplation where the two practices are profoundly joined. An Episcopal priest and author of The Wisdom Jesus, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene (a Gwyneth Paltrow favorite), and Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Bourgeault is spreading the recovery of the Christian contemplative and wisdom path, alongside Fr. Richard Rohr, Fr. Thomas Keating and others.
She will speak in Washington, DC, on November 16, upon receiving the Contemplative Voices Award from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. Bourgeault responded to these questions in a recent interview.
What is the difference between contemplation and meditation? What do you say to someone who meditates but wonders about God and whether there is a way to have both?
Functionally there is about an 85 percent overlap between them. The state of contemplation known in the classic Christian tradition is accessed through what most of the world today knows as meditation—i.e., a stilling of the faculties of intellect, emotion, memory and will. Meditation gets that noisier stuff to pipe down until you become open to a state of contemplation, beyond the dualistic stuck points that keep you in one box and God in another. Traditional Christian contemplative practices include the Jesus Prayer and Lectio Divina, and contemporary practices include Christian meditation, centering prayer and Christian Zen. They help the mind become quiet and hold attention in a different kind of way, a non-dualistic way.
It is uncommon to find this in churches, correct? What bridges do people cross to enter into contemplative practices?
It is a great sorrow of the Christian path over the past 1500 years that these core practices, well-known and used by the Desert Monastics of the 3rd to 5th centuries (and living on as unbroken lineage within contemplative monastic orders), dropped out of sight and became largely inaccessible to members of the non-monastic Christian church. When they were brought back front and center in the 20th century, many people thought they were foreign practices borrowed from the East or the New Age.
That being said, however, I am very grateful to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the whole mindfulness path that has sprung up in recent decades for making available in a secular context what many Christian lay people have been resistant to picking up in an intentionally spiritual or religious way.
Taking on a meditation practice is in my opinion absolutely nonnegotiable for beginning the process which so restructures the brain and the brain-heart that the teachings of Christ become accessible from the Christic point within. This is what Saint Paul meant when he said, “Put on the mind of Christ.”
Some people think meditation is not “personal” and are reluctant to leave behind (so it seems to them) an “I-Thou” relationship with God. But the personal doesn’t go away in meditation: it changes form. It is not personal like you thought when you were still in dualistic consciousness and you worshipped God “out there.” But you understand that the whole nature of the universe and consciousness is the dwelling place of God, is permeated with the personal and the intimate.
Can a person see their work or career through this lens?
Highly committed, empowered people, across a whole slew of walks of life—from science to politics, writers, singers, corporate executives, some clergy—have connected the dots that a spiritual formation based in contemplative practice quickens and empowers you to actually do your stuff in the world.
How do you see the Shalem Institute’s work in this light?
Shalem works toward creating people who are deeply empowered and grounded in their own contemplative practice, who are familiar with the mystical lineage of Christianity that they dwell in and come from in an inclusive way, and who are not afraid to be change agents in the world. I feel the whole contemplative enterprise is thoroughly prophetic and significantly political. I am deeply touched and honored to receive the Shalem Institute’s Contemplative Voices Award.
Where is love on the contemplative path?
There is nothing that is not love. The structure of the universe is love. What is revealed as the heart of God in contemplative prayer is love. What dissolves the person is love. What creates the person is love. You know you cannot escape love.
For tickets and information about the Shalem Institute’s Contemplative Voices event with Cynthia Bourgeault on Nov. 16, go to Shalem.org.
Grace Ogden is the founder of Grace Productions, which offers transformational consulting and Living Sacred events, GraceProductions.co.