for Bruno: when thought becomes fire

(fr Cyprian)

brunoin memoriam of Bruno Barnhart, OSB Cam. 1931-2015

monk, priest, prior, wisdom guide

There’s a common mistake made by those who preside at funerals; often the presider will give a eulogy at the time of the homily, memorializing the deceased. There’s nothing wrong with a eulogy, mind you, and we did some eulogizing last night and will have another couple of brief eulogies after communion. But the homilist at a funeral isn’t supposed to eulogize the deceased; first and foremost the homilist is supposed to preach the gospel and specifically to proclaim the resurrection; in the same way as this funeral isn’t about Bruno’s death but about his passing into the light and energy of the resurrection. I remember once when Bruno was sick a few years ago Isaiah read one of Bruno’s homilies for Midnight Mass and I’ve taken a similar track. I was re-reading his book Second Simplicity[1] at his bedside as we kept vigil while he lay dying, and I’ve decided to proclaim the “Gospel according to Bruno,” as far as I understand it. (I also thought that in honor of him I might mutter indecipherably into my beard, so that like him I could say things that were nearly impossible to understand in a way that was impossible to comprehend.)

Bruno loved the figure of the cross, and saw it as a four-part mandala, a quaternity of energies and the four poles or movements of Christianity that they represent. I’d like to use that quaternity to speak about the Gospel, according to Bruno, and specifically how it ties into death and resurrection. He named those four poles the Silence, the Word, the Music and the Dance.cross mandala

The First Movement is the Silence, in Christianity represented by the Father, the Creator and Source. This is God (or Absolute Reality) as Ground-of-being, as the Source from which all comes forth. This is also the apophatic depth of God, the God beyond all name and form of the mystical tradition. Equally important, when we discover this apophatic dimension of God we simultaneously discover the apophatic dimension of ourselves, though this is a discovery that many people never make.[2] Bruno says, “It is as if we had long been taught to imagine the Absolute Reality, God, outside and above us, completely separate from ourselves, and suddenly we discover this Supreme Reality within––indeed as one with our inner being, as the ultimate center of the human person.”[3] The mystical, contemplative path really begins in earnest here, with this discovery. This is the pathway of interiority and silent meditation, and the source of what is known as the perennial philosophy.

The contemplative/monastic traditions––both the Western and Eastern––are the guardians of this unitive experience, especially through the practice of silent meditation. Undoubtedly in the past decades our encounters with the Asian traditions have awakened Christianity once again to its own non-dual, unitive experience (which Bruno saw as the inchoate energetic heart of the Christian revelation). But there is also a danger there in this First Movement, if we stay just there, in John Cassian’s pax perniciosa. Both the Eastern and Western monastic traditions have had a tendency to build walls around this experience, and rest content within the spurious illusion of a separate holy existence (as Thomas Merton might say), and monastic, contemplative life can become a bank vault guarded by thick walls and angels with flaming swords in a kind of Carthusian fortress, rather than becoming an energetic ecosystem. (I heard one Benedictine say recently, “And there are hundreds of empty fortresses all over the world!”) It is often the lay people who have found the fissures in the walls, particularly in our day and age discovering the contemplative practices of Asia and re-awakening contemplative practice in the West.

Bruno thought that the genius of the West, and the prophetic traditions in general, was to recognize that this Silence speaks. The East tends to go to the One and stay there as if re-entering the warm womb of the Mother rather than engaging the dynamic feminine spirit, which we will meet in the third quadrant. The Silence speaks one Word and many words. Many words: music, science, civilization, creation, evolution, beauty, service––and, for Bruno, especially poetry. And this is the Second Movement––from the Silence to the Word.

The Silence speaks many words, but the Father speaks only one Word, one Word that sums up all those other words––Jesus Christ, in whom the fullness of the godhead dwelt bodily and who we say was the Word made flesh, all those other partial words brought to their completion in this human form. This is Jesus not only as deity, but Jesus as fully human too, Jesus as Purusha, the Cosmic Person, the archetype and the goal, the blueprint behind being human.

There is never any doubt about Bruno’s commitment to the person of Jesus and his gospel, and he was adamant about the unique moment in history that he believed the Christ event was. Especially in his section on the Word, Bruno writes, uncharacteristically, in the first person singular, about himself. Perhaps he is speaking for everyone, as Every Man, but I like to think of him telling us about himself here, giving us a peek into his journal:

This Jesus whom we encounter is a light at the center of the world, a fire at the world’s edge. He moves beneath the images of himself as an ultimate center of energy. I am always losing him and finding him again, migrating from one image, one station, to another on the journey. He awakens that which lies at the core of my being; the series of Jesus’ healings in the gospels are the story of the gradual raising of this nascent person that I am to life and consciousness, to freedom and fullness. The knowledge of Jesus Christ is a unitive knowledge: it is the luminosity of my own true and eternal being. … In him I possess the secret knowledge of this unity and of this dynamism, which is history. I cannot capture in words the gravitational pull of this solar Christ, moving in the depths of my being.[4]

It was because he could not capture “the gravitational pull of this solar Christ moving in the depth of [his] being” in words that Bruno so often resorted to poetry, and poetry then led him back to the First Movement, to the Silence because, as his constant companion, Wallace Stevens, wrote in his Adagio, “The poet is the priest of the invisible.” In the language of spirituality, for Bruno poetry was the language of the apophatic way, the via negativa.

Poetic discourse knows the way to the Source that is hidden within words: [Poetic discourse knows] the path within words to the invisible Word from which they originate. The words of the poem dwell within a bright little aura, a field of energy that participates in the energy that is beginning and end. The poem is an epiphany, a little eucharist of the Word in which the cosmic communion is momentarily realized.[5]

Even further, Wallace Stevens also wrote––in words that I think would have been a consolation to Bruno in the darkest nights of his soul––even if “one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.”

This “energy that is beginning and end” is important, because there is a danger in the Second Movement, too, if the Word doesn’t have dynamism. The Christian logos easily becomes encased, too, as it did “within a container of Greek philosophical thought” with its dualism between spirit and matter, and its “subordination and even the exclusion of psyche and of the feminine dimension of the human person.” As a matter of fact, Bruno thought that the “crystalline Greek theology” had actually “arrested the historical and affective dynamism that is intrinsic to Christianity.”[6] And perhaps the same could be said for masculine rationality in general––it can encase and arrest.

But there is salvation: Just as “there is a central well within us where thoughts disappear into the unitive depths,”––the Eastern, contemplative movement, so there is a movement outward, “an ardent boundary within us where thought becomes fire.”[7] And this is the Third Movement––the Music, which Bruno saw in this age, tthe age of the Spirit, when “thought becomes fire.” He was one of those rare people who were still giddy about Karl Rahner and the 2nd Vatican Council, and along with folks like Ewert Cousins was optimistic enough to think that we were entering into a 2nd Axial Period. Again here Bruno speaks in the first person; what’s going on in the cosmos is going on in me: “When I discover myself as a unitive energy, welling forth from the darkness of the ground, I have found myself, I am at home.”[8]

Just like the energy, so this “welling forth” is important: it’s about the complementary energies in the Christian experience. (This he develops more in The Future of Wisdom.) The Baptismal experience is one of unity, an experience of the love of God poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us,[9] and no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.[10] But then there is the Eucharistic energy, union by communion, communion not just with God, but with one another and with the whole earth. This by the way is the essential element that makes monasticism specifically Christian monasticism––koinonia. This is that same love of God now pouring out of the believer’s heart like a stream of life-giving water.[11] These two energies––the Baptismal energy of union and the Eucharistic energy of communion––are the essential ingredients for what Bruno called “participatory consciousness,” as Saint Peter describes it, that you may be participants in the divine nature, when we are no longer static observers nor simply worshippers, but participants.[12] This Third Movement

… is the dimension of dynamism, of energy, of movement, relationship, communion, personal experience, human freedom and creativity, the world of psyche and of the feminine. It is the principle of development, whether within the individual person, in human history, or in the evolution of the cosmos. We are always on the threshold of a great renaissance, an “Age of the Spirit,” … we experience the dawn of this new age in a hundred ways––related to the Spirit, to psyche, to the emerging feminine, to poetry, art, and music.[13]

And that leads to the Fourth Dimension––the Dance, which doesn’t take us away to heaven, but returns us to Earth. Bruno hated ladders and staircases, especially those specious ones that lead the monks away from earth and up to heaven. Bruno preferred here the approach of Teilhard and Jung, and the wisdom of the primal peoples. (This, too, a feature of the 2nd Axial Period.) I thought this phrase of Jung was particularly telling: “the dark weight of the earth.” And now here is how that dark weight of the earth leads us to the cross (this is Bruno quoting Jung):

If God is born as a [human being] and wants to unite [humankind] in the fellowship of the Holy [Spirit], then [God] must suffer the horrible torture of having to endure the world in all its reality. This is the cross that [God] has to bear, and he himself is the cross. The whole world is God’s suffering, and every individual … who wants to get anywhere near his own wholeness knows that this is the way of the cross.[14]

This is why the cross is a universal archetypal symbol––at the top, the source, the Silence, the Father, the One; one arm is the Son, Jesus, the masculine, the Word; the other arm is the Spirit, the dynamism, the feminine, the Music; but we must never forget this fourth, all-important direction, the Dance, which is rooted in the ground––Incarnation! As we sing in an Easter hymn, it’s then that “the cross deep rooted breaks in bloom / as all is gathered into Christ.” And this Fourth Movement is intimately tied up with Christ’s kenosis, with emptying and diminishment, with John the Baptist’s ‘I must decrease and Christ must increase.’

My last real conversation with Bruno, we spoke about Bede Griffiths, and he said we need a new Bede Griffiths, but he said, “Maybe the next Bede Griffiths won’t be a Bede Griffiths. Maybe it will be a woman,” he said, “maybe a mother, someone who lives entirely in someone else, giving her life away, more hidden than Jesus,” like a seed that falls into the ground and dies, like yeast in the dough, like salt in the earth, that works by disappearing. The kingdom of God is like that, you know.

But here we are to speak of that final moment or, rather, the culminating moment, the telos, when God will be all in all; as Bruno wrote, “When, in the resurrection, our body participates fully in this change,” and “a transformation by the Holy Spirit will be complete.”[15] But a transformation not only in ourselves! And Bruno then goes back to a phrase that he and I spoke about often, from Paul’s Letter to the Romans: For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… the whole creation has been groaning … while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.[16] This is surely the Christian mystical vision at its most refined, and a Christian understanding of non-duality: our redemption––body and soul––becomes yeast in the dough of the earth and one small part of a movement of all creation coming into right relationship with God, and God will be all in all.

Let me conclude with one small eulogistic moment. What Jung said about God and the earth reminded me of Bruno. Bruno!Some people say that Bruno was stuck in his head. I don’t think so. No: his thoughts, like no one I’ve ever known, became flames that leapt out of his head. But he found if very difficult to re-enter, to ground; he himself had a hard time accessing that Fourth Movement––the Dance, which returns us from the stratosphere to Earth and our bodies. He often found “the dark weight of matter” an incredible burden, and life a “horrible torture of having to endure the world in all its reality.” But he knew that, and that was his redemption. He did suffer it and he did bear it, and he knew his path was a dark one, and he sensed his suffering was redemptive because it was his path of diminishment, his own John the Baptist moment, like Moses getting a glimpse of the Promised Land but not being able to enter. Now he will be buried like a seed––no, better, like a flame––into the earth, and the whole graveyard will glow from it, and the cross deep-rooted will burst into bloom.


[1] Bruno spoke of a new wisdom that would bring about a “second simplicity” by “recovering the original unity and simplicity of the Christ mystery after many centuries of progressive differentiation and fission within Western Christianity.” Second Simplicity, 238, n. 9.

[2] See Katha Up. I.I.2.

[3] Ibid., 25.

[4] Ibid., 49, 50.

[5] Ibid., 16

[6] Ibid., 56.

[7] Ibid., 90. This also is the danger of the East’s movement back to the One, to the Silence.

[8] Ibid., 90.

[9] Rm 5:5.

[10] Gal 2:20.

[11] Jn 7:39.

[12] 2 Pt 1:4.

[13] Ibid., 6.

[14] Ibid. 151.

[15] Ibid., 49.

[16] Rom 8:19-23.

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  1. Thank you, Cyprian, for your most beautiful eulogy. As tears streamed down my face, I was again taken into Bruno’s vision, which empowers, uplifts, and encourages us in our humanity. I am reminded that every trip I have taken to the monastery had to include a meeting with Bruno. He freely spent his time with me so lovingly, addressing my simple questions of his theology, asking about my own theological development and my life, exchanging names of books, ending in a warm embrace of kindred spirits. I shall miss Bruno dearly but I am so happy that now he is now part of the flame of Christ. He now beholds the face of Jesus, the very subject of his life. R.I.P. dearest Bruno.

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  2. Thank you Cyprian for this wonderful and moving homily. I don’t know what to say – coming to the hermitage for the first time in 2002 changed my life. I met Bruno once on that occasion – one of those truly inspired moments that I will never forget. In recent times I have had 2 long stays with the community and felt so welcomed. During those times I was greatly blessed to spend long periods with Bruno. His vision inspires my work.
    Thank you for capturing his fire and newness. His words did become fire as do yours.

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  3. I never met Fr Bruno in the flesh – I live a continent away. Read his books, bits and pieces, watched the few video clips (thank God for technology), initially heard his interview on NCR podcast some years ago. But he’s been important to me, and on my journey Bruno has been one of my companions, one of my teachers and guides. He flames out now in Christ.

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  4. Many thanks for sharing thoughts of Fr Bruno. I met him several years ago with a knock on my door during a weekend at the hermitage. He came, with a crutch under one arm, and one of his books which I had requested he sign. He asked me to come up to the chapel for a talk in 5 minutes. Something changed in me on that weekend. Later I attended what I think was his last preached retreat. There are no words but Thank You.

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