We had a wonderful symposium here at New Camaldoli called “The Rebirth of Wisdom: A Christian Conversation,” based on the thought and writing of our beloved late Fr. Bruno. It was organized by two of our oblates who knew Bruno and his thought quite well, Chris Morris and Nanette Walsh, and included some notable theologians and scholars such as Fr. Roger Haight, SJ and Dr. Richard Tarnas. My contribution to the weekend was to deliver the homily on Sunday, which appears below. I was able to use the readings of the day as steppingstones to address some of the key themes of the weekend.
We started out with the beautiful canticle from the prophet Isaiah (66:10-14), one of those rare places where we find a feminine image of God in the Bible:
‘As a mother comforts her child so will I comfort you…’ I’ve been heavily influenced by the writings of the transpersonal psychologist Michael Washburn this past year, who has given me a whole new vocabulary for this. If I can do him justice… We human beings come into being as if from the Great Mother. Washburn uses this phrase––“the Great Mother”––from the Tao Te Ching, a term also favored by Carl Jung. We come into being––ex nihilo-from nothing, from no-thing––from God who is not just like, but really is the dynamic ground, the ground of being and the ground of consciousness. You might say we come into being as if from the womb of possibility, as if from God who is the Great Mother. If we can know anything about prenatal and neonatal consciousness, we could posit that our first experience of being, of life, is ouroboric, all-inclusive, with no clear sense of a distinction between our own selves and that dynamic ground, no clear sense of the difference between ourselves and our mother’s womb, and, what’s equally important, no clear sense of the difference even between the dynamic ground and our mother’s womb. And our first experience of life as a newborn is not much different, as we nurse with delight at mother’s abundant breast, to use Isaiah’s imagery. So you might say that our first experience of the Divine is actually archetypally feminine, is of God as Mother, and our birth mother is an icon of Absolute Reality.
Now Washburn, in contradiction to others in his field, would assert that there is already at least a seed of ego (and I mean ego here with nothing negative about it), already an incipient “I” in the womb. Transpersonal psychology (which by the way serves as a very noble sister to spirituality) would suggest that our trajectory from birth on––and this is something I think Bruno would love!––is toward becoming an autonomous generative person bursting forth from God with creative energy. This, Bruno suggested in The Future of Wisdom, is foundational to the gift of the West. It is Western thought that gave birth to the idea of the autonomous person. But in order to fulfill that there is a necessary movement away from the embedment and enmeshment in the mother. And Washburn suggest that this is where we “discover,” you might say, the father. He re-interprets what Freud calls the Oedipal complex in suggesting that in what until recent times has been the normative family unit the father is experienced as not only the first Other, but as an other who is both intimate and independent: he can go off to work and yet still enjoy the affection of the mother. And so the child starts to imitate this, learning how to wean itself from the enmeshment from mother’s affection and body, and find the right balance of independence and intimacy. We can take any fur off of this: this is not good or bad, sin or virtue. It is simply the natural trajectory of growth toward the establishment of an autonomous, generative self.
I wonder if this couldn’t serve also as a metaphor for the 1st Axial Period too, that what goes on in every child is also what humanity went through in its own evolution of consciousness. In other words, is this when we start to image and relate to God as Father?
Unfortunately, as we break away from the mother we also break away from the Great Mother, the dynamic ground of being and ground of consciousness. Up ‘til this point––again, as much as we can really know about the consciousness of a child––Washburn suggests that, because we have still been in communion with our own mother and the Great Mother who is dynamic ground: we are both polymorphously sensual and dynamically spiritual, without a real cleaving of body and spirit. Up to this point we still experience the dynamic power of the ground, which we experience as our own power as well. But now, we slowly start to become a mental ego. We leave behind both our body and our spirit and climb into our heads. We become more and more like a little person operating our bodies as if riding around like a machine operator. My own words for this, which I believe Bruno would approve of, is that we slowly but surely start to lose the feminine, the earth, and the body. And in our modern Axial consciousness run riot this is what we have lost as a species––the feminine, the earth, and the body.
Hence, perhaps, Descartes’ cogito ergo sum–“I think therefore I am,” which our friend Rick Tarnas describes as “the epochal defining statement of the modern self” and makes of Descartes himself the father of modern Western culture, even of modern world culture, “a dividing line in the history of thought”––the 1st Axial Consciousness run riot. Now the thinking, rational self is seen as being separate from the rest of the universe, not only cut off from the dynamic ground of Spirit, not only cut off from its embeddedness in the natural world, but also cut off from its immersion in the social life or collective. (Moving again from the micro to the macro, this is exactly what we are trying to address and redress with the new Axial consciousness.)
But there’s hope. Not only can we, but Washburn suggests that in order to fulfill our humanness to the highest degree it is at this point that we must: we can and must recover the dynamic power of the ground; we have to go back to the Great Mother. The problem is that this return to the Mother, the return to the dynamic ground, will be experienced as a kind of death. It feels at first like a sacrifice of our autonomy, our independence, to go back to the Mother. But, as Fr. Bede Griffiths used to say, this is exactly the sacrifice, the death that we have to undergo––the sacrifice of our autonomy. And this is where the specifically Christian vocabulary and the icon of Christ is as eloquent as and perhaps more so than any other tradition, because this is the kenosis of Christ and the self-emptying of Jesus. And, Bruno would say, this is Baptism. Hence our reading today from the Letter to the Galatians (6:14-18): May I never boast of anything but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ… I carry the marks of Jesus on my body.
The good news of all this is that this what-feels-like-death, sacrificing our autonomy, is not the end. In the reditus–the “return to the One” of the Greek philosophers or in the soul’s interior ascent to God in contemplative enstasy; in the samadhi-absorption of the rishis, the Buddhists, and the Taoist hermits, this sense of distinct identity disappears into the Great Mother like a drop into the ocean. But our belief in the Resurrection, the gift of the West, tells us instead that it is at this point that “the human person awakens to the non-dual divine light as one’s own identity” (that’s Bruno’s own phrase) and that awakening consequently leads us to experience “the divine power within oneself as one’s own generative freedom, the capability of creating a human world” (again, Bruno’s words). As the Sufis teach, ‘fana–annihilation is followed by baqa–revival, a re-vivification, a return to the self, but a return to an enhanced self. To our surprise, union with God and so-called annihilation does not destroy our natural capacities, but fulfills them! When the obscuring egoism has been stripped away, we discover the divine presence at the heart of our own being, and from this we experience greater self-realization and greater self-control. In this revival, in resurrection we come bounding back more fully human, with the ideal human-ness that God intended all along. The realization of our communion with God––the baptismal energy––becomes the fount of the river of life-giving water, dynamism, the source of our going out of ourselves in participation, what Bruno calls the Eucharistic energy. This could be specifically Christianity’s contribution to the conversation, because Bruno taught that this is Christ’s basic gift to humanity: freedom, and generativity based on the knowledge of Being.
This, by the way, is why it is called transpersonal psychology: in this progression, the self does not disappear like a drop into the ocean, but rather comes bursting forth from this death to move forward again with spiritual dynamism, with the body, the earth, and the feminine recovered, and evolves now beyond person––not pre-person: beyond person. Luke 10: ‘Rejoice instead that your names are written in heaven,’ heaven here not as “some heaven light years away”; but heaven as our present and our future, which includes both a new heaven and a new earth, as the prophet Isaiah, Saint Peter and the Book of Revelation sing of it. Or, as Teilhard would tell us, not union with creation, nor simply union with God, but union with God through creation, a new heaven and a new earth.
I know this all sounds terribly arcane and complex, but let me boil it down to this: we need to recover the dynamic ground, the Great Mother, the dynamic ground of being and consciousness, which is our own dynamic ground, if we want to be fully human and in the likeness of God––both as individual human beings and as a race. All of this has a practical application and very real demands. This will demand a kind of death for us, a sacrifice of our autonomy, a sacrifice perhaps of the ways of thinking and the lifestyles to which we have grown accustomed. But out of the ashes of that way of thinking and way of being in the world––which I must say is not going very well for us as a race right now––can arise and ought to arise a new consciousness, a new way of being in the world, a new way of living gently on the planet, as well as a new way of understanding our communion with each other across peoples, languages and ways of life, a participatory consciousness, participating, as Saint Peter says, in the divine nature, and participating as co-creators in a new earth.
Let us, through remembrance and commitment to our baptism, bear the brand marks of Jesus on our beings, empty ourselves and return to God the Spirit who is the ground of our being and consciousness, and nurse fully at her abundant breast; and let’s let that impel and propel us from the Eucharistic Table to participate, to be broken and poured out for the sake of the reign of God, to discover the divine power within ourselves as our own generative freedom, and create a truly human world.