This book won't appeal to those who believe that our rational mind is the source of our greatest meaning and truth. For, according to the ancient tradition known as Wisdom, the human mind's full scope includes heights and depths which rationality can never encompass. Neglecting these other regions of our being leads to a limited state of mind, known by the Wisdom tradition as sleep. Yes, that's right, the more invested we are in our intellect, our ego, and our attempts at logical control of the world around us, the more asleep we really are.
This book is about waking from that sleep. And Bourgeault, an ordained Episcopal priest, has written it very clearly and rationally. Which is fitting, since to find wholeness we want to expand our minds beyond rationality, not do away with it. Bourgeault's particular gift here is her ability to teach about the Wisdom tradition from an interfaith perspective, without presenting too much information about too many different religious paths. For Wisdom cannot be claimed exclusively by any path; rather, it underlies all the great paths to inner knowledge. Bourgeault organizes her material by focusing on the kernel of truths shared by the Christian, Jewish, and Sufi traditions.
She defines Wisdom, at the start of the book, as "a precise and comprehensive science of spiritual transformation that has existed since the headwaters of the great world religions and is in fact their common ground." And yet, even though this "science" appears worldwide, it has, in many cultures, been lost or watered down over the millennia for various reasons. In the second chapter, "How the Christian West Lost Its Wisdom," the author examines how in the early fourth century, the Christian Church changed its approach to spirituality, substituting "doctrinal mantras" for a direct, heart-centered encounter with Jesus. She then describes how in Medieval Europe, the Wisdom tradition didn't die, but rather took shelter underground, where it came up for air via outlets such as the arts, literature, and the teachings of esoteric groups.
After this historical chapter, the remainder of the book focuses on the process of spiritual transformation. In the chapter entitled "Three-Centered Knowing," she discusses in depth practices for balancing mind, heart, and body. She has some wonderful insights, like "trying to find faith with the intellectual center is something like trying to play a violin with a saw: it's simply the wrong tool for the job." She also presents a different definition of what she means by the term "heart" than the one many of us might know. Rather than the seat of feelings, passions, and emotions, in Wisdom teachings the heart is "an organ for the perception of divine purpose and beauty. It is our antenna. . .[it] is not for personal expression but for divine perception." That does not mean that we must suppress the emotions. But we do learn that it's advantageous to not let them dominate us.
Of all the teachings in this book, I found her chapter on surrender the most radical, and by "radical" I mean having the potential for re-forming us at the deepest layers of our being. She writes,
". . .in any situation in life, 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, with its animal instincts and survival responses. If you stay with the latter regardless of the outer conditions, you will remain in alignment with your innermost being, and through it, divine being can reach you. Spiritual practice at its no-frills simplest is a moment-by-moment learning not to do anything in a state of internal brace."
She makes a good point, but it's a hard teaching to learn to do. And for that reason, she discusses other practices that help us learn. Some of these practices, like centering prayer and lectio divina, are for Christian seekers. Others, like chanting and meditation, have a place in a great many traditions.
Bourgeault's book is short (120 pages), but she packs a lot into it. The book ends with a section on further resources for the different practices she recommends, as well as a good bibliography (with comments) that should keep you going further in your reading for a long time. It's a good resource for people just setting out on a spiritual path, as well as people who've been travelling for some time.