Top critical review
7 people found this helpful
Cynthia Bourgeault (CB) portrays Jesus as a wisdom teacher in probably the same way that she views herself as a great wisdom tea
on 10 April 2017
Making Jesus in Her Image
If some of the words in this review seem harsh, please keep in mind that Jesus reserved some of his strongest criticisms for the religious teachers of his time. This is because their errors had negative consequences far greater than the minor, moral failings of ordinary humans.
Cynthia Bourgeault (CB) portrays Jesus as a wisdom teacher in probably the same way that she views herself as a great wisdom teacher. But her words expose her as one who lacks the mystical understanding of the parables that were explained only by Jesus to his closest disciples or later to those inspired by the Holy Spirit. So if you follow CB it will be like the “blind leading the blind.” Her dazzling intellect blinds the reader and then CB leads him or her by the hand unintentionally into the ditch.
Nonetheless, she does make a valuable contribution in the Chapter 3 when discussing the difference between the dualistic, egotistical brain-mind and the nondual spiritual heart-mind. However, it would have been helpful if she had mentioned, if she knows, that the dualistic brain-mind is referred to in the Bible as the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and the nondual heart-mind is symbolized as the “tree of life.”
However, CB falls down when she is unable to apply her insights related to brain and sacred heart to the wisdom teachings of Jesus contained in his parables. She demonstrates very little contemplative insight into the Jesus parables. This is unfortunate since the parables are the core of Christ’s contemplative prayer teachings and his instruction for actually experiencing and living from nondual consciouness - not just talking or writing about it.
This reviewer contends that the Jesus parables contain symbolic instruction in contemplative prayer for his closest and most spiritually mature disciples. Someday when CB discovers this it may radically change her prayer life and instruction to others. She may even declare as Saint Thomas Aquinas did after his mystical awakening toward the end of his life: All I have written till now is just straw. It is only fit for burning.
The following is a discussion of CB’s parable interpretation shortcomings.
On pages 51-52 she discusses the parable of the “five wise and five foolish bridesmaids.” The wise have oil in their lamps and the foolish do not. Furthermore, the wise refuse to share their oil with the foolish. CB is correct in recognizing that in this, as in all of Jesus’ parables, he is not giving a lesson in “nice” or moral behavior. Unfortunately, this is where her understanding of the parable wisdom apparently ends. These teachings are deeply mystical and only accessible to those with “eyes to see and ears to hear.” That is why Jesus only explained his parables in secret to his closest, most spiritually mature followers.
The first mistake CB makes is to forget the advice of Saint Augustine to look for the mystical significance of numbers that occur in Scripture. Thus CB did not consider that 5 “bridesmaids” were not meant to be interpreted literally as humans but were actually “symbols” and thus CB did not consider the following: There are 5 senses and there is a wise and a foolish way to use the senses. The wise use of the senses does not waste lamp oil (life energy) but conserves and even accumulates more. But a foolish use of the senses wastes life energy. When we are tempted to “squander” energy on foolish, sensual pursuits Jesus is teaching us to “just say no” to sense temptations – as is done in the parable. Perhaps in this parable Jesus is even giving us one of the signs of a wise person.
CB proposes that the “oil” in this parable “stands for the quality of your transformed consciousness.” However, in the parable it is the quantity, not the quality, of the oil that is the issue. There is a big difference between having no oil in a lamp and having a lower quality of oil. The same would be true of the oil in your automobile. CB is changing the parable to suit her agenda. This is known as intellectual dishonesty if done intentionally.
Neither does CB tell the reader about the significant remainder of the parable. Perhaps at least in this instance she was being wise not to discuss what she does not understand. But there may be another reason. It contradicts her Centering Prayer contemplative practice and indicates an alternative way of contemplative prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples.
Jesus goes on to state in the parable that the foolish bridesmaids could not enter into the marriage ceremony with the bridegroom but the wise could. A Holy-Spirit-initiated, Christian mystic would look at this and recognize that the marriage chamber represents the “cave of the heart” in the center of the soul where the mystical marriage with the inner Christ occurs. One can only withdraw attention into this interior heart center if one has sufficient accumulated life energy and thus alertness and subtle, focused attention to thread the “eye of a needle.” The reader can verify this by trying to meditate inwardly when sleepy or if exhausted after over-indulgence in sensual stimulation.
Also, relevant to contemplative meditation in this parable, but not mentioned by CB, is that both the wise and the foolish in this parable are asleep when the bridegroom arrives. This may be surprising to the reader since the parable ends with Jesus telling us to be watchful for his coming. One would think that in the parable the wise bridesmaids would have been awake and the foolish ones would have been foolishly asleep.
But Jesus is using the word “sleep” as a metaphor. He is also speaking in this parable about his inner coming and not his external appearance to the five outwardly-directed senses. Sleep is a metaphor for the stilling of the senses. There is a wise way to still the senses and there is a foolish way. The wise way is by the withdrawal and concentration of attention and life energy inward to the center of the soul where the “’star of Christ’ rises in the heart” in the interior state of heightened alertness and expectancy. The foolish way to put the senses to sleep is to “squander” one’s life energy and enter a state of debilitating exhaustion.
In this reviewer’s opinion the way in which the author CB interpreted the above parable reveals her ego’s blind spot related to her understanding of life energy and contemplative meditation as well as her ignorance of the contemplative instruction present in the parables.
The word “squandering” by definition refers to the wasteful and unfruitful use of resources. CB has a keen and dazzling intellect and is eloquent and precise in verbal expression. We can be sure CB knows precisely the meaning of the word “squander” and definitely how virtually all readers will interpret that word.
Her ego’s blind spot can be seen again in her discussion of the prodigal son parable on page 49. Clearly, Jesus is telling us another parable about the negative consequences of squandering the life energy that God gives us. Jesus even uses the word “squander” to describe the wasteful behavior of the reckless sensuality of the younger, wandering son. This prodigal son suffered greatly until he finally “came to his senses” and turned around and headed homeward to God. A mystical contemplative would say the son finally exercised discipline over his senses and withdrew his attention inward to the center of his being where God dwellings eternally waiting for us to return.
But CB fails to discuss, and apparently misses altogether, the deep mystical, contemplative wisdom of the prodigal son parable – how it represents all of our journeys away from wasteful distractions and back to the center of our being. Instead she just discusses the unexpected embrace by God-the-“Father” of the returning younger son while the older son was left out of the celebration by his own resentment.
However, CB does later on page 68 make a passing reference again to this parable to support her own contemplative agenda and bias which differs from the wisdom Jesus apparently intended to impart with his parables. There she quotes Karl Rahner, who by some twisted, serpentine exercise of theological mis-logic, states in apparent reference to the above prodigal son parable: “God is the prodigal who squanders himself.”
CB’s view that the word “squander” describes God’s creative expression is very unfortunate. It may be used by some readers to justify human energy squandering that inevitably leads to suffering and estrangement from God as it did for the “prodigal son.” Maybe the subconscious intention of those authors who play such word games is to justify their own lifestyles of squandering and egotistical, intellectual journeys away from the feeling of God’s interior, central, loving presence. God’s creative expression comes from a source of infinite supply and divine wisdom. To equate it in the mind of a reader with human, self-indulgent “squandering” is deceptively misleading. This is what CB has done in this instance.
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard (p 38) is another example of how CB misses the mark by failing to take Saint Augustine’s guidance regarding the mystical significance of numbers in Scripture.
In her interpretation CB totally ignored that there are specifically 5 groups of laborers that are sequentially hired throughout the day in the parable. CB then goes on to give an economic interpretation of the parable that states that in nondual reality there is unlimited abundance and that is why all groups were paid the same amount. She again failed to recognize the mystical significance of the occurrence of five in that parable and thus could not access the intended contemplative prayer instruction of Jesus. She also conveniently ignored and did not interpret that the groups were paid in the reverse order of hiring.
To a mystic who moves into and out of the sacred heart center during contemplative meditation there is another interpretation to this puzzling parable that comes to mind. During the inward movement of attention toward the sacred center of the soul, layers of decreasing density are engaged and traversed in the body-soul from the outermost to the innermost layer. These layers are called kelipot (shells), koshas, and “coats of skin” in Hebrew mysticism, yoga and the Bible’s Book of Genesis respectively.
The early Christian Church father Bishop Origen interpreted the “coats of skin” that God put on Adam and Eve as the physical and psychic layers that surround the essential self of a person and not animal skins as is the usual literal interpretation. In some metaphysical systems there are five such layers including the physical body. These are, from outer to inner, the physical, etheric, emotional, mental and causal (memory) layer.
In this true centering each layer is relaxed of the constricting tension that blocks the Divine Radiance at the center. This explains what Jesus meant by “harden not your heart.” In such a meditation one essentially homes in with attention on the feeling of radiant love coming from God at the center. This also explains what Jesus meant by “don’t hide your light under a bushel basket.” To be centered is to be surrendered to and guided by the Divine Will emanating from the Center. This is very different from the so-called “Centering” Prayer taught by CB and the other which has no attentive orientation to the Center at all.
When it is time to pay the laborers at the end of the day, the groups are paid sequentially in the reverse order of hiring – starting with the last group first. Even more surprising is that all the groups were paid the same amount including those who worked the whole day and those or worked only for a short time at the end of the day.
In this parable the sequentially hiring of the five groups of laborers corresponds to the inner meditative movement through the layers. The payment represents the Grace that is received by the layers from the Central Sun of God. Each layer receives the same Light (same “payment”) but in the reverse order – from inner to outer from the Divine source.
Please feel free to reply to this review with your comments – pro or con.
Also, please read the reviewer's one star review of CB's "The Heart of Centering Prayer" which adds to this discussion.
May the “star of Christ rise in your heart.”