Cynthia Bourgeaultby CYNTHIA BOURGEAULT

Over the course of the following weeks we will be posting three related blogs by Cynthia Bourgeault on the topic of “Teilhard for Troubled Times.” Here is the first installment.


Part 1 – Deep Hope Flows Over Deep Time

I don’t know what kind of divine nudge it may have been that prompted me in January 2015 to challenge the students in my Wisdom network to a deep dive into Teilhard, but the response was electric, to say the least.  Over the ensuing eighteen months we collectively chomped our way through The Human Phenomenon, The Divine Milieu, and The Heart of Matter in both online formats and on-the-ground Wisdom schools and retreats.  Students who really caught the Teilhard bug read even more widely, exploring the entire range of his canon from the magnificent early mystical upwellings in Writings in Time of War to the profound final synthesis in The Christic, completed less than a month before his death.

So the cornerstones were all in place by November 2016—and not a moment too soon, I might add.

Without straying too far into politics, I can simply report that within the circles I mostly travel in, the response to the upset election victory of Donald Trump has been one of shock, disorientation, and a gathering sense of doom.  Not only does it appear that the progressive social and environmental values that have set the political agenda for nearly six decades are being systematically deconstructed; the even more fundamental moral values—truthfulness, compassion, integrity, conscience— now seem themselves to be under attack. In a brave new world of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and a rising tide of belligerence and vulgarity it seems as if human consciousness is going backwards. How could this have happened, and how do we come to terms with a future that suddenly feels much darker and more precarious?


…our real task at this evolutionary cusp is not to lose sight of what is coming to us from the future…

It is just here that Teilhard enters the equation, offering a vastly broader and more hopeful perspective in which to search for a new moral resolve. Writing in a historical era whose traumatic upheavals eerily foreshadow our own (and in whose unresolved anguish lie the roots of so much of our post-modern skepticism and despair), he is yet able to paint a bigger picture where there is still room for optimism and coherence. As I’ve drawn out these Teilhardian “waypoints” before a variety of audiences, I have found that people are deeply comforted and encouraged by his perspective. Amidst the welter of analysis (sociological, historical, psychological, political) being thrown at our present situation by the secular intelligentsia, there is simply not enough breadth and depth of vision to reveal the deeper processes from which hope emerges.  That is precisely the missing piece Teilhard is so powerfully able to bring. Over these next three blogs I would like to call attention to three points in particular, all foundational pieces of the so-called “Teilhardian Synthesis,” that have already proved to be powerful starting points for reorientation and renewed hope as our planet begins to regroup.

First of all, Teilhard reminds us that  “deep hope flows over deep time.” From his perspective as a geologist and paleontologist, he reassures us that evolution has not changed direction; it has always been and always will be “a rise toward consciousness” (HP 183), moving irreversibly toward its consummation at the Omega point. But its span is measured in eons, not decades.  When we try to “cinch up on the bat” too tightly or lose sight of the cosmic scale, the result is anguish. If we measure human progress only by our usual historical benchmarks—the last eight years of Obama initiatives, the eighty years of FDR social safety nets, the not-yet 250 years of the American democratic experiment—or for that matter, the “mere” 2500 years of Western civilization; we are still only catching the inevitable play of what Teilhard calls tatonnement, or “trial and error,” part of the necessary play of freedom. Even the emergence of human consciousness itself, he reminds us, reaching its present configuration a mere 125,000 years ago with the stunning debut of homo sapiens, was preceded by a 10,000-year ice age, in which it appeared that all that had been gained prior to that point was irreversibly lost. It wasn’t. No sooner had the ice receded than the first irrefutable paleontological manifestations confirm that human beings were now using fire and tools— unmistakable evidence that beneath the ice and apparent desolation, the evolutionary journey was still unperturbedly marching forward.

Perhaps that feels like a false hope. Perhaps it is bought at the cost of all sensitivity to individual suffering and pain, by setting the scale at so vast a magnitude that human lives register as no more than as tiny pixels. Teilhard was accused of exactly that in his writings after World War II when Europe, still reeling from the horror of the holocaust and Hiroshima,  was overwhelmed by personal and collective remorse. He was accused of false optimism, of an indifference to personal suffering. But Teilhard was by no means indifferent. His life-transforming vision of the oneness of humanity came in the midst of serving as stretcher bearer in the bloody trenches of World War I, and his writings on human progress rose from the untold depths of personal suffering he endured in faithfulness to a vocation and a Church that actively blocked his path. He knew personal suffering only too well, and he looked straight into the face of the sorrow, the horror, and named it as such. The haunting prayer woven into his reflection on faith in The Divine Milieu makes clear that it is no cheap optimism he is dispensing here, but a wrenchingly honest acknowledgement of our human predicament:

Ah, you know it yourself, Lord, through having borne the anguish of it as a man: on certain days the world seems a terrifying thing: huge, blind, and brutal. It buffets us about, drags us along, and kills us with complete indifference. Heroically, it may truly be said, man has contrived to create a more or less habitable zone of light and warmth in the midst of the cold, dark waters—a zone where people have eyes to see, hands to help, and hearts to love. But how precarious that habitation is! At any moment the vast and horrible thing may break in through the cracks—the thing we try hard to forget is always there, separated from us by a flimsy partition: fire, pestilence, storms, earthquakes. Or the unleashing of dark moral forces—these callously sweep away in one moment what we have laboriously built up and beautified with all our intelligence and all our love.  ~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu, p. 112

But he knew that to capitulate to anguish was to lose the thread, and this he would not permit. The deeper ley lines of resilience and hope were alive and well for him, safely sealed within the deep, telluric memory of the earth itself and the Christic impulse beaconing from the future. But the road rises on the other side of despair. Allowing oneself to be engulfed in either anger or grief amounts to a fatal loss of moral nerve and hence a betrayal of the evolutionary task entrusted to our species.

I want to conclude by making clear that I do not see this “deep hope” as an excuse to relax our vigilance in stewardship for the planet earth. Teilhard does not permit himself to be used that way; his sense of the oneness of the earth and of its dynamic interwovenness pervades everything he sees and writes. But he realizes as well that Mother Earth has an intelligence and a resilience that meets us far more than halfway, and that frantic efforts to “save the earth” are likely to be more about saving our own skins. Over the millennia our planet has endured meteor strikes, the rise and fall of sea levels, ice ages, the continual shifting of tectonic plates, the appearance and disappearance of species. We homo sapiens may indeed become one of those “lost species” if in our greed and arrogance we bring about planetary conditions that no longer support the uncomfortably tight tolerances in which human life is actually sustainable. But even if that unthinkable should occur, evolution itself will not be derailed. The earth itself, infinitely adaptable, will continue on, and the species that inevitably arises to replace us will bear in its cosmic memory the trousseau of all that consciousness has attained in this evolutionary go-round.

moving waters

For sure, we need to fall on our knees every morning and beseech our mother Earth to help carry us through this latest dark time of human greed and destructiveness. But our real task at this evolutionary cusp is not to lose sight of what is coming to us from the future, the vision of our common humanity that is indeed “groaning and travailing” to be born.  That will be the subject of my next blog.


Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer, and sought-after speaker traveling globally to teach and spread the recovery of the Christian contemplative and Wisdom tradition. Cynthia offers her popular Wisdom Schools in the US and abroad, and teaches as a core faculty member of The Living School for Action and Contemplation. She is the author of several books, her most recent being  The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice.


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This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. In the troubled times that many – including my country, South Africa – are passing through at this point in time, it grounds me tremendously to be attentive to be the birthing of an inevitable future – the Omega Point. What immense encouragement and direction that can be drawn from the focus on the evolving future. As I seek to move the continuous tyranny of unbearable injustice into appropriate space, I am thankful

  2. Cynthia’s first blog, Iike Teillard’s writings, brings me back to a clear point of focus eloquently, poetically, clearly, profoundly: deep hope in deep time. It reflects the deep heart beat of evolutionary time steadily resonant beneath the present day brute drumbeat of calumny and reactivity.

  3. Thank you for this encouraging post. I like how you emphasize that deep hope does not mean that we can stop working as stewards of our planet. I feel that this hope gives us the energy to keep moving forward when things seem to be crumbling around us. We are part of something bigger than our current situation, and that is awesome!

  4. This testimony from one of the greatest American sages, Franklin Merrell-Wolff, about Sri Aurobindo – among the greatest 20th century visionaries regarding the ongoing evolution of consciousness – might inspire some who are heartened by de Chardin’s words:

    THE PASSING OF AN AVATAR
    Franklin Merrell-Wolff
    Eulogy on the Death of Sri Aurobindo
    May/June 1951

    Whensoever there is a fading of the Dharma and the uprising of
    unrighteousness, then I loose myself forth into birth.

    For the deliverance of the good, for the destruction of the evildoers,
    for the enthroning of the Right, I am born from age to age.

    From The Message of the Gita, ch. IV, verses 7 and 8, as translated by
    Sri Aurobindo.

    That the times in which we live bear the mark of the “fading of the
    Dharma” and the “uprising of unrighteousness” in exceptional degree
    has long been evident to many of us who have, therefore, been alerted
    for Avataral Descent in one or more embodiments. For those who are
    spiritually awake the signs of such Descent, in more than one
    embodiment, currently or within the recent past, have not been
    lacking, so that indeed a time of exceptional darkness has also been
    the occasion for the manifestation of rare inner Light. Among these
    embodiments the late Sri Aurobindo stands out as one of the most
    luminous figures of all historic time. It is but fitting, therefore,
    that we should direct at least some portion of our thoughts and
    regards towards this man who in rare degree manifested the Divine
    nature and wisdom.
    Sri Aurobindo was born on August 15, 1872 and passed from the physical
    embodiment on the fifth of December, 1950. Rarely have we known lives
    so packed with accomplishment as were the 79 years of this man. His
    formal education began in England at the age of seven and was
    completed at Cambridge. His life work began in the secretariat of the
    Gaekwar of Baroda and soon extended to the teaching of English and
    administrative work in Baroda College. It was not long before his
    interests were drawn into the field of Indian politics and in the
    years just preceding 1910 he became the leader of the independence
    movement. In fact, he originated the technique of non-cooperation
    which was later continued so effectively by the late Mahatma Ghandi.
    Like other such leaders he experienced arrest and waited a year in
    jail for the trial which ultimately cleared him from the accusations
    brought against him.

    This year was the turning point in his life for, while on one side he
    faced the harshness of incarceration, yet it was during this night of
    physical life that there began for him the Illuminations and
    Realizations which opened the way for his primary life work. So when
    at last acquitted, he left forever the political and professional
    fields, retired to Pondicherry, the French territory in India, and
    there spent the remaining forty years of his life in a rare productive
    retirement.

    For the biographer able to trace only the tangible events in a human
    life, the final forty years might well seem poor in the material
    offered; but for him who has metaphysical vision, these were the great
    years which reveal One with a stature comparable to that of a Krishna,
    a Buddha or a Christ. These years saw the manifestation of greatness
    in two senses. First, there was a vast literary production in both
    the medium of prose and poetry, which is available to the scholar and
    which may be in some measure evaluated by the latter. The second and
    greater part of his labor lay in those unseen dimensions which only
    the few can ever truly evaluate. Along with this double labor, and
    really incidental thereto, an Ashrama was established, open to both
    sexes and dedicated to the dual objective of individual Realization
    and the Spiritualization of the world in a sense and is not restricted
    to the human portion of that world.

    Leaving this all too brief sketch of an extraordinarily full life
    work, we must turn to an evaluation of the more tangible production of
    his last forty years. Aurobindo became a Yogi and a Rishi or, as the
    Buddhists would say, an Enlightened One. He was not merely a mystic
    but a master of mystical and Gnostic consciousness with a
    comprehensiveness that does not seem to have been surpassed within
    historic times. His literary work was dedicated almost exclusively to
    the revelation of Gnostic Consciousness, in so far as that may be, and
    to the encouragement and guidance of effort upon the part of all who
    may respond, to the end that they too may know the Gnostic
    Realization. But he implemented this work with a most unusual
    scholarly equipment, both in Oriental and Occidental material. While
    this equipment is strongest in the Vedic and Yogic philosophical, and
    general literary, linguistic and historical sense, yet there is not
    lacking a considerable understanding of Western science, save only
    that phase of science of which mathematics is an essential part.
    Along with all this, Aurobindo was thoroughly trained in, and a master
    of, the English language in both the forms of prose and poetic
    literary production, and thus for the first time in the history of
    Indian Gnostic contributions we have original production in the
    language of the reader of English, and in terms adapted to the needs
    of the modern mind; all of which results in a product of far more
    value than the translations of ancient Sutras composed for a mentality
    which is strange and often incomprehensible to us.

    While it is true that Sri Aurobindo often speaks in pejorative terms
    of the mind and the reason, particularly in later writings, yet his
    formulations, even in his poetry, are always highly rational and,
    therefore, intelligible. The reader does not have to labor with the
    unintelligibilities which are so often the curse of metaphysical
    production, as in the case of Jacob Boehme. Perhaps despite himself
    Aurobindo found it to be impossible to cease being reasonable, and the
    reader may well be thankful for this. The writer would class him with
    Shankara as being one of the two clearest and most rational of
    mystical philosophers. And further, Aurobindo rarely if ever imposes
    intellectual violence upon the reader since he avoids categorical
    assertion and denial in the highest degree possible, though the
    authority of Direct Realization is such that the categorical form
    cannot be completely avoided. He suggests possibilities or
    difficulties for the reasonable consideration of the reader and in his
    philosophic writings and letters ever seeks to lead the understanding
    by argument rather than to compel it by authoritarian pronouncement.
    The result is that the thoughtful reader is often convinced away from
    his previous predilections and, when not convinced, yet feels that
    Aurobindo permits and respects his different view. Of all the merits
    of this great man, this is not the least.

    Lack of space prevents saying more than a word concerning the
    substance of Aurobindo’s yogic philosophy, but we would fail in the
    sketch of this man’s life and thought if we did not say something. In
    the main, he continues in the current established by the Vedas, the
    Upanishads and the Gita and, in so far, is in accord with the
    established Indian tradition. But he derives from, or superimposes
    upon, that current interpretation which, in certain important
    respects, diverges radically from views that have been predominant in
    India, particularly the views of Sri Shankaracharya and the
    Mayavadins. He teaches a philosophy of universal Realism as opposed
    to the Mayavadin Universal Illusionism. Hence, for Aurobindo, the
    attainment of Nirvana, while a preeminently valuable achievement, is
    but the beginning of a process which returns to the world in order
    that transformation may be effected in the evolution, whereas, for
    Shankara and the Mayavadins, the evolution is simply irrelevant and
    Nirvana is a culmination. For Aurobindo, world process and
    development remain significant even for the Divine Life.

    The Crown of Sri Aurobindo lies in this that through him the Divine
    has been drawn down into the mundane field for its spiritualization in
    a degree and sense that has rarely if ever been realized heretofore,
    and thus he is truly an Avatar.

    Hail to Thee, Thou Man God!

    Reprinted in the New Age Interpreter, May June 1951, and in Mother
    India.

  5. a few more things for deep reflection

    1. The “matter” of the 19th century does not and has never existed.
    2. “Time” and “space” – apart from our current mental consciousness, are profoundly different from what we think they are. Even materialist physicists like John Wheeler understand this. Wheeler tells us, when we ask a particular question about the source of the current universe, “13.7 billion years ago” comes into existence, now (the eternal now, not the present now)
    3. In utter inner silence, in the cave of the Heart, that Now Is. in that, we see the entire space-time continuum coming into being, now and now and now and now.
    4. Now we have a new “point” from which to observe the nearly 14 billion year trajectory of the evolutionary unfolding of Consciousness and its reflection, which we refer to as the physical universe, though there is an infinite span “between” the physical universe and the Word through which all was manifest. Resting in that utter Silence, we see the profound gnostic, mental, vital/pranic energies emerging, and ultimately, taking the form – an infinitely moving, never resting form – that we in our ignorant (Avidya) mental consciousness refer to as rocks and trees and stars and planets and galaxies.
    5. We can “see” – from this vantage point – that Consciousness and form slowly, over 350,000 years, developing patterns and elements, and over the next nearly 10 billion years, planets and star systems, all alive, filled with life, with mental consciousness and guided in every quark with a gnostic, supramental consciousness, the Word that God is eternally speaking.
    6. And we see, at least on the formed planet we refer to as “earth,” plants and animals manifesting a living, pranic, vital consciousness, with an increasing capacity for reasoning and image-making and self-awareness.
    7. And we “see,” what we call “humans” manifesting an even greater self-awareness, and through that awareness (buddhi, awakeness), the Divine spark shines, and it becomes possible to awake to that, and recognize that we, like Christ, (and Krishna and Buddha and yes, Donald Trump too) are both Divine and human.
    8. And we “see”, from infancy through old age, the energy of the lowest energy center, the physical consciousness center, awakening, and transitioning to the higher vital/pranic and mental/buddhic and beyond (above the head) centers of consciousness. And with each transition the universe and space and time and matter and life and mind and soul and spirit undergo a radical transformation.
    9. And as we rest more and more in the utter silence in the cave of the Heart, That takes over, the Spirit does it all, and then we see, it was the spirit guiding us all the time, and in fact, it is Spirit that is Divine and Human and amphibian and one celled organism and rock and tree and star and planet and galaxy.

    1. It’s interesting that de Chardin, writing in the 30s and 40s, is thought of as the first integral teacher.

      In fact, Sri Aurobindo’s was referring to an integral knowing even before he was jailed as a terrorist by the British in 1907. He was speaking of the universe as a single, living whole, and predicted not only something very much like the internet, but something far beyond that, as humans recover the “clairvoyant” abilities of the archaic age (40,000 and more years ago) – perhaps several centuries from now, when we are a bit mature.

      I strongly recommend those who are exploring de Chardin to take some time to read the first integral teacher of the 20th century. If “The Life Divine” is too much (it’s free online but it is just over 1000 pages and it’s best read very very very slowly, out loud), try SatPrem’s “Adventure of Consciousness,” also available for free online.

    2. Thank You. Beautifully conveyed. I love the metaphor “cave of the heart”, as for me it encompasses the ever present eternal Oneness.

  6. many thanks for the message, to hold on to the thread of teilhard is truly to grasp the lineage that stretches from alpha to omega and gives us the perspective of geological time combined with the immediacy of an accelerating presence of divinity. the hope is in the scope of his vision. your writing brings the fire of the man to life, the fire reminds me of the satyagraha of gandhi in a loin cloth with a walking stick going off on the salt march to face the greatest empire of his day, like teilhard he blended the activist with the mystic and held firmly to a tiny thread against enormous odds to bring us world changing truth, this is courage to aspire to in these troubled times. blessings2

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