Wisdom and Money “Wisdom & Money,” continues the signature work of its predecessor Harvest Time: to engage with money as a doorway to spiritual transformation. For more than a decade participants in Harvest Time circles have met to share their money stories together, “get naked” with their finances, playfully welcome obscure parts of themselves to Levi’s Table, and support one another in risking money experiments. This work has always been grounded in spiritual practices drawn from a variety of traditions. But one set of practices has emerged as strongly attractive and life-giving in the way of transformation. These practices were drawn from the tradition of Wisdom Christianity.
“Wisdom” identifies the mystical stream within all major religious traditions that recognizes a reality beyond the world of appearances and our human capacity and desire to be united with that reality. The teachings and practices of the wisdom path lead us – subtly, gently but reliably – out of the “sleep” of our habitual ways and into an awakened consciousness of our authentic being.
Across religious traditions, especially in their monastic forms, the practices that enable this transformation are remarkably similar. Among them are forms of silence, sacred chant, meditative movement, and reflection upon inspired writings.
Such practices may well have been known to Jesus in his day. He likely participated in chanting psalms and reflecting upon scripture in the daily worship of the synagogue. When he counselled his disciples to “pray to your Father in secret” (Mt 6:6), he may have been recommending a silent inward communion with the divine Presence within that he practiced himself.
In the early church, silence, chanting of psalms, conscious manual labor and “sacred reading” of scripture made up a large part of the life of alternative desert communities in Egypt and Syria. These same practices have been passed down intact to us today through 1500 years of continuous use in Benedictine and other monastic communities.
The Wisdom tradition of contemplative prayer and inner awakening has not, however, comprised the mainstream of Christian life in the Western world. Since the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire, mainstream Western Christianity – whether Catholic or Protestant – has concerned itself largely with issues of authority, doctrine, moral stricture and ritual observance. This mainstream has given us the institutional Church as we know it.
And yet today, as the cultural prestige and influence of institutional Christianity declines in the West, the transformative practices of Wisdom Christianity are coming to the fore. And not a moment too soon. The planetary crises we face today require a transformative human response. The ancient practices of Wisdom are precisely the spiritual tools we need to face the moment.
Why do we apply the tools of Wisdom to money, in particular? What makes money a doorway to spiritual transformation?
To understand money, think about divine mercy.
I grew up in the church with too narrow a view of divine mercy. I thought of divine mercy primarily as God not clobbering me, that is, as clemency arbitrarily granted so that I would not be tormented for all eternity in the manner that I so richly deserved.
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,” the hymn says, “like the wideness of the sea.” I do better to take a wider view of God’s mercy. It is not an occasional, arbitrary thing for God; it is an ever-flowing stream, welling up from God’s very nature, given constantly, infinitely, freely. It is not mere clemency; it is life itself.
Now think of money. By itself, it is nothing. On a desert island, you couldn’t eat it or drink it; it wouldn’t shelter you or make very good company. And yet, bring currency into a community of people that concur on its value, let it flow freely from hand to hand, and what can it not bring forth?
Money, like mercy, unleashes its power within relationships of trust, respect and love. The currency of God’s mercy offers peace, freedom and joy, but only to the heart that is open; if I close my heart like a fist, God can give me none of this.
In the same way, when our hearts are closed by greed, envy, fear or the will to dominate, the life-giving stream of plenty is dammed up. Monetary currency can accumulate and grow stagnant in isolated corners while the broad land is left parched.
Yet we know that where money is let to flow from hand to hand among hearts that are generous, grateful and trustworthy, communities may be built that share prosperity, equity and creative abundance.
When we look consciously at our relationship with money, we have a window into our hearts. We can see where old wounds and besetting fears may be tightening our grip and constricting the gracious exchange, the giving and receiving of mercy – and so of money.
When we support one another in opening our hands, risking greater generosity and trust with our money, we find our hearts, too, being opened to the healing touch of mercy.
Wisdom + Money = ?
Bringing the practices of Wisdom to bear on our relationship with money yields a transformation that is both inward and outward. What does this transformation look like? Let me describe my own experience in Harvest Time’s Boston Circle.
Money came to all of us in the Circle, one way or another, tied up in emotional knots. It came by way of complicated relationships, or unsustainable industries, or accompanied by problematic associations and expectations. How could we let money flow in our lives when we were so bound up?
We needed healing, forgiveness, liberation; we needed to be unbound. That was certainly true for me.
I know that I am not the only person who has ever felt awkward in the presence of my money. It inspired craving, revulsion, elation, confusion, shame, grandiosity, and so on. I know I am not the only Christian person of wealth who wonders why I should have so much of it, or what I should do with it.
I find the silence of Centering Prayer, one of the practices in our Circle, to be a balm. In silence, I encounter an inner spaciousness, a haven of non-judgement where the inner knots can slacken a bit, where I can fall into the arms of a mysterious Presence that holds me and bears me up. It seems to say, “I’ve got you. I’ve got this.”
In the Circle, I don’t need to be alone in my struggle to do the right thing with my money. Not only can I open my doubts to my friends, but in the process, I can feel the ways in which our lives are being knit together. When we gather for retreat year after year, we are so happy to see one another! And with growing trust we are able to open to one another the deepest joys and pains of life.
I experience the beauty of this communion particularly when we chant in the Circle. Our several voices find unison and harmony in a shared prayer from the heart. “Slowly blooms the rose within; slowly blooms the rose within.”
Our sacred chant creates a residual effect. It leaves my mind quiet and my awareness receptive. Our Circle often follows chant with lectio divina or sacred reading. We hear a text read out loud – scripture, poetry, any writing that is beautiful and true. I listen with the ears of my heart for a word or phrase that touches me. Then in silent reflection I engage my memory and imagination to hear what Spirit might have to say to me, just me, and what it might ask me to do just now.
Over time I have come to realize that I have a unique and active role to play in the unfolding of the universe. A clear sense of purpose allows me to bring a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to possibilities that arise.
I express this sense of purpose in a brief phrase: I give my money, my time and talents to “the conversion of the church for the sake of the poor.” I find that when I adhere to this commitment, doors of opportunity open of themselves. Over years I have been enlivened by participation in a variety of endeavors: leadership development for homeless men and women; intentional communities for young adults; parish trainings in contemplative prayer and community organizing; economic empowerment projects in rural Kenya; reconciliation work in post-genocide Rwanda – and now this! Wisdom & Money!
In all, the practices of Christian Wisdom, as I’ve known them in our Circle, have changed my relationship with money. Amidst all my uncomfortable questions I have come to simply say, here I am, and there that is. Right or wrong, good or bad, wealth is a fiddle I’ve been given to play. I take it my arms, however tentatively, and see what music it can make.
More About Steven Bonsey
Steven Bonsey works at the juncture of contemplative practice and social justice. For more than ten years he has been part of the Boston Circle, where Helen Daly introduced Wisdom practice into a conversation about money and spirit. The direct result has been the creation of a new organization, Wisdom & Money, which Steven serves as a founding co-director, thanks to a generous grant from the Narthex Fund.
See more at wisdomandmoney.org. Steven formerly served as co-founder of the Leadership Development Initiative and as Canon Pastor at the (Episcopal) Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Boston.