Teachers of contemplative Christianity, who acknowledged the limitations of human knowledge and the inconstant nature of human sentiment, instead encouraged a commitment to practice. A scripturally grounded commitment to practice and service – rather than a reliance on unsteady belief and feeling – is the fulcrum of contemplative Christianity.” 

~ Paula Pryce, The Monk’s Cell

From time to time in the unfolding life of a lineage, it becomes important to stop and ponder together “whur we come from” (as my teacher Rafe used to call it): i.e., the fundamental understandings that called us into being as a particular expression of the wider tradition of Christian contemplative Wisdom. As the Contemplative Society, our flagsghip Wisdom vessel, now celebrates its twentieth anniversary and a new generation of seekers and board members assume their turn at the helm, it seems like an appropriate occasion for just such a moment of reflection.

Wisdom, like water, is itself clear and formless, but it necessarily assumes the shape and coloration of the container in which it is captured. Between formless essence and manifesting particularity there is a reciprocal dynamism; you can’t have one without the other.

RiverOur own particular branch of the great underground river of Wisdom came to the surface about twenty years ago, flowing within two major riverbanks: a) the Christian mystical tradition of theosis—divinization—particularly as lived into being in the Benedictine monastic tradition, and b) the practical training in mindfulness and non-identification as set forth in the Gurdjieff Work. The fusion of these two elements was the original accomplishment of my spiritual teacher Br. Raphael Robin, who formed me in this path and just before his death in 1995 sent me off to Canada to teach it. It is a distinct lineage within the wider phylum of sophia perennis—perennial Wisdom— and as with all particular containers, it has its own integrity and its own heart.

Here, then, is my own quick shortlist of the eight main elements–or defining characteristics–for our particular branch of this Wisdom verticil:


1. We are founded on a daily practice of sitting meditation, predominantly but not exclusively Centering Prayer, anchored within the overall daily rhythm of “ora et labora,” as set forth in the Rule of St. Benedict.

2. We are rooted in the Christian mystical and visionary tradition, understanding contemplation in its original sense as “luminous seeing,” not merely a meditation practice or a lifestyle. In service to this luminous seeing, we affirm the primacy of the language of silence and its life-giving connection with the subtle realms, without which spiritual inquiry tends to become overly cognitive and contentious.

3. We incorporate a major emphasis (much more so than in more conventional contemplative circles) on mindfulness and conscious awakening, informed here particularly by the inner teachings of G.I Gurdjieff and by their parallels and antecedents in the great sacred traditions, particularly in Sufism.

4. We are an esoteric or “gnostic” school to the extent that these terms have come to be understood as designating that stream of Christian transmission through which the radically consciousness-transforming teachings of Jesus have been most powerfully transmitted and engaged. But we eschew esotericism as simply mental or metaphysical speculation, and we affirm the primacy of the scripture and tradition as the cornerstones of Christian life.

5. Also in contrast to many branches of the Wisdom tradition based on Perennial or Traditionalist metaphysics (with its inherently binary and anti-material slant), we are emphatically a Teilhardian, Trinitarian lineage, embracing asymmetry (threeness), evolution, and incarnation in all their material fullness and messiness.

6. We are moving steadily in the direction of revisioning contemplation no longer in terms of monastic, otherworldly models prioritizing silence and repose, but rather, as a way of honing consciousness and compassion so as to be able to fully engage the world and become active participants in its transition to the higher collectivity, the next evolutionary unfolding.

7. We are an integral school, not a pluralistic one, (to draw on Ken Wilber’s levels of consciousness); our primary mission field is teal, not green. Our work concentrates not at the level of healing the false self, woundedness and recovery, substance abuse, equal rights, restorative justice or political correctness (although we acknowledge the importance of all of these initiatives), but rather at the level of guiding the transition from identity based primarily in the narrative or egoic self to identity stabilized at the level of witnessing presence, or “permeably boundaried” selfhood.

8. Our most important teachers and teachings are Jesus, St. Benedict, the canonical and Wisdom gospels; The Cloud of Unknowing, the greater Christian mystical and visionary tradition (including Eckhart, Boehme, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Ladislaus Boros, Bernadette Roberts), the Desert and Hesychastic traditions; Bede Griffiths and the Christian Advaitic traditions (including Raimon Panikkar, Henri LeSaux/Abishiktananda and Bruno Barnhart); Rumi, Sufism, G.I. Gurdjieff, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And of course my own teacher. Br. Raphael Robin.

Please know that this list is intended to start a conversation, not end it. In the upcoming months I hope to unpack each of these points more fully in a format yet to be determined (blog posts? Video? On-the-ground teaching retreat?). I invite others in our Wisdom network to do likewise, both in your larger organizations (The Contemplative Society, Northeast Wisdom, Wisdom Southwest, WisdomWayofKnowing, etc.) and in your smaller practice circles. Collectively, let’s see if we can discover about our lineage, as we midwifed it through a first generation and now transmit through a second.

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17 thoughts on ““WHUR WE COME FROM…”

  1. I would love to hear some more details on why Cynthia rejects Sri Aurobindo’s evolutionary vision but is ok with the Christian Advaitic vision (including Raimon Panikkar, Henri LeSaux/Abishiktananda and Bruno Barnhart), noting that all three quite consciously drew on Sri Aurobindo’s work.

    It’s also particularly intriguing, given that de Chardin has a much more abstract, physicalist reductionist view of evolution (less incarnational, one might say, due to what Owen Barfield referred to as the extensive “residue of unresolved positivism” in his work). I’d be interested to hear about that in light of the aforementioned rejection of Sri Aurobindo. I suspect it has to do with the conflation of his work with that of Ramana Maharshi, but I’m open to being corrected on this.

    1. Don, I certainly don’t reject Sri Aurobindo; I simply haven’t worked with his material enough to feature it in the lineage. Beatrice Bruteau is certainly the bridge here, a student of both Teilhard and Aurobindo, whose work radically synthesizes these two giants of thinkers.

      1. Cynthia, i may be mistaken, but I’m responding to a comment you made several months ago in which you expressly said you don’t think much of Sri Aurobindo or Ramana Maharshi. What struck me particularly was, if you think that there is anything remotely similar about the two, then probably you haven’t read much of either. And if you haven’t read much of either, why make such a negative (it was quite negative the way you stated it at the time – which is why I’ve stuck with this) comment?

        I tentatively had hoped, when I first started studying your writings a year or so ago, that you were one of the people on the integral scene, who had begun to liberate yourself from the unfortunate legion of errors that Ken Wilber has committed.

        Your recent comment to a student who assumed that your practice of Centering Prayer involved some kind of “open awareness” was sterling, and seemed to me to begin to glimpse the integrality that is possible when we let go of the modern tendency to think that God’s Presence can be “engineered” by our efforts.

        If it’s true that you simply aren’t aware of Sri Aurobindo’s work, and did not intend consciously to disparage him or lump him together with the non-evolutionary Advaitic lineage of the Maharshi, I apologize (though having just written that, I do remember you specifically explaining that you didn’t think much of Sri Aurobindo because you didn’t think much of Advaita Vedanta – again, if I interpreted you incorrectly, I apologize).

        I just joined a private Facebook group, made up of students of Tibetan Buddhist teacher Alan Wallace. The group is dedicated to “home practice” – what I would refer to as making one’s home a sacred sanctuary, a “monastery” – if that last word didn’t imply some kind of withdrawal from the world.

        Inspired by your response to that student, i’ve been trying to convey a very different sense of what “practice” means, beyond even that total letting go.

        here’s what struck me. There is an evolutionary Force, a conscious Divine Presence, which is present in all of our hearts (every living creature, really). We aren’t aware of it to the extent the demands of the body, the life force, the emotions and the mind preoccupy us. As those demands begin to lessen, this aspiration of the Heart simply is present. We don’t need to do anything to cultivate it or focus on it or even let go into it.

        We only need to stop blocking it. I have found over the years that that aspiration has a gentle (and sometimes not so gentle!) guidance, and the more I follow that guidance, the less it is “me” following that guidance and the more it is “Her” (I prefer to experience That as Her, though it is infinitely Her) both aspiring and guiding.

        She brings the mind to total silence, or more properly, she opens the mind to That Silence which is all pervading and ever-present. She stirs the surface heart, tuning it to the infinite Soul within, bringing the entire personality into falling in love with the world, with the whole evolutionary process, the unfolding which, when the mind is utterly Silent and the heart filled with love, is evident in every moment, every sound, every sensation.

        That/She is there in the patient I am evaluating and the computer I am typing on. And She unfolds in incalculable, infinitely varying and playful – even mischievous – ways, laughing as She cries along with all of us. She is There in Trump going to North Korea, and in Nicholas Kristof excoriating Trump for having no idea what he is doing.

        I know we all have our own paths. I fell in love with Brother Lawrence when I was 20, and throughout the 1980s, I learned much as choir director of a Spanish Catholic church, and from my discussions with Father Alphege of the Cloud of Unknowing, but I never was drawn personally to Christ.

        I “knew” on May 10, 1970, at 2:30 PM, that awakening to God, who I knew in that moment as all-pervading, was the meaning of life, and that it was an ever-unfolding awakening, not a one time thing, and that my work in the world involved the integration of science and spirituality. And through explorations of Gurdjieff, and Sufism, and Tibetan Buddhism, and many Christian mystics, and Anthroposophy and much more, I knew in March 1976, upon reading Chapter 6 in Satprem’s “Adventure of Consciousness,” that prior to this life I had already been working on the integration of science and spirituality, and in this life I had found my teachers in Mirra Alfassa and SrI Aurobindo.

        K D Sethna (Amal Kiran) has also written on de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo. I strongly recommend it.

  2. Thank you for this Wisdom synthesis, Cynthia! (the Cynthia Synthesis ☺️) It is just what I have been longing for. I have printed a copy of this post to study it more deeply. It is a “curriculum” that makes my heart feel effervescent! Thank you for shepherding us along this luminous path of non-duality, non-identification, and love.

  3. This is really a new low when even non-Buddhist have the general understanding that compassion and tolerance are the essence of Buddhism. And yet disappointingly a supposedly highly learned Abbot tasked to helm a great Buddhist monastic establishment is instead enforcing discrimination and intolerance. What else can be said but clearly the case of another one of the “three great” Gelug monastic universities of Tibet has fallen into the hands of a (samsarically) ambitious one who clearly deviated from what Buddha has taught.

  4. In your view, was the historical Jesus of Nazareth physically resurrected from the dead three days after his death on the cross?

      1. lol yeah this is the (expertly) subtly implied “evil hypocrite” who asked the question intended to get a straight answer from Cynthia as to who she believes Jesus to be. I ought to have expected such a response from a one-sided platform. Perhaps one day you can be bothered enough to respond on this or the other blogs where an actual “conversation” can take place and people asking questions you know perfectly well to be legitimate won’t be undermined with such skilled elusiveness.

        In the meantime, let me be more direct as to avoid any implication that I think you’re a Messiah and I’m trying to “trick” you from that position. In your view, is the historical Jesus of Nazareth the unique Son of God? You, and I’m sure everyone with half a brain, know perfectly well why I am asking this question. You’re claiming your teaching is based on “Christian” premises while at the same time not actually claiming any orthodox Christian premises at all. Do you not think that deserves some sort of defence?

      2. Hey Craig: I know I have been asking some pointed questions of Cynthia, but i have tried – I hope it comes across – to always ask respectfully. She strikes me as a deeply sincere, dedicated teacher, one I think deserving of respect.

      3. Each to their own, Don. Personally, I despise gaslighting. I’ll call it when it occurs (comparing my question to the “caesar’s taxes” question was absolutely that) and doing it from a one-sided platform isn’t what I’d call “respectful” either. At least I’m honest enough to be up front about it. I’m not Cynthia’s friend. I’m not your friend. My respect is not your right. If you’re offended then that’s your problem. I’m not responsible for your feelings. I’m interested in the truth.

        I’m not the one who has achieved quite a bit of money and popularity from claiming to be an international teacher of Christian wisdom. I’m not the one who presents ideas to be commented on by the public only to, at best, forego any defence to criticism or, at worst, claim (explicitly or implicitly) that such criticism is some sort of personal attack. I’m certain that’s one of the primary reasons Richard Rohr doesn’t have a blog at all. Popular Theology is fuzzy-feel-good but is as substantial as eating sugar. It’s pretty easily dismantled.

        Literally nothing substantial has been expressed via those 8 statements. It’s as if the emperor has revealed her new clothes and everyone is just clamouring to praise them. I challenge it and I’m being disrespectful… I’m fed up with supposed teachers claiming Christian truth without any need to defend that claim… My response… hang respect. Answer the question.

  5. This is a great start, Cynthia! Just yesterday I was listening to Russ Hudson talk about the different emphases between Gurdjieff Work, the enneagram community, and the Diamond Approach. Understanding how this Wisdom branch fits into, interacts with, and establishes a unique charism within this family of related approaches is of strong interest for me.

  6. When I was confirmed in the Anglican Church, by someone who is now the Dean of …., he said he could not answer quite a lot of my questions. Years followed, spending time with Mevlevi, Naqshbandi, almost converting to Islam, spending time with two of the “children” of Mr. Gurdjieff and many of his “grandchildren”. Although my actual grandfather was Russian Orthodox, Metropolitan Anthony very graciously ignored my application to convert. After various upheavals, I became disillusioned, threw it all aside, fourth way, religion, spirituality, all of it. Then, at Easter 2005, I had an experience in church which illuminated for me an understanding of the Body of Christ – I was only there to take my son to Sunday School! I then had a dream which directed me to take up the fourth way again and rejoin a group. As I became a server, head server, a Lay Pastoral Assistant with my church, I struggled to reconcile my Christian Faith with my conviction of the need for “work on oneself”. I began to see a Trinitarian solution to this conundrum: the affirmation of Faith, the “Yes” held in the one hand and the denying “No” of being confronted with how it is with this person. The trick was to hold them both apart, not allowing either the one to drive out the other, nor them to merge into one as with two magnets crashing together. This tension was amply assisted by others. And then, I heard about this theologian and pastor who was writing about, and most importantly working with, the connection between Christianity and the Fourth Way. God Bless you.

  7. Thank you, Cynthia … I have been like one of the sailing dinghies circling around a harbor and keeping my eyes, ears and heart open to the teachings and deep sense of spiritual direction that has emerged over the past 20 years as the sailing ships come and go, exploring the deep waters and sharing the treasures to be found. Looking forward to navigating through this particular branch of this Wisdom “verticil” (I had to look up this word) …

    With gratitude, Pat

  8. Cynthia:
    Thank you for this overview and reminder. I look forward to when you unpack each of these elements in more detail. I feel as though you are doing a “course correction” for us, and giving us a sense of the terrain that we are navigating.
    Blessings, Michelle+

  9. Very interesting overview, thanks.

    Noting the presence of the incarnational emphasis and also the name Panikkar, I urge folks to take a look at Rod Hemsell’s “Philosophy of Religion,” in which he explores the trinity in Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism, all within a profoundly incarnational, evolutionary, post-teal vision. His book is available for free here: https://www.auro-ebooks.com/philosophy-of-religion/

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