Meet Cynthia Backup

Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader. She is the original creator of the Wisdom School that fuses both the Benedictine rhythm and the three centered awareness of Gurdjieff and has been organizing and teaching schools since 1999. Founding director of Northeast Wisdom/ Wisdom Waypoints, The Contemplative Society and The Aspen Wisdom School, Cynthia is also a core faculty member with James Finley and Richard Rohr of the Living School of the Center for Action and Contemplation. Cynthia divides her time between Wisdom teaching, writing, and solitude, both at her home in Stonington and her remote hermitage on Eagle Island, Maine.

“Where we come from …”

On February 26, 2018, Cynthia offered this short lineage document to members of her Wisdom School network. It captures in a nutshell most the essential elements in her unique synthesis of Christian Mystical and Fourth Way insights.

Wisdom, like water, is itself clear and formless, but it necessarily assumes the shape and coloration of the container in which it is captured.

Our 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 sent me off to teach it just before his death in 1995. 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 is my own quick shortlist of the seven main elements–or defining characteristics–for our particular branch of this Wisdom verticil:

Cynthia with Thomas Keating

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 are understood to designate that stream of Christian transmission through which the radically consciousness-transforming teachings of Jesus have been most powerfully transmitted. But we steer clear of esotericism simply as mental or metaphysical speculation, and we affirm the primacy of the scripture and tradition as the cornerstones of Christian life.

Grave of Teilhard de Chardin

5. Also in contrast to many branches of the Wisdom tradition based on Perennial or Traditionalist metaphysics (with its inherently binary and anti-modernist slant), we are emphatically a Teilhardian, Trinitarian lineage, embracing asymmetry (threeness), evolution, and incarnation in all their uncertainty 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. 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 Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Ladislaus Boros, Bernadette Roberts), the Desert and Hesychastic traditions; Bede Griffiths and the Christian Advaitic traditions (including Raimon Panikkar, Beatrice Bruteau, and Bruno Barnhart); Rumi, Sufism, G.I. Gurdjieff. The poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Mary Oliver, Rainer Maria Rilke. And of course my own teacher, Br. Raphael Robin.

My own teacher, Rafe


Cynthia’s signature contribution to the Christian contemplative reawakening has focused on four main areas: 1) Centering Prayer; 2) The Christian Wisdom Tradition; 3) The Western Esoteric and Fourth Way traditions; 4) The Path of Conscious Love.

Centering Prayer

For more than thirty years Cynthia was a student, then colleague, of Fr. Thomas Keating, the renowned founder of the Centering Prayer movement. In addition to her own two books on the subject, she has also taught and offered Centering Prayer retreats worldwide, as well as an acclaimed online course on The Secret Embrace, Keating’s final work.

Centering Prayer is the path to a wonderful and radical new way of seeing the world. It is not, as is sometimes thought, simply an act of devotional piety, nor is it a Christianized form of other meditation methods. Cynthia cuts through the misconceptions to show that Centering Prayer is in fact a pioneering development within the Christian contemplative tradition.

In Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Cynthia examines how the practice is related to the classic tradition of Christian contemplation; she looks at the distinct nuances of the method and explores its revolutionary potential to transform Christian life. In The Heart of Centering Prayer, Cynthia provides a practical, complete course in the practice and goes deeper to analyze what actually happens in Centering Prayer: the mind effectively switches to a new operating system that makes open-hearted, nondual perception possible.

The Christian Wisdom Tradition

“Wisdom is not knowing more. It is knowing deeper, knowing with more of you,” writes Cynthia — and it is this different way of knowing that unlocks the real transformational force of Jesus’s still radically non-dual teaching. The Wisdom Way of Knowing and The Wisdom Jesus are Cynthia’s gateway books into this life-changing terrain.

The Wisdom Way of Knowing, which launched Cynthia’s reputation as a contemporary Wisdom teacher, was originally commissioned by the Fetzer Institute shortly after September 11, 2001, as part of their “Reawakening the American Dream” series.

The Wisdom Jesus has been a perennial favorite since its first appeared in 2008, offering tens of thousands of seekers worldwide a fresh start in a Christian faith they knew only too well. It has been translated into several languages, including most recently Latvian!

The Christian Inner and Fourth Way Traditions

From the Gospel of Thomas to the “Fourth Way” of G.I. Gurdjieff, the Christian Inner (or Esoteric) tradition has been that branch of the Christian lineage most directly concerned with passing on the spiritual knowledge and practices that “put teeth” in Jesus’s radically transformative teaching.

Here you’ll find the practices of mindfulness, non-identification, conscience, three-centered awareness, and cosmic energy exchange, contexted against a metaphysical backdrop broad enough to let you see the fuller picture of our human purpose and responsibility in the wider scheme of things.

Cynthia has been a student of the Gurdjieff Work for nearly three decades, and her unique synthesis of Fourth Way and Christian mystical reference points has broken new ground not only for Christians but within the Work itself.

This work is showcased in her 2013 book The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three as well as her acclaimed newest book Eye of the Heart: A Spiritual Journey into the Imaginal Realm, which earned her a place on the prestigious 2021 Watkins List of “the hundred most spiritually influential people in the world.”

The Path of Conscious Love

Since the fourth century, the path of celibacy has traditionally been seen as a superior path to union with God. The formation of Christian doctrines on relationship and marriage has primarily been led by celibate men. How have these views limited our understanding of love? Could it be that love, desire, and longing all have a critical role to play as the driveshaft of creativity? What is the divine essence of desire and how can we begin to work with desire instead of against it? Cynthia explores the nature of eros, self-emptying, and creativity in The Meaning of Mary Magdalene and Love is Stronger than Death.