In her book “The Wisdom Jesus,” Cynthia Bourgeault points out something I’d never considered. When the first apostles left their fishing nets and homes to follow Jesus, it was before the miracles, the healings, and the teachings that helped them come to understand: Here was no ordinary man.
“There is some quality of the presence that is emitted from a spiritual teacher, in the words of Psalm 42, ‘deep calls to deep,’ ” Bourgeault told me when I met her last week. “You realize that this person has touched what’s wildly, deeply alive in you, that this person is safe. You can trust this person. It’s the guru charism,” she said, using the Hindu term.
Cynthia Bourgeault is a star in the Christian spiritual world, a brilliant writer, teacher, and retreat leader sought out all over the world. And I am surely not going to compare her to Jesus recruiting his team by the Sea of Galilee.
Still, she has the guru charism herself. Sitting beside her, listening to her, you can feel it. A peacefulness, contentedness, a calm, happy connection to the divine. Yet she is also funny, almost impish, warm, real, down to earth and not at all intimidating. She’s not unlike her own spiritual guru Thomas Keating, the Trappist monk who revived the ancient Centering Prayer meditation practice nearly 40 years ago.
Bourgeault practices Centering Prayer as well. And writes about it so enticingly (see “Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening”) that you want to embrace it, full time, immediately.
Go on line. See her videos. You can get an inkling of what I’m talking about. My only complaint: You may need a dictionary. This is a woman with a huge and daunting vocabulary.
I met Bourgeault in the small white cabin where she was staying on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey, south of Boston. She was giving a retreat to a packed house there. I asked her what she’d tell beginners drawn to prayer, but confused about how to start.
The tried and true starting point: Read the Bible, she said, preferably one with good footnotes and explainers in the margins. Pick one of the Gospels and just start reading. When a couple of lines or paragraphs resonate, “savor them softly,” she said. “These great ancient scriptures are holy because they’re still alive; there’s still juice flowing through them.”
Try meditation, she said. Centering Prayer or John Main’s Christian Mediation (both are explained online). Or learn to follow the breath, as the Buddhists do.
Go to a monastery and sit with the monks for a few minutes of morning, mid-day or evening prayers. Chant the psalms with them. Many, if not most, monasteries are open to the public. Last week in Glastonbury, I sat with Bourgeault and her retreatants at Compline, or evening prayer, in a sparsely elegant chapel with three massive triangular windows open to sky and November branches still thick with burnt orange leaves. There were a couple of dozen locals who drove up to the monastery, read the prayers, chanted the psalms, soaked it all in, then drove off to supper or work or maybe to the mall with the kids.
Search for a church setting that feels right to you, she said. They’re out there. Join a Bible study group.
And don’t give up too fast. Make a commitment to a practice for at least six weeks, she said. The beginning absolutely is the hardest. “When taking the first steps, it is really difficult to believe anything is out there. This is where having folks who are a few steps ahead and sometimes many steps ahead of you helps. So does a whole spiritual tradition that basically affirms there is something, that the journey isn’t into a brick wall, that eventually you will get to a bigger and richer and more coherent sense of life that will make sense and hang together.”
Cynthia Bourgeault is a mother, grandmother, and Episcopal priest who grew up near Philadelphia and attended Quaker school. She remembers, even in elementary school, sitting for a half hour in silence with her classmates on a meeting hall bench. Sometimes, in the Quaker way, someone got up and said something, sometimes not.
This early experience helped her understand that prayer is not just about asking for help or repeating words over and over again. It is also about being still, resting in God, listening, trusting, opening up, letting go. Eventually, prayer begins to change you, she said, even to transform you.
Eventually, you become less defensive and ego-driven. You can learn to be “completely, non-resistantly, yieldingly present to what is, from an open heart.”
Sitting beside Bourgeault, I realize those last words capture how she is.
Bourgeault often quotes her mentor Keating, who has said, “silence is not the absence of noise but the absence of resistance to God.”
“That God is always present. We’re the ones who are absent.”
That the “yearning you feel for God is actually God’s yearning for you,” and, as she has said herself, “his invitation to an incredible intimacy and tenderness.”
Okay, it all sounds pretty good to me. I hope it does to you, too.