Eager to Love

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Eager to Love.

Richard Rohr on St. Francis and St. Clare510kYnAfpYL

Radical Christianity

I’ve been reading this book slowly over the past six months.  It could be read in an hour or two if you wish.  Each little dose inpsires me to live the Gospel more radically.

Last night Paris suffered its deadliest terrorist attack and so I want to offer this extended quote from Richard Rhor’s work which ends with his own hope for those who read it.

I add some bits in bold: my own reactions.


Francis left his own culture at “great cost”to himself to go to the Sultan, to enter the world of another—and one who was considered a public enemy of his world and religion. He seems to have tried three times, but only succeeded in getting fully to his goal on the third try. This third time, he went to Egypt primarily to tell his own Christian troops that they were wrong in what they were doing (that is, in fighting the Fifth Crusade preached by Pope Innocent III and other Catholic leaders). Francis warned that the battle, and the war itself, would fail.

It is notable that he preached to the Christians (not the Muslims) and, “with salutary warnings, forbade the war, and the reasons for it, but truth was turned to ridicule and they hardened their hearts and refused to be guided.”

Probably Francis’s entire attitude toward enemies, and therefore toward Islam, is best summarized in chapter twenty-two of his first Rule, which some scholars now think was his closing address to the chapter of friars before he left for Egypt, since he thought he would probably never return. He may have thought it would be his final testament to them. It surely sums up his own attitude, which frankly is at a very high level of non-dual consciousness. And, as with Jesus himself, most of us either-or thinkers might just glaze over this quote in disbelief, doubting that anyone could really say it and mean it:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself, in whose footsteps we must follow, called the man who betrayed him his friend, and gave himself up of his own accord to his executioners. Therefore, our friends are those who for no reason cause us trouble and suffering, shame or injury, pain or torture, even martyrdom or death. It is these we must love, and love very much, because they give us eternal life.”

His humility and respect for the other, and thus for Islam, gained him what seems to have been an extended time, maybe as much as three weeks, with the Sultan. The Sultan sent him away with protection and a gift (a horn that was the Islamic call to prayer, and is still preserved in Assisi), which says that they had given and received mutual regard and respect.

There is no precedent that we know of for this kind of behavior in the medieval period. After Francis, the only other Franciscan I am aware of who made such contact is the Majorcan, Raymond Lull (1236–1315). He made at least seven trips to the Arab world, and sought a neutral vocabulary that all three monotheistic groups could hear, perhaps even discovering the Enneagram tradition for such purposes.  He taught that prayerful transformation—not war—would help Muslims and Christians get beyond their mutual belligerence.

With great wisdom, Francis was able to distinguish between institutional evil and the individual who is victimized by it. He still felt compassion for the individual soldiers, although he objected to the war itself. He “deeply grieved”over the impending battle, and “mourned”the soldiers, especially the Spaniards because of what he called their “greater impetuousity.” He realized the folly and yet the sincerity of their patriotism, which led them, however, to be un-patriotic to the much larger kingdom of God where he placed his first and final loyalty.

Francis made it clear to his friars in his most primitive Rule that the first way of being among “the Saracens”is “not to engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake and to [be content] to confess that they [themselves] are Christians.”(Today, we call that the “ministry of presence.”) We can only assume this is what he himself had done in 1219, and he then urged that friars should only resort to formal preaching if they could “see it as God’s will,”a phrase (in’shallah) that he might have learned from Islam’s common use of it.

In Francis, as in Jesus, the turnaround of consciousness was complete: the enemy of the small self became the friend of the soul, and he who lost his small life could find his Great Life. Only such a new person can take on the social illnesses of our time, or any time, and not be destroyed by cynicism.

One wonders, however, if the dualistic and contentious mind that we now take as normative can understand, allow, or support this kind of radical spirituality—or any leaders who would talk this way today. My sense is that we have not progressed much beyond the exact dilemma that Francis stated in 1219: “If I tell them they will consider me a fool, but if I am silent, I cannot escape my own conscience.”The only difference is that there are people like you reading this kind of book, and hopefully allowing it to stir your heart, awaken your mind, and give firm step to your feet. This is not just the higher consciousness of Francis of Assisi; it is actually conscience itself.

Addiction and Spirituality: three modern classics.

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Addiction and Spirituality: three modern classics.

Books on a floor.
Books on a floor.

O Blessed Night.  (Nemeck and Coombs.)

This book was like reading my own spiritual diary, except that it is lucid, comprehensive and flows from a depth of spiritual experience which is still beneath me.  However, as a person who has been led into the great adventure of recovery from addiction, I felt that I was being shown a film of my life: a life full of questions, chaos, uncertainty, conflict and pain.  I am familiar with failure, jobs half-done and relationships in pieces and repeated attempts to write my own history for myself so that every chapter has a Hollywood ending.

The authors, one a hermit, the other a priest are outstanding spiritual directors.  This book looks at addiction drawing extensively on the writings of St. John of the Cross and Teilhard de Chardin.  While I learned much about both, the book was, above all, very reassuring for me.  The “darkness”  of the Blessed Night was so well described I recognised myself in it – for which I am very grateful.  I understand much better what is happening to me and, for all my intellectual doubts about my spirituality, I know with a profound certainty that this journey in, through, with and to God is all that I want and that all of Life is for this.

I read “The Phenomenon of Man” in my teens and its ideas still enthral me and astound me with their prophetic completeness.  They have not aged at all.  The rest of Teilhard’s works were a struggle at the time but they have aged like fine wine.  Or maybe we are all being laid down in the great casks we live in, being matured as we get on with living.  I am being aged.

This, of course, is the crux of recovery.  We don’t do it to ourselves.

Breathing under Water  (Richard Rohr).

"We cannot stop the drowning waters from our addictive culture rising..." R. Rohr
“We cannot stop the drowning waters from our addictive culture rising…” R. Rohr

Richard Rohr is always good, solid bread and butter spirituality: something interesting to chew on, easily digestible and a hearty Franciscan companion for the spiritual journey.  In this book he sets the recovery from addiction, using the 12 steps as a framework, in a scriptural context.

I read it last year and I liked it very much but it hasn’t stayed with me as “O Blessed Night” surely will.  I wonder if this is because of the huge number of books being published in his name right now?  I like reading them all, but they don’t stay with me.  I digest each one and move on like grazing sheep.  I am sure this book will help to explain the twelve steps to those who are not familiar with them and it does so faithfully.

Addiction and Grace  Gerald G. May.


The Angel Of Abundance
The Angel Of Abundance

Dr. Gerald May is a psychiatrist who has worked extensively with people with chemical addictions.  Like the previous authors he sees addiction in one form or another in many aspects of human behaviour and believes that few of us are immune while almost all of us are scarred in one way or another by our own or somebody else’s addictions.

This was the first book I read on addiction and spirituality.  The book is a wonderful blend of science and wisdom and I know it opened up my understanding of the nature of addiction considerably.  More than this, it introduced me to a host of terms and concepts which have helped me put words to experiences which I have had on my journey of recovery.  Just one example, “Grace threatens all our normalities.”  I suppose “Addiction & Grace”  helped me feel more normal in showing how abnormal is our acceptance of the normal.  In the end I no longer feel being normal matters or even means anything, unlike experiences of Grace.


“We admit we are powerless……and that our lives have become unmanageable.”  First Step AA.

The journey begins here.


Enlightenment: Grace with spices.

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Three books.  Two about enlightenment and the third is enlightening.
Three books. Two about enlightenment and the third is enlightening.

My open-minded quest for enlightening reading.

When I visit Amazon UK I study their suggestions for my next set of books wondering what criteria their software uses to decide what I’ll like.  So a few months ago I elected to buy three books they were pushing hard at me.

Living Presence by Kabir Edmund Helminski

An Extraordinary Absence by Jeff Foster  

and Cave, Refectory Road by Ian Adams


Using the body to pray.

Living Presence I liked and it gave me an insight into many aspects of Sufism.  I have had contact with Sufis near my finca in the Sierra de Gata in Extremadura, Spain.  They have impressed me with their gentleness and dedication to a radical spiritual life for their families.  They care for the land they work with a solid awareness of how connected they are to it, as to everything and their commitment to their spiritual lifestyle is unquestionable.

I like the quotes from Rumi, the 13C Persian poet, and feel heartened that there is so much convergence in our global spirituality, in the traditions which have grown through humanity’s different cultural and environmental conditions, but which all witness to our deep longing to be connected together in union with God.

Muslims praying the Salat together, but it can be done alone, or even in the street.
Muslims praying the Salat together, but it can be done alone, or even in the street.

As one trained by the Catholic Church to be wary of my body and to consider it the greatest potential source of sinfulness I have,  Kabir Helminski’s book has led me to consider seriously learning the Muslim Salat.

” The Islamic ritual prayer, practised five times a day is a sequence of standing, bowing, prostrating and kneeling accompanied by prescribed verbal affirmations and lines from the Qur’an selected and recited by an individual.  The prayer is understood to be invalid without a mindful witnessing of the presence of God.  Physically it exercises the major joints (especially the spinal column), massages the intestinal tract, transmits a reflex to the liver, regulates the breath and stimulates the frontal cortex of the brain as it is brought low to the ground, while momentarily leaving the heart in a higher position than the brain…………..Done five times a day it has profound effects on the body and soul.”

As Catholics we don’t have anything to match this, even with the monastic hours, but I see no reason why we shouldn’t give it a go.  I might go on a Muslim retreat or pilgrimage.

The book is full of richness and I can’t say I’ve explored it fully.  I will leave it lying around so I can dip into it again and again.  I always have books like this in the loo which is where I practise “Lectio Divina” regularly which is the nearest I get to combining bodily movement and prayer:  so far.


Enlightenment: it must be better than this.

I had added Jeff Foster’s  An Extraordinary Absence to my Amazon basket because the subtitle said, “Liberation in the midst of a very ordinary life”.  This seemed to fit well with my quest to live a simple and contemplative life in the City of Madrid.  I’d also picked up The Checkout Girl  and Michael Foley’s Embracing the Ordinary (The Amazon one-star reviews are worth reading) in the hope that my own spiritual enlightenment, nourished so lavishly by living in nature for so many years would not be choked by city life which is, for me, uniformly monochromatic.

Having relished Thomas Merton’s Zen and the birds of appetite, a collection of masterly articles on Zen and the contemplative life perhaps it is unfair to make comparisons with any other person’s writings about the great themes of self, nothingness, the inexpressible, union, transformation and the One, especially with Teilhard de Chardin’s Le Milieu Divin recently re-read.

That part of me which is illusory, superficial and unenlightened is straining like a pack of greyhounds to escape from the traps in which I try to contain the venomous criticism and belittling laughter which has been awakened by An Extraordinary Absence.  It is an easy book to make fun of, so I won’t.  I’ll pick a random quote and let you do your own dirty work.  I will also redeem myself right now by acknowledging that my own bemused reaction to this book may be singularly my own and that many people just love Jeff Foster’s works.

You want awakening?  First of all find out if there’s somebody sitting on this chair.  When it’s seen that nobody is sitting on this chair, it’s also seen in clarity that there is nobody there who could ever become awakened.”

Enlightenment must be better than this.

Amazing Grace

Cave, Refectory, Road by Ian Adams, got better and better as I read it.  Some of the author’s own poems really touched me and if I don’t manage to incorporate the Salat into my daily rhythm I will certainly lie face down on the earth from time to time.  This is one of many practical suggestions which fill this book along with wisdom, gleaned from experience, of bringing ancient monastic practices into life today, even city life.

It is a gem of a book which doesn’t flinch from looking at aspects of monasticism which are not so comfortable for us with our cosy lifestyles – like celibacy and fasting and obedience.  The key to managing to live committed to community and to God in a contemporary setting may well lie in these less easily acceptable monastic elements and Ian Adams shows some ways in which this might happen.

Grace is the Christian’s word for God’s touching us.  Ian Adam´s book shows us ways in which we can be open to God’s grace.  The wisdom of the Eastern faiths can especially help us to take stock of just how blind we can be to God’s grace in today’s world.  Kabir Helminski’s Living Presence explores how with a broad view from many faith traditions.

Mysticism and the uncompromising life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount – the future of the Church?

I end with two quotations I often come across in my reading:

‘…the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.  I think it is time to gather people together..

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer


“In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.” 

                                                             – Karl Rahner




The Meaning of Mary Magdalene

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Was the early Christian Church constructed on a fault-line?

The Meaning of Mary Magdalene by Cynthia Bourgeault.

Mary Magdalene Cynthia Bourgeault
Mary Magdalene by
Cynthia Bourgeault
A book which gives a good shake to the foundations of my Faith.

Throughout my life I have accepted without question the primacy of the texts in the Canon of Scripture as God’s words to us.  Basically,  my faith has been nourished by the synoptic gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, some Psalms and a few Old Testament stories. As a Catholic, I am also immersed in Church tradition and teaching.  This book by Cynthia Bourgeault has woken me up:  new horizons indeed.

The “Master Story”

Cynthia Bourgeault suggests that Western Christianity missed the deep spiritual message of Jesus and installed as its principal theme a “Master Story”.  This “Master Story” we all know through the Canon of Scripture: that Jesus’ death and resurrection redeemed us. This sacrifice of God’s son has bought us eternal life, saving us from our sins.  The Eucharist is the central theme in which Jesus, physically resurrected and ascended to His Father, becomes present to us until He comes back to Earth. The Church is founded upon rock – Peter and his successors who are always men.

Another story: A Love story.

While not lacking rigorous research, this book emerges essentially from Cynthia Bourgeault’s own spiritual wisdom, a result of many years of prayer and reflection.  It is based on a different set of rules from the biblical scholarship which I am used to but I find her main conclusions fit much better for me within my own spiritual journey than the “Master Story”.   One of the difficulties I have with the way the Catholic Church has turned out is that throughout its history it has behaved disgracefully, from the top down, on many occasions.  The sexual abuse scandals of recent years lay bare a profound imbalance within its psyche and not one that anyone will imagine is only of recent years.  Another is that the basics of a sound relationship with God are hard to discern in its history: meekness, humility, poverty, trust in Providence, forgiveness, love and so on.  These are all there in individuals but not in the Church, the Curia or the Vatican and if they are they have been very well disguised.  I sense that Cynthia Bourgeault is right when she identifies the imbalance with a lack of the feminine within the Church’s hierarchical structures over the past 2000 years.  It is not that this master story is wrong it is simply that, in becoming the only story, a story staunchly defended, interpreted and canonised by the Catholic Church over the centuries, this has weakened the foundations of the Church and stunted and deformed the shape of the message which Jesus has given to us.  This is because it has marginalised a great love story.  By God’s grace the Church is still carrying His message of His Love for us  to people throughout the world.  Perhaps mankind has not been ready to hear and absorb the full story until now.

What has been pushed to the margins is a love story, a love story in which we are all invited to partake.  This love story is fully human and fully divine and belongs to the special relationship which existed between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Male/Female love as Divine Love.

Cynthia Bourgeault painstakingly shows how Mary Magdalene’s role as the first Apostle, sent by Jesus to give the news of his resurrection to Peter and his other chosen disciples, has been played down in favour of the master story.  Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene is found within the gospels but she was associated with a reputation as a prostitute from the first years of Christianity, a myth perpetuated throughout the centuries.  So the chances of the Jesus/ Mary Magdalene relationship being seen as centrally important in “the new covenant”,  if not indeed being the essence of the new covenant, has always been remote.  She details just how the story has been side-lined and one way, in particular, was in the way in which the Canon of Scripture which omits the “Gnostic” texts, came to be adopted.  Until reading this book, I had no interest in the non-canonical gospels.  My interest was in the historical Jesus: facts.  My male brain saw this as the only route to developing my relationship with Christ.  Knowing Him more clearly would lead to loving Him more dearly, not the other way round.  The fascinating analysis presented in this book has moved my perspective.  Cynthia Bourgeault examines thoroughly  how these non-canonical gospels throw light upon this great love story and the dynamics at the heart of Love in all its fullness, in all its power for transformation and in all its transcendental energy.

She also shows how the tradition of Mary Magdalene managed to endure in France and can still be discerned in certain communities.   I have been surprised in my own spiritual journey by experiences which are totally new to me. These carry echoes from the rich tradition of contemplative mysticism in the history of the Church, often found in France and Spain: I can best describe them as encounters with divine love tagged on to traditional “images”, such as the communion of saints, the Sacred Heart and Therèse of Lisiuex.  On reading this book, experiences of love which have pushed their way into my life as loose ends, uncharacteristic of my “master story” training,  fall into place – (the communion of saints, the Sacred Heart and the Canticle of John of the Cross, as examples)

Kenosis – the key (What is Kenosis?)

Cynthia Bourgeault repeats often that whether Jesus had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene is not really relevant.  The male/female relationship is full of sexual power whether consummated or not. The celibate life can be a full expression of a person’s sexuality, male or female as much as a any married person. The key is what happens to Eros,  sexual love when it joins with Kenosis.

“Kenosis” is a Greek word used by Paul to describe the self-emptying of Jesus and posed many theological conundrums in the early Church.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ

Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.       Philippians 2: 5-8

The lives of many individuals who have followed Jesus in self-emptying show how we, too, can empty ourselves, being servants in Love.   It is not only the Mother Theresas who show us how to imitate Christ in kenosis.  In the field of alcohol self-help I have encountered many women who kept alive their love and their husband in a chaotic world while he would lapse and lapse again before, at last, accepting a life without alcohol.  In plain terms we would say that such a life of patient accompaniment is very “draining”: that is kenosis.  Such women always seemed to me to be full of Wisdom and their love became healing for many more than just their husbands.  Many individuals live with someone who has a personality disorder and learn to accept, in love, a world which rarely resembles his/her own; others love and care for their down’s syndrome children, re-arranging their entire lives to do so. We do not know just when in life we might be called to let go of self, completely, setting aside self on a daily basis in loving union with the beloved.  These examples are extremes of what is demanded in most relationships but partnerships don’t last long without learning to let-go, be humble, renounce desires and empty self in some way or other.  “Kenosis” is doing this perfectly and in doing so becoming more truly just who you are.   Marriage is the paradigm setting for Kenosis.

Cynthia Bourgeault suggests that Agape, God’s Love, this absolute love into which we are all called to share and in which to belong, enfolds us totally when Eros and Kenosis combine.  This incarnated love is central to the meeting of God with man.  The Church  has shown in its teaching a profound imbalance, a fear, an excess of legislation and an ignorance of the goodness of intimacy with regard to sexuality and sexual love.  Indeed, it seems to have separated sex from love on important occasions  and if a detailed analysis of church literature does not bear this out, the commonly held perception that sex is more often an occasion of sin than an occasion of grace, is witness to what has been going on in the clerical mind for centuries. Celibacy does not guarantee access to divine love nor an understanding of human love.  Both the celibate and the married state invite us to emptying of self.  However in the Catholic Church, marriage has always been regarded as a second best – “if you must”, says Paul.

Mary Magdalene and Jesus

The book tells of how the author, in a single moment,  became aware that the one person who was with Jesus at his death on the cross and the one at the tomb when He rose was Mary Magdalene.  Here, she says, is a woman who stays with her beloved, physically at his tomb, holding his life in her heart until he rises from the tomb.  Slowly, for me, it has sunk in that this role of Mary Magdalene is of the highest importance in the gospel story.  Yet the love between Jesus and Mary Magdalene has been taught as a mere detail in the master story with the spotlight fixed on the forgiveness of the repentant prostitute rather than on the reciprocated love between these central characters.  Cynthia Bourgeault’s intention is to restore Mary Magdalene to her legitimate and significant role in the story we tell of God’s love for us in Christ.   She draws upon her understanding of “the Fifth Way” an idea by Mouravieff which I can’t say I understood.  However, I like her conclusion, self evident when we understand the place and nature of this love in Jesus’ life,  that Jesus learned as much about love from Mary Magdalene as she from him.  Maybe we are now at a moment to accept such things.

The Bridal chamber

There are many important horizons opened up in “The Meaning of Mary Magdalene” such as the importance of anointing, the significance of the “Song of Songs” and the Magdalene tradition in France.

For me though, what I take from this stimulating work, in itself an exposition of the spirituality of romantic relationships, is that the “Master Story” has helped build an unbalanced Church, principally reflecting the male mind rather than representing a balance between the masculine and the feminine.  (Even the prominence in Catholicism of devotion to Mary, Jesus’ mother, virgin and chaste can suggest a downgrading of the status of non-virgin women.)  What is less told is a great love story, the greatest Love story; a love story which points the Way for us all to life in Christ.  I am becoming aware of how conditioned I have been to find such re-adjustment of the Gospel story as unacceptable, theologically unsound and probably heretical.  However, it does add balance.

At heart, we have been given no choice but to accept a story which is male-centred, presents the mechanics of salvation in place of its heart and continues the ancient male priesthood.  It has claimed as its right absolute authority, the privilege to preside, decide and define the gospel story while, at the same time, over the past  two thousand years, it has ruled, killed, persecuted and excluded as much as any other despot.  We have received a vocabulary for our prayers of courtly obeisance, of a male God high above us, monarchical with an army of angels, of Christ as King, of ourselves as his soldiers.  The images are male, the vocabulary masculine: mind over heart, logic trumps emotion and intuition.

The alternative story is a Wisdom story which Cynthia Bourgeault illuminates with convincing insights in which heaven and earth come together , male and female entwine, where unity and singleness are the seal.  The prayers are love poems, words between bride and groom, man and wife, between lovers: God’s own Word.  This is the Good News, The Way, the Truth, the Word and Life eternal.  The nuptial chamber is where creator and created meet to transform both.  This story needs no intellectual gymnastics, just an immersion in prayer of the heart and a willingness to let the words of the scriptures, even “Gnostic” writings, sink in in prayer, in lectio divina and quiet listening.  It invites us, too, to enter in, to know God intimately.  That can’t be bad.

While Christian mystics have often come under suspicion from the Church  it may be as Karl Rahner suggested,

“In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.”

“The Meaning of Mary Magdalene” is, for me, an inspiring vision of just what “experiencing God for real” is all about.