When I discovered that Bourgeault had decided to take the next six pages of the fourth chapter to discuss the eight beatitudes, it sent my heart-mind on another delicately deep & delicious mental-spiritual tangent. I’ve heard it said recently that we can never fully know the “noun” of God, that the glorious glimpses of God-consciousness come from the “verbs.” How visionary these God-verbs are! The active blessings of these beatitudes most vigorously bring it!
From the Beatitudes, “we can now see what Jesus is talking about,” when He prophetically drops them cosmic beats into what Emmet Fox describes as “a prose poem in eight verses” to “constitute a general summary of the Christian teaching” (81). If Fox is correct in asserting that Jesus waxed eloquent in these “general principles” to help tune our “mental states,” then these sayings distill the gospel, so we can, in the mode of funky pop culture prophets, “free our minds”so the rest of our outer, physical selves might follow.
Reading these sayings with the mysterious bounty of what Bourgeault calls the “wisdom backdrop” leads her to articulate a fourfold “program” to Jesus wisdom at the conclusion of this section (47). According to Bourgeault, Jesus is talking about:
(1) a radical transformation of consciousness, embraced through an attitude of inner receptivity;
(2) a willingness to enter the flow;
(3) a commitment to domesticate those violent animal programs within us;
(4) a passionate desire to unify the heart.
The great American novelist & author of On The Road, practicing alcoholic & Catholic-Buddhist poet Jack Kerouac said that the beat in Beat Generation & beatniks came from the Beatitudes. “Beat doesn’t mean tired or bushed or beat up so much as ... beatific,” Kerouac penned, calling us all “to be in a state of beatitude, like St. Francis, trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practicing endurance, kindness, cultivating joy of heart.”
Kerouac’s gospel etymology for the beaitude-into-beatnik-terminology prompted a Presbyterian pastor in upstate New York to preach an entire series of sermons deepening this Beatitude-beat connection (calling the early church the Jesus-inaugurated beat generation of the first century) & a Unitarian minister to write an entire book called The Beat Face of God, exploring the spirituality of the Beat generation.
In the latter, Stephen D. Edington writes that he “found spiritual searches & affirmations, as well as soulful yearnings, contained within these Beat writings that touched & taught me in ways that most of my seminary texts & courses had not.” Against the pervasive American alienation & estrangement that’s still with us, the Beats “believed that there was a Holy or Sacred dimension to Life Itself” (17). Sacred dimensions suffuse secular moments & movements again & again. And the literary weight of scripture cannot really be understated. The chant-like quality of the Beatitudes’ repetition permeates our consciousness, giving the wisdom teacher’s oratory the poetic potency of a powerful contemporary MC.
Cynthia Bourgeault, Emmet Fox, & Jack Kerouac are not alone in crediting this beatnik Jesus prose-poem with so much wisdom power. Eugene Peterson’s take on the Beatitudes in the Message is brief & juicy, profound in its plain stinging style. In Prayers of the Cosmos, Neil Douglas Klotz takes his interpretation in another direction & devotes several pages to a in-depth & delightful exposition of the Beatitudes. Brief online searches brought me hundreds of sonic prayers, musical meditations on these visionary verses, one of my favorites coming from the activist acappella African-American gospel group Sweet Honey In The Rock, this version interpreted yet again visually by a gorgeous interpretive dance that I found on YouTube.
The first Beatitude -- “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” --brings me right back to my reflections in the previous blog about the ego & repentance. Peterson interprets “poor in spirit” as being “at the end of your rope” -- an image I immediately connected to the “rock-bottom” that preceded recovery from addiction. Indeed, the first two beatitudes are about heart-broken emptiness & devastating vulnerability, a painfully accurate portrait of emotional tragedies & life’s misfortunes. It’s the poor in spirit, the hurting, that need God most, or as Peterson puts it: “with less of you, there is more of God.”
Misreading these passages could prompt some to improperly portend that God’s just an insecure sadist who wants us to feel like crap, so He can fill in our gaps. It’s almost as if God requires our barren, broken misery to fill with God’s needy, greedy love. Why else would God want to bless our spiritual poverty & inconsolable grief? Doesn’t God want us to have life & have it more abundantly, to be happy, joyous, & free?
But God doesn’t “will” our misery in the nightmarish binary hell of an “us-versus-them” world; our egoic operating system (with all of, as Fox reminds us, its pride, attachments, habits, & fears) is already too accomplished at such dispassionate & dysfunctional behavior & self-destructive thinking.
At the end of the class discussing Bourgeault on the Beatitudes, one member worried that she’s stripped these passages of their radical social justice message in favor of the mystical angle. I would say, though, that these are not opposite readings & that an unjust economic system is as adept at promoting misery on the collective scale as the egoic operating system is on a personal scale.
Buddhism & the biblical basis of the Christian tradition reveal some natural inevitability regarding the nature of suffering & our mortality, like the modern defeatist sayings about “death & taxes or that old rock song “Birth. School. Work. Death.” Just as we are born, we die. The addict uses drugs & alcohol & shopping & sex & television & the like to try to bypass this mortal byway that binds us as a species.
The unique aspect of the living & suffering, dying & resurrected Jesus begins in the loving reclamation, reconciliation, & redemption of human suffering as human salvation -- not just in the substitutionary sense of Christ on the cross for us, but in the beatitude sense of the vulnerable grief of the dying compassionate cosmic Christ within us.
In last week’s blog, I washed in the waterfall of God’s cup overflowing, in God’s everywhere & everything & all-at-once-ness. We will get there again. But with the first beatitude, Bourgeault reminds us that just as God goes for the abundant fecund bounty of everywhere, God also goes for noplace & nothingness as she cites in Merton’s “point of nothingness” & “point of pure truth” (43). A song I loved in the 1980s called “Church Not Made With Hands” imagined God as “everywhere & noplace”; this pungent paradox still sums it up as well as any. In my own teaching practice in the academy, I resist the teacher-filling-the-student’s-empty-cup metaphor that Bourgeault uses in this section only because I too want to be empty & teachable.
I don’t court grief, but I love to cry -- not just when grieving for personal loss but also at the movies, listening to good songs & sermons, holding the hand of a beloved friend. I frequently cried when I was drunk & now that I’m all dried up in that regard, I’m grateful that my emotions & my heartspace still help my eyes get wet. Perhaps Bourgeault hears the sound of our tears as another kind of baptism when she writes that we “must become liquid before we can flow into the larger mind. Tears have been a classic spiritual way of doing this” (43).
Emmet Fox seems immediately uncomfortable with this beatitude, remarking that “sorrow is not in itself a good thing” & reminding us that God desires our happiness & joy (84). But like the first Beatitude, this synthesizes God’s miraculous & mysteriously compassionate attitude towards our personal pains. Even when our grief is at its most brutal, Bourgeault suggests that we can touch “the substance of divine compassion” when “the tendrils of our grief trailing out into the unknown become intertwined in a greater love that holds all things together” (43).
The message of “meekness” in the third Beatitude makes me uneasy, & Bourgeault didn’t help me much at first when she paraphrased, “Blessed are the ones who have become spiritually 'domesticated’” (44). To me, this notion of “domestication” too often slips into human cultural & industrial arrogance in our domination over nature. Having worked in & around the “rewilding” movements of the last three decades, celebrating the wild things in the wide wilderness & within, I’ve resisted taming my own “wild animal energy.” But when I remember the karmic consequences & forlorn ways of my wilder days, I remember the pain wrought from the rude lust & righteous anger; I remember the unsatisfied feeling of unmet & unkempt desires.
Borrowing a tip from Don Miguel Ruiz about the difference between repression & restraint (the latter being preferable to the former), I’ve come to adore my recently domesticated state, symbolized not the least by moving from a remote feral hollow to a cozy college town. I like how Neil Douglas-Klotz harmonizes the tension between these two tendencies in his interpretation of this Beatitude, writing multiple stanzas including these two: “Healthy are those who have softened what’s rigid within; they shall receive physical vigor & strength from the universe.” And: “Healed are those who have wept inwardly with the pain of repressed desire; they shall be renewed in sympathy with nature” (53). With Douglas-Klotz, I’d like to cultivate a third way that rejoices in our softening without our spiritual domesticity resulting in a dull or docile desire. In the next Beatitude, we feel that brighter side of desire.
Bourgeault is at her most cosmic when she taps our common hunger & thirst for righteousness as a much more expansive kind of appetite, describing righteousness itself as “a force field: an energy-charged sphere of holy presence.” Bourgeault invokes God’s aliveness as an “intensity of connection” or “vibrational field” or finally “the complete simultaneity of the energy of connection” (44). With her sounding a bit like old Obi Wan, I’m reminded that I’ve often wondered if Jesus were really the first Jedi Master. God as force or energy is described by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back: “For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us & binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land & the ship.” Again in the more recent Avatar we learn that ultimate reality of the universe that we call God is based on interconnection; like the Creator Spirit responsible for all life, “A network of energy flows through all living things.”
A lot of worry & ink have been expended on Christian denunciations of the cosmic teachings found in science fiction cinematic parables like the six Star Wars films or Avatar. At their worst, these criticisms cast aspersions at the likes of George Lucas & James Cameron for a simplistic pantheism “where Christ-rejecting directors” want “the world to embrace the worship of the earth.” To read these films through a mystical Christian perspective, though, sees our “God in all things,” which is very different than saying “God is all things.”
The writings of Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart & Hildegard of Bingen tingle as they mingle with this vibrant electricity of God’s pure energy in creation. Eckhart expounds, “God is creating the entire universe fully & totally in this present now.” Or “God creates the whole cosmos.” Hildegard of Bingen hastened this holy cosmology, crying out “God’s Word is in all creation, visible & invisible. The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity.” This expanded eternal everything evokes Douglas-Klotz who sings of the Sacred Unity, the One with no opposite. Paul captures this cosmic energy in the letter to the Collosians when he writes (in Peterson’s prose here) of a “spacious” God who includes “everything, absolutely everything” from “beginning to end” in “vibrant harmonies.”
Call it cosmic Christology or Christian cosmology or ecumenical creation care, God’s goodness is green & interconnected & interspiritual as it satisfies authentic appetites for righteousness with a sacred fecundity from the fires of heaven to the waters of earth to the cauldron of creative forces unfolding life all around us.
As this morning’s class is long past & this blog ends without discussing all eight Beatitudes, I’ll say I hope to find an opportunity to address them again. I’d like to close on the cosmic beat of giving & receiving mercy. Bourgeault addresses this beatitude so beautifully when she writes “mercy is not something God has; it’s something that God is” (45). She unfurls this stanza as an always replicating gift economy of mutual reciprocity, what she sees as the divine dance of giving & receiving.
God’s harmoniously anarchic & sacred “gift economy” is a gorgeous alternative to the authoritarian communism & corporate capitalism of secular economics. Bourgeault offers an eloquent summary of these powerful principles in a quote from Michael Brown: “Giving is receiving is the energetic frequency upon which our universe is aligned.” Grateful for the giving.