Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Cynthia Bourgeault. Cynthia is an Episcopal priest, a retreat and conference leader, and the principal teacher and advisor to the Contemplative Society. She passionately promotes the practice of Centering Prayer, and has worked closely with Thomas Keating, Bruno Barnhart, Richard Roar, as well as many other contemplative teachers and leaders within the Christian tradition as well as other spiritual paths. She’s the author of the book Love Is Stronger Than Death and the book The Meaning of Mary Magdalene.
With Sounds True, Cynthia has created several audio programs, including a six-part series on Encountering the Wisdom Jesus: Quickening the Kingdom of Heaven Within. And on October 27, 2012, she’ll be speaking with A.H. Almaas in an exclusive conversation on Conscious Love: The Power of Revelation in San Rafael, California, where they will explore how certain forms of human relationship can function as conduits to the secrets of being.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Cynthia and I spoke about the concept of the abler soul, in which two souls come together to form one that is larger than each individual soul. We also talked about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and how appreciating this relationship as an intimate one changes our view of Jesus as a teacher. And finally, we talked about servanthood, and what it might mean for each one of us to grow in servanthood. Here’s my conversation with Cynthia Bourgeault.
Cynthia, you’ve written an absolutely gorgeous book called Love Is Stronger Than Death, in which you describe, very poetically, a deep and beautiful relationship that you had with a hermit monk named Rafe. And I’m wondering, here at the beginning of our conversation, if you can bring our listeners up to speed, so to speak, and describe for them a bit about this relationship that you had with this gentleman named Rafe.
Cynthia Bourgeault: Well, [laughs] that’s a tall order. I guess I can give you the outside version. Rafe was the hermit monk at St. Benedict’s monastery. He was there for 20 years or so at the end of his long monastic career. And I came to St. Benedict’s to study Centering Prayer with Father Thomas Keating, bumped into Rafe, and very quickly discovered that we had very deep commonalities, similar interests in some of the classic teachings of the inner work, particularly on conscious love.
And we fell, or were called, into a deep relationship of personal mutual transformation, which became Rafe’s last human task. We were together for about two and a half years. I moved out to Colorado to be with him, and he was mentoring me on this path very actively when he had a heart attack and died. The funny thing is that he sort of knew that was coming, although neither one of us had any exact forewarning of it. He sort of dodged the bullet of going to doctors. But there was this sort of sentiment from the start that the relationship would be short-lived in physical time.
But he was quite determined to show me how one of the perks, if you want to call it that, of conscious love is it forms here, it begins here in this life, but continues. And he kept mentoring me to experience him and that love in more subtle and expansive ways, so that basically, after his death, it could continue to be, as it were, a kind of constant channel between us and into the world.
So that’s what happened. He died very suddenly in early December of 1995, and that was well over 15 years ago, approaching 20 years ago. And in some sense, we’re still at it.
TS: Tell me in what sense you’re still at it.
CB: Well, there’s a direct feeling of an engaged partnership. Not any of the normal sort of reductionisms that you put on it. It’s not like necromancy, it’s not like having visions, it’s not personal trysts. But there’s a deep inner sense that the same kind of “miracle of we,” as Ken Wilber calls it, that was forged during the life continues as an uninterrupted center of both of our [consciousnesses]. And creativity pours in through it, certainly from him to me, and I can only assume that mutuality continues.
TS: There’s so much here, and I’m going to try to unpack it a bit. So first of all, how would you define conscious love? You say that he was mentoring you in conscious love. What do you mean by that?
CB: Well, conscious love is—I guess the obvious and chronological description is it’s love that’s conscious. It’s a love which is not about the usual sense of love, which is totally possessive and glued and “you and me forever and nobody else.” But it’s love that is in the service of awakening, or you could say that the other way around, awakening that’s in the service of love.
So it’s deep, it’s intimate, it’s passionate. It has all the dimensions of erotic love, including desiring, but it tries to cut a wider space in these things so that very identified nature of erotic love is turned inside out by conscious surrender and widening of the horizons. It becomes possible to experience a deeper and finer and more subtle force of love, the force that Dante referred to when he talked about the love that moves the sun and the stars.
TS: Now, for many people who are dedicated lovers, when a partner dies, there’s a sense of still being invested or attached to their partner who has now passed on. And someone from the outside could say, “God, that person really needs to move on in their life.” What’s going on here? How would you distinguish between an attachment and the type of growing conscious love that you’re describing?
CB: Well, that was the hardest thing in the aftermath of Rafe’s departure from the planet. Because everybody was sort of doing the basic Buddhism thing and saying, “Well, you will hold him back if you cling to him, and you must let him go. It’s important for both of your lives that you move on.” And it was only my own inner sense, a real strong inner sense, that that wasn’t what was going on in this case. Every time I tried to renounce [him], he bubbled right back up again, like it’s still there.
And I eventually came to trust it simply by the seat of my pants at first. But as I looked into the literature and lived the life, I discovered that this kind of a phenomenon is known. Leave it to the Mormons, they’re probably the only religion that actually gives special acknowledgement to the fact that you can have such a thing as an eternal marriage.
Now, that doesn’t mean that any garden-variety union of two people in life is going to go on forever. But there are certain signature qualities of certain relationships that seem to have dealt right into them a capacity and actually a mission, a vocation to be inter-realm-ic, if you can use that word, and to bind together persons in a union which is stronger than physical death.
These unions do exist. They’re not for personal romance or personal fulfillment, or even particularly for the completion of some karmic agenda that one or the other partner has left undone. They’re to create bridges between the invisible and the [visible], for the sake of an increase in hope and faith and trust and creativity on human beings who are so easily tempted to think that everything ends in death.
TS: So it’s almost like what you’re saying is there are certain contracts, you could say, or agreements between people, and it’s clear that those agreements will go beyond the physical form. Is that fair to say? You’re saying something like that?
CB: Yes, [but] I wouldn’t use contractual language, because I think if it’s a contract, it’s probably not the real thing. But there’s just a very strong mutual intuition that that’s what’s happening. And there’s a sense that grows in a person, particularly as the path of conscious love is practiced, [that] the particular relationship has this configuration and is intended to have that configuration.
Once again, it’s not a inevitable end of the road for every relationship, including even the best of conscious relationships practiced in this life. Some terms are for this life, but there is this subset of relationships that are deliberately configured to bridge the realms and really come into their own after one partner has departed.
TS: Now, I’m just curious why—I’m not sure you exactly bristled at the word “contract,” but why you didn’t think it was the right fit. I’m just curious what that word brought up for you that you don’t think is the right fit.
CB: Well, it brought up a lot of the kind of politically correct, “I speak, you think; I’m being sensitive to you, you’re being sensitive to me”—the sense that modern partners so often have that they’re managing their relationship. And for me, that tends to put it into too cerebral and too [egalitarian] a mode for the real, sublime will that runs through it to really operate. It slows it down too much.
TS: Now, you introduced this term in your book, Love Is Stronger Than Death, the “abler soul.” And I wonder if you can explain that term.
CB: Well, the term itself comes from the wonderful old metaphysical poet John Donne, who says in one of his wonderful poems—I think it’s “The Ecstasy”—“When love of one another is so interanimates two souls, [that] abler soul, which thence doth flow, defects of loneliness controls.” And granted, “interanimates” is a pretty big word, but the whole idea is that two souls can essentially form, come together to form a soul which is larger than both of them.
And essentially, this happens in almost any true deep love relationship, almost from the get-go, that, again, Ken Wilber talks about this in his little wonderful phrase, “the miracle of we.” One of the things that makes love so extraordinary when we first fall into it, is there’s the sense that a unit has actually been called into being that is bigger than the sum of the parts and is not exactly—even if you split it off, it would still be a genuine third. There’s you, there’s me, and there’s us.
Because the new creation of love in virtually any love relationship—the problem is, without a conscious path, that tends to be a short-lived phenomenon. And as hurt and disappointment enters the course of [the] relationship, the investment in the abler soul is withdrawn, and finally it goes back to him against her, or him against him, or her against her. And you lose that amazingly expansive sense that something is called into being that is larger than both, and shelters both.
And ideally, when one forms a marital union, and when you defer to one another in a relationship, it’s not to one another that you’re deferring. It’s to the abler soul, to the vision of wholeness that is brought into being when people allow their separate boundaries to become subsumed in a larger wholeness.
TS: Now, it’s almost seemed to me, when you were talking in the book about you and Rafe and your unity, that it wasn’t so much a “you and me and this miracle of we,” but that it all became a miracle of we, in a sense. And I’m wondering if maybe I misunderstood you.
CB: What do you mean by that?
TS: What I mean is that it became this oneness, [it] became sort of the new way of being for both of you, and that I wasn’t sure anymore that there was actually the separateness. It seemed like you had become just one being, and that there wasn’t that—I mean, I [often] hear people talk, in a relationship, there’s you, there’s me, and then there’s this new thing called “we.” But my sense was that you guys became one in a certain kind of way that almost erased the individuality. Now, tell me if I’m missing something or I misinterpreted.
CB: No, I think that’s actually exactly right. And that was part of the magic of it. After Rafe died, basically, that oneness was what was left. And it’s what, I know from my point of view, was what everything flowed through and continued to flow out of in the time since. Presumably, that’s the case for him, too, because oneness is oneness.
TS: Well, it’s a pretty big “presumably.” I mean, you ask a question that I think is an important question: Do the dead grow? And you write in the book, “Rafe is more alive now than he was in his body.” This is a big question. Do the dead grow? It seems like you come to the conclusion—I don’t know, maybe that’s too strong a word—but that your sense is yes.
CB: Yes. I do. I believe in that very strongly. And the only reason it boggles the mind is that in our human understanding of growth, we see growth as a function of time. It’s a progressive act, and to be a progressive act, you have to have time to do it.
But when you realize that it’s the nature of love to grow, and when you say “love is stronger than death,” you have to be talking about that the nature of love has to continue to grow, it has to expand. And what dimension this growth is in is when time is not a factor—it’s hard for our little binary mind to imagine, but I’m absolutely sure that’s so.
And actually, it’s represented in some of the traditions. It’s represented, even in a kind of vestigial way, in the traditional Catholic doctrine of purgatory, which is the place that we usually hear just sort of morally as a waiting room until people get good enough to get into heaven. But the whole idea is that they would continue to perfect themselves—in the Catholic Church, to lament their sins and to do penance for wrongdoings committed—but in some sense, to grow, until the point where they had attained essentially the requisite karma for admission to heaven.
And certainly, Gurdjieff worked on that in a big way in his wonderful essay “The Holy Planet Purgatory,” where his whole idea that, of course, once you reach a critical level of development in this planetary existence, a critical level of consciousness, you not only can but will and must keep on growing. Because the nature of the lands beyond is this expansiveness towards the fullness of potentiality.
TS: Now, I’m imaging someone who’s listening, and they’re thinking, “You know, I haven’t necessarily had this type of connection with a lover who has passed on, but I have had something where I feel a connection and I’m continuing to grow with someone in my family who’s died, or with an animal that was dear to me.” What do you think of that? How do you make sense of that?
CB: Well, I think that’s all quite so. I think there is a particular nature, a differentiation that when the union has been essentially erotic, and particularly a consummated erotic relationship, there’s a particular chemistry in that kind of a configuration. It creates a different nature to the whole thing, a greater intensity. You travel down the pike.
But I think it’s absolutely true, and I’ve seen many, many examples of lives changed by people receiving help. I’ve received help from a grandmother I never knew who died a decade I was born. And people remember presences of loved children or spouses, or as you say, pets that, yes, wherever there’s the heart leaning and tending towards that which it loves, a current is established that definitely transcends the permeable veil of physical death.
TS: So it’s been 17 years [since] Rafe died. Would you say that you have felt or seen anything that really confirms for you this idea that, even though he’s dead, he’s growing and changing? What’s your “personal evidence” for this?
CB: Well, I find it largely through a growing expansiveness in the nature of our relationship. The center continues to hold, but it widens and widens and takes on a much more transpersonal dimension. In the beginning, when I was still learning how all this worked, there was a frequency of actual contact. And the nature of it was still, I would say, in many ways, consolation and reassurance. And there was a sense that Rafe was hovering close.
And there, I learned to go through the paces of grief and getting adjusted, at the age of not-yet 50, to this radical new direction my life was taking. And as things have been going on, and in [these] 17 years that have been spent, for me, largely teaching and writing and doing some hermiting—not as much as I’d like—there’s been just a sense of widening space. Since I see that the center still holds, and I see what it’s doing for me, I can only infer that that is mirroring a parallel and proportionate change in Rafe.
TS: I think part of what just totally boggles my mind—and I’d love to understand how you understand this—is here somebody dies, and your relationship is continuing, it’s deepening. But what about the idea of reincarnation? Is this person being reborn? Is some part of them being reborn, but some part of them is still continuing, in a different dimension, to grow and relate with you? I guess the whole afterlife world—I don’t really get it, and I’m curious what you see and feel.
CB: Well, it doesn’t quite mesh with reincarnation. And Rafe was very clear, when we talked about it during the time—he was an adventurous Roman Catholic by his upbringing, and although he was very, very assiduously studying the Tibetan Book of the Dead in the last years of his life, he was quite personally convinced that reincarnation was not something he was interested in at all, at least in the way that it’s usually understood by Westerners trying to understand [it].
He was not, in the slightest, interested in coming back into another body, or another human experience, or another personality with some spark of continuity underneath. He said with the body, it’s already a hindrance. And he knew that the next dimensions were not lived in physical form, that physical form is sort of a one-shot deal, and that there are certain things to be learned and certain things to be gained in this experience. And if you do, other things continue.
But he was not personally interested in [reincarnation], and I think I would certainly have known—while I was in the more superstitious stages in the newly widowed stage, [I] kept wondering, when little babies came, this one or that one, whether [they] could be Rafe coming back. But there’s a very strong sense that, no, he’s not in a bodily dimension, and firmly will not be. Because the level he had already attained in his bodily life really was sending him spinning beyond the realm of experience that could be contained in a physical body. There are better forms to contain what he was at the threshold of.
TS: And can you give me a sense of what you think living in these other dimensions might be like? I’m curious what your sense is.
CB: Well, you know, I don’t want to do it in a kind of intellectual level, because that’s the wrong part to be engaged. I would just say that at a feeling level, there [are] so many feelings—Rilke described it as, “for beauty is only the beginning of a terror we can just scarcely bear, and the remarkable thing is she disdains to destroy us.” But those experiences that we touch in our lives, and we can only touch the hem of them because they’re basically just too intense to stay with [for very] long in our human form: that very deep intimacy, that very deep every-which-wayness of great joy that has great sorrow in it, that great sorrow that has great freedom in it. It’s to take those great, intense emotions and simply up the whole base to the point that that becomes normal.
So when Gregory of Nyssa said, “The dead don’t die, they live more intensely,” I think that’s what he’s talking about—the stuff that would basically melt our nervous systems and the flesh no longer melts [them]. And in that sense, we become capable of flowing at a great deal more vibrant a level of reality than we presently have. Life is pretty dull and stale for much of us tromping through, and we simply can’t—even the best of us—get ourselves up out of the cellar hole of our emotional conundrums and our boredom and our repetition.
So I think there’s an intensity, but the thing about this intensity is that it’s normal. So it doesn’t feel like, “Oh, wow, I’m having a mystical state,” it’s just that, there it is. And in that intensity, we simply continue to do the work of love that’s always being done in all worlds and all dimensions, that the fullness of God may be manifest.
TS: Beautiful. Now, I want to go back to this idea of conscious love in a partnership, to human beings in partnership. And if I heard you correctly, what you were saying is that there could be conscious love relationships, two partners who are very dedicated to each other, but they may not be on this journey of the abler soul, having an eternal relationship with each other. Is that correct?
TS: OK. And then, what would you say would be the qualities of simply a conscious loving relationship, and why do you think some people are destined for this other type of eternal love?
CB: Well, the “why” of it is simply—it fits within the dictates of the cosmic will. And I don’t mean by that that it’s foreordained or predestined or anything like that. But that the partnerships that are supposed to jump the gap or straddle the realm are so because there’s a particular nature of transmission that needs to flow through them, and because the two partners are, in some sense, peculiarly adapted to convey that. It doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily more spiritual or higher than anybody else. It’s just that the intermesh is perfect for the job that needs to be done.
You’ve got an example of that, a brilliant one, in Rumi and Shams-i Tabrizi, his teacher. Shams was this gorgeous, jagged, wild man of heart that was nothing but the sun he was named after, and he was almost too intense for life. He burned everything in sight. And Rumi was this brilliant poet and scholar that, before he met Shams, he was just on the top of his game as a very smooth and very capable, civilized human being.
So Shams just sort of took over his heart and remade him; hollowed him out, gutted him, and started again. And the union was such that Rumi’s extraordinary talents could contain—when he had been prepared and initiated and purified—the fullness of Shams’ gift, of Shams’ intensity. But contain it not to channel it, but to match it and to bring it into and contain it in Rumi’s sacred humanity, and then to allow something to flow out of it that neither one of them could touch by themselves.
So I think that’s the nature of what becomes the inter-realmic relationships. There’s a particular kind of urgency and compatibility in the transmission link that works. I think in the relationships that are conscious but are not intended for [the] abler soul, what you find is just increasing release.
And even in this life, there’s more and more of a transpersonal widening space and letting be and equanimity. And even in this life, the particular bonding that holds them together as an abler soul begins to let go and there’s a merging into the infinite. That’s not the case in the abler soul relationship. That bonding doesn’t let go. So everything else is there, but there’s still something connecting at the core.
TS: Now, the example you gave of Shams and Rumi—maybe they were lovers, I think it’s unknown, but it seems like it fits, clearly, a very charged and intense transmission-filled teacher-student relationship. But yet you’re describing, really, the abler soul as primarily being an erotic partnered relationship. So what do you think about that, the teacher-student dynamic versus lovers?
CB: Well, I think that the nature of the abler soul bond really grows out of that erotic bond. So it’s not strictly a teacher-student relationship, and it tends to be much more mutual than a teacher-student relationship. So I don’t know, I wasn’t there when Shams and Rumi were doing their thing. Like many, I thrill at Andrew Harvey’s rendition of it, which makes some people [laughs] turn pale. But you sense in some of the power of the eros and the longing, that Shams’ disappearance [often] touches Rumi, that this is beyond the nature of the longing of a student for a teacher.
The student-teacher transmissions are, in some sense, easier and cleaner because teachers show up, and they do so easily because they’re less mutuality, and therefore there are cleaner boundaries. There’s something messy in the whole abler soul relationship. There really is a mutuality and an organicness that transcends tidy distinctions.
TS: Tell me a little bit more [about] what you mean by, “it’s messy.” What do you mean by that?
CB: Well, what I mean is that it’s—what do I mean? I want to be very careful here because I’m not in any sense talking about sexual misconduct between teachers and students. If a teacher and student relationship is contracted, that’s what it needs to be. And the mutuality and the respect for the boundaries and the sacredness of the teacher-student art form is utterly important.
But many abler soul relationships are basically—and I would say essentially—erotic relationships that simply take a teacher-student configuration—because one of two partners is older or more experienced in life or is close to the end of their life. So what you really have is, basically, the base that it’s working on is the erotic base, and then the teacher-student [relationship] is the way it would look from the outside world and the way the teaching expresses itself.
But, for me, the real difference in the nature is that in the erotic relationship, there is a complete reciprocity and mutuality, and in one sense, the power is equal. And in a teacher-student relationship, the power is not equal, and it’s never allowed to be.
TS: Now, you have this quote that I picked up from one of your books that I thought was really interesting, which was the relationship between eros and agape, and I think it’s part of what we’re talking about here. You’re talking about how the abler soul relationship is one in which eros is such an important part. But you say here—this is the quote—“Agape is, in essence, transfigured eros.” And I wonder what you mean by this. How is eros transfigured into agape?
CB: By kenosis. [Laughs] My little Einsteinian formula is “eros times kenosis equals agape.” So what’s kenosis? Well, let me get to that in a minute. I would say that everything in creation throbs with eros. The great mystical poets have said that God didn’t create the world out of this overflow of agape, and agape isn’t divine love as opposed to human love, which is clinging and erotic. But that everything throbs with eros, with desiring, wishing to come to its fullness.
And the way it comes to its fullness without betraying or repressing or neutering its nature is through the practice of kenosis, which means to let go. So it releases the stranglehold, which is the natural position of eros that, again, William Blake [describes] in his poem, the one “who binds to himself a joy doth the winged life destroy.” And the whole idea is that when we desire something, we want to cling to it for dear life. And as we learn to release that clinging, eros is transfigured.
Now, by releasing the clinging, I don’t mean releasing the object or renouncing the object or desiring. All that means is to release the clinging and to stay present to the love, which is, in some ways, even more excruciatingly painful because it [means] to live with your broken heart. But to give that which you most want to clasp to your chest, to your heart, the space to be, the freedom to come and go.
And that’s kenosis, and what it does is it transforms the nature of eros so that desiring, rather than being used to form a tight little bond between the desire and the object of desire, just turns inside out and becomes a generative and intensely creative radiant force going out into all of the cosmos.
TS: So you have a Einsteinian mathematical formula, “agape equals eros times kenosis,” and just to really make this very real for people, could you share with us, from your own life, how you’ve engaged in kenosis, this self-emptying times eros in order to generate agape? How has that actually looked on the ground in your life?
CB: Well, I could give one example with Rafe. During our time, I was 20 years younger than him. I was still in my 40s and he was in his late 60s, and we were at very different stages in life. And I’d been an Enneagram 4 run amok, I think, with one relationship after another. So I was sort of desperate on an emotional level for a love I could hang onto. And whenever I got in that kind of clingy mode, Rafe would very quickly get negative and start widening space considerably.
So there was one day—it was shortly before the time was up for me to leave the little place at the monastery where I’d been living for a year. And I was just a basket case of self-pity at that point. It was Mother’s Day, to make things worse, and I’d invited Rafe over for Mother’s Day dinner. And he took one look at my state and made a few disparaging remarks and left. And so I wept and was just in a mess and thought, “Oh, come back, I’m going to lose everything,” you know, just, pity me.
And I started cleaning the oven, the most disgusting of tasks, and beating myself up by doing it with my bare hands. Suddenly, there was this little ping that went off in my head. And I said, “OK, this is the last week I’m at the monastery, this is the last week I may ever see Rafe. I can either waste it all in self-pity and clinging, or I can live it as a gift of gratitude, as my free gift of gratitude for all I’ve received. And it doesn’t matter whether he sees it or not.”
And I just straightened myself up and started cleaning it off. It was just such an astonishingly novel change of direction, to realize that I didn’t have to cling, that love expressed in one direction was clinging, but expressed in another direction was gratitude. And I could just feel these waves of freedom flowing out of me, and five minutes later, he was back, as if he’d sort of either read the signals of my shift in consciousness or had actually instigated it.
He always told me, “No conscious work is ever wasted.” And one of the teachings he had for me was to show me how that if you did the work of that widening space, of letting go of clinging, of self-pity, of insistence, that it literally sent waves into the cosmos that would be picked up somewhere or another.
TS: Now, I want to circle back for a moment to this idea that only a percentage of our conscious love partnerships, relationships, are really abler soul relationships. And that makes sense to me, intuitively, but I’m curious, just to try to make this really grounded, do you have a sense of what percentage of partnerships might be abler soul? Fifty percent? Two percent?
CB: Oh, jeez. It would be a wild intuition. I’d say, just as a stab, somewhere under 10 percent.
TS: OK. And I’m asking that because I think that the romantic inside people are going to be, “My relationship is an abler soul relationship, I’m sure of it, the depth of love.” What would you say to that, to [tell] the person, like, “Let me just tell the truth here, actually, it’s not.”
CB: Well, I think the real important thing to realize is that we use the word “true love” to mean something that’s really, really emotionally intense. Like Romeo and Juliet, a true love. But that’s not what the term means. True love means love that’s true, that is true to a pattern that conforms to what its actual nature is like.
So we get off on the wrong foot to begin with. If you say that abler soul relationships are more emotionally intense, truer love, and that’s what happens to the ones that love each other the very, very, very, very most, that’s not at all so. They’re for cosmic servanthood, pure and simple. They’re not for personal gratitude and they’re not an eternal reward for very great intimacy.
I would say in the normal course of things, if people have lived together wisely and well in this life, Jesus’ injunction that in heaven they are neither married nor are given in marriage is not only truthful, but is tremendously liberating. Because there isn’t the need anymore or even the desiring to have special bonds.
And I think that abler soul relationships basically last for the time that one partner is still on the planet and the other one’s in another realm, and when that configuration is no longer pertinent, there is a mutual receding back into whatever it was, that abler soul, and then what happens to it, I’m not sure.
So I wouldn’t say that even the abler soul is permanent and immortal in the cosmos. The cosmos that we see has many dimensions and is continuing to grow. I see that once the servanthood of the abler soul relationship has served its place, then the same kind of deep transpersonal melting into a new level is certainly an option.
TS: So this would then bring us to what might happen at the time of your death, and how your relationship with Rafe might change at that point in time. And you’re saying it’s kind of an open situation, you don’t know.
CB: I say it’s open-ended. I would say that I would expect that I would know shortly before I’m on my deathbed, but maybe not. I certainly don’t envision, if it’s consistent with the nature and direction of growth, I certainly don’t see that we’re going to get ourselves a condo in heaven.
It’s more like—because the partnership melts more and more into the servanthood that engendered it. I think that whatever is most needed in the cosmos—we would hope that our lives lived in this sort of way would allow the cosmos to place us, individually or collectively, where the new need is.
TS: Now, Cynthia, I’m going to ask you a personal question, and this is pretty personal, but does this mean that, over the last 17 years and you imagine for the rest of your life, that you wouldn’t have another earthly relationship partner because of this bond that you have with Rafe?
CB: Well, you have to be careful saying what you commit yourself to. I’ve never said I won’t have another partner. What I’ve said is that if another partner shows up, so be it.
But so far, my sense is that the partnership with Rafe is going perfectly well. And there hasn’t been any sort of sense of why one would want another partnership. It’s all full. So I’m not making any predictions. I’m just saying that I think I would know from the inside if the terms were to shift.
TS: OK. Now, switching gears a little bit, but not really, in your book, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, you describe the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, we could say, as this abler soul relationship. Would you say that’s correct?
CB: Yes, I think so.
TS: And this is quite bold statement for you to make. And I’m curious, just to begin with, what gives you the confidence to claim this?
CB: Well, intuition, but partly looking very closely at the nature of their relationship, at the nature of what’s explicitly stated in some of the so-called Gnostic Gospels, and what’s there right between the lines in the canonical Gospels.
But also to watch what flowed out of it, that after Jesus left the planet, Mary Magdalene continued to witness, in a very, very powerful and life-changing way, to the reality of love, to the reality of the creativity of their channel. And she continues, in her own exercise, even after she’s left the [planet], she’s still such a force over the centuries—particularly in western Europe, which I think is her domain—for creativity, for courtesy, for cultural and visionary healing, that I see her as, essentially, forming a very unique kind of bridge with Jesus, her beloved, that continues to shower its fruits upon this world.
TS: And why do you think that this idea, this possibility that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were “soul mates,” to use the traditional word, I think, for the abler soul idea? Why is this so hard for people to accept?
CB: Well, I think that the background to it is that we’ve gotten this idea that has been well-patterned into us over well more than a millennia of Christianity being basically a celibate game, with all the theology being put together by celibates talking to other celibates. And out of that kind of condition, we’ve gotten the idea that Jesus’ unique status as the only son of God is absolutely contingent on his celibacy.
And so whenever you say anything that makes it look like he might have had a partner, it immediately seems like an assault on the divinity of Jesus. I’ve tried that many times with people and [said], “What does it make you feel like, the thought of Jesus having a partner?” And without any kind of question, people will say things like, “Well, if Jesus had had sexual relationships with a woman, he couldn’t have been pure,” or, “If he’d loved one in particular, he couldn’t love us all impartially.”
So there’s the sense that any kind of partnering would disqualify him as the unique son of God. And this is all a very, very complicated castle of assumptions that are grounded on very, very shifty sand. But they’ve been so deeply reinforced in people over the centuries that it’s just an almost Pavlovian response.
It shows you, too, incidentally, where so much of the abuse and misconduct and miserably debased vision of human intimacy enters the Church when [they] say things like, “If Jesus had been intimate with a woman, he couldn’t be pure.” What does that say about our understanding of our own relationships as a path of transformation?
TS: It seems like if Jesus did have this sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene, that he, then, becomes much closer to us as sexual people. There’s like a gap that is bridged in a very profound way.
CB: Yes. And when we have to be really, really careful with words here, because the two words “intimate” and “sexual” are close, but they’re not synonymous. And I’m not committing myself in any way to whether or not they had sexual relations, but I certainly am committing myself to the fact that they were intimate.
The inner traditions sort of spilt on that very important point, incidentally. About half the traditions say that for that conscious eros to be transformed into agape, sexual abstinence is necessary. And the other half say that, no, it’s through the consummation of that—the actual union, on one level, of the seed and the intermingling of the seminal fluids, is carrying a different kind of union on another level.
So you’ll find esoteric teaching on both sides of that coin, and it would be imprudent to commit myself to one side or another. So I would say only that, yes, I see them, as intimate partners following whichever course for their sexual relationships was, for them, most consistent with the path of wholeness and servanthood that they embarked upon.
TS: OK, well, that’s a very important clarification, thank you. I’ll ask the question that I’m really trying to get at in a different way, which is, if Jesus and Mary Magdalene were intimate partners, how does that change our view of Jesus as a teacher and guide for people?
CB: Well, I think it changes it a lot, and in better ways. To begin with, it brings us right down into the marrow of our own transformation, our own conscious transformation, because if Jesus did what he did in relationship, it adds a tremendous dignity to our own relationship.
And some of the work I’ve done in my Wisdom Jesus book and other places says that when you really understand the essence of the method that Jesus was teaching, it certainly can be done equally in celibate and in also conjugal versions, and certainly in intimate and non-conjugal versions. Because it’s not driven by celibacy, it’s driven by kenosis or letting go.
So it brings it down, that way, to earth. I think in another way, so much of people’s theological approach to Jesus has been based on the whole idea that he did what he did because he was so unlike us. He’s the only person who has both a fully divine and fully human nature.
And over the centuries, the Church has built up the difference between him and normal human beings to a huge degree. At one point it says, “Like us in every way except that he did not sin.” Well, that means, basically, unlike us in every way.
And when you consider [that] to have sexual relationships [was considered a sin], it just goes round and round and round, and the Church has tended, out of its great love and devotion to Jesus, to set him on so high a pedestal that most folks feel that he couldn’t possibly be a model for their life, or made of the same stuff that we’re made of, even though that’s exactly what he himself said and called us to.
TS: Now, Cynthia, as we come to an end to our conversation, what I really want to focus on is this word that you’ve used a couple times, which is “servanthood.” And I think that’s one of the things that so impresses me about you, quite honestly, and also when you describe your abler soul relationship with Rafe, and I can feel into it that quality of servanthood that the two of you have formed together. And what I’d love is to know, how do we help our listeners grow in servanthood?
CB: Well, I love the simple—not-easy—quote from Gerald May, that wonderful founder of [The] Shalem Institute. He said, in his book Will and Spirit, “As attachment ceases to be our motivation, our actions become reflections of compassion absolute.” And what that basically means is the rubber hits the road as we start practicing losing our attachments.
And this can start very, very simply with just working in Centering Prayer, the practice of meditation I practice, where, when you realize you’re engaged in thinking, you let go of the thoughts. And little by little, you program in that default relationship of recognizing when you’re clinging to something and letting go, lightening up on the clinging, the insistence, the identification.
And as you being to pattern that in, there’s confirmation neurologically—not just theologically—that it really beings to change how we look at the world, and we see more and more from oneness, and compassion flows out of that. And that’s what servanthood is. It’s just looking at the world more and more grounded in the stance of compassion. And if that’s the stance, then servanthood will follow.
It’s very curious that of all the titles that people put on Jesus, the one he most seemed to like himself was “Son of Man,” which is a kind of funny and mysterious thing that’s not really understood in the Western traditions. But it seems, functionally, to be the equivalent of what the Buddhists called the bodhisattva: the one who, though enlightened himself or herself, chooses to stay behind in this earthly realm to relieve the suffering of all human beings.
And I think that [concept] of servanthood was just dawning on the horizon of human consciousness at the time that Jesus was living. He certainly saw himself in a role of servanthood. He saw the passion of the letting go, or he taught a path of the letting go compassion that begins to bring the brain and heart around to a point where compassion flows. And out of that, then, our life becomes servanthood, because it’s not all about me, it’s all about helping.
TS: Now, coming up in just days now, you and A.H. Almaas—Hameed Ali, who writes under the name A.H. Almaas, the founder of the Diamond Approach—will be in dialogue, talking about conscious love, on October 27. And the subtitle for the day that you’ll be spending together, talking about conscious love, is The Power of Revelation. Can you tell me how that subtitle fits, The Power of Revelation?
CB: I would say that my experience of the nature of the walk with Rafe for these past 17 years has been continuous revelation. That is to say, I don’t mean visions or anything dramatic, but in that creative field that is created when human beings really commit themselves to a path of conscious love.
Your heart lives in what the inner tradition calls “imaginal reality,” which means in the sphere of the visionary, in the sphere of the eternal timeless coming into form. And so you’re kind of, in and through that relationship, on the breaking edge of the wave in terms of simply what’s coming into being next in the planet.
It’s been continuous. There are no books. It’s all new, it’s all fresh, it’s learned as the heart leans towards its love, which looks from the outer world like leaning towards the future, but is really leaning into the ultimate.
TS: Wonderful. Well, I’m really looking forward to it. It’s a dialogue that will be taking place on October 27. Cynthia Bourgeault and A.H. Almaas, together for the first time, yes?
CB: Yes! Yes. I’m so excited about that. I’ve been wanting to actually sit in a room with him for 20 years.
TS: I don’t know how I’m going to keep up with the two of you, I have to say. I’ll be hosting the dialogue and I feel a little bit, even here as we prepare, like the runt of the litter kind of padding along with my little feet. But I will be listening with open ears and open heart, and I know people are so excited for this event. So that’s October 27, Conscious Love: The Power of Revelation. And Cynthia, thank you so much for being with us here on Insights at the Edge.
CB: OK. Well, I just can’t wait to see you in San Francisco.
TS: Wonderful. Cynthia Bourgeault has created with Sounds True an audio learning series called Encountering the Wisdom Jesus: Quickening the Kingdom of Heaven Within, and also an audio learning program called Singing the Psalms: How to Chant in the Christian Contemplative Tradition. SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.