IN THIS SERIES, I will explore the path of “Kenotic Love” as seen through the passionate heart and Christened mind of one of my favorite authors, Episcopal prelate Cynthia Bourgeault, who has rekindled in my heart an ecstatic love for the Man whom Mary Magdalene called “Rabboni”— and who knew her as his Beloved Companion — the romantic story about which I wrote a post back in August, 2018, The Gospel of the Beloved Companion, which would be a timely read in this day of the rising Divine Feminine. Also my October post Fifth Way Love, A Romantic Path to Transformation.
In this post I will share excerpts from Cynthia’s book THE Wisdom Jesus — Transforming Heart and Mind. This passage speaks to Jesus’s character and his message to humankind. Christianity does not teach the Kenotic path that Jesus literally went down.
There has always been a strong tendency among Christians to turn him into a priest —“our great high priest,” in the powerful metaphor of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews. The image of Christos Pantokrator (“Lord of All Creation”) dressed in splendid sacramental robes has dominated the iconography of both Eastern and Western Christendom. But Jesus was not a priest. He had nothing to do with the temple hierarchy in Jerusalem, and he kept a respectful distance from most ritual observances. Nor was he a prophet in the usual sense of the term: a messenger sent to the people of Israel to warn them of impending political catastrophe in an attempt to redirect their hearts to God.
Jesus was not interested in the political fate of Israel, nor would he accept the role of Messiah continuously being thrust upon him. His message was not one of repentance and return to the covenant. Rather, he stayed close to the perennial ground of wisdom: the transformation of human consciousness. He asked those timeless and deeply personal questions: What does it mean to die before you die? How do you go about losing your little life to find the bigger one? Is it possible to live on this planet with a generosity, abundance, fearlessness, and beauty that mirror Divine Being itself? These are the wisdom questions, and they are the entire field of Jesus’s concern. If you look for a comparable category today, the closest analogy would probably be the Sufi sheik who wields the threefold functions of wisdom teacher, spiritual elder, and channel for the direct transmission of blessing (baraka), in a fashion closely parallel to Jesus’s himself. The sheik is a distinctly Near Eastern category, and it probably best preserves the mantle that Jesus himself once wore. . . .
In order to go up one must first go all the way down. For flesh to rise, spirit must first descend. To ascend, one must fully incarnate. I love how deeply Cynthia understands the kenotic path Jesus took.
THE PATH OF KENOTIC LOVE
SO FAR WE have been looking at Jesus as typical of the wisdom tradition from which he comes. An enlightened master recognized by his followers as the Ihidaya, or the Single One, he teaches the art of metanoia, or “going into the larger mind.” Underlying all his teaching is a clarion call to a radical shift in consciousness: away from the alienation and polarization of the egoic operating system and into the unified field of divine abundance that can be perceived only through the heart. But how does one make this shift in consciousness? It’s one thing to admire it from a distance, but quite another to create it within oneself.
This is where spiritual praxis comes into play. “Praxis” means the path, the actual practice you follow to bring about the result that you’re yearning for. I think it’s fair to say that all of the great spiritual paths lead toward the same center—the emergence of this larger, non dual mind as the seat of personal consciousness—but they get there by different routes. While Jesus is typical of the wisdom tradition in his vision of what a whole and unified human being looks like, the route he lays out for getting there is very different from anything that had ever been seen on the planet up to that point. It is still radical in our own time and definitely the “road less taken” among the various schools of human transformation. I will fill in the pieces of this assertion as I go along, but my hunch is that a good many of the difficulties we sometimes run into trying to make our Christianity work stem from the fact that right from the start people missed how different Jesus’s approach really was. By trying to contain this new wine in old wineskins, they inadvertently missed its own distinct flavor. In Jesus everything hangs together around a single center of gravity, and you need to know what this center is before you can sense the subtle but cohesive power of the path he is laying out.
What name might we give to this center? The apostle Paul suggests the word kenosis. In Greek the verb kenosein means “to let go,” or “to empty oneself,” and this is the word Paul chooses at the key moment in his celebrated teaching in Philippians 2:9-16 in order to describe what “the mind of Christ” is all about. Here is what he has to say:
Though his state was that of God, yet he did not deem equality with God something he should cling to.
Rather, he emptied himself, and assuming the state of a slave, he was born in human likeness.
He, being known as one of us,
humbled himself, obedient unto death,
even death on the cross.
For this, God raised him on high
and bestowed on him the name
which is above every other name.
So that at the name of Jesus,
every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth.
And so every tongue should proclaim
“Jesus Christ is Lord!” to God the Father’s glory.’
In this beautiful hymn, Paul recognizes that Jesus had only one “operational mode.” Everything he did, he did by self-emptying. He emptied himself and descended into human form. And he emptied himself still further (“even unto death on the cross”) and fell through the bottom to return to the realms of dominion and glory. In whatever life circumstance, Jesus always responded with the same motion of self-emptying—or to put it another way, of the same motion of descent: going lower, taking the lower place, not the higher.
What makes this mode so interesting is that it’s almost completely spiritually counterintuitive. For the vast majority of the world’s spiritual seekers, the way to God is “up.” Deeply embedded in our religious and spiritual traditions—and most likely in the human collective unconscious itself—is a kind of compass that tells us that the spiritual journey is an ascent, not a descent. Most students of the wisdom tradition consider this upward orientation to be one of the foundational attributes of sophia perennis itself, its origins no doubt archetypal. While my own work with the wisdom Jesus has led me to disagree, it is hard to deny that the idea of spiritual ascent has been around for a long, long time. In biblical tradition, the image of the spiritual ladder goes all the way back to the headwaters of the Old Testament, with the story of Jacob’s dream of the ladder going up to heaven. It is probably five thousand years old. Christian monastic tradition returned to this image and developed it still further, as essentially the roadmap for the spiritual journey. The seventh century teacher John Climacus (“John of the Ladder”) even took his monastic name from this powerful image, and through his influential teachings it became the underlying philosophy of monastic practices such as lectio divina and psalmody.
Ascent mysticism was very much in the air in Jesus’s time as well. Earlier in this book I spoke of the Essene community, that apocalyptic Jewish sect whose visionary mysticism and ascetic practices were probably the most immediate formative influence on Jesus. At the heart of the Essene understanding was a particular strain of spiritual yearning known as merkevah mysticism. Merkevah means “chariot,” an allusion to the Old Testament story of the prophet Elijah being taken up to heaven in a chariot. This dramatic episode offered a vivid image of ascent to God, which the Essenes saw as applying both individually and for the entire people of Israel. “The end of the world was at hand,” and all eyes were gazing intently upward as Jesus took birth on
To rise requires energy, in the spiritual realm as well as the physical one. And thus, the vast majority of the world’s spiritual technologies work on some variation of the principle of “conservation of energy.” Within each person there is seen to reside a sacred energy of being (sometimes known as the “chi,” or prana, the life force). This energy, in itself infinite, is measured out to each person in a finite amount and bestowed as our basic working capital when we arrive on this planet. The great spiritual traditions have always taught that if we can contain this energy rather than letting it leach away—if we can concentrate it, develop it, make it more intentional and powerful—then this concentrated energy will allow us to climb that ladder of spiritual ascent.
This ancient and universal strategy is really at the basis of all genuine asceticism (that is, asceticism in the service of conscious transformation, not as a means of penance or self-mortification). And there is good reason for this: the strategy works. Through the disciplines of prayer, meditation, fasting, and inner witnessing the seeker learns how to purify and concentrate this inner reserve and to avoid squandering it in physical or emotional lust, petty reactions, and ego gratification. As self-mastery is gradually attained, the spiritual energy concentrated within becomes strong enough and clear enough to sustain contact with those increasingly higher and more intense frequencies of the divine life, until at last one converges upon that unitive point. It’s a coherent and powerful path of inner transformation. But it’s not the only path.
There’s another route to center: a more reckless path and extravagant path, which is attained not through storing up that energy or concentrating the life force, but through throwing it all away-or giving it all away. The unitive point is reached not through the concentration of being but through the free squandering of it; not through acquisition or attainment but through self-emptying; not through “up” but through “down.” This is the way of kenosis, the revolutionary path that Jesus introduced into the consciousness of the West.
(to be continued)
THE PRAYER OF ST. FRANCIS
I will leave you to ponder this original prayer of St. Francis, believed to be written by a French Franciscan and based on a little known admonition Francis wrote to his friars, according to James Twyman.
Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance.
Where there is patience and humility, there is neither anger nor disturbance.
Where there is poverty (simplicity) with gladness, there is neither covetousness nor greed.
Where there is quiet and meditation, there is neither concern nor wandering.
Where there is love of God to guard the house (cf. Lk. 11:21), there the enemy cannot gain entry.
Where there is mercy and discernment, there is neither excess nor severity.
I am deeply thankful to God for life, for health, for serenity of mind and peace of heart. I am particularly thankful at this time of harvest when we celebrate Thanksgiving for the abundance of Mother Nature as she clothes the trees with new leaves in the wake of devastating hurricanes. I am profoundly thankful for my companion in life, Bonnie Lee, and for all our family on the West Coast. Thank you, Lord, for the gift of their presence in our life and in our world. To my readers and blog followers, a heartful appreciation for traveling with me these past several rich years of sharing the meditations of my heart. I always enjoy your responses. Until my next post,
Be love. Be loved. Be Thankful