And The Wheels Were Turning: Imagining Wisdoms

This article covers imagining wisdoms and  Christian contemplative wisdom.

If we are to respond to the question of Christian contemplative wisdom for today, we cannot spend all our time on the well-trodden way of rational reflection. Let us take a suggestion from one of the more exciting principles of postmodern thought: the enactive, creative quality of knowledge. Can we imagine our way forward?


Within your consciousness right now—or enclosing your consciousness—is an infinite light. It is possible to move into this light, to be within this light, to know this light as your own being. You know something of the depths and magnitudes of consciousness, how you can move about within it and find all manner of thing, how you can bring forth an unending series of new things from within it. But you can also enter into its interiority, you can descend as it were through the stem of consciousness into its root and ground, which is the unbounded and uncreated light. The light dwells in you, unnoticed; from it comes forth what is required. Light, after all, has a life of its own; it is not totally expended in illuminating other things, bringing them into being with its touch. What is the life of the light within itself, the inner life of the candle flame? The Masters have written about this inner life of consciousness, and it shines forth continually in the Jesus of John’s Gospel, the one who can say “I am.” What is within this “I am” with no predicate, no object? Is not light sufficient, full, before we see it reflected from an object? Can you think this thought? Is this what you are?


We become aware at times of an intensification of reality, as if the luminosity of our inner being enlarged to surround us, as if we had come into an enchanted place. The people who encountered Jesus must have felt that way sometimes, as if they had unknowingly stepped into a zone of enhanced meaning, very near the center. Something like this awareness—something huge and gentle, totally beyond our contriving, our understanding—dawns upon the young person; it is the awakening to spirit.

Ah, this is who I am! It is a rare and precious thing to be alive. Who will teach us to come again and again to this point of light, to the center? Who will show us how to follow our consciousness to its brilliant point, to stay awake, to thrust away from ourselves the sleep of the grownups, of the resigned, of the centuries and the dead. I did not awaken myself from among the dead. Who will teach me to hold myself free of the repetitive rhythm, the music of the unconscious, the great monastic sleep?


Imagine a gift, an anointing, a knowledge of the heart B not an objective something known, but a simple knowing—such that one could find the center of any heart and unlock the light and freedom within it. We think of the saints like this, as having this ability to touch others at the core and release them from bondage, to speak a word that calls to life the slumbering spirit in the depths of the heart. Do you not believe that there is a power, an inner light and energy of this kind, a divine contagion that runs from heart to heart, setting the person free within itself? There is the most precious thing, the pure gift, the touch that sets the person free to be itself. The gift which is nothing but oneself. Is this not what we imagine baptism to be, the gift of Jesus to be? The recognition of Jesus, the relationship itself with him is the beginning of this awakening, this new birth.You can see it happening in the gospels. Imagine him as the one who comes to bring you home, bring you into your own life so that you begin to live from the core of yourself, and with the whole of yourself. But it is a gift that he has also given to his disciples, has breathed into them.

The Bible

The Bible

This gift, this wisdom of the heart, may be ad hoc: it may be an insight, a recognition of the inner person, the inner spark, in a particular person. But before this it must be the ‘taste’ of this same freedom, this divine fire, within oneself. And then a gift of communication, of ignition: the almost irresistible touch of divine humanity that frees the heart from its prison of stone. There is no end to the spreading of this flame, to the movement of this knowledge in the world. I say knowledge, but it is more: energy, being, life. No end to its expansion outward into the world like an insatiable ring of flame, liberating hearts and minds and bodies. Do you believe that this is a reality?


As we begin to imagine a new Christian wisdom, we realize that we must speak in the plural, of new wisdoms. It may be that there will be more peripheral or outward looking wisdoms in which the Christ-content will be implicit rather than explicit. But at the center of our vision is needed that explicit wisdom of Christ which is a unitive interpretation of the New Testament. Will this be one or itself plural? I shall imagine it as one, for now. But there will certainly be variants, at least here and there, in this central picture.

My inclination is to see this theological core as simple, yet with a form; as one and four: as the single nondual Light which, having become one with humanity and the cosmos, is differentiated in the form of the Cross. This will be an image of the mystery of Christ, joining God and creation, the individual and the Whole. But already the ink is drying on the page, the heights and depths have been flattened to the thickness of paper. The living core, the heart of this world will not be so easily captured and tamed. Here there is something like the equation of Einstein, e=mc2; but not graspable, and with a different compactness, a different power. Here in the cruciform center the torrents of life, the flaming furnaces of innumerable suns, the quiet light of the beginning, the world and waste of infinite matter bow and wait, as at their point of origin. Here all the dimensions, the heights and depths, the vitality and profundity of reality pour through the needle’s eye of intelligibility, a single point of light. It is the turning point of wisdom and power at which Paul bursts out exultantly in the first two chapters of his First Letter to the Corinthians. In our baptism, it has become what we are. Our identity itself is the point into which everything flows, out of which everything emerges.

Is this center a Christology? Rather, it is Christ: Christ as event, as power, as well as light, as well as the consuming and consummating oneness. Here we imagine wisdom as the central index, the sapiential core which gives unity and meaning to everything else. This Christ wisdom is the genetic nucleus which, containing within itself the ‘essences,’ the ‘rationes, ‘ the ‘divine ideas,’ illumines and interprets everything around it. It contains the implicate essences and because of its central position, ‘holding the center,’ is able to interpret, illuminate everything around it.


An adequate anthropology? The task has never been accomplished. We must begin with a confession of total ignorance, a declaration of bankruptcy. Is it a matter of looking into the sun? A blind sun which does not know itself? We are earth, yes. But we are also mountains and rivers out of sight, we are the glittering edge of a sword, we are the eye of the sun.

What manner of mirror, what unimaginable bronzen dancing Shiva will figure forth for us the human person? What can render the undetermined, the center of freedom, the formless and ineffable source from which our figments come? How shall we know the knower? At the very least our anthropology must live in its movement and move on the wings of poetry. We stutter in a language made of dialectical opposites, of polarities and contradictions, trying to utter that which will not come out, which cannot be known except by identity, and this an identity which lives before and beyond us.


Pray Prayer Tombstone Gravestone Plate Death

Gravestone Plate

Jesus speaks daylight to the blinking crowds. Scribes and Pharisees, priests and officials shake their heads and rub their beards. The wealthy listen with a shudder and return to their schedules. As he speaks, a wild freedom opens within the hearts of the people; what they were afraid to hope for or imagine is somehow present here, as this man stands before them and his words linger in the air, somehow beyond time’s gravity. What is it that is here among us, what is this sudden, invisible festivity that wells forth from the midst of the day and holds us together, this subtle brightness which we see reflected in one another’s face? Do you know, it is not as they told us it was. We are free. What does that mean? I don’t know; I only know that the truth of it is inside me, dancing like fire. Quick, let us thank God that we are alive to know this moment and to acknowledge it!

In the wilderness there lives a wildness, a freedom that laughs down the walls of Jericho. Suppose wisdom disappeared into the people as rain into the earth, then to rise up everywhere like the grass, making the ground to shake, bringing down the walled cities, the fortresses of oppression, the financial towers, the great armories of iron, by their own intrinsic unrightness.

Wisdom is not enough. It must become incarnate, it must become an active energy. It takes a long time, the light burning within the earth of humanity for many centuries, before it bursts forth to consume the high cities of iniquity. The knowledge seeps through the ground, and finally the people begin to awaken and to unbind themselves. They arise as one person; there is no power in the world that can subjugate them now. Who will enslave the one who knows who he is; who will make captive the Child of God?


Can you imagine an inner eye that knows the continuity and development between Shankara and Shakespeare, between the nonduality of Vedanta or Zen Buddhism and the personal realization and creativity of the modern West? This would be to know the human person with a depth and an expansive vitality such that these realizations of the person would be recognized as the awakenings and expressions of one’s own self. A Christian Wisdom might bring a connatural knowledge of the river of fire that burns and flows beneath the surface of history: the fire of Sophia, of the Spirit, which is the inner meaning of history and which is continually bringing forth the Person: many and one.

An awakened consciousness might know the person as rooted in the divine ground,—an ‘ anthropology’ which becomes an understanding of the inner continuum of this history, which knows both the ‘right and left hands of God’, the emergence of the person both inside and outside the world of Christian faith and culture, knows the continuity between the Christian and the ‘post-christian’ (or secular) phases of western history.


There is a special fascination in those moments of ferment, of chemical reaction, of a common creative intensity, as we recognize them in the records of history: in the Upanishads, in the drama and philosophical writings of ancient Athens, in the Acts of the Apostles, in what has come down to us from the desert of Egypt, from among the disciples of Romuld, or the scholars of the University of Paris in the thirteenth century, from Renaissance Florence, from the German musical world of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, from the Romantic poets of Germany and England, the modernist poets and the physicists of the early twentieth century, the theologians and ‘fathers’ of the Second Vatican Council…

As consciousness, within each of us. awoke to the one light, we began to become aware also of something new happening between us. Previously each of us had worked her or his own garden; now we experienced a common energy, a cross-fertilization. No doubt we had worked within a common process earlier, but now each of us awakened to it. Something new, something like a nuclear chain reaction, began. We did not know what it was that ignited this reaction; it was almost as if a great cloud of dust and gas has suddenly become a sun. The separate particles became a single flame that held them living and burning together within it. The excitement cannot be rendered in words; there was a fury of seeking and imagining, but in our expectancy was already a knowing, a common discovery.

And what was understood then, what came forth? We knew that the new consciousness into which we had been precipitated together was more important than the particular discoveries, our insights, our new ‘equations,’ exciting and powerfully synthetic as they were. We knew that it was the common process that mattered, that we had entered together into an inner place, a fullness of creative energy that was only dimly reflected in the ‘result,’ in the discoveries that made such a public commotion.


It was an enchanted time. The community, during those years, became a school of wisdom, in which the light at the center expanded in concentric waves outward into the world: successive layers, permeations of of life by the one light. Many different matters were studied and discussed in that place during those years, but by a singular gift of history everything was held together in that single light, which we seemed to experience coming through the high chapel windows in the early morning or playing in the breeze-stirred trees at the edge of the forest.

People came for a day, a week, a year; some joined the community and stayed for life. No one ever completed the curriculum, for it progressed with them. The general approach to learning might be described as centripetal: everything was studied from its center outward. Scripture was read in the light of the Gospels and the letters of Paul, and the New Testament itself was understood in the light of baptismal initiation: that inner light which was itself the Teacher and the teaching.

People came from the world bringing not only their questions but their experience, their knowledge, their own wisdoms. The old members listened; they were students rather than teachers, but what they heard took on some of their own simplicity and coherence. Those guests came to the community—or the school, as it came to be known—as to the nucleus where all the essential genetic material was stored and available for examination. And what they read there was what they were; freshly illumined from within, they brought that light—their own light—to the other sectors of their knowledge. It was as if they had brought what they knew and what they wondered to dip it all in a limpid simplicity, which then came to tint everything with its own colorless tint, with the color of light.


We know—at least intermittently—that our comfortable seated wisdoms are paper and ink, not life. That the more complete and satisfying they become, the more terribly untrue they are. That a wisdom which remains on this level of reflection is not the true wisdom, but only a kind of spectator activity, a safe but remote participation. And probably when we are really in the action, there will be no reflection and maybe not even an experience of light. As we philosophize in our canoes, we feel the slight, ominous tug, the gentle acceleration of the whole mass of water toward the falls ahead.

It is right to continue, as we do. To turn our consciousness towards the center, to prepare our minds and hearts in this way too. There must, however, be passion in our philosophy if it is true. If what we think and write is to have value, we shall find ourselves swept forward by a fierce energy. It is the fire that burns within the swift movement of history in our time.

By Bruno Barnhart, OSB Cam


  1. Ezekiel 1:18

This article is borrowed from The Bede Griffiths Trust

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