Reactivity & Response-Ability: Practicing the Way of Jesus
The Wisdom Jesus Part 4 of 4
2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, & Mark 9:2-10
Sunday, February 11, 2018 – The Sixth Sunday of Epiphany – Transfiguration
Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory
I left the office on Friday as I usually do, with a fairly put together outline of this morning’s reflection, which I flush out over the course of the weekend in preparation to speak to you all. Then, shortly after 7pm, I got a message letting me know that in Battleford, a jury had arrived at its verdict in the trial of Gerald Stanley in the shooting death of 22 year old Colton Boushie. I watched as the verdict arrived, Stanley was acquitted.
I don’t want to presume how those of us here today felt about this news, or whether we were all aware of this, how much we know about the incident of August 9, 2016 and the investigation and trial that followed.
We begin Lent later this week, and we’ve already mentioned our Read the TRC for Lent activity, and following next week’s guest speaker on death and dying, the plan is to spend 4 weeks before Palm Sunday bringing the calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, especially around the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery into conversation with the stories and traditions of Lent—a time to confront head-on uncomfortable truths. During those 4 weeks, we will certainly have need to speak about this situation in detail, as an immediate embodiment of many of the issues we have been called by the TRC to speak about within our communities, to learn about and confront in our societies and our selves.
Yesterday in front of the Court of Queens Bench, just across the street, some 500 people gathered, Indigenous and Non-Indigenous listening to a deep visceral pain, for many a pain that was already quite present, attached to many other names who have suffered violence followed by indifference, now brought to surface and felt all over again—for some intensified.
This is what I want to invite us to pay attention to, because some of us can analyze this situation from a distance, while a substantial number of people within our province, are feeling deep disappointment, confusion, frustration, and fear within their bodies for their bodies and the bodies of their children, and loved ones—there is a significant difference.
Chris Murray is a lawyer who has been accompanying the Boushie/Baptiste family over the past two years, and he spoke on the steps of the courthouse on Friday evening:
There is a darkness that exists in this country, and I believe that we are going to have to feel our way out of it. I ask you to try to feel the nearly bottomless disappointment of the family of Colton Boushie.
Today’s reflection was already titled Reactivity & Response-Ability when I heard this news, I decided to continue following that thread, because so many now ask “what do we do?” in the light of this.
Our tradition, that centres on the story of a human body broken by violence and a system of indifference, calls us to pay attention to where that same sort of violence and indifference is placed upon bodies in our moment, so I think that naming alone and remembering the violence inflicted upon Colton Boushie and the pain of his family is a response demanded by our tradition, and it’s central story.
What I had planned to speak about and reflect with you all this morning before the news emerged was to explore a particular practice in the Christian Tradition that invites us to distinguish between reaction and response—response-ABILITY, becoming a bit of what I hope is a helpful word play, acknowledging a responsibility to respond in moments like these, with a recognition that often we struggle not just to know how or what, but to find within an ability or capacity to do so.
Over the last 3 weeks, we have been exploring the ideas and invitations in the book The Wisdom Jesus by the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault, priest and modern day mystic.
We focused on reading Jesus as a teacher in the perennial Wisdom Tradition, as one who taught a path of transformed consciousness, de-centring the ego operating system and working from a non-dual or unitive space. We explored Bourgeault’s idea that Jesus’ life itself (as we encounter it in the Gospel narratives of the NT) is a sacrament, meaning a source of spiritual energy by which we might follow the path that his teachings lay out.
If that one paragraph summary of three weeks of sermons doesn’t fill in all the blanks, you can find each week’s reflection on our website or through our Facebook page.
In her final section titled, Christian Wisdom Practices, Bourgeault lays out 5 practices used throughout the history of the Christian Tradition that come specifically from the parts of the Christianity walking mystical paths, practices that emerge in unique ways within the Christian way but also find kindred spirits in many other traditions.
Sometimes wisdom traditions seem overly focused with the personal—self transformation, broadening consciousness, enlightenment—and in many places they are picked up as such. Dealing with stress of hectic lifestyles so as to become more effective and take on even more, finding personal fulfilment as a goal in and of itself.
I’ve often repeated the words of the late Michael Stone who taught that our polluted lakes and streams and our broken economic systems (and I am sure he would add) our divided societies, don’t need our personal enlightenment, they need our deep, bodily engagement —I think that Chris Murray was pointing at something similar when he called us to feel.
It may be easier for us to think about this first in relation to our own personal situations and from there see how there is an ethical implication, so that’s what we’ll try in the rest of our time.
One of the five practices that Bourgeault explores in this section is the practice of Welcoming or Welcoming prayer, which comes from the teachings of Father Thomas Keating a Trappist Monk and contemplative guide. This is a practice that Bourgeault describes as a response to our need to go deeper, discovering in our own selves, the secret of Jesus’ capacity to open himself to life in such an extraordinary way.
Earlier in her book she had described the goal of her understanding of spirituality in a Jesus way like this: Anyone who is willing to take up the burden of the much more difficult task—not the manageable complexity of rules and regulations, but the unmanageable simplicity of being present to your life in love—that person is walking the path of Jesus.
Openness, and being present to life in love—not just to the good, the beautiful and the lovely in our lives and world (of which there is so much), but also the challenging and the painful, the frustrating and the hurtful—being present to this in love does not mean enjoying them but to offer attention, and engagement. Welcoming Prayer invites and challenges us not to avoid that which is distressing, but to acknowledge, welcome and then, only then, let go, and from that space awareness and engagement, respond.
For Bourgeault, this hinges on distinguishing between attitude and sensation: To work with a situation as an attitude might mean to psychoanalyze yourself (Why am I feeling so afraid/frustrated/angry), or to talk yourself out of it…These are all ways of engaging the situation mentally. To work with sensation means to focus on the actual energy the feelings and attitudes create in your body. Real kenotic work is done here—and, I believe, only here.
Bourgeault begins this chapter with a self-admittedly imperfect exercise to introduce this practice. She invites the reader, to imagine themselves in a situation of stress, maybe it’s having received bad news, maybe it’s a conflict with a friend, a child, a spouse.
Can you feel yourself inwardly tightening and bracing? Stay with that sensation…exploring how it actually feels in your body. Are your shoulders tense? Is your breathing fast and shallow? Is your stomach churning?
I’ve been paying attention to myself over the past weeks since reading this, recognizing that I experience stress most bodily in my abdomen and chest tightening.
Then she invites a conscious movement in the other direction, yet still staying working directly with sensation.
Un-brace, take a deep breath, and come down into your being. Soften inward…no matter what racket is going on in your mind. At the sensation level the issue is simply this: in any life situation, confronted by an outward threat or opportunity, you have a choice between two opposites. You can either harden and brace defensively, or you can yield and soften internally. The first response will plunge you immediately into your small self, with its animal instinct and survival responses. The second will allow you to stay aligned with your heart, where the odds of creative outcome are infinitely better
Bourgeault brings this idea into conversation with insights from neural science and psychology:
any form of inner resistance or negativity (fear, anger, bracing) ensures that we are cut off from our own higher human intelligence…the capacity to relax, soften, and open activates an entirely different neural pathway, allowing us to draw on a much greater range of our own creative intelligences.
Welcoming Prayer then, is engaged situationally, as opposed to mediative or centring prayer which she also explores in this section. The latter is a part of a regular, daily practice to cultivate a spaciousness and calm, while the other is engaged in response to particular moments.
It begins with focus —to draw close to whatever is happening in your body. Whether it is physical pain or emotion, fear/anger it is expressed in the form of sensation. Tight chest? Shallow breathing? Pounding Heart? Don’t analyze, don’t repress or dissociate, don’t try to chase it away—be aware and present to it.
Next comes welcoming, which seems counterintuitive, but its a subtle practice. The point is to offer attention to it, and not allow the sensation to throw you out of presence to yourself. Naming, not analyzing, calling fear fear, frustration frustration, anger anger—not supplying a why or what I’ll do about it, just acknowledging the energy and allowing it to be, and recognizing that it isn’t everything, though it may feel all consuming for a moment.
Then is the letting go, which Bourgeault suggests is also very subtle, and not to be rushed, because the external situation is not yet dealt with, and the key is not to simply come to a space where we are ignoring or numbing an emotion expressed in sensation, but are letting go of a desire to protect, to control and even change.
This is tricky because it doesn’t mean to capitulate or roll over, or to allow that which is fundamentally wrong to continue. But the desire to change out a need to re-establish an illusion or feeling of control and protection gives way to an ability to creatively engage, and fiercely work for change, rather than react out of desperation.
Also, despite noting that this practice is not psycho-analysis or therapy, it is in no ways intended to diminish the importance of these things. Welcoming Prayer is a tool, not a fix all, and not a prescription for fixing on one’s own, situations that are deeply traumatic and persistently debilitating, even if this might be part of one’s personal toolkit.
This is of course, a hugely rushed description of a subtle (not necessarily complicated) and not easy practice. Bourgeault lays this out in much more detail than we have time for, I simply hope I have opened up the idea, and that we might return to it another time.
This is kenosis played out in a bodily practice—the self-emptying love that is the core of the teaching and person of Jesus—inviting and empowering and increasing our ability to respond by freeing us from a compulsion to react.
I think that this sort of practice gives us ground from which to live more fully in our own lives, which as Doctor Who has pointed out is a bunch of good things and a bunch of hard things.
I also think that it is ground for a deep ethical engagement —and a potential source of an increased ability to respond when we are called to action, when we are called to listen to pained and angry voices, when we are called to feel.
I hope that in the midst of this we might have begun to identify a thread that may help us in discussions to come, both as we are guided by a guest next week to explore and engage the discomforting truth of mortality and fragility, death and dying, and beyond there as we explore the Call to Action to the church from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada to repudiate doctrines of discovery, domination and superiority, which exist not just on dusty old documents from the 1500s, but within our shared national myths, legislations and even written into the fibre of our personal and shared consciousness.
I am always open to questions and pushback, clarifications and “bones that need picking”, and I hope that this has given you something to chew on, or at least allowed some time to imagine pancakes that are just around the corner.
For in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, and we are not alone.