Inwards and Outwards

“Those deeply attracted by the ideas [undergirding spiritual transformation] but unable even to admit their own inability to face themselves as they are, often seem prone to settle for the comfortable anesthetic of teaching others.” From Ouspensky’s Fourth Way by Gerald de Symons Beckwith

This was posted recently on a private group page as the “unsettling quote for the day.” It drew a lot of comments, some affirming, some pushing against it or reacting to what seems like a sweeping criticism of spiritual teachers. Many members of this group are themselves spiritual teachers, in one way or another.

I have reluctantly become an occasional spiritual teacher. My reluctance may be because I do have a pretty good ability to face myself as I am and this keeps me humble, not sure that I have anything to teach anybody else.

My current commitment is to transmit to a group of my fellow church members something of the Wisdom path I’ve been picking up, mostly from the spiritual teacher Cynthia Bourgeault. In a fit of enthusiasm after attending Bourgeault’s weeklong Wisdom School last November, I offered to lead a 9-week series in church on her book, The Wisdom Jesus. And I’m trying to replicate some of the practices and experiences of the school, conduct a mini–Wisdom School so to speak. The series began last Sunday and the people who came seemed enthusiastic and intrigued.

Our church has a tradition of offering a variety of choices for the Formation Hour, or adult Sunday School, which follows the worship service. There is usually a Bible study, an Inward Journey class focusing on personal spiritual development and practices, an Outward Journey class on a social or justice concern, and often one more choice that doesn’t fit in any of these boxes.

Choosing which class to attend can be difficult. I often find more than one class interesting but class-hopping doesn’t work well. But on a deeper level, I don’t divide my spirituality up that way. I often think classes could benefit by blending into each other. Most Outward Journey concerns could benefit from prayer as well as analysis but prayer usually only happens in the Inward Journey class. Bible study, too, is an important part of the Inward Journey.

With these divisions people tend to gravitate toward their comfort zones. Head types go to Outward Journey, heart types go to Inward Journey. In providing something for everyone we encourage the development of communities of interest and temperament within the congregation, which can be a weakness as well as a strength.

I tend to participate in the Inward Journey classes, though I have attended quite a few Outward Journey sessions and helped lead a few of those. Usually, though, my leadership has been on the Inward Journey side–two series on dreams and one focused on praying for upcoming events.

This class was clearly in the Inward Journey category. The contemplatives would show up for sure, though I hoped to do a little evangelism to the non-contemplatives, that is, to enlarge the circle of people seeking spiritual experience rather than only, or primarily, information.

But I was surprised when 23 people appeared for the first session of “Encountering the Wisdom Jesus” rather than the usual 6-10 who regularly attend Inward Journey classes. Then I realized that for some reason no Outward Journey option was being offered during this period and some who would no doubt have gone there ended up in this class.

Okay. So be careful what you pray for. I now have quite a few decidedly non-contemplative or borderline contemplative folks under my tutelage for the next 8 weeks. Given that a few dozed through much of the first session, my guess is that the class will thin out a bit as time goes along but I hope not too much.

Because I hope this class will be a place where Inward meets Outward, an aspiration Cynthia herself expressed in a wonderful interview published in Sojourners:

I’m creating a bridge between contemplative Christianity and action. I bring forth some of the skills in the contemplative path to help avoid the usual pitfalls of burnout, violence, judgment, and hypocrisy, and also to bring forth some of the prophetic and compassionate skills in the action traditions to help contemplatives move beyond the sense that the domain of their wisdom is “inner” work. There really is no inner and outer: There’s one world. . . .

“What is missing in Christianity is the real understanding that practice doesn’t just mean people going inward to do their own little spiritual trip. It is a way of repatterning the whole physical, neurological, emotional, devotional animal so that it understands what it’s doing.”

Amen, sister. Meanwhile, I am sure this class, especially the more Outward-focused folks who like to discuss and argue, will keep me appropriately humble.


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