The Eucharist, A Portal To the Four Paths of Cosmic Spirituality
By C. Ashley (Ash) Dotson
“My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.” John Philip Newel quotes Thomas Merton (A New Harmony) in this seemingly simple yet profound quote as he leads us into a discussion on unity and Communion. In 1 Corinthians 11:25, Paul quotes Jesus as saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Every time you drink it, do this to remember me.” Newel comments that what we are actually doing is remembering who and what we are, remembering the oneness that we were born into, and thus, reawakening ourselves. We are invited to be awakened to our true selves and our oneness with all of humankind, with all creatures, and with all of creation through the Cosmic Christ.
Remembering our oneness can only be achieved by consciously or even unconsciously recognizing Jesus as the Cosmic Christ which takes us down the four paths of Creation Spirituality, via-positiva, via-negativa, via-creativa, and via-transformativa. Via-positiva tells us that all of creation is a blessing, and we are born into that blessing being blessed, and in turn to be a blessing. While the Eucharist is handed down through Christian tradition, it can help us to see the varied means in which humankind connects to God. It can also help us connect us to the spiritual practices of other faith traditions which point to creation spirituality. When we learn to live as intimately connected people, we can lovingly embrace ourselves, the rest of humankind, and all of creation which affects all aspects of our world view.
When we look at what should be considered the failure of Christianity in most of the world’s societies that practice it today, especially in the West, humankind has obviously not benefitted in the ways one might think from a remembrance intended to illustrate the love of God incarnated on earth. As such it seems that the Eucharist has lost its meaning and significance somewhere along the line. Could it be that humankind, for the most part, has built a wall of egoistic separation from the mystical aspects of God and Creation Spirituality? The term mystical is being used here to describe an internal experience of God and the things of God. Has humankind made the Eucharist into a personal ‘pick me up’ or a tool as it is withheld, to judge and punish some over others rather than a means of deep connection to God and the true self that it was intended to be?
We can find great power in the Eucharist and other provisions of God handed down through Christianity and in the mystical observations and rituals handed down through other faith traditions as we open ourselves and break through self created egoistic walls. Through spiritual practices we find the power to be freed from our false dualistic selves and begin to live in the truth of who we are. Newell relates beautiful experiences in Iona around the table of communion. He remembers an Islamic scholar by the name of Zaki Badawi leading all those present in a Muslim call to prayer as they were gathered around the large table of the traditional Scottish celebration of the Eucharist. It was a first for the abbey church on Iona, and Newell felt as if there was a new and ancient harmony filling the eight hundred year old building.
He also relates the time when Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom came to teach Torah at the same abbey. The Rabbi was asked if he would preach at the communion celebration around the same table. He shared that he had never done such a thing, and thought that it might not be proper for a rabbi. However, he did agree to say a few words and be present at the table with the rest of those gathered there. He was seated at the head of the table with the other leaders and something interesting happened. When it came time to share the bread and the wine, the rabbi unexpectedly took full part in the sharing of the bread and wine to everyone’s surprise. The rabbi said he hadn’t intended to, but when the time came it all seemed so natural and familiar. Newell shares that the rabbi was being true to an older unity of the human soul and the earth. This is an example of the via-positiva in its full glory and present before time now available through the Eucharist.
Matthew Fox states, “The Via Positiva is a way of tasting the beauties and cosmic depths of creation, which means us and everything else. Without this solid grounding in creation’s powers we become bored, violent people.” He goes on to say that all of creation is renewed through our realization of the via-positiva and without it we become more interested in death and the systems that lead to death. Certainly we see the evidence of this in most of our societies today, especially in the so called ‘first world’ countries as corporate greed, oppression of the poor, and the destruction of the living earth, without regard, is prevalent.
A wonderful example of the unity available via positiva and present in the Eucharist comes from Bruce Sanguin (If Darwin Prayed) in one of his loving and beautiful communion prayers, “We bring to the table our kin: the bacteria and the lichen, the moss of forest floors, the flora and the fauna, the gilled ones of the sea, and the feathered ones of air, we bring the crawling creatures and the furry mammals.” When we realize that we are indeed connected through the interlinked web of creation, we find a divine responsibility in caring for each other, the creatures of the earth, the living earth, and creation itself. Fox (The Coming of the Cosmic Christ) wonders what might take place if we truly realize that when we take part in the Eucharist we are, “eating and drinking of the cosmic body and blood of the the Divine One present in every atom and every galaxy of our universe.” He asks, “What is more grounding, more intimate, more local, and more erotic than eating and drinking? And if Jesus Christ is Mother Earth crucified, then the eating and drinking at the Eucharist is the eating and drinking of the wounded earth.”
We see from these examples that the via-positiva offers solutions for humanity in and through the realization of our connectedness. In that realization we would come to know that each of us has an impact on all of humankind through our individual thoughts and actions, that each of us has an impact on the creatures of the earth through our individual thoughts and actions, and that each of us has an impact on the living earth itself through our individual thoughts and actions. However for these realizations to take place we must let go of the false egoistic self as Jesus teaches in John 12:24 along with other verses in scripture, “I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit,” and this leads us to the via-negativa.
Fox (Original Blessing) explains that the via-negativa “opens us to our divine depths.” He strikingly illustrates this by comparing our depths to those of the Grand Canyon and declares that we are “deeper and more powerfully carved over millions of years by the flowing tides of pain.” Furthermore, he tells us that we suffer very similar consequences for ignoring the via-negativa as we do for ignoring the via-positiva. Our God given prophetic voice is lost as “life becomes superficial, easily manipulated, and ultimately as boring as it is violent.”
It seems that the via-negativa is the most difficult path for us as humans as it is the path that the ego or the false self is most interested in blocking. One might ask then, how the Eucharist would help us embrace the via-negativa? Every time we receive the bread of life and the cup of God’s covenant we are giving permission for God to work within us. More than giving permission, as we receive this provision of God with intentionality we are praying God’s work within us. Every time we receive the bread and the wine we are taking part in breaking down the egoistic walls we ourselves have built up between us and God. Again, done with intentionality we empty ourselves (our false self) just as Jesus did and taught, so that we begin to be re-introduced (re-created, re-born) to our true selves.
The Gospel of Philip, discovered in the Nag Hammadi Library, calls the bread the food of humanity and the wine the cup of prayer. The author exclaims that the cup, “is full of the Holy Spirit, and it belongs to the wholly perfect human being.” The Eucharist is a form of contemplative prayer, so it engages God’s work as we allow it. Cynthia Bourgeault (The Wisdom Jesus) uses the Greek word, Kenosis, for the emptying we are speaking of. She describes a divine exchange which, “connects us instantly with the whole of God, allowing divine love to become manifest in some new and profound dimension.” As we empty ourselves, God fills us.
Emptying isn’t the only aspect of via-negativa, but it does play a role in the other aspects. As mentioned above, we are deeply affected by the pain we experience. Many psychologists and therapists will attempt to help people accept and experience their pain and often the goal is to provide a means to cope with pain. As we empty ourselves through the Spirit, we can find those often hidden patches of pain. This is usually a process that takes time and comes about in conjunction with other spiritual practices such as centering prayer. Cynthia Bourgeault (Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening) tells us of Thomas Keating calling this process “the archeological dig.” She states, “As trust grows in God and practice becomes more stable, we penetrate deeper and deeper down to the bedrock of pain, the origin of our personal false self.” Bourgeault here is speaking of centering prayer, but the same applies with any emptying process (Eucharist) facilitated by God.
In a short but important work by Joseph F. Schmidt titled, Praying Our Experiences, he points to three types of prayer that can be used in the healing of pain. One of those is contemplative prayer. Schmidt tells us that through these practices we can place the story of our pain into God’s story. In doing so we come closer to “the truth that is already within us as the Spirit of Truth, abiding in us and constantly calling us to be our true, best self.” God is in our stories, and finding God in our stories helps us to find God in the stories of others, and become a blessing for others as we enter into via-creativa and via-transformativa .
Through realizing our pain, and consciously involving the Spirit in processing our pain, we can begin to be healed at the root of our pain. This goes above and beyond coping with our pain as is the way of many secular therapies. We then better understand the pain of others, and can even apply our process in facilitating relief for others in their pain. In that way we can become co-creators with God as was intended.
This is a good spot to add that it is important to point out the four paths of creation spirituality are not in any order. We can experience more than one path at the same time and move back and forth between them. We see that the Eucharist plays a great role in both the via-positiva and the varied aspects of the via-negativa, and we begin to see how the paths overlap and interplay with each other. As we learn to experience the via-positiva and practice and learn via-negativa, we will find ourselves on the via-creativa. That is, we will begin to see and feel changes in the way we see, perceive and experience our lives, in the way we see, perceive, and experience others, and the way we see, perceive, and experience creation. It is like we are being re-created, and in a way we are as we find our way back to who we are as created Imago Dei, the Image of God. Creation spirituality calls for spiritual evolution. Bourgeault (The Wisdom Jesus) calls this transformation the ‘Divine Alchemy,’ which is beautifully appropriate as it implies spiritual evolution.
This divine alchemy, at least partially, can take place through the Eucharist. As Bruce Sanguin prays in another of his communion prayers we are opening ourselves up,
To the wisdom of Krishna, who helps us distinguish illusion from Reality...To the wisdom of the Buddha who teaches us to reflect on the transitory nature of life...To the wisdom of Chief Seattle and our indigenous peoples, who share with us the wisdom of earth...To the wisdom of the Jewish prophets, who show us there is a time to speak truth to power...To the wisdom of the Christ, who teaches us the subversive wisdom of the silenced ones...to the wisdom of Mohammed, who inspired ecstatic prophets.”
This wisdom (Sophia) is part of the via-positiva, and we begin to take it in through the via-negativa, which in turn works in the via-creativa and the via-negative. This is spiritual evolution!
Thomas Berry proposes a whole new curriculum for elementary and high school students in order to begin to bring us back into harmony with each other and the earth. One of his proposed courses helps us determine the values we live by. He lays out basis for values and suggests that one basis should be communion. Berry is using the term communion here to mean being present to each other and the rest of creation. As we have discussed, the Eucharist (Holy Communion) is about just that. Berry states that we have not developed a capacity for real communion or presence. I’ll add, experiencing the Eucharist with intentionality puts us in spiritual communion with others, with all of creation, and helps us carry this communion of which Berry speaks into the world with us.
Cynthia Bourgeault (Wisdom Jesus) relates her personal experience of the Eucharist for us. She was in college and attended a service with her roommate where she unintentionally found herself in a line for Holy Communion. It was her first communion, and she thought nothing of it until a minute or so after she had taken in the bread and wine. She states, “I knew I had met my match; something utterly real, strangely compelling, strangely familiar, had entered my life that day—something I didn’t even know I had been missing but which for the first time made life feel really right.” In Bourgeault’s first experience of the Eucharist we find via-creativa and via-positiva as life became more alive for her.
Another first communion experience is related by Sara Miles, a self described atheist, lesbian left-wing journalist, who had seen and experienced more pain than most in her life. She describes a time when she found herself walking into an Episcopal Church for no reason. In her very real and very moving book, Take This Bread, she paints a picture of the physical attributes of a classic Episcopal church building. She took a seat wanting to be inconspicuous, and went through the service singing the hymns all the while thinking that it was ridiculous. When the time came to gather for Eucharist she proceeded to the table with the rest of the people there without knowing why. She shares her experience of standing around a table with some dishes and a pottery goblet, and then, “...someone was putting a piece of bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ,’ and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ,’ and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.”
She shares that she found herself shaken, in tears, and unbalanced. On her way home she analyzed what had happened trying desperately to come up with an explanation for her responses to the experience. She probed through all of the psychological possibilities, yet could not get the name, Jesus, out of her mind. Eventually, she settled on the only possible explanation...Jesus did indeed happen to her. Through this experience of the Eucharist she began to make connections with her pain, and found love. Not long after this Sara had a vision, and went on to create food pantries all over the city of San Francisco. Sara had radically experienced via-creativa , which led her to via-negativa and via-positiva...then into radical via-transformativa. She became a co-creator with God.
Matthew Fox (Original Blessing), in giving the via-creativa an amazing sense of wonder, states, “For creativity is a cosmic energy; it is the cosmos birthing itself.” He also gives us the connection of the via-creativa with the Eucharist. Fox cites scientist Rupert Sheldrakes work with morphogenic fields and group memory or what is called a morphic resonance. A morphic resonance is much like Jung’s archetypes in that it is present in most human minds. He also calls upon Thich Nhat Hanh, the gifted Buddhist instructor who teaches that taking part in the Eucharist meal brings with it the entire history of the universe through the memory contained in this morphic resonance. So, in reality we are taking in the life force of the universe through the Eucharist...Just Wow!
Fox connects Jesus’ ‘I Am’ statements to the bread and wine of the Eucharist. This is my body makes the easy parallel to I am this bread, and the same applies to the blood...I am this wine, meaning that Jesus is actually present as we ‘do this in memory’ (Luke 22:19) of Jesus. He states, “The eating and drinking of the bread and wine, then, is not about a cannibalistic exercise of eating the flesh of Jesus—rather; it is a Cosmic Christ experience. One is receiving fully of the sacred bread and life force of the universe itself. All is sacred, and we remember that in a group way by sharing the wine and bread as a community. What, after all, is more intimate that eating or drinking? We are eating and drinking the very sacred food and drink from the edges of the universe when we are eating and drinking this divine food.” In doing so, we become food for others via-creativa/transformativa.
“Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being.” (John 1:3) Jesus is the life force and the memory of the universe, and through God’s provision of the Eucharist, we are invited to empty ourselves, to heal our pain, and be transformed. We are invited to remember the blessing we are born into, and we are invited to join with God as a co-creator.