Boehme for Beginners

~Cynthia Bourgeault

Fall 1997 / Gnosis Magazine

It was in deep contemplative stillness that this German shoemaker, gazing at a pewter dish sparkling in the sunlight, was suddenly swept up in such a firestorm of unitive vision that "in one quarter of an hour I saw and knew more than if I had been many years together at a university." Twelve years passed before he was able to fashion his cosmic revelation into words; even then they are -- to borrow from e.e. cummings -- "such great writhing words, as uttering overmuch, stand helplessly before the spirit at bay."

To approach Boehme's teachings from a philosophical mindset simply won't work. His thinking moves in jagged leaps; in many places he contradicts himself as he grapples for concepts to express the truth grasped unitively, in one great gulp of higher mind. Boehme is one of those underground geniuses of the Christian mystical path. He is read in virtually no seminaries of either Roman Catholic or Protestant persuasion, and even eminent contemporary theologians stumble over his name (one of my acquaintances refers to him as Jacob Boheme, as in La Boheme; in older versions his name is sometimes rendered as "Behmen"). His work is kept alive principally through the steady attention of the Christian Hermetic tradition, and through an ongoing handful of devotees in the Christian mainstream, ranging from Angelus Silesius in the seventeenth century through Evelyn Underhill in the twentieth.

Boehme would doubtless have considered himself an unlikely bearer of such sweeping revelation. Born of peasant stock in 1575, near the town of Gorlitz in southeastern Germany, he was trained as a shoemaker, married the butcher's daughter, fathered four sons, and for most of his external life lived a stable and conventional existence. But inwardly, his brooding and dreamy nature was preparing to receive that overpowering revelation in 1600 and the twelve years of disequilibrium and spiritual seeking that followed it.

At last, in 1612, his first book, the Aurora, was completed, only to fall into the hands of Gregorius Richter, the chief pastor of Gorlitz, who attacked Boehme violently for heresy and maneuvered a decree forbidding him to write for five years. But his work continued to circulate among the Gorlitz intelligentsia, where it won him many admirers, particularly among the students of Hermetic philosophy and mysticism. In 1619 Boehme took up the penagain, and in the five years before his death in 1624 he completed all his major works.
I had long suspected that the contemporary meditational practice of Centering Prayer, with its emphasis on interior stillness as a radical consent to God, might provide an experiential access point to Boehme's complex cosmology. Last summer I had the opportunity to test out this intuition with a group of experienced Centering Prayer meditators in British Columbia. The material in this article emerges largely from our group effort to find a way into the heart of Boehme's mystical illumination by the mode of direct experience. My hope is that GNOSIS readers will feel intrigued to explore further along these lines, offer feedback, and refine as motivated.

In this project, I am in part attempting to rescue Boehme from that aura of arcaneness that is so intimidating to most readers. I myself felt drawn toward Boehme for many years (it turns out that one of his earliest English disciples, William Law, is a distant forebear of mine), but had always been warned that without extensive knowledge of medieval alchemy it would be useless to proceed. The alchemical aspect is definitely there, and I suspect that initiated Hermeticists travel much further into Boehme than I. But Boehme's importance is not limited to this realm, nor is it accessible only within it. Boehme offers a remarkably unified Christian metaphysic, with cosmology and psychology reinforcing each other in a powerful transformative path. This path needs to be recovered and presented in a way that will invite more people to explore this powerful visionary, whose works, I believe, still hold the key to what inner Christianity is all about.

For me, the significance of Boehme's work can be summed up at both a macrocosmic and microcosmic level in his deep understanding that will, desire, pain, and anguish are the raw materials through which something powerful and mighty is brought to pass. God is love, to be sure, but love is itself the triumphant issue of a process whose eternal, hidden building blocks are in desire, pain, and anguish.

Thus these things are not to be feared or denied in my life but transformed. And so I propose that we move from the known to the unknown, letting some familiar touchstones in contemplative practice provide a gradual ascent to Boehme's monumental cosmology.


INTERIOR SILENCE

1. The student said to the master: "How may I come to the supersensual life so that I can see God and hear him speak?" The master said: "If you can sweep up for a moment into that in which no creature dwells, you can hear what God speaks."
2. The student said: "Is that near or far?" The master said, "It is in you. If you could be silent from all willing and thinking for one hour you would hear God's inexpressible words."
3. The student said, "How can I remain silent in thinking and willing?" The master said: "When you remain silent from the thinking and willing of self, the eternal hearing, seeing, and speaking will be revealed in you. . . . Your own hearing, willing, and seeing hinders you so that you do not see and hear God."

These three little versicles from Boehme's Sixth Treatise ("On the Supersensual Life") are the starting point for the experiential journey into Boehme. I am trusting that most GNOSIS readers will have an established meditation practice, and by whatever method can understand the difference between their own "hearing, willing, and seeing" and "the eternal hearing, seeing, and speaking."

In his teachings on Centering Prayer, the Benedictine monk Thomas Keating characterizes these two states as "ordinary awareness" and "spiritual awareness." Ordinary awareness is our usual jumble of thoughts, impressions, and reactions, fueled by the self-reflective nature of the human mind; the Buddhists call it "monkey mind."
In spiritual awareness, the mind moves beyond its preoccupation with the contents of its own thinking and comes to a "resting in God." While the content might appear to be empty, one is actually present to a higher level of intensity, coherence, and purposiveness than is apprehensible though our normal modes of thinking. Spiritual practitioners discover that they can sometimes move globally from deep interior stillness to right action without the usual "downloading" into linear thinking. This is key to unlocking what Boehme means by being "in the will of God." The first step into Boehme, then, is through the actual experience of that higher "hearing, seeing, and speaking" in me. This higher level is somehow more vibrant and vital, more charged with a purposive life; it can be mysteriously infused in us when we, in Annie Dillard's picturesque words, "do not waste most of our energy spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves."

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