Jesus used the parables as ‘hand grenades for the mind’ to shock people into a new way of thinking, says American Episcopal priest, retreat leader and contemplative, Cynthia Bourgeault.
Cynthia was in New Zealand last month to conduct retreats in Christchurch and Auckland and to give a talk in Wellington.
She told a mixed denominational audience at St Andrews on the Terrace on March 24 that her favourite parable was that of the labourers in the vineyard (Mt 20) because it did not make sense in human terms.
‘On hearing that parable most people say “that’s not fair” to pay everyone the same daily wage regardless of how few hours they actually worked,’ Cynthia said.
But you have to listen to the clues.
‘Scarcity was never an issue; there was enough money to pay a daily wage to everyone. And the landowner’s motive in hiring the labourers was to keep them from standing around idle, since nobody else had hired them.Participation and sharing were the goals. But only the heart can see this.’
Jesus literally saw reality in a different way.
‘For a long time the parables were treated like proverbs or sayings but about 30 years ago people realised that the parables were politically subversive in nature—the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4) and the Good Samaritan (Lk 10) were from a society whose members were considered enemies of the Jews—and showed a complete reversal of the thinking of the day.’
Once people realise that Jesus was about shocking people out of a binary way of seeing the world into using their heart to understand the way the world could be, Cynthia said, they could see how a kingdom of God could come about.
Referring to Paul’s letter to the Philippians in which he tells them to put on the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5-11), Cynthia told the audience which included many Catholics, that ‘once you see it you can’t help seeing it’ but to achieve this, it was important to let go of our possessions and empty ourselves as Jesus did.
We need to go beyond the initial reaction to new stimuli of clinging and defensiveness engendered by the ‘reptilian’ part of the brain or brain stem to get into the larger mind.
New brain studies had shown the brain stem as that basic part of the brain where a person decides whether to ‘eat it, run from it or have sex with it’.
‘If we can get into the rest of our brain and engage the heart we can move to a more creative way of seeing.’
To do this Cynthia advocated an ancient form of scriptural meditation, Lectio Divina, which was taught by Benedictine monks 500 years ago. But another way of meditation was centring prayer. Committing oneself to a period of time each day, maybe 20 minutes, to sit in quiet meditation could help to access the divine depth of the mind.
This was not easy to do because when one tries not to think, one is besieged by thoughts. But in using a key word or phrase to dismiss a thought from your mind during meditation, it was possible to refocus. It was like having a contract with the divine—‘you catch yourself thinking, you let the thought go’. Gradually with this continual self-emptying in meditation, a person could come to a new way of seeing with the heart.
Cynthia Bourgeault has written a number of books on this subject including The Wisdom Jesus (2008) and Mystical Hope (2008).