Bishop John Shelby Spong ~ June 16, 1931 – September 12, 2021
Bishop Spong provided a much needed place for those of us who did not connect with traditional theology. We love you Bishop Spong. You will be missed! Funeral services will be held at St. Peter’s, Morristown, NJ and at St. Paul’s, Richmond, VA. Dates and times will be announced as soon as they are available

Mindful Christianity: On Being Jesus’ Twin

This is an excerpt from a book Jim Burklo is writing this summer: MINDFUL CHRISTIANITY. The research he’s doing for this project has taken him deep into the history of Christian spirituality. According to Jim: “The more I learn, the more I have to learn!”

Mindful Christianity: On Being Jesus’ Twin

Saint Paul wrote: “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) In moments of mindful attention, it is no longer my small-s self at the center of my being, but the awesome capital-S divine Self, the Ultimate Reality of the universe.

In that most mystical of the gospels, John, Jesus keeps repeating the phrase “I am”, and keeps asking the question “Who do you say that I am?” He answers his own question: “I am the door” – “I am the way” – “I am the truth” – “I am the light of the world” – “I am the life”. “Before Abraham was, I am,” he said, enraging his enemies. But what did he mean by this? The phrase “I am” refers to God’s answer to Moses from the burning bush. Moses asked whom it was he had encountered, and God’s answer was “I am that I am.”

This sounded like heresy to the religious authorities of Jesus’ day. But the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh put it beautifully: “…we must distinguish between the “I” spoken by Jesus and the “I” that people usually think of. The “I” in His statement is life itself, His life, which is the way. If you do not really look at His life, you cannot see the way. If you only satisfy yourself with praising a name, even the name of Jesus, it is not practicing the life of Jesus. We must practice living deeply, loving, and acting with charity if we wish to truly honor Jesus.” The “I am” to which he referred is the Ground of Being of the universe. It is God, who manifests within us as the loving observer in mindfulness practice. The historical personality of Jesus is a metaphorical door for us to open into this “I am” experience.

“I am a mirror to you who know me…this human passion which I am about to suffer is your own.” sang Jesus in the early Christian text, The Round Dance of the Cross. The great scholar of early Christianity, Elaine Pagels, explained that in this text, “Jesus says that he suffers in order to reveal the nature of human suffering, and to teach the paradox that the Buddha also taught: that those who become aware of their suffering simultaneously find release from it.” A similar teaching of Jesus is found in the Gospel of John: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…” The people of Israel during their exodus suffered from snakebites, and the cure God offered was for them to gaze at a bronze serpent. The Gospel of John says that the image of Jesus on the cross mirrors our own suffering. Gazing at it is a mindfulness practice that is a homeopathic cure for the human condition.

In the early Christian Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is quoted as saying “whoever drinks from my mouth will become as I am, and I myself will become that person, and the mysteries shall be revealed to him.” Jesus’ apostle Thomas was called Didymus, or “the twin”. The canonical gospels of the New Testament do not indicate the identity of his twin. But some early Christians understood Thomas to be Jesus’ spiritual twin – a status which anyone can attain. In another early Christian text, the Book of Thomas the Contender, Jesus is quoted as saying “Since you are my twin and my true companion, examine yourself, and learn who you are… Since you will be called my (twin)… although you do not understand it yet… you will be called ‘the one who knows himself’. For whoever has not known himself knows nothing, but whoever has known himself has simultaneously come to know the depth of all things.” Through mindfulness practice, we become “twins” of Jesus.

Jesus, the mystic, was accused of blasphemy for saying that the “I am” was his true Self. And the mystics who followed Jesus often have been accused of the same thing. Meister Eckhart had the good sense to die of natural causes before he was taken to trial for heresy; the Church was building a case against him toward the end of his life. Other mystics weren’t so lucky. They were misunderstood, just as people so often missed the point of Jesus’ teaching. Christian mystics know that experiencing your true self as God is very different than expecting other people to worship you as God. “He is your being, but you are not his,” wrote the anonymous 14th century English author of the Cloud of Unknowing, one of the great classics of Christian spirituality.

Our identity with the divine is a paradox rhapsodized by St. Symeon the New Theologian, an eleventh-century Eastern Christian monk: “You have made me, a mortal by my nature, a god, god by adoption, god by Your grace, by the power of your Spirit, uniting miraculously, God that You are, the two extremes.” Bede Griffiths, a 20th century Catholic monk who lived for decades in an Indian ashram, explained it in the language of Hinduism: “Behind all knowledge is the Knower, which can never appear, never be seen, never become an object…. It is the subject, not the object, of thought, the ‘I’ that thinks, not the ‘I’ that is thought. It is the Ground of consciousness just as it is the Ground of existence… This is the experience of the Self, the Atman, beyond being in so far as being is an object of thought, beyond thought in so far as thought is a reflection, a concept of being. It is pure awareness of being, pure delight in being….” We experience God as the Ultimate Reality of our being, the true Knower of our thoughts, but this reveals to us that there is infinitely more to God than we know.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught the practice of mindfulness: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” In ancient times all the way until the Renaissance, most people, including Jesus, believed that the eye was indeed a lamp. You were able to see by casting light out of your eye and letting it interact with the light in the world around you. You know that little glimmer in your eye, which we now understand as a reflection? Virtually everyone thought it was a light from within. They believed that the source of this light was the highest celestial realm of God himself. God’s light was inside human beings, and if you lost this light you were not only blind to the world but also blind to your own mind, your own inner realm.

Jesus fanned the divine flame of light within his followers so they could see what was real, inside and out. “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All… the kingdom is inside you, and outside you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty,” said Jesus in the early Christian text, the Gospel of Thomas. “I came to make the things below like the things above, and the things outside like those inside. I came to unite them…” said Jesus in the early Gnostic Christian text, the Gospel of Philip. Consistently in the ancient texts that describe his life and his teachings, Jesus urges his followers to watch their thoughts.

In the fourth and fifth centuries, the “hesychasts”, Christian monks who lived in caves and cells on the edges of the civilized world, developed a body of sayings and stories for guidance. These passages from the Apophthegmata Patrum, or Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, reveal a form of mindfulness practice in the context of temptation, confession, and repentance: “A brother monk asked one of the Desert Fathers, ‘What shall I do then, for I am weak and passion overcomes me?’ He said to him, ‘Watch your thoughts, and every time they begin to say something to you, do not answer them but rise and pray; kneel down, saying, “Son of God, have mercy on me.’” “An old man said, ‘What condemns us is not that our thoughts enter into us but that we use them badly; indeed, through our thoughts we can be shipwrecked, and through our thoughts we can be crowned.’”

Jesus taught that your prayer, and God’s hearing of your prayer, are one and the same. “Look, the Lord is our mirror. Open your eyes and see your eyes in him,” reads Ode 13 of the Odes of Solomon, an important hymnbook used in early Christian churches. The hesychasts took seriously this admonition from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.“ (Matthew 6)

“Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6)

It is important to understand early Christian cosmology in order to make sense of the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus taught it in the Sermon on the Mount. The cultural assumption in the Roman Empire in the first century was that there were seven heavens. This system, known as the Ptolemaic universe, consisted of the earth, and above it rotating crystal spheres in which the moon, sun, and planets were attached, in ascending order, up to the highest heaven, which was the realm of pure divinity and light. St. Paul used a variant of this scheme when he said he’d been lifted up to the third heaven. He was referring to the earth as the first, the crystal spheres of the visibly moving celestial bodies as the second, and the highest realm as the third. The lower heavens were in degrees of spiritual purity, with the earth the least pure. The early Christians believed that the coming of Christ marked a cataclysm in the cosmos, establishing direct rule by God of all levels of the cosmos, so that God’s will would be done on earth as it was in heaven. They believed that this process was unfolding, and would be completed during or shortly after the lives of people at the time. The early Christian text, The Prayer of the Apostle Paul, yearns for this transformation: “My redeemer, redeem me, for I am yours, one who has come forth from you. You are my mind; bring me forth. You are my treasure; open to me. You are my fulfillment; join me to you!”

Mystical Christianity is the direct experience of the divine, bypassing the ordered spheres of the heavens and hierarchical political and religious systems. It is sharing Jesus’ experience, becoming his “twin” in spiritual practice. It is the direct encounter with the “I am” in the burning bush ablaze in our hearts. In a 6th-century mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, Moses is depicted as being confronted by not just one, but many burning bushes all around him. The whole world is suffused with divine light in this early Christian interpretation of the myth. It is a flame that burns on, illuminating our inner experience, without consuming us. If we lose the light, if we get sucked unconsciously into our thoughts and feelings without being able to stand back and observe them, then these thoughts will consume us until we are able to return to the point of view of the Loving Observer. Mindfulness practice warms and illuminates us while leaving us whole.

Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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