Doors into the Imaginal Realm

“Please God to open these doors for me” writes the inmate of a detention centre in North Carolina after reading about our grief circle on the Common in US News. Mostly doors seems to be closing. However there are some that swing open, suddenly, even on the edge of lockdown.

Cynthia Bourgeault, the Christian mystic, has just published another book, The Eye of the Heart (“a spiritual journey into the imaginal realm”). You have to read it through quickly in case you fall off. And then, as you wonder whether the author’s actually on strong hallucinogens, you need to read it through again more slowly and with the help of a powerful search engine so you can follow up references to various bits of arcana and esoterica.

One of these trails is Bourgeault’s own backstory. In March 1994, as a fortysomething episcopal priest and academic living in Maine and emerging out of an unhappy marriage, she packed up her Saburu wagon and drove west to be close to the man who had become her teacher and her soul mate. He was a hermit monk called Rafe from St Benedict’s Monastery at Snowmass in the mountains of Colorado. It was an unlikely love match and probably only possible on the liberal edges of the Episcopal Church in the United States and under the eye of a wise abbot. It was also a relatively brief moment. In Dec 1995 Rafe died suddenly – or, as Bourgeault puts it: “the living phase of our love came to an abrupt end when he was felled by a massive heart attack.”

At this point, as she grieved sharply, she also experienced a range of powerful impressions of his presence, possibly not unlike the experience of the first disciples after the death of Jesus. She realised that her connection with Rafe was continuing and that his death wasn’t so much a closing door as a portal into a new realm; in fact a deepening collaboration.

Thus began for Cynthia Bourgeault an incredibly generative time of prayer, of writing, of leading retreats, of founding wisdom schools, of reimagining the Christian life as a summons into the “imaginal realm”, that place of abundance and intimacy she was discovering with the help of her own archangel, Raphael himself. You could say the proof is in the publishing. The Eye of the Heart is her tenth book since he died and her latest bulletin from the front line of Christian mystical theology.

Another door that has been opened is the one at the bottom of the stairwell of a block in the housing estate located next to the church. But to open it first a hole was drilled in the glass to enable access to the release mechanism on the inside. Residents want the door replaced and the block secured. Council officials have been looking at their budgets and, as they say, “consulting”.

In fact a gang of young men, mostly from off the estate, has been gathering here over the last year or so. There have been over a dozen police reports made by concerned residents. Over the course of the summer a knife was found hidden in the stairwell and then a child was knocked down by a woman in a car trying to escape the scene in a hurry. It’s not so much been the virus that has kept the residents hiding behind their front doors but the prevailing fear of violence.

With the help of our community organiser we hosted a meeting back in August in the church with the police, our local councillors and some housing officials. On this occasion the residents expressed their dismay at the way the situation had been allowed to get out of control and their fear that there was more to come unless a plan was put in place.

Then a couple of weeks ago in the stairwell a teenager was stabbed seven times in the chest and taken by air ambulance to the Royal London Hospital. Within a few days the same residents had met on line with the Mayor of Hackney and his team. It looks like there’s going to be a new door coming very soon.

A new door is not going to address the underlying reason that gangs of young men are hanging out in the stairwell smoking weed, brandishing knives and worse. But at least it may mean that the residents can get some sleep.

Earlier this week I woke in the middle of the night and went down to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. It was about 4 am. As I came down the stairs I saw that there was a light on in church and so I went through the vestry – which you get into from the vicarage – to turn it off. It turned out that the light was the one over the front door at the top of the steps so I walked through the church towards the vestibule to find the switch. As I got closer I could hear a voice. Someone was talking, crying. I wondered momentarily whether the voice was coming from inside the door or outside.

It was a woman on the phone sitting on the steps outside the front door of the church. Through the door I could hear her talking about a man she had loved who was no longer in her life. “I know it’s over” she was saying, “but whenever I hear his voice I want to be with him. I don’t know what to do. I just feel so sad.”

I wanted to say something to comfort her but I knew that if I made a sound she would have had the fright of her life. So I said a prayer and crept back into the vicarage.

Maybe that’s how it is looking in from the imaginal realm. I left the light on.