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A Tribute to Beatrice Bruteau (blog by Cynthia)

beatricebruteaulrgBeatrice Bruteau—scholar, teacher, interspiritual pioneer, and intrepid explorer of the evolutionary edge of consciousness—quietly departed this earth plane on November 16, 2014, at the age of 84. Her passing exemplified her signature brand of clarity, freedom, and intentionality: traits which for more than five decades have been the hallmarks of her teaching presence among us and which she now bequeaths to us as both a legacy and a continuing invitation.

Mention the name Beatrice Bruteau, and I daresay that most Christian contemplatives will never have heard of her. She never aspired to or attained the “superstar” status of a Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Bede Griffiths, or David Steindl-Rast. By her own choice she preferred to remain slightly below the radar screen, where she exerted her quiet presence as one of the most powerful shaping influences on contemporary mystical theology, interspirituality, and contemplative practice. In her lifetime she was a friend, colleague, and mentor to all the people mentioned above (and dozens more of comparable stature), and a teacher to thousands of appreciative students, myself included. Those who had the privilege of working with her directly speak of the clarity and precision of her mind, the luminosity of her vision, and the down-to-earth practicality of her contemplative practice.

Rigorously trained, she held two degrees in mathematics and a doctorate in philosophy from Fordham University (the first woman to be admitted to the graduate program there.) In addition to her highly articulate Christianity, she was also a longtime student of Vedanta and one of the early pioneers of East-West dialogue. She wrote books on Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin, and was one of the founders of the American Teilhard Association in 1967. Her most important works include Radical Optimism (1993), The Easter Mysteries (1995), What We Can Learn from the East (1995), and God’s Ecstasy: The Creation of a Self-Creating World (1997). In all of these works she brought her deep understanding of non-dual states of consciousness (as well as her scientific training and rigor) to the mysticism of the West. Her passion was the study of evolutionary consciousness, and over the course of her long teaching career she lived to see this passion come into its own as one of the most significant spiritual movements of our times. In particular, her influence on two fellow Fordham graduates, Ewart Cousins and Ilia Delio, has revolutionized the playing field upon which the venerable intellectual tradition of Christian Humanism is now unfolding.

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Beatrice and Jim

Despite these stellar academic credentials, Beatrice chose to “think globally, act locally.” For most of her long career she lived in and around Winston Salem, North Carolina, where she and her husband, Fordham professor James Somerville, founded the Schola Contemplationis, a center for the study and practice of the contemplative lifestyle according to the classical traditions of both East and West. For more than thirty years, their “mind-bending” monthly newsletter, The Roll, was painstakingly composed in their home office, run off on an old mimeograph machine, and hand-mailed to their small but devoted mailing list. A Southern lady “to the nines,” she dressed impeccably for every occasion, refused to travel by air, and insisted that coffee and tea be served in proper china cups—not, heaven forbid, mugs!

Joshua, Cynthia, and Beatrice

Joshua, Cynthia, and Beatrice

My own relationship with Beatrice Bruteau began in the late 1980s when I discovered her three-part article, “Prayer and Identity” in the now-defunct Contemplative Review and had my spiritual universe quietly but completely overturned. Correspondence soon led to a personal visit and a mentoring relationship that would span the next three decades. I am honored to report that the very first public spiritual teaching I ever gave was at her behest, to her Schola Contemplationis group, in the early 1990s. In 2007, I was able in a small way to repay that tremendous debt of gratitude when the Sewanee Theological Review invited me to republish her original “Prayer and Identity” article, together with a short commentary, in an issue dedicated to “Spirituality, Contemplation, and Transformation.”

On a very personal note, the most powerful debt of gratitude I owe her was her unflagging support during the writing and publication of my first book, Love is Stronger than Death. Still in a very tender place following the death of my hermit teacher Raphael Robin, not fully trusting whether my spiritual intuitions of an ongoing journey between us were on target or simply a concocted fantasy, I shared the manuscript with her, and in a powerful way she offered validation and the encouragement to continue. Her luminous support at this critical threshold of my life is one of the main reasons that I am where I am today.

Beatrice BruteauDuring this past decade our connection grew a bit more tenuous as my life got busier and hers gradually became more concentrated around that final stage of the journey, “growing into age.” In about the fall of 2013 I began to hear rumors that Alzheimer’s was starting to affect her magnificent brain, and in spring 2014, following a conference in Greensboro, I was able to pay her what turned out to be a final visit. While it was indeed obvious that the disease was making some inroads on the habitual operations along the horizontal axis of life, as soon as we leaped into spiritual issues, her vast mind still took over like the lioness it was. Her teaching continued luminous and more and more vast.

Beatrice Bruteau & Joshua

Beatrice and Joshua

Little did any of us at the time—maybe even Beatrice—suspect the final surprising denouement with which she would make her exit from this life. As it so happened, one of my younger students, Joshua Tysinger, had begun his seminary studies at Wake Forest, right there in Winston-Salem, just about the time that Beatrice’s life was rounding toward its end. I suggested—and Josh was alert enough to follow up on the suggestion—that having a world-class spiritual master right in town was an opportunity not to be missed. He began to pay her regular visits, and it soon became clear that a lineage transmission was in process. As Josh willingly and sensitively helped Beatrice and Jim navigate the horizontal axis, her brilliant final imparting of a lifetime of spiritual wisdom and spiritual fire (mostly over lunch at the A & W cafeteria, with, yes, proper coffee cups!) is an exchange that I suspect will not leave the planet unchanged.

I will leave this part of the story for Josh to tell when the right moment arises. For now I would simply like to comment, from my own perspective, on what played out during the last three months of Beatrice’s life. In late July, she suffered a fall and was hospitalized and then in nursing care for several weeks thereafter. During this time, it seemed that she was very much on the decline and “in transition.” She ceased eating, and her already slight frame shrank to 50 pounds. By October a hospice worker had been called in, and Beatrice was seemingly hanging between the worlds.

Nine days before her death, she sat up, got up, resumed eating enough to sustain the physical body a bit longer, and began to teach and transmit in a luminous burst of continuing insight. It was as if the Alzheimer’s had been left behind—or perhaps, if truth be told, she had already “died” to this world and was returning, her own risen and Christed self in her imaginal body to complete what was needed vis à vis this earth plane. While others were astonished at her sudden “improvement,” she had already been extremely clear with Josh that this wasn’t what it was about; it would be an entirely different dimension manifest and operating in her. Teacher to the end, she left us with a luminous, stunningly hopeful demonstration of how a conscious death is already a Risen Life; the two are joined at the hip. With her final magnificent fusion of clarity, will, and freedom—all those qualities her spiritual practice had been about for more than half a century—she went out like a candle going out, filling the whole room with the perfume of her realized being.

That being accomplished, she slipped away quietly into the night, at just after midnight. Her final gifts to us: a brilliant, living testimony to the utter reality of her two deepest convictions: radical optimism and God’s ecstasy, carved in the final sacrament of her life.

*****

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One thought on “A Tribute to Beatrice Bruteau (blog by Cynthia)

  1. 7 thoughts on “A Tribute to Beatrice Bruteau by Cynthia Bourgeault”
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    Paula Pryce
    Thank you for sharing Beatrice Bruteau with us, dear Cynthia. She continues to reveal the way.

    November 20, 2014 at 2:54 am

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    Cynthia,
    As always your words radiate with the simplistic flow of Love. I did not know her or of her but I do now. Thank you for sharing her divine transition with all of us. It is wonderful to know the possibility of living through death. Be Blessed! Lynda Duffy

    November 20, 2014 at 7:24 am
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    Of all of the theologians that I studied on the way to my M.Div., I found Beatrice Bruteau to be the most fascinating and the most enlightening. Now that I am coming to study under the tutelage of Cynthia Bougeault, I all make such sublime sense. Ann Goraczko

    November 20, 2014 at 9:47 am
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    Thank you for the above about Bea. I met her in the summer of 1990 at Gethsemani Monastery where she and Jim gave the wonderful week long retreat I attended. I have stayed in touch with Jim ever since as well as being a fan of all her writings. Portia Webster

    November 21, 2014 at 1:08 am

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    Dr. Bourgeault, thank you for this wonderful tribute.
    I am sad to hear of the passing in November, of one of my greatest supporters and mentors in the interfaith work of the Interfaith Contemplative Order of Sarada—and also, one of my dearest and most loved friends, Beatrice Bruteau. For many years, Beatrice encouraged me to continue with the interfaith work, even as it encountered resistance in a divided world. She watched as I shaped the vision for the interfaith order; she helped me carry that vision. Her support was unflagging. How can I express my gratitude? She was many things to many people. Her influence on me as a Christian Vedantist was profound; her example to me as a spiritual woman was singular. From Beatrice and her gentle mystical presence and broad understanding, I learned the ‘Both/And’ which has shaped my life, my work, and my own humble attempts to suggest the unity beyond the polarities and dualisms of life in this world. I am sad at the loss of her in this world, but joyously happy to feel her complete Oneness with this world and the next, as she passes from us in the physical form. Thank you, dearest Beatrice!
    Love,
    Sister Judith Thackray,
    Convener for the Interfaith Contemplative Order of Sarada

    November 21, 2014 at 7:12 pm

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    BEAUTIFUL !!!!!!!!
    carol sadlek

    November 24, 2014 at 2:26 pm

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    Dear Cynthia, this is the first time I came to know you through your sincere, heartfelt and true to the bone tribute to the unforgettable lady (yes, a beautiful Southern soul!), Beatrice Bruteau! You’ve got the gist of everything she represented–her quiet, sharp as a razor insights, her erudite wisdom, her unpretentious but solid and deep influence on those whose thinking and lives she touched. As deeply shocked and saddened as I am by this news of her dear departed soul from this earthly plane, I can rightfully include myself as one of her intellectual/spiritual pupils who was led kindly r–literally as well as metaphorically, by her. I came to know Beatrice through Swami Yogeshanandaji in the mid-eighties (1985? or so), who invited her to speak at one of our Vedanta Retreats. She spoke on her then recently published book: “The Psychic Grid.” Since then we began to come closer as thinkers, writers, and as co-pilgrims in search of Truth and became lifelong friends of both Beatrice and Jim. We wrote letters to each other from time to time, discussed ideas and books–especially related to the East-West spiritual connection and both, my husband and II read all her publications from the Roll and Contemplationis to the newsletter “Vedanta East and West, which later became “American Vedantist.”

    It was through Beatrice that I was introduced to John Schlenck –the Managing Editor of the AV, and also began to contribute articles on and off to the American Vedantist magazine which has now gone digital. Beatrice was like my older sister, much wiser, much more learned, a perfect scholar, a bold thinker and a GREAT MENTOR. She encouraged me to write my first book: “Gandhi’s Pilgrimage of Faith: From Darkness to Light” and when I did not get response to my letters from her since last year (2013), I had a dreadful suspicion that she may not be well. I am deeply sorry to have lost her physical presence, but immensely grateful to have found her as my Guru, my friend, my spiritual role-model!

    Good-bye Dear Beatrice, our souls will connect sometime, somewhere again in this continuous journey of the soul!

    Uma Majmudar

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