(Reprinted with permission from Parabola: The Magazine of Myth and Tradition, written by Richard Smoley.)
By now the term “soul mate” has entered into common spiritual parlance. As the subject of innumerable guides to getting the perfect lover, a “soul mate” usually means someone with whom you can have an idyllic and problem-free relationship. In this sense, of course, it is a complete fantasy. Cynthia Bourgeault’s provocative new book, Love Is Stronger Than Death: The Mystical Union of Two Souls, offers a more profound, and perhaps more unsettling, view of the possibilities for a pair of soul mates. It is the story of the relationship between the author, an Episcopal priest around fifty years old, and Brother Raphael Robin or “Rafe,” a Trappist hermit monk twenty years her senior.
Much of this vivid tale takes place in Snowmass, Colorado, against the backdrop of long Rocky Mountain winters—a setting that, as Brother David Steindl-Rast notes in his gracious introduction, adds its own crisp and uncompromising flavor to the story. (The author herself speaks of the cold north light beloved by artists “because it shows things as they truly are.”) Bourgeault, cut loose from an unhappy marriage, goes to Snowmass for a few months’ retreat. There she is befriended by Rafe, who descends from his mountain cabin to visit her from time to time, and a deep relationship develops. Though it is platonic, the love that grows between these two idiosyncratic seekers ultimately leads the author to explore the perplexing interplay between love and death.
Not surprisingly, given his age, Rafe dies. But rather than passing through the customary stages of grief and acceptance of her loss, Bourgeault finds that something quite different happens. As she kneels beside his body in wake, she has a mystical experience that has a distinctly “nuptial” flavor about it. As the months pass, her sense of Rafe’s living presence intensifies rather than fades, and she comes to conclude that the bond between them is indeed far stronger than death.
Bourgeault’s experiences lead her to explore some long-neglected spiritual byways. Throughout the history of the esoteric Christian tradition (with which the author is here very much concerned), there has been the subtle but persistent theme of what has sometimes been called “courtly love”—a passionate attachment between two people in which erotic release is sublimated into the development of a higher entity—another “soul.” For Bourgeault, this “soul” is a new and common life shared by her and Rafe.
I first encountered Bourgeault’s story several years ago, when I published an early version of it in Gnosis, a magazine I was editing at the time. I was struck then not only by the sincerity of Bourgeault’s account but by the unmistakable flavor of knowledge that it conveyed—that here, in this woman’s unusual story, I was encountering some powerful truths that are little-known in either the West or the East. On reading her book in full now, I’m more than ever convinced of the validity of her experiences—and her understanding of them. Anyone who is interested in the connection between love and spirituality, or in Fourth Way ideas of “higher being-bodies,” will find much to ponder here.
One thing that is particularly powerful about Love Is Stronger Than Death is its complete avoidance of prescriptions and handy lists of things to do (of which American readers seem so inexplicably fond). Indeed, Bourgeault insists that this relationship between her and Rafe was ultimately something that simply happened; she did not plan it, and she offers no suggestions about how you and I can do the same. Her references to esotericists as diverse as G.I. Gurdjieff, Boris Mouravieff, and Jacob Boehme simply derive from her attempts to make sense of her experience. But in so doing, she magnificently helps us to understand it as well. You’re not likely to come away from this book wanting to imitate the author’s unique and demanding spiritual path. But you are likely to come away from it with a new awareness of the dimensions of love and a sense that the romances of ordinary life are only a fragment of what is possible. In fact this is the first book I have read in a long time that suggests to me that its author truly knows what it means to love. As such, it is a powerful contribution to the esoteric Christianity that seems to be sending up new shoots of life in the present day.
I remember that picture of him particularly vividly, sitting there in the shop on the old snowmobile carcass, his eyes flashing, almost and already one with that pulsing vibration of gratitude, that Mystery of Christ so mysteriously alive in the universe...
I watched him finally able to stare directly into the eye of the Mystery, to see the tincture without the form...to dance so fully and vastly with that heart of the music, the sound of the stars he always wanted to hear, that he was, literally, exploded out of form. His human heart burst; he had outgrown it.
—Love Is Stronger Than Death