Bernadette Roberts passed away in her sleep on November 27, 2017. What follows is a review written before her passing.
Bernadette Roberts’ path is that of a Christian and if you have any affinity with Christian mysticism you must read her books. Her primary concern is with addressing the passage from what she calls the unitive stage to the no-self stage. While the unitive stage (or stage of being one with God) is well known in Christian literature, that there is a path beyond this stage is virtually unknown. Bernadette Roberts writes from her experience of living in the unitive stage until the self and its experience of being one with God disappeared into a new way of knowing. As she says:
One possible way of envisioning the human passage is the following. We think of ourselves as originally emerging from the unknown, from darkness, nothingness or non-existence into the light of consciousness. But as consciousness develops we discover the increasing ability to see in the dark, see into the nothingness or mystery within ourselves and eventually realize that this darkness and nothingness is the divine from which we emerged and with which we are one. Thus we discover that our original darkness IS true light. Midway in this passage, divine light (darkness or unknowing) and the light of consciousness are in balance, with neither outshining the other. But as we move beyond this mid-point, divine light begins to outshine the light of consciousness until, in the end, the light of consciousness goes out and only divine light remains. From this vantage point we look back on the passage and see that although consciousness was the veil that dimmed the light, this dimming was necessary in order to make the human dimension possible. But if consciousness makes human existence possible, it is also not separate from the divine, nor does it completely hide it; on the contrary, consciousness or self is man’s faculty or medium for experiencing the divine — so long as it remains, that is [this is key]. Our passage through consciousness is the gradual return to the divine; we leave the divine unknowingly and in darkness, but we return knowingly and in light.
Bernadette Roberts writes for Christian contemplatives, so it may be difficult reading for those outside that world. Her language is that of Christian mysticism: Christ’s Mystical Body, the Trinitarian nature of God, the meaning of the Eucharist, and so on. While her first book The Experience of No-Self had a wider appeal, her subsequent books, The Path to No-Self and What is Self?, have an increasingly narrower audience. I think some of the reason is Bernadette’s amazing inability to relate to other traditions. She insists that the no-self event is not a part of the world’s mystical literature and that her’s is the first attempt to describe what is beyond the unitive stage. She points out the errors in the language of other traditions, then excuses her own language as insufficient for describing the no-self stage. It never seems to occur to her that other authors are also struggling to describe the indescribable: to explain the Absolute in relative terms. She freely admits, though, “The Christian path is the only one I ever lived,” and her understanding of it is profound.
Bernadette Roberts’ writing and her life are about finding the true nature of man. Bernadette tells us what she found and it should gladden our hearts that someone sought and found their true nature. Her’s may or may not be the first written account of the no-self stage, but it is certainly one of the most detailed.
A 1986 interview of Bernadette Roberts is available here.
Bernadette Roberts: A small site with information about Bernadette Roberts. This is the place to look for upcoming retreat dates, order a dvd, or her self-published works. Bernadette’s most recent book is The Real Christ.