SOPHIA, GNOSTICISM AND CONTEMPLATION
When I wrote Contemplative Druidry I said that “in many ways this is a story of neo-Pagan sensibility and its growth since World War Two”. In addition to their Druidry, many of the book’s contributors reported involvement in Witchcraft and/or the indigenous Shamanism of other lands.
I also said in many cases this sensibility was modified by other influences, “most notably Buddhist philosophy and meditation, Christian mysticism and other Western Way paths with Gnostic and Hermetic traditions specifically mentioned”. I made the point that such influences are significant for contemplative practice, because to an extent they provide models. In the book I mostly focused on Buddhist influences, because they were the most common. I also paid attention to the Christian ones, notably the Ceile De, Anglican mysticism in the tradition of Evelyn Underhill, and the partly Franciscan inspiration behind the (Druid and Pagan) Order of the Sacred Nemeton. I didn’t say much about other Western Way traditions, though I mentioned R. J. Stewart as a personal influence on me and also my training at the London Transpersonal Centre. This was essentially Jungian and thus based on a modern Gnostic psychology.
The key images from my last post, Sailing to Byzantium, were images of Sophia and the Holy Fool from The Byzantine Tarot. They made an intense and (in common sense terms) disproportionate impact on me. For they reminded me of my own Gnosticism, a current that qualifies and modifies my Druidry. I am talking about modern Gnosticism, “based in an affirmation of nature and the world and a positive relationship to embodiment, not the classical Gnosticism of world-denial or pure transcendentalism. It is a gnosis based on bringing the world fully to life, while also enjoying the state of embodiment and sensual pleasure, without excess or obsessive appetite”*. Thus far, I could be talking about modern Druidry without any need to look elsewhere.
But, to follow Irwin further, Gnosticism also talks of “visionary awakening” through the power of archetypal imagery. From such a perspective, affirmation of the world also requires an affirmation of the World-Soul as “the primary ground of a living and animate nature”. This can inspire “states of unity and participation in the creative founding of human experience”. The key is the “animating vitality” of images, which can arouse “a cascade of energy and potential surpassing the image and leading into a more luminous condition of being and seeing”.
According to Irwin, the traditional fields for study and practice in Western Gnosticism are neo-Platonism, hermetics, alchemy, kabbalah, mystical theology, comparative theology and meditative disciplines: quite a curriculum. But the essence is quite simple. We are invited to work with Being as embodied (through exercise, body awareness and energy work), imaginal (connected to the mundus imaginalis, open to its power) and illuminated (through contemplative practice and insight). Much of this is offered within Druidry – for example, to anyone who takes full advantage of the OBOD distance learning course. Yet for me, here and now, once again, it is the image and name of Sophia that gives me my orientation and guides me on my path. I’ll explain that resonance and consequences more fully in later posts. In practical terms, for now, I’ve made two small adjustments in my morning practice. One is to cast my circle specifically in the sacred grove of Sophia. The other is to begin sitting meditation, or contemplative communion, by saying “I open my heart to the Light of Sophia”. It doesn’t seem much, but it shifts my centre of gravity to a place where a feel more empowered and more at home.
- Irwin, Lee Gnostic Tarot: Mandalas for Spiritual Transformation York Beach, ME, USA, 1998 (There is no pack of cards with this book. It’s a set of interpretations emphasising “spiritual transformation and illumined states of awareness”. The Universal Waite Deck and the Ravenswood Tarot Deck have been used as points of reference.)
But, to follow Irwin further, Gnosticism also talks of “visionary awakening” through the power of archetypal imagery. From such a perspective, affirmation of the world also requires an affirmation of the World-Soul as “the primary ground of a living and animate nature”. This can inspire “states of unity and participation in the creative founding of human experience”. The key is the “animating vitality” of images, which can arouse “a cascade of energy and potential surpassing the image and leading into a more luminous condition of being p
This is something I have personally found lacking in my experience with Buddhism; Zazen and insight meditation can seem rather dry, despite their usefulness. Although Tibetan Buddhism does make use of visualization, it doesn’t resonate with me, probably because of the cultural differences.
In the Western Mystery Tradition, more seems to be made of archetypal images and their potentially transforming power. Jung was very aware of this, just contemplating these images, like the grail, initiates an effervescent alchemical process in the mind.
Your contrast between a “rather dry” experience with Buddhist meditations and the “effervescent alchemical process in the mind” associated with the Western Mystery Tradition” resonates for me as well.
James, I am catching up on your blog posts. Your described practice here nearly mirrors my contemplative communion with the Light of Brighid, imaginally taking place beside Her holy well of healing/wisdom, in a sacred grove. 🙂
Thank you for sharing this aspect of your practice Erin. The imaginal aspect also makes personal sense of me – my sense of connection with Sophia came spontaneously within an inner grove framework and always involved the presence of water. Eventually her nemeton within my imaginal heart space was a walled garden with a fountain at the centre, very much linked to qualities of healing and wisdom as well as life itself.
Excellent post. I’ve just started the OBOD Bardic Grade and I’d already been drawn to many aspects of Gnosticism for a while now. I feel very strongly that both are true to a great extent, although sometimes appearing to be contactictory at a surface level, and it’s nice to stumble accross another OBOD member drawing similar conclusions avout the value of both Druidry and Gnosticism and incorporating both into his practice.
Thanks Matthew. I shall have more to say about these questions when I return to active blogging.