At this strange moment in my life, I want to make my contemplative work more focused and integrated. Communing with the image above led to a deepening, related to the experience of ‘living presence’, and reported in a recent post (1). The process of writing that post has prompted further developments. One of them is a renewal of engagement with ancient wisdom writing.
My favourite books in this genre are the Tao Te Ching (2) and the Gospel of Thomas (3). My work with them has two aspects. One is to understand their cultural contexts, assisted by editors and commentators and further reading. The other is my direct response to the sayings. I am currently focusing on Thomas because some it its sayings influence my practice. Below I summarise contextual information. Each of my next two posts will cover a specific saying.
As a text, Thomas has more resemblance to ancient Jewish Wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes/Sirach) than either the canonical gospels or most Gnostic literature. Numbers of the sayings do also appear in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and Jesus/Yeshua defends Mary Magdalene against Peter – a common Gnostic trope. So there is some relationship with the canonical and Gnostic literatures. But there is no biographical information and no presentation of the teacher as a saviour from a super-celestial realm. There is no sense of the material world as a fallen or evil creation whether undermined by a cosmic adversary or ruled by a false god. Indeed there is no sense of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ being somewhere else at all: rather, it is “spread out over the whole earth, and people do not see it” – Saying 113 (1). Thomas can be seen as Gnostic in its sense of self-knowledge (gnosis) as transformational and because the individual is asked to identify with Jesus rather than ‘believe in’ him (4). The text is about self-transformation through a wisdom teaching that points us to our true nature. This makes it very different in cosmology and emphasis from the Gnostic movement that coalesced in the decades after Thomas was written.
Thomas was probably written in Edessa (now Urfa, a city of two million people in south east Turkey, close to the Syrian border), with the Coptic Nag Hammadi version (our only complete copy) a translation from a Greek or possibly Aramaic original (4). At the time of writing, thought to be the middle of the second century C.E., it was the capital of a Roman satellite state, not counted as within the borders of the empire. It rivalled Alexandria as a centre for book production, but had a different cultural feel – ascetic, contemplative and devotional, less concerned with creative myth-making. Christianities influenced by a Thomas tradition (though not necessarily this text) looked east and for many centuries flourished in the Middle East, Central Asia, China and India. In contrast to Europe, they were not religions of power and had to negotiate with other faiths – leading to significant cross-pollination in ways unimaginable in Constantinople or Rome. For example, they are said to have been an influence on Islamic Sufism, and as late as the thirteenth century, Rumi enjoyed good relations with a local Nestorian monastery (5). These eastern churches have stood by a view of theosis, full participation in the life of God. This is understood to have three stages: first, the purgative way, purification, katharsis; second, illumination, the illuminative way, the contemplative vision of God, theoria; and third, sainthood, the unitive way, theosis.
Essentially, this is a gradual path non-dualism. The Gospel of Thomas itself reads to me like a direct path non-dualism, as it does to other people at the present time – like Douglas Harding (6) and Francis Lucille. However I wouldn’t want to go too far in appropriating this ancient text for the purposes of a modern movement. It should be met, as far as possible, as what it is. I am concerned to respect and respond to it. I don’t need to agree with it or (worse) to make it agree with me.
The saying I want to look at in my next post is:
“I am no longer your Master, because you have drunk, and become drunken, from the same bubbling source from which I spring.” (from Saying 13)
In the following post, I will turn to:
“Yeshua said: when you bring forth that within you, then that will save you; if you do not, then that will kill you.” (Saying 70)
(2) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way (A new English version by Ursual K. Le Guin with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998
(3) The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus (Translation from the Coptic, introduction and commentary by Jean-Yves LeLoup. English translation by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman) Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005
(4) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introduction to ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds New York & Oxford: OUP, 2013
(5) Philip Jenkins The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia – and How It Died HarperCollins e-books, 2008
(6) Douglas Harding A Jesus for Our Time. Chapter 14 in Look for Yourself: the Science and Art of Self-Realisation London: The Shollond Trust 2015 (first published the The Head Exchange in 1996)