contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Gnosis

GNOSIS AND LOVE

This post looks at two sentences from the Gospel of Thomas and concludes a series of three posts about this text and how I read it.

“Yeshua said: When you bring forth that within you, then it will save you. If you do not, then that will kill you”. (From saying 70)

What is ‘that’? I could jump in and say the experience of ‘living presence’, in contact with the ‘bubbling source’ discussed in earlier posts on this theme, and this feels right to me. But I also find my understanding extended by translator and commentator Jean-Yves LeLoup, who offers two meanings for that, gnosis and love. Although he doesn’t fully spell it out, the sense I get from him is that they are co-arising and belong together. LeLoup understands gnosis, as Yeshua uses this term, to be “a consciousness that arises directly from knowledge of ourselves, of the ‘Living One’ within us”. He also describes it as “a transparency with regard to the ‘One who Is’ in total innocence and simplicity”. He adds: “this is why the qualities of the gnostic are said to be unconditioned, to resemble those of ‘an infant seven days old'”. Without gnosis, “the universe remains radically alien and incomprehensible”. With gnosis, love is free to flourish. LeLoup describes those who live in gnosis and love as “able to marvel at the vast richness in the tiniest manifestation of being”, graced with what seems like “unreasonable abundance”. In the absence of gnosis and love, we are vulnerable to experiencing life as stale, depleted and desolate. Yeshua is uncompromising on this point. This is the core of his teaching.

When encountering the Yeshua of this text, I have tried to let go of all other associations with the names Yeshua or Jesus. I have striven for a pristine response, as if I had not heard of this teacher before and knew nothing of the points of view claimed for him by the Thomas writer vast numbers of other people over the centuries. I haven’t found this easy. When I succeed, at least relatively, and respond to this text alone, I experience a fiercely and impatiently compassionate teacher who wants to shock people into an awakening to that – gnosis and love, in the sense understood in this text.

Yeshua’s compassion lies in his deep appreciation of the benefits of being awake, and the wish that others would share them. The impatience, perhaps a slightly wounded and bewildered one, comes from the way in which most people seem to be finding endless ways of not joining Yeshua in the sweet place where he dwells. So he uses a hyperbolic language in which that will either save you if you take it on or kill you if you don’t. Commentators say that, as a man of his place and time, Yeshua drew both on his Jewish inheritance and a Greek tradition of radical Stoicism, known as Cynicism (the modern definition is misleading) (2). Both had elements of exasperation with the public and lack of deference to the ruling class. People could be wiser and better than they are. So, why aren’t they? – and what can be done?

Hence the gospel of gnosis and love is not all about the inner life. Saying 3 of Thomas says; “the Kingdom is inside you, and it is outside you”. Jean-Yves LeLoup salutes this as “the wisdom of non-dualist language”: ‘inside’ alone “would give one-sided privilege to inner experiences and meditations. This would encourage us to flee the world, to disregard what is going on around us”. But ‘outside’ alone would encourage us to transform the world and convert others at all costs, “and it would be selfishness to sit in silence and listen to the song of the Living One in our heart”. We are asked to work with both dimensions, in this teaching, for gnosis and love to flourish.

(1) 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

(2) The Gospel of Thomas: the Hidden Sayings of Jesus (New translation with introduction and notes by Marvin Meyer. Interpretation by Harold Bloom). San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992. “The Cynics emerged from the philosophical tradition of Socrates as social critics and popular philosophers who lived a simple life and employed sharp, witty sayings in order to make people raise questions about their own lives. The influence of the Cynics and other Hellenistic thinkers is evident in the Galilee of the first century; Jewish wisdom literature itself bears the marks of Hellenistic concerns.”

NOTE: This post continues a discussion begun at https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/3/28/living-presence/ and continued at https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/4/02/wisdom-writing/ and https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/4/04/the-bubbling-source/

PUBLISHED: April 4, 2020

THE BUBBLING SOURCE

“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, Gospel of Thomas (1).

In the Gospel of Thomas, Yeshua begins to treat Thomas as his peer. Asked by Yeshua “to what would you compare me?”, Thomas has replied, “Master, my mouth could never utter what you are like”. This reply contrasts sharply with Peter’s “you are like a righteous angel” and Matthew’s “you are like a wise philosopher”. Thomas has understood. He has dropped all his presuppositions and expectations. He has been able to meet Yeshua in living presence, at source. Whoever wrote this text is asking us to emulate Thomas, and therefore his teacher Yeshua. We all come from the same bubbling source, and are invited both to recognise this and live from the place of recognition. Peter and Matthew may remain constrained by limiting traditional narratives, but Thomas has understood, and two other disciples, Salome and Mary, are portrayed as being on the way.

Recently re-reading this story, I was moved by the force of the words ‘bubbling source from which I spring’. I am grateful to Jean-Yves LeLoup’s translation for this, because the standard academic translation speaks of the “bubbling spring that I have tended” (2), which for me lacks power in comparison. ‘Bubbling source from which I spring’ exactly describes my felt sense of ‘living presence’, recognising it in myself. In my formal practice, I work within a circle framework and I quickly grasped that it should be recognised as the power at the centre. Liturgically, I now greet it is ‘the bubbling source from which I spring and heart of living presence’. This feels right and good. It helps that ‘bubbling source’ is not specifically a water image in this translation. I am free to experience it internally, through my act of recognition, as a shift in energy and attention.

I feel as if I have integrated, or perhaps re-integrated, a depth dimension into the practice, and it feels richer. Since the Winter Solstice I have been closely following the wheel of the year. It represents the inheritance and continuing life of my Druidry. In many ways this is a naturalistic undertaking. But I am now powerfully reminded that my existing commitment to the flowing moment as my true home, and out of which these recent insights came, is not simply about living a slowed down time in a conventionally naturalistic sense. It is that – but it also allows the taste of timelessness and the sense of a primordial nature. The Thomas text reminds me of it. That I can recognise it is also partly thanks to my work in recent years with the practices of the Headless Way (3), the Direct Path (4,5), and Jeff Foster’s community (6). Ultimately this primordial nature is no-thing, but as no-thing it becomes everything, I discover a ‘bubbling source’. I seem to have reached a point where I can both integrate this learning and keep simple. Indeed the one seems to lead to the other. I am grateful that it is so.

(1) 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

(2) The Gospel of Thomas: the Hidden Sayings of Jesus (New translation with introduction and notes by Marvin Meyer. Interpretation by Harold Bloom). San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992

(3) http://www.headless.org

(4) http://www.rupertspira.com

(5) http://www.greg-goode.com/

(6) http://www.lifewithoutacentre.com/

NOTE: This post continues a discussion begun at https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/3/28/living-presence/ and continued at https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/4/02/wisdom-writing/

WISDOM WRITING

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)

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/03/28/living-presence/

(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)

CHILD OF THE NOW

“They said to him

‘Tell us who you are

so that we may believe in you.’

He answered them

You search the face

of heaven and earth,

but you do not recognise

the one who is in your presence

and you do not know how to experience

the present moment.

“We are always asking for signs and omens so that we may believe. It is as if we want to be compelled from outside ourselves. But Yeshua offers no proofs, omens or explanations. He is what he Is. All who question must encounter him in the present if they want to see.

“He reminds us again that what we are looking for is already here and now. Here and now are the place and time to recognize, to experience, to taste the vastness of the present moment in all its dimensions of time, of space and of beyond space-time.

“The Gnostic is the Child of the Now.”

Jean-Yves Leloup The Gospel of Thomas: The Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005 (Translation from the Coptic and commentary by Jean-Yves Leloup; foreword by Jacob Needleman. English translation by John Rowe. Original French edition published 1986)

WISDOM’S FAITH

I’m asking myself whether ‘faith’ has any role in my spirituality. I think it may.

At the cognitive level I’m the kind of sceptic who holds questions open and tolerates ambiguity. I admire the Greek Pagan philosopher Pyrrho and his school (1). Like the early Buddhists who Pyrrho met in India, Pyrrhonists steered away from metaphysical propositions. They did not seek ease through right answers, but in a space of contemplative equanimity where uncertainty can be embraced. It gave them a lightness of being. I find this good for my mental life, which is potentially freed from an attachment to views and ideologies that turns them into things – property to be safeguarded or weapons to be deployed. I am also empowered to keep asking questions and to see the value in contrary points of view.

But the cognitive level isn’t everything. At the heart level, I lean into an intuited understanding uncompromisingly spelled out by Douglas Harding : ‘God is indivisible. This is so marvellous because it means the whole of God is where you are – not your little bit of God, but the whole of God. If we resist this, it’s because we are resisting our splendour, our greatness. The wonderful proposition of all the mystics that I know and would care to call real mystics is that the heart of you, the reality of your life, the reality of your being, your real self is the whole of God – not a little bit of that fire but the whole fire”.(2)

That intuition, sometimes concerned to avoid the ‘G’ word and sometimes not, has been with me for much of my life in some form. One of the stronger prompts, almost thirty years ago, was a careful reading of The Mustard Seed (3). Here, the Tantric teacher Osho works through the Gospel of Thomas. I have loved this text ever since to the point of accumulating a number of editions and commentaries. Douglas Harding has a chapter on it in one of his books (4). But the Gospel and its commentators did not persuade me to take this non-dual Gnostic view, and nor have kundalini yoga, sitting meditation, or the Headless Way exercises*. What they have done is given my intuitive sense of knowing room to show itself. That sense of knowing has grown stronger and is now anchored in. Practice is an affirmation and celebration rather than inquiry. It’s not something I want to argue about, and I wouldn’t much mind if I was proved to be metaphysically misguided. It’s just where I’m taking my stand.

The old Gnostics had the phrase Pístis Sophia, retrospectively used to name one of their texts, (5). English translations have varied: ‘Wisdom in Faith’, or ‘Faith in Wisdom’. To many Gnostics, Sophia was a celestial being, so another option is ‘The Faith of Sophia’ (and by extension, presumably) the faith of a devotee. Wisdom says that knowledge doesn’t get us everywhere. An element of faith, which I experience as a kind of permission-giving, or surrender, is needed for this commitment.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry/2019/04/27/pyrho-scepticism-arne-naess/

(2) Douglas Harding Face to No-Face: Rediscovering Our Original Nature David Lang, 2015 (edited by David Lang)

(3) Osho The Mustard Seed: Commentaries of the Fifth Gospel of Saint Thomas Shaftesbury, UK: Element, 1975

(4) Douglas Harding A Jesus for Our Time Chapter 14 in Look for Yourself: The Science and Art of Self-Realisation

(5) Pistis Sophia: A Gnostic Gospel translated and edited by G.R.S Mead Blauvelt, NY: Spiritual Science Library, 1984 (first American edition)

www.headless.org/

MODERN TRADITIONAL GNOSTICISM

Modern iterations of traditional Gnostic Christianity are alive and well. Stephan Hoeller is a major figure in this movement. When he discusses ‘the Gnostic worldview’ (1), he implies an essential consensus around a single view, which is not what I find. But I do like the spirit in which he approaches it. “At the core of Gnosticism is a specific spiritual experience, grounded in vision and union, that does not lend itself to the language of theology and philosophy, but instead has a close affinity to and expresses itself through myth”. He applauds the late twentieth century’s “minor mythic renaissance”, facilitated by the ground-breaking work of C.G Jung, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. He suggests that “their work fostered the widespread understanding that the meanings present in mythologies, ancient and otherwise, could help undo the alienation and rootlessness prevalent in the individual and collective psyches of our culture”.

Whilst expressing a reluctance to define his brand of Gnosticism (“real gnosis is not concerned with definitions”), he does so on the grounds that “the ego-involved mind requires definitions and is uneasy without them”. He then sets out “a summary of Gnostic recognitions”, which he asks us to see as a compendium of “flashes of the Vision Glorious” rather than a “statement of religious tenets in the conventional mode”.

Working through Hoeller’s list (set out, below, in italics) helps me to identify a mixed set of responses in myself.

1. There is an original and transcendental spiritual unity from which emanated a vast manifestation of pluralities.

When I open myself to this story, it sets up a kind of yearning. The original unity, the emanation and the manifestation of pluralities sound wonderfully real. Yet the sentence also hints at distance and the prospect of separation. A poignant sense of loss is built into the cosmic wonder itself.

2.The manifest universe of matter and mind was created not by the original spiritual unity but by spiritual beings possessing inferior powers.

Here, we have a confirmation that something might be wrong. Our ‘manifest universe of matter and mind’ – not just matter – is quite late in the process of emanation and manifestation. What are the consequences of being in a world created by ‘inferior powers’? In today’s mundane terms, we might ponder the word ‘sub-contractor’. Historically, this gave Gnostics an answer to the question ‘how does the ultimate Divine allow horrible things in our world? It’s because another agency is locally more powerful.

3. One of the objectives of these creators is the perpetual separation of humans from the unity (God).

Our first taste of actual malignancy in ‘the creators’. They have an agenda, which depends on maintaining our separation from the unity. In our section of the cosmos, there is the looming threat of constant assaults on our integrity and authenticity insofar as there is anything of the divine in us.

4. The human being is a composite; the outer aspect is the handiwork of the inferior creators, while the inner aspect is a fallen spark of the ultimate divine unity.

We now find that our own very beings are the product of this botched sub-creation. We are separated, not only from the divine source, but within ourselves. We cannot trust our own bodies and minds. I think of the fictive worlds of Franz Kafka and Philip K. Dick, both Gnostic-influenced.

5. The sparks of transcendental holiness slumber in their material and mental prison, their self-awareness stupefied by the forces of materiality and mind.

Here, my modern cultural reference is the early stages of the late 1990’s film, The Matrix. This leads me to think about the stages, not specifically articulated by this list, of turning over in my sleep or beginning to wake up – the sense of alienation, being a stranger is a strange land even at home , of something fundamentally out of kilter about apparent ‘reality’. Something in me cries out for another way of being, which can’t be satisfied by material changes, greater influence or improved relationships. Something hard to identify – and pushing against any spiritual narrative that all is for the best in the best of possible worlds. I don’t experience this feeling now, but it has featured in periods of my life, late adolescence probably being the most intense.

6. The slumbering sparks have not been abandoned by the ultimate unity; rather, a constant effort directed towards their awakening and liberation comes forth from this unity.

The story tells us that we are not alone or without help. An aspect or image of the Divine actually dwells in us and has been there all along. There’s nudging, a prompting, and signposting that comes from outside, and then from inside as the spark is re-ignited. There’s’ a task of noticing and responding to signs, which is how the journey of gnosis begins. If we take up the challenge, the world will begin to shift.

7. The awakening of the inmost divine essence in humans comes through salvific knowledge, called gnosis.

The central proposition of the path.

8. Gnosis is not brought about by belief or the performance of virtuous deeds or obedience to commandments; these at best serve to prepare one for liberating knowledge.

The only way to bust out of the Matrix is to bust out of the Matrix. Release is not granted as a reward for good behaviour. But ethical behaviour may help a mindset favourable to gaining liberating insight.

9. Among those aiding the slumbering sparks, a particular position of honour and importance belongs to a female emanation of the unity, Sophia (Wisdom). She was involved in the creation of the world and ever since has remained the guide of her orphaned human children.

Hoeller here glosses over a traditional narrative, for example in the Secret Book of John (2), that it is Sophia who inadvertently brings evil into the universe by giving birth to a son Ialdabaoth without permission or a male partner, thereby upsetting the cosmic harmony. Ialdabaoth becomes the false god and ruler of our world, with sub-creations of his own. Sophia repents and sets herself to repair the damage by aiding us wherever she can.  This Sophia is the mainstream Eve on another plane. Although presenting an image of the divine feminine, she is shown as transgressive in her independence and stigmatised for it. This is the opposite point of view to that of the Sophia in Thunder, Perfect Mind, who speaks for herself, with her story of neglect and abuse, whilst actually representing the unity itself – to me a more powerful story. Perhaps this is why Hoeller hedges his bets. For me this is the problem of distilling myth, with its creative capacity to shift and change with culture, and Hoeller’s timeless, ahistorical propositions, which can’t – and are therefore no longer mythically alive.

10.From the earliest times in history, messengers of light have been sent forth from the ultimate unity for the purpose of advancing gnosis in the souls of humans.

This view is common to many spiritual groups, though ‘advancing gnosis’ is a characteristically Gnostic way of describing the mission that messengers of light are given. I find that from this point onwards the list gets more propositional and less mythic, and that I find less to say about it.

11. The greatest of these messengers in our historical and geographical matrix was the descended Logos of God manifested in Jesus Christ.

This is where Hoeller clearly asserts a Christian orientation, whilst recognising spaces for other figures to fill this role at different times and different parts of the world. At this point I can’t quite stay in the story. ‘Our’ seems to assume a ‘western’ cultural framework, in a taken-for-granted and essentialist way.

12. Jesus exercised a twofold ministry; he was a teacher, imparting instruction concerning the way of gnosis; and he was a hierophant, imparting mysteries.

This shows the importance of sacraments as well as teaching for Gnostic churches. I notice that Jesus’ much attested role as healer is not mentioned. I’m not sure why that is.

13. The mysteries imparted by Jesus (which are also known as sacraments) are mighty aids towards gnosis and have been entrusted by him to his apostles and their successors.

The additional information here is that Gnostic churches have their own apostolic succession.

14. Through the spiritual practice of the mysteries (sacraments) and a relentless and uncompromising striving for gnosis, humans can steadily advance toward liberation from all confinement, material or otherwise. The ultimate objective of this process of liberation is the achievement of salvific knowledge, and with it, freedom from embodied existence and return to the ultimate unity”.

Christian Gnosticism is presented as a path of great personal effort – ‘relentless and striving’. True freedom means freedom from bodily existence, and this is something that Hoeller clearly intends literally, faithful to much of the old tradition. . There is no return to the ultimate unity in this world. This doesn’t correspond with my experience, either in its austerity or in this conclusion. But I’m still left with respect  for the uncompromising focus and energy of Hoeller’s path, though I cannot call it mine.

(1) Stephan A. Hoeller Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing Wheaton, ILL: Quest Books, 2002

(2) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introducing ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds Oxford University Press, 2013

GNOSIS AND ‘GNOSTICISM’

There is a tension between gnosis and ‘Gnosticism’. The first is an ancient Greek word for spiritual insight. It is about personal experience and the intelligence of the heart. The second is a seventeenth century term for an officially defunct transgressive movement. It seeks to classify this movement by identifying specific characteristics. The Gnostics had no Nicene Creed to make the job easy. With their more individual orientation and commitment to ‘continuous revelation’, they generated a great diversity of understandings. There were Jewish, Christian, and Pagan Gnostics in the Roman Empire, and others from further east. – Mandaeans and Manichaeans. Later centuries saw Gnostic currents in Islam and the Cathar movement in southern France.

Modern scholars of the Nag Hammadi literature are unhappy with ‘Gnosticism’ as a term (1). Some have abandoned it. Others continue to find it useful, recognising the many people in the ancient world “for whom the pursuit of gnosis was a spiritual goal. Even though the terms ‘Gnosticism’ or ‘Gnostic’ are not found in the ancient literature, …the term ‘gnosis’ appears frequently. Thus, what ties together a variety of ancient writings is this emphasis on gnosis as a positive goal or achieved state”.

I value these distinctions because they help me separate out my cultural fascination with a set of traditions, and my personal Sophian Way. This path is to an extent fed by the traditions, and I have a sense of gnosis. But I do not place myself directly in any of the four streams identified by the Nag Hammadi editors (2): Thomas Christianity; the Sethian School; the Valentinian School; and Hermetic spiritual philosophy. But all of them have texts, or passages in texts, of contemplative value to me. They have inspired and fed me in an indirect, but powerful way, and I am very grateful for their recovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in particular in 1945 and their somewhat tardy publication in 1978.

(1) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introducing ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds Oxford University Press, 2013

(2) Marvin Meyer The Nag Hammadi Scriptures HarperCollins, 2009 (Kindle edition)

WALKING THE SOPHIAN WAY

Today I tweaked my morning practice, strengthening it as part of a Sophian Way, and recognising how this Way stands at the heart of my life, and has deepened over time.

When I stopped posting for a period of several months, I wrote (1): “within my Sophian Way, I have found healing and grounding in a flowing now, the site of an unexpected At-Homeness. Everything else flows out of that – personal well-being, right relationship, life and expression in the world. It is the fountain that nourishes them all. All it needs is my attention”.

I wouldn’t now say “all it needs is my attention”. Resting in the flowing now is not enough. I want a greater sense of a specific spiritual culture and point of reference. I also said that ‘Sophian Way’ was not using “the metaphor of a path or a journey”, but “describing a way of life”. I now see the Sophian Way, quite literally, as a path, a journey and a way of life.

Some years ago, I was moved by a powerful image. It arose within a visualisation of being in a rose garden (Sophia’s garden) and watching the fountain at the centre – the source of life. The image zoomed in to drops of water flying from the top, scattering outwards, destined to hit a wide sculpted pool at the bottom. Zooming in further, I found a single, separate drop, and froze it in the midst of its descent. It was sun kissed, I as I recall.

I didn’t ‘become’ the drop, at that time. But from my observer position I knew that it was me: one drop, and the whole of H2O. The story of the drop is of separation (and fleeting individual shape) and of fall (or leap, or dance). Then it re-joins the whole and something else happens (oblivion from a drop perspective, still H2O in the bigger picture: no change there).

This was gnosis as a sign-posting experience, not fully embodied, but still vivid, recurrent (outside formal practice settings as well as within them) and easily brought back. It nudged me towards the Way of Sophia, best described in conceptual language as a non-dual Gnosticism. It is Gnostic because it recognises an intelligence of the heart, which, when cultivated, can lead to self-knowledge and the realisation of our original nature (described as divine in Western Way teachings).

Non-dual is admittedly a problem word, because it defaults to readily into ideology and dogma (‘Down with Dualism!’ or ‘I’m more non-dual than you are’). In fact, ‘non-dual’ cannot be opposed to something else called ‘duality’ or to anything else. It makes room for all stories, including those that are dualistic. As Jeff Foster has written (2): “what we are really trying to do when we say ‘non-duality’ is point to life as it is right now, before the appearance of concepts and labels; before thought creates a world of things: table, chair, hand, foot, me, you, past, future”. ‘Non-dual’ points to “an intimacy, a love beyond words, right at the heart of present moment experience. It’s a word that points us back home”.

Going forward, I want to pay more detailed attention to my Sophian Way, and to the Gnostic and non-dual streams that flow into it. Where looking beyond these sources of inspiration, I will discuss their relevance to me and my path.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/

(2) https://www.lifewithoutacentre.com/writings/what-is-nonduality/

AN ENGLISH SOPHIA

It is 1663, less than three years after the restoration of Charles II, together with his Lords and Bishops. There is a nocturnal meeting in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. It is mostly attended by radical dissenters, politically defeated but staunch in their religion. The exception is the narrator, who holds a precarious position at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.

“All eyes in the place, every single person, were focused with extraordinary attention on a dim figure at the front, the only person standing, although as quiet as all the others … How long she had stood like that I do not know; perhaps from the moment she came in, which was now nearly half an hour; I do know that we all sat there for another ten minutes in the most perfect of silence; and a strange experience it was to be so very still and immobile with all others in equal quietude.

“….

“When she did utter, she spoke so softly and sweetly that her words were hard to hear; instead everyone there had to lean forward to catch what she was saying. All the words, set down on paper with my pen, give nothing of my mood, for she entranced us all, bewitched us even, until grown men were crying openly, and women were rocking themselves with expressions of angelic peace such as I have never seen in any church  … Her hands remained clasped in front of her and made no gestures; she scarcely moved at all, and yet out of her mouth and her whole body became balm and honey, freely offered to all …

“She spoke for well over an hour and it was like the finest consort of musicians, as the words flowed and turned and played over us until we too were like sounding boxes, vibrating and resonating with her speech. I have read these words over again. How much I disappoint myself, for the spirit is entirely lacking from them, nor have I in any way managed to encompass the perfect love she spoke, or the calm adoration she evoked in her listeners. I feel, indeed, like a man who wakes from sleep after a wondrously perfect dream, and writes it all down in a frenzy, then finds that all he has on the page are mere words bereft of feeling, as dry and unsatisfying as chaff when the corn is removed.

“’To all men I say, there are many roads which lead to my door; some broad and some narrow, some straight and some crooked, some flat and commodious while others are rough, and pitted with dangers. Let no man say that his is the best and only road, for they say so out of ignorance alone.

“’I am the bride of the lamb and the lamb itself; neither angel nor envoy, but I the Lord have come. I am the sweetness of the spirit and the honey of life. I will be in the grave with Christ and will rise after betrayal. In each generation the Messiah suffers until mankind turns away from evil. I say, you wait for the kingdom of heaven, but you see it with your own eyes. It is here and always within your grasp. An end to religion and to sects, throw away your Bibles, they are needed no more: cast out tradition and hear my words instead. My grace and my peace and my mercy and my blessing are upon you.’

“The meeting was over, and it was obvious that the only reason it had assembled was to hear Sarah speak; in that town, and amongst those people, she had a reputation that had already spread far. The merest mention that she might make an utterance was enough to bring men and women – the poor, the rough and those of low breeding – out in all weathers and risk all manner of sanction from the authorities. Like everyone else, I scarcely knew what to do once it had finished, but eventually pulled myself together sufficiently to realise I must collect my horse and go back to Oxford. In a daze of the most complete peacefulness I walked back to the inn here I had left it and headed home.

“Sarah was a prophetess. Only a few hours earlier the notion would have elicited the utmost scorn from me, for the country had been benighted by such people for years, thrown into the light of day by the troubles in the way that woodlice become visible when a stone is overturned. … A woman prophet was much worse, you might think, even less likely to inspire anything but contempt, yet I have already shown it was not so. Is it not said that the Magdalene preached and converted, and was blessed for it? She was not condemned, nor ever has been, and I could not condemn Sarah either. It was clear to me that the finger of God had touched her forehead, for no devil or agent of Satan can reach into the hearts of men like that. There is always a bitterness in the devil’s gifts, and we know we are deceived, even if we permit the deception. But I could say for a moment only what it was in her words that conveyed such peace and tranquillity, I had the experience of it merely, not the understanding.”

Iain Pears An Instance of the Fingerpost Vintage: 1998

NOTE

I believe that the extract stands on its own, as an imaginative depiction of a form of spiritual experience, individual and collective. However, I have written this note to provide more context and information, and then added a personal insight piece relevant to my own inquiry.

The historical novel, An Instance of the Fingerpost, is mostly set in the Oxford of the 1660’s, described as “a time and place of great intellectual, scientific, religious and political ferment”. That being the case, it touches on the high politics of the transition from Commonwealth back to Monarchy; the foundation of the Royal Society and a more empirical approach to natural science and medicine; and the rise of new religious currents emphasising a direct relationship with the divine though ecstatic and intuitive means.

The central figure in the novel is Sarah Blundy, a young woman accused of murdering a fellow of New College. The novel is in four sections, each narrated by a male character whose testimony is unreliable to a greater or lesser extent. The one who describes the meeting above is relatively reliable. He also comes closest to Sarah, and her personally burdensome gifts of prophecy and healing.

Although the book has a concern with evidence and the meaning of evidence seen through a later seventeenth century lens, it also has an element of magical realism. Sarah follows a cycle of immaculate conception, a favourable upbringing, a fall into compromised circumstances, the perils of her vocation whilst working as a maid servant, arrest, trial, execution, resurrection and ascension. The last we hear of Sarah, when on a ship bound from Plymouth to New England is that “She simply disappeared one day in full daylight, and without any sound, as though she had been taken up bodily into the heavens”.

Two of the book’s narrators mention a second century Christian movement later declared heretical under the name of Montanism, as a model for Sarah. They specifically identify a doctrine declaring that “in each generation the Messiah would be reborn, would be betrayed, would die, and be resurrected, until mankind turns away from evil and sins no more”. This person could be of any age or gender and would probably  be from a humble background. The movement was founded by three teachers, Montanus, Priscilla and Maximilla and their name for themselves was ‘New Prophecy’. They had a literature of their own, later destroyed by the Catholic Church. One remaining fragment from Maximilla’s ‘Oracles’ says that Christ visited her in the form of a woman. A modern expert on Gnosticism, Nicola Denzey Lewis, suggests (1) that they were familiar with two works now recovered as part of the Nag Hammadi collection – Thunder, Perfect Mind and the Trimorphic Protennoia (=triple-formed first thought). Each affirms both a cosmic feminine principle and women’s spiritual leadership in the teeth of opposition and abuse. “The Thunder alludes in paradoxical language to a myth …where Sophia and Eve are the human and divine aspects of one feminine being”. Protennoia is a divine cosmic being (in effect, Sophia with an even more abstract name) who says, “I am the thought that dwells in the Light” She also says, ”I have come the second time in the likeness of a female, and have spoken with them” – incarnating as a what some traditions would call a Christ Sophia, whereas on the first occasion she had come in her masculine form as a Christ Logos (2).

For anyone wanting to look into the re-emergence of similar currents in seventeenth century Protestant culture in England and elsewhere, Caitlin Matthews’ Sophia book (3) provides brief coverage in Chapter 14, The Woman Clothed with the Sun.

(1) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introducing ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds Oxford University Press, 2013

(2) Tau Malachi Mary Magdalene: The Gnostic Tradition of the Holy Bride Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2006

(3) Caitlin Matthews Sophia: Goddess of Wisdom Bride of God Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, 2001 (Revised edition – original edition published by Mandala in 1991)

A PERSONAL INSIGHT

I have personal responses and insights about the Trimorphic Protennoia and its relevance, for me, to Sarah as prophet and Christ Sophia. This work is said to be in part a critique of the prologue to St. John’s Gospel, (‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’). The Protennoia places thought before word, and asserts that this thought, the ‘thought that dwells in the light’ contains, and is contained within, every single sentient being in the cosmos. There is no possibility of complete alienation from it, though the illusion of it can be devastating enough. But for St. John, the light comes after the word and shines into a darkness. This light can only be found through the mediation of Jesus Christ. It’s a very different theology, with different implications..

When I read and re-read the account of Sarah’s meeting, I am held by its auditory metaphors, because they are themselves so tactile. I begin with a strong sense of how she builds on the silence and stillness already in the room. It is a fecund stillness and silence, a potent state of latency. She holds and extends this moment.

Then she becomes present with her voice. She is almost inaudible, in one sense. Yet she has the full attention of the meeting. The narrator is impressed by qualities of softness and sweetness and talks of being entranced without clearly hearing a single word. Sarah’s voice has a compelling energetic presence – a voice that is not just a voice but offers a fully embodied sharing. Sara’s utterance is like music, with the same emotional power. It releases that in each person which leans into her speech, and already understands what she is telling them. What is happening is not so much revelation as recollection.

Finally, we do hear the words, which for me are memorable and inspirational even in their plain meaning, without Sarah’s presence.  They are very challenging to followers like hers, being asked to let go of their bibles and religion, so soon after the world and the powers that be have decisively turned against them. Each must find their own path, and refrain from judging others. The message is at once emancipatory and frightening. It is not readily reassuring. The hope is that the experience which Sarah offers will trigger the recollection of their own divine spark, as an inner intuitive knowing, often occluded but never wholly extinguished. .

This story is what it is, and I find it very moving. It also helps me to make sense out of the very dry and obscurantist seeming term Trimorphic Protennoia,- as a three stepped creative movement, demonstrated in Sarah’s own ultimate being and through her ministry. This movement begins in a primordial alive silence becoming aware of itself, through the emergence of a full-bodied voice that connects, to simple, profound and inspirational speech. Each successive state contains the previous ones, and the whole is fully enacted, a true and fresh creation.

A PARABLE ABOUT A PARABLE

“A young American named Simon Moon, studying Zen in the Zendo (Zen school) at the New Old Lompoc House in Lompoc, California, made the mistake of reading Franz Kafka’s The Trial. This sinister novel, combined with Zen training, proved too much for poor Simon. He became obsessed, intellectually and emotionally, with the strange parable about the door of the Law which Kafka inserts near the end of his story. Simon found Kafka’s fable so disturbing, indeed, that it ruined his meditations, scattered his wits, and distracted him from the study of the Sutras.

“Somewhat condensed, Kafka’s parable goes as follows:

“A man comes to the door of the Law, seeking admittance. The guard refuses to allow him to pass the door, but says that if he waits long enough, maybe, some day in the uncertain future, he might gain admittance. The man waits and waits and grows older; he tries to bribe the guard, who takes his money but still refuses to let him through the door; the man sells all his possessions to get money to offer more bribes, which the guard accepts – but still does not allow him to enter. The guard always explains, on taking each new bribe, ‘I only do this so that you will not abandon hope entirely.’

“Eventually, the man becomes old and ill, and knows that he will soon die. In his last few moments he summons the energy to ask a question that has puzzled him over the years. ‘I have been told,’ he says to the guard, ‘that the Law exists for all. Why then does it happen that, in all the years I have sat here waiting, nobody else has ever come to the door of the Law?’

“’This door,’ the guard says, ‘has been made only for you. And now I am going to close it forever. And he slams the door as the man dies.

“The more Simon brooded on this allegory, or joke, or puzzle, the more he felt that he could never understand Zen until he first understood this strange tale. If the door existed only for that man, why could he not enter? If the builders posted a guard to keep the man out, why did they also leave the door temptingly open? Why did the guard close the previously open door, when the man had become too old to attempt to rush past him and enter? Did the Buddhist doctrine of dharma (law) have anything in common with this parable?

“Did the door of the Law represent the Byzantine bureaucracy that exists in virtually every modern government, making the whole story a political satire, such as a minor bureaucrat like Kafka might have devised in his subversive off-duty hours? Or did the Law represent God, as some commentators claim, and, in that case, did Kafka intend to parody religion or to defend its divine Mystery obliquely? Did the guard who took bribes but gave nothing but empty hope in return represent the clergy, or the human intellect in general, always feasting on shadows in the absence of real Final Answers?

“Eventually, near breakdown from sheer mental fatigue, Simon went to his roshi (Zen teacher) and tole Kafka’s story of the man who waited at the door of the Law – the door that existed only for him but would not admit him and was closed when death would no longer allow him to enter. ‘Please,’ Simon begged, ‘explain this Dark Parable to me.’

“’I will explain it,’ the roshi said, ‘if you will follow me into the meditation hall.’

“Simon followed the teacher to the door of the meditation hall. When they got there, the teacher stepped inside quickly, turned, and slammed the door in Simon’s face.

“At that moment, Simon experienced Awakening.”

Robert Anton Wilson Quantum Psychology Hilaritas Press,1990.

The author wrote this as the catalyst for a group exercise. First, each participant was invited to try to explain or interpret Kafka’s parable and the Zen Master’s response. Second, they were asked to observe whether a consensus emerges from the discussion, or whether each person finds a personal and unique meaning.

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