contemplativeinquiry

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Tag: Gnostic Gospels

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)

THE TEMPLE SPACE

“In this Temple Space (Aeon) you become all things,

and you see yourself no more;

and in that All-Other you become all things

and never cease to be yourself.

“Light and darkness, life and death, right and left, are brothers and sisters. They are inseparable.

“This is why goodness in not always good, violence not always violent, life not always enlivening, death not always deadly …

“All that is composite will decompose

and return to its Origin;

but those who are awake to the Reality

without beginning or end, will know the uncreated, the eternal.

“The words we give to earthly realities engender illusion; they turn the heart away from the Real to the unreal. The one who hears the word God does not perceive the Real, but an illusion or an image of the Real.

“It is impossible to see the everlasting Reality and not become like it.

The Truth is not realised like truth in the world:

those who see the sun do not become the sun;

those who see the sky, the earth or anything that exists, do not become what they see.

“But when you see something in this other space, you become it.

If you know the Breath, you are the Breath.

If you know the Christ, you become the Christ.

If you see the Father, you become the Father”.

Jean-Yves LeLoup The Gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, And the Gnosis of Sacred Union Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2004 (Translation from the Coptic and commentary by Jean-Yves Leloup; foreword by Jacob Needleman. English translation by John Rowe. Original French edition published 2003.)

Like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip is a Nag Hammadi text, and a central one for a nondual current within Christian Gnosticism. In places the text seems almost Taoist (the fluid inter-relatedness of polarities within a greater unity, the suspicion of words and naming). For me it also resonates with the practice of Seeing in the tradition of Douglas Harding (see http://www.headless.org) It is one of my ‘special books’(see https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/

I WE THEY YOU

I read recently that Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf includes an ‘I’, a ‘we’ and a ‘they’, but no ‘you’. The same writer (1) also reflects on the bible story of Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, and how it can be seen to place the origin of human violence in the elimination of the ‘you’.

I am interested in how this insight can be applied to non-dual spirituality, and find help in the Gospel of Thomas (2). Here, Thomas is described as Jesus’ twin. How are we to understand this? There is a point at which Jesus says:

“’I am not your teacher. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended’.

“And he took him and withdrew and spoke three sayings to him. When Thomas came back to his friends, they asked him, ‘what did Jesus say you?’”

Thomas feels unable to tells his friends, because the three sayings seem so shocking, and they are not recorded. However, a persuasive commentary (3) on this text suggests that the three sayings are: ‘I am God; You are me. We are the kingdom of God’. The already existing human connection between Jesus and Thomas is raised to another level because they are able to recognise the divine both in themselves and in each other. This is the view also recognised in the Sanskrit greeting Namaste.

Cynthia Bourgeault makes a similar same point in the context of the connection between Jesus and Mary Magdalene (4). Singleness is not all.  “There is still one greater mystery to be revealed. … Deeper than at-one-ment lies communion …. the nondualism of the Western metaphysical stream is a flowing unity – a ‘not one, not two, but both one and two’ in which the continuous exchange of twoness and oneness in the dance of self-giving love captures the very dynamism of the divine life itself”.

(1) Karl Ove Knausgaard The End (My Struggle: 6) Vintage Digital, 2018 (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett & Martin Aitkin)

 (2) The Gospel of Thomas in The Nag Hammadi Scriptures San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007 (ed. Marvin Meyer)

(3) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introduction to ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013

(4) Cynthia Bourgeault The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity Boston & London: Shambhala, 2010

SPECIAL BOOKS

I’m thinking about special books. Many spiritual traditions have special books and they are given tremendous authority. For the committed practitioner, the prescribed way of working with them is some version of Lectio Divina. This goes beyond knowing what the book says and giving our assent. We need to bring the words alive through a contemplative immersion. As deep and devoted readers, we learn to identify layers of meaning and apply them in our lives. Checking out our experience in the light of what is written, we learn to mould our experience in accordance with the writing. There is no room for a mixed or negative assessment of the text itself or wish to depart from it. The furthest we can go in this direction is through a device like Hebrew midrash. This a form of commentary, sometimes taking the form of stories, that can stretch an original meaning or introduce a new perspective on it.

But for me, the direct value of texts lies in the extent to which they support my practice and experience. The practice and experience themselves are my authority. My original education was literary, reflecting the creative and critical values of the humanities. I am educated in what Samuel Johnson called ‘the art of true judgement’, and also understand that older texts need to be understood in relation to the cultures of their day. I don’t come to this work with a Lectio Divina mindset. But I still like the idea of having special books, of focusing in closely on a few texts of special value to me.

This is partly to counterbalance my natural tendency to be restless and mercurial in my reading. I move rapidly not just between books and ideas but kinds of books and ideas, with quite different understandings of life and the universe. I get multiple overviews at the risk of losing my own thread. I’m also like a magpie in identifying pieces of text that shine, which is great, but supports an attachment to shininess, aka psychoactive writing.

Hence, I now find myself wanting to slow down and consolidate, identifying a small number of special books, selected as Wisdom literature for this stage of my journey, and keeping company with them. I have chosen six. Three are from the ancient world and have been my friends for many years. Three are modern and discuss the Harding method of ‘Seeing’ ( www.headless.org/) , in which I am increasingly experiencing as a support for my Sophian Way. I’m not going to say more about them in this post, but I will feature them in future ones. Here is the list:

Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about The Way and the Power of The Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998. (New English version by Ursula K. Le Guin with the collaboration of J.P. Seaton)

Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017 (A new translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries)

Alan Jacobs The Gnostic Gospels London: Watkins Publishing, 2005 ( My focus is on four texts: The Gospel of Thomas, The Fable of the Pearl, The Gospel of Philip and Thunder)

Douglas Harding Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom-Line London: The Shollond Trust, 2009 (First published by Arkana in 1990)

Douglas Harding Look for Yourself: The Science and Art of Self-Realisation London: The Shollond Trust, 2015 (First published by The Head Exchange Press in 1996)

Karin Visser The Freedom to Love: The Life and Vision of Catherine Harding Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019 (First edition 2016

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)

FACES OF THE GNOSTIC GODDESS

Tau Malachi is the Bishop of a Christian Gnostic Church, the Ecclesia Pistis Sophia, also known as the Sophian Fellowship. In his, Sophian, tradition, Sophia is essentially God the Mother and Mary Magdalene is the Christ Sophia, born at the same time as Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnation of the Christ Logos. Tau Malachi’s St. Mary Magdalene: The Gnostic Tradition of the Holy Bride (1) collects, and reworks oral tradition developed over a long period and in different cultures.

This tradition shows the Gnostic affinity to what we would now describe as Goddess, Pagan and Tantric themes, whilst remaining distinctively Gnostic and Christian. The mainstream church is explicitly criticized for “following in the way of Peter, who rejected the Bride and placed himself as an enemy to her”. As a result, “many secrets and mysteries she had to tell were not received”. The conflict between Mary Magdalene and Peter is indeed an early-appearing narrative, also described in at least four Gnostic texts dating from the second and third centuries C.E. – The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and Pistis Sophia (2).

To provide a flavour of Tau Malachi’s collection, I offer the extract below

“The Holy Bride has seven faces, the principal face being Our Lady in Red, St. Mary Magdalene. But she also has six other faces, all of which were embodied in Lady Mary. The three bright faces are Maiden of Light, Mother of the Royal Blood, and Crone of Ancient Knowledge; the three dark faces are the Mistress of the Night, Queen of Demons and Hag of the Void.

“These are as seven veils of Bride Sophia. Unless the Holy Bride reveals herself to a person, those who know her cannot speak the mysteries of the seven faces. It is she who must choose her lovers and bring them into herself.

“Without breaking our vows to her, however, we can say this: these faces correspond to the seven rays of the Light-transmission, and within every face there are seven faces; thus, there are forty-nine faces of Bride Sophia. The fiftieth face of Sophia is Mother Sophia, and those who behold it attain the perfection of understanding called Primordial Wisdom. Of these it is said, ‘their crowns are in their heads’.

“Let one who seeks to understand this invoke the Holy Bride, seek their revelation, and contemplate deeply what is said here. Remember what the Lord said: ‘seek and you will find; ask and you will receive; knock and the door will be opened unto you’. The Holy Bride is the everlasting door, the gate of all-gnosis.”

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

(2) The first three can be found in: Alan Jacobs, The Gnostic Gospels London: Watkins, 2005. Thomas and Philip were discovered as  part of the Nag Hammadi collection in 1945 and published in 1978. Mary Magdalene had already been found in Cairo in 1896. Pistis Sophia, obscure but never lost, was translated and edited by the Theosophist (and personal secretary to Helena Blavatsky) G.R.S Meade. I have the American edition, published as Pistis Sophia: A Gnostic Gospel Blauvelt, NY: Spiritual Science Library, 1984.

The Gospel of Philip also includes an account of the close relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. Another early work in the Jacobs collection Thunder (also known as Thunder Perfect Mind) gives a voice to the repression of the Divine Feminine, whilst also pointing to a transcendence of opposites.

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