contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Gnostic Gospels

THE COMPLETED HUMAN BEING

22 July is dedicated to Mary Magdalene, and this post is a short extract from The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, by Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest based in the United States (1). Her understanding draws heavily on Gnostic Gospels banned in the 4th century and recovered in the 20th. It articulates a Sophian, or Magdalenian, Christianity – a Gnostic Christianity – in a modern form. At the very least, it deserves space in our cultural memory, as a treasure not to lose again through carelessness, forgetting, or organised misrepresentation.

“In the Gospel of Philip, as in the Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene, the backdrop against which everything unfolds is the quest for the Anthropos ‘the completed human being’.   Philip makes it expressly clear, however, that this two-becoming-one is not simply a union of opposites as we understand it nowadays: not simply the integration of the masculine and feminine, or any of the other great binaries. … The primordial union is   [that of ]   one’s temporal humanity with its eternal prototype or ‘angel’… one Heart, one Being, one Will.”

But this is not all. Singleness is not all.  “There is still one greater mystery to be revealed. … Deeper than at-one-ment lies communion, love come full in the act of giving itself away. 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. To discover myself as a divine being is certainly a spiritual attainment, but to discover myself as the divine beloved is to discover something even more intimate and profound”.

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

SEEING: DOUGLAS HARDING AND ST. THOMAS

I’ve been working with The Gospel of Thomas (1), for two reasons. First, it is a non-dual text. Second, it comes from my native tradition, by which I here mean the one I was personally born into. The Gospel is a collection of stories and aphorisms attributed to the teacher Yeshua (Jesus), without any accompanying life-story.

Some of these are very unlike the stories and aphorisms we find in the canonical gospels, unlike enough to get the text banned in the later fourth century C.E., a time of hardening Christian Orthodoxy. But others appear within them. I remember hearing these as a small child who knew himself to have been baptised and given a Christian name. They captured my imagination, and I remember liking and indeed loving them.

Thanks to this background, Christianity – even in the form of an early ‘heresy’ – affects me differently from other paths. I need to be on guard against emotionally driven reverence and dismissal alike. Fortunately this is not too difficult with St. Thomas. There’s a way in which this text heals my relationship with the tradition of my birth, though without any call to renew my allegiance to it.

Douglas Harding was a non-dualist teacher who faced the same issue, only more so, having been brought up in the Plymouth Brethren and subsequently become estranged from his family through religious differences. He wrote an essay about the Gospel of Thomas, giving it a warm welcome (2):

“In this early apocryphal Christian text, the living voice of Jesus comes down to us directly, bypassing all that men have been saying about him and doing in his name. It comes across distinctly, high above the confused roar of two millennia of Christianity, so-called. It’s as if he himself had planted this beneficent time-bomb in the cave at Nag Hammadi, carefully setting the fuse to delay its explosion till the world would be ready for the impact. It’s as if, so tragically far ahead of his own time, he knew when significant numbers of quite ordinary men and women (as distinct from highly specialised and disciplined saints and sages and seers) would at last be capable of catching up with his vision of the Light, his experience of what he calls the Kingdom.”

Harding also says that we owe it to such a teacher “not to believe in this teaching of his in Thomas, but to test it, sincerely verifying (and falsifying) the scriptures by our experience instead of our experience by the scriptures”. In the essay, he goes on to accomplish this by identifying parallels between the Gospel of Thomas and his own Headless Way (3).

I will deepen my work with the Gospel of Thomas. I already know the text quite well, but I think that my understanding of it has changed since my last close reading of it several years ago. I hope also to clear up any residual unfinished business with my Christian roots, and allow the text itself a stronger role in my ongoing life and practice.

(1) Jean-Yves Leloup The Gospel of Thomas: The Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus Rochester, VA: Inner Traditions, 2005 (English translation and notes by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman)

(2) 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)

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

BEING IN TRANSIT

If I ask myself, ‘where is my spiritual centre?’ I do not find an answer within any named tribe. Spiritual friendships, communities of practice and generic webs of connection can all help, and I hope that I give something back. But my path is fundamentally solitary. Perhaps even the notion of having a centre is limiting.

I’ve learned a lot from Druidry. Partly thanks to Druid practice, I experience myself as more fully alive on a living Earth. I honour the wheel of the year as it turns in my locality. In Druidry, I’ve been enabled to explore a contemplative dimension within Earth spirituality. I have also connected with ancestral threads I might otherwise have neglected. But I’m not a polytheist Pagan and I have never felt attracted to Shamanism. I’ve learned from Buddhist tradition too. I’m a meditator. I have a deepened sense of interconnectedness and the call to kindness that goes with it. But I have not adopted the four noble truths as the basis of my path, and I do not seek refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. I am grateful for my connections to Druidry and Buddhism and will continue to take an interest in their literature. I also sense that, with certain understandings and practices now ingrained, their active roles in my life are over.

My creative edge has for some time been elsewhere. I have been working with the insight that perceptions, apparently of the world, do not establish the existence of a world, but only of perceiving (or awareness, or being). Sensations, apparently of a body, do not establish the existence of embodiment, but only of sensing (or awareness, or being). Thoughts, apparently of a mind, do not establish the existence of a mind, but only of thinking (or awareness, or being). This can seem destructively sceptical, even solipsistic. Yet for many people it signals the possibility of a ‘more than’ (or awareness, or being), rather than a dissociated ‘less than’. Mind, body and world can return enhanced rather than diminished by this kind of exercise, with a sense of a ‘not I not other than I’ connection with primordial awareness or being.

This is the basic stance of nondualist traditions, ancient and modern. In Indian culture, the stripping down and reduction to nothingness is sometimes identified as Vedantic, and the subsequent return and flowering in everything as Tantric. In the Gospel of St. Thomas, a Christian Gnostic text, Yeshua (Jesus) says: “I come from the One who is Openness” and the aspiration of disciples is to make themselves “the abode of Openness, a house that welcomes the breeze, a body that has become transparent, like a crystal flooded with light”. Here, a metaphor concerned with transparency emphasizes power and energy rather than vulnerability and exposure.

I am not a member of a nondualist group, or a Christian Gnostic. But I am moved by these spiritual currents. I am in dialogue with them. I think that ‘being in dialogue’ is a good place to be. For me, certainly now, it has more integrity than formal membership or adherence to a system.

(1) Jean-Yves Leloup The Gospel of Thomas: The Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus Rochester, VA: Inner Traditions, 2005 (English translation and notes by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman)

‘RESTING IN GOD’

Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) explores a Christian term in his The Art of Living (1). He says: “In Christianity there is the phrase, ‘resting in God’. When we let go of all seeking and striving, it is as if we are resting in God. We establish ourselves firmly in the present moment; we dwell in the ultimate; we rest in our cosmic body. Dwelling in the ultimate doesn’t require faith or belief. A wave doesn’t need to believe it is water. The wave is already water in the very here and now.

“To me, God is not outside us or outside reality. God is inside. God is not an external entity for us to seek, for us to believe in or not believe in. God, Nirvana, the ultimate, is inherent in every one of us. The Kingdom of God is available in every moment. The question is whether we are available to it. With mindfulness, concentration and insight, touching nirvana, touching our cosmic body or the Kingdom of God, becomes possible with every breath and every step.”

I tend not to use theistic language myself. But I do recognize and understand it, and I also see its value in building bridges between traditions. Thay has an interest in Buddhist Christian dialogue that goes back to the time of his friendship with Rev. Martin Luther King in the 1960’s, after Thay was forced to leave his native Vietnam. He has subsequently written Living Buddha, Living Christ (2).

We can find these bridgebuilding efforts echoed on the Christian side – for example by Father Jean-Yves Leloup, an Orthodox priest, and student of Christian Gnostic gospels, including that of St. Thomas (3). He has also engaged in Christian-Buddhist dialogue with the Dalai Lama (4). We find here a note that has parallels, without being identical, to that of Thich Nhat Hanh.

“His disciples said to him:

When will the dead be at rest?

When will the new world come?

He answered them: what you are waiting for has already come,

But you do not see it.” Logion 51, Gospel of St. Thomas.

“What we have been waiting for, the peace and fullness we yearn for, is already here. … Eternal life is in the very heart of this life. It is the uncreated dimension of our present life, which cannot die. To look for it elsewhere is to depart from it.” Later (Logion 61) Yeshua (Jesus) is translated as saying, ‘I come from the One who is Openness’, and Leloup comments: “Rilke once said Openness is the least blasphemous name for God. It is the name that is least defining and qualifying. Openness is the infinite space within the very heart of space, containing all and contained by nothing.” In Openness, “the body is open to the energies of the cosmos, the heart is open to a deep compassion, and the mind is as clear as a mirror, serenely reflecting the multitude of appearances.”

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The art of living London: Rider, 2017

(2) Thich Nhat Hanh Living Buddha, Living Christ London: Rider, 2012 (Foreword by David Steindl-Rast; introduction by Elaine Pagels)

(3) Jean-Yves Leloup The gospel of Thomas: the gnostic wisdom of Jesus Rochester, VA: Inner Traditions, 2005 (English translation and notes by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman)

(4) Jean-Yves Leloup Compassion and meditation: the spiritual dynamic between Buddhism and Christianity Rochester, VA: Inner Traditions, 2009 (Translated by Joseph Rowe. Dedications to Father Seraphim at Mount Athos and to the Dalai Lama, Ocean of Comapssion)

REFLECTION: THE IMAGE OF SOPHIA

bcf2c26ec7720ed734fccc2b13534310Pay attention, those that meditate

Upon me, and listen well!

All of you who are patiently waiting,

Take me to yourself!

Don’t dismiss me from your mind

And don’t let your inner voices

Despise me; don’t forget me at any

Time or place; be watchful!

 

 

I am both the first and the last,

I am both respected and ignored,

I am both harlot and holy.

I am wife and virgin, mother and daughter.

I am the unfathomable silence,

And the thought that comes often,

The voice of many sounds,

And the word that appears frequently.

I have been hated everywhere

But also adored.

I am that which people call

Life and you call death.

I am called the Law

And lawlessness.

I am the hunted and the captured.

The dispersed and the collected.

I don’t keep festivals

But have many feasts.

I am ignorant, yet I teach.

I am despised, yet admired.

I am substance

And insubstantial.

I am the union

And the dissolution.

For I am the one

Who alone exists

And I have no-one

Who will judge me.

The lines above have been extracted from an old Gnostic text usually known as Thunder: Perfect Mind. It is part of a collection of fourth century texts known as the Nag Hammadi library, discovered in Egypt in 1945 though not published until 1978. They were buried towards the end of the fourth century, a time of intensified Christian Orthodoxy in the Roman Empire when it had become dangerous to own them. As well as Thunder, the collection includes the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Philip. After over 1500 years of burial, these texts are now once again widely known and appreciated. They might not have appeared at all but for the staunch championship of C. J. Jung towards the end of his life.

Generally, Thunder is thought to be about Sophia, who despite her Greek name is a figure from Jewish tradition – a disregarded voice of wisdom, culturally descended from the dethroned Goddess of Israel. In Christian Gnostic tradition, she is partly reinstated both in the myth of Sophia as a cosmic figure and alternative understanding of Mary Magdalene as a human one. This is one of the main reasons why these texts were suppressed. Thunder goes furthest, in identifying her as supreme being and beyond judgement –  unusual even in the paganism of the day. She also says, “I am the bride and the bridegroom”, calling to mind the Gnostic valorisation of the androgyne as symbol of aware wholeness.

Thunder has many themes: the Goddess and what she stands for; contested understandings of gender, social relations  and religious expression; recognition and non-recognition; the vulnerability of wisdom and spiritual insight in human communities; dualities and the non-duality they are seen to be hiding. In the historical life of Thunder, one toxic duality was to be the co-arising of widespread literacy and systematic censorship. For the Gnostics, there was no redemption to be had in history – only in the transcendent light of a realised Divine identity.

I don’t fully know why Sophia became a numinous image for me. Culturally her Gnostic story is compelling. I notice that I am not interested in the Sophia of Orthodoxy, where wisdom is the wisdom of submission (to God, church and Christian monarchy). Nor am I drawn by Sophia as a Romantic, or Jungian, symbol of the ‘divine feminine’ – with archetype as stereotype writ large. The image of the Gnostic Sophia came to me when I was working within a Pagan context and feeling uninspired by gendered north European deities, with the partial exception of Brigid. In any case, I didn’t want to lose touch with the near eastern traditions, especially in this dissident form from Alexandria, which I felt to be part of my spiritual culture. Whatever the reason, Sophia entered my heart and imagination in a way that no other named and anthropomorphised deity has ever done. She became the perfect patron for a contemplative inquiry, taking on especial significance in the final year, when I talked about a ‘Way of Sophia’.

I still keep the icon close to me, and intend to continue doing so. But two recent dreams suggest some withdrawal of presence and energy. Not in a bad way – it’s more like fare-welling a companion or guide at the end of a journey. I am left with gratitude, inspiration, memory – and some continued sense of connection. This post is a way of honouring her.

Mostly I have selected the text above from the Alan Jacobs translation in The Gnostic Gospels published in London by the Watkins Press in 2005 as part of a series entitled Sacred Texts. However this translation is both free and  incomplete, and for my last four lines I went back to the third revised edition of The Nag Hammadi Library in English published by Harper San Francisco in 1990, with James M. Robinson as general editor.

Artist Hrana Janto at http://hranajanto.com/ (The image at the top of this post is used with her permission.)

 

SOPHIA THE CATALYST

bcf2c26ec7720ed734fccc2b13534310In my universe, Sophia primarily acts as a catalyst for what Cynthia Bourgeault (1) calls ‘singleness’ – the spacious mind of non-dual awareness.  I find that gazing into the eyes of my icon (2), or at the image as a whole, triggers me into the Seeing state that I first fully entered with Headless Way (3) exercises. I make a slight shift into what they call the ‘one eye’ perspective, and there I am.

Of course this isn’t dependent on the icon, but the timeless, momentary, gaze in this instance connects with the imaginal realm where I find feelings and intuition to be most present, with a diminished foregrounding of the sensations and thoughts that predominate in other exercises. The experience is the same, yet the feeling-tone is different.

I am still clear awake space, and capacity for the world. I remain grounded in silent stillness. But the passing content, or form, which the changeless emptiness also is and interweaves, is different. A different constellation of human characteristics is brought into the cosmic play. I value and cherish this. The archaic Gaelic tradition spoke of the Oran Mor (Great Song, or Song of the World). I’ve always thought of a Silence being key, holding the Song, and giving it – in a sense – shape; preventing it from being just noise. Yet the distinctions between individual notes also matter – small and transient though they may be. The Song depends on them, too, for its coherence.

At the human level, I have an abiding sense that my true individual note in the Song is Sophian. I do not experience Sophia as simply an abstract Wisdom figure. Nor am I a conventional believing theist (whether unitarian, trinitarian or polytheist) – yet to a degree I am a Sophian devotee, under the tutelage of a psychopomp.

Overall, I associate the Sophian note with a modern Gnosticism, “based in an affirmation of nature and the world and a positive relation to embodiment, not the classical Gnosticism of world denial and pure transcendentalism. It is a gnosis based on bringing the world fully to life, while also enjoying the state of embodiment and sensual pleasure, without excess or obsessive appetite. This affirmation of the world also requires an affirmation of the World-Soul in all its vast complexity as the primary ground of a living and animate nature. This also includes higher orders of perception and awareness leading to more mystical states of unity and participation in the creative founding of human experience” (4).

Through Seeing, I have learned that the “higher orders of perception” are more accessible than usually suggested, hidden by their obviousness and simplicity, yet entering into empty awareness, recognised as original nature or divine ground. This is why it has become my primary practice. I think there is something of this in earlier Sophian tradition. In the ancient Jewish text The Wisdom of Solomon (5), characteristics of clear and empty awareness are at least intimated, and are linked to Her name.

She is the mobility of all movement;

She is the transparent nothing that pervades all things.

She is the breath of God,

A clear emanation of Divine Glory.

No impurity can stain Her.

She is God’s spotless mirror

Reflecting eternal light

And the image of divine goodness.

Although She is one,

She does all things.

Without leaving Herself

She renews all things.”

Wisdom of Solomon 7: 24-27

Cynthia Bourgeault comments: “This remarkable passage envisions Wisdom as the primordial reflective principle, simultaneously creating and created in a seamless dance of divine becoming. There is a goddess aspect to her portrayal, to be sure – the hint of a divine co-creator – but the important thing to keep in mind is that Sophia/wisdom is presented not as a divinity to be worshipped but as a transformational force to be actualized … Wisdom is about transformation and transformation is about creativity; the three form an unbroken circle.”

Moving forward into the early days of Christianity, Bourgeault says: “The logos (Word) of St. John’s Gospel is merely the grammatically masculine synonym for exactly the same job description as has already been ascribed to Sophia in The Wisdom of Solomon; or, in other words, it is wisdom minus the feminine personification. Functionally, the terms are equivalent, and the gospel text could just as easily have begun, ‘In the beginning was the Wisdom, and the Wisdom was with God, and the Wisdom was God … and the Wisdom became flesh and dwelled among us’. In so doing, it might better have conveyed the context and mystical lineage out of which this insight actually emerges. There is no ‘male’ ordering principle counterbalancing a ‘female’ ordering principle – only grammatically masculine and feminine synonyms for a single ordering principle.”

Sophian teaching stands for the transcendence of polarities, as made clear by the Jesus of the St. Thomas Gospel. “When you are able to make the two become one, the inside like the outside, the higher like the lower, so that a man is no longer male and a woman female, but male and female become a single whole … then you will enter in” (6).

Likewise, the Gospel of St. Philip says: “the embrace of opposites occurs in this world: masculine and feminine, strength and weakness. In the Great Age – the Aion – something similar to what we call embrace occurs as well, but though we use the same name for it, forms of union there transcend what can be described here. For in that place … Reality is One and Whole” (6).

‘This world’ and ‘that world’ are not different places – but the same one seen in different ways. In a similar way, Sophia can be described as “the transparent nothing that pervades all things” and also presented anthropomorphically and mythically, as in my icon. Both understandings have value to me. The world of ‘normal’ perception: embodied, of the earth – albeit ‘re-enchanted’ as we say in Druidry, and the setting for a nature mysticism (7); the world of what S. T. Coleridge called the ‘primary imagination’, and of Sophia as image of the divine (8); and the world of Seeing are the same world seen through three different lenses: all to be savoured, all to be enjoyed, all to be known as One.

(1) Cynthia Bourgeault The meaning of Mary Magdalene: discovering the woman at the heart of Christianity Boston & London: Shambala, 2010

(2) Artist Hrana Janto at http://hranajanto.com/ (This image is used with her permission.)

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

(4) Lee Brown Gnostic tarot: mandalas for spiritual transformation York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1998

(5) Rami Shapiro (translator) in The divine feminine in biblical wisdom literature Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths, 2005 (The Wisdom of Solomon was originally written in Greek, probably by a Jewish sage writing in Alexandria during the intertestamental era.)

(6) Lynn Bauman, Ward Bauman & Cynthia Bourgeault The luminous gospels Telephone, TX: Praxis Institute Publishing, 2008

(7) http://www.druidry.org/

(8) S. T. Coleridge Biographia Literaria London: Everyman’s Library, 1956 (First published 1817)

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