contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Judaism

BLESSINGS OF BROKENNESS

“At the heart of the Kabbalistic tradition, we find the origin story of the shattering of the vessels. It is said that God first created the world by attempting to emanate into ten holy vessels, ten spheres, or sephirot. But something went wrong. God was too eager and poured too much divine light into the vessels. The vessels were unable to contain this immensity of immanence and shattered. God had to start creation all over again, and the purpose of this second creation, our world, becomes Tikkun Olam, or ‘mending the world’. We are meant to do this through gathering the broken shards of the first vessels, by performing good deeds. It is said that each soul comes here to find the broken piece that only it can restore.

“Traditional interpretations regard the shattering of the vessels as a cosmic catastrophe – but what if it wasn’t a mistake, but the actual path? God wants us to know His broken, imperfect nature! After all, the only way to restore the world is in relationship with divine brokenness. The process of shattering can also be a model for our own spiritual lives. To awaken, to be whole, to become holy, we too must first become intimate with brokenness.”

In her piece The Blessings of Brokenness*, from which the above account comes, Vera de Chalambert surveys a number of traditions – Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Sufi and Buddhist – and finds that “Divine brokenness pervades the spiritual traditions, and the divine neither hides its brokenness nor turns away from ours. Instead, we are encouraged to pivot fully toward it and let it transform us. If we accept the blessing of brokenness, it will awaken the tenderness that changes everything”. Recalling Rumi’s statement that ‘where there is ruin there is treasure’, she concludes, “we might still find ourselves among the ruins, but we will become the treasure”.

*Vera de Chalambert The Blessings of Brokenness in Zaya & Maurizio Benazzo On the Mystery of Being: Contemporary Insights on the Convergence of Science and Spirituality Oakland, CA: Non-Duality Press, 2019

DOVE ENERGY

Guanyin is the Bodhisattva of compassion, who hears the cries of the world. In Chinese iconography, she is sometimes portrayed as seated on a lotus, holding a jar that contains pure water. It is the divine nectar of life, compassion and wisdom. She also has a small willow branch, to sprinkle on devotees and bless them with spiritual and physical peace. The willow teaches the wisdom of knowing how to bend rather than break, and has a history of use in Chinese shamanic and medical practice.

Often depicted as a woman in white (signifying purity and maternity) Guanyin may also have doves flying towards or around her. Doves are associated with fecundity, marital fidelity and longevity. There was a tradition of awarding a jade sceptre with the figure of a dove to people who reached the age of 70. Ritualized dove releases were used as a means of warding off evil. The Lotus Sutra (1) contains a chapter on the transformations of Avalokitesvara, Guanyin’s male alter-ego, travelling the world and “by resorting to a variety of shapes”, conveying beings to salvation.

I feel increasingly that Guanyin represents the same archetypal energy as Sophia, the Gnostic “mother of angels” (2). In my icon of Sophia, she holds a chalice at heart level, and a dove sits in it, facing out. When I had a Temple of Sophia practice, she often appeared in dove form rather than anthropomorphically. She inherits dove symbolism from the Goddesses of the Eastern Mediterranean, and from Jewish culture, again with dove symbolism, derives the role of revealing God’s inward thought, and communicating insight and knowledge to mankind.

For me it is as if a dove energy has relocated me to a new practice community. The opportunity to work more systematically on lovingkindness and compassion than heretofore, yet in a gentle unforced way. Hence the cultural change of garment from ‘Sophia’ to ‘Guanyin’. Early this year I had two episodes of active imagination (open waking dreams rather than structured guided meditations). In the first, I was a mouse in the talons of an owl, flying over water to an unknown destination. I knew that the owl was Sophia. In the second, I was under the tutelage of Sophia on a small ocean-going yacht. Here too, I didn’t know the destination. I remember her asking me to contemplate my existing resources, and I thought of Russel Williams talking about “stillness, pure consciousness, emptiness of being – based on sense-feeling, and filling the emptiness with lovingkindness” (3).

Some months later I contacted the Community of Interbeing. It’s a Mahayana Buddhist community, and so under the aegis of Guanyin, and is proving a good place to be. Beyond its regular meetings, there have been two spin-offs. The first is my Mindful Self-Compassion course (4). The second is a recent retreat with members and friends of my sangha. The theme was ‘embodiment’. The purpose was to make Buddhist practice more somatically aware and Earth honouring. We spent a significant amount of time outside and making use of local topography. It was very like my outdoor experiences of contemplative Druidry and included the same sensitivity to the politics of Deep Ecology In terms of Dove guidance, I feel that I have landed now, and I simply go on from here.

(1) The lotus sutra: saddharma-pundarika Translated by H. Kern, 1884 (Kindle edition)

(2) Jean-Yves Leloup The gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the gnosis of the sacred union. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2003 (Translation and commentary from the Coptic. English translation, Joseph Rowe. Forward by Jacob Needleman)

(3) Russel Williams (2015) Not I, Not Other than I: the Life and Spiritual Teachings of Russel Williams (Edited by Steve Taylor) Winchester & Washington: O Books

(4) https://centerformsc.org/

WORD POWER

“In Hebrew, the word davar … means word and thing. No distinction. We see and hear the world with our minds, with words, in categories, not in raw sensory data.   I believe in holiness because I experience it. I don’t view it as a personal presence, but holiness is as vivid as sexual pleasure or hunger.”

The words are spoken by Malkah, the central and anchoring figure in Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1) and one of two given prominence as a point of view character. The other is her granddaughter Shira. Their spiritual lens is Jewish and they live in a 2059 imagined by the author in 1991. This world has experienced social breakdown, massive population loss and partial desertification due to the co-arising phenomena of corporate oligarchy and unchecked climate change.

I read this book again last week because I half remembered it and wanted to refresh myself. I had no other agenda. But as I went on it seemed to be contributing to my inquiry about the meaning of ‘creativity’ and ‘magic’  (Druidry’s Awen) in a context where material and social forces need to be addressed at their own level. For me, He, She and It also shows how speculative fiction may itself be a creative cultural force.

Malkah asserts that, “in fascination with the power of the word and a belief that the word is primary over matter, you may be talking nonsense about physics, but you’re telling the truth about people.    A person reacts and decides what’s good or bad. For us the word is primary and paramount. We can curse each other to death or cure with words. With words we court each other, with words we punish each other. We construct the world out of words. The mind can kill or heal because it is the body.”

Hence, the creative word is always “perilous”, giving true life to what has been inchoate and voice to what has been dumb. “It makes known what has been unknown, that perhaps we were more comfortable not knowing.” What we cannot name, we cannot talk about. When we do name something, we empower it, and the naming has consequences – “as when we call an itch love, or when we call our envy righteous”. More creatively, “we may empower ourselves” for if “we can think about and talk about what is hurting us”, then “we may come together with others who have felt this same pain,” and try to do something about it.

Malkah likes to tell the story of the Maharal of Prague*, who in 1600 defended the Jewish Ghetto there against anti-Semitic attack through the creation of a golem, a man of clay, large and strong, animated through Kabbalist magic. It becomes a second timeline in the book, though always in the form of Malkah telling the story. She describes the creation of Joseph, the golem, with relish.

The face of the Maharal is pale with ecstasy. He feels the power coming through him. It is the power of creation. It is always dangerous, it is lightning striking the tower and the world set on end. Word into matter and everything born again. He feels the energy of something strange and new and terrible and focused to a spear piercing through him and into the clay before him. He sees his own hands shining with a blue-white radiance. His hands are crackling. His hair stands up with electricity.

All the combinations of letters and vowels he chants, and the hidden name of G-d he speaks, and the sacred numbers that built the atoms of the universe. He has become transparent with power that is pouring through him. His flesh is blackened like glass that has stood in a fire. His eyes are silver as the moon, without pupils or iris. He knows in that moment more than he has ever known in his life and more than he will know in five minutes.

But we also know that power like this, even within the mythos,  is a rare and precious gift. When the assault on the ghetto comes, developing out of a Good Friday procession, the strong but simple Joseph says to the Maharal, “’your prayers as strong as my fists’”. The Maharal demurs. “’Prayer doesn’t work that way’, the Maharal says quietly and sadly. ‘It makes the heart and mind strong in belief, but it doesn’t keep one leaf falling from the tree. Still, I will pray’”. The ghetto defence is successful, though with many losses and much destruction. The aggressors are turned back. This is partly down to Joseph directly and partly because he inspires the community to rally. The Christian state levies reparations on the Jewish community for all the trouble that’s been caused, and life goes on. Survival – but with no change in underlying conditions. Joseph, who has an inbuilt tendency to violence, is put to back to sleep (though not destroyed) by the very magician who made him that way.

The same is true of 2059. The people there are vulnerable and have enemies. They live in harsh physical conditions, though without losing the capacity to recognise and create beauty. They too wrestle with the ethics and politics of what we now call artificial intelligence, which in their world has become, and in our world is becoming, a realistic proposition.

Malka’s conclusion seems to be that we can sometimes access resources beyond our little selves, though we don’t really own them, and can’t rely on them to exempt or rescue us from things we don’t like or want. But they do have a role to play and can at times make a difference. “We partake in creation with ha-Shem, the Name, the Word that speaks us, the breath that sings life through us. We are tool and vessel and will. We connect with powers beyond our own fractional consciousness to the rest of the living being we all make up together. The power flows through us just as it flows through the tiger and through the oak and through the river breaking over its rocks, and we know in our core the fire that fuels the sun.”

(1) Marge Piercy He, She and It (Kindle edition). First published in 1991 (as Body of Glass outside the USA). 1993 Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

*The Maharal was an historical figure, the title being the Hebrew acronym of Moreinu Ha-Ra Loew, used for Judah Loew be Bezalel,1512/26? -1609) and widely known to scholars as the Maharal of Prague. In 1592, he was granted an audience with Rudolf II, the mystically inclined Holy Roman Emperor. This was probably to discuss Kabbalah. The legend concerning his creation of a golem to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks is thought to be a German literary invention of the early nineteenth century.

HOLY SOPHIA

I have been on holiday, kissed by a Mediterranean of blue skies, extended midwinter daylight and temperatures into the 20’s. Sparsely populated beaches and warm sand. Water to walk through in lazy delight. The sensuous geometry of Moorish architecture in southern Spain.

I have felt dislocated in a good way, and still do. I’ve been treading an unfamiliar path through this season, this year. It has been accompanied by a contemplative text, which I read and marked before leaving home. It was posted earlier in the month by Rosamonde Ikshvaku Miller in her Gnostic Sanctuary group on Facebook.

“WithIn the depths of the abyss, we find the fountainhead and matrix of the Holy Sophia, pregnant with infinite possibilities. Divinity pours out Its life through her.

“In her womb, Wisdom-Sophia carries the blueprint of all prototypes before matter ever came into being.

“She remains with us in our exile, for She is the tender mother of mercy, great redeemer, and revealer of the mysteries concealed. She is the beginning and she is the end.”

Learning and inwardly digesting these words became the gentle spiritual task of the holiday. I found that the place suited the task, for the words belong to a Mediterranean and Levantine tradition, in which Greek, Jewish and other cultures interweave.

I made my task one of immersion and awareness rather than opinion forming and allegiance. There’s an image of a cosmic goddess (not the same as an earth mother) and a meeting becomes available in the ‘abyss’. The seasonal reference comes through Sophia’s being “pregnant with infinite possibilities … Divinity pours out its life through her”, here understood as a cosmic event in the eternal present. Then there are references to exile, redemption and revelation – not much present in our northern Paganisms. They do of course feature in the mainstream Judeo-Christian tradition that has been profoundly influential for us over a long period of time. They are also classically Gnostic.

I have noticed that I resonate with this text more than I might have expected to. I need to sit with this and explore it further, and really sense into what the attraction is: a direction for my contemplative inquiry.

 

SOPHIA (HOKHMAH) AND WHERE SHE CAME FROM

In my understanding, Sophia has walked with us on a long cultural journey. We first discover her paradoxically placed within monotheist and patriarchal Judaism. She is named Hokhmah, which like the Greek Sophia translates into English as Wisdom. Her subsequent journey has often been through difficult and dangerous territory in the apparent world. It always marks a drive to awaken from toxic and delusional ‘realities’ and it has sometimes had a markedly pessimistic tone. This journey continues into our own times, and with it Sophia’s gift for what the old Gnostics called ‘continuous revelation’: “I will again make instruction shine forth like the dawn, and I will make it clear from far away. I will again pour out teaching like prophecy, and leave it to all future generations. Observe that I have not laboured for myself alone, but for all who seek wisdom”. (1)

Anne Baring and Jules Cashford point out (2) that although Wisdom in Jewish sacred literature was technically an abstract and transcendent quality, associated with the divine, it was always referred to as ‘she’, though without any image to support the personification. However the poetry of Hokhmah reveals her emergence from the earlier Great Mother. Wisdom speaks as Inanna and Isis spoke before her, powerfully, authoritatively and sensuously, making abundant use of natural imagery to come into full presence.

I grew tall like a cedar in Lebanon,

And like a cypress on the heights of Hermon.

I grew tall like a palm tree in Engedi.

And like rose bushes in Jericho;

Like a fair olive tree in the field,

And like a plane tree beside water I grew tall.

Like cassia and camel’s thorn I gave forth perfume,

And like choice myrrh I spread my fragrance,

Like galbanum, onycha, and stacte,

And like the odour of incense in the tent.

Like a terebinth I spread out my branches,

And my branches are glorious and graceful.

Like the vine I bud forth delights,

And my blossoms become glorious and abundant fruit.

Come to me, you who desire me

And eat your fill of my fruits.

For the memory of me is sweeter than honey,

And the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb.

Those who eat of me will hunger for more,

And those who drink of me will thirst for more,

Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame,

And those who work with me will not sin. (1)

Baring and Cashford suggest that the greatest legacy of the goddess culture in the eastern Mediterranean is “the idea that the earthly, visible order of creation participates in the invisible source of being”. This is the foundation of the Wisdom traditions of Mesopotamia and Egypt, some 2,000 years older than Greek or Hebrew civilisation. “In Greece, whose great philosophers visited Egypt, it is the foundation of Plato’s Great Chain of Being. Israel’s own ‘Wisdom Teaching’ is woven with the thread of these older traditions, although the name, person and representation of the goddess could find no place” (2).

I am drawn to Sophia because for me she is fully in and of nature yet not locked in to the role of earth mother. She stands for every part of Plato’s chain: matter, life, mind – soul and spirit too if you want to make further distinctions.  She doesn’t stand for a dream of bliss within the womb, or in an over-managed garden. Reading the old Jewish myths through a Gnostic lens she, under the name of Eve, puts a stop to all that. She will not accept a reign of ignorance and false consciousness. Sophia stands for awareness, which includes a willingness to see the world as clearly as possible and a capacity to hold and manage a measure of self-aware suffering. In my universe Sophia is pneuma, the very breath and spirit of awakened and relational life, and as such she represents the energies of creativity and love as well as of wisdom. For none of these fully blooms without the others.

  1. Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach 24, 13-32,The Apocrypha: the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books of the Old Testament, New Revised Standard Version Cambridge, England: The University Press, 1992
  2. Baring Anne and Cashford Jules The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London, England: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993

I AND YOU

MBI and Thou was written by the Jewish scholar and theologian Martin Buber in the 1920’s and first translated into English in 1937. I’ve used a 1970 translation by Walter Kaufmann*, who prefers the term ‘I and You’ since ‘I and Thou’ sounds formal and churchy in modern English. The subject is ‘I-ness’ and the way it comes into existence only through alterity, though linkage to the other: for Buber this means other humans, other life in nature, and spiritual beings. Buber distinguishes two forms of such linkage: ‘I-It’ and ‘I-You’. The second demands more of us – and it brings “the breath of eternal life” into the world. Buber makes this distinction very clearly in the passage below.

“The I of the basic word I-You is different from the basic word I-It.

“The I of the basic word I-It appears as an ego and becomes conscious of itself as a subject (of experience and use).

“The I of the basic word I-You appears as a person and becomes conscious of itself as subjectivity (without any dependent genitive).

“Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos.

“Persons appear by entering into relation with other persons.

“One is the spiritual form of natural differentiation, the other that of natural association.

“The purpose of setting oneself apart is to experience and use, and the purpose of that is ‘living’ – which means dying one human life long.

“The purpose of relation is the relation itself – touching the You. For as soon as we touch a You, we are touched by the breath of eternal life.

“Whoever stands in relation, participates in an actuality, that is, in a being that is neither merely a part of him nor merely outside him. All actuality is an actuality in which I participate without being able to appropriate it. Where there is no participation, there is no actuality. Where there is self-appropriation, there is no actuality. The more directly the You is touched, the more perfect is the participation.

“The I is actual through its participation in actuality. The more perfect the participation is, the more actual the I becomes.”

Buber has been described as a ‘religious existentialist’, though he personally didn’t like the term. Whilst willing to share with all, He was not a Universalist and always saw himself as speaking specifically out of his ancestral tradition. He also wrote Tales of the Hasidim about the intensely devotional form of mystical Judaism that first developed in Central and Eastern Europe and then found new homes elsewhere, especially in North America and the Holy Land itself.

*Martin Buber, I and Thou Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York City, NY, USA, 1970 (A translation with a Prologue I and You and notes, by William Kaufmann)

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