contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Nag Hammadi

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

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

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.

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.

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/

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.)

 

SOPHIAN CONTEMPLATION

I have begun a series of Sophian contemplations. They are built around brief passages from texts that I treat as being in her tradition, passages that have drawn and excited me and continue to resonate beyond their initial impact. This is the first.

I am the light within the light.

I am the remembrance of Forethought.*

 

I sit, eyes closed. I say: I am the light within the light. I get the image of someone holding up a lantern. It’s like the Hermit’s lantern from Tarot, except that Sophia is holding it. Then there’s the image of the candle inside the lantern, and I briefly become the flame. I am surrounded by protective walls of glass, safe and steady. I know that the glass will enhance my radiance.

Back outside, I as observer notice that the lantern offers a pool of light in a deep twilight setting. This light is not aggressive or overwhelming. It hardly disturbs the magic of the gloaming, which is also somewhat lit by moon and stars. The contribution of the lantern is that it helps to illuminate a path. Sophia is holding up the lantern so that people can walk somewhere a bit more easily.

Sophia holds the light and points the way. Sophia does not ask for prayers. She does not ask to be loved, though love is in the air. She does not even ask to be followed, or for a path to be followed. Rather she says to me, in my observer position, “now you do it”. To become a lantern bearer, a lantern, and the flame within, is her worship. It begins with the flame within, or there is no light. At a level, it also ends with the flame. From the perspective of the lantern there is no path; just illumination.  From the external perspective, there is a path, and a role of lantern bearing guide. Yet there is only one experience, which can be seen in different ways.

I continue to sit, eyes now half open, soft focus, panoramic vision. I say: I am the remembrance of Forethought. I notice that I feel very comforted by the word ‘remembrance’. I’ve always had a sense of memory beyond memory, predating me and beyond personal. I am not thinking in terms of past lives or other forms of existence. But I do think that if those had a meaning and I could access them, this ‘remembrance’ would be there too. It’s not a memory of any identity or event – it’s just ‘remembrance’. It’s a very deep intuitive sense, and I believe that I share it with others, though the specific experience and ways of attempting to language it will vary. It has the feeling-tone of home. The old Gnostics used the term Pistis Sophia (faith-wisdom), which is the wisdom of deciding to have faith in the value of experiences like this, rather than dismissing them. There’s a decision to build life and meaning around them and to stand by the images, words, metaphors and practices that emerge – though not without examination and inquiry. ‘Forethought’ also has its own special resonance. In this context it’s anything so concrete of definite as ‘forward planning’. Rather, it derives its meaning as a contrast to ‘the Word’. It suggests a prior latency before the beginning that was the Word – a bit like the ain soph of the Kabbalah. As such, I can appreciate that language is being stretched beyond its reasonable reach and is dissolving into Mystery. Yet somehow, all the same, it stands for something I can recognise and assent to. Sophia’s invitation to me is to take ownership of these lines, and taste their reality as fully as I can.

I am the light within the light.

I am the remembrance of Forethought.*

*These lines come from a Gnostic text called The Secret Book of John. The book is a Nag Hammadi text and now available in a number of English translations. This one is taken from The Secret Teachings of Jesus: Four Gnostic Gospels translated with an introduction and notes by Marvin W. Meyer, New York: Vintage Books, 1986.

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