This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Pneuma


Some years ago, this phrase suddenly appeared during a breath meditation: the movement of the breath and stillness in the breath. Meaning has developed gradually. The movement of the breath feels entirely natural, and a comfort to attend to mindfully. Stillness signals another dimension within and behind the movement. In a world like ours, it is a great thing to experience stillness, however fleetingly. There is something healing about it, and it is not dependent on formal meditation. A brief time out can be enough to make a difference.

Going a little deeper has offered more. The quality of stillness cues me in to the ‘not-I-not-other-than-I’ experience. From a Sophian standpoint, traditionally a Gnostic one, I think of the Greek word pneuma which means both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’. Gnostic teacher Stephan Hoeller says: “in Gnosticism pneuma is a spark sprung from the divine flame, and by knowing the pneuma the Gnostic automatically knows the spiritual source from whence it has come … to know one’s deepest self is tantamount to knowing God”. (1)

In my discussions of non-duality, I have generally held to non-theistic language, using terms like ‘Awareness’, ‘Being’, ‘Emptiness’, ‘Fullness’, ‘Openness’, ‘Original Nature’, ‘True Nature’ or ‘Tao’. I have avoided ‘God’ or ‘Spirit’, though in the context of non-duality all these terms point the same way. Yet I have worked with an Ama-Aima breath and mantra meditation, where Ama is the transcendent aspect of the Divine Mother and Aima the immanent aspect. In the myth of Sophia, Ama-Aima is her name as Mother.

I feel more urgently drawn into the orbit of Sophia. C.G Jung, important to modern Gnosticism as well as analytic psychology, believed that we can find ourselves held – almost possessed – by an image of the Divine that calls to us. The call is from beyond our personal will. How we respond is up to us, with consequences attached to any choice. Gnosticism speaks through intuition, imagination and metaphor: in this current, imagery matters. My image is that of Sophia. It is not new, but it is becoming more vivid.

It is as if everything I have learned on my hitherto eclectic journey needs to be brought together – and that I can best achieve this within a distinctive Sophian Way. My recent post – ‎ described an aspect of it even whilst referencing Focusing and Tibetan Tantric Buddhism as influences. The essence of this Way is simple. The movement of the breath, and stillness in the breath, properly recognized, open me to the experience of pneuma. Everything else, directly or at a remove, flows from that.

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



On a cold morning at the end of winter, Peggy feels alone. She finds no peace in the stillness, no comfort in the returning light. A young researcher wants her to talk about the old days. She has allowed this; she resents it; she is afraid.

Peggy turns to her mirror. Wild white hair – that’s OK, ‘older and wilder’ is fashionable now. But she can’t like the pallid face, the anxious grey-green eyes, and the haunted expression that isn’t down to age. She sees herself as somehow lost, diminished. It’s already what she feels. She steels herself for the encounter to come.

When the doorbell buzzes, Peggy reluctantly stands. She is still tall at 60, though a little bowed and stooping, a little hesitant in her stance. She has a momentary flashback, with its brief sharp pain, to a time of charismatic presence and carefully casual elegance. Well, an old knitted jumper and faded jeans will have to do now. She takes a deep breath, goes to her front door, and opens it.

‘Hi’, says Peggy’s guest. ‘Peggy Plowright?’ Her speech is clear and her gaze almost piercing. Peggy hesitantly responds: ‘Yes …. I’ve … been expecting you. Please come in’. The researcher introduces herself as Sahana Patel. Peggy hears confidence in the young voice.

Soon they are both seated by an open fire with tea and cake. Sahana surveys the room, head turning in swift movements, black pony tail flying. She reminds Peggy of a beautiful bird of prey, as she begins the process.

‘So, you’ve agreed to an interview?’

‘Um … Yes. … Yes, I have. But I don’t want to be recorded, not electronically. Those things make me nervous.’

‘That’s fine’, says Sahana, wielding a glossy red notebook. ‘No voice recorder. Just a few notes. You can look at them before I leave’. She is so poised, so professional.

Peggy takes a deep breath. She is caught between the cold now of 2018, and the radiant summer of 2003. That elegant house in Bristol, home to the Fellowship of the Pearl, the setting for her life’s work, or so she had thought. Until … well, until …

Sahana moves to her first, and very open, question. Kind or cunning?

‘Where should we start, do you think?’

‘Well, you’re here because of an interest in spiritual movements. And you know how Malcolm and I … ‘

‘Your late husband?’

‘Yes. You know how we started the Fellowship of the Pearl in 1994, in Bristol. There was a slowly gathering interest in the Gnostic Gospels after their publication in 1978. People found their way to us. We held meetings and study sessions to start with. Then, because of the demand, we moved on to one-to-one instruction. Eventually other members came to live in the house. There was plenty of room, after all. We weren’t priests, didn’t found a church – this was about individual seekers finding companionship along the way …’

‘But it was the Celestina teachings that made the difference … ‘

‘Yes. “Celestina” gave me my access to Spirit. Christian Gnostics believe in continuous revelation. I don’t think of Celestina as another being. It’s more as if by taking on the identity of Celestina I was able to anchor my connection with the Divine, the kind of connection Mary Magdalene models in the Gospel bearing her name. “There where is the nous lies the treasure”. Somehow, I could mediate an aspect of Divine wisdom … as Celestina, it’s as if, you know, um… I spoke with a different kind of authority. … It seems so long ago now. … Another world. … People responded, they came to us in larger numbers. Now I sometimes wonder how much it really … um … and yet, and yet … it’s so long ago. There’s nothing left now ….’

‘Can you tell me what happened?’

‘As interest grew, I … Celestina … became more of a performer. You know. For bigger and perhaps naiver audiences. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was published in April 2003. The lure of secret knowledge, that kind of thing. We attracted a different type of …. follower. Malcolm’s word, not mine, not mine. He loved the new energy. He started to have plans for expansion, a bigger organization. I was concerned about all this, where it was going. And one day that precious internal space, the Celestina space, became dark and silent. The joy of illumination quite gone. I was distraught, frankly terrified. I prayed, read, reflected, I insisted on time out …

‘… And I thought, dark night of the soul, this could be a gift …. if I share honestly, just as myself, there could be a deepening in the Fellowship, a greater maturity if you like …. But Malcolm said that we’d lose members, the new direction would make it … unattractive. And I was clear that, yes, we might, you know … accept losing a number people, if … if that was the price of integrity. … And, well … um … our own relationship, Malcolm and me, the relationship on which the Fellowship was founded, became edgy, more distant, almost hostile. And then that day came, the day that changed everything …’

‘The day of your husband’s accident?


‘He went down a long flight of stairs didn’t he’.


‘Are you willing to talk about it?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t know. It was the end of the Fellowship, of course. I can talk about that, and what two or three of the members did to pick up the pieces afterwards. I dare say you’ll be talking to them yourself. But my husband’s death? … I’m haunted by it. You see, Sahana, I think I could have saved him. I was there. I might have held him back. He was heavy … he was yielding to the momentum of his fall … I would have been putting myself at risk, it is true … I might have gone with him. But in an earlier day I wouldn’t have hesitated … and that’s what I did. I hesitated. One moment, Sahana. It probably killed him and certainly broke me. And here I am, frozen through all these years, not able to find my way home … ’

‘But what about your faith, or path, or community? Isn’t this a part of what they’re for?’

‘Easier said, Sahana. Easier said … ‘.

‘We’re beyond the interview now, Peggy. I’ve got what I want there. I’ve talked to people from your old inner circle – Alec, Peggy. When I came here today I’d already got a sense of the Fellowship of the Pearl and its history. You’ve now told me about the later period, how it was for you, and confirmed that you couldn’t carry on in any way after Malcolm died. That’s quite enough for my day job. But since you’ve … said what you said … been so open, um,  about what happened – I do hope … that you find somewhere, you know, appropriate, to take this burden, and not just let it paralyse you. Do you want to stay frozen, homeless, as you yourself say? After all these years, are you happy without a voice? … I hope you don’t mind me …

‘No. not at all.’

Sahana and Peggy part carefully, in an atmosphere of unspoken goodwill. Peggy finds herself in a strange place, both relieved and moved. Alone again, she stands in the kitchen as a kettle boils. She senses divergent possibilities, as if for the first time.

The story above is a new departure for me – an experiment in extending my repertoire to include short stories in this blog. This story is an update of an original written for a creative writing course.

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