contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Seeing

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/

THOMAS TRAHERNE DAY

Two months ago I wrote a about Thomas Traherne (1), pointing out an unexpected resonance between this seventeenth century English clergyman and the ideas of Douglas Harding (2). Only later did I discover that such parallels had already been noted – particularly by Alan Mann (3) and also The Incredible String Band, way back in the 1960’s (4).

Thanks to Alan Mann, I subsequently found my way to the Thomas Traherne Association (5) and attended the Traherne’s Day Celebrations on 10 October at Hereford Cathedral. These were built around a choral Evensong followed by a lecture. The speaker was the Revd Dr Paul Fiddes, Professor of Systematic Theology at Oxford University. Prof Fiddes has a particular interest in the relations between theology and literature, and his topic was The Poetics of Desire in Thomas Traherne and C. S. Lewis.

Lewis admired Traherne, especially the Centuries of Meditations, though he felt that Traherne was insufficiently concerned with original sin and too ready to find heaven in the here and now. For Traherne wrote that every person “is alone the Centre and Circumference of [Infinity]. It is all his own, and so Glorious, that it is the Eternal and Incomprehensible Essence of the Deitie.” (6). He also wrote at the time when the Royal Society was founded and what we now call Science became respectable. Traherne followed progress with the telescope and microscope and the worlds they were beginning to reveal. Perhaps such developments and the inquiries they opened up encouraged him to write the lines:

“Heaven surely is a State and not a Place

To be in Heaven’s to be full of Grace.

Heaven is where’re we see God’s face.” (6)

and

“This busy, vast, enquiring Soul

Brooks no Controul,

No limits will endure,

Nor any Rest: It will all see

Not Time alone, but ev’n Eternity”. (6)

At the same time, Prof. Fiddes’ lecture showed how Lewis was at one with Traherne in apprehending a God who is present in human imagination and creativity – Traherne’s words being, “for God hath made you able to Creat Worlds in your own mind, which are more Precious unto Him that those which He created”. Perhaps reflections like this freed Lewis’ own imagination in his fiction:

“Each grain is at the centre. The dust is at the centre. The Worlds are at the centre. The beasts are at the centre. The ancient peoples are there. The race that sinned is there… Blessed be He! Where Maleldil is, there is the centre. He is in every place … Because we are with him, each, each of us is at the centre … there seems no centre because it is all centre … “(7)

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! … This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.” (8)

It was C.S. Lewis who helped Douglas Harding find a publisher for The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth and wrote the introduction to it. My knowledge of this link was a prompt to attend the Traherne Day lecture, though I might have gone any way. I was brought up in the Church of England, and C.S. Lewis had a place in my imaginative hinterland. So did metaphysical poetry (though not especially Traherne’s), before I parted ways. I enjoyed Evensong last Monday, especially hearing the choir. Whilst feeling no pull to re-communicate, I felt very much at peace both with the aspect of heritage and that of spiritual community. This was a blessing in itself, and I am grateful for the occasion and to the people who made it happen.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/seeing-thomas-traherne

(2) headless.org

(3) capacitie.org

(4) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AK2m7rYjZ54

(5) thomastraherneassociation.org

(6) Denise Inge (ed.) Happiness and Holiness: Thomas Traherne and his writings Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2008

(7) C.S. Lewis, Perelandra London: Bles, 1943

(8) C.S. Lewis The Last Battle London: Collins, 1956

(9) Douglas Harding The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth: a new diagram of man in the universe London: Faber and Faber, 1952 (Introduction by C.S. Lewis)

 

PRESENT ENCOUNTER

 

I am living a human life back-lit by the practice of Seeing. In a sense, this is relatively new and very welcome. I have a formal morning practice in which, for a little while in linear time, I stand as the “silent stillness of Seeing”. This sets the tone for my day. I taste my true nature in ways not fully matched in previous forms of meditation.

In another, profounder sense, I recognise that it has ‘always’ been this way and could not be otherwise. As J. Jennifer Matthews says: “there is clarity: luminous, still and silent clarity. It is with you and in you. It is you. It always exists. No it never takes a break; no it never goes out for just one cigarette. It is the wholeness you can never fall out of. Not in your drunkest, sorriest, most hysterical moments, not even then can you fall out of this clear and sacred perfection” (1).

Matthews is concerned to emphasise that we never really leave the clarity of the here-and-now.  She talks of the present moment as the ‘present encounter’, which for me is an apt way of talking about capacity for the world within the moment, taking a state into the realm of process and action. This present encounter is the only one there is, and so the act of recognition, our apparent ‘return’ to the mystery and intimacy of the encounter, is not to be thought of as the attainment of a goal.  For Matthews such a conceptualisation can only feed into an ‘addiction’ to self-improvement, an addiction which hooks us into distant external goals (jobs, partners, accomplishments), distant internal goals (enlightenment), and toxic relationships with teachers who, “by situating freedom in some future event that they will control … are stealing your wallet and helping you look for it”.

Yet I do feel different, speaking as a human, as the little ‘i’, than before my involvement with Headless Way teaching and practice. The entry, as an initial step, into a key reference experience I hadn’t had before, has shifted my way of being and refined my understanding. I know that I’m talking here at the level of narrative human identity, and not sub specie aeternatis where I simply AM  clear awake space, my true nature.  But engagement with spiritual teachings and movements is part of being human, and picking the healthy, emancipatory ones is part of aware (in the ‘normal’, cognitive sense) human discrimination. That the Cosmos may know itself, I and i, I and you, i and you, you and you – these complex and varied partnerships, co-create the present encounter.

(1) Jennifer Matthews (2010) Radically condensed instructions for being just who you are

 

 

SEEING: THOMAS TRAHERNE

“Will you see the Infancy of this sublime and celestial Greatness? Those Pure and Virgin Apprehensions I had from the Womb, and the Divine Light wherewith I was born, are the Best unto this Day, wherein I can see the Universe …. They are unattainable by Book, and therefore I will teach them by experience.” (1)

‘Unattainable by Book’ was fighting talk  in seventeenth century England. What sort of person was using this language? Thomas Traherne (1636-74) was the son of a prosperous Hereford shoemaker – big house, numerous resident apprentices.  He grew up during the civil war (1642-49) and England’s  republican experiment (1649-1660) in a naturally royalist area. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1652 (16 being a normal age at the time) under a strictly Puritan head, took  a BA in 1656 and was appointed minister at the Herefordshire Parish of Credenhill by the Commissioners for the Approbation of Public Preachers in 1657. As soon as Charles II returned to England Traherne arranged to be ordained as Credenhill’s Anglican vicar, developed strong links with the renewed life of Hereford Cathedral, and also found time to be Chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, Charles’ Lord Privy Seal. A modern commentator (1) describes Traherne as “distinguished from his seventeenth century peers by the fact that he is blissfully untroubled by the tensions, doubts, anxieties that (we are repeatedly told) mark the age in general”.

Traherne is best remembered as a mystic, and his reputation has strengthened over the last century. His diction is of his time, but in the culture of the English language his note seems that of a later age, whilst ultimately timeless.

“Your Enjoyment of the World is never right, till evry Morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your father’s Palace: and look upon the Skies and the Earth and the Air, as Celestial Joys: having such a Reverend Esteem of all, as if you were among the Angels …

“You never Enjoy the World aright, til the Sea itself floweth in your Veins, till you are clothed with the Heavens, and Crowned with the Stars: and perceiv yourself to be the Sole Heir of the whole World: and more then so, becaus Men are in it who are evry one Sole Heirs, as well as you….

“Till you are intimately Acquainted with that Shady Nothing out of which the world was made … you never Enjoy the World.”

I’ve enjoyed Traherne for some years. A highly committed Christian, he breaks through formalistic theology, as if drinking directly from a Divine spring. I’ve appreciated him as a kind of Romantic panentheist, from before the time when either term came into use. Now I’m reading him as a Seer as understood in the Headless Way, and I have a clearer focus – the previous one was already fine, but a little fuzzy. Traherne’s human account of Seeing is embedded in time, place and tradition – as is mine. At another level – one awakened joy.

(1) Thomas Traherne Poetry and Prose London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2002. (Selected and introduced by Denise Inge for the series The Golden Age of Spiritual Writing)

 

 

 

 

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