contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Tree of Knowledge

HOODED HERMIT

Winter in the  Wildwood Tarot lasts from Samhain (1 November) to Imbolc (1 February), whereupon the spring quarter begins. The hooded man, hermit of this deck, is shown as solstice figure whose influence pervades the whole winter. The image depicts a hooded figure, staff in the left hand and lantern in the right, standing by a great oak tree. The lantern illuminates a door in the tree, which itself suggests, through cracks in its timbers, an illuminated space inside. A wren sits on a stone nearby.

There is power in this image. The world tree, standing for life and wisdom, is both source and refuge. The hooded hermit seems to model intention and training, and his lantern and staff are potent tools. The wren once won a contest to be king of the birds by riding on the back of an eagle and thus flying highest. An animal ally, perhaps.

The face of the hooded hermit is hidden: no visible sign of a forest rebel; no sign, specifically, of a man. Does this suggest a talent for invisibility or shape-shifting? Perhaps. But what I chiefly sense is a Zen emptiness, of which Thich Nhat Hanh (2) says: “At first, we think emptiness is the opposite of fullness but, as we saw earlier, emptiness is fullness. You are empty of your separate self, but full of the cosmos.” According to another Zen writer (3), “the Buddha called himself tathagata or ‘that which is thus coming and going’ …a flowing occurrence, and the outward form ,,, was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help.”

I am not a Buddhist and I do not seek to appropriate the hooded hermit for Buddhism. Similar ideas about the emptying out of personality to make room for a greater life can be found in Taoism (4) and Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (5). There’s a reminder here that path and goal are one, and that an emptied fullness of experiencing is available at any point of the journey.

(1) Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington

(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

(3) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

(4) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Power and the Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998 (A new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J.P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

 (5) http://www.headless.org

SOPHIAN REMINISCENCE

For me, sacred images are sometimes filled with life and potency and sometimes not. The important ones  explode as gifts from the hinterlands of the psyche. They are intensely moving, perhaps shocking, certainly state altering. They may be nurturing and easy to welcome. They may be surprising and demand unlooked-for adjustments. Over time they may continue to be influential, changing and developing with me. They may become formal and emblematic – no longer living yet still anchoring insight. Eventually they may fade. Such images are not possessions. Attempts to grasp or hoard them do not work.

I call my path a Sophian Way. I have an icon of Sophia on my desk and I check in with her from time to time. It still feels authentic and makes sense to me. At the same time, I am aware of how much has changed since Sophia erupted into my life twelve years ago.

In the summer of 2007, I was immersed in my OBOD Druid studies. It was one of the few times in my life when I have cleared whole days for ritual work, and whole days for recovering afterwards. I found the work generating its own momentum, in some ways fulfilling the agenda of my course and in some ways pointing in a different-seeming direction. Images and dreams of dove feathers, either falling or lying on the ground – and then their actuality – became very prominent. Key images and ankh images were present as well.

The powerful dove imagery evoked Goddess associations from the Pagan tradition and Holy Spirit from the Judaeo-Christian one. To honour both, I found a reference in a modern Gnostic group ( www.thepearl.org/ ) that seemed to fit:

“Mortals have been created to dwell in the Garden of delights. … In the Garden stands the holy Tree of Life. High in its branches sings a bird. Listen to the voice of the bird, for when you are properly aligned with heaven and earth, she will tell you all things. … This bird or dove is also called Sophia”.

This felt like an authentic, and unifying, message for me because of its attitude towards the Garden. I as a human belong there. My belonging is not in question. There is one tree, the tree of life. The ‘knowledge’ aspect, such a disaster in mainstream Christianity, is very different here. There’s no apple to pick from the bough, but a bird who will sing to me. But something is expected of me, all the same, if I want to enhance my life and understanding. I am asked to align myself with heaven and earth. If I do this, I am assured that “she will tell you all things”. I don’t understand this as a discourse on metaphysics. I understand it as me listening in another key, listening to bird song in this metaphor, and so refining my sensitivity. For me, the imagery of the tree and the singing bird high in its branches is as resonant of a Shamanic or Pagan world view as it is of a Gnostic or Christian one. I do not have to choose.

The Pearl website turns to Joseph Campbell, a modern spokesman for the meaning of myth, on this point. He says: “people say that what we’re all seeking is the meaning of life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we are seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within out innermost being and reality … as we get to know our innermost being we receive the keys that open up a life that is truly Life, for it is everlasting”.

My own sense of the ‘Life everlasting’ doesn’t pre-suppose an afterlife, re-incarnation, or any other world. Eternity, if anywhere, is present in the now. The song of the bird represents a neurosomatic wisdom, not a cognitive one, of living connectedness within one stream of life.

What I like about this reminiscence is that I have been given a chance to renew my sense of Sophia by returning to source. The original work is well-documented, so I haven’t had to rely on memory. I had completely forgotten about the ‘Pearl’ group. I’m also glad that I’ve seen more than first time round in terms of the tree and birdsong. At the time, I just recorded the images and threw down the references. It has renewed my relationship to the Sophia image in the now.

For information about OBOD see

http://www.druidry.org/

SOPHIA SOURCE OF WISDOM

“The Holy Spirit of Wisdom as the guiding archetype of human evolution is one of the great images of universality. Transcending the limitations of any one religious belief, it is an image that embraces all human experience, inspiring trust in the capacity of the soul to find its way back to the source.  … To discover the root of the idea of Wisdom we have to go back once again to the Neolithic era, when the goddess was the image of the Whole, when life emerged from and was returned to her, and she was conceived as the door or gateway to a hidden dimension of being that was her womb, the eternal source and regenerator of life … the idea of Wisdom was always related in the pre-Christian world to the image of the goddess; Nammu and Inanna in Sumeria, Maat and Isis in Egypt, and Athena and Demeter in Greece. Even the passages in the Old Testament that describe Hokhmah, the Holy Spirit of Wisdom, powerfully evoke her lost image, though here the image is dissociated from the world.

“But as we move into the Christian era there is a profound shift in archetypal imagery as Wisdom becomes associated with Christ as Logos, the Word of God, and the whole relationship between Wisdom and the Goddess is lost. Now, the archetypal feminine is finally deleted from the divine, and the Christian image of the deity as a trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit becomes wholly identified with the masculine archetype. … This theological development effectively erased the ancient relationship between Wisdom and the image of the goddess. Gnostic Christianity, however, retained the older tradition and the image of Sophia as the embodiment of Wisdom survived. Here she was the Great Mother, the consort and counterpart of the God head. When the Gnostic sects were repressed by the edicts of the Emperor Constantine in AD 326 and 333, the image of Sophia as the embodiment of Wisdom was again lost. However, after an interlude of several hundred years, it reappeared in the Middle Ages, in the great surge of devotion to the Virgin Mary and the pilgrimages to the shrines of the Black Virgin … then, in the sudden manifestation of the Order of the Knights Templar, the Grail legends, alchemy, the troubadours and the Cathar Church of the Holy Spirit, Sophia, or Sapientia, as the image of Wisdom, became the inspiration, guide and goal of a spiritual quest of overwhelming numinosity.” (1)

I am committed to a Sophian Way. My view and practice are largely settled. I have worked, studied and sometimes simply surrendered over a long period, exploring methods and movements and gaining insights from them. That phase is done. On several occasions now, the phrase ‘it’s over’ has flashed into my mind, imprinting itself with the force of command. A quest is fulfilled. I know how best to maintain (to use my own language) a sense of At-Homeness, a living ‘not-I-not-other-than-I’ interconnectedness with the Divine. With this, my contemplative inquiry has reached the high-water mark of ‘contemplative’. It is therefore set to become a contemplation-and-action inquiry, in which I will, among other things, look at my understanding of ‘action’ at this time in my life.

One concern, given this confirmation of personal path, is the question of affiliation, and of social identity in the spiritual domain. How do I place myself in culture and community? Merely to name a ‘Sophian Way’ is an invocation of sorts, yet I am neither a Christian nor a Gnostic in the sense of the old movements. My valuing of a wisdom text like the Gospel of Thomas is on a par with my valuation of texts from other traditions – the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, the Tao Te Ching, or Rumi’s poetry. I don’t have a category called ‘scripture’. I value the concept of gnosis, especially as defined by Baring and Cashford: “knowledge in the sense of insight or understanding, which requires participation not merely of the intellect but of the whole being. It is knowledge discovered with the intuition – the eye of the heart – which has no need of the intermediary of a priesthood”. But people in many spiritual movements would stand by this definition, and I have limited resonance with the specific frameworks of the ancient and medieval movements that we call Gnostic.

I have talked recently about being ‘spiritual but not religious’, but this now feels somehow weak and lacking in content. My sense is that both words have lost precise definition in the English language. Thinking of my commitment, and conscious of the Baring and Cashford passage above, I feel Pagan, and still held within modern Paganism. Baring and Cashford describe a twelfth century image of Mary in her Sophia aspect at an Oxfordshire church. It is in a Christian setting but for me works most powerfully with a Pagan understanding. She is “seated on a lion throne, as were all the goddesses before her. The divine child is held on her lap and her right hand holds the root of the flower, which blossoms as the lily, disclosing that she is the root of all things. The dove, for so many thousand years the principal emblem of the goddess, rests on the lily, and a stylized meander frames the right-hand side of the scene. All these images relate the medieval figure of Sophia to the older images of the goddess, which reach back into the Neolithic past. But in her the goddess is given a specific emphasis, which offers an image of wisdom as the highest quality of the soul, and suggests that, evolving from root to flower, the soul can ultimately blossom as the lily and, understanding all things, soar like a bird between the dimensions of earth and heaven. Nor is this Christian image unrelated to that of the shaman lying in trance in the cave of Lascaux, for there, also, the bird mask he wears and the bird resting on his staff symbolize the flight his flight into another dimension of consciousness”.

From about the twelfth century, people in the West have increasingly made themselves creators of their own mythology (2), at an increasing rate. As a modern Pagan I know this and respond to the challenge. As a modern Pagan I can honour the tree of life, which is also the tree of knowledge, one tree, the Goddess’s tree, from root to crown. I can be At Home.

(1) Anne Baring & Jules Cashford Sophia, Mother, Daughter and Bride, Chapter 15 in The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London” Arkana Penguin Books, 1993

(1) Joseph Campbell The Masks of God: Creative Mythology Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976 (First edition published 1968 in New York by the Viking Press. Creative Mythology is fourth in a series of The Mask of God)

TREE, GODDESS AND SERPENT

Time was, according to Anne Baring and Jules Cashford (1) when “the Tree of Life was one of the primary images of the goddess herself, in whose immanent presence all pairs of opposites are reconciled. Growing on the surface of the earth, with roots below and branches above, the tree was the great pillar that united earth with heaven and the underworld, through which the energies of the cosmos poured continuously into earthly creation. The animating spirit that moved within it was the serpent, guardian also of the fruit or treasure of the tree, which was the epiphany of the goddess, therefore the experience of unity”.

Without necessarily romanticizing the lived experience of the Bronze Age, we can honour the power and beauty of this imagery. Indeed, in our own time, kundalini yoga, based on a serpent metaphor (2), and Qabalah, based on a tree metaphor (3), have become popular working models. They are inscribed on the body and its subtle energy systems, allowing for an embodied contemplation; they connect earth to heaven and back again; they affirm the possibilities of both immanence and transcendence, energy and consciousness. They have a view of wholeness, realization, and integration.

But much of Western (and Middle Eastern) spiritual history has repudiated this frame of reference and followed a divergent path. Orthodox forms of Abrahamic religion are heirs to a radical reframe of the older goddess iconography, namely the Eden myth in Genesis, and hold to a doctrine of the two trees. Joseph Campbell (4) calls this a “mythic dissociation by which God and his world, immortality and mortality, are set apart in a separation of the Tree of Knowledge from the Tree of Immortal Life. The latter has become inaccessible to man through a deliberate act of God, whereas in other mythologies, both in Europe and in the Orient, the Tree of Knowledge is itself the Tree of Immortal Life and, moreover, still accessible to man”.

In the specific case of Western Christianity, the sense of dissociation increased with the victory of St. Augustine’s doctrines of original sin (intensifying the consequences of the fall) and predestination (the fall was always in the mind of God, its consequences already decided). These emphasize the moral impotence of human will and provide for an absolute alienation from the divine for anyone not of the faith, with a doubtful prospect of grace for those in it. To Augustine’s supporters this confirmed the need for external control (a Christian state and an imperially supported Church) in matters of religion (5).

This meant that contemplative mysticism was subject to forms of doctrinal surveillance that could be suspicious and unsympathetic even towards respected insiders. The contemplative could not legitimately aim for, or claim, unity or oneness as an experience, since God and the world were divided. Even in a period of doctrinally softened Christianity and increasing secularism, we are still living out the ill-effects of this inheritance. This is why, with a natural pre-disposition to a contemplative spirituality, I chose to locate it within Druidry, as an emerging tradition that keeps its feet on the ground.

1: Baring, Anne & Cashford, J. (1993) The myth of the Goddess: evolution of an image Harmondsworth: Penguin Arkana Books

2: Swami Satyananda Saraswati (1984) Kundalini Tantra Munger, Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust

3: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The miracle tree: demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NY: New Page Books

4: Campbell, Joseph (1964) Occidental mythology: the masks of God Harmondsworth, England: Penguin

5: Pagels, Elaine (1989) Adam, Eve and the Serpent New York: Vintage

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