contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Wisdom traditions

GNOSIS AND LOVE

This post looks at two sentences from the Gospel of Thomas and concludes a series of three posts about this text and how I read it.

“Yeshua said: When you bring forth that within you, then it will save you. If you do not, then that will kill you”. (From saying 70)

What is ‘that’? I could jump in and say the experience of ‘living presence’, in contact with the ‘bubbling source’ discussed in earlier posts on this theme, and this feels right to me. But I also find my understanding extended by translator and commentator Jean-Yves LeLoup, who offers two meanings for that, gnosis and love. Although he doesn’t fully spell it out, the sense I get from him is that they are co-arising and belong together. LeLoup understands gnosis, as Yeshua uses this term, to be “a consciousness that arises directly from knowledge of ourselves, of the ‘Living One’ within us”. He also describes it as “a transparency with regard to the ‘One who Is’ in total innocence and simplicity”. He adds: “this is why the qualities of the gnostic are said to be unconditioned, to resemble those of ‘an infant seven days old'”. Without gnosis, “the universe remains radically alien and incomprehensible”. With gnosis, love is free to flourish. LeLoup describes those who live in gnosis and love as “able to marvel at the vast richness in the tiniest manifestation of being”, graced with what seems like “unreasonable abundance”. In the absence of gnosis and love, we are vulnerable to experiencing life as stale, depleted and desolate. Yeshua is uncompromising on this point. This is the core of his teaching.

When encountering the Yeshua of this text, I have tried to let go of all other associations with the names Yeshua or Jesus. I have striven for a pristine response, as if I had not heard of this teacher before and knew nothing of the points of view claimed for him by the Thomas writer vast numbers of other people over the centuries. I haven’t found this easy. When I succeed, at least relatively, and respond to this text alone, I experience a fiercely and impatiently compassionate teacher who wants to shock people into an awakening to that – gnosis and love, in the sense understood in this text.

Yeshua’s compassion lies in his deep appreciation of the benefits of being awake, and the wish that others would share them. The impatience, perhaps a slightly wounded and bewildered one, comes from the way in which most people seem to be finding endless ways of not joining Yeshua in the sweet place where he dwells. So he uses a hyperbolic language in which that will either save you if you take it on or kill you if you don’t. Commentators say that, as a man of his place and time, Yeshua drew both on his Jewish inheritance and a Greek tradition of radical Stoicism, known as Cynicism (the modern definition is misleading) (2). Both had elements of exasperation with the public and lack of deference to the ruling class. People could be wiser and better than they are. So, why aren’t they? – and what can be done?

Hence the gospel of gnosis and love is not all about the inner life. Saying 3 of Thomas says; “the Kingdom is inside you, and it is outside you”. Jean-Yves LeLoup salutes this as “the wisdom of non-dualist language”: ‘inside’ alone “would give one-sided privilege to inner experiences and meditations. This would encourage us to flee the world, to disregard what is going on around us”. But ‘outside’ alone would encourage us to transform the world and convert others at all costs, “and it would be selfishness to sit in silence and listen to the song of the Living One in our heart”. We are asked to work with both dimensions, in this teaching, for gnosis and love to flourish.

(1) 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

(2) The Gospel of Thomas: the Hidden Sayings of Jesus (New translation with introduction and notes by Marvin Meyer. Interpretation by Harold Bloom). San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992. “The Cynics emerged from the philosophical tradition of Socrates as social critics and popular philosophers who lived a simple life and employed sharp, witty sayings in order to make people raise questions about their own lives. The influence of the Cynics and other Hellenistic thinkers is evident in the Galilee of the first century; Jewish wisdom literature itself bears the marks of Hellenistic concerns.”

NOTE: This post continues a discussion begun at https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/3/28/living-presence/ and continued at https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/4/02/wisdom-writing/ and https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/4/04/the-bubbling-source/

PUBLISHED: April 4, 2020

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)

ATHENE: PRACTICAL WISDOM

In Greek tradition, Athene is Goddess of Wisdom. Hers is a pragmatic wisdom – “good counsel, thinking through, or practical foresight – the capacity to reflect” (1) In a contest for the rulership of Attica, Poseidon shows that he rules the waves; Athene constructs the ship to ride them. Poseidon provides a horse; Athene bridles it and builds a chariot. Poseidon makes a salt spring gush up from the depths of the earth; Athene offers the carefully cultivated olive. Athene blends creative imagination with dexterity and skill. “She teaches weaving, wool-working, carpentry and all manner of handicrafts whose success depends on holding in the mind an image of the end”.

She also combines her Wisdom role with a Warrior one, where “even in war, she is controlled, in contrast to Ares’ savage and indiscriminate rage, and she easily defeats him in combat. She comes to the side of Achilles when he needs self-discipline, and to Odysseus when he needs strategy and foresight. Here, in the Iliad, Achilles is deliberating whether to reach for his sword in his quarrel with Agamemnon:

Now as he weighed in mind and spirit these two courses

and was drawing from his scabbard the great sword, Athene descended

from the sky.

The goddess standing behind Peleus’ son caught him by the fair hair,

appearing to him only, for no man of the others saw her.

Achilles in amazement turned about, and straightway

knew Pallas Athene and the terrible eyes shining.

“Significantly it is in a moment of reflection occasioned by his conflicting impulses that Athene appears, as the epiphany of his victory over unbridled instinct…. The quality of restraint is the value she embodies, and her ‘flashing eyes’ are the emblem of a lucid intelligence that can see beyond the immediate satisfaction.

The word metis was linked to this kind of wisdom, and it was highly valued. With metis, a person could chop wood better than through strength alone; pilot a ship through storms in the dark; or win a hotly contested chariot race. However, the word could also have overtones of shrewdness or craftiness or thinking too much on an event. Odysseus was known as polymetis (he of many counsels), with both Athene and Hermes to guide him.

At first glance, this seems a long way from the world of Sophia (Hokhmah) in Jewish and Gnostic tradition. But there are certain parallels. Three years ago (2), I wrote, “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”. As an Olympian, Athene’s formal relation to nature is ambivalent, but she certainly has worldly concerns. Whilst also not locked into the role of earth mother, she too is willing to support and mentor humans. 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. Athene, too, in a more pragmatic way, asks for an increase in awareness and a less impulsive response to experience. Sophia represents the energies of creativity and love as well as of wisdom. Athene is highly creative, and has her own wisdom, here based on skill, inventiveness and a capacity to be intentional and strategic. Although universal love and compassion feature little in the Homeric world, she is loyal to those she cares about and engaged with their fortunes. As a lens on how contemplation informs creativity and action, the archaic Athene extends and enriches my understanding of the Sophian archetype.

  1. Anne Baring Anne and Jules Cashford The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993
  1. https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/sophia-hohmah/

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)

HELD

This post is the first after a one month break. It begins a new direction in the blog, though one with many points of continuity. I have also revised the ‘About’ section of the blog, to explain the shift.

I am a mouse in the talons of a great owl, who is obviously Sophia. Dull winter afternoon. Cloudy and windy. No sun visible, so darkening though not yet the twilight hour. Getting colder with intimations of storm. We are flying over water.

The world seems less than solid, as if half-made. To distract myself from my apparent predicament, I wonder about this. But origin and destination are not the point. What matters is experiencing. As mouse, I am not comfortable up here and I am somewhat prone to fear.

I know myself held, and carefully too. I won’t be dropped. I hope not to fall, and that falling would not be terminal. Then I let go of hope.

Focusing on the protection of these talons, I cannot forget them. Inside my anxious, racing heartbeat, I am still.

SOPHIA AND THE ORAN MOR

Who is Sophia for me, here and now? To do the question full justice, I want to back up and look again at her presence in Eurasian culture.

In the old cosmologies, she is ‘Wisdom’ in three spiritually influential languages – Sophia (Greek), Hokhmah (Hebrew) and Prajna (Sanskrit). She has attracted titles like Goddess, Mother of Angels, Saint, and Mother of Buddhas. In the Mahayana Buddhist world, she is related to bodhisattvas such as Tara and Kuan Yin. She has resonances with the Shakti power of Kashmiri Shaivism and with ‘spirit of the valley’ and water imagery in the Tao Te Ching.

In the Hellenistic culture of the Roman orient, especially Alexandria with its large Greek and Jewish communities, she has clear resemblances to Isis (already somewhat remodelled by the Greeks from an indigenous original) and to Asherah, the lost goddess of Israel, and her continuing half-recognition as Shekinah. Sophia is also a key figure in certain iterations of Christian Gnosticism, in some of which Mary of Magdala has been understood as her human incarnation. She is sometimes a cosmic mother, but never exclusively an earth mother, though that aspect can be included. Her main role  is to complete our spiritual knowledge and understanding by imbuing us with compassion. The result is wisdom.

I am inspired by these ancient traditions. But I am not directly guided by them. I look more to my own experiences and sense-making, together with input from contemporary teachers. As I write, I sense Sophia as a body-feelings-mind wisdom, a systemic presence greater than my linguistic/narrative identity. It is as if she nudges me from all sorts directions. I might call some of these intuition; others, synchronicity.  Embarking on a Way of Sophia was part of a plan. Discovering the Headless Way, and finding that its methods worked, was not. It came at me in a very odd, sideways manner, that I had not thought of at all, and I just went for it.

In the past I have sometimes thought of Sophia as a cosmic mother, representing the whole world of form. I no longer have this sense. For me she operates at a more personal and human level. To name the world of form, and its relationship to empty awareness, I would rather work with the old Gaelic term Oran Mor (Great Song). Here – adopting auditory language – I am personally an ephemeral note, perhaps a brief tune, in the Great Song. Yet ultimately I, like you, am the timeless aware silence that contains the whole song, and which the song so beautifully fills.

And what is the The Way of Sophia? It is learning to live from the eternal silent centre, and lovingly offering my unique if passing note to the Oran Mor.

THE PEACE OF SOPHIA REVISITED

The peace of Sophia, given a chance, heals the violence within. This violence can be obvious and crying out to be worked with. It can also be hidden, unawarely latent, insidiously shaping both words and actions. In Thomas Keating’s language, such violence “reduces and can even cancel the effectiveness of the external works of mercy, justice and peace” (1). It is an argument he uses for promoting contemplative practice within the Catholic Church and Christian communities more widely.

In my exploration of contemplative traditions, Cynthia Bourgeault is the Christian writer to whom I have paid the most attention. An Episcopalian priest based in the USA, she is a long-term associate of Father Keating in the development and teaching of centering prayer. This is a modern contemplative practice modelled partly on Theravadin Buddhist insight meditation, and partly on the contemplative approach recommended in The Cloud of Unknowing, an English text from the later fourteenth century. “For heaven ghostly is as nigh down as up, and up as down: behind as before, before as behind, on one side as other. Insomuch that whoso had a true desire for to be at heaven, then that same time he were in heaven ghostly. For the high and the next way thither is run by desires and not by paces of feet” (2).

I think of Bourgeault as a Sophian teacher working within a Christian framework. I get this sense through a reading of three of her books: The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, The Wisdom Jesus and Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. She has incorporated ‘Gnostic’ Nag Hammadi texts into her recommended sacred literature, especially The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. In her references to what Christians call ‘The Old Testament’ I see a leaning towards The Psalms, The Book of Proverbs and The Song of Solomon. I am neither qualified nor inclined to discuss her theology. But I do get the flavour of a Sophian sensibility that seems to me to inform her view and practice of (to use my language) meditation.

Bourgeault speaks of “a warm practice, a bit sloppier and dreamier than the classic methods of attention and awareness practices. You lose some time in day-dreaming, at least at the start, and that vibrant tingling sense of ‘I am here’ prized in so many meditation practices is not really a goal in Centering Prayer” (2). The key word is intention rather than attention, and the specific intention is to be deeply available – Bourgeault would say to God, I would say to a deeper nature. This means “available at the depths of being, deeper than words, memories, emotions, sensations, deeper even than your felt sense of ‘I am here’”.

Bourgeault counsels against the aim of making ourselves empty or still, saying that it is “like trying not to think of an elephant” and pretty much assures a constant, non-stop stream of thoughts. Instead, once the intent is established, it is a surrender method, “not working with mind at all, but going straight to the heart”. She says that “for most people, a typical Centering Prayer period looks like a sine wave: lots of ups and downs. There are moments when the mind is more restless and jumpy and thoughts come one on top of another. There are also moments of stillness, sometimes very deep stillness. You won’t be able to retrieve these moments of stillness directly, of course, because as soon as you start thinking about them they’re gone. But you will ‘remember’ them through a certain quiet gathered-ness that accompanies you as you get up and move about your day. Through the cumulative energy of this gathered stillness, Centering Prayer gradually imprints itself upon the heart”.

I’ve been drawn back to Cynthia Bourgeault’s work because of my inner promptings about peace, and the peace of Sophia. I will continue my exploration of her work. Whilst engaging I will of course be conscious of her theistic and Christocentric framework and the knowledge that I do not share it. This I think will make the experience all the richer, because it will include the challenge of fully accepting difference, and fully accepting the gift within it.

References:

  1. Cynthia Bourgeault Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening Lanham, MD, USA: Cowley Publications, 2004 (from the Foreword by Thomas Keating)
  2. A Book of Contemplation the which is called The Cloud of Unknowing, in which the Soul is Oned with God Anonymous (edited from the British Museum MS. Harl. 674 with an introduction by Evelyn Underhill) London: John M. Watkins, 1922
  3. Cynthia Bourgeault Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – a New Perspective on Christ and His message Shambhala: Boston & London, 2011
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