contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: December, 2015

HOLY SOPHIA

I have been on holiday, kissed by a Mediterranean of blue skies, extended midwinter daylight and temperatures into the 20’s. Sparsely populated beaches and warm sand. Water to walk through in lazy delight. The sensuous geometry of Moorish architecture in southern Spain.

I have felt dislocated in a good way, and still do. I’ve been treading an unfamiliar path through this season, this year. It has been accompanied by a contemplative text, which I read and marked before leaving home. It was posted earlier in the month by Rosamonde Ikshvaku Miller in her Gnostic Sanctuary group on Facebook.

“WithIn the depths of the abyss, we find the fountainhead and matrix of the Holy Sophia, pregnant with infinite possibilities. Divinity pours out Its life through her.

“In her womb, Wisdom-Sophia carries the blueprint of all prototypes before matter ever came into being.

“She remains with us in our exile, for She is the tender mother of mercy, great redeemer, and revealer of the mysteries concealed. She is the beginning and she is the end.”

Learning and inwardly digesting these words became the gentle spiritual task of the holiday. I found that the place suited the task, for the words belong to a Mediterranean and Levantine tradition, in which Greek, Jewish and other cultures interweave.

I made my task one of immersion and awareness rather than opinion forming and allegiance. There’s an image of a cosmic goddess (not the same as an earth mother) and a meeting becomes available in the ‘abyss’. The seasonal reference comes through Sophia’s being “pregnant with infinite possibilities … Divinity pours out its life through her”, here understood as a cosmic event in the eternal present. Then there are references to exile, redemption and revelation – not much present in our northern Paganisms. They do of course feature in the mainstream Judeo-Christian tradition that has been profoundly influential for us over a long period of time. They are also classically Gnostic.

I have noticed that I resonate with this text more than I might have expected to. I need to sit with this and explore it further, and really sense into what the attraction is: a direction for my contemplative inquiry.

 

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ST. LUCY’S DAY

“LUCIA PROCESSION” BY FREDRICK MAGNUSSON – ST. LUCY’S DAY, SWEDEN, 2007.

Saint Lucy’s Day is on December 13, part of Advent in the Christian year. I’m posting early because I will be spending the next week or so off the internet.

This feast once coincided with the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year before calendar reforms. Her feast day has become a festival of light, something that modern Pagans would perhaps more readily associate with Imbolc. St. Lucy’s Day is celebrated as a major feast day in Scandinavia with its long dark winters.

Lucy is called Lucia and is represented as a woman in a white dress and red sash with a crown or wreath of candles on her head. In both Norway and Sweden, girls dressed as Lucy carry rolls and cookies in procession as songs are sung. Even boys take part in the procession as well, playing different roles associated with Christmas. It is said that to vividly celebrate St. Lucy’s Day will help one live the long winter days with enough light.

I have tended more to link the day to a very different response to the day – John Donne’s poem A Nocturnall Upon St. Lucies Day, Being the Shortest Day. This was composed in the 1590’s, well before calendar reform in England.

The poem is linked to a personal bereavement as well as the season. I share the first two verses. They are very much about the young poet’s own experience, rather than the season or the one who has been lost – though in a sense both the poet’s feelings and the poem itself are a service to her. The words themselves give the dark its voice, capturing the moment of desolation fully, and holding it. They do not move on to any culturally expected renewal, but rather to an alchemical anti-renewal instead. If there is any redemption it is in the writing itself, the expression. Donne was a good English writer in a time of good English writing.

 

Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,

Lucies, who scare seaven houres herself unmaskes,

The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks

Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes;

The worlds whole sap is sunke;

The general balme th’hydroptique earth hath drunk,

Whither as to the beds-feete, life is shrunke,

Dead and enterr’d; yet all these seeme to laugh.

Compared to mee, who am their Epitaph.

 

Study me then, you who shall lovers bee

At the next world, that is, at the next Spring;

For I am every dead thing.

In whom love wrought new Alchimie.

For his art did expresse

A quintessence even from nothingnesse,

From dull privations, and leane emptinesse:

He ruin’d mee, and I am re-begot

Of absence, darkenesse, death; things which are not.

 

 

John Hayward (editor) John Donne Dean of St, Paul’s Complete Poetry and Prose London: The Nonesuch Press, 1967 (Donne became Dean of St, Paul’s in London a long time after he wrote this poem).

 

POEM: WATER AND WAVE

I’m sharing this song of Kabir because I enjoyed it and felt cheered by it.  I liked its devotional and ecstatic note – not my usual one.. I have harmonised it with my way of Sophia by changing a ‘his’ to a ‘her’.

 

 

I have been thinking of the difference

Between water

And the waves on it. Rising,

Water’s still water, falling back,

It is water, will you give me a hint

How to tell them apart?

 

Because someone has made up the word

“Wave”, do I have to distinguish it

From water?

 

There is a Secret One inside us;

The planets in all the galaxies

Pass through her hands like beads.

 

That is a string of beads one should look at with

Luminous eyes.

 

A weaver by trade but a poet-singer by calling, Kabir lived in fifteenth century India. His philosophy incorporated various beliefs of both Muslims and Hindus and later became one of the major influences behind Sikhism. Like Rumi, further to the west and generations earlier, his generously devotional and ecstatic path made him a natural bridge builder between traditions.

Kabir Ecstatic poems Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992 The English translations are free enough for Robert Bly to call them ‘versions by Robert Bly’. Given Bly’s freedom I have changed a ‘his’ to a ‘her’ above to support the poetry of my own gnosis. There is an earlier set of translations published by MacMillan in New York in 1915 by Rabindranath Tagore assisted by Evelyn Underhill under the title Songs of Kabir. Whilst I don’t follow Bly in calling the English of the earlier work “useless”, I do find that Bly’s interpretation has more passion and power. The Bly work includes an insightful afterword Kabir and the transcendental Bly by John Stratton Hawley.

 

TABOOING AND HANDLES

I was starting to work on a piece like this one – on words used to describe a spiritual stance. This is better, in essence defining Druidry without naming either deity or nature.

 

A Druid Way

In a 15 Feb 2008 post “Taboo Your Words,” Eliezer Yudkowsky writes:

The illusion of unity across religions can be dispelled by making the term “God” taboo, and asking them to say what it is they believe in; or making the word “faith” taboo, and asking them why they believe it … When you find yourself in philosophical difficulties, the first line of defense is not to define your problematic terms, but to see whether you can think without using those terms at all. Or any of their short synonyms. And be careful not to let yourself invent a new word to use instead. Describe outward observables and interior mechanisms; don’t use a single handle, whatever that handle may be.

There’s a truly breathtaking number of assumptions I could examine in this short excerpt. To name only a few: that any unity across religions is or isn’t an “illusion”; that any such…

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POEM: THE MOON IN DEWDROPS

Simplicity and complexity, elegance and wisdom combined in the poetry of Japanese Zen. I notice that I respond more strongly to such poetry than I do to didactic texts about meditation and philosophy.

 

To what shall

I liken the world?

Moonlight, reflected

In dewdrops,

Shaken from a crane’s bill.

 

I particularly love this poem. The apparent naturalism of the imagery makes it powerful and accessible to anyone. Yet for me, this poem also brings up wider issues about reading and interpretation. The poet’s location in place, time and culture do make a difference. Ehei Dogen (1200-1253) was one of the first to transmit Zen Buddhism from China to Japan and was founder of the Soto School. His poem is a waka – a 31 syllable form predating the invention of haiku. Dogen is a key figure in both Japanese Buddhism and Japanese literature.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddhism of all Japanese schools including Zen, the moon stands for Buddha-nature. So the poem teaches a familiar Mahayana truth that the moon (Buddha-nature) is completely reflected in every one of the countless dew drops (all things) without discrimination, namely one in all, all in one. This understanding is accompanied by a sense of fragility and impermanence within nature – strongly present in Japanese culture independently of Buddhism and reinforced by Buddhist teaching. Dogen gives us elegance and complexity in a 31 syllable form.

Hee-Jin Kim*, a modern Zen scholar, takes this further, bringing out Dogen’s sensitivity to history as well as to nature. He draws attention to the word ‘shaken’: each dew drop holds a full yet shaken reflection of the moon. Dogen lived in what was seen as a dark and ill-starred time in Japanese history. Many Buddhists thought that even their path was compromised and talked of degenerate dharma (mappo). Kim understands Dogen as resisting this ideology of despair whilst fully aware of the collective turmoil. On this reading, the poem asserts that timelessness is experienced within, and only within, momentariness, even when the times are stressed.

 

To what shall

I liken the world?

Moonlight, reflected

In dewdrops,

Shaken from a crane’s bill.

 

* Hee-Jin Kim Dogen on meditation and thinking: a reflection on his view of Zen Albany, New York: State University, 2007 (At the time of publication Hee-Jin Kim was Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon. He is also the author of Dogen-Kigen: Mystical Realist).