contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: June, 2018

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)

STILL POINT

My last post developed out of the phrase: the movement of the breath and stillness in the breath. My wondering about ‘stillness’ began when I was introduced to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets at the age of about sixteen,  finding its language and imagery clear and strong. They were a little beyond my reach, but continued to haunt me.

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor

fleshless.

Neither from not towards; at the still point where the dance

Is,

But neither arrest or movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered.

“Time past and time future

Allow but a little consciousness.

To be conscious is not to be in time

But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,

The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,

The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

Be remembered; involved with past and future.

Only through time time is conquered.”

 

1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/06/23/pneuma-the-divine-breath/

2) T. S. Eliot Four Quartets London: Faber & Faber, 1946 (Extract from Burnt Norton, the first quartet)

PNEUMA: THE DIVINE BREATH

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 –  https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/06/07/embodiment-and-at-homeness/ ‎ 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

 

PSYCHIC GARDEN: BLACKBIRDS

My wife Elaine and I have a blackbird pair, now with two fledglings, almost at our back door. They have created a precarious nest in a jasmine bush just outside. We have halted all clipping for the time being. Blackbirds have also appeared in Sophia’s garden, my Innerworld sanctuary and space for insight and healing.

The garden, which shifts over time, is now a place of midsummer twilight. It has a fountain at its centre. Water jets high into the air before cascading through a succession of bowls into a wide and shallow pool at the bottom. In the twilight, I find it hard to see clearly, though easy enough to hear. The perpetual movement of water makes its music. Otherwise, the garden is at first quiet.

I hear the blackbirds, two of them, without seeing them. This follows a visit in August last year, when there was only one. At that time, I wrote a post about blackbirds as birds of Rhiannon and other aspects of their place in Welsh mythology and modern Druidry: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/04/a-bird-of-rhiannon/

Shortly after writing the post, I discovered that Jean Markale, the sage of Broceliande, links the blackbird with Merlin, since merle is the French for blackbird and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s spoken language was French. (It was he who introduced the world to the name Merlin.) Without wanting to debate this derivation, I enjoy the sense of this common, plebeian bird, having such resonance and capacity. It contrasts with the image of the noble, highly trained predator – the merlin hawk – which I grew up with.

Somehow, through this discovery, I feel confirmed and affirmed as a civilian, rather than saint or sage, monk or magician. Those paths are fine, but not my own. Blackbirds are anchored in ordinary life. Yet they do sing at twilight, in ways that move and inspire us.

I take my seat, on the bench that’s offered, recognizing my entry into the fourth quarter of my life, with this lesson in mind.

(1) Jean Markale Merlin: Priest of Nature Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions (Kindle edition) Translated by Belle N. Burke

 

LIGHT VERSE 3: TIME PIECE

Am I out of date
To wear a wrist watch?
I carry a phone,
after all.

Once you seemed so advanced and ‘digital’,
For you did not tick and tick and tick,
And I did not wind you up.

Over the years,
Batteries have died, and been replaced.
Straps have come and gone.
But your face, just a little scratched,
remains the same,
Old friend,

While time keeps moving on.

 

LIGHT VERSE 2: ALL HOP IS GONE

In the canal zone,

Talking walls.

No through road suitable for vehicles

Keep clear

Legalize THC

SPLINTA

∞ Infinite

Be aware

This is an ecology area

Chelsea ♥ Jamie

Security surveillance in operation

All hop is gone

LIGHT VERSE 1: ANXIOUS SONNET

How could I dare to wear a poet’s face

In this brave world in which I find myself?

Wherever would I find a friendly space

To put on this identity and keep my health?

I find it easier far to think and read

And wonder at the magic of the word:

I’ll hold back from the effort I would need

To generate the chance of being heard.

 

And yet the hope refuses quite to die

Of shaping sound and silence into form.

In spite of everything perhaps I’ll try –

Enabling something in me to be born;

Disdaining judgement by the scrutineers of art,

I’ll lean upon the wisdom of the heart.

EMBODIMENT AND AT-HOMENESS

In a previous post, (1) I told the story of Jill Bolte Taylor’s severe brain haemorrhage. For her, the experience contained a hidden blessing. As her ability to think disintegrated, Jill Bolte Taylor “felt enfolded in a blanket of tranquil euphoria … As the language centers in my left hemisphere grew increasingly silent and I became detached from the memories of my life, I was comforted by an expanding sense of grace … a ‘being at one’ with the universe, if you will.” Jill Bolte Taylor subsequently made a complete recovery from her stroke. Indeed, she was able to integrate the positive aspects of the stroke experience, leading to a fuller and richer life than she had had before.

In a gentler way, the proponents of ‘bio-spirituality’ are seeking a similar result. “The beginning of bio-spiritual awareness … is finding a way through to some larger At-Homeness written deep within bodily knowing.” (2) In ‘Focusing’, bio-spirituality’s recommended working method, practitioners address what they see as three critical issues in spirituality. The first is the “perennial problem of getting out of the mind”. The second is “the challenge of being drawn into an awareness of some Larger Process”. The third is the way in which “body knowing” helps with the first two. I have started using this approach as an active solo meditation, and so far I find the results promising. The core of this practice, when a solo meditation, is to hold an aware, enabling and loving attention to the body its processes, so that the felt sense of At-Homeness  has a chance to ripen.

For me, At-Homeness has become another way of describing non-duality as an experience. At-Homeness asks for a deepened embodiment, though for me ’embodiment’ is a more expansive term than is conventionally accepted. I work with a sense of three layers of embodiment, which I call physical, subtle and cosmic. The physical body is confined to the envelope of skin, whilst the subtle body extends further and is porous. The cosmic body is an emptiness body without boundaries. I believe that all are involved in body knowing and At-Homeness, and they are not ultimately separate. Reginald Ray has a good account (3) of how this works in his teaching and practice of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. In this, extended view of embodiment, I reach out beyond, and then further beyond, the strictly personal into a not-I-not-other-than-I territory. Yet I continue to stand on the Earth, a distinct sentient being interconnected with other sentient beings and the sentience of the world itself.  It is all my Home, and all needed for a full sense of At-Homeness.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/10/20/stroke-of-insight/ 

(2) Peter Campbell & Edwin McMahon Bio-Spirituality: Focusing as a Way To Grow Chicago, Ill: Loyola Press, 1985

(3) Reginald A. Ray Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2009

STORY: ANGEL OF THE INTERVIEW

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?

‘Yes.’

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

‘Yes.’

‘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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