contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

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POEM: THE OLD INTERIOR ANGEL

Young, male and

immortal as I was,

I stopped at the first sight

Of that broken bridge.

 

The taut cables snapped

and the bridge planks

concertina-ed

into a crazy jumble

over the drop,

four hundred feet

to the craggy

stream.

 

I sat and watched

the wind shiver on the broken planks,

as if by looking hard

and long enough, the life-line

might spontaneously

repair itself –

but watched in vain.

an hour I sat

in silence,

checking each

involuntary movement

of the body toward

that trembling

bridge

with a fearful mind,

and an emphatic

shake of the head.

 

Finally, facing defeat

and about to go back

the way I came

to meet the others.

 

Three days round

by another pass.

 

Enter the old mountain woman

with her stooped gait,

her dark clothes

and her dung basket

clasped to her back.

 

Small feet shuffling

for the precious

gold-brown

fuel for cooking food.

Intent on the ground

she glimpsed my feet

and looking up

said “Namaste”

“I greet the God in you”

the last syllable

held like a song.

 

I inclined my head

and clasped my hands

to reply, but

before I could look up,

she turned her lined face

and went straight across

that shivering chaos

of wood

and broken steel

in one movement.

 

One day the hero

sits down,

afraid to take

another step,

and the old interior angel

limps slowly in

with her no-nonsense

compassion

and her old secret

and goes ahead.

“Namaste”

you say

and follow.

 

David Whyte River Flow: New & Selected Poems 1984-2007 Langley, Washington: Rivers Press, 2007

HYPATIA

March 15 is a day of remembrance for Hypatia, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer from Alexandria in Roman Egypt. Hypatia is claimed both as a Pagan and an Atheist martyr, for in 415 or 416 a mob of Christian zealots dragged her into a church, stripped her and beat her to death with roofing tiles. Then they tore her body apart and burnt it. Her crime was a combination of her gender, education, non-Christian views and role as a publicly respected teacher.

In an article for Smithsonian.com (1), Sarah Zielinski says, “though she is remembered more for her violent death, her dramatic life is a fascinating lens through which we may view the plight of science in an era of religious and sectarian conflict”. Hypatia’s life (350/70? – 415/16?) was devoted to the Alexandrian Academy, where she was the pupil and subsequently colleague of her father Theon. She became the head of the Academy on his death and as a teacher is best remembered for her contribution to mathematics.

Hypatia has been described as “the first recognizably Neoplatonic teacher in Alexandria” (2), which links her into a belief system in which everything emanates from the One, but where the One is not the personal God of popular religion. Her pupils included Synesius of Cyrene, who later became a Christian Bishop of Ptolemais. Her public lectures were popular and drew crowds. “Donning the robe of a scholar, the lady made appearances around the centre of the city, expounding in public to those willing to listen on Plato and Aristotle”, wrote the philosopher Damascius after her death.

She was also admired by Orestes, the Roman Governor of Alexandria. But this was less of a protection than it might seem. For many years, the city had been beset by fighting among Christians, Jews and Pagans, as the pressure for religious uniformity grew. Notable casualties included the city’s once famous Library and Museum. The last remnants “likely disappeared … in 391, when the Archbishop Theophilus tore down the temple of Serapis, which may have housed the remaining scrolls, and built a church on the site” (1). Hypatia’s father, Theon, was the last known member of the Museum. The Academy continued, with Theon and Hypatia working together, and then with Hypatia by herself taking pupils at home. Lessons included instruction on how to design an astrolabe, a kind of portable astronomic calculator that continued in use until the nineteenth century. Hypatia also wrote commentaries on important texts of the day.

In 412 Alexandria got a new Archbishop – Cyril, nephew to Theophilus. The hostile pressure on other faiths, now including Christian heresies, continued. One of Cyril’s first actions was to close and plunder the Churches of the Novatian sect. It became a fight over who controlled Alexandria. The Governor Orestes was a Christian, but not in this bigoted form, and in any case did not want to cede power to the Church. In 415 a three-sided feud broke out over the regulation of Jewish dancing exhibitions in Alexandria (3), with the Jewish community, Cyril’s Christian faction and the civil power all taking different positions. It seems that Orestes consulted Hypatia for neutral advice. The situation escalated. Orestes tortured one of Cyril’s followers on suspicion of instigating an anti-Jewish riot; Cyril then threatened “utmost severities” against the whole Jewish population; a group of Jewish extremists responded by killing several of his followers. At this point Cyril “rounded up all the Jews of Alexandria, then ordered them to be stripped of all possessions, banished them from Alexandria, and allowed their goods to be pillaged by the remaining citizens of Alexandria”.

Orestes was incensed and wrote to the Emperor, “excessively aggrieved that a city of such magnitude should have been suddenly bereft of so large a portion of its population”. Cyril, too, wrote to the Emperor. Then he changed tack and tried to restore relations with Orestes, but Orestes refused. Cyril changed tack again and brought down 500 monks of “a very fiery disposition” from the mountains of Nitria into the city. They attacked Orestes’ chariot in the street and tried to stone him to death, but they were driven off. One of the monks, who had struck the Governor on the head with a rock, was arrested and executed. Cyril’s people had come off worst and needed a counter blow.

Hypatia was an easier target than Orestes. A rumour was spread that she was preventing Orestes and Cyril from settling their differences. A contemporary, Socrates Scholasticus of Constantinople, tells of “the fierce and bigoted zeal” with which she was waylaid, and the great public revulsion against the Alexandrian Christian community that followed her brutal murder. He laments, “surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort” (3). But 200 years later, in a world of deepened Orthodoxy, John of Nikiu celebrates the final defeat of Pagan idolatry “And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a Pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes, and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles … a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the Magistrate … and they proceeded to seek for the Pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the Prefect through her enchantments”. John seems entirely at ease as he goes on to recount the story of Hypatia’s death.

Even in later times Hypatia remained controversial. The Deist/Pantheist scholar John Toland defended her in the early eighteenth century. but got a spirited reply from Thomas Lewis, in a 1721 tract The History of Hypatia, a most Impudent School-Mistress of Alexandria, Murder’d and torn to Pieces by the Populace, in Defence of Saint Cyril and the Alexandrian Clergy, from the Aspersions of Mr. Toland. In 1853 Charles Kingsley needed to adjust history. Hypatia; or New Foes with an Old Face initially portrays the scholar as a “helpless, pretentious and erotic heroine”, though later she is redeemed her through her conversion by a Jewish Christian character, Raphael Aben-Ezra, having supposedly become disillusioned with Orestes.

More recently, Hypatia has attracted more favourable attention from people as diverse as Carl Sagan and Judy Chicago. Iain Pears features a Hypatia-like figure in his novel A Dream of Scipio. Maria Dzielska published Hypatia of Alexandria, a scholarly study of her life, in 1995 and Michael Deakin wrote a book of the same name in 2007. The Indiana University Press publishes Hypatia: a Journal of Feminist Philosophy. The Spanish film Agora tells a fictional story of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) struggling to save the library from Christian zealots, which is nonetheless faithful to the issues raised by her life and death. For me Hypatia’s is a living story, with lessons still to offer. It is well worth a day of remembrance.

 

  • Pauliina Remes Neoplatonism Stocksfield: Acumen Press, 2008

 

 

 

POEM: THE OPENING OF EYES

 

That day I saw beneath dark clouds,

the passing light over the water

and I heard the voice of the world speak out,

I knew then, as I had before,

life is no passing memory of what has been

nor the remaining pages in a great book

waiting to be read.

 

It is the opening of eyes long closed.

It is the vision of far off things

seen for the silence they hold.

It is the heart after years

of secret conversing,

speaking out loud in the clear air.

 

It is Moses in the desert

fallen to his knees before the lit bush.

It is the man throwing away his shoes

as if to enter heaven

and finding himself astonished,

opened at last,

fallen in love with solid ground.

 

David Whyte River Flow: New & Selected Poems 1984-2007 Langley, Washington: Rivers Press, 2007

CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY

Yesterday we closed down the Druid contemplative group in Stroud,, Gloucestershire, England launched in 2012. It’s not easy to judge the life-cycle of a group. In this case, people (including me) were beginning to move on in their various directions. We made an intentional ending at the right time. I celebrate that group, it’s members and its life, and take many riches with me.

Druid Life

I first joined Contemplative Druidry as a facebook group, but by happy chance I moved to Stroud, which was the location for physical meetings, so about four years ago, I started going to those as well. It brought me into contact with many likeminded people locally. The monthly opportunity to sit in contemplation with others was a tremendously valuable experience. The habit of looking at where I am in my life and being witnessed in a held space has been good for me too.

Yesterday was the final session. It struck me how rare a privilege it is to close something with care and attention. How often the last time we do something, we only know in hindsight. Consciously and deliberately bringing something to an end, honouring its history, and letting it go is a beautiful thing to get to do, and very much in keeping with my experience of…

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MODRON

An unlocatable darkness, beyond deep time, beyond even the metaphysics of origin. Almost detecting, or so it seems, an ultimate motherhood. A motherhood beyond name and gender, beyond being, beyond even latency. The possibility, perhaps, of Modron. No Word. No Bang. No Mabon.

When Mabon ap Modron (Youth, Son of Mother) appears in Celtic culture, he is in fact already archaic. He can only be traced at all through the memory of the oldest animal – the Salmon of Llyn Lliw (1). Mabon and Modron are embedded in the old Brythonic language, but pre-date it. They may well come from a time when paternity was unknown, and the male primarily recognized as a son.

In a previous post (2) I have described working with prayer beads and saying Ama-Aima. This is an Aramaic phrase, which I got from the Sophian Fellowship (Ecclesia Pistis Sophia). For them, as Christian gnostic kabbalists, there is a reference to Sophia as Binah on the tree. As Ama, – not quite Goddess, not quite Shekinah – she is in her maiden, or latent state; as Aima, she becomes the one who is impregnated, bringing form into being.

Working with the beads, I find myself losing this mythic structure and separating Ama-Aima from Sophia. Both name and experience feel more primal. I take ‘Ama’ to belong to a simple and culturally widespread family of sounds like ‘Ma’ and ‘Mama.’ I don’t feel infantilized by using the term. But it does take the practice beyond meditation, beyond prayer, beyond even devotion. It seems, rather, like an act of recognition, or alignment, and a will to relate to a source beyond existence itself. At a more personal and animal level, I suspect that I am also aligning my conscious self with pre-linguistic and ultimately pre-natal levels of being. These do form part of my physical existence and, however remotely, memory. Here I am at cause with the mystery and miracle of the life I have woken into, often in a simple state of gratitude for the opportunity to be human.

If there is a Sophian connection here, it is indicated in images like ‘The Maiden’ in R.J. Stewart’s Dreampower Tarot (3). As Maiden, she who appears in translucent white, as “the still and pure potential which is ever renewed out of the Mother Deep”, her virginity “a spirit of renewal rather than a physical condition”. The primal Mother within The Maiden, from whom she comes, is shown by a Sheela-na-gig behind her. It is a very faint figure, barely visible, but it seems as if the translucent maiden has appeared out of the vagina. This old image is found in Celtic regions, carved upon stones and early churches. “It is an ancient representation of the Mother of All, with her open vagina from which all comes forth and into which all enters and returns.”

In a sense, Sophia is the whole image. But for me Ama-Aima is more the Sheela-na-gig, herself dissolving into empty invisibility. Sophia is more like Stewart’s Maiden, mostly concerned with “stilling and guarding life energies” and learning to direct them inwardly in new forms of illuminating capacity. This is very much the Wisdom I am working with at the present phase of my life

  • The Mabinogion Sioned Davies (translator) Oxford: OUP, 2007 (The reference is to How Culhwch Won Olwen.)

 

 

  • J. Stewart The Dreampower Tarot London: Aquarian Press, 1993 (Paintings by Stuart Littlejohn)

POEM: GRAVITY’S LAW

 

How surely gravity’s law

Strong as an ocean current,

Takes hold of even the strongest thing

And pulls it toward the heart of the world.

 

Each thing – each stone, blossom, child – is held in place.

Only we, in our arrogance,

Push out beyond what we belong to

For some empty freedom.

 

If we surrendered to Earth’s intelligence

We could rise up, rooted, like trees …

This is what the things can teach us: to fall,

Patiently to trust our heaviness.

Even a bird has to do that

Before he can fly.

 

Rainer Maria Rilke Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God New York: Riverhead, 1996 (Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)

SELF AND FULLNESS

In my last post, I discussed an understanding of ‘self’ that draws of the work of Piero Ferrucci *. The same author offers a practice called self-identification. Whilst having similarities with practices from some eastern traditions and their derivatives, this western, Sophian, approach, has a loyalty to human personhood, avoiding the potentially dissociative doctrines of no-self or a purely transcendent ‘I AM’.

Ferrucci says: “the self is the part of us that can watch any content of the psyche without getting caught up in its atmosphere.” The idea is simply to dis-identify from the contents of consciousness and identify with consciousness itself.

SELF-IDENTIFICATION PRACTICE

  1. Become aware of your body

For some time just notice in a neutral way – and without trying to change them – all the physical sensations you can be conscious of: e.g. contact of your body with the chair you are sitting on, your feet with the ground, of your clothes with your skin. Be aware of your breathing.

When you have explored your physical sensations long enough, leave them and go on to the next step.

  1. Become aware of your feelings

What feeling are you experiencing right now? And what are the main feelings you experience recurrently in your life? Consider both the apparently positive and negative ones: love and irritation; jealousy and tenderness; depression and elation … Do not judge. Just view your usual feelings with the objective attitude of a scientific investigatory taking an inventory.

When you are satisfied, shift your attention from this area to the next step.

  1. Turn your attention to your desires

Adopting the same impartial attitude as before, review the main desires which take turns in motivating your life. Often you may well be identified with one or the other of these, but now you simply consider them, side by side.

Finally, leave your desires and continue with the next step.

  1. Observe the world of your thoughts

As soon as a thought emerges, watch it until another one takes its place, then another one, and so on. If you think that you are not having any thoughts, realize that this too is a thought. Watch your stream of consciousness as it flows by: memories, opinions, nonsense, arguments, images.

Do this for a couple of minutes, then dismiss this realm as well from observation.

  1. The observer – the one who has been watching your sensations, feelings, desires and thoughts – is not the same as the object it observes. Who is it that has been observing all these realms? It is your self. It is not an image or a thought; it is that essence which has been observing all these realms and yet is distinct from all of them. And you are that being. Say inwardly: ‘I am the self, a centre of pure consciousness’.

Seek to realize this for about two minutes.

In this definition,  ‘the self’ is our underlying experience of  “crystal clear, limpid consciousness”. Learning to elicit the experience in full may take a while, but we are that self all the time. Experiencing the self does not mean blotting out all the other contents of consciousness. Feelings and thoughts may still be coming and going, but now they are in the background of awareness. While the self is by definition pure inner silence, it does not necessarily take us away from our everyday moods and activities. On the contrary, “it can increasingly manifest an effective presence and self-reliance. in daily life”.

Further possibilities unfold as we increase our self-awareness in this sense. Ferrucci says that as pure consciousness gains in clarity and fullness, we “make a direct approach to the creative vitality at the very source of our being”. The ways in which people describe this vary with time and place, language and culture. In ancient China, philosophers spoke of the Tao, whilst warning against attempts to define it. In the Pagan Roman Empire, Plotinus described an experience that seemed “unbounded” and “totally immeasurable”. A millennium later in Christian England, Julian of Norwich wrote: “Our Lord opened my spiritual eye and showed me my soul in the middle of my heart, and I saw the soul was as wide as if it were an infinite world, as if it were a blessed kingdom.”

In my own experience, I have for quite a while had a sense of being ‘living presence in a field of living presence’. The ‘emptiness’ of pure consciousness becomes a ‘fullness’. I profoundly belong. I am energetically alive. I sense freedom and capacity. I feel distinctive within a larger field, yet with fluid and porous boundaries. I am opened to I-Thou relationship and the possibility of reciprocal recognition, personhood’s greatest gift.

As a contemplative exercise,  I find self-identification –  leading  on to a ‘fullness’ or ‘just being’ phase’ – profoundly valuable. It takes me half an hour and it seeds clarity and fullness in my daily life.

 

*Piero Ferrucci What we may be: the vision and techniques of psychosynthesis Wellingborough: Crucible, 1989

 

SPARK AND SELF

In its Gnostic origins, the Way of Sophia sees each of us as a divine spark, exiled in a broken world and yearning for home. I, with my view of one life and one home, appreciate the reframe offered by Piero Ferrucci*. Here, ‘spark’ becomes ‘self’.

“Every morning when we wake and rise up from the darkness of sleep to awareness of our surroundings, of time and of our individual presence, we recapitulate in a few moments an adventure which took many millions of years: the awakening from the depths of unconsciousness. This saga started when the first forms of life came into being on the planet, and it eventually culminated in the emergence of self-consciousness and individuality.

“It is precisely this awareness of self that makes it possible for us to experience solitude and love, to be responsible to other human beings, to be aware of the past and the future, of life and death, to have values, to be able to plan ahead, to be conscious of our evolution and perhaps to be able to influence its course.

“Self … has been seen as the executive function of the personality, as the coordinator of behaviour, as the meeting place of conscious and unconscious, or as a constellation of attitudes and feelings individuals have about themselves. Still others describe the self as the result of our interaction with others, as the whole psychophysical organism, or as an illusory aggregate of transient elements.

“Psychosynthesis brings the matter to a point of extreme simplicity, seeing the self as the most elementary and distinctive part of our being – in other words, its core. This core is of an entirely different nature from the other elements (physical sensations, feelings, thoughts and so on) that make up our personality. As a consequence, it can act as a unifying centre, directing these elements and bringing them into the unity of an organic wholeness.

The self can also be defined as the only part of us which remains forever the same. It is this sameness which, once found and fully experienced, acts as an ever-present pivot for the rest of the personality, an inner stronghold to which we can always refer in order to regain a sense of poise and self-consistency. Then we can see that the self remains the same in ecstasy and despair, in peace and turmoil, in pain and pleasure, in victory and defeat. … It is a state of psychological nudity in which we have taken off all our psychological clothes – thoughts, feelings, images, physical sensations – and only pure being remains”

I will be looking at this understanding more deeply in future posts, including implications for working with it, contemplatively, within the Western Way.

  • Piero Ferrucci What we may be: the vision and techniques of psychosynthesis Wellingborough: Crucible, 1989

 

A VOYAGE

In a contemplative state, I see myself in a small ocean going yacht, one which can run on sail or on a motor. It is a moonlit night in which it is possible to get a good view of the sea. The yacht seems to be stationary, or almost so. There are no crew on deck. Sophia and I are there together. It is winter and we are both well wrapped up, but I can see her face and make eye contact, which is how I recognize Her. She is somewhat as in my icon, although fully humanized and somewhat older.

She is in charge of the voyage, and she wants to show me the ocean. It is moving, relatively gently but enough to show the arising and dissolution of wave formations – the dance of the swell. Distinctive shapes appear, move, glint, before disappearing into the darkness or being reabsorbed into the mass of water, losing any claim to individuality. My immediate response is to feel the beauty in this process. Then I think, in quick succession, of my personal identity and my coming death. I experience myself as individuated and self-aware as a wave, in this moment. Woven into the hinterland of this experience is anticipation of my dissolution. I need to taste this, and believe it.

Then I find myself wanting to hurry – to perfect my understanding of me and the cosmos before I go. Sophia does not mock me. Rather, She nudges me to remember that I’ve got what I need, and to recall specific existing resources. One is my own review of Not I, Not Other Than I (1) in which Russel Williams talks of a “natural state of oneness with everything … stillness, pure consciousness, emptiness of being” and potentially available to all. It is “based on sense-feeling, and on filling the emptiness with loving kindness”. Williams talks also about following the Way of the Buddha rather than being enrolled in Buddhism. To him, Buddhism is a belief system, whilst the Way of the Buddha is a “recognition system”. I would like to claim the same for the Way of Sophia.

Another resource is my positive feelings towards a Water and Wave, a poem by Kabir (2) which asks the question: “Water, and the waves on it; how to tell them apart?” It also contains the verse:

There is a Secret One inside us;

The planets in all the galaxies

Pass through Her hands like beads.

I can remember this when using the rosary, which I wrote about in my last post (3). I am finding the current phase of my journey one of gifts, invitations, and reminders about where and how to focus my attention. I am understanding more about how to work with Sophia now that an enhanced dedication has been made. It feels now like a living process.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/book-review-not-i-not-other-than-i/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/poem-water-and-wave/

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/rosary-paidirean-pahjurin-iii/

 

ROSARY: PAIDIREAN (PAHJ-URINN) III

Revising the About section of this blog, I clarified the centrality of the Sophian Way to my spiritual life, whilst emphasising strong elements of continuity in this blog. The same applies to my practices as well.

The Paidirean of the title are the prayer beads of the Ceile De (1), known to have been used by Celtic Christians in the days of Columcille (St. Columba). I have had mine for four years and have written about them previously (2,3). I have not used them recently, but through a strong sense of prompting I picked them up again a week ago.

A devotional practice has rapidly shaped itself. This is an offering to Sophia as Cosmic Mother, an aspect that has only recently moved and engaged me in quite this way. ‘My’ state of awareness, well-being, peace or understanding are therefore not the point. The work is a prayer rather than meditation, though it does not involve asking for anything, whether for self, others or the world.

I work with the beads, saying Ama-Aima which in the Sophian Fellowship (Ecclesia Pistis Sophia) (4) means ‘Dark Mother-Light Mother’, here in the sense of the primal Mother both before and after birthing the material cosmos (5). She cannot be visible until there is someone, a child, to see Her. This practice is such a seeing, an act of recognition.

Ama-Aima involves two full, slow and conscious breaths: Aah (inbreath)-Mah (outbreath), Ae (inbreath)-Mah (outbreath). There are a hundred and fifty beads, and I will work through the whole rosary either once or three times. When doing it three times, I will break for a brief period of walking meditation after the second.

This is not a Sophian Fellowship practice, nor indeed a Ceile De one, though it would not offend the principles of either group. It constellated very quickly in my dedicated contemplative space at home. I could call it a mantra meditation, but I don’t – because for me this would mistakenly place more emphasis on syllables and technique than the intentions of the heart.

I am surprised that I have been so drawn to a practice like this. I am not a religious believer in any traditional sense and I could call my shift into a devotional mode an existential choice, almost a kind of lifestyle aesthetic. But the monkey mind alone would never have selected this option. The image that comes to me is of having fallen asleep in a beached rowing boat, then waking up at sea with the tide going out and yet trusting this new direction. From a Druid perspective, echoes of Taliesin – and yet differences as well.

(1) http://www.ceilede.co.uk/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2012/12/30/paidirean-pahj-urinn/

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2013/01/04/paidirean-pahj-urinn-ii/

(4) http://www.sophian.org/

(5) Tau Malachi Gnosis of the Cosmic Christ: a Gnostic Christian Kabbalah Saint Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2005