contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

DOUGLAS HARDING ON STRESS

“The whole truth about you is three-fold. Instead of being the mere thing they told you you were, you turn out to be (i) No-thing at all, and (ii) the Totality of things (and, as these, altogether safe) and (iii) every particular thing that lies between (and, as such, altogether unsafe and at risk). Yes, you are wholly free from harm by your very nature as (i) and (ii), and wholly free from the stresses and strains of the world of things: and, by your very nature as (iii) wholly caught up in them. The difference between you as Container (i & ii) and as Contents (iii) is infinite, the separation is nil. On the one hand, each of those things counts as just itself, just one thing. You, on the other hand count as zero and an infinity of things, and each of them in particular, as well. As 0 and ∞ you are stress-free. As what lies between them you are stress-bound.” (1)

Harding goes on to describe how “the contents that fill your ever-peaceful Container build a Universe out of their clashing”, as a horseshoe takes shape from the downward blows of the hammer and the upthrust of the anvil. But does that mean that we have to take on all the world’s stress, “all its catastrophes and pain and alienation – even finding room for its terrible weight of greed and hate and fear? … How can you be the stress-free All without embracing every stressful part?”

Harding addresses these questions by looking at four people and their responses to personal and collective suffering.

The first is a Red Cross worker who showed an agony of stress in her voice and on her face. “She could not have cared more. Her involvement was complete, her detachment non-existent”. For Harding, it seemed that her wellbeing and effectiveness were compromised by a lack of access to that “interior Rest … which can not only receive without harm, but also transmute, all the world’s unrest”.

The second is Douglas Harding himself, on first becoming a Seer and discovering that Emptiness which gave “peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden”. He had learned the lesson of absolute detachment, but not yet the lesson of absolute involvement. He writes that his support of famine relief efforts in Bengal, where he was serving at the time (it was 1943), were real, but “uninvolved, detached, cool”.

The third is the Bengali saint and seer Anandamayi Ra, who Harding met at her ashram twenty years later. He remembers her ability to weep alongside a bereaved mother, fully sharing her grief, without losing her own serenity. “She took on the other’s grief by being herself free of grief, just as she took on the other’s face by being herself faceless. Fully to appreciate what this means in practice you have, like Ma, to see steadily Who you are. To get the point you have only to see, right now, how your own Emptiness is empty for these comments on her”. Harding concludes “Anandamayi Ra was neither attached to nor detached from the mother and her grief. She was both. Her message for her devotee, as for me then and ever since that memorable occasion was, I AM YOU”.

The fourth is Mother Teresa who, according to Harding, had “in her own fashion … broken through to confidence in place of fear, love in place of hate, abandon and detachment and surrender in place of craving.” She too had solved the problem of stress by immersion in it, “by being it absolutely and not being it absolutely”.

Harding concludes with three recommendations for day-to-day practice. The first is to “stop playing ostrich” about our own mortality and our collective human vulnerability to catastrophe, including catastrophes we create for ourselves. We have no reason to expect that “our troubles will somehow blow over. They won’t”. The second is to check in regularly with our place of safety – Who we really are, through Harding’s own exercises or some other means. The third, however, is not to get stuck in the Container at the expense of its contents, the world. Harding says that this isn’t a recommendation for moderation, but for extremism, and finding the unique role that best expresses “this truly amazing union of perfect freedom with total involvement … let us remember that living thus, consciously, is the very best thing we can do for our disaster-prone world”.

(1) Douglas Harding Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom-Line London: The Shollond Trust, 2009 (First published by Arkana in 1990)

See also: http://www.headless.org/

THE CREEPING RETURN OF WORLD HUNGER

Thinking globally. Since 2015, the interwoven factors of war, poverty and climate crisis have undermined previous progress on world hunger. This here-and-now reality is in no way fenced off from my contemplative inquiry. It is part of it, an asks for a response.

The Earthbound Report

Hunger and famine have dogged humanity all through history, but in recent decades, it looked as though we were winning the fight. The number of people going hungry in the world was falling. In percentage terms it halved between 1990 and 2015 – and that, unfortunately, is where progress has stopped.

Here are the percentages (grey line) and the numbers (orange line) of people malnourished today, according to the UN FAO’s latest State of Food Security report.

Some 820 million people are undernourished, 1 in 9 of us. Over twice that number struggle to get nutritious and healthy food. There are over a billion people facing food insecurity in Asia alone. Women and children are disproportionately affected.

We are failing the challenge of feeding the world.

Why? The FAO give three main reasons:

War: chronic hunger is often the result of conflict. People are on the move, and agriculture…

View original post 412 more words

INQUIRY AND HEART

Recently I have noticed a change in my notion of inquiry. I experience, at the same time, both a greater precision and a softening in my understanding of ‘inquiry’. Rupert Spira (1) makes a helpful point.

“This path is sometimes referred to as self-inquiry or self-investigation. However, these terms – translations of the Sanskrit term atma vichara – are potentially misleading. They imply an activity of the mind rather than, as Ramana Maharshi described it, a sinking or relaxing of the mind into ‘the heart’, that is, into its source of pure Awareness and Consciousness. The term may, therefore, be more accurately be described as ‘self-abiding’ or ‘self-resting’, and is the essence of what is known in various spiritual and religious traditions as prayer, mediation, self-remembering, Hesychasm in the Greek Orthodox Church, or the practice of the presence of God in the mystical Christian tradition.”

At the time of writing, I have three means of heart inquiry by this definition. The first is quintessentially Sophian – a repetition, synchronised with the breath, of the name Ama-Aima (pronounced ahh-mah-ahee-mah). In its tradition of origin (2). this Aramaic name for the Divine Mother brings together Her transcendental and immanent aspects, and the repetition of the name invokes Her light energy and presence, which is the light energy and presence of the cosmos. As I breathe the name, entering into its pulse and vibration, I begin to find that this presence-energy is breathing me, until the distinctions themselves disappear. I treat this work formally, as a sacrament or mystery, and part of a daily practice.

The second is Seeing, and the practices of the Headless Way, described as ‘experiments’ in that family. – see www.headless.org/. I use a variety of these practices depending on the circumstances. The advantage of Seeing is that I can drop into it at any time during the day.

The third is the rawer approach laid out by Jeff Foster (https://lifewithoutacentre.com/ ), which turns the ‘Light of Oneness’, back onto the experience of the struggling human. It flows from his own journey of “venturing into the darkness of myself” (3), before “breaking through the veil of dualistic mind to a   Light that had been there all along”. Here, we enter into a loving encounter with whatever experience is happening and finding a way to accept  – not the content of the experience itself, which may be horrible and need resisting – but the reality that this is the experience that is happening, the one demanding attention. Loving attention to our struggles may not stop suffering but can make them more workable. As with Seeing, I can drop into this meditation at any time – by slowing down, breathing and just being there, with loving curiosity and attention. It works with mixed and good experiences too.

I find that a combination of these practices serves me well. Reading, writing and digital media of relevance to the practices support my sense od direction and my understanding.

(1) Rupert Spira Transparent Body, Luminous World: The Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception Oxford: Sahaja Publications, 2016

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

(3) Jeff Foster The Joy of True Meditation: Words of Encouragement for Tired Minds and Wild Hearts Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019

SEEING: CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY

There is a dance between experience and meaning. Experience informs meaning, yet the meaning given to significant experiences can change over time, in the light of later experiences. Looking back at my introduction to Contemplative Druidry (1), I now sense that my contemplative journey was triggered by a kind of Wild Seeing, long before I encountered the work of Douglas Harding (www.headless.org/ ). Here is what I wrote.

“On 22 June 2007 my centre of gravity shifted. It was late morning. I was just outside the Scottish Border town of Melrose, drawn in three possible directions. One was up the hills at the back of the town – the Eildon Hills, the hollow hills where the Queen of Efland took Thomas the Rhymer; True Thomas as he became. The second was the fine, if half-ruined, Abbey and its grounds; a place of Green Man carvings, fruit trees, and the heart of Robert the Bruce. The third was the banks of the Tweed.

“I took the third option and walked into a wholly unexpected and not at all dramatic epiphany. It was triggered simply by noticing and contemplating a wild rose, growing on the banks of the river. It lasted a few moments, just long enough for me to register it, and to experience a subtle shift of awareness in consequence. For some weeks I woke up every day with a sense of joy and connection. Months later, I wrote the verse that expressed it:

I am Rose. I am wild Rose.

I am Rose at Midsummer.

The river flows by me.

Fragile, I shiver in the wind.

And I am the heart’s core, mover of mountains.”

I was aware at the time that I was contrasting three choices in a fairy tale kind of way. The first was the path of magic (the Queen of Elfland). The second was the path of contemplative religion (Melrose Abbey). The third was the path of direct experience (wild rose on the riverbank). I chose the third. The poem best shows the import of this deceptively simple experience, especially in the last line. ‘I am the heart’s core; mover of mountains’ is more than a nature mysticism. I speak not only as the rose, but as the heart’s core, mover of mountains. I speak from the source.

During its collective life, contemplative Druidry did take its stand in direct experience. It was also very open – we talked of being of like intent rather than like mind; there was no consensus cosmology or belief. On the whole we were naturalistic, but not quite in the humanist or materialist sense. The use of terms like ‘Earth spirituality. ‘nature mysticism’. pantheism’ and ‘animism’ pointed to something more expansive. Now my experiences of  Seeing, support the view advocated by Douglas Harding and described as nondualist and panentheist. In everyday terms we can say that we have two identities, one as humans and the other as the ground of being. Ultimately, there is no separation and so only one true identity. Seeing is offered as a skilful means of learning to recognise this identity, and then to live from it.

My Sophian Way is now firmly in this territory. My challenge is to cleave to the experiential practice and its fruits whilst staying open about metaphysical claims. The intelligence of the heart is nourished by this view and is attracted by the reassurance of a clear and simple narrative. The mind wants to stay agnostic and provisional. When mobilised, it can ferret out weaknesses in the view. The Sophian Way is a way of wisdom, as well as a salute to the cosmic mother and healer in the heart. Wisdom invites me to trust the process – maintaining just enough scepticism to avoid attachment to views.

(1) James Nichol , Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, Amazon/Kindle, 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

SPECIAL BOOKS

I’m thinking about special books. Many spiritual traditions have special books and they are given tremendous authority. For the committed practitioner, the prescribed way of working with them is some version of Lectio Divina. This goes beyond knowing what the book says and giving our assent. We need to bring the words alive through a contemplative immersion. As deep and devoted readers, we learn to identify layers of meaning and apply them in our lives. Checking out our experience in the light of what is written, we learn to mould our experience in accordance with the writing. There is no room for a mixed or negative assessment of the text itself or wish to depart from it. The furthest we can go in this direction is through a device like Hebrew midrash. This a form of commentary, sometimes taking the form of stories, that can stretch an original meaning or introduce a new perspective on it.

But for me, the direct value of texts lies in the extent to which they support my practice and experience. The practice and experience themselves are my authority. My original education was literary, reflecting the creative and critical values of the humanities. I am educated in what Samuel Johnson called ‘the art of true judgement’, and also understand that older texts need to be understood in relation to the cultures of their day. I don’t come to this work with a Lectio Divina mindset. But I still like the idea of having special books, of focusing in closely on a few texts of special value to me.

This is partly to counterbalance my natural tendency to be restless and mercurial in my reading. I move rapidly not just between books and ideas but kinds of books and ideas, with quite different understandings of life and the universe. I get multiple overviews at the risk of losing my own thread. I’m also like a magpie in identifying pieces of text that shine, which is great, but supports an attachment to shininess, aka psychoactive writing.

Hence, I now find myself wanting to slow down and consolidate, identifying a small number of special books, selected as Wisdom literature for this stage of my journey, and keeping company with them. I have chosen six. Three are from the ancient world and have been my friends for many years. Three are modern and discuss the Harding method of ‘Seeing’ ( www.headless.org/) , in which I am increasingly experiencing as a support for my Sophian Way. I’m not going to say more about them in this post, but I will feature them in future ones. Here is the list:

Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about The Way and the Power of The Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998. (New English version by Ursula K. Le Guin with the collaboration of J.P. Seaton)

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

Alan Jacobs The Gnostic Gospels London: Watkins Publishing, 2005 ( My focus is on four texts: The Gospel of Thomas, The Fable of the Pearl, The Gospel of Philip and Thunder)

Douglas Harding Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom-Line London: The Shollond Trust, 2009 (First published by Arkana in 1990)

Douglas Harding Look for Yourself: The Science and Art of Self-Realisation London: The Shollond Trust, 2015 (First published by The Head Exchange Press in 1996)

Karin Visser The Freedom to Love: The Life and Vision of Catherine Harding Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019 (First edition 2016

SEEING: CATHERINE HARDING

“There are so-called spiritual people who say that the world in an illusion, and I just don’t understand this. I don’t agree. One can’t say that everything is an illusion. I think it’s an insult to people who are really suffering, who are repressed and put in jail and tortured. To say that it’s an illusion shows total insensitivity. I feel for al the people in the world who are suffering: they are me and I am them.

“I think there are two realities: one is the earthly reality for the incarnated little ones; the other is the big One, the absolute reality. And the reality of the little ones is contained within the absolute reality. When you reach your Centre, when you reach the Clear Light, the two realities become one. The Clear Light is within everything and within everyone of us. Here the two meet.

“The stories of the little ones are real but they pass, of course, that is why people say it’s an illusion. But although something passes, it’s still real, it’s still something people have to endure.

“Form is void and void is form. The void is full with form. Obviously there are two realities: the reality of the void and the reality of the forms. But they are one. Two within One. They are not separated: the reality of human stories is contained within the absolute reality.

“I know there are people like the extraordinary Dutch woman who wrote letters from a concentration camp. I have the book here: Letters from Westerbork by Etty Hillesum. Light even in the midst of the horrors she was going through. But these kinds of people are really, really rare. I don’t know if I would have been able to be like her in that situation. And Ety Hillesum didn’t say that suffering is an illusion.

“I am living both realities at the same time – aren’t you? I am living the joy of being here with these beautiful flowers and with you next to me in this lovely apartment. At the same time I know it is a very limited reality, and I’m looking at it from the Clear Light, which is happening now within everything.

“Seeing gives us the great privilege of being able to be in the big One, to use Douglas’ terminology. Or if I can put in into other words: in the Clear Light, in the absolute reality. And at the same time we are aware of what is going on and are enjoying or suffering it.

“I can also put it the other way round: living in the present moment and enjoying it, and at the same time Seeing that this is all happening within my real nature, within who I really am.

“These flowers are not an illusion. I like them so much and I can see how they flourish, that they are beautiful and respond to my love. However, all this will pass, whereas who I am won’t: that’s the difference.” (1)

Catherine Harding companioned her husband Douglas in and teaching the Headless Way (2) and developing its community from the time they met in 1984 until Douglas’ death in 2007. Karin Visser met Catherine at a Headless Way gathering in Salisbury and they became close friends and  ‘sisters in Seeing’. The book is based on a series of visits and conversations, for which Karin flew from the Netherlands to Montpellier in the south of France where Catherine now lives. Catherine was born in Strasbourg in 1932 and learned to deal with grief and loss at an early age. The family was forced to leave Alsace and became refugees in Vichy France in 1940. Her father disappeared in 1942, probably killed for helping people who were fleeing the occupation authorities. Later she was distressed by vengeance taken against actual and suspected collaborators at the end of the war, precisely because ‘we’ were the perpetrators. From her teenage years, Catherine had experiences of what she calls the Clear Light, giving the sense of another, larger dimension. Seeing, when she discovered it, provided a simple means of accessing this dimension at will. What I like about her approach is its elegant combination of simplicity, profundity and compassion.

(1) Karin Visser The Freedom to Love: The Life and Vision of Catherine Harding Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019 (First edition 2016

(2) www.headless.org/

WISDOM’S FAITH

I’m asking myself whether ‘faith’ has any role in my spirituality. I think it may.

At the cognitive level I’m the kind of sceptic who holds questions open and tolerates ambiguity. I admire the Greek Pagan philosopher Pyrrho and his school (1). Like the early Buddhists who Pyrrho met in India, Pyrrhonists steered away from metaphysical propositions. They did not seek ease through right answers, but in a space of contemplative equanimity where uncertainty can be embraced. It gave them a lightness of being. I find this good for my mental life, which is potentially freed from an attachment to views and ideologies that turns them into things – property to be safeguarded or weapons to be deployed. I am also empowered to keep asking questions and to see the value in contrary points of view.

But the cognitive level isn’t everything. At the heart level, I lean into an intuited understanding uncompromisingly spelled out by Douglas Harding : ‘God is indivisible. This is so marvellous because it means the whole of God is where you are – not your little bit of God, but the whole of God. If we resist this, it’s because we are resisting our splendour, our greatness. The wonderful proposition of all the mystics that I know and would care to call real mystics is that the heart of you, the reality of your life, the reality of your being, your real self is the whole of God – not a little bit of that fire but the whole fire”.(2)

That intuition, sometimes concerned to avoid the ‘G’ word and sometimes not, has been with me for much of my life in some form. One of the stronger prompts, almost thirty years ago, was a careful reading of The Mustard Seed (3). Here, the Tantric teacher Osho works through the Gospel of Thomas. I have loved this text ever since to the point of accumulating a number of editions and commentaries. Douglas Harding has a chapter on it in one of his books (4). But the Gospel and its commentators did not persuade me to take this non-dual Gnostic view, and nor have kundalini yoga, sitting meditation, or the Headless Way exercises*. What they have done is given my intuitive sense of knowing room to show itself. That sense of knowing has grown stronger and is now anchored in. Practice is an affirmation and celebration rather than inquiry. It’s not something I want to argue about, and I wouldn’t much mind if I was proved to be metaphysically misguided. It’s just where I’m taking my stand.

The old Gnostics had the phrase Pístis Sophia, retrospectively used to name one of their texts, (5). English translations have varied: ‘Wisdom in Faith’, or ‘Faith in Wisdom’. To many Gnostics, Sophia was a celestial being, so another option is ‘The Faith of Sophia’ (and by extension, presumably) the faith of a devotee. Wisdom says that knowledge doesn’t get us everywhere. An element of faith, which I experience as a kind of permission-giving, or surrender, is needed for this commitment.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry/2019/04/27/pyrho-scepticism-arne-naess/

(2) Douglas Harding Face to No-Face: Rediscovering Our Original Nature David Lang, 2015 (edited by David Lang)

(3) Osho The Mustard Seed: Commentaries of the Fifth Gospel of Saint Thomas Shaftesbury, UK: Element, 1975

(4) Douglas Harding A Jesus for Our Time Chapter 14 in Look for Yourself: The Science and Art of Self-Realisation

(5) Pistis Sophia: A Gnostic Gospel translated and edited by G.R.S Mead Blauvelt, NY: Spiritual Science Library, 1984 (first American edition)

www.headless.org/

MODERN TRADITIONAL GNOSTICISM

Modern iterations of traditional Gnostic Christianity are alive and well. Stephan Hoeller is a major figure in this movement. When he discusses ‘the Gnostic worldview’ (1), he implies an essential consensus around a single view, which is not what I find. But I do like the spirit in which he approaches it. “At the core of Gnosticism is a specific spiritual experience, grounded in vision and union, that does not lend itself to the language of theology and philosophy, but instead has a close affinity to and expresses itself through myth”. He applauds the late twentieth century’s “minor mythic renaissance”, facilitated by the ground-breaking work of C.G Jung, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. He suggests that “their work fostered the widespread understanding that the meanings present in mythologies, ancient and otherwise, could help undo the alienation and rootlessness prevalent in the individual and collective psyches of our culture”.

Whilst expressing a reluctance to define his brand of Gnosticism (“real gnosis is not concerned with definitions”), he does so on the grounds that “the ego-involved mind requires definitions and is uneasy without them”. He then sets out “a summary of Gnostic recognitions”, which he asks us to see as a compendium of “flashes of the Vision Glorious” rather than a “statement of religious tenets in the conventional mode”.

Working through Hoeller’s list (set out, below, in italics) helps me to identify a mixed set of responses in myself.

1. There is an original and transcendental spiritual unity from which emanated a vast manifestation of pluralities.

When I open myself to this story, it sets up a kind of yearning. The original unity, the emanation and the manifestation of pluralities sound wonderfully real. Yet the sentence also hints at distance and the prospect of separation. A poignant sense of loss is built into the cosmic wonder itself.

2.The manifest universe of matter and mind was created not by the original spiritual unity but by spiritual beings possessing inferior powers.

Here, we have a confirmation that something might be wrong. Our ‘manifest universe of matter and mind’ – not just matter – is quite late in the process of emanation and manifestation. What are the consequences of being in a world created by ‘inferior powers’? In today’s mundane terms, we might ponder the word ‘sub-contractor’. Historically, this gave Gnostics an answer to the question ‘how does the ultimate Divine allow horrible things in our world? It’s because another agency is locally more powerful.

3. One of the objectives of these creators is the perpetual separation of humans from the unity (God).

Our first taste of actual malignancy in ‘the creators’. They have an agenda, which depends on maintaining our separation from the unity. In our section of the cosmos, there is the looming threat of constant assaults on our integrity and authenticity insofar as there is anything of the divine in us.

4. The human being is a composite; the outer aspect is the handiwork of the inferior creators, while the inner aspect is a fallen spark of the ultimate divine unity.

We now find that our own very beings are the product of this botched sub-creation. We are separated, not only from the divine source, but within ourselves. We cannot trust our own bodies and minds. I think of the fictive worlds of Franz Kafka and Philip K. Dick, both Gnostic-influenced.

5. The sparks of transcendental holiness slumber in their material and mental prison, their self-awareness stupefied by the forces of materiality and mind.

Here, my modern cultural reference is the early stages of the late 1990’s film, The Matrix. This leads me to think about the stages, not specifically articulated by this list, of turning over in my sleep or beginning to wake up – the sense of alienation, being a stranger is a strange land even at home , of something fundamentally out of kilter about apparent ‘reality’. Something in me cries out for another way of being, which can’t be satisfied by material changes, greater influence or improved relationships. Something hard to identify – and pushing against any spiritual narrative that all is for the best in the best of possible worlds. I don’t experience this feeling now, but it has featured in periods of my life, late adolescence probably being the most intense.

6. The slumbering sparks have not been abandoned by the ultimate unity; rather, a constant effort directed towards their awakening and liberation comes forth from this unity.

The story tells us that we are not alone or without help. An aspect or image of the Divine actually dwells in us and has been there all along. There’s nudging, a prompting, and signposting that comes from outside, and then from inside as the spark is re-ignited. There’s’ a task of noticing and responding to signs, which is how the journey of gnosis begins. If we take up the challenge, the world will begin to shift.

7. The awakening of the inmost divine essence in humans comes through salvific knowledge, called gnosis.

The central proposition of the path.

8. Gnosis is not brought about by belief or the performance of virtuous deeds or obedience to commandments; these at best serve to prepare one for liberating knowledge.

The only way to bust out of the Matrix is to bust out of the Matrix. Release is not granted as a reward for good behaviour. But ethical behaviour may help a mindset favourable to gaining liberating insight.

9. Among those aiding the slumbering sparks, a particular position of honour and importance belongs to a female emanation of the unity, Sophia (Wisdom). She was involved in the creation of the world and ever since has remained the guide of her orphaned human children.

Hoeller here glosses over a traditional narrative, for example in the Secret Book of John (2), that it is Sophia who inadvertently brings evil into the universe by giving birth to a son Ialdabaoth without permission or a male partner, thereby upsetting the cosmic harmony. Ialdabaoth becomes the false god and ruler of our world, with sub-creations of his own. Sophia repents and sets herself to repair the damage by aiding us wherever she can.  This Sophia is the mainstream Eve on another plane. Although presenting an image of the divine feminine, she is shown as transgressive in her independence and stigmatised for it. This is the opposite point of view to that of the Sophia in Thunder, Perfect Mind, who speaks for herself, with her story of neglect and abuse, whilst actually representing the unity itself – to me a more powerful story. Perhaps this is why Hoeller hedges his bets. For me this is the problem of distilling myth, with its creative capacity to shift and change with culture, and Hoeller’s timeless, ahistorical propositions, which can’t – and are therefore no longer mythically alive.

10.From the earliest times in history, messengers of light have been sent forth from the ultimate unity for the purpose of advancing gnosis in the souls of humans.

This view is common to many spiritual groups, though ‘advancing gnosis’ is a characteristically Gnostic way of describing the mission that messengers of light are given. I find that from this point onwards the list gets more propositional and less mythic, and that I find less to say about it.

11. The greatest of these messengers in our historical and geographical matrix was the descended Logos of God manifested in Jesus Christ.

This is where Hoeller clearly asserts a Christian orientation, whilst recognising spaces for other figures to fill this role at different times and different parts of the world. At this point I can’t quite stay in the story. ‘Our’ seems to assume a ‘western’ cultural framework, in a taken-for-granted and essentialist way.

12. Jesus exercised a twofold ministry; he was a teacher, imparting instruction concerning the way of gnosis; and he was a hierophant, imparting mysteries.

This shows the importance of sacraments as well as teaching for Gnostic churches. I notice that Jesus’ much attested role as healer is not mentioned. I’m not sure why that is.

13. The mysteries imparted by Jesus (which are also known as sacraments) are mighty aids towards gnosis and have been entrusted by him to his apostles and their successors.

The additional information here is that Gnostic churches have their own apostolic succession.

14. Through the spiritual practice of the mysteries (sacraments) and a relentless and uncompromising striving for gnosis, humans can steadily advance toward liberation from all confinement, material or otherwise. The ultimate objective of this process of liberation is the achievement of salvific knowledge, and with it, freedom from embodied existence and return to the ultimate unity”.

Christian Gnosticism is presented as a path of great personal effort – ‘relentless and striving’. True freedom means freedom from bodily existence, and this is something that Hoeller clearly intends literally, faithful to much of the old tradition. . There is no return to the ultimate unity in this world. This doesn’t correspond with my experience, either in its austerity or in this conclusion. But I’m still left with respect  for the uncompromising focus and energy of Hoeller’s path, though I cannot call it mine.

(1) Stephan A. Hoeller Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing Wheaton, ILL: Quest Books, 2002

(2) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introducing ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds Oxford University Press, 2013

GNOSIS AND ‘GNOSTICISM’

There is a tension between gnosis and ‘Gnosticism’. The first is an ancient Greek word for spiritual insight. It is about personal experience and the intelligence of the heart. The second is a seventeenth century term for an officially defunct transgressive movement. It seeks to classify this movement by identifying specific characteristics. The Gnostics had no Nicene Creed to make the job easy. With their more individual orientation and commitment to ‘continuous revelation’, they generated a great diversity of understandings. There were Jewish, Christian, and Pagan Gnostics in the Roman Empire, and others from further east. – Mandaeans and Manichaeans. Later centuries saw Gnostic currents in Islam and the Cathar movement in southern France.

Modern scholars of the Nag Hammadi literature are unhappy with ‘Gnosticism’ as a term (1). Some have abandoned it. Others continue to find it useful, recognising the many people in the ancient world “for whom the pursuit of gnosis was a spiritual goal. Even though the terms ‘Gnosticism’ or ‘Gnostic’ are not found in the ancient literature, …the term ‘gnosis’ appears frequently. Thus, what ties together a variety of ancient writings is this emphasis on gnosis as a positive goal or achieved state”.

I value these distinctions because they help me separate out my cultural fascination with a set of traditions, and my personal Sophian Way. This path is to an extent fed by the traditions, and I have a sense of gnosis. But I do not place myself directly in any of the four streams identified by the Nag Hammadi editors (2): Thomas Christianity; the Sethian School; the Valentinian School; and Hermetic spiritual philosophy. But all of them have texts, or passages in texts, of contemplative value to me. They have inspired and fed me in an indirect, but powerful way, and I am very grateful for their recovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in particular in 1945 and their somewhat tardy publication in 1978.

(1) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introducing ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds Oxford University Press, 2013

(2) Marvin Meyer The Nag Hammadi Scriptures HarperCollins, 2009 (Kindle edition)

FACES OF THE GNOSTIC GODDESS

Tau Malachi is the Bishop of a Christian Gnostic Church, the Ecclesia Pistis Sophia, also known as the Sophian Fellowship. In his, Sophian, tradition, Sophia is essentially God the Mother and Mary Magdalene is the Christ Sophia, born at the same time as Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnation of the Christ Logos. Tau Malachi’s St. Mary Magdalene: The Gnostic Tradition of the Holy Bride (1) collects, and reworks oral tradition developed over a long period and in different cultures.

This tradition shows the Gnostic affinity to what we would now describe as Goddess, Pagan and Tantric themes, whilst remaining distinctively Gnostic and Christian. The mainstream church is explicitly criticized for “following in the way of Peter, who rejected the Bride and placed himself as an enemy to her”. As a result, “many secrets and mysteries she had to tell were not received”. The conflict between Mary Magdalene and Peter is indeed an early-appearing narrative, also described in at least four Gnostic texts dating from the second and third centuries C.E. – The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and Pistis Sophia (2).

To provide a flavour of Tau Malachi’s collection, I offer the extract below

“The Holy Bride has seven faces, the principal face being Our Lady in Red, St. Mary Magdalene. But she also has six other faces, all of which were embodied in Lady Mary. The three bright faces are Maiden of Light, Mother of the Royal Blood, and Crone of Ancient Knowledge; the three dark faces are the Mistress of the Night, Queen of Demons and Hag of the Void.

“These are as seven veils of Bride Sophia. Unless the Holy Bride reveals herself to a person, those who know her cannot speak the mysteries of the seven faces. It is she who must choose her lovers and bring them into herself.

“Without breaking our vows to her, however, we can say this: these faces correspond to the seven rays of the Light-transmission, and within every face there are seven faces; thus, there are forty-nine faces of Bride Sophia. The fiftieth face of Sophia is Mother Sophia, and those who behold it attain the perfection of understanding called Primordial Wisdom. Of these it is said, ‘their crowns are in their heads’.

“Let one who seeks to understand this invoke the Holy Bride, seek their revelation, and contemplate deeply what is said here. Remember what the Lord said: ‘seek and you will find; ask and you will receive; knock and the door will be opened unto you’. The Holy Bride is the everlasting door, the gate of all-gnosis.”

(1) Tau Malachi St. Mary Magdalene: The Gnostic Tradition of the Holy Bride Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2006

(2) The first three can be found in: Alan Jacobs, The Gnostic Gospels London: Watkins, 2005. Thomas and Philip were discovered as  part of the Nag Hammadi collection in 1945 and published in 1978. Mary Magdalene had already been found in Cairo in 1896. Pistis Sophia, obscure but never lost, was translated and edited by the Theosophist (and personal secretary to Helena Blavatsky) G.R.S Meade. I have the American edition, published as Pistis Sophia: A Gnostic Gospel Blauvelt, NY: Spiritual Science Library, 1984.

The Gospel of Philip also includes an account of the close relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. Another early work in the Jacobs collection Thunder (also known as Thunder Perfect Mind) gives a voice to the repression of the Divine Feminine, whilst also pointing to a transcendence of opposites.

Grounded Space Focusing

Ways to become more grounded and spacious with yourself and others, through your own body’s wisdom

The Earthbound Report

Good lives on our one planet

innerwoven

Life from the inside out.

Atheopaganism

An Earth-honoring religious path rooted in science

John Halstead

The Allergic Pagan; HumanisticPaganism.com; Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Paganism; A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment; Earthseed

Stroud Radical Reading Group

Stroud Radical Reading Group meets once a month. Here you can find details of sessions, links, and further information

The Hopeless Vendetta

News for the residents of Hopeless, Maine.

barbed and wired

not a safe space - especially for the guilty

Daniel Scharpenburg

Meditation and Mindfulness Teacher

Down the Forest Path

A Journey Through Nature, its Magic and Mystery

Druid Life

Pagan reflections from a Druid author - life, community, inspiration, health, hope, and radical change

What Comes, Is Called

The work and world of Ki Longfellow

Her Eternal Flame

Contemplative Brighidine Mysticism

Druid Monastic

The Musings of a Contemplative Monastic Druid

Sophia's Children

Living and Leading the Transformation.

sylvain grandcerf

Une voie druidique francophone as Gaeilge

ravenspriest

A great WordPress.com site

Elaine Knight

Dreamings, makings and musings.

Contemplative Druid Events

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Bodymind Place

Adventures beyond the skin-bag