22 July 2015

The Red Egg of Resurrection

Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalen and the inner life she nurtured like a master gardener, full of love and steadfast dedication.

A necklace, tyet, or knot of red carnelian, symbol of the blood of Isis who brought her beloved Osiris back from death, was once used by the Egyptian priests to ensure the resurrection of the pharaoh. Using similar symbolism, St. Mary Magdalen is often depicted holding the red egg of resurrection. Harkening to the immensely ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, the egg appears in the rubrics for the deification of the body:
“Verily I say unto thee, I am the Plant which cometh forth from Nu, and my mother is Nut. Hail, my creator, I am he who hath no power to walk, the Great Knot who dwelleth in Yesterday. The might of my strength is within my hand, I am not known [by thee], but I am he who knoweth thee. I cannot be held in the hand, but I am he who can hold thee in his hand. Hail, O Egg! Hail, O Egg!”[1]
You have no doubt seen pictures of St. Mary Magdalen sitting or reclining in her room, brooding over the death of Jesus.  There are scores of paintings depicting a penitential westernized Mary, often scantily clothed with red hair and mellow dramatic eyes, gazing wistfully at a skull, a crucifix or heavenward. And yet these popular images do not do full justice to the strong, spiritual teacher who appears in the gospels and folk legends, and whose feast is celebrated on July 22nd.

The words of Jesus, taken from the controversial Gospel of the Beloved Companion, give eloquent testimony to the true nature of Miriam, the woman who holds the carnelian egg:
“I tell you this: when all have abandoned me, only she shall stand beside me like a tower. A tower built on a high hill and fortified cannot fall, nor can it be hidden.  From this day forth, she shall be known as Migdalah, for she shall be as a tower to my flock and the time will soon come when her tower shall stand alone by mine.”
Rather than being a weak and feeble penitent at her dressing table, the Mary of both the canonical and gnostic gospels is the person who asks the right questions when the other apostles were too busy with preconceived notions and conditioned thought. Mary is the woman who stands tall and full of life even after the death of Jesus, which is quite a bit more than can be said for St. Peter, who fled the scene and denied ever knowing Jesus. Mary was the first of Christ’s followers to visit his tomb and, according to some accounts; she was the first to see that he had risen.  Mary is the woman who, according to legend, travelled across the Mediterranean to live out her life as a healer and a teacher in the hills of Provence outside Marseille.  (Click here for more resources on the history and legend surrounding St. Mary.)

It is interesting to note that Mary’s greatest virtue given not once, but twice in the Gospel of the Beloved Companion, relates to her steadfast dedication.  Here is another example:
“My Master spoke thus to me: He said ‘Miryam, blessed are you who came into being before coming into being, and whose eyes are set upon the kingdom, who from the beginning has understood and followed my teachings. Only from the truth I tell you, there is a great tree within you that does not change, summer or winter, and its leaves do not fall. Whosoever listens to y words and ascends to its crown will not taste death, but know the truth of eternal life.’”  
If we sit quietly enough with the mysterious and powerful essence of Mary of Magdala, we can almost see her long hair and bronzed arms outstretched with love for the sick and poor to whom she gave indefatigable care.  We can imagine this mystical mother gathering herbs and making ointments for the dispossessed who followed her to the rocky hermitage at Sainte Baume.  If we are very quiet, our ears can hear Mary’s voice speaking words not only of hope and charity, but of transformation and love, that highest wonderwork of her Beloved.  Mary is the personification of steadfast dedication, and the most worthy spiritual focus of our liturgical celebration today.


[1] E.A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Ani, (circa. 1240 B.C.); London, 1895. (Photo above right: "The Penitent" by William-Adolphe Bouguereau)

16 July 2015

Incense and the Johannite Tradition

More than four thousand years ago, deep inside the sweet-scented darkness of the immense Egyptian temples, priests and attendants in minor orders were charged with keeping the lamps lit and the incense burning night and day. Indeed, casting incense onto hot charcoal has been an indispensable rite in the religions of the Egyptians, the Jews, the Greeks, Romans and finally, in Christian practice. Our English word “incense” comes directly from the Latin word incendere, which means “to burn.”  

The burning of incense carries with it practical, spiritual and aesthetic qualities that are shared throughout the world, from the churches of North America and Europe, to the temples and shrines of India, China and Japan.  In each region and religion, specific perfumes, herbs and resins have been burnt to please the Divine, cleanse the air of bad odors, and add a physical aid for us to hone our spiritual perceptions. Although the practice could be seen as an ancient version of aromatherapy, these mixtures were often extremely costly, and difficult to procure and make. Therefore, burning incense would have been a real sacrifice.

Moreover, according to recent scientific studies at Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the burning of frankincense, the most common ingredient in Western liturgical use, is not only psychoactive, but it is also an antidepressant.[1] Today, most of our church incense, which is usually based on frankincense, is made from the resin of the Boswellia tree, most commonly found in Oman, Yemen and Somalia–the ancient lands of the Queen of Sheba.
Evidence of the Egyptians’ use of incense dates from at least the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom (2494 to 2345 BC), but it is generally thought that balls of scented resin, honey, spices and bouquets of various herbs have been burnt since prehistoric times.[2]  The Egyptians had a wide variety of resins, plants, fruits and medicinal herbs which were used.  Plutarch wrote of the Egyptian clerics, “Every day they make a triple offering of incense to the Sun, an offering of resin at sunrise, of myrrh at midday, and of the so-called kyphi at sunset.”[3]

For Jews and Christians, the mandate for the use of incense is taken from both scripture and tradition. In ancient Israel, Aaron, the brother of Moses, was commanded to burn incense from morning till night in the book of Exodus.[4] It is curious that some denominations of Christianity condemn the burning of incense at the altar, arguing that it was a tradition only under the Law of Moses, and that use of incense by early Christians never existed.  Contrary to these assertions, the Apocalypse of St. John, also known as Revelation, rather prominently features a vision of the Seventh Seal in which the prayers of the saints rise to the Divine with the smoke of incense.

 Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel’s hand. – Apocalypse of St. John 8:3-5

 If the followers of the risen Christ were not meant to use incense, then why does St. John’s vision have us understand that the prayers of the saints went up with its smoke? And the Apocalypse is not the only mention of incense made in the New Testament.  It is also present in the Gospel of Luke 1:11, when St. John the Baptist’s future father, the priest Zacharias, witnessed: 
An angel of the Lord, standing at the right of the altar where incense was burnt. But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.  
Here we have a special appreciation for the central role incense played in the spiritual foretelling of the ministry of John the Baptist, and therefore the beginning of the Johannite tradition. 

In the very early Church there is little mention of any liturgical norms.  We do know that at least during the first two centuries of Christianity, most adherents thought of themselves as Jews and worshiped in the Temple and in the synagogues. If we were to use the litmus test of today’s Evangelicals and fundamentalists, the first Christians were not Christian at all since they observed Shabbat, not Sunday as their holy day, until about 110 AD[5]; they had no Bible, and they largely practiced Jewish customs, which would have included visits to the Temple where incense was most certainly used. 

No incense was used in Jewish practice outside of the Temple, thus the use of incense at the first agape feasts, and finally the more formal Eucharist, would have probably first been practiced by Greeks, Romans and other gentile Christians.  It therefore makes a great deal of sense that one of the first mentions of incense used in the liturgy was in The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who wrote of it as a common practice at the time he wrote Hierarchy in approximately 520 AD.[6][7]  Some say this is the first mention of liturgical incense.  

Since at least the fifth and sixth centuries, incense has played an important role in the celebration of the Mysteries in both the East and the West.  But there is also an important thread of continuity in the burning of incense that strikes directly to the heart of both the Johannite way and the teachings of Christ, the Incarnate Logos, who inspired St. John the Beloved to continue where he left off.  That tradition began long before Christ, which is why John the Baptist represents the initiation through the waters of the past and of learning, as well as the cleansing and welcoming Sacrament we have in today’s Holy Baptism.  

As Johannites, we do not destroy the righteous and powerful spiritual legacy of our ancestors; we celebrate it and fulfill its promises to us. Jesus said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Thus, with the help of the angels, we add our intentions to the smoke of the incense, and the prayers of all the saints, to be placed on the golden altar which is before the throne.

[1] Science Daily: "Burning Incense Is Psychoactive: New Class Of Antidepressants Might Be Right Under Our Noses". May 20, 2008, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology
[2]  Nielsen, Kjeld (1986). Incense in ancient Israel. p. 3.
[3] Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, § 52
[4] Exodus 39:38; The Mishnah (ed. Herbert Danby), Oxford University Press 1977, s.v. Kareithoth 1:1, p. 563
[7] William Scudamore, Notitia Eucharistica (Rivingtons, London: 1877), 154

24 June 2015

Two Johns, One Story

Alessandro Allori (1535-1607), St. John the Baptist

Johannites are named for the tradition of two holy men with the same name. One came bearing the gifts of the past; the memory of our spiritual origin, and the need for "repentance", which is an utter mistranslation of the Greek word metanoia (μετάνοια). In the language of the Gospel of John, this word meant a "change of mind." This John taught the need for us to change our hearts and minds by washing away the unnecessary, and seeing the Real that surrounds and envelopes us as Beings. 

If we enter with our eyes thus cleared into John's sacramental world, we suddenly see that our lives are enchanted and full of meaning. We are called to love and to serve others as he did. But his message is a lot bigger than that. 

Recently, Stephen Fry, a gentleman I admire very much, made something of an audacious comment on television about God.  He said that because of all the horrible sufferings of humanity, if there were a deity, it would be an 'evil, capricious, monstrous maniac.'  And I would agree, if I thought that our existence was defined by the living, breathing animal that writes this article.  If I held that view, I would be in complete agreement with good Mr Fry.  

Here's the thing.  That is not what being human is about; that is only a small part of a longer story. Our lives follow the contours of a Being far greater even than the ones which built this flowery graveyard of clay and death.  Its oneness is self-evident, and yet it escapes even the cleverest among us.  We are the living, breathing synapses of a great, expanding consciousness.  We are lost, but not forgotten. That is why men like St John the Baptist are born: To remind us, to prepare the way for us to return to that consciousness.

The second John was a follower of the first John before the Baptism of Jesus.  He was young and impetuous like many of us have been, but in the short time that he followed the teachings of Jesus, he became known as the Beloved Disciple. It was to this John that Jesus entrusted his mother as his dying wish.  It was this John who stood unflinchingly by as his beloved rabbi was tortured and killed.

But today is about the first John, though the story would not be complete without the second.  Today is about those teachers we have had who have washed our eyes so that we were brought to see and remedy uncomfortable truths about ourselves.  Today is the birthday of a man who could live in the wild, eating and drinking as the land would allow, a man whose ideals were matched by his integrity and humility. When John the Baptist was asked who he was, he simply said: I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord, as Isaiah the prophet said. (Lévitikon p. 26 and John 1:23) 

Today is the celebration of the birth of this voice which cried in the wilderness, and it is a living memorial to all of us who, from time to time, follow his example by reminding others of their true origins, their inner dignity and their responsibilities as children of the Divine.  It is a day to remember all those who have died in service to others. But more than anything, this day is a great feast to us who delight in the gift of the prophets and mages, which is the knowledge, love and experience of God, all wound up in one golden word known to us as gnosis.


17 June 2015

Darkness & Light in Granada

The Madrasah of Granada, Spain was built in 1349 and embellished during the Renaissance

Between my first years in college and my much later studies in seminary, I attended the School of Translation and Interpretation, which later became the School for Modern Languages at the University of Granada in Spain. The University in Granada is quite old, having first been founded in 1349 by the Nasrid monarch Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada.[1]

For such a good education, I have every reason to be thankful for the rich and learned scholarship which was initiated by the Nasrid dynasty, whose architectural monuments include the original college building, known as the Madrasah, and Granada’s World Heritage sites, the Alhambra and Generalife palaces, which still tower over the medieval Moorish city.
The Alhambra and Generalife Palaces of the Nasrid Dynasty of Granada
In 1531, the University of Granada was re-chartered by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, providing full rights to form a studium generale with the faculties of Theology, Arts and Canon Law, granted by a papal bull of Clement VII.[2]

But the story of the transition which occurred between the Muslim Emirate of Granada and the Christian Kingdom of Spain is not a pretty one.  In the Andalusian emirates, Christians, Muslims and Jews lived in relative harmony and freedom to study, worship and participate in the arts, sciences and government of this land of saffron and olives. The spirit of sophistication and learning that characterized the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance in Granada can be summarized in the beautiful calligraphic inscriptions that decorated the exterior of the Madrasah building:

“If in your spirit you provide a place for the desire to study and to flee from the shadows of ignorance, you will find in it the beautiful tree of honor. Make study shine like stars to the great, and to those who are not, bring to them the same brilliance.”[3] 

This was the culture that gave birth to the medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher, astronomer and biblical scholar Maimonides, and to Averroës (Ibn Rushd), the founding father of secular thought—not in the Muslim world – but in Western Europe.[4] So what did the enlightened Christians do with this seat of learning after their conquest? From 1492–1499 the Madrasah still served as a university, but by 1500, when the conquerors no longer needed the agricultural expertise of the Moors, Moriscos and Sephardic Jews, (and in violation of the Treaty of Granada), the policy of tolerance came to a screeching halt. Under the leadership of the bishop of Granada, Hernando de Talavera, and the new governor, Gonzalo Jiménez de Cisneros, the new policy was to force Muslims and Jews to convert to Christianity or face extermination and/or deportation. Adding insult to injury, the 150 years’ worth of scholarly treasures kept in the Madrasah were summarily carted out to the Plaza Bib-Rambla, and burned in a bonfire of the vanities.

The period between the Reconquista and 1530 saw the trial, torture and expulsion of thousands of Spanish Muslims and Jews, most of whom had never known another country as their homeland. During the same period, approximately two to three thousand individuals were executed by being burned alive at the stake.  Although historians now agree that the horrors of the Inquisition in Spain tend to be exaggerated, these figures are based not on hearsay, but documented cases which were handed to the State for execution.[5]

The story of the Madrasah building follows the ebb and flow of periods of oppression, ignorance and finally restoration.  For several centuries the building was used as the city hall. After the municipality moved into new offices in the 19th century, the building was auctioned off by the city and used as – of all things – a warehouse. After sustaining considerable damage by the elements, this ancient focus of learning and culture was again purchased by the University in the late 1970s, undertaking an ambitious project of historical restoration.[6]  When I was living and studying in Granada in the early 1990s, the Madrasah had regained its former glory as a place for scholars and the general public to enjoy the unique culture and educational heritage of that city of saffron and olives that now plays host to over 80,000 students.

For me, this one little hall in Granada is a constant reminder that people are made of both darkness and light, ignorance and wisdom; hatred and love.  Muslims, Christians, Jews and other religious cultures foster both sides as well.  In an era when it is all too easy to condemn Islam for the crimes of a few thousand fanatics, it would do well for those of us in the West to remember that there was a classroom off the Bib-Rambla, in the Nasarí Emirate of Granada, which played host to the preservation and study of Aristotle, as well as the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. 

We would do well to keep our hearts open to people of all faiths, helping to foster a civilization of advancements not only in the sciences and arts, but in the spiritual exercises of compassion, humility and integrity.


[2] Jílek, Jubor (ed.): "Historical Compendium of European Universities/Répertoire Historique des Universités Européennes", Standing Conference of Rectors, Presidents and Vice-Chancellors of the European Universities (CRE), Geneva 1984, p. 160
[3] Antonio Almagro Cardenas, Estudio Sobre Las Inscripciones Rabes de Granada [1870] (2009), BiblioBazaar, LLC, ISBN 1-115-71121-0. pág. 215. Available on Google Books. The words would have been originally in Arabic; Almagro Cardenas gives them in Spanish as "Si en tu espíritu hace asiento el deseo del estudio y de huir de las sombras de la ignorancia, hallarás en ella el hermoso árbol del honor. Hace el estudio brillar como estrellas a los grandes, y a los que no lo son los eleva a igual lucimiento."
[4] "Averroës (Ibn Rushd) > By Individual Philosopher > Philosophy". Philosophybasics.com. Retrieved 2012-10-13.
[5] Kamen, Henry (1998). The Spanish Inquisition: a Historical Revision. Yale University Press.
[6] Miguel Rodríguez-Pantoja Márquez, Patrimonio artístico y monumental de las universidades andaluzas, Universidad de Sevilla, 1992