28 September 2015

Apocalypse of the Siren

"Hear me Calling" by Catrin Welz Stein
“Your ingenuousness touches me, your unconcealed carnal intrigues amuse me, and it seems to me that, as is sometimes the case with the best kind of Sicilians, you have managed to achieve a synthesis of the senses and reason.”

The wizened and eccentric Classics professor, Rosario La Ciura, spoke these words to his young friend, Paolo Corbera, before revealing the greatest secret of the old man’s life: He had been in love with a Siren.  Yes, a real Siren is the divine spark which ignited the marvelous book, The Professor and the Siren, originally published in Italian as La Sirena, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampesdusa.

As a young Greek scholar studying in Sicily, La Ciura had a divine––and yet also terrestrial––encounter with a sea Siren, who climbed up into his boat one summer afternoon.  Once La Ciura had tasted the sublime confluence of the immortal and erotic transcendence of his Siren lover, he would repudiate the common experiences of humanity, spitting on them as dirty and utterly devoid of beauty.  One of the only things that the old professor would allow himself to enjoy was a plate of sea urchins, briny and reminiscent of the kisses he once shared with his mythical beloved. 

It seems to me most important at this stage in my spiritual and physical development, to dwell on this gift of achievement that Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa reveals in this, one of his only published works.  I find these words of his to ring true to my own experience of those who have begun to master the delicate balance between life as a corporeal being, and the inner Being which is lit by an uncreated light.  This is the struggle of St. Antony of Egypt, the fetish of every desert hermit and heretical flagellant, yes, but it is also a milder grove inhabited by the more moderate spirits among us who also seek out the gates of paradise.  Cicero, Dionysius, Benedict, Hildegard, Ficino and Rabelais; they too have something to say about this balance––in fact they might have a bit more to say to us today than those who so quickly turned their human existence into some sort of sacrificial holocaust.

The reason I say these people might have come closer to giving us a glimpse of the Real is because they, each in their own way, focused inward in their quest for the Beloved.  Saints and sages such as Gregory Palamas kept that ancient knowledge alive by focusing their attention on the inner light which can be revealed in the human heart through prayer, meditation and that experiential knowledge we call gnosis.

Even before the Nag Hammadi papyri were found, this hidden spiritual path was right in front of every Christian in the world.  If we weeded our way through the “otherness” of an anthropomorphic mythology, there was at the end of the canonical Bible, a book of Mediterranean mysteries even more beautiful and profound than Tomasi di Lampedusa’s La Sirena.  This ancient enigma is known as the Apocalypse of St. John, a.k.a. the Book of Revelation. 

Three and a half decades before the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels in Egypt, a gentleman by the name of James Morgan Pryse would put forth his exposition of the Apocalypse as an esoteric interpretation of the Christos-myth. Pryse published his Theosophical research on the Apocalypse in 1910, rejecting the exoteric teachings of an anthropomorphic God, and showing a path to eternal life using that uncreated light within.  The key to this path is Gnosis, and the nature of the New Jerusalem and each of the acts in the Hellenistic mystery play that is played out in Revelation is the subject of Pryse’s Apocalypse Unsealed.  

Reminiscent of the ecstatic union of Professor La Ciura and his Siren, Pryse puts forth the ancient Hermetic matrix of energy and vibration which resonates between our three microcosmic bodies: The spiritual body (soma pneumatikon), the psychic body (soma psychikon), and the physical body (soma, or sarx, “flesh”).  Pryse takes this primordial microcosmic Being and places it within the context of an initiation which is present in an absolutely complete form, in St. John’s Apocalypse.

The initiation contained in Pryse’s summary unleashes the latent light of the Logos within us, into conscious energy which travels as the speirema, which is Greek for “serpent coil”,  through the apocalyptic cycle of initiation up the ladder of energy points in the human body; finally unveiling a solar body, the immortal Augeoides, in Greek called the soma heliakon. This initiation leads us to become self-luminous in the way Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor. 

In this scenario, the material forms of our body are important, and have much to contribute to our enlightenment.  Working as a whole, the initiate, like Tomasi di Lampedusa’s “best kind of Sicilians”, learns to manage a synthesis of senses and reason, which leads not only to balance and service to others, but to a relationship that leaves the pleasures of earth lacking in the seductive charm of our spiritual youth.  


18 September 2015

Of Beauty and Bouillabaisse

Since the days of our most distant ancestors, the haunting of beauty in our souls has been the protagonist of learning, the blossom of civilization, and the gateway that stands between materialistic error and spiritual elevation. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, this duality was well represented in Dionysus, or Bacchus, as he was known in Latin.  In the words of the classical philologist, Walter Otto:
Here we have a cosmic enigma––the mystery of life which is self-generating, self-creating.  The love which races toward the miracle of procreation is touched by madness.  So is the mind when it is staggered by the impulse to create.*
It is entirely human to feel these terrible Dionysian pangs; the erotic tension which ignites in us a potent desire to recreate that which we find beautiful. Our spiritual memory is transfixed on the essential Being of the Good, which is eternal, while our terrestrial body pines in decadent angst for the transcendental threshold through which our earthly desires might find satisfaction. This is the essence of duality.

With all this simultaneous beauty and squalor engulfing our senses and experiences, it is altogether too easy for us to slip into a delicate and putrefying nihilism. We become existentially nauseated on the order of Jean-Paul Sartre, when we focus exclusively on the suicidal bouillabaisse of modern materialism.

Everything in our visible universe is a symbol of a larger spiritual Being, and we need to meet those symbols with reverence. Our means of communicating and living in this sacred projection of symbols are primarily based on actions. Reason and Love should be our first movements to harmonize our Being with our existence in the flesh. Then comes ritual, when our two primary faculties cannot help us navigate.

With Reason, we have made ourselves masters of all sorts of contraptions, we have ordered the chaos, and stretched out our naked hands to the stars.  And yet, we do not turn the power of Reason inward, to truly come to know ourselves. Exercise that Reason, join with it; yield to its order. When you feel that familiarly ancient tug at your heart at the sight of something or someone beautiful, let that creative energy turn inward and add fuel to the flickering flame of divinity within you. 

If Reason does not allow for us to grasp the symbol that we are facing, then Love comes to help fill us with awe at the oneness of the cosmic order; the beauty of the Logos, that gives all things form and function.  Barring Reason and Love, then we rely on the oldest recipe book in the world, known as ritual.  Religion is the ancient formula that helps us bridge the fleeting beauty of duality. 

As anyone from Marseille could tell you, no matter how ugly or dangerous some fish might be, some of the nastiest and prickliest make a delicious bouillabaisse. They know from the ritual of culture that it is not how pretty the fish are, but how you cook them.


*Walter F. Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult (Dallas: Spring Publications, 1981) 136

28 August 2015

Rites of the Virgin Queens

Empress Theodora by J-J Benjamin-Constant
In the Judeo-Gnostic descent of Sophia, and in the Greek myths of Persephone (Proserpina to the Romans), there is a common legend and initiation to be cherished and emulated by lovers of wisdom. These ancient stories and the traditions which sprouted from them provide a similar order to achieve liberation of the soul. Despite the differences of language, custom and religious history, it is well worth drawing an initial sketch of these two ancient Mediterranean mystery schools, and how they lead the attentive seeker to the same destination.

The “Bridal Chamber” in the Gospel of Philip, a second or third century Gnostic text found among the Nag Hammadi codices in 1945, describes an initiation into the Mysteries akin to the purpose of the cult of Persephone at Eleusis and Syracuse.  This is true for the form of the Bridal Chamber as a sacramental event, such as the Greater Mysteries celebrated in the Telesterion at Eleusis, and also for the function of the rite, which is the liberation of the soul.  Regardless of their many points of departure, both the Gnostic and Hellenic stories share common elements and objectives, which I believe are worthy of our contemplation today.

The two myths begin their dramatic procession by the descent of the goddesses into the darkness. For Persephone, her abduction by Hades to the underworld is echoed not only in the fall of Sophia, but also in the Gnostic myth of Edem being abducted and raped by Elohim in Justin’s Baruch, and Yaldabaoth’s defilement of Eve in the Secret Book of John.[1] The theme of the daughters of wisdom being seized and oppressed by the lords of the earth emerges.

Although the Eleusinian Mysteries were strictly secret, we know a little about what they focused on by way of initiates like Plato, who described the function but not the actual rituals themselves.  He refers to this in Phaedo:

The true moral ideal, whether self-control or integrity or courage, is really a kind of purgation from all these emotions, and wisdom itself is a sort of purification. Perhaps these people who direct the religious initiations are not so far from the mark, and all the time there has been an allegorical meaning beneath their doctrine that he who enters the next world uninitiated and unenlightened shall lie in the mire, but he who arrives there purified and enlightened shall dwell among the gods. You know how the initiation practitioners say, 'Many bear the emblems, but the devotees are few'?

Wisdom being a kind of purification is an important point in both myths, so too is the descent of the Divine Feminine into the darkness of the material realm, where she is transformed through metanoia; a change of mind or repentance, into an even stronger deity.  For the Gnostics, Sophia becomes the Queen of Heaven, and for the cult of the Two Goddesses, Demeter and Persephone, there is a similar development in Persephone’s stature after her marriage to Hades. Among other advancements, Persephone morphs from her appearance as Kore, the maiden, into the queen of the underworld, goddess of water and the spring, “all-ruling virgin” and mother to the dying and rising Dionysus as Eubouleus and Zagreus.[2] These epithets are perhaps suggestive of the cult of the Virgin Mary. This is not to say that Christianity and the cult of Mary is nothing but an imitation of the polytheistic past, but to celebrate the continuity and veracity of this spiritual impulse which surmounts culture and epoch, and smolders in that sacred and eternal space which the human heart inhabits from time to time.   

The beginning of September is the time when the cycle of Persephone’s story begins, and it is precisely the same time that we prepare for the great feast which celebrates the Descent of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) into the material world, and the birth of Virgin Mary. As the Gospel of Philip reflects,

Adam came into being from two virgins, from the Spirit and from the virgin earth. Christ therefore, was born from a virgin to rectify the Fall which occurred in the beginning.

This primordial symbolism leads us to contemplate the microcosmic significance of being born twice. The idea of dying and rising again is contained in both the Eleusinian Mysteries and in the rite prescribed in Philip. In lieu of beginning the gospel with the life of the young Jesus, Philip shows that Jesus, who I believe symbolizes the initiate, must enter the Bridal Chamber. It says further that a glorious change took place on the day of his baptism by John in the river Jordan. “He who was once anointed, was anointed anew.” 

This anointing appears to signify the death of his old self and his union with the angelic self, which emanates from the Pleroma. Sex and death play pivotal roles in both myths. Philip treats this as the “Sophia of death.”

Echamoth is one thing and Echmoth, another. Echamoth is Wisdom simply, but Echmoth is the Wisdom of death, which is the one who knows death, which is called ‘the little Wisdom’.

This little death and spiritual wedding (hieros gamos)[3] gives birth to a new body which supplants Adam’s animal and exists in the eternal fullness. This, I contend, is not to be read as mythos or cosmology, but what we must do. This is the Opus Magnum of the alchemists and the reason why Jesus is called the Logos Incarnate and the Exemplar by the Gnostics.  He has replaced his will with the larger will of the Logos; the force which orders the universe and gives means to every expression.

The hieros gamos of Hades and Persephone at the beginning of her myth leads the maiden to greatness among the gods; so great that according to the Orphic Hymns, she attracts the attention of Zeus himself, who impregnates her with Dionysus, lord of resurrection and the vine.  Later we will see that in addition to being the virgin, sister and bride, Persephone participates in a divine economy of three emanations in her Orphic Triad. Likewise, Philip provides us with three women of special import, bearing the same name:  

“There were three who walked with the Lord at all times, Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, whom they called his consort. For Mary was his mother and his sister and his consort.”

In the Hellenistic Jewish Wisdom of Solomon, wisdom is personified as a trinity. Similarly, in the Gospel of Philip, the first in the Sophianic-Marian hierarchy is the Virgin Mother. Philip describes her this way:

Indeed, one must utter a mystery. The Father of everything united with the virgin who came down, and a fire shone for him on that day. He appeared in the great bridal chamber. Therefore his body came into being on that very day. It left the bridal chamber as one who came into being from the bridegroom and the bride.

Mary Magdalen was called the companion or consort of Jesus, whom he loved more than all his other followers.  In this gospel, she is mentioned in the context of Sophia, Holy Wisdom, which according to Wisdom

[R]eaches from one end of the world to the other; mightily and sweetly does she order all things. In that she is conversant with God, she has magnified her nobility; yea, the Lord of all things Himself loved her. 

In Philip, Jesus opens the door to the eternal moment and shows the light to his disciples. Mary Magdalen fulfills the job description of being “conversant with God.”  In other words, Mary is not merely a model disciple, but part of the sacred economy necessary for the Bridal Chamber to work. Philip shows this by assigning Mary the quality of seeing the light when others were blind to see it.[4] She has been in the Bridal Chamber. Back in Wisdom, we see her role more clearly:

By means of her I shall obtain immortality, for she is the mother of fair love, and of patience and perseverance, and of holy hope. Thou shalt put her on as a robe of honor, and shalt put her about thee as a crown of joy.

In wisdom we can appreciate our goal as Gnostics. We seek the knowledge and experience of the Divine here and now; this is a self-realization as much as an epiphany from some external force.  It is as much about opening ourselves up to the Mysteries as it is about receiving them.  However, none of our seeking or discipleship will amount to anything unless we willingly enter the Bridal Chamber.   

This is not a place, but a state of spiritual preparedness.  It is no doubt aided by ritual and environment, but the essence of the Bridal Chamber is a willingness to yield to the transforming power of the Divine.  We celebrate this very act in the Eucharist. The dove of the Holy Spirit drops down into this dark world and becomes the flesh and blood of the Logos.  Our intentions during this most sacred act must again be willing to yield to the Beloved; we must join physically and spiritually with that Higher Self, the angelic counterpart of our own souls who awaits us in the Bridal Chamber. 

As we saw before, in Philip there are three Marys, not just two.  Beyond the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalen, there is the sister of the Virgin, Mary Jacobe, wife of Clopas. Many scholars believe her to be the mother of James the Less, thus her Latin cognomen “Jacobe” or “Iacobi”, although it is also possible that this Mary was actually a sister to Jesus.  Either way, the role of this Mary mentioned in Philip could be to fulfill the three representative Marys who counterbalance the three Valentinian Christ figures.  But our purpose here is not to study these spiritual realities in a purely analytical way; we must also be open to the reception of this knowledge through experience. One such experience was that of St. Francis’s spiritual sister, St. Clare of Assisi, who wrote:

See now. You are held tightly in His embrace. Now, you are His beloved, His mother, His sister. For He is your Lover, Your Son, Your Brother.[5]

In the Gnostic conception of God as taught by Valentinus, among others, there is the aeon Christ, the co-eternal Logos whose consort is the Pneuma Hagion—the Holy Spirit.  Second in line is the Christ the Savior (Christos Sother), who was matched with Sophia. Finally, in the flesh, the Gospel of Philip seems to indicate that Jesus and Mary Magdalen complete this trinity of syzygies. This trinity of couples reflects some fascinating equivalents in the Greek Ouranic (heaven) and Chthonic (underworld) gods mirroring each other, and the specifically Eleusinian Orphic triads of Rhea—Demeter—Persephone (as Kore); and Kronos—Zeus—Dionysus.[6][7] 

Although there is much more to discover in this immensely ancient drama of the Virgin Queens, this great Marian and Sophianic feast of ours which we celebrate on September 8th must forever persuade our limited faculties to emulate her procession from descent to her search, and finally her ascent to the light above.  To pay homage to this well worn path, let this time of year be a moment in which we can see ourselves as we truly are: the children of the Bridal Chamber, “who need take no other form, because we have contemplation.”[8]

My special thanks to my friend and parishioner, Clark Aitkins of Harvard Divinity School, for his part in inspiring this research into the parallels to be found between Eleusinian Mysteries and the Gospel of Philip. My hope is that he will carry this research into academia.

[1] Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer, The Gnostic Bible, (Boston: Shambhala, 2003) 125 and 159
[2] Orphic Hymn 29. Hymn to Persephone
[3] Hieros gamos or Hierogamy (Greek ἱερὸς γάμος, ἱερογαμία "holy marriage")
[4] From the Gospel of Philip: “When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.”
[5] Saint Clare of Assisi: Her Prayers, Poor Clares of Arundel.
[6] Rudolphus Maria Berg, Proclus' Hymns: Essays, Translations, Commentary. (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2001), 257.
[7] Melitta  Benu, ed., Queen of  the Sacred Way. (Middletown, DE: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2012) 211