24 September 2014

Working with the Dead

Autumn ushers in that portal in time when our ancestors observed a thinness in the veil that separates the silvery moonlit cave of our senses, and the golden realm of the eternal.  In this way, nature illustrates the appearance of the human soul and therefore the drama of our religion, which balances on the horizon between the material and the purely spiritual.  That unique position is the soul’s dualistic charm, and the reason that it is so important to Western religion.
Bust of Marsilio Ficino, Rome

The Renaissance Neo-Platonist, Fr. Marsilio Ficino wrote that “The soul is an incorporeal rational substance fitted to direct the body.[1] But it is worth noting that Ficino spent the previous pages explaining that the soul is true substance.  He makes this assertion by showing that the soul is not just an attribute like reason, but a substantive power that is life itself. 

We all agreed there that the reasonable soul is set on a horizon, that is the line divining the eternal and the temporal, because it has a nature midway between the two.  Being in the middle, this nature is not only capable of rational power and action, which lead up to the eternal, but also of energies and activities that descend to the temporal.[2]      

This horizon that Ficino mentions seems crucial to grasp as we try to examine ourselves and the world around us, and to engage in the supremely important Delphic exercise, to “Know Thyself.”  That is, after all, the beginning of all knowledge, and the starting point for a healthy spirituality. If we don’t understand our own soul, which is our very substance, how are we supposed to examine and learn about anything else?  This is not to say that the body is immortal, but that the soul makes the body, and so we have to understand how the soul works and treat it with the dignity it deserves, especially after it leaves the material realm. In Theology there are many ways of describing the journey of the soul after death, none of which we can prove. Seldom do two theories or scriptures agree, even among Christian and Gnostic Christian systematic theologies and scriptures.  These arguments are about as useful to the average human being as trying to predict the number of angels you can fit on a pin head. 

So, what in the Johannite Tradition is so important about the soul and its afterlife?  To those who are active in their parishes and communities, Lex orandi, lex credendi can be of great help to trying to comprehend the mostly incomprehensible speculations of Theology. Lex orandi is an ancient principle that affirms that which we pray together is that which we believe.  This principle is extremely important to non-creedal communions such as ours because Lex orandi was the ancient and primitive Christian way of binding the community together without litigious creeds and overbearing catechisms.

Liturgical Sources
At the very beginning of the Johannite Gnostic Mass, after the archangelic invocations, everyone says with one voice: “United as one sacred communion with those who were and those who will be, we declare this space and our time here to be holy.” This very meaningful declaration clearly invokes the participation, including the conscious and individual intentions of various Beings, including not only saints, but souls of the departed and those yet to be incarnated.  If it were enough to mention the One, the Father, or the Fullness, which in Gnosticism is called by its Greek name, the Pleroma, those terms would have been used to reflect the unity of all saints and souls.  But that is not what is said at Mass.   
The survival of individual souls and their intentions are echoed throughout the Mass, from the prayers to the sign of peace, which asks the Divine Beloved to “grant us the sight to see the peace and unity of the Kingdom already made present. Where we reside in you, now and forever more.”  Note again, the Liturgy does not expunge the souls of those departed into a blurry light, but a place where we continue to “reside.”
Through the Liturgy we can see the Johannite Tradition’s focal points and teachings clearly.  We see this in the Liturgical Calendar, in the cases of the feasts of All Saints, All Souls, and individual saints and people of importance to our communion, such as Jacques De Molay, Dr. Bernard-Raymond Fabré-Palaprat and so on.

Patristic Sources
Another place we can find the importance of the immortal soul is in the various teachings of those Church mothers and fathers who have come before us. Consider Origen’s On Prayer carefully:

Now request and intercession and thanksgiving, it is not out of place to offer even to men—the two latter, intercession and thanksgiving, not only to saintly men but also to others.”  Later he writes “But not the high priest [Christ] alone prays for those who pray sincerely, but also the angels… as also the souls of the saints who have already fallen asleep.

Here, Origen clearly refers to the conscious efforts of the souls of the dead, giving us a very early example of the importance of the immortal soul in our spiritual devotions. This remark shows not only Origen's early opinion, but an established norm that can be corroborated throughout the traditional dulia, or veneration of saints.  It is important to note that veneration and working with saints and our ancestors is not worship, but the act of working with the dead to help the living and vice-versa.

Scriptural Sources
In both mainstream and Gnostic Christianity there is a rich and very ancient literature ranging from the Gospels to the Apocrypha, which are sometimes contradictory on many points of Theology. The art and science of hermeneutics–that is the study and interpretation of scriptures–is vital to understanding scriptural meanings.  We see references to saying prayers for the souls of the dead and the intercession of the saints in 2 Maccabees and 2 Timothy 1:16-18 and 4:19, but from the point of view of any honest theologian, the meaning of these passages could be contested. Many Protestant denominations, for example, do not recognize any virtue at all in working with the dead, and yet the preponderance of ancient Christian communities, including the Johannites, have done so.

Icon of St. John
It seems more appropriate to return to the line of thinking which I shared earlier from Father Ficino, inasmuch as he placed an emphasis on understanding the nature of the soul.   Instead of trying to prove theological disputes by quoting chapter and verse, the spirit of the scriptures and the preponderance of Tradition can enliven our understanding and provide for a space in which we can explore our work with the dead.

In a passage from the apocryphal Acts of John, there is a story about a man named Lycomedes and his wife who St. John the Beloved saved from death.  In gratitude, Lycomedes hired an artist to paint a portrait of John and installed it in his chamber with lamps, garlands and an altar.  Through the story, John explains to the man that the portrait which was painted of him is not the true and complete John:

And John who had never at any time seen his own face said to him: Thou mockest me, child: am I like that in form, [excelling] thy Lord? How canst thou persuade me that the portrait is like me? And Lycomedes brought him a mirror. And when he had seen himself in the mirror and looked earnestly at the portrait, he said: As the Lord Jesus Christ liveth, the portrait is like me: yet not like me, child, but like my fleshly image; for if this painter, who hath imitated this my face, desireth to draw me in a portrait, he will be at a loss, [needing more than] the colours that are now given to thee, and boards and plaster and glue, and the position of my shape, and old age and youth and all things that are seen with the eye.

This exploration by the Ephesian community of St. John is very curious and, to me at least, reflective of an inner spirituality that is drawn to the Real, on both sides of the horizon which our souls inhabit.  According to this group of authors, St. John is saying "Yes, this looks like me, but I am not the sum of my parts." But there is another lesson to be learned from this passage which comes from the man, Lycomedes.  Before John laughs with amazement by comparing his image in the mirror to his portrait, he accuses Lycomedes of taking to the old polytheistic ways:

Lycomedes, what meanest thou by this matter of the portrait? Can it be one of thy gods that is painted here? for I see that thou art still living in heathen fashion. And Lycomedes answered him: My only God is he who raised me up from death with my wife: but if, next to that God, it be right that the men who have benefited us should be called gods -it is thou, father, whom I have had painted in that portrait, whom I crown and love and reverence as having become my good guide.

St. John laughs in this passage, and explains to Lycomedes the true spectrum of paints needed to see the soul, but he does not refute the validity of Lycomedes’ reverence.  This kind of celebration of ‘good guides’, teachers, saints, and martyrs–living and dead–was a very important part of early Christianity. We see similar events in the life of the Blessed Mother as it was recorded by St. Ignatius of Antioch and many other instances of personal devotion to human souls.

As we move closer to the darker days of autumn and the liturgical celebration of All Saints and All Souls, it seems fitting to remember these ancient conversations about the nature of the soul.  The scriptures of Christianity–both gnostic and orthodox–are ambiguous, even contradictory when it comes to prayers for the dead.  But when we consider the places where all these inspirational sources converge, it seems clear that Father Ficino had it right after all. The soul is true substance, and for those of us who wander that dimly lit horizon, it is right and good for us to thank and pray for those who came before us. 
3rd century Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome
It is likely for this reason, and Christianity’s obvious parallels with death and resurrection, that such a great emphasis has always been given to the souls of the dead. Deep under the Via Salaria in the northern suburbs of Rome, the Catacombs of Priscilla were dug from the living rock beginning in the 2nd century AD.  Were it not for the noble woman Priscilla’s devotion to both her family and her communion, this “mother of catacombs” would not be there to remind us of our spiritual past, a place where the first Masses were said on top of the tombs of early Christians. Everything would be virtual if we had only copies of copies of scriptures.  But in the epigraphic and chthonic realm which Priscilla’s legacy carved and painted, we can teach our souls that to bow to those who once lived is to pay homage to the knowledge of ourselves. 

Nowhere can we experience that cascade of gnosis better than during the Mass, which itself crosses the silver and golden horizon. And it is precisely in that loftiest of operations that I place the chalice and paten on a square piece of linen called the corporal, after the tomb of the body of a saint who would have reposed beneath the altar. There, lingering over the remains of a soul long departed–but ever present–I am in touch with the meaning of our religion.


[1] Marsilio Ficino, Meditations on the Soul (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1996), 40
[2] Ibid.  Ficino, 41

08 September 2014

The Birth of Wisdom

On this Feast of the Nativity of Mary, which is known as the Descent of Holy Sophia in the Johannite Church, I was thinking about all the ideas and actions which surround my spiritual understanding of Our Lady.   

The first few words which come to mind are mother, giver of life, but also wisdom, strength, humility, and devotion.Various meanings have been ascribed to the name "Mary", in Hebrew, מִרְיָם or Miryam.  These include "bitterness", "rebelliousness", and "wished-for child."

When I think of Mary's birthday within the context of the descent of divine wisdom into the material realm, I can see that she is the wisdom that gave birth to the word, the blessed fruit of her incomprehensible womb. For those who have looked to Mary for help since the days of the primitive Church, she brings both peace and fulfillment.

In the Gospel of John 19:27, before dying, Jesus instructs the Beloved Disciple to "Behold, your mother", entrusting her to St. John's care.  In this sense, to be a Johannite is also to be a devoted Marian and a guardian of the wisdom she embodied.   

Above the verbal and historical contraptions that will never do her justice, the strength, humility and devotion of Mary shows me that I can be invincible through vulnerability, and approach divinity by being truly human.   

26 August 2014

Bleeding on Salome’s Kitchen Floor

La Decollazione di San Giovanni Battista, Caravaggio, 1608

Very early this morning, I was sitting at my desk in the dark, going through the liturgical calendar as I do every morning after my prayers. Flipping through the pages, I see St. Monica (Aug 27th), St. Augustine (Aug 28th); The Passion of John the Baptist, (Aug 29th). Sometimes the beheading of the precursor is called the “Decollation”, and I’m not sure why, but I typed la Decollazione di San Giovanni Battista as an image search.  Caravaggio’s depiction of the sordid event, which graces San Giovanni Battista Cathedral in La Vallatta, Malta, popped up.

Still in the dark, I just stared at the painting’s stark violence and drama.  Two men, presumably servants, gawk at the gory spectacle from a nearby window.  Herodias holds her head in shock; Salome bends to scoop up the Baptizer’s severed head in her charger, as the executioner finishes his grisly work with a dagger.

In this gruesome display commissioned by the Order of St. John, the Knights Hosptialler, and completed by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in 1608, I saw the barbarity of the present.  Wars, natural disasters, ignorant violence; my mind could not stop gazing at the blood gushing out of St. John’s passive neck, much as it happened last week to a fellow New Englander, James Foley, whose funeral Mass was held Sunday at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Rochester, New Hampshire.

There is no moral to my story, no pithy call to love one another.  We know what we are supposed to do. There is no reason for this kind of barbarity in this or any century.  There is no quick fix, political plan or ideology that will save us from the ultimate cruelty that lurks in the blinded hearts of men and women from here to Timbuktu.

If materialism denigrates those who covet as well as those who suffer deprivation, then bringing our half-blind judgment to bear on those we consider infidels to the gods of our hackneyed abstractions leaves both the heretic and the prophet pale and bleeding on Salome’s kitchen floor.  What difference does guilt or innocence make when we already have all the answers?  What god do we worship whose image we so easily defile with a stroke of our pitiless steel?

Some of my friends and colleagues probably wonder why I continue to cherish the corpus on the Crucifix.  Why celebrate the death of Christ and not his glorious resurrection or Gnostic Transfiguration into a Being of Light? He prevailed, after all.  I answer this way: Look at this painting closely and examine your heart. The Passion of John, like the Passion of his cousin, is a mark of our suffering and death as human beings, but it is also a rite of passage to the realm of liberation. 

It is important for me to remember that my God walked this earth; he could taste the fish that he caught in Galilee and the wine that he and his mother drank together at Cana. My God could feel the blade of an assassin’s knife rip through the delicate flesh of his neck out there in the desert last week.  He senses the fear and agony of poverty right here in Boston, and that of the children of Gaza, Israel, Syria and Iraq. As long as there is a human alive who is willing to judge and execute another person for his or her version of the truth, I will kiss the body of Christ on that horrific instrument of his torture and death, which we call the Tree of Life.


20 August 2014

Momentary Gnosis

Christ Embracing St Bernard, Francisco Ribalta
How, why, and how often does gnosis happen to us? 

Many of us have experienced a special moment of clarity, a rush of wisdom, or an encounter with the Beloved. We perceive these little epiphanies of gnosis in as many ways as there are people to experience them. The experiential and transcendent nature of gnosis defies definition.

For many Christians, the idea of gnosis is quite foreign, which is ironic because the word was used hundreds of times in the New Testament.  Furthermore, "Gnostic" is a term which came to be a catchall for practically every opinion that deviated from a literal interpretation of early scriptures.   It is therefore little wonder that few theologians have discussed how gnosis occurs.  

In a sermon* given by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, we see one beautiful attempt to describe this wondrous gift. And while Bernard was no Gnostic, he was a Christian who perfectly illustrated the fragile and momentary experience of gnosis.

If then, any of us, like the holy prophet, finds that it is good to cling close to God, and–that I may make myself more clear–if any of us is so filled with desire that he wants to depart and to be with Christ, with a desire that is intense, a thirst ever burning, an application that never flags, he will certainly meet the Word in the guise of a Bridegroom on whatever day he comes.  At such an hour he will find himself locked in the arms of Wisdom; he will experience how sweet divine love is as it flows into his heart.  His heart’s desire will be given to him, even while still a pilgrim on earth, though not in its fullness and only for a time, a short time.  

In this very touching passage, St. Bernard clearly speaks from experience and not conjecture.  If we pay attention to the language that he used, we will come to realize that he is relating nothing less than a momentary gnostic experience with the Logos and Sophia, the Word and Wisdom.  This is why it is always better to strive for gnosis and not Gnosticism, just as the Gospel of Philip declares that we should not strive to be Christians, but christs. 


*St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons, 32