20 May 2015

The Middle Pillar

The Mystical Voyage of St. Brendan – Part 22.

The Middle Pillar

Sailing across the clear sea with open hearts seemed to make the world around St. Brendan’s craft as transparent as Bermudian water.  It is only through considerable time and cleansing that any of us is able to manifest the inner light which leads to self knowledge and the experiential insight of the Divine, which is called gnosis. Only through a clear vessel can that light be properly seen, let alone interpreted for others.  But for St. Brendan and his seven-year mystical voyagers, time, ritual and self-knowledge were beginning to bear gorgeous fruit.

In this space of clarity, after celebrating Mass, St. Brendan and the brothers beheld a miracle before their eyes. Standing in the middle of that aquamarine sea was a pillar of crystal which stretched its vertical trunk up to the sky. The pillar was surrounded by an enormous net of ethereal material which seemed to pose no threat or warning. Without delay, the Navigator asked his brothers to ship their oars and glide through the net at one of its giant openings. 

The vertical beam of uncreated light that shone within that pillar extended as far as the monks could see, both above them and below the water.  As above, so below. This is the upright post of the esoteric Cross, whose meaning is an infinite flight of the Spirit as it effortlessly travels between the physical and the spiritual, the living and the dead. It is the dove which descends from on high. 

This great column has been celebrated by many traditions, not least in the Kabbalah. We could interpret this as the Middle Pillar, the place where we must stand between the Pillars of Mercy and Severity, or Boaz and Jachin, of the Temple of Solomon, and which were described as being wreathed in nets and 200 pomegranates, and crowned with lilies. (1 Kings 7)  In the Rosicrucian and later Golden Dawn rituals of the Middle Pillar, the seeker invites the Divine light to travel down this pillar of central Sephiroth on the diagrammatic Tree of Life.

The four angles or sides of the pillar Brendan measured to be 700 yards each. These angles each correspond to the essential elements of earthly life: Air, Fire, Water and Earth, and the four directions: North, South, East and West.  And as Brendan’s party moved their leather boat around the foundations of this pillar, they discovered a chalice and a paten in the southernmost niche. 

The holy abbot held the chalice and paten up to his brothers as living exemplars that others could follow to see the conjunction of spirit and matter. Each of us has this wonder standing right before us in the celebration of the Mass.  All of us are welcome, not to follow, but to be that middle pillar of light, for it is within us that the Divine also sits, crowned with lilies and pomegranates, ruling over the microcosm of our existence. 


Title page of Francis Bacon’s Francisci de Verulamio, summi Angliae cancellarii, Instauratio magna (London: apud Joannem Billium, Typographum Regium, anno 1620.) Scheide Library. 

"Unlike the ancients, who often contended that nothing can be known, he argues here that there are progressive stages of certainty, and he will show how through inductive reasoning they can be achieved. The title page exhibits a galleon exiting into the Atlantic Ocean from between the mythical Pillars of Hercules that stand on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar—hence, beyond the boundaries of the Mediterranean, or known world. The implications to the reader are clear: boldly embark on a voyage of discovery in which empirical investigation will lead to a greater understanding of the world. As the hopeful Latin caption states, 'Many will pass through and scientific knowledge will increase.'”   --Princeton University Historic Maps Collection 

15 May 2015

Sovereign Pontiff: The Life of Dr. Fabré-Palaprat

Many esoteric groups and Gnostic churches trace their roots to Dr. Bernard-Raymond Fabré-Palaprat, but few people know much of anything about the man. Grand Master of L'Ordre du Temple and Sovereign Pontiff and Patriarch of the Johannite Church, Dr. Fabré-Palaprat was much more than a man in fancy dress.

Ordained a Roman Catholic priest, he became a leading physician and researcher in the new uses of electricity in the field of medicine. A fervent supporter of the arts and sciences, Dr. Fabré-Palaprat's singular devotion to service is a profile in courage, compassion and dedication. Decorated with France's highest civilian and military award for his selfless work as a medical doctor during the 1814 siege of Paris, Dr. Fabré-Palaprat's list of accomplishments stands as the best testament to his appreciation of the indwelling spark of the Divine, the font human dignity. 

On Sunday, May 24, 2015, I will be giving a presentation on the incredible life of this extraordinary 19th century Frenchman, to the Conclave of the Apostolic Johannite Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  I hope that I will be able to do Dr. Fabré-Palaprat the justice he deserves after a life of such exemplary service to his faith, his country, and to science.


14 May 2015

The Alchemy of Ascension

Resurrection by William Blake, Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Traditionally, the Feast of the Ascension celebrates the rising and physical reunion of Christ the man with the ineffable and unknowable Father.  This is a day to brace yourself for lots of pictures of Jesus surrounded by very stiff looking apostles and disciples, as he is wafted up to the mother-ship. By the look on his face, the impish side of my mind can’t help but hear him saying “Beam me up, Scotty; I’ve had enough of these quarrelsome toadies.” 

Notwithstanding this rather starchy Christian view of the Ascension, there is another––some might say, deeper––meaning that I think has always accompanied this celebration of Christ’s departure from the world of forms. It seems to me that the Ascension is not a once-off event, but the mystical culmination of the work of the Logos Incarnate, the Exemplar for us all. What began with the dove of the Spirit descending to meet the mystical ascension of Jesus from the waters of initiation, contemplation and tradition, continued to bubble up into still greater works of mercy, compassion and love.

From Cana and the miraculous wine, to Golgotha and its terrible shedding of his blood, Jesus unveils his true Being by divine alchemical transfiguration.  The act of the Ascension shows us the way for our own soul to fulfill the alchemical union of opposites. In the Valentinian Exegesis on the Soul, we see this process individualized.

 Now it is fitting that the soul regenerate herself....This is the resurrection that is from the dead. This is the ransom from captivity. This is the upward journey of ascent to heaven. This is the way of ascent to the father.

Our development as spiritual and physical beings may be working in tandem, but we must never forget that the former continues on, while the latter must necessarily fade away. No matter which tradition you follow, the pain and mistakes of this physical life can lead you from the waters of your baptism to your inevitable, material demise on your own Golgotha. But there is more, much more.   

That journey is what teaches us to be like the anointed one. As William Blake wrote, "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is, infinite." This is how we learn to reunite with the Divine. These are good tidings.  This is the good news, or what has become known as the "gospel."


24 April 2015

The Semiotics of Fish

The Mystical Voyage of St. Brendan – Parts 20 and 21

The Semiotics of Fish

Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign.  A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else.  This something else does not necessarily have to exist or to actually be somewhere at the moment in which a sign stands for it. Thus, semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie.”  – Umberto Eco

Our mystical voyage with St. Brendan the Navigator and his brother monks continues to sail the darkened horizon that lies between the very distant past and the sunrise of the eternal moment. Following the prophecy of the Paradise of Birds, and after returning to the Community of Ailbe for Christmas, St. Brendan and his seafaring monastics took to the great western sea, which has proven to be a place of dreadful learning.

Far out in the vast blue waters of the Atlantic, the men came upon a place where the clarity of the sea allowed them to catch a glimpse of the fish in their schools and other creatures of the sea swimming beneath the currach.  Astonished by this otherworldly vision, the startled monks begged their abbot not to make a noise which might attract the wrath of the aquatic host, which they could see so plainly beneath their tiny craft.  The men were deathly afraid that the bigger animals would lunge for them and capsize their leather boat.

The holy navigator was sorely disappointed in his monks’ lack of proper perspective, but said nothing, instead hiding his disdain deep in the recesses of his cowl.  At the appointed hour, the sainted priest intoned his prayers loudly so that the masses of fish beneath the currach swirled in circles of darkness.  When he finished his prayers and singing, the fish darted to and fro, leaving the boat and its crew in peace.

Brendan then asked his followers how they could be so frightened of the fish in the sea when they could ride the great monster Jasconius.  How could they dread what they saw below them when they had been saved from monsters far more terrible?  Why did they fear what they saw?

This part of the voyage illustrates the pride of clarity and certitude, that most wicked of semiotic lies in this world of forms.  We are so sure of what we see when things are clear, and yet we fail to remember that even when we can see clearly, we cannot see everything with the eyes in our head.  Material vision can only take us so far; what we see is at best a symbol, a distorted image, an incomplete sentence in the vast volumes of divinity and unity.

Technology has given us a great gift of sight and insight into the workings of language and literature, mathematics, the arts, philosophy, psychology, religious studies; the natural sciences and social sciences, and yet we still face the same human problems faced by our ancestors.  Electric light has not extinguished darkness. Medicine has not made us materially immortal. Yes, we might live longer, healthier lives, but our faith and pride in seeing things as they truly are is a grievous error if that knowledge blocks us from apprehending the truth that is larger than the sum of its parts. 

As Albert Einstein wrote, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know.”  This is the spirit with which we can better put our knowledge in context.  This is the kernel of truth that should always remind us of our fundamental lack of vision and knowledge of the larger universe which resides invisibly within us.  This humility of knowledge is the anchor that can keep us from running aground on the perilous shores of arrogance and materialism. 

This is the semiotics of fish as they swim beneath us, whether in obscurity or clarity. The point is, the fish are always there whether we see them or not.


14 April 2015

The Griffin

The Mystical Voyage of St. Brendan – Part 19.

The Griffin

If we could name one of the most potent impediments to spiritual growth, fear would have to be the single most debilitating. Dread and panic prey on our souls like two ravening beasts which hunger for our peace of mind, and tear our plans and best intentions into sinews to be gulped down their gullets.

Fear is indeed a symptom of the spiritual being contained within an animal’s body, and therefore the predicament of our kind. At first sign of danger, like little bunnies, our hearts race; our breath becomes short, and our minds focus only on escape.

So it was with St. Brendan’s brothers as they spied a terrible griffin flying high over their little leather boat.  The griffin is a mythical beast, said to have the hindquarters of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle.  When we dwell a moment on this creature's attributes, a certain image of temporal authority arises.  The regal lion, symbol of terrestrial power on the one hand, and the noble eagle, monarch of the air, on the other.    

The brothers quivered in their cassocks at the sight of the great talons of the griffin gaining on them, as they sailed across the waves.  The monks cried out to their abbot, who calmed them and spoke to them of the power of the Beloved whose inspiration and example they followed.  Brendan exhorted his crew to remember the transformational power of the Divine and the protection of the Holy Cross, ancient symbol of the union between spirit and matter. 

Their faith restored, the same giant bird which had brought them the cluster of giant grapes appeared in the sky.  Like the black eagle of St. John, she swooped down as quickly as a shadow to engage the griffin, which was closing in on Brendan’s boat.  Plucking out the griffin’s eyes, their avian protector pursued the beast until it had been vanquished and the brothers had been saved.

No matter how powerful the forces of this world might appear, nothing deserves to live on our fear.  When we come to the realization that what we have within us can never be defeated, and that we must not be tricked by the priorities and chronology of this material existence, we step closer to  transfiguration.  The defeated griffin symbolizes Brendan and his brothers’ close approach to self knowledge.   With such a formidable guardian, surely they must be nearing the Promised Land of the Saints?


(Image: Griffin and Rabbit, Ripon Cathedral)