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

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.