13 November 2014

Good Times, Noodle Salad & Gregory Palamas

I think it is normal for us to turn to the Divine when tragedy or great anxiety strikes us like a cold punch to the gut.  There is certainly nothing wrong with asking for help when we have a special need or a dear one who suffers. But what about those times in between the tears and pain?  “Good times, noodle salad”, as Jack Nicholson said in the movie As Good as it Gets. What about those days when the sun rises on an inner tranquility that is directionless, but pleasant?

It seems to me that those precious few days which we can enjoy without pain or overwhelming strife should be celebrated, but also used to charge our spiritual batteries for the inevitable return to the struggle of being human.  Unlike some religious communities, I think it is safe to say that Johannites are focused on improving our ability to commune with God right here, right now; not just when we pass into the next dimension of our existence.  Gnosis is not just something that happens to other people or to saints.

It was this very idea which St. Gregory Palamas, who is remembered on November 14 in the Johannite Liturgical Calendar, held so dearly that he risked excommunication.  St. Gregory believed that through mindfulness, contemplation and prayer, we cannot come to know the essence of God, but we can know the energies of the Divine.  Since its feast in August, I have been drawn to the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor, when he glowed and hovered in the air with Moses and Elias.  Palamas wrote about the Transfiguration, describing it as the “uncreated light of God”[1], which was seen by the apostles John, James and Peter. 

So this is the thing–That’s a very different way of describing what otherwise seems like a supernatural fun fest.  Think about it–The apostles could see the uncreated light of God for the first time.  They had eyes to see.   Those of you who attend Johannite Mass will remember the words spoken by the deacon or priest before the gospel reading: “Many prophets and righteous men have desired to see the things which you see, and have not seen them; and to hear the things which you hear, and have not heard them.”[2]

Palamas asserted that anyone can have these eyes to see the uncreated light, that is, anyone can commune with the energies of the Divine. He taught that there are three requisites for this sight.

(1.) A change of heart (metanoia, to think differently of our actions and our thoughts after contemplating them)
(2.) Spiritual discipline (Make a spiritual routine in your day and stick to it)
(3.) Contemplative prayer (freestyle, conversation, not repetitive for this purpose)

Now that we know how St. Gregory recommends us to fan up the flames of our spiritual lives, he recommends some big guns to help us on the way. 

Hence, as it was through the Theotokos alone that the Lord came to us, appeared upon earth and lived among men, being invisible to all before this time, so likewise in the endless age to come, without her mediation, every emanation of illuminating divine light, every revelation of the mysteries of the Godhead, every form of spiritual gift, will exceed the capacity of every created being. She alone has received the all-pervading fullness of Him that filleth all things, and through her all may now contain it, for she dispenses it according to the power of each, in proportion and to the degree of the purity of each. Hence she is the treasury and overseer of the riches of the Godhead. For it is an everlasting ordinance in the heavens that the inferior partake of what lies beyond being, by the mediation of the superior, and the Virgin Mother is incomparably superior to all. It is through her that as many as partake of God do partake, and as many as know God understand her to be the enclosure of the Uncontainable One, and as many as hymn God praise her together with Him. She is the cause of what came before her, the champion of what came after her and the agent of things eternal. She is the substance of the prophets, the principle of the apostles, the firm foundation of the martyrs and the premise of the teachers of the Church . She is the glory of those upon earth, the joy of celestial beings, the adornment of all creation. She is the beginning and the source and root of unutterable good things; she is the summit and consummation of everything holy.[3]

You really cannot get a better recommendation than that, so if you have a few good days to spare, try making a routine for yourself. Try praying with icons or other souvenirs of the likeness of the Blessed Mother, even if it is just 10 minutes in the morning before you rush into the world, or 15 minutes before you go to bed. 

As St. Gregory wrote, “She only is the frontier between created and uncreated nature, and there is no man that shall come to God except he be truly illumined through her, that Lamp truly radiant with divinity, even as the Prophet says, "God is in the midst of her, she shall not be shaken'(Ps. 45:5).”

Good times, noodle salad.

29 October 2014

Love Letters to the Dead

All Hallows by Wilhelmine

Sometimes we need a little message, a note, or a whisper in our ear to tell us that we are loved and appreciated.  The same holds true for those who exist purely in spirit. 

The feasts of All Saints and All Souls are a pair of days to send those messages and loving whispers to our role models and loved ones who have departed this world.  All Saints Day gives us a chance to learn to channel our spiritual energy from those souls who were extraordinary in their gifts and acts while alive, and on All Souls Day, we focus our positive intentions on the dead who are more like you and me, and may need some help in their journey towards the fullness of being.

The tradition of venerating martyrs, saints and other faithful departed began in the first and second century primitive Church. The custom of separating relics and paying homage to deceased saints was certainly a practice among the early Christian communities in Palestine, Asia Minor, and in Rome by the fourth century.[1] 

It is true that Samhain, the Celtic feast traditionally celebrated between October 31st and November 2nd, has deeply influenced the character of the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, particularly in Great Britain, Ireland and the US, but the two traditions are clearly distinct. Samhain was an ancient harvest festival and sacramental slaughter which has developed into its commercial descendent, Hallowe’en, or All Hallows Eve. For the Celtic world, November 1st was the beginning of the New Year, and a time that harvest bounty was seen in sharp juxtaposition to the coming days of cold and blight.[2]  Perhaps for this reason Samhain was understood to represent a “thin” time, when the living, the dead, and other spirits, could commune less encumbered by the veil of separation.

Still, there is compelling evidence that the establishment of All Saints and All Souls was made independently of the Celtic tradition.  First, the Christian veneration of the dead grew from Palestine and Asia Minor, making its way to Rome and then onto the Celtic west. In the Latin world, the day of the dead was not celebrated in autumn, but in spring. Second, there is archival and liturgical evidence to show that the foundation of November 1st as All Saints Day can be definitively pinned on Pope St. Gregory III, a Roman of Syrian origin, who dedicated the feast upon the completion of a chapel which he had built at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  The feast was then promulgated throughout the Church by the pope’s successor, Gregory IV (827-844).[3]

The purpose of the Feast of All Saints is to remember both known and unknown spiritual leaders; those who went beyond the normal call of spiritual duty and courage to serve the Divine through works of mercy, bravery and humility. 

The Feast of All Souls, also known as the Day of the Dead, which lands on November 2nd, developed out of the early Christian tradition of reading the names of the deceased faithful from a book kept in every parish. The Mass for the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed was established by St. Odilo in the 11th century. Odilo was a Benedictine abbot in charge of the large and influential abbey at Cluny, in Burgundy.  From Cluny, the tradition of marking this requiem Mass on November 2nd spread throughout west, and became part of the Roman Rite.

The intention of the requiem Mass for the souls of the dead has always been to help the departed to spiritually grow out of the limitations that may still bind them in the afterlife.  For this reason, it is both a solemn requiem and an important work of mercy in which the entire people of God can participate.  These feasts are our chance as a community to send our message of love to those who have gone before us. This is the season for sending our love letters to the dead.


[1] F. Mershman, “All Saints' Day”, The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1905) Retrieved October 29, 2014 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01315a.htm
[2] J.A. Macculloch, Religion of the Ancient Celts (New York: Keagan Paul, 2005), 261
[3] Ibid. Mershman, The Catholic Encyclopedia.

01 October 2014

The Martyrdom of the Templars

A very important and hotly contested part of the Johannite legacy is to be found in the monastic order incorporated in 1119 as the Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici, meaning "Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon." At the time of the First Crusade, the Templars were a small band of nine French knights, and according to their contemporary, William of Tyre, they took their name from the place where they had been garrisoned by King Baldwin II, leader of conquered Jerusalem.[1]  After more than a century, the Order would be ruthlessly suppressed by the jealous and indebted French king, Philip IV, under the Roman Pontificate of Clement V in 1312.  Subsequent research of the case against the Templars, known as Processus contra Templarios, in the Vatican Secret Archives, has revealed that it was the French king and not the pope of Rome who desired to see the Templars destroyed and their considerable wealth and property confiscated.

Agnus Dei, Francisco de Zurbarán, 1635
Notwithstanding the largely false charges of corruption, heresy and homosexual ritual acts, the Templars did discover and use new spiritual ideas in their work.  We can see some of these innovations in the signs and symbols of their trade, which included important Gnostic subjects such as the sign of Abraxas[2]. Whatever we may be able to glean from archaeology and archival research on the Templars, the importance their tradition holds in the Johannite Church is clearly a means of establishing an alternative, apostolic tradition, which inspired many generations to celebrate and continue to practice the primitive, catholic, Christianity established by the Apostle John and his community at Ephesus in Asia Minor.  Thus, the Martyrdom of the Templars is celebrated within the Johannite Liturgy as a way of paying homage to those who have sacrificed so much in order that we might be able to pursue Gnosis in peace and freedom.  The historical details and theories of the Templars are interesting, but should never obscure the fact that the Johannite communion of the 21st century has joined its lines of Apostolic Succession with all other known lineages. The Johannite Tradition stands for the initiation of St. John the Baptist, the unconditional love taught to us by the Master and Exemplar, Jesus Christ, and the reconciliation taught to us by St. John the Beloved, the Apostle of Fraternal Love. This is the spiritual legacy of the Two Saints John passed down through the centuries.

Mysterious Beginnings
Although the Latin Rule of the order was officially confirmed by the Council of Troyes in 1129, its members had already been part of the triumphant Crusade, and had been headquartered on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem by King Baldwin II.  The order received the Rule from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the prolific Cistercian abbot, who was responsible for carrying the knights’ petition to Pope Honorius II and the Ecumenical Council he convened in 1128.  This left the Templars free to go about their stated business of protecting pilgrims to the Holy Land during the years between the Concordat of Nablus, which established the first laws of the newly created Christian Kingdom in 1120, and their official chartering of 1129.  It was during those years that the knights probably first began to discover the holy relics and other objects of interest. 

Once given charge over the Temple Mount, the knights took possession of many holy relics and other important objects contained in the subterranean passageways burrowed deep inside the famous outcropping.[3] Some of the more esoteric emblems later used by the knights in the movement of treasure back to Europe, were certainly discovered during their sojourn in the Holy Land.  

The Link to the Johannite Tradition
So what do these knights have to do with Johannite spirituality and tradition, and why are they so important?  There is quite literally an entire industry populated with conspiracy theorists, legitimate historians and amateur adventurers, who would like nothing more than sell you their version of the answer to this question.  Without throwing cold water on the lot of them, or penning yet another overwrought hagiography for these knights, it would be prudent to examine the facts provided by both the Johannite Church and its detractors. 

One example are the memoirs of Marquise de Créquy, which state in a rather unflattering way that the Johannite Church’s leader, Fabré-Palaprat, and his brother Masons were part of a Templar plot vowed by Jacques de Molay in 1313, to overthrow the Capetian dynasty and establish their primacy over that of the Bishop of Rome.  Madame de Créquy lived through the French Revolution relatively untouched, apart from a short stay in a convent. Her opinion of Protestants, Alchemists and other “undesirables” clearly illustrates her strong adherence to the traditional class structure and the Roman Catholic Church. Still, her memoirs are a fascinating eyewitness recollection of the inner-workings of France’s royal court, and the existence of the Secret Church of John, which had been hidden in those very same corridors of power.

Despite her negative views on Johannism, Madame de Créquy corroborated the story of the discovery of The Lévitikon, and the Johannite Tradition handed down since 1313 by the surviving Templar knights.  In her commentary on The Lévitikon,  Madame de Créquy condemns the “Gnostic and Manichean” ideas contained in the manuscript, nevertheless, she is a contemporary and independent source which confirms the link between the Templar knights and the Johannite Church. The disputed Carta Transmissionis, which outlines the succession from the last Templar Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, to the founder of the modern Johannite Church, Dr. Fabré-Palaprat, is housed at Mark Masons' Hall in London.

The Martyrdom
Whatever might have been said erroneously in the past by Johannites and other Gnostics, the Martyrdom of the Templars was not a head-on collision between the Successor of Peter and the Successor of John. The events that unfolded during the reign of the French King Philip the Fair were certainly sinister, but the black magic of torture and killing was to satisfy the greed and unbridled ambition of Philip, not Clement. This is not to say that the Church of Rome is an innocent lamb; far from it. But again, we are all equal portions light and dark, with the potential to spring off on disparate paths at any given moment. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

Philip owed a lot of money to the Templars. Philip wanted to consolidate power in France, and the Templars stood clearly in the way. What is more, Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Order of the Temple was elected to serve as the 23rd leader of the Poor-Fellow Knights on a platform that included reforming the order and its vast economic and military resources. The Holy Land had been largely lost to the Muslim armies, and the Knights of the Temple were returning to France.

Whatever the underlying cause, the fact remains that it was the secular authorities, under orders of Philip, that rounded up the Templars, confiscated their possessions, priories, churches, farms, and fortifications. Philip was successful in pressuring the pope to issue his now infamous bull Pastoralis Praeeminentiae more than one month after the arrests and torturing were ordered by the wayward French king. Philip began his sadistic reign of terror on the knights on October 13th, 1307, which is why the Holy Templars are remembered by the Johannite Church on October 13th.

Some say that the spiritual force of the sacrificed knights returned to the living during the 18th and 19th centuries, inspiring the genius of Mozart and Goethe, among others, and opened the way for the public restoration of the Order in 1804, the emergence of the Johannite Church in 1812, and the Gnostic Restoration of Belle Époque Paris in 1890.

For those who do not believe in coincidence, one of the favorite devices used by the Templars was the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei), which is often seen in churches that have some relation to John the Baptist, after his declaration of John 1:29. The Lamb holds a cross and a pennant bearing a red cross on a white field, the standard of the Templars. The Paschal Lamb was of course used by Christians as a symbol for Christ, but it originates in the Jewish tradition of the lamb sacrificed at the Temple. In the Latin Rite, the Agnus Dei is sung during the breaking of the Eucharistic bread. This anthem was introduced by Pope Sergius in the 7th century. But in the case of a Mass for the dead, the last few words are changed from “dona nobis pacem”, meaning “grant us peace”, to: “dona eis requiem sempiternam”, which is translated “give them rest eternal.”

Mozart’s famous Requiem is officially divided into eight movements following the strict guidelines of the Roman Missal. The Introitus, Kyrie, Sequenz, Offertorium, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Communio; but there are actually 14 songs. It could be a freak of probability and chance then, that in his Requiem, the Agnus Dei just happens to be the 13th song.  I like to think that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart set aside the 13th song to memorialize the Martyrdom of the Templars, but either way, the 13th of October remains a lasting memorial to those who have been sacrificed to the demoniacal gods of ignorance and mammon.  


[1] Simon Brighton, In Search of the Knights Templar (New York: Metro Books, 2006), 14
[2] Karen Ralls, Medieval Mysteries: A Guide to History, Lore, Places and Symbolism (Lake Worth, FL: Ibis Press, 2014), 24
[3] Bright, In Search of the Knights Templar, 13-15

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