21 July 2014

Two Candles for St. Mary

The very mention of St. Mary Magdalene can set off a religious war the likes of which would singe the nose hairs of even the most pachydermal of theologians.  And yet, every 22nd of July, charges of heresy, misogyny and conspiracy are coupled with that kind of knowledge that religious and political zealots can produce in copious amounts: The one and only truth! 

Personally, I prefer to celebrate the memory of one of our most beloved saints by being grateful for her life in this world and in the world that we cannot see through the haze that men have so long called their truth. Whether St. Mary was a prostitute or priestess, sage or salacious courtesan, doesn't really matter.  What matters to us now is that Mary showed up, sought after the knowledge of the Divine, and once she had her change of heart, followed the Love of Christ on earth. 

What matters about Mary is that she understood the magnitude of the Incarnation, and she gave her best to honor the indwelling Divine with her life, her tears and her ointments.  

In response to the theological peashooter skirmishes surrounding this great, healing woman, I recommend that we light a candle and say a prayer for all those people out there, in this very cruel world, who are taking potshots at one another because they think they have the truth.  You know where they are.  They’re in the Ukraine, they’re in Gaza; they’re in your neighborhood, and they're in your mind.

Take the first candle that you lit for the problems of the living, and use its flame to light another candle in memory of a strong, human, and therefore, imperfect saint; a myrrh-bearer, a princess of the Church, Apostle to the Apostles, and a reminder to all of us that errors are forgiven and that Love is eternal.

Two candles, one flame.


13 July 2014

The Problem of Evil

The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came.

– Umberto Eco

Having thought long and hard about the problem of evil over the past few weeks, and after the recent loss of three souls who were dear to my heart, it seems like a vague and ignorant task to describe things like “evil” without benefit of the totality of existence to inform my opinions. If there is one conclusion that I could wrestle from my experiences and studies on this dark subject, it is the idea expressed in this quotation by one of my favorite authors.  “The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and in moving, he always returns whence he came.”  Returning, going backwards, not embracing mystery; these things personify the Devil for Professor Eco. This sentence has rattled around in my mind for weeks because it reminds me of the excellent lecture given by His Grace, Dr. William Behun, at the Essex Conclave five years ago. In that very fine exposé, His Grace described evil using the language of Jakob Boehme, whose greatest works were being written in eastern Germany as the very first Europeans began arriving on the shores of New England and Virginia.

1. The Causes of Evil

If we reduce the struggle between good and evil to its human equivalent, we begin to understand that what Boehme described was our ability to unify our will with the Divine.  Any thought or action that seeks to rebel against the eternally passive and self-complete, is evil. Anything that raises the importance of materiality over spirituality is evil.  But this is true within the Divine as well. There is a certain duality of purpose, one active the other passive, inside of the Divine Mind, which is the hallmark of self-consciousness. Evil comes as a result of a separation or a disequilibrium in these forces.  Not doing things in concord is the root of all evil, and so it becomes clearer that action in ignorance, though not necessarily willfully evil, continues to multiply evil exponentially throughout human history. 

Humankind has probably always struggled to understand why there is pain, suffering, discord, illness and death; in short, why there is such a thing as evil.  In many primitive religions it was believed that we humans deserved to be punished for not following the will of the gods. This kind of superstition, which evolved over time into elaborate theological systems, rationalized divine retribution and the need for penance to redeem one’s self or an entire people. This category of belief is part of atonement theology, an unfortunate and often abused set of theological principles which blemish the face of many religions like a virulent and recurring pox.

Pain, suffering, despair and injustice are products of evil, so we can begin to define evil by what it does.  But there is a great deal of disagreement on why these things happen, and therefore, why evil happened, and continues to occur.  So far as we can see through the fog of our human perspective, this ‘ministry of evil’ takes form through natural diseases and disasters, human conflict and ignorance.  We can assign one or all of these things to supernatural beings, or we can simply take them for what they are and try to understand the nature of them, and more importantly, our own nature and how it interacts with them. 

2. Evil in Western Religion

Thanks to the wisdom of Jewish, Christian and Gnostic communities, the early years of the Common Era saw a sea-change in the way that evil was understood and explained. Bad things simply didn’t happen because of a poor offering or a human act against the gods. As Fr. James Martin, S.J. recently wrote:

The notion that suffering is a punishment from God makes no sense in the face of innocent suffering, especially when it comes to terrible illness or a natural disaster.[1]

It was none other than Jesus Christ who made a clear break with the ancient adherence to the theology of atonement in the Gospel of John, when he one day happened on a blind man:

His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.[2] 

By this statement, the early Johannite community is showing the world that the trials and tribulations that we suffer are not inflicted or merited quid pro quo; these are ordeals which illustrate the need to remember our true, spiritual origins and use these trials to better the soul. This Christian idea is echoed in the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, which we will explore in a moment.
Christ Healing the Blind Man, El Greco, 1565

Since the holocaust of the 1940s, Judaism has also internally conversed about the meaning of the Covenant, which was often equated with “an eye for an eye” kind of theology. Rabbi Irving Greenberg boldly draws a line in the sand in his book Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire, “Let us offer, then, as a working principle the following: No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”  It seems very difficult to disagree with that principle, but this way of thinking equates death as an evil, which does not seem to offer much comfort or clarity to the age-old problem.

3. Evil from the Neoplatonic Perspective

Nestled between modernity and the ancients, the learned teachers of Neoplatonism and their Renaissance disciples continued to synthesize the humanist philosophy that Jesus taught so simply in the Gospel of John. The 15th century Catholic priest, philosopher and translator of the Corpus Hermeticum, Marsilio Ficino, put a rather sharp point on his conception of the problem of evil when he wrote to his nephew, Sebastiano Savini:

They speak falsely, my friend, who say that the numerous sufferings in the life of mankind arise from its numerous evils. It would be much more accurate to say that life itself is a form of suffering that presses on the wretched without respite.[3]

We see these principles echoed today, in contemporary Neoplatonic teachings. My friend, Dr. Jeffrey Kupperman’s synopsis of evil will resonate with many Johannites:

If the Good extends to all things, and Being, Life and Mind move us towards that which is best, how can any being do evil? Because evil is not a positive thing, but negative, people do not do evil for evil’s sake. Instead evil is done in an attempt to achieve some good. Because all beings participate in the Good to varying degrees and not uniformly, we may err about the Good and so do evil in place of good.

 Are there other causes of evil? A being’s separation from their monad, the highest level from which they are directly emanated, can lead to error due to lack of perfection. Thus individual souls are more likely to err than archangels, which are much closer to their monad, the divine intelligibles. The divine intelligible are monads, and therefore free from error as is the pre-essential Demiurgos.[4]

In the Hermetic scripture known as Kore Kosmu, meaning the “eye-pupil of the universe”, Hermes boldly informs his student that incarnation is a form of punishment to be endured.[5]

4. What is the ‘Problem of Evil’?

If we believe the Divine to be all powerful, all benevolent and all knowing, then we come to a big problem.  If God is all of these things, why is there terrible suffering, sickness, injustice, and death?

1. Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions trace the existence of evil to free will, and at one time in the antediluvian past, some angels and humankind exercised their will and revolted against the Divine, causing evil to be manifested. 

2. Gnosticism, Manicheanism, many polytheistic religions, and Zoroastrianism, share a similar take on evil through the use of dystheism (Greek δύσ θεος ‘bad god’).  This means that gods, goddesses, or a singular God is not wholly good as is commonly understood, and is possibly evil.

3. Platonism and the denial of evil. Augustine of Hippo maintained that evil exists only as a privation or absence of the good.  This is also reflected in Neoplatonism, the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, and in the works of Jakob Boehme. We see traces of this thinking in St. Hildegard’s musing that “Creation would become totally black if in any way the godly command is shirked.  Creation blooms and flourishes when it remains in right relationship and keeps to its assigned tasks.”[6] 

4. Denial of God and Evil. Atheism.  

5. How was Evil Born?

The Homeric Hymns are some of the oldest myths in Western culture. If evil in anthropomorphic form had a birth certificate, it might well be contained in the Hymn to Apollo, which dates from at least seven centuries before the time of Christ.

In the Hymn to Apollo (305–310), we see the Olympian goddess Hera launch a concept of the birth of evil that reverberates with great meaning even today. Hera (Juno of the Romans), imitating her unfaithful consort and brother, Zeus, brings forth a child by herself.  The child is the “dreadful and baneful Typhon or Typhos, a scourge to mortals.”  In her archaic, Minoan form, Hera’s self-born son Typhos (Τυφώς, Tuphōs) was the deadliest monster. In other versions of the myth, he was the last son of Gaia, fathered by Tartarus, and known as the “Father of All Monsters.”
Etruscan Typhon, terracotta, 6th c. B.C.

My purpose in uncovering this ancient Greek myth is not to point to the ancient cults of my ancestors as the definition of truth, nor do I conjure the salacious Olympian deities to muddy the already wine-dark sea of Mediterranean religions. Instead, by sketching the terrible outline of the monster Typhon, my finger is pointed to an idea. Hera’s creature is a primordial concept that has been born from ageless, unconscious experience, transmission and recapitulation–that is to say–through gnosis.  Evil was born in the moment that thought and action were not done in unison with the One, or the Spirit of the One and therefore, also the Logos. The birth of the Father of All Monsters, or what the ancient Gnostics would call Yaldabaoth, or Sakla; the Gnostic Demiurge, is then seen to reproduce itself in a nearly infinite series of pairings and multiplications.  We see this in the myths recounted in the Secret Book, or Apocryphon of John.  The Sethian narrative of “Fall of Sophia” states that:

She wanted to bring forth something like herself, without the consent of the spirit, who had not given approval, without her partner and without his consideration.

The result is yet another description of a monster:

Something came out of her that was imperfect and different in appearance from her, for she had produced it without her partner.  It did not resemble its mother and was misshapen.  When Sophia saw what her desire had produced, it changed into the figure of a snake with the face of a lion. Its eyes were like flashing bolts of lightning. She cast it away from her, outside that realm so that none of the immortals would see it.  She had produced it ignorantly.[7] 

Yaldabaoth by Maggie McNeely
In the Valentinian Gospel of Truth, we see a similar, but slightly cleaner form of this mythological continuum which began with Homer.  Now, “ignorance of the Father brings error.”

This, then, was not a humiliation for the illimitable, inconceivable one. For they were as nothing, this terror and this forgetfulness and this figure of falsehood, whereas established truth is unchanging, unperturbed, and completely beautiful.  For this reason, do not take error too seriously.  Since error has no root, she was in a fog regarding the father.

St. Valentinus then goes on to explain that Jesus is the fruit of knowledge:

He is the one who set all in order and in whom all existed and whom all lacked. As one of whom some have no knowledge, he wants them to know him and love him. What did they lack, if not the knowledge of the father?

If we are to make a synthesis from the birth of Typhon to the gnostic speculations on the Demiurge, the teachings of Hermes regarding incarnation as trial, and finally the Christian definition of the role of Jesus Christ as the bringer of the ‘knowledge of the father’, an indelible image carves its way out of the marble. When the beautiful statue of David was carved by Michelangelo during the Italian Renaissance, there is a legend that tells us that the artist saw David’s beautiful figure in the living stone before he took hammer and chisel to it.  He took away what was not purely beautiful, revealing that which he saw in his mind’s eye.  Working with nature, with the Divine in unison, great beauty can be revealed, and evil passes away. 

Arguing whether evil is an active force or simply a lack of good, or ignorance, seems to me to be rather ineffective.  Clearly there are forces whose intentions may be evil, or may actually be good, but result in great evil and vice-versa.  We see some of the most atrocious crimes against our kind inflicted by people who were seeking to make the world a better place.  But any ideology or economic system is bound to fail if it is not engaging us to look beyond the Either/Or mentality, and embrace the Both/And.  We, like Umberto Eco’s “Devil”, often know our conclusion and destination because they are self-fulfilling prophecies.  We decide not to like x, y, or z; and no matter what happens, we stick with that conclusion. But we cannot be joined together and with the divine will, if we do not open our hearts to “Both/And”; to the Divine Mystery.

At the beginning of the Johannite Mass we affirm that ‘we join together and are one of purpose’ in the celebration of the Mystery of the Eucharist. This status of joining together and being one of purpose is absolutely essential to the realization of the Kingdom already present inside of us and all around us.  This level of spiritual awareness is difficult to maintain, but through an active prayer life and regular participation in the Sacraments, our lives and the intentions of our spirit can truly become conjunctive, and able to meet people where they are, not where we think they should be.  The more we unite our will with that of the Beloved, the more we overcome the divisiveness of evil; that ancient fog that prohibits us from feeling included in the oneness of Being.


This paper was presented to St. Sarah's Parish Lecture & Discussion Group on Saturday, 12th July 2014 in Arlington, Massachusetts.  The live recording will be made available on the Johannite YouTube Channel.

[1] James Martin, S.J. The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. (New York, HarperCollins: 2010), 287
[2] John 9:2-3
[3] Marsilio Ficino. Meditations on the Soul (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1996), 15
[4] Jeffrey Kupperman. Catechism of the Ekklesia Neoplatonismos Theourgia. (LaCrosse, WI: Ekklesia Neoplatonismos Theourgia, 2013)
[5] Hermetica, Walter Scott,  Ed. & Trans. (Boulder, CO: Hermes House, 1982), 457
[6] Gabriele Uhlein. Meditations with Hildegard of Bingen. (Rochester, VT: Bear & Company, 1983), 67
[7] The Gnostic Bible, Barnstone and Meyer, Eds. (Boston: Shambhala, 2003), 146

06 June 2014

A Naked Tour of the Holy Trinity

The Trinity from Ecumenical Council, Salvador Dali (1960)

Through hundreds of symbols, sounds and images, our ancestors have experienced the naked gnosis of the triune harmony that gives birth to us as body, mind and spirit.  Whatever the source of our spiritual perception of the Trinity, when we tear off the veil and behold its beauty, we witness the Great Chain of Being as it was revealed to successive generations of our westward-bound ancestors.  

Ancient Origins of the Trinity
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word “trinity” comes to English from the Latin trinitas “triad”, from trinus “threefold.” But many hundreds of miles east of the Latin-speaking west, it was in the hoary mists of Neolithic Anatolia that the first Indo-European people began to worship a three-faced deity known as Hekate. The earliest recorded fragment of her image is dated circa 430 BC.[1]  According to Hesiod, the three-faced daughter of Phoebe was honored above all others by Zeus and Chronos.[2]

My mention here of Hekate, or any other pre-Christian deity, is not meant to show that the Trinity has somehow been nefariously adopted by Christianity, but rather to illustrate through various mythologies, theologies and the Liberal Arts, the simple and yet empowering reality of the Most Holy Trinity in the propulsion of the greatest galaxy and the most timid creature, including our own bodies, minds and spirits. 

The Gospels and the Johannite Tradition
Among the ancient community of the Beloved Disciple, our Johannite forbears, there seems to have been a fairly clear spiritual conception of the Logos as part of the Trinity; thus Christ, the Logos Incarnate is linked to the Father from the outset: “In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was God and the Word was with God.”  John’s prologue explains that the Logos is the “light” which had been with God since the beginning and who is introduced by John the Baptist, who came “to render testimony of the light.” If this wasn’t enough, the gospel continues: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”[3] 

The Gospel of Matthew is more explicit in its description of the Trinity: “Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”(Matt. 28:19)

For those of us in the Johannite tradition, it is important to keep in mind that there is no difference in the meaning of these verses from the canonical gospel to those of The Lévitikon: The Gospels According to the Primitive Church.  This homage to the Trinity is appropriately reflected in the Statement of Principles of the Apostolic Johannite Church: “We affirm that the Godhead is composed of three Persons, which are one in substance – God, the Father Almighty; the Son, the Logos or Xristos Sother and the Holy Spirit or Pneuma Hagion.”

Theological Development of the Trinity in Christianity
One of the sadder footnotes of the development of the Trinity in Christian Theology can be found in the proceedings of the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in the year 869.  It was there, in that magnificent Byzantine cathedral dedicated to Holy Wisdom, that the trichotomy (body, soul, spirit) of the human person was denied.  For Christians, the council stripped any reference to the trichotomy, principally abandoning the concept of the spirit as separate from the soul, leaving us with a two-dimensional creature of body-soul. Some theologians had been muddling this trichotomy ever since the Council of Toledo in 589.[4]

As important as the Trinity is to Christianity, the ancient Church saw the daily Mass and all other Sacraments, which are said in the name of the Trinity, (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to be sufficient recognition. This view corresponds to the principle Lex orandi, lex credendi, which means that the law of belief is to be found in the law of what we pray together. It was not until the pontificate of John XXII (1316-1334), that the Feast was established on the Sunday following Pentecost.[5]

Baroque Rediscovery of the Ancient Trinitarian Principle  
By the time of the Baroque explosion of philosophical, theological and scientific exploration, the Trinity was once again being admired not only from a Christian point of view, but also in the interpretation of ancient civilizations, the study of which was all the rage by the 17th century. In his exhaustive work, Œdipus Ægyptiacus (1654), Jesuit Fr. Athanasius Kircher expounded the striking importance and antiquity of the triad, not only from a religious standpoint, but as a scientific imperative:

The universe is regulated from the Paternal Foundation through three triads; this Foundation is variously called – The INYX, Soul of the World, The Pantomorphous Redeemer, and by Philo, The Constructive Wisdom, and exists in the perfection of triads of Pater, Potentia, and Mater or Mens, the Father, the Power, and the Mother, or Design: co-existing with Faith, Truth, and Love.[6]

20th Century Hermeticism
Following in the footsteps of the Renaissance and Post-Reformation Catholic scholars, the inner meaning of the Trinity continued to influence spiritual movements, cutting straight through to the 19th century English Hermeticist, William Wynn Wescott, who wrote:

In the Timæus of Plato, the Divine Triad is called Theos—God, Logos—The Word, and Psyche—the Soul. Indeed it is impossible to study any single system of worship throughout the world, without being struck by the peculiar persistence of the triple number in regard to divinity; whether as a group of deities, a triformed or 3-headed god, a Mysterious Triunity, a deity of 3 powers, or a family relationship of 3 Persons, such as the Father, Mother and Son of the Egyptians, Osiris, Isis and Horus.[7]

The Trinity in Music and in Symbols
In Musicology, the Franciscan Fr. Peter Alkantara Singer reflected that that “the Trinitarian Harmony is also the one and only harmony that is independent and reposes only in itself: all the others find no rest in themselves, are not self-sufficient, consonant and dissonant alike.”[8]  In this musical appreciation of the Trinity, we begin to internalize one of the most important aspects of this mystical principle, and that is motion and rest.  As Fr. Singer wrote, the Trinitarian Harmony is a microcosm of the perfect fullness, the Pleroma, if you will, of uncreated motion.  This motion is very well described by one of the most interesting and culturally diffuse symbols of the Trinity, known as the triskelion or triskele.  This is a symbol consisting of three interlocked spirals, or three bent human legs which are seen to be rotating.  The triskelion was widely used by the Celts, but also the Greeks, who added the head of Medusa to the device, making it the heraldic mark of the triangular island of Sicily.  It is also seen in Neolithic carvings spanning from Asia, to the Near East and across Europe.

Triskelion to right. Reverse of an ancient Greek silver stater.
The Trinity as Perfect Propulsion
Finally, we end this admittedly complex and incomplete survey of the Trinity in the contemplation of its energy and perfection.  The spinning of this eternal wheel comes to us across the eons in the ecstasy of contemplating the Trinity, the Ineffable One, the Word and the Thought.  This is the furnace, the engine of God. To describe this motion, I find it better to rely on St. Bonaventure, to whom I am boundlessly grateful:

Therefore, if, with the eye of your mind you are able to reflect on the purity of that goodness which is the pure act of the principle that in charity loves with a love that is free, and a love that is due, and a love that is a combination of both, which would be the fullest diffusion by way of nature and will and which is found in the diffusion of the Word (Logos) in which all things are spoken and the diffusion of the Gift in which all goods are given, you will be able to see that the supreme communicability of the good demands necessarily that there be a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.[9]   

We are reflections of this triad when we aim our mission in life to use our bodies to nourish our minds in the work of the Spirit.  This is the Most Holy Trinity in action.    


[1] Jacob Rabinowitz, The Rotting Goddess. (New York: Autonomedia, 1998), 18.
[2] Hesiod, Theogony, 418.
[3] John 1:1-14
[4] Thomas Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday Books, 1979), 145.
[5] Francis Mershman,  "Trinity Sunday." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 6 Jun. 2014 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15058a.htm>.
[6] Athanasius Kircher as translated by W. Wynn Wescott, Tabula Bembina, Sive mensa Isiaca (The Isiac Tablet of Cardinal Bembo). (London: Theophania Publishing, 1887).
[7] W. Wynn Wescott, Numbers, Their Occult Power and Mystic Virtues. (London: Theosophical Publication Society, 1911), 43.
[8] Joscelyn Godwin, ed., The Harmony of the Spheres: A Sourcebook of the Pythagorean Musical Tradition. (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, Ltd., 1993), 364.
[9] St. Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, P. Boehner and Z.Hayes, eds. (New York: Franciscan Institute, 2002), 125.