29 July 2014

The Three Gifts of St Martha

St. Martha, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon
July 29th is the Feast of Saint Martha of Bethany, sister of Saints Mary and Lazarus, chef de cuisine, slayer of dragons, and all around powerhouse. But let's set aside the medieval myths about St. Martha for a moment and try to disengage our minds to find the spiritual meaning behind this incredible woman. 

Imagine that your brother or another close family member has just died.  The rush of thoughts and emotions which we naturally experience can be overwhelming, self-critical, and even judgmental of others. Could we have done more? 

In the experience of the community of the Beloved Disciple, the Johannites, just such an event took place, and it was probably recorded by the community because of its importance not only to the historical plot of the gospel, but to us in any epoch, at any moment, and in any country.  In short, it was important to tell this story because it is a human one.

Martha and Mary lost their brother, Lazarus.  They must have been devastated. In John 11 we see that Jesus takes his time–two days–to visit Lazarus, by which time Lazarus had already died. At this point, if I am honest with myself, I think that I would be very angry with Jesus for having taken so long to come.  I think that I would feel conflicted knowing that Jesus loved Lazarus, and yet he took his sweet time coming to his deathbed.  And this is where the marvel that is St. Martha comes into play.

We know that this story takes place towards the end of the life of Christ.  It was, after all, Martha’s sister, Mary, who would anoint his feet with precious spikenard and wipe them with her hair before the triumphant entrance to Jerusalem. But in a person who is as spiritually strong and attuned to the power of the Logos and Divine Wisdom as Martha, there is this intangible gift of insight–what we call gnosis–that through peace, establishes a certitude unlike anything that could be described in physical terms. 

When Jesus arrived, Martha called her sister, but she did not come, so we see a conversation unfold which tells us much about her spiritual insight. Instead of yelling at Jesus, demanding to know where he had been while her brother lay dying, she calls him “Master.” Even before Jesus raised her brother Lazarus from the grave, Martha showed an experiential kind of knowledge of his powers over nature. How do we know this?  She said quite plainly “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”  Even after Lazarus was dead, Martha rested in the knowledge that her brother could and would be raised from the dead.  There was not a single doubt in her mind, and we know it because such a loving and giving person would otherwise be devastated by the loss of her brother, and furious at his friend who did not come in time.

St. Martha rides Tarasque the dragon
So the first gift I see in St. Martha is that of gnosis.

The second gift that we see Martha give in the Gospel of John is hospitality. I know from my work in the parish that hospitality is a very big part of building community and friendship. By offering her skills in the kitchen and with entertaining, Martha provides a sacred space in community; a place which would enable Mary to anoint the feet of Jesus and afford him the chance to teach those present about the value of ritual and veneration, and how those relate to our charge to care for the poor.  Jesus’ lesson is quite clear: It is not an “either/or” question, do we make a sacred space and sacramentals worthy of the respectful veneration of the Logos Incarnate? Yes.  Do we take care of the poor?  Yes.  This is a critical “both/and” lesson that so typifies the message of Christ and the community which he inspires even today. The beautiful gift which Martha gave to us all came, this time, in the form of a dinner party at which the lesson took form.

The third gift that Martha brings us is discipleship. As we have seen, Martha is not a dreamy child, filled with blind faith in her sister’s mysterious friend.  Martha is a practical woman, a person who organizes meals and marshals resources. The Gospel of Luke even describes her as being something of a skeptic when she and Mary first met Jesus. Clearly she had a change of heart, as we see in her insight and her hospitality. After the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, this lively and tenacious skeptic would become one of the Myrophorae, the myrrhbearers. This is no small job description, because it was the myrrhbearers who first discovered Christ’s empty tomb, heard the angel’s voice, and were commissioned with the holy task of bringing the good news of the resurrection to the apostles. Martha can therefore be counted as one of the apostles-to-the-apostles, and thus by tradition, the Myrophorae have been treated as equals to the apostles.   No small charge at all.

Through the three gifts of gnosis, hospitality and discipleship, St. Martha shows us that we do not have to give up critical thinking to have a relationship and true knowledge of the Divine. We don’t have to be a certain kind of person, or fit into someone else’s idea of what a true disciple is supposed to look like.  St. Martha learned that the knowledge and love of God is best experienced through loving action. 

By many accounts, St. Martha left Palestine and settled in the south of France, along with St. Mary Magdalene, St. Lazarus, St. Maximin, St. Mary Jacobe, St. Mary Salome and St. Sarah the Egyptian. I’ll leave it to you whether you want to believe she rode and slew the dragon Tarasque.


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