Saturday, 30 August 2008

THE ENIGMA OF THE CATHARS: PART THREE


"God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in the darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: but if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from sin." - First Epistle of John

For the Cathars, Jesus Christ was made up of pure Spirit and had no material form. As an emissary from the True God he could contain no element of the corrupt Creation of Satan and thus only had the appearance of a physical form. This wholly spiritual Christ was utterly incomprehensible to the Church, for whom the notion of Christ's Resurrection in the flesh was the whole essence of the Christian message. Since Tertullian's insistence that physical Resurrection was what was taught in the Gospels and the Epistles, the idea that our material forms would reemerge in Judgement Day had been a central plank of Catholic Theology. Indeed, the physical humanity of Christ coupled with his Divine Nature was a key element in what his Mission on Earth meant to Christians from Rome to Constantinople. It still is today. For the Cathars, however, this was a deception propagated by the Devil as part of his desire to destroy our awareness of our Christ-like Nature. As the Son, Jesus was sent by God to show us the way to return to the Light Realms of pure Spirit. As human mortality was a result of Satan's Creation, the Son of God could not be confined by the taint of Matter. As John's Gospel says:

“God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth”

This vision of a purely spiritual Christ drew accusations of Docetism from the Church and was derided as meaning that Christ was no more than a phantom. But in fact the implications of this view of the Cathars are rather more interesting. Firstly, by identifying Christ as a spiritual being, they were able to release him from his historical aspect, something which has fixated the Church for millenia. Thus Christ ceased to be confined by Space and Time but became a Universal Being , present beyond those boundaries. Thus in contrast to much of Church theology outside a few Mystics, the Cathars believed in Christ in his Cosmic aspect as opposed to a person who lived and died in 1st Century Judea. Secondly, by describing Christ in this way the Cathars were making a profound point about the nature of Divine Humanity - that in essence Christ was an image of our Angelic Nature ie that in reality we were all Christs, or potentially Christs, just as the Gnostic Gospel of Philip says. Christ's preeminance as the Son, an expression of God, set him above us all but his appearance and his Path presented the possibility of us all regaining our Angelic Nature in Light. Thus the Crucifixion was not the focus of the Gospel Story for the Cathars, rather the entire span of Christ's life as described therein - Birth, Baptism, Transfiguration, Glorification, Crucifixion, Death, Resurrection, Ascension and ultimate return to the Father. Thus Eternal Life in Jesus Christ was interpreted as release from the cycle of Reincarnation and reunion with God:

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but be given everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved."



It was this hostility to the Crucifixion as the iconic event in Christ's life that was especially abhorrent to the Church as it involved open preaching on behalf of the Cathars against the Cross as a symbol of the Son. As pretty much everyone knows, the Cross has been the central sacred image for Christians before and after the Cathars, embodying the ultimate sacrifice Christ underwent to save humanity from Sin. For the Cathars, though, it was a symbol of suffering, torture and pain and thus a slander upon Christ. One Parfait is recorded as saying that a man should smash a Crucifix 'as a father would smash the gallows upon which his son was hanged'. As a piece of Matter, it was doubly part of Satan's realm and worship of it was particularly idolatrous. Understandably, the Church viewed such polemic as deeply sacreligious and accused the Cathars of all manner of desecration of sacred sites.

So Christ's story was an embodiment of the Way. By following him, by walking in his footsteps, humanity could be transformed as he was transformed. The key part of this process for the Cathars, was the action of the Holy Spirit, released into this world by Christ and passed down to the Parfaits by an unbroken chain of links from the Apostles. It was here, in the transformative agency of the Holy Spirit conveyed through the laying on of hands in the ritual known as the Consolamentum, that the heart of Cathar spirituality lay. It was also where its fundamentally different focus to the Church appeared. For where Catholicism laid the ultimate importance upon the Cruficixion, Catharism looked towards the Holy Spirit as the key. Christ had shown the way, but his legacy was the Holy Spirit, a gift or 'charism' given to the human race to enable it to realise its Divine Humanity. What Christ had told the Apostles at the Last Supper was still true for the Cathars. The Holy Spirit was the ultimate expression of God's love for mankind:

“And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you”

This was their purpose - to spread the power of the Holy Spirit among all humanity, restoring them to their Angelic State as Christ had done. Once the Parfait had been inducted into the elite, he or she (for the Cathars recognised the equal value of women in the Divine Mystery) would go among the Croyants, ministering to them, and wherever else, spreading the Cathar faith. In keeping with their claim of Apostolic Succession and belief in the minutiae of Christ's instructions, they travelled as the Apostles are described as doing in the Gospels - in twos with nothing more the bare necessities on their back: a copy of the Bible, a few provisions etc. To avoid sexual temptation they always travelled with a companion of the same sex, a practise which drew accusations of homosexuality from their enemies. Also as described in the Gospels, they relied on the hospitality of the Croyants for their accomodation. Cathar families vied to house wandering Parfaits, viewing as a great honour. In return, the Parfaits would hold services in their homes and tend to the sick if it was so needed. Where someone was dying, the Consolamentum would be carried out, the belief being that the purification of the Holy Spirit at the hour of death would enable the Soul of the dead to return in an incarnation one step closer to Perfection. Again, all these practises - the mendicant lifestyle, the focus upon the state of the Soul at death before reincarnation etc - show parallels with those of the Buddhists and Hindus of the East...

Fascinatingly, this Cathar return to the Apostolic ideal helped lead to the founding of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders in the Church. For faced with the humbleness and poverty of the Parfaits, the riches and finery of the Church served only to demonstrate how far the it had fallen from the Christian ideal. It was St Dominic who told the then Pope that, were the Cathars to be defeated spiritually, they had to be faced on their own terms. Hence the Mendicant Order of St Dominic was founded and the appearance of Francis of Assisi in Rome was viewed kindly. Legend has it that the Pope was about to declare Francis a heretic when a prophetic dream made him change his mind. Realising that Francis' vision represented an important return to the purity of Christ's ideals, he decided to allow him to found his own Order. Ironically, as the Dominican-led Inquisition set in to combat the Cathars, it was the Franciscans who often lead the opposition. Indeed, after the demise of the Cathar faith, it is believed that a lot of Parfaits joined the ranks of the Poor Brothers as the one way they could remain true to their beliefs...

Friday, 29 August 2008

THE ENIGMA OF THE CATHARS: PART TWO


"Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." - First Epistle of John

To understand Cathar spirituality, it is first necessary to understand the structure of the movement. Like some of the spiritualities that came before them, such as the Manicheans and the Valentinian Christians, theirs was a two-tiered faith. Cathars were made up of the ordinary Believers who made up the majority (Credentes in Latin, Croyants in French) and the elite/priesthood, known as the Perfects (Perfectae or Parfaits). Again, these too were names given them by their enemies, who distinguished between ordinary Believers (ones for whom there was still hope) and 'Perfect Heretics' (ie ones who had gone the whole hog). The Inner Mysteries of Catharism were kept by the Parfaits who adhered to the strictest form of the faith, the austerities of which the Croyants were not expected to follow. 'Perfection' was for select souls only, specifically those who had undergone a cycle of seven or nine special incarnations (depending upon which Cathar one spoke to) which lead to the state of particular spiritual purity which meant they were ready to receive the Holy Spirit, a condition which required the state of rigour and self-denial associated with the 'Pure Ones'. This self-denial involved an austere regime of fasting, strict vegetarianism and total sexual abstinence, not for reasons of self-punishment, but because it was the only way in which the body could remain pure enough to house the transfiguring Holy Spirit which made them 'like as to one of the angels':

"Know ye not that ye are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwelleth within you?"

This notion of reincarnation, that the Soul needed to undergo a sequence of lives in order to achieve 'the Kingdom of Heaven', connects the Cathars not only to the earliest Christian Gnostics but the Buddhists and Hindus of the East. In fact, perhaps closest to the ethic of the Parfaits would be the rare Jain sect of India, whose extremely pure lifestyle involves similar practises ascribed to the Cathar elite. Quite naturally, such notions of reincarnation would have been completely alien to the cosmology of the Middle Ages, however familiar it may now seem to us. One can well imagine the incredulity and bafflement of the Inquisitors faced with such doctrines:

"Denying also the Resurrection of the flesh, they invented some unheard of notions, saying, that our souls are those of angelic spirits who, being cast down from heaven by the apostacy of pride, left their glorified bodies in the air; and that these souls themselves, after successively inhabiting seven terrene bodies, of one sort or another, having at length fulfilled their penance, return to those deserted bodies."


The Cathars are often described as being Gnostics and also Dualists. While not entirely false, these terms are misleading as they would not have understood or recognised either. By Gnostics, commentators mean that they believed in a fundamental conflict between a True God which was purely spiritual and beyond Time and Space and a Demiurge, or Lesser God who governed the Material World and sought to entrap humanity within his domain. Dualism is another term for this conflict, being composed of a battle between two cosmic forces. In this instance, the True God vs the Demiurge.

This analysis is not completely wrong as we shall see, but the reality of Cathar spirituality was probably more subtle. What is certain is that they believed in the Kingdom 'not of this world' and the need to be wary of and resist the Rex Mundi, or "Prince of this world" spoken of by Christ in John's Gospel:

"My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight... but now is my kingdom not from hence."

For the Cathars, the True God of the New Testament was a God of Light and Love of pure Spirit who dwelt in the eternal Light Realms. Each human Soul was born of that Light Realm and made up of that Light. At the moment of Satan's rebellion against God, shards of this Light fell with Satan to this universe, each shard being an Angel which had been persuaded to fall from God's bosom in the process. In order to entrap these Angel Souls with him, Satan created this world of Matter, cloaking their Light in 'tunics of flesh' (ie mortal dress) so as to make them forget their rightful existence on High. In order to make this forgetfulness total, Satan offered Divine Humanity the lure of temporal power and the pleasures of lust and physical sensation. Thus the Fallen Angels, unaware of their true nature, were formed into Princes and Subjects so that they could lord over one another and were offered the temptations of riches, power and sensual delight. At the same time, Satan made sure that life was an agony for most so as to get his revenge. Thus the afflictions of this world - disease, old age, death, violence - resulted from the Devil's defective Creation. Angelic Humanity were therefore doomed to continue to incarnate time and time again into this world, eternally deceived subjects of the Rex Mundi who promised everything but delivered nothing, unmindful of the Light Realms from which they came. While this might seem very bleak, it should be remembered that by ascribing the presence of Evil and suffering in the world to the Devil, the Cathars held to no doctrine of Original Sin. The human race was not responsible for the darkness in the world thanks to the Sin of Adam. Thus there was no terrible primordial crime to expiate, no guilt we were lumbered with at birth. The Devil was the culprit and his chief weapon was Ignorance - Ignorance of our true nature as Children of God, of Angels thanks to the corrupting influence of Matter and the Flesh. Hence the use of the term Gnosis by modern commentators, for it was through Gnosis - or 'Knowledge' - of the True God that the Demiurge Satan could be defeated and a return to the Light Realms be acheived. This was where Christ came in - Christ and, through his agency, the Holy Spirit...

Thursday, 28 August 2008

THE ENIGMA OF THE CATHARS: PART ONE



"...you must realize that when you are before the Church of God you are before the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, as the Scriptures teach. For Christ said in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew: 'Wheresoever two or three are gathered together in my name there I am in the midst of them' " - Parfait Ceremony

"God is light and in him is no darkness at all." - First Epistle of John

The Cathars were the first, the largest and the most important of the great Medieval Heresies to challenge the Church. They were also the first to be put down with the utmost brutality; Rome launching a series of Crusades against them, each one progressively more savage, even by the standards of the Middle Ages. By the time the Inquisition had been set up to find and root them out, the fate of the Cathars was written on the wall. By the 14th Century all had been burnt, forced to convert or put to the sword, but not before they had turned the wheel of Western Spirituality in a profound way, the after effects of which are still being felt now.

So who were this mysterious sect? And why were they such an enormous threat to the Catholic Church? Pacifists, they had no army or military might to speak of. If they had weapons of any kind they were words and actions. Cathar denunciations of the corruption of Rome were such that they attracted the ire of the authorities quite quickly. Were it not for the fact that they were also enormously popular in some regions, particularly in the Languedoc region of what is now southern France (in those days it was a nation of its own), these denunciations might have gone unnoticed. But the problem for the Cathars was that they were too successful, which meant they were bound to get into trouble. In whole areas of the Languedoc Cathar followers constituted the primary expression of Christianity in the area. And when the Pope eventually did launch his Crusade against them, it was the ordinary people and nobility that came out to defend them. Heretics they may be, but they were also countryfolk and counted members of some of the most important aristocratic families of Toulouse, Foix and the Tranceval as part of their community.

The Cathars have been a personal obsession for me for about two years, when I spent a fortnight in the mountains, hills and towns where they lived, flourished, flared briefly and then died at the hands of the Church. Since then, every few months they crash back into my life, revealing another layer of information and meaning to what they were. Sometimes a book will grab my attention in a second-hand bookshop somewhere, or a chance conversation with a friend will reveal a similar passion for them. Each time some new mystery is revealed or another unravelled. Seven hundred years after they were extinguished the Cathars are very much back in the modern Consciousness. As Medieval Christian Gnostics, different esoteric and New Age movements from Rudolf Steiner and the Lectorium Rosicrucianum to the Kryon Organisation have become interested in them. In popular fiction, Dan Brown and Kate Mosse have both co-opted them into their Grail-orientated literary puzzle novels. As a ready-made tragic story of a pure spirituality being crushed under the jackboot of the Church, they have become icons of integrity and purity in a world which would destroy such things. This is not all that surprising, for even in their day commentators were horrified at the sheer brutality with which these holy men and women were hunted down like wolves and killed.

'Cathar' has been interpreted as meaning 'Pure One' after the Greek Katharoi, a word linked to Katharsis, or 'Purification'. It was not a name the Cathars used for themselves but one given them by their persecutors. Of the other term given them: 'Albigensians', Cathar has, nevertheless, stuck. Somehow the sound of the word as well as its connotations with Purity perfectly typifies who and what they were. Ironically, its believed that its actual origin is from the so-called 'Kiss of the Cat (Chat)', an obscene ritual the Cathars were accused of indulging in involving kissing the anus of the Devil in the form of a cat. Happily, this piece of grotesquerie has been forgotten in favour of the meaning of 'the Pure Ones'. The Cathars themselves referred to themselves as 'Good Christians', 'Good Men and Women' and sometimes 'Friends of God'. Although they are recorded as circulating as early as the 11th Century, it was in the 13th that their numbers suddenly rocketed, posing such a serious threat to the Church. No-one knows how this sudden upsurge in support happened, but pretty soon major Cathar movements were erupting in eastern Spain across Aragon and Catalonia, northern France, Rhineland Germany (interestingly, centres of later heresies such as the Beguines, Beghards and Brethren of the Free Spirits) and northern Italy. In the East, there was a sister Church which sprang up in what is now Bosnia known as the Bogomils (also 'Friends of God'). This parallel movement which shared common ideas with the Cathars and had important links ran with into similar problems with the Byzantine Church. But where the Cathars were destroyed, the Bogomils held out and eventually came to terms with Constantinople. The Cathars were wiped out by Rome, but in areas of Bosnia Bogomilism became the established Church, on occasions participating with the Byzantines on ambassadorial missions.


So what did the Cathars believe and why did they get into trouble with the Church? The difficulty with answering this is that we simply don't know, or we cannot know for sure, the reason being that the majority of records we have are those kept by the Inquisition, an organisation not famed for its impartiality and desire to deal fairly with your average heretic. Where the information given by Cathar followers was not given under torture it was hardly likely to be written down in a way which was designed to treat sympathetically non-Catholic spirituality. As much of Cathar doctrine was highly esoteric in nature and therefore incomprehensible to the average Priest (they believed, for instance, in 'Glorified Angel Bodies' and cycles of Reincarnation, of which more later) it was often recorded in as ridiculous and derisory a way as possible, liberally peppered with slander, often sexual in nature, and livid denunciations. Add that to the fact that, until the latter part of the 19th an early 20th Century predominantly Catholic France frowned on any exploration of Cathar history and that even today they remain massively controversial, sifting fact from fiction is extremely difficult. Fortunately, modern scholarship has unearthed a lot in the last century or so, particularly in the post-War period, and, with our present familiarity with other forms of Gnosticism and ideas thought only to be the preserve of the East (such as reincarnation), everything is becoming that little bit clearer... In all the haze of speculation, slander, romanticisation and sheer invention, though, one thing is often forgotten: the Cathars were Christians. Christians of a different stamp to any form of Christianity we may be familiar with now, but Christians nonetheless, inspired by the Gospels (especially John's) and the New Testament and believing in a God which was a God of Light and a God of Love...

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not.."

But it was what this inspiration was and how they interpreted it which makes the Cathars so interesting...

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

RIDING THE SNAKE: THE CADUCEUS


The Caduceus is one of the most famous and least understood symbols in the Western world. Traditionally associated with the ancient Greek God Hermes it is today usually seen as being to do with doctors and the medical profession. In fact, its actual meaning is much older than that.

The association with doctors is to do with a confusion between the Caduceus and the not unrelated Rod of Asclepius. Asclepius was a Greek God of healing whose medicinal abilities were such that he was able to resurrect the dead and give immortality to humans. After a while Zeus became a little concerned about this and, ever mindful of the dangers of allowing humans a little too much power lest they supplant the Gods, killed Asclepius, more likely than not with a lightning bolt. Having done this, Zeus repented a little and, in partial recompense for his harshness, transformed Asclepius into a constellation of stars. Asclepius' Rod of Healing is symbolised as a single serpent coiled around a staff. The Caduceus, on the other hand, is symbolised by two serpents coiling around a staff, the top of which is often circular and sprouting wings. Apparently it was American military doctors who brought the idea of the Caducues as the symbol of medicine to Europe during the world wars (thank you to Alan Smith for that piece of information!), supplanting the single-serpented Rod of Asclepius as the sign of doctors.

That the two images are linked is obvious. As if further confirmation were needed, in the CORPUS HERMETICUM, the ancient mystical Greco-Egyptian texts which were so influential in the Renaissance, Asclepius is presented as the son of Hermes Trismegistus. In these Hermetic dialogues Hermes, the great sage associated in the Greek mind with the Egyptian God Thoth, tells his son about the secrets of the Universe, the nature of God, the power of the Gnosis and the mysteries of Reincarnation. The link between the two deities and their similar symbols is clear.

So what does the Caducues mean? Well, in all cultures there is the idea of the "Serpent Power". This is the life force, the primal energy which flows through everything. In its most uncreated state it is pure, undifferentiated power, coursing through every living thing, human or otherwise, and giving it life. In China, this Serpent Power is embodied in the Dragon. In elemental terms, the famous Dragon Lines are seen as flowing across the landscape of the earth, representing Yin and Yang, powering the natural forces therein. In the discipline of Feng Shui, how one aligns one's house or builds on these Dragon Lines is crucial for health and prosperity. Chinese Dragons, unlike their equivalents in the West, are sacred creatures who can help humankind. Not insignificantly, they are often presented as plumed or crested and can fly.

In the West, Dragons have less positive connotations. From the battle between Apollo and the serpent Python, to the story of George and the Dragon and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, Dragons and Serpents are dangerous creatures which need to be defeated or tamed. It is the agency of the Serpent, often portrayed coiled around the Tree of Knowledge which causes the Fall of humanity, bringing death, pain and decay into the world in GENESIS. Elsewhere, though, the defeat of the Dragon yields up treasures. George, in defeating the Dragon, saves the Maiden but also protects the sacred spring of water the Dragon was defending. Apollo's defeat of Python brings about the creation of the Temple at Delphi, where the Oracle resides. Indeed, it is the fumes from Python's layer which enable the High Priestess to channel the God and so dispense cryptic wisdom to mankind. An echo of all these processes is found in the recurring imagery of the Archangel Michael defeating the Serpent. Interestingly, and in a parallel with the Dragon Lines of China, Towers dedicated to St Michael are built upon key Pagan sacred sites, most of which, invariably, are located at ley nodes. The most famous is the one at Glastonbury Tor. Anyone who knows the Tor will remember that it is grooved like a spiral, as if an enormous snake were coiled around it. Modern students of ley lines sometimes like to call them Michael and Mary lines, translating the Yin/Yang energies of these primal energy currents into a Christian context.

So on a macrocosmic level, Serpents and Dragons represent the primal Life Energy coursing through the earth. In the East, working in harmony with these energies is a good thing to do. In the West, they have needed to be conquered and tamed in order to release positive energies trapped therein (the Maiden, the Spring, the Oracle, the Golden Fleece etc). Perhaps this says something about the relative psychological development of the two hemispheres of the planet. Whatever the case, going back to the equally universal image of the World Egg with the Snake coiled around it, the Serpent represents something very ancient in the human psyche. So how does this relate to the Caduceus?

To understand, perhaps we have to go East again, to look at the ancient notion of the Kundalini. When I was first told about the Kundalini, it scared the shit out of me, largely because of how it was described: 'This serpent thing coiled at the base of the spine". Not helpful. In fact the Kundalini is the primal life force within US. In other words, it is the human equivalent of the energy described above in Ley and Dragon Lines. It is often represented as a spiral or coiled image, rather like a snake, and is said to reside at the foot of the spine in the Root Chakra. I like to imagine the Kundalini as rather like a nuclear reactor, throbbing away in us and keeping us nourished and alive. The aim of the Mystic in the East is to 'raise the Kundalini' ie draw this energy up from where it is sleeping in the Root Chakra and allow it to enter the six other Chakras until, in union with the Crown Chakra, it creates Enlightenment, opening the Thousand Petalled Lotus that is the Higher Consciousness. It is believed that raising the Kundalini, drawing it up the Sushumna, or central Nadi of the body through the other Chakras, spreads health and vitality through the recipient while also bestowing enormous spiritual and psychic benefits such as telepathy, mystical vision, healing powers and precognition. The Mystic raises the Kundalini through a rigourous process of spiritual development, meditation and prayer. With Tantrics, arcane sexual practises are used (the origin and purpose of Tantric Sex), the most primal expression of the Kundalini being in the sex drive. In Tantra, this enormous sexual energy is harnessed and channelled upwards through the Chakras leading to Enlightenment. People tend to thing that Tantric Sex is just a way of having a great shag. In fact its much more subtle than this. But peoples' lack of understanding of the true nature of Tantric Sex has lead to a lot of accusations against Eastern Gurus of sexual exploitation. On the other hand, its not hard to imagine how Tantric Sex can be used to exploit and abuse the unwary. This is why, traditionally, it has been kept hidden as one of the most esoteric and specialist approaches to Higher Consciousness.

Another reason though, is that raising the Kundalini is a dangerous process. Do it too fast and you can drive yourself mad or even die. Doing it in an impure state, with the Chakras in a mess, can be equally destructive. The effects of the unbridled power of the Kundalini can, therefore, be devastating. Hallucinations, mental illness and death can be a result of misuse and foolhardy dabbling with the Kundalini. Anyone who has had any kind of rushed or negative experience with it will tell you of the hair-raising things that go on. So one must tread with care... Immediately one understands why in the West, with our fear of the primal, cthonic energies of the instincts, we have come up with so many stories and narratives of conquering Snakes and Serpents. Indeed, one could read the story of Genesis as a warning against the shattering consequences of a cosmic Kundalini experience, which, embarked upon to become like Gods, actually leads to the total fragmentation of Human Consciousness and the loss of the primordial state of Wholeness we are still looking to repair now...



This is where the Caduceus comes in. For in truth the imagery of the two snakes coiled around the staff point the way to a positive use of the Serpent Power, one in which the primal energy operates in harmony, winding its way up the Sushumna or Middle Pillar represented by the Staff to give birth to the Higher Consciousness symbolised by the winged Solar Disc at the top. This Solar Disc echoes imagery from cultures as far afield as Persia and Ancient Egypt. In Persia, remember, Ahura Mazda is often represented by a human torso in a winged circle, while in Egypt, the Solar Disc is often replaced by a sacred Scarab Beetle in full fight, symbolising the dichotomy of a creature which feeds on dung but can also fly (ie a union of earthly and heavenly properties).



Further, the Caducues can be superimposed upon a host of Western religious symbols, revealing their hidden nature as images of achieving the Higher Consciousness. In Judaism, if the Caduceus is placed over the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, one sees how it demonstrates the ideal of uniting the two outer Pillars (Male and Female) around the central one, leading to the Higher Consciousness that is Kether (the Crown), where the Winged Solar Disc is found. Similarly the Menorah, with single base and branches above matches the expansion of the serpents and wings of the Caduceus. The two winged Cherubs on the Ark of the Covenant, both facing inwards to the point between them where God manifests to Moses do the same. And, most mysteriously, the positioning of the Caduceus over the image of Christ on the Cross does the same, with the two Thieves or the two Marys on either side completing the tripartite nature of the symbol. Thus, rather than an image of suffering and pain, the Crucifixion becomes an image of Cosmic Transformation, of becoming the Higher Man which, if you think about it, is exactly what Christ does after the Resurrection.... Even Moses shares in the Mystery of the Caduceus in EXODUS, with God demonstrating how he may overcome the hostility of the Egyptians by transforming his and later Aaron's staves into snakes and back again...



So the Caducues shows us how we may harness the primal energy of our Earthly Selves and so achieve our Divine Selves. What is fascinating is how universal it is as an image. Its no coincidence, perhaps, that the primary God and friend to men of the Mesoamericans was Quetzocoatl, the Plumed Serpent, nor that it is reflected in the double helix of our DNA...Crucially, it is a holistic symbol, as it unites 'above and below'. As with the Dung Beetle of the Egyptians, the seeds of the Ascent start at the bottom of things, thus that basic energy, often sexual, is essential to the higher energy. This is a salutory warning to the Western tendency, found particularly in Christianity, to denigrate and suppress sexuality and the instincts. In doing so, Christianity cut off its most potent source of spiritual energy. St Michael's victory over the Serpent of Paganism was too great. The balance was lost and the Fountain of Life that the Caduceus represents was cut off at its source. At the same time, the image of uncreated Kundalini energy as two snakes threshing about wildly needs to be seen as a warning against unbridled release of that power. Hence the presence of the Staff in the centre of the Caduceus. Balance and harmony is the key, not repression or indiscriminate release... That is the message and the challenge of the Caduceus...

Saturday, 16 August 2008

THE MYSTERIOUS CASE OF MELCHIZEDEK


"And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine; and he was the priest of the most high God.

And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth.

And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thine hand." GENESIS 14:18-20

The Priest-King Melchizedek gets only these few, suggestive lines in the whole of the Old Testament and yet in esoteric circles he is one of the most important figures in the Bible. Only Enoch, the righteous man 'who walked with God and was transported' has an similarly enormous tradition attached to such a fleeting mention. As the High Priest of a mysterious religious Order he was especially important to the Knights Templar who included him along with Solomon in one of their most important stained glass windows in Chartres Cathedral. Given that this is one of their most mysterious buildings, steeped in alchemical, astrological and esoteric symbolism and the one most assocaited with the Templar connection with the Ark of the Covenant, the fact that Melchizedek is featured there indicates that something unusual is going on. In the Gnostic PISTIS SOPHIA, he appears as a key player alongside Christ in the process of releasing souls from the darkness of the World of Matter to the Light Realms of God. So who is this man and why is is he so important?

Melchizedek appears fleetingly in the Old Testament in the brief passage mentioned above. He is described as the Priest of the most high God and comes out to meet Abraham after a major battle to give him 'bread and wine'. Significantly, Abraham is still called Abram at this point. He does not take on the later name until the Covenant is fully established and God is pleased with him. If this is so, then Melchizedek, as the Priest of the most high God, is a servant of God even BEFORE Abraham. Given that Abraham is regarded as the Patriarch of all the so-called 'Abrahamic Religions' (ie Judaism, Christianity and Islam) the fact that a Priest exists who is connected to God BEFORE Abraham's Covenant is established is quite remarkable. Melchizedek is clearly intended to be seen as the representative of a spiritual tradition which predates even Abraham. He is also not part of the dynastic bloodline of Noah, which makes this fact doubly significant. Melchizedek is a High Priest from an entirely different lineage.

Melchizedek offers Abraham 'bread and wine', blesses him and offers up a prayer to God. In esoteric terms, he is Initiating Abraham. A ritual is taking place in which Abraham is being sanctified in the name of the Most High. Melchizedek is translated as 'King of Righteousness' or 'King of Justice' and presumably has etymological links to Melchior, the name of one of the Three Wise Men of the Nativity and Zadok the Priest mentioned later in the Bible. He is from the city of Salem, meaning Peace (cf Shalom/Salaam). That the Initiation of Abraham involves bread and wine is extremely significant as it presages in a very profound way the ritual of the Last Supper:

"And as they were eating, Jesus tool bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat: this is my body.

And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins." MATTHEW 26: 26-28

The symbolism of wine and bread is highly complex, and central to the Christian Mystery. The act of Communion inaugerated in the Last Supper is designed to evoke the taking on of Christ's nature through the ritual of eating the bread and drinking the wine which Christ's flesh and blood respectively. But it does not stop here. Bread and wine also represent the universal iconography of the White and Red of Initiation. From the white and red roses of Alchemy to the red and white triangles of the Sri Yantra, from the red and white outer pillars of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life to the red and white elements of the Pharoanic Crown, all symbolise the union of the Female and Male principles, symbolsing Wholeness and the Divine Marriage. On their most primal and physical levels, red symbolises menstrual blood while white signifies semen (female and male again), the two sacred bodily fluids of the early Gnostics and other Pagan Rites. This image of the Divine Union is contained within the iconography of the Last Supper and the Act of Communion both of which are clearly meant to echo the Rite of Initiation that Melchizedek carries out with Abraham.

But the mystery of Christ's connection with Melchizedek does not stop there, for the biggest exposition on Melchizedek does not occur in the Old Testament but in the New, in the anonymous, and highly unusual EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS. Historically this Epistle has been attributed to Paul, but modern scholars are not so sure. Apart from the usual doubts about style, HEBREWS conveys such an unorthodox and usually passed over view of Christ, not as the Son of God so much as a member of an apparently eternal Order of Melchizedek that it feels very out of place in Paul's canon. And yet it is here, perhaps, that the esoteric Mystery of Melchizedek really comes to the fore. For according the author of the EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS, Melchizedek was more than human:

"For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him;

To whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all; first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of Peace;

Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually." HEBREWS 7:1-3

Here, at the heart of the New Testament, which is usually thought of as a celebration of the uniqueness of Christ, Melchizedek is being described as a superhuman figure, eternal, unbegotten, a High Priest of God outside Time and Space; a High Priest who initiated Abraham into the Mysteries of the Most High God, linked, therefore, to Moses, Aaron and by extension the whole Priest Caste of the Tribe of Levi, the Cohanim (linked but superior, by dint of his immortality).

But this is not all, for according to the EPISTLE OF THE HEBREWS, Christ himself is the new High Priest of the Order of Melchizedek. Indeed he is the first to appear who is of the same nature as the original Melchizedek, eternal, unbegotten, immortal.:

"For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Judah; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood.

And it is yet far more evident : for that after the similitude of Melchizedek there ariseth another priest, who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of eternal life.

For he testifieth, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek." HEBREWS 7:14-17

And further, Christ only becomes part of this Order at his baptism at the River Jordan at the hands of John. In other words, he does not achieve his Immortal status, or become Divine, until he encounters the Holy Spirit in the form of the Dove. This is not what one usually hears about Christ and brings the EPSITLE closer to the position of the Gnostics:

"So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said of him [ie God], Thou art my Son, to day have I begotten thee.

As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedek." HEBREWS 5:5-6

This, then, is the strangeness of the EPISTLE OF THE HEBREWS and the origin of the whole issue of the Order of Melchisedek. The politics of it are one thing. It is clearly written as a refutation of Judaism and a championing of the new revelation of Christianity as a superior religion, but its view of Christ and the discussion of this mysterious Order of Melchizedek with its immortal High Priest of which he is a member is something else altogether. Moreover, it does not occur anywhere else in the Bible, even though the tone of the EPISTLE suggests that it is not an unfamiliar concept to the reader.

Herein lies Melchizedek's fascination and, presumably, the interest the Templars had in him as the individual presiding over a hidden Order which bore the deepest secrets of God. If the EPISTLE is written by Paul, perhaps this is part of the 'Hidden Wisdom' which he refers to in COLOSSIANS and CORINTHIANS which he asserts is behind the new dispensation which is Christianity? Alternatively, it could all be a metaphor, the author of HEBREWS simply wanting to identify Christ with a more ancient spirituality than that of Moses, thus linking Christianity back to Abraham. Whatever the case the mystery of Melchizedek is one of the most enduring riddles of the Bible...

Thursday, 14 August 2008

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS


"Beloved, let us love one another, for love cometh of God. And every one that loveth, is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love. In this appeared the love of God to us-ward, because that God sent his only-begotten son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his son to make agreement for our sins.

Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is made perfect in us. Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the father sent the son, which is the saviour of the world. Whoseover confesseth that Jesus is the son of God, in him dwelleth God, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us.

GOD IS LOVE, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. Herein is his love made perfect in us, that we should have trust in the day of judgement. For as he is, even so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, for perfect love casteth out fear, for fear hath no painfulness. He that feareth is not perfect in love.

We love him, for he loved us first. If a man say: I love God, and yet hate his brother, he is a liar. For how can he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we of him: that he which loveth God, should love his brother also.

- First Epistle of John 4:7-21. Tyndale Translation"


Over the last few years, someone who has emerged as something of a hero to me, a genuine 'man for all seasons', is William Tyndale. Who, I hear you ask? Well, not as celebrated as his contemporary (and mortal enemy), the supposed 'man for all seasons', Sir Thomas More, he was nevertheless responsible for one of the most important spiritual revolutions in the English speaking world. He was the first man to make it his life's work to translate the Bible into English. Before he died at the stake he had completed the whole of the New Testament and half of the Old and learnt Greek and Hebrew to do it. This was a first. All other attempts to translate it into English had come from the Latin of St Jerome. Tyndale was the first to go back to the original source material and, as a consequence, was the first to expose just how laden with errors Jerome's version was.

Big deal! I hear you say. Who cares? Why does that make him a hero? Well, its the way he did it, the stand he took and the attempt he made to rediscover the meaning of the Bible. Until Tyndale, all study of the Bible had to be done in Latin. Ordinary people who could barely read their own language were therefore utterly excluded from a direct experience of it. This gave the Church absolute power over Scripture and interpretation. For the general populace, there was no way of checking whether what they were saying was correct. Not everyone abused this monopoly of information of course. Figures like Meister Eckhardt, St Bonaventure and St Francis etc conveyed the liberation inherent in the texts as best they could. But by the time of Tyndale Church control of Scripture was total and an integral part of how it controlled the Western mind and made sure heresy could be stamped out. Anyone who dared translate it into the vernacular was denounced and risked being burnt as a heretic, as Tyndale eventually was. To do what he did was an act of immense bravery, but he did it in the hope that he could break the stranglehold of the Church on Western spirituality. He quite literally wanted to enable the people Christ was supposed to have come to help - the poor, the ordinary - to have access to his words so that they could make their own minds up and work out their own path to salvation.

Tyndale was not the first to try and translate the Bible into English. John Wycliffe before him had had a go, inspiring the Lollards and the Peasants' Revolt and getting into trouble as a consequence. In France, the Cathars had set a precedent by translating the New Testament into French. By Tyndale's time they were all dead, annihilated by the Church's forces. The story goes that Tyndale was inspired to embark upon his project by a chance encounter with an authority of the Church who said to him 'It were better we were to do without God's Law than the Pope's'. This provoked Tyndale to a fury. It embodied what he saw as the total corruption of the Word by the Church and its desire to disenfranchise the population of their spiritual inheritance. His reply is justly famous:

"If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scipture than thou doest."

And that is what he set out to do. In the process - and this is where he becomes my hero - he translated the Old and New Testaments in such a way as to give them back to the people. He 'republicanised' them, as it were. And he did so not by changing anything but going back to the original. Thus what has been for so long seen as an irreversibly rigid, hierarchial spirituality suddenly becomes one without leaders, buildings or structures. What had been static - the whole edifice of the Church - suddenly became dynamic, and all because of truthful translation. So, for instance, the original Greek word 'Ecclesia' which had for so long been translated as 'Church' was translated for the first time as 'Community' or 'Assembly', something utterly different, something far more communal and egalitarian. 

At the same time, Tyndale brought new words into the English language to express difficult Hebrew or Greek ideas. 'Atonement' was a coinage of his, but for him this did not mean the negative, self-punishing thing it has come to mean. He assembled the word out of the English 'AT-ONE-MENT', meaning a condition in which humanity felt AT ONE with God, much more in keeping with the Hebrew sense of the word. He also gave us the word Jehovah, constructed from the letters of the Tetragrammaton, JHVH and the vowels of ADONAI, showing, once again, his knowledge and understanding of the Hebrew. He also coined the word 'Passover' to describe the Hebrew Festival of Pesach which plays such a key role in the Christian story.

He went on, explaining that the original word for 'Repentance', the Greek 'Metanoia', meant 'Transformation of Consciousness' or 'Change of Mind', stressing that, again, the negative connotations of the word were incorrect. Repentance was not about self-punishment but about an entire metamorphoses of one's inner self. With this in mind, John the Baptist's phrase 'Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand' takes on a whole different meaning, one more in keeping with Buddhistic ideas of Enlightenment and transformation of Consciousness. Naturally, Churches before or after have not run with this interpretation of the word...

But most revolutionary and most controversial in his day was Tyndale's decision to translate the Greek 'Agape' as, simply, 'Love'. We may think of this as trivial, but it was this that found him under attack from Sir Thomas More. This was more than mere Catholic/Protestant quibbling. It went to the heart of what the two men thought was the central message of Christianity. Until Tyndale, 'Agape', which is, admittedly, almost untranslatable into English (does it mean 'Love', 'Brotherly Love', 'Human Heartedness?') had been conveyed by the Latin word 'Caritas', meaning 'Charity'. This was how More saw it, with its emphasis on good works, public service and, by extension, a certain emotional distance in keeping with the Church. For Tyndale, this was not good enough. It smacked of the Pharisaic emotional separation from the people that he so hated. For him, the meaning of the word was 'Love'; Love encompassing all its possible meanings, sexual, romantic, brotherly, humanitarian, Divine - all of it. Moreover, Love was dynamic, it was something we all had access to and it connected with the meaning of the words of Christ during the Last Supper and those of John in the First Epistle (quoted above). Moreover, Love cannot be legislated, preached against or punished. Love cannot be a sin. All it can do is bind us together with each other and God, as John's Epistle says..

That Tyndale meant this to be his meaning is clear in his defence of the passage in which he tells More that we do are not encouraged to 'Charity our neighbours' or 'Charity our wives'. Alas, Tyndale's insistence on this translation of 'Agape' did not survive his death. Burnt at the stake as a heretic in Europe having been exiled from his homeland, his last words before he died were 'God open the eyes of the King of England'. It wasn't until the accession of King James that his work was to be fully recognised. When he ordered the first complete English translation of the Old and New Testaments it was Tyndale's work that provided the basis. Indeed, even the 54 scholars who finalised it admitted that 90% of the words were Tyndale's. So what happened to 'Agape' and the position of 'Love' in the King James Version? The scholars went with More's assessment. Although no longer Catholic, the Anglican Church still had its hierarchies and prelates etc. They were having none of that 'Love' as the third Virtue after 'Faith and Hope'. It stayed as 'Charity', and thus the whole premise of Paul's version of Christianity was lost until the Twentieth Century, when the new versions reinstated 'Love'. As 'Charity', the real meaning of his morality remained crucially obscured as a consequence, as without Tyndale's translation, which must have been the original meaning, Love fails to be the foundation and trump card of his entire vision. Without it, all we are left with is Paul's dualism which has left its mark on the Western psyche ever since.

But imagine what would have happened if Tyndale's translation had stayed? Instead of a religion based on 'Faith, Hope and Charity' we would have had a religion based on 'Faith, Hope and Love'. What would that have been like? Something very different, something in which Love transcended all that we have found hard in the Christian tradition as it has been handed down. And, doubtless, something much more difficult for the authorities to control, perhaps... 

That is why, for me, Tyndale is the true 'man for all seasons'. A man who died trying to give Love back to the people and to exhume the truth of the Christian message from two and a half centuries of control...

So here's to you, William Tyndale...

"Though I spake with the tongues of men and angels, and yet have no Love, I were even as sounding brass, or as a tinkling cymbal. And though I could prophecy, and understood all secrets and all knowledge, yea if I had all faith, so that I could move mountains out of their places, and yet had no Love, I were nothing. And though I bestowed all my goods to feed the poor, and though I gave my body even that I burned, and yet had no Love, it profiteth me nothing.

Love suffereth long, and is courteous. Love envieth not. Love doth not frowardly, swelleth not, dealeth not dishonestly, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh not evil, rejoiceth not in iniquity; but rejoiceth in the truth, suffereth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth in all things. Though that prophecying fail, or tongues shall cease, or knowledge vanish away, yet love falleth never away.

For our knowledge is unperfect, and our prophecying is unperfect. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is unperfect shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I imagined as a child. But as soon as I was a man, I put away childishness. Now we see in a glass even, in a dark spreading; but then shall we see face to face. Now I know unperfectly, but then shall I know even as I am known. Now abideth Faith, Hope and Love, even these three; but the chief of these is LOVE."

- 1st Corinthians Chapter 13. Tyndale Translation

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

SUFI INSPIRATION


DERVISH

Put off

The black garment
Let the soul

Shine forth

Breathing 

Like a rose

Expanding
Whiteness



Spreading
Beyond these walls
To landscapes
Rolling



Echoing sky

The mind

Wanders
To corners



Of universe
Unexplored

Music leads

The eternal spiral

White soul

Shines
Like the glowing
Sun



The dancers
Revolve

In ecstatic silence

Listeners



Move
In hypnotic trance
The dervish

Speaks

Observes

The ritual

Divine expression
Of the heavenly dance

Last year I found myself in Konya in Turkey, home of the great Sufi Mystic and Poet, Rumi, who founded the famous Mevlevi Order, or Whirling Dervishes. I say 'found myself'. Well, this was literally true. As keeps happening to me with other interesting places, Konya found me. I had chosen a 'random holiday' in Turkey and had arrived in Side on the Anatolian Coast. While I was there I discovered, to my astonishment, that Konya was only a few hours' bus ride from where I was. Well, naturally I had to go. I wasn't sure when I was next going to be in the neighbourhood. And when do you get to visit the home of one of the greatest Mystics in the West?

This was easier said than done. Although there were loads of tours laid on for places such as Antalya, Cappadocia and, strangely, a great many open and covered markets (odd that), for some reason no-one thinks that Konya is worth visiting, in spite of its rich mystical past. For not only did Rumi live there, but the other great Sufi genius Ibn Arabi spent time there, writing poetry, falling in love and getting married (again). It is said that when Arabi saw the young Rumi walking behind is father, another great Sufi Sheikh, he remarked 'There goes an ocean behind a sea'...

Happily, some of the staff of the little hotel I was staying at, hearing I was interested in Konya, went out of their way to help me get there, arranging a ticket and showing me where to get the bus. Great guys. Thank you Ali, Mehmet et al!

Konya is an extraordinary place. After four hours journey through the seemingly endless Taurus Mountains, it suddenly emerges over a ridge like some enormous shangri-la or hidden city. Stretched out before me were more Mosques than I had ever seen. I shouldn't have been suprised. Konya is one of Turkey's most Islamic cities. But this was no centre of extremism. the energy was terrific. The people were extraordinarily friendly, volunteering to help with language difficulties, warm and enthusiastic about showing me around. And the women, although more often than not wearing headscarves, were beautiful and flamboyant. I don't remember seeing any 'all-in-one' burkhas with narrow slits for the eyes anywhere.  Although religious, Konya seemed very much alive with the women as involved with what was going on as the men. 



Rumi's Lodge is one of the most famous sites of Pilgrimage in the Islamic world after the obvious ones in Saudi Arabia. Although Sufism is still not officially allowed in Turkey after the decrees of the great secular leader Kemal Ataturk, such is the popularity and reverence for the great Poet that the Lodge has been kept as a museum. Situated right next to one of the oldest Mosques in Turkey, it draws visitors from all over the world - and not only Muslims. As the inscription reads in the hall, all are welcome:

"Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, idolater, worshiper of fire,
Come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair."

Inside are the tombs of the most famous of the Mevlevi Sheiks, their hats perched on top of each, an enormous water bowl for pilgrims, an original copy of the Mathnawi, Rumi's poetic Magnum Opus, regarded in some quarters as 'the Second Koran' and the rooms in which the Mevlevi Sufis practised their famous Dance.



Still banned in Turkey except under certain heritage/ entertainment contexts, the symbolism of the Dance is beautiful. The Mevlevi appear wearing their famous tall hats dressed in long, black cloaks. As the music begins, they form a circle around their Sheikh who keeps time for the dance. As the Mevlevi dance, they remove their cloaks, revealing the pure white robes underneath, symbolising the liberation of the Soul from the Body. They whirl round the Sheikh in a circle, symbolising the planets revolving around God. One arm is held up, the hand receiving the Divine Baraka (Blessing) from God, the other faces down and out, dispensing that Baraka to all created things. As they dance, the Mevlevi undergo an ecstatic trance state in which they experience transcendence, oneness with God, perhaps, even, an out of body experience (it is not hard to believe. The geometric patterns all over the walls, floors, domes and furniture of the Lodge seem designed to induce a meditative state. Everything is a Mandala). At the end of the dance, the Mevlevi slow down to a stop, put their cloaks back on, symbolising the return to the Body, and leave.



The music of the dance is also a key element of the Mevlevi practise. Each Novice is given their own reed flute, known as a Ney, by their Master, which has been specially made to be their own personal instrument. Very precious, the imagery of the reed flute echoes the introduction to the Mathnawi in which Rumi compares the plaintive cry of the reed to be returned to the riverbank to the yearnings of the Soul to be returned to God. Each member of the Mevlevi Order learns how to play his Ney, the sound of which is deeply resonant and moving. All Ney music is improvised and thus personal to the individual Novice.

Rumi is beloved all over the world, not just in Islamic countries. In America, thanks to the translations of Coleman Barks (which, alas, I wouldn't recommend), he is ranked as one of the most popular poets among the population. But Rumi is not uncontroversial. Among many hardline Muslims he is a heretic (dancing and music are, strictly speaking, haram in Sharia Law, as is drinking wine), while other, less severe Muslims tend to get frustrated by the 'de-Islamification' of Rumi by Western enthusiasts. Indeed, the reason why I wouldn't recommend Bark's translation is that they remove all reference to Rumi's Islam, presenting him as a rather indulgent, garrulous, easy-going old hippie who liked a good puff on his hookah and wouldn't have been out of place in 60s California. Rumi was a genius, and one who went far beyond the limits of his own religion, seeing Divine Love in everyone, but he WAS a Muslim and it would be misleading to represent him as otherwise. Happily, he didn't see any contradiction between this and loving his fellow men regardless of race, religion or culture. A kind of Islamic Rabbi Kook, only about seven hundred years earlier!



Leaving Konya, I felt transformed. Here was an encounter with a genuine Mystic and Seer, one who, while steeped in his own tradition, reached out to embrace everyone. The welcome I got in Konya was ecstatic. As an advert for a tolerant, warm, life-giving Islam, it was a far cry from the images we get of Saudi Arabia, the Taliban or even the more extreme spokespeople in our country. Konya proved that there was no contradiction between Islam and freedom. When I returned to my hotel, the staff who had helped me asked how I got on, with definite pride in their faces (it was a feature of Side that EVERYONE knew who I was referring to when I mentioned Rumi, compare to the UK - how many of us would know who William Tyndale or Julian of Norwich were?) I told them I had been greeted with incredible warmth and openness. They smiled and said 'It is because although you are not a Muslim you are interested in our culture. You made an effort.' A simple thought, but it made sense.



So. Konya. Rumi. If you can make the journey, I recommend it. A once in a lifetime experience. Rather cheekily, I would like to leave you with a poem inspired by my time there and the Man himself. This is a companion piece to the poem above:

DANCER



The dancer

Turns 

Eternal



Under 

The coloured dome

Of music



Outside

Pilgrims gather
At the fountain



The watcher

In the alcove

Presides

Beneath

The turquoise tower
Greetings abound

Lyrics
Hang in the air
Wishing



Calm for 

Travellers

Come



For peace

The reed flute

Longs



For returning

Each of us

Plays



At the river
Waiting

For the day



Of the wedding

When Beloved

And Lover



Are one

Saturday, 9 August 2008

THE UPANISHADS


Here we go with another extract for the planned book... Here is something about the Hindu Scriptures known as the Upanishads (literally 'the Sitting-At-The-Feet-Of"). These are ancient Hindu texts that predate Christianity etc. For me, they are the simplest and most beautiful expression of Man's relationship to the Universe I know.

The idea is to lay the foundations for an understanding of Western spirituality. Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are all Indo-European in nature culturally, so share a common experience... Thus the Upanishads shed light on how we are perhaps supposed to read Western Scripture...

THE UPANISHADS

The oldest and perhaps the simplest and most direct of religious visions of the Divine are the Vedas and Upanishads. Ancient, anonymous texts written by early Indian priests and various unknown mystic respectively, these works predate all later efforts to understand Man's position in the Universe. They deal with Creation, the workings of the Soul and Mind, the nature of reality and the relationship between God and Man.

In the Upanishads, God is known by the name Brahman, meaning 'the Supreme'. It is interesting that no-one has ever looked into the etymological link between Brahman of India and Abraham of the Western religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Abraham, whose original name, Abram, became Abraham after his relationship with God was established has a special status as one of the first great Patriarchs of God in the West. Just as Krishna may be linked to the name Christ, perhaps Abraham's knowledge of God is reflected in his name as an echo of Brahman.

Brahman for Hinduism is a universal deity who is found everywhere and in everything:

"Exalted in songs has been Brahman. In him are God and the world and the soul, and he is the imperishable supporter of all. When the seers of Brahman see him in all creation, they find peace in Brahman and are free from all sorrow.

God upholds the oneness of this universe: the seen and the unseen, the transient and the eternal. The soul of man is bound by pleasure and pain; but when he sees God she is free from all fetters."

Significantly for Hinduism, Brahman is never personified. Instead Brahman is experienced in all created things, but also beyond all created things. Knowledge of this awareness of the Divine within and without everything gives transcendence adn bliss. As the famous Isa Upanishad says:

"Behold the universe in the glory of God: and all that lives and moves on earth. Leaving the transient, find joy in the Eternal: set not your heart on another's possession.... He moves and he moves not. He is far, and he is near. He is within all, and he outside all. Who sees all beings in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses fear. When a sage sees this great Unity and his Self has become all things, what delusion and what sorrow can ever be near him?"

Brahman is even above all the Gods. In fact all the Gods are emanations of Brahman, a fact easily forgotten by those studying Hindu culture (and indeed by many Hindus themselves). Brahmanic Hinduism sees all the Gods from Siva, Vishnu and Krishna to Parvati, Shakti and Kali as avatars, or Divine Incarnations of Brahman. Thus the sometimes bewildering array of Hindu deities all unite into one, leading the mind back to Brahman. As an expression of the universal idea of the Many and the One, the One and the Many, it is very simple but infinitely easy to forget. Just as with the ancient Egyptian Gods, who were also regarded as emanations or offspring of the Creator God Atum-Ra, it is easy to become lost in the forest of deities between us and the One. Judging by Akehnaten's unpopular attempt to clear away the confusion and focus on the One God, nor does everyone want to do anything other than get lost in that forest.

Nonetheless, in the Upanishads the focus is exclusively on this Divine Entity known as Brahman. A closer look at the quotes above reveal that Brahman is even above God ("In him are God and the world and the soul, and he is the imperishable supporter of all'). Just as the Buddha spoke of a Greater Consciousness above even the Gods, so do the Upanishads describe Brahman as an energy which is beyond everything.:

"There is a Spirit who is amongst the things of this world and yet he is above the things of this world. He is clear and pure, in the peace of a void of vastness. He is beyond the life of the body and the mind, never-born, never-dying, everlasting, ever ONE in his own greatness. He is the Spirit whose power gives consciousness to the body: he is the driver of the chariot."

As we shall see, there are concepts here - the Chariot, the Spirit that gives Consciousness - which will reverberate through our own studies of the Western Tradition. Suffice it to say here that Brahman of the Upanishads is both within and without everything, including us, and thus, just as we are the smallest part of Creation, nonetheless we are intimately part of Brahman and find his Consciousness in our own:

"WHo is the God to whom we shall offer adoration? The God of gods, in whose glory the worlds are, whoe rules this world of man and all living beings. He is the God of forms infinite in whose glory all things are, smaller than the smallest atoms, and yet the Creator of all, ever living in the mystery of his creation. In the vision of this God of love there is everlasting peace. He is the Lord of all who, hidden in the heart of things, watches over the world of time. The gods and seers of Brahman are one with him; and when a man knows him he cuts the bonds of death. When one knows God who is hidden in the heart of all things, even as cream is hidden from milk, and in whose glory all things are, he is free from all bondage. This is the God whose work is all the worlds, the supreme Soul who dwells forever in the hearts of men. Those who know him through their hearts and their minds become immortal."

What is crucially significant here is the image of a Divinity 'forever in the hearts of men.' Far from the vision of a humanity sunk in sin or separated by a gulf from God we have come to understand from the Western religions, the Upanishads find God everywhere. Humanity, far from being the corrupt result of disobedience or filled with 'utter depravity', is part of Brahman, contains Brahman within itself, most importantly, as we shall see, 'in the heart'. Just as the ancients of the West located the Heart as the seat of the Soul, so the writers of the Upanishads found God in the Heart and not in the head. The Heart, the chakra which unites the three earthly with the three celestial chakras in one, is where God resides. With this knowledge in mind, the images of the Sacred Heart of both Christ and the Virgin take on a new meaning.

Equally important in these extracts is the distinction and unity between 'God, the world and the Soul', all of which are enfolded, like the Christian Trinity, in the Oneness of Brahman:

"There is the soul of man with wisdom and unwisdom, power and powerlessness; there is nature, Prakriti, which is creation for the sake of the soul; and there is God, infinite, omnipresent, who watches the work of creation. When a man knows the three he knows Brahman."

This passage repays closer study, particularly for when we come to discussion of the Trinity. This Upanishad clearly describes the three elements of Brahman - the Soul, Creation (Prakriti) and God who watches over the other two. In Hinduism, the Soul of Man is known as the Atman, or the Universal Soul. Another name for it is Purusha, the Cosmic or Universal Man. This is a Soul of which all humanity, whether male or female is part of. It is the Human Spirit, the energy which is our eternal Self, which gives us Consciousness and Spirituality ad is the root of that sense, which, at moments of great insight, gives us the sensation of being part of a humanity which is far greater than our individual selves. In the passage this Soul of Man is described as being possessed of 'wisdom and unwisdom, power and powerlessness'. In other words, it is dualistic, double-natured. In its Cosmic Form, it is transcendent, above all, and understands everything. In its earthly form, it feels helpless, is blind and confused. It is ourselves, in fact, possessed of the ability to reach great heights of spiritual understanding but also capable of complete confusion, despair and blindness. If there is a message of the Upanishads, it is that by understanding the presence of Brahman within us, the 'unwisdom' and 'powerlessness' humanity feels is transcended.

The second element of this Upanishadic Trinity is Prakriti, All Created Things. If Atman/Purusha is masculine, Prakriti is feminine. Here referred to, she is 'Creation for the sake of the Soul'. In other words, she is the feminine principle of Creation, the Great Mother, who brings the material world into being for our delight. In Hindu thinking, Purusha is Spirit, Prakriti Matter, the marriage of which is the source of all things.

Above these two principles - the male and the female - is God. Crucially, this is not Brahman, but the energetic principle which unites Spirit and Matter, watching over both. Brahman is the Union of all three of these principles. It is something within and above them all. Thus focus on one at the exclusion of the others leads to an imbalance. The Upanishads lead to a holistic goal. Apparent division must give way to a union. Brahman cannot be understood without understanding the relationship of these three energies.



So the Upanishads present a symphonic vision of the Cosmos, one in which Man and God and Creation are all one in Brahman. A striking feature of much of the Upanishads is the apparent effortlessness of this vision. There is little discussion of Sin or the corrupt nature of humanity, only of the need for this perception of Brahman within all. Suffering comes from a faulty relationship with the three energies which point to Brahman. Too much focus on the material leads to pain and injustice. As with the Buddhist conception of things, it is through this mistake that the Wheel of Karma continues to turn and man, rather than discovering his immortal nature, confines himself in pain and confusion. But the Upanishads do not see this in terms of punishment or sin. It is just a simple fact of life. Brahman is available to us everywhere:

"Beyond the senses are their object, and beyond the objects is the mind. Beyond the mind is pure reason, and beyond reason is the Spirit of man. Beyond the Spirit in man is the Spirit of the universe, and beyond is Purusha, the Spirit Supreme. Nothing is beyond Purisha: he is the End of the path. The light of the Atman, the Spirit is invisible, concealed in all beings. It is seen by the seer of the subtle, when the vision is keen and is clear. The wise should surrender speech in mind, mind in the knowing self, the knowing self in the Spirit of the universe, and the Spirit of the universe in the Spirit of peace."

Fascinatingly here, the way to Brahman starts with the senses and ends with a full understanding of Purusha/Atman, the World Soul. Thus Prakriti and Purusha play their part. The World Soul, the Cosmic Man, is the end point, the Cosmic Man being one with God and Brahman. Thus the Upanishads set out their vision of humanity, all humanity, and the Divine. Turning inwards is the key, as is being guided by 'all beings' in which the Atman is 'concealed'. What is extraordinary is that there seems to be no stress or pain in this process. There is no self-laceration, only a turning inwards which is simultaneously a turning outwards, leading to a Unity with all Humanity which is at the same time a Unity with God and what is beyond God...

Thursday, 7 August 2008

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY!


From Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook:

"The old way of choosing one path and following it patiently can no longer prevail. We have developed far beyond this. To embrace all paths and to integrate them into a full and secure harmony - this is the beginning of our sacred responsibility."

This would be remarkable coming from anyone but from a RabbI? Kook was the Chief Rabbi of Palestine and Jerusalem during the early years of the Twentieth Century. A remarkable man, deeply Jewish in his outlook but utterly universal in feeling. His hope was that one day all humanity would be united again in God, regardless of religion, race or culture. He was deeply resistant to narrow, legalistic religion, preferring the company, often, of atheists to orthodox Jews because he believed atheists were often purer in outlook and in rebellion against the old fashioned, repressive view of God of the observant. He was deeply critical of anyone who looked down on a culture which was not their own and dreamed of a time when Muslim, Christian and Jew would love together in peace...

Here is another sample of his thinking:

"The realm of mystery tells us, You live in a world full of light and life.

Know the great reality, the richness of existence that you always encounter. Contemplate its grandeur, its beauty, its precision and harmony.

Be attached to the legions of living beings who are constantly bringing forth everything beautiful. In every corner where you turn, you are dealing with realities that have life; you always perform consequential acts, abounding with meaning and with the preciousness of vibrant life. In everything you do you encounter sparks full of life and light, aspiring to rise toward the heights. You help them and they help you.

The glorious wisdom that you comprehend is not a faint shadow of some spiritual mirage that is devoid of meaning, to be displaced by research and science. These phenomena are the children of a real world, introducing themselves to you, sending you good news from afar, news about their well-being and their state of health. Their well-being also contributed to their well-being.

When you ascend to greater heights you raise yourselves to a more noble fellowship, to surroundings of greater splendour.

And everything aspires, longs, yearns, according to a pattern that is adorned with holiness and girded with beauty. For this life of yours is not a meaningless phenomenon."

- from THE LIGHT OF HOLINESS

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

IN MEMORIAM: ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN 1918-2008


As a young man in the 90s struggling to make some kind of way in a world which seemed bereft of ideals or values there were two artists who kept me going with their work. Ironically, both of them lived under the Soviet system in Russia. One was the film director Andrei Tarkovsky, the other was the novelist and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Both worked under appalling conditions and censorship. Both became figureheads for the Truth that lay inside us. Obviously I had never lived through anything as extreme as they had lived through (nor would I ever hope to), but in what was an extremely tough and lonely part of my life they gave me hope where I needed it most...

Always controversial, Solzhelnitsyn stood out against the Gulag System of Stalin and became a figurehead for human rights and freedom of speech in the USSR. Exiled in the 70s, having won the Nobel Prize for his novels, including ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH, THE FIRST CIRCLE and CANCER WARD (possibly the greatest), he became equally critical of what he saw as the decadence of the West. Having ruffled a few feathers in that part of the world (while they were happy for him to criticise the USSR they were less happy to have him criticise them!) he returned to Russia during Yeltsin's time as President, where he continued to be a controversial critic of what he felt was the slide into capitalism and atheism of his own country. A Slavophile and enthusiast for strong rule, he received personal acclaim from President Putin.

Whatever one feels about his politics (and I am sure there will be vigourous debate on these boards about them!), in the 60s, 70s and 80s he stood out as a lone voice in a country he loved but found himself a prisoner in and, as a beacon of how one could hold onto one's soul even in the worst circumstances, was an inspiration to this Westerner at least...

He died this Sunday in his home in Russia. Here is an extract from his book CANCER WARD:

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"Shigatov stirred. He grasped the bed and began to raise himself out of his tub. The orderly hurried over to take the tub and carry it out.

Oleg got up too. Before going back to bed he walked down the inevitable staircase.

In the lower corridor he passed the door of the room where Dyoma was lying. The second occupant had been a post-operative case who had died on Monday. They had moved him out and put Shulubin in after his operation.

The door was usually shut tight, but at that moment it was slightly ajar. It was dark inside. In the darkness he could hear a heavy, gasping noise. There was no nurse in sight. Either they were with other patients or they were asleep.

Oleg opened the door a bit more and edged his way in.

Dyoma was asleep. Shulubin was the one gasping and groaning.

Oleg went right into the room. Now the door was open there was a little light coming in from the corridor. 'Alexei Filippovich...' he said.

The gasping stopped.

'Alexei Filippovich... Do you feel bad?'

'What?' the voice came out in another gasp.

'Do you feel bad? Do you want your medicine? Shall I turn the light on?'

'Who is it?' Terrified, the man breathed out and coughed. Then the groaning began again because coughing was too painful.

'Its Kostoglotov. Oleg.' He was right by the bed, bending over it. He was beginning to distinguish Shulubin's great head lying on the pillow. 'What can I get you? Shall I call a nurse?'

'Nothing.' Shulubin breathed the word out.

He didn't cough or groan again. Oleg could distinguish more and more detail. He could even make out the little curls of hair on the pillow.

'Not all of me shall die, ' Shulubin whispered. 'Not all of me shall die.'

He must be delirious.

Kostoglotov groped for the man's hot hand lying on the blanket. He passed it lightly, 'Aleksei Filoppovich,' he said, 'you're going to live! Hang on, Aleksei Filoppovich!'

'There's a fragment, isn't there? ... Just a tiny fragment,' he kept whispering.

It was then it struck Oleg that Shulubin was not delirious, that he'd recognized him and was reminding him of their last conversation before the operation. He had said, 'Sometimes I feel quite distinctly that what is inside me is not all of me. There's something else, sublime, indestructible, some tiny fragment of the universal spirit. Don't you feel that?'"

-CANCER WARD by Alexander Solzhenitsyn ISBN 140032290

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Rest in peace!