27 April, 2012

More from the Mailbag: Q&A

Q: Does the Thomasine Church use the standard liturgical calendar?

A: Not to my knowledge. The Thomasine canon doesn't include any texts that mention most of the things that are commemorated in the liturgical calendar of the orthodox Christian church. We allude to some things that the orthodox Bible talks about, like the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, but we don't have St. So-and-So's day or commemorate Easter.

For the Thomasine Church, every time we gather to offer the Leitourgia we are celebrating the Awakening of Jesus as we celebrate the capacity for that same awakening within ourselves.

Q: What do you offer in the Leitourgia? You've used the phrase "offer the Leitourgia" a few times.

A: We offer those things from within ourselves that prevent us from becoming like Jesus. During a part of the Leitourgia called the Ceremony of Light we burn slips of paper with those limitations written on them. The Thomasine initiate is meant to focus on the release of or destruction of those particular obstructions. At some gatherings, the priest (or bishop) will allow several minutes of contemplation prior to burning the paper.

Q: Does the Thomasine Church teach the Real Presence of Christ in the bread or wine?

A: During the Epiklesis of the Leitourgia we ask that the "presence" of Jesus is there among us as we drink from the cup. For us, this action recalls Logion 108 of the Gospel of Thomas where Jesus said, "He who will drink from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become he.."

We week to make The Living Jesus present among us by seeking Liberation and Illumination as he himself did.

Q: Are Thomasine initiates discouraged from the concurrent practice of other methods (like Zazen or Martinism)?

A: No. The "tools" provided via Thomasine hesychastic practice are presented as a starting point. All that is asked of Thomasine initiates is that they are willing to pursue the techniques taught as part of the Thomasine method. Personally, I ask that my students discuss their involvement in other practices with me, but by no means do they need to seek my permission to engage in them.

Q: Why doesn't the Thomasine Church make use of the minor orders like the Apostolic Johannite Church or the Ecclesia Gnostica? What is clerical formation like in the Thomasine Church?

A: The minor orders don't really have a place in the Thomasine Church. We felt that making use of the minor orders was cumbersome and that the roles filled by individuals in minor orders could just as easily be filled by any initiate.

Clerical formation begins with the first steps of Thomasine practice. Our deacons are primarily concerned with deepening their own contemplative practice and teaching that to others. As a process, the road to ordination is one of self-discovery, scrutiny, and education. You're expected to have a stable practice involving Thomasine techniques, to have a sound understanding of what we teach in the Thomasine church, and a willingness to continue teaching that to others.

While we don't have a formal seminary, you will be asked to read (or re-read) numerous books and have copious discussions with the bishop who will eventually ordain you.

26 April, 2012

But is it Gnostic?!

I am asked, fairly often, whether or not I think the Gospel of Thomas is really "Gnostic." I must preface this post by making it very clear that I am not a scholar of Ancient Christianity or even what we've come to call ancient "Gnosticism." My academic background is in cultural anthropology (particularly focused on ethnic identity construction) and education (Student Affairs Administration & Counseling), so I shan't present even the slightest pretense of having the scholarly bonafides to really answer this question.

All that and a set of the new Chrism Scented Bedsheets from Mar Shimun (available this Autumn at Wal-Mart!)...

I do not think that The Gospel of Thomas falls into the same category as either the Sethian Gnostic texts or the Valentinian texts. Thomas doesn't talk about archons, emanations, a Truly Perfect God™, or His Slightly Daft and Angsty Son Stu the Demiurge™. Thomas also isn't very world-denying or body-hating.

So, I do not think it's appropriate to say that Thomas is a product of an ancient Gnostic school.

The other tangentially related question I am asked is whether or not the Thomasine Church can really be said to be "Gnostic." Aside from the fact that we make use of verse from The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene and borrow sacramental names from The Gospel of Philip, we don't really teach from any texts that scholars (such as Dr. David Brakke and Dr. April DeConick) identify as having "Gnostic" characteristics.

So, the Thomasine Church probably isn't Gnostic in that it can claim a relationship to any historical Gnostic sect.

That's okay.

In a purely modern context, I would still be inclined to say that "Gnostic" is an appropriate descriptor for The Thomasine Church. Gnosis is what Thomasine Initiates seek.

Mailbag Q&A

Q: What do you mean when you say there's no self? I exist!

A: This is one of those times where I'm going to be mum and rather circumspect. No-self is a realization. It's a direct, experiential insight due to practice. If I tell you exactly what it means, it will be difficult for you to actually come to the realization on your own. Think about it. Who are you? Who sees? Who hears? What are you?

Q: Given the role of Apostolic Succession in orthodox Christianities why do you feel it's useful for Gnostics?

A: This is something I've been thinking about quite a bit recently, as the six year anniversary of my episcopal consecration recently passed. One of the original roles of Apostolic Succession was to be a kind of stamp of orthodoxy, so it seems a little funny that Gnostics would go ga-ga over something like that.

In a way, I think that taking Apostolic Succession is a way of saying "This too is in continuity with the teaching of Jesus." It's also sort of subversive in that we're taking what was once a stamp of orthodoxy and locating it within a Gnostic context.

It's a way of saying "A long time ago, someone had a really great message. He passed that message on to his disciples (students), and they passed it on to their students. However, somewhere along the way this message of very real liberation in the present moment became the tool of an imperial power and the meaning of that message was lost."

Apostolic Succession is in no way required for one to take on a teaching role in a Gnostic context. It's also not required for "valid" Gnostic sacraments. I talk more about that here.

In the context of the Thomasine Church we do say that you must have a certain ordination to perform certain sacraments, but I wouldn't say that the Leitourgia is any less useful if it's done by someone who is not a Thomasine priest.

25 April, 2012

Thomas the Contender

The savior said, "Brother Thomas while you have time in the world, listen to me, and I will reveal to you the things you have pondered in your mind. -- The Book of Thomas the Contender
Br. Jay from Nite Caravan asked me to discuss the role of Thomas the Contender in Thomasine teaching, as it relates to non-duality.

While the modern Thomasine Church is non-dualist, it's entirely possible that the communities who followed Thomas teachings in the ancient world accepted some kind of dualism; if not mind-body dualism then certainly body-spirit dualism. According to Dr. April DeConick, it's also possible that the Thomas community was an encratic apocalyptic sect.

In the Gospel of Thomas The Living Jesus says, in Logion 112, "woe to the flesh that depends on the soul; woe to the soul that depends on the flesh." Here, it seems, Jesus is pointing out the banality of the notion of a discrete soul-self which exists independently of you. The body cannot depend on the soul for existence and the soul cannot depend on the body for existence. If you attempt to make body and soul separate both will perish, but if they are one then they will live.

Moreover, those who have sight among things that are not visible, without the first love they will perish in the concern for this life and the scorching of the fire. Only a little while longer, and that which is visible will dissolve; then shapeless shades will emerge, and in the midst of tombs they will forever dwell upon the corpses in pain and corruption of soul. -- The Book of Thomas the Contender

On the other hand, we have The Book of Thomas the Contender. We make relatively light use of the Book of Thomas in both sacramental and instructional contexts. It is useful in some places because Jesus and Thomas, through their dialogue, expound upon some of the themes presented aphoristically in the Gospel of Thomas.

However, it is important to remember that these texts were the products of particular places and times. The Book of Thomas hints very strongly that the community from whence it came was encratic, possibly encouraging celibacy and other ascetic practices.

So, where The Book of Thomas makes an argument for a separate soul, as in the passage above, we shrug our shoulders and go on. As the 14th Dalai Lama said, in reference to science contradicting Buddhist teaching, we must be open to removing that which is contradicted by science from our teaching.

23 April, 2012

Q: Can you elaborate on what composes the canon of the Thomasine Church

A: Explicitly, the Thomasine Church includes The Gospel of Thomas, The Hymn of the Pearl, and The Book of Thomas the Contender Writing to the Perfect in its canon.

While the Thomasine Church doesn't explicitly include anything else, we don't explicitly exclude anything else either. In our Leitourgia, for example, we borrow a verse from The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene. I've explained the process of meditation using verses from The Gospel of Matthew and used verses from Wisdom/Proverbs in liturgies. Our notion of canonicity is fairly soft. The main texts that we teach from, however, are the ones I bolded.

Q: What's the difference between the Thomasine Church and the Apostolic Johannite Church?

A: That's a tricky question. I haven't spoken with a Johannite Gnostic in er... six or seven years. The biggest difference is probably the most obvious one: we show up for the Thomasine Stuff and they show up for the Johannite Stuff. If I had to take a guess, I would say that for the Johannites the Eucharist is the big unifying sacrament, and it's central to Johannite life. For the Thomasine Church, I would say that the Apolytrosis is the bigger deal.

The Thomasine philosophy is also non-dualist. Whereas one Johannite priest seems to make an argument for some kind of pre-birth existence of a soul or spirit which is distinctly you, we don't.

Their ecclesiastical structure is also much more Western/Latin Rite than that of the Thomasine Church, which is more Eastern or Assyrian in nature. Where a Johannite diocese has a Bishop, we have an eparchy with an Eparch. They have Primates, we have Exarchs (like me). They have minor orders... we don't.

You might try asking Fr. Scott Rasbach or Fr. Jordan Stratford of the AJC about the AJC. They know more about it than I do.

Q: Can you explain how the episcopacy works in the Thomasine Church? I heard that all Thomasine initiates receive episcopal consecration.

A: We have three different positions for bishops. I'm probably the most confusing bishop alive, for example. I was appointed a Chorbishop, received episcopal consecration as a result of that, enthroned as Eparch of Florida, and then later appointed an Exarch. An Exarch is a bishop who is responsible for certain administrative functions in the Church and is also generally responsible for a large geographical area.

There are separate rituals for the consecration of an Eparch and a Chorbishop, but both receive the fullness of the priesthood, anointing of the head/crown with chrism & etc. The original idea was that a Chorbishop was a priest who lived too far away from an Eparch for the priest's students/temple to receive the sacraments which required a bishop. An Eparch was supposed to be a Thomasine initiate who had achieved a different "level" (for lack of a better word) of insight than had a priest.

Most Thomasine initiates do not receive episcopal consecration, although ideally every Thomasine initiate will eventually have achieved the insights requisite for the episcopacy.

Q: Is anointing with Chrism optional in your church as it is in the Anglican churches?

A: Chrism is required for the Sphragis, priestly ordination, and episcopal consecration. The anointing of the hands and, in the case of bishops, the head are essential elements of the three rites I mentioned. Excepting extraordinary circumstances, Chrism is not optional. According to our rubrics, you must anoint the hands of a priest and you must anoint the head of a bishop. The same goes for Sphragis. The initiate must receive the anointing.

There's no such thing as a Thomasine evangelical, so we don't tend to have too many issues with people rejecting traditional things, like the use of Chrism.

You are who you are...

[The Living] Jesus said, "Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you. For there is nothing hidden which will not become manifest."
When I talk to people about meditation and the notion of realization or transformation, people often tell me that they're frustrated with their practice because they feel they're not becoming "what they should be" or they feel that they were meant to be something or someone else.

We all create idealized images of what should be; we do it with ourselves, with our jobs and careers, with our families, and our loved ones. When we do not achieve our idealized image of ourselves, or others fail to live up to our expectations, we become angry, upset, sad, reproachful, and any number of other things. The creation of idealized images of ourselves and others is a cause of suffering and desire. Thomasine initiates spend time contemplating the nature of the self and through this grapple with the idealized notions of self and other.

As I often tell my students this process will not make you other than who you are. The initiate is still fully human, still prone to all of the folly and foible that humanity entails. There is a tendency among some meditators, perhaps all, to try to put on a costume and pretend that somehow they are no longer prone to this desire, and that is something that's extremely destructive to practice.

 You might wonder what the point of practice is if it's not to create "perfection." The point of practice is to see the you that is in the present moment. See past the illusory veils of idealized self-imagery, see past the illusions you have created about others in your life.

Do I still fall prone to this pitfall? Yes, sometimes. I went through a period of time where I was deeply unhappy that I was unable to find a job in my field due to the recession leading to a reduction in hiring. I kept telling myself "I should have a job with X title, Y responsibility, and Z salary." I suffered greatly, fell into self-loathing and depression because of my inability to do what I felt I should be doing. I wasn't earning enough money, I was working in a job that didn't even require a high school diploma, much less a post-graduate degree.

I became so fixated on the ideal that I had created for myself, my career, and my life that I was unable to see that there were other ways to change my circumstances. Once I realized what I was doing, I was able to see that there were other paths right in front of me; maybe they were things I hadn't considered before, but without the ability to accept the things that were I was unable to change my circumstances.

19 April, 2012

Nepsis: Watchfulness

The disciples said to Jesus, "Tell us how our end will be." Jesus said, "Have you discovered, then, the beginning, that you look for the end? For where the beginning is, there will the end be. Blessed is he who will take his place in the beginning; he will know the end and will not experience death."

[The Living Jesus said] "....Therefore I say to you, if the owner of a house knows that the thief is coming, he will begin his vigil before he comes and will not let him into his house of his domain to carry away his goods. You, then, be on your guard against the world. Arm yourselves with great strength lest the robbers find a way to come to you, for the difficulty which you expect will (surely) materialize. Let there be among you a man of understanding. When the grain ripened, he came quickly with his sickle in his hand and reaped it. Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear."

A reader enquired about a word I used in my last post. In traditional hesychastic practice, Nepsis is a state of watchfulness over one's emotions. In the Philokalia the Desert Fathers speak of the temptations of demons who seek to cause the hesychast to stray from the path.

In the mythical allegory used by the Thomasine Church, from The Hymn of the Pearl, we call those "the Wicked Ones" or "the demons of the labyrinth." As naturalists, we understand, of course, that these are not literal physical demons, but rather thoughts and emotions that distract someone. We chiefly think of these Wicked Ones as the "negative emotions," but any emotion or thought can be a distraction from contemplation.

My teacher used to tell me "Pay attention!" I would respond "I am paying attention!" I thought he meant I wasn't paying attention during our conversation, but he was intimating that I should pay attention to my own mind. It took me a long time to actually understand what "attention" meant in this particular context.

One cultivates nepsis by being aware of the thoughts one has from their beginning to their end. My own teacher called it riding the wave. I usually describe nepsis as watching oneself walking under a tree while sitting in the branch above. One of my students uses the image of an archaeologist sifting sand through a screen to find artifacts.

This technique is pretty difficult to explain in a blog post. It's one I've only been taught (and taught) by talking with someone. However, the two images I used above can be helpful. When you begin to feel an emotion, start paying attention. What led to the emotion arising? How long did it last? How did you feel when you experienced the emotion? Are you still presently experiencing the emotion as you are thinking these things?

18 April, 2012

Gnostic Meditation & The Thomasine Method

I keep telling people that I will write about meditation in the Thomasine tradition. I've also discussed how I feel about sharing too much, because many of the Thomasine techniques are meant to be discussed with one's teacher or within a group of Thomasine initiates. However, I feel comfortable sharing the basics.

Because some of you have asked, I don't know if the Thomasine technique is like zazen or vipasana; it may be and it may not be.

Luminescent Water

Luminescent Water is one of the most basic techniques and is used by every Thomasine Initiate at some point in practice. Often, the Initiate learns techniques for cultivating nepsis prior to, or concurrently with, instruction in Luminescent Water.

Sit in a comfortable place. If you have a zafu and zabuton, a seiza bench, a taize bench, a gomden, or any of the numerous sitting appliances sold by any of the numerous vendors of meditation supplies, you may use whatever you feel is most effective. I have scoliosis and lumbar problems, so I switch between seiza/taize style on a zafu and a straight-backed dining room chair.

If you sit in a chair, sit very slightly forward so that your back is not resting against the back of the chair; this will help you to remain physically alert while meditating. Try to sit in a place where you will not be interrupted unless it's particularly urgent.

Are you sitting on something? Yes? Spiffy.

Now, with your eyes half-closed, visualize a stream of sunlit water flowing in through your feet. Follow the course of the water through your legs, thighs, pelvis, up into your stomach, into your chest, through your arms, and then into your head.

Some of my students visualize the water flowing into their heads, down into the arms, into the chest, stomach, pelvis, thighs, legs, and exiting through the feet. I've done it both ways, and it doesn't really seem to matter which way I visualize the water flowing.

As you sit, pay attention to the way you feel as you visualize the water flowing through each part of your body. If you become distracted, simply acknowledge the distraction and move on. If you fish, it's a bit like the "catch and release" policy many states have for certain species. If you're distracted by a car horn, you can think or say "I heard a car honk its horn" and then return to the visualization.

I recommend that my students start with 10-15 minutes once a day. As students become accustomed to sitting, it's acceptable to sit for as long as you like. Some students have a preference for doing Luminescent Water in the morning and working on other techniques during the evening.

Common Pitfalls

"I should be able to sit for X minutes. My meditation is a failure if I can't sit for at least X minutes."

Your mind is what your mind is at the moment. Try to avoid creating expectations about what your experience should be and simply allow it to be as it happens.

"I have too many distracting thoughts or noisy occurrences."

That's okay. If you've tried acknowledging the distraction and, once it passes, returning to the visualization and still feel you can't focus, there's no harm in ending your session until you reach a time when there are less physical distractions or you feel like meditating again. 

"Thoughts or experiences come up that I can't or don't want to deal with."

That's okay. These things happen. Please feel free to stop your meditation and return to it once you feel ready. If the same thought or experience continues to arise, it is possibly something that requires attention. This is one of those times when having a teacher, spiritual director, or a meditation group can be helpful. I am happy to try and help as I have the time and ability. 

"I fall asleep when I lie down to meditate."

Me too. I had some problems with my back recently and spent a lot of time lying down as a result. I found it helpful to avoid closing my eyes at all while meditating in this posture. Also, if you can use a yoga/exercise mat or a plushly carpeted area, you may find you have less trouble falling asleep, because you aren't using your bed. 

One other common pitfall is becoming too attached to the place or objects used in meditation. It can be helpful to try meditating on a park bench or on your porch, for example. Thomasine students are encouraged to create personal "sacred space" from which to meditate but are also cautioned against cultivating attachment to that space.

12 April, 2012

Newsweek: Forget the Church, Follow Jesus

N.B. This was originally posted on April 6th at my Wordpress blog.
Q: Bishop, how do you feel about Andrew Sullivan’s April 9th Newsweek article entitled “Forget the Church Follow Jesus?”
A: I find myself in agreement with much that Mr. Sullivan has to say about what institutional Christianity has become and, as a former evangelical, many of his comments on the paucity of both evangelical theology and the evangelical Jesus strike close to home.
Like Mr. Sullivan, I want nothing to do with the vapid Jesus of Joel Osteen, nor the damning Jesus of Fred Phelps, nor the Jesus of the Catholic Church.
I am a Gnostic. I reject Sullivan’s literal belief in the Incarnation and divinity of Jesus.
We now understand that the canonical Gospels were written long after the death of the historical Jesus and that the Gospels may not describe the life of that Jesus with any degree of accuracy. We know that the Gospels are probably best understood from the twin perspectives of myth and allegory. Further, we now have a better understanding of precisely how the canon of the New Testament came to be and the amazing diversity of the early Christian milieu–both pre and ante-Nicene.
On one hand, we know that, historically, there is no way to prove the virgin birth of Jesus or any of the other miraculous/supernatural claims about him. We know that “Christ” was a title and not a surname. On the other hand, we know it’s likely that Jesus said some stuff. Years ago a group called The Jesus Seminar convened to try and figure out how likely it was that Jesus actually said and did the things recorded in the canonical Gospels.
We know that the Jesus tradition, at least early on, was largely an oral tradition; that shouldn’t be surprising given that the literacy rates in the ancient world weren’t stellar; yet, much of what the Jesus of the canonical Gospels said is good. If people (including me) actually lived as Jesus exhorts them to, the world would be a phenomenally different place.
If we loved our enemies, perhaps we would have fewer.
If we were simply willing to turn the other cheek now and again, perhaps there would be less strife and discord.
If we left our families in sense that we were willing to engage in radical questioning regarding the things our families taught us, perhaps we would have fewer stereotypes, cease seeking to restrict the civil rights of those who are different, and perhaps we would be more open to the reality of the experiences of the “other” instead of seeing them as inherently alien and threatening.
I am also struck by the similarity of Sullivan’s Jesus and that of The Living Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas; for the messages of these Jesuses to ring true today, there is no need to believe in miracles or the supernatural, but rather one must simply see wisdom for what it is.
Live by what Jesus himself (may have) said and not what Paul says about him or what Joel Osteen says about him, or what the Church Fathers under the yoke of the Roman Emperor thought he said.
I don’t mean to imply that my idea of Jesus means that I must somehow leave my experiences as a Gnostic Christian at home when I go to the polls, either. For example, Jesus’ exhortation in logion 25 of the Gospel of Thomas to “love your brother like your soul, [and] guard him like the pupil of your eye” resonates very strongly with me. If I feel that a politician isn’t going to do that, I don’t vote for them. When my elected representatives do something that I feel is not in line with that exhortation, I tell them so.

Maybe moving wasn't such a good idea

This is the blog that keeps on giving. I spoke with someone, the other day, who found my e-mail address by searching for "Florida gnostic church" on Google. Apparently, my mostly abandoned Blogger blog is the first search result for some permutations of that query.

That's kind of neat. At the very least, I will be posting both here and at the Wordpress blog I linked to in an earlier post.

I've always been kind of nervous about the whole idea of establishing me the brand when it comes to Gnosis and "spiritual stuff." As I have said in the past, it's not really about me as a person. There's nothing unique about me, at least in the context of the insights I've gained via meditative enquiry. Many people have had these insights.

While I've turned down offers to lecture for fees and resisted the calls to sell recorded lectures, I guess maybe snubbing the free, if unearned publicity Google has seen fit to bestow upon me is pretty daft.