30 May, 2012

Revisiting Apostolic Succession

I receive a number of questions on apostolic succession. I keep getting them, so I figure I will keep trying to answer the questions about AS until I've done it enough that I don't get anymore questions; or, I'll keep answering them until I don't feel like it.

I've said, in the past, that Apostolic Succession isn't something you need to be a Gnostic or to have "valid" sacraments; some Gnostic groups put a lot of emphasis on the fact that they have it, and a few others put a lot of emphasis on the fact that they don't have it.

The modern ecclesiastical Gnostic movement has appropriated a lot of ecclesiology from its distant orthodox cousins, for better or worse. One interesting notion that many churches have acquired is the Western (e.g. Roman) notion of "sacramental validity" and the necessity of Apostolic Succession for the "valid" administration of sacraments. To my mind, that notion is a baseless one constructed on centuries of Western theological scholasticism. It has no place in the pursuit of Gnosis.

We all know that the lists of Apostolic Succession have holes in them somewhere, the Roman ones usually fall apart around the time of Cardinal Barberini, and the Eastern ones have their chinks too. While the myth of the Historic Episcopate passed down from person to person since the time of the Apostles could possibly be true it certainly isn't probable.

You the Gnostic make the sacrament "valid" by your participation in it. Whether or not you were ordained by someone whose name is on a list of bishops is immaterial to the efficacy of a practice. I don't have any special magic that makes these things more efficacious... well, okay, maybe I'm slightly more charismatic and charming than you are.

As Gnostics we're not looking to become another "successor to the Apostles" but another Christ. Our goal is that eventually we too will know and understand what three things The Living Jesus said to Thomas.

Within the Thomasine tradition, Apostolic Succession is a way of connecting with the past and, in a subversive way, of liberating the message of The Living Jesus from something that has become corrupted by its long association with power.

So, does apostolic succession matter? I don't really know. I do know that the consecration, as an initiatory experience, was meaningful and transformative for me. It has been a source of help to me over the years in the struggle for Gnosis. Also, Chrism smells good, so it was nice that I had a bunch of it poured on my head.

29 May, 2012

The Living Father and The Mother

Source: Carles Gomila

Q: Can you go into more detail about The Living Father and The Mother?

A: Sure. On the simplest level, The Father is allegorical for Force and Power. It is that which causes things to be set into motion. The Mother is allegorical for matter, energy, or potential. Think of it like an electrical outlet. there is current (The Mother) running through it but until the circuit is complete (or something is plugged in) the current is just there.

The Father is also called "the Silence and the Deep" or "Ruler of Rulers" and the The Mother is called "Source of Light," "Well-spring of Unfathomable Wisdom," and "the Holy and Comforting Spirit."

Some of these sobriquets relate to particular teachings for which one is meant to have a certain practical and theoretical background in Thomasine practice, so I'll refrain from going into too much detail.

In Thomasine Practice, The Mother and The Father are functions of the Mind and of experience; in essence, they're forces at work both within us and without in the universe, but they're not conscious entities and aren't prayed to or worshiped. They are contemplated. They are objects of meditative focus, and they're also story-telling tools.

For the Initiate the Mother and the Father are also two dichotomies which are resolved or unified through practice.

Jeremy Puma talks about a similar idea (or pair of ideas) in a Sethian context as The Logos (Reason) and Sophia (Wisdom). That's also a good way to think about it.

One of the other questions I've often received has to do with why we describe The Mother or Wisdom as feminine. This description comes in part from our Judeo-Christian heritage; in both Judaism and Christianity Wisdom is often personified as a feminine character. She gives birth to new ideas, to insight, and to understanding. She is nurturing and perhaps even motherly from time to time. She is also, in a way, seductive and therefore perilous. She brings with her the desire and longing to know and to understand.

25 May, 2012

More on Watchfulness

Nepsis (or Watchfulness) is nothing more or less than paying attention. What's going on as you're reading this post? What thoughts are you thinking? What are you feeling? Do you know what set the current thoughts and feelings into motion? What caused them to originate? Are they still there? Where did they go? What caused them to dissipate?

When starting this particular practice, it's a good idea to do it during relatively calm moments. I used to practice while doing the dishes. These kinds of practices are a lot like exercise. You can start by trying to lift a 300lb weight, but you'll probably hurt yourself in the process if you're not already in good shape. By starting with small things, little irritations that cause anger, small fears, little things that provoke jealousy, or craving/desire, you'll begin to understand your emotions. You'll know what the experience of them feels like and you'll have an idea about what provokes those emotions within you.

This kind of work will prepare you to deal with bigger things. Eventually, you'll be able to lift that 300lb weight without hurting yourself or dropping it on a friend's foot.

22 May, 2012

The Roots of Thomasine Tradition

Jeremy Puma has discussed the importance of acknowledging where the stuff we do in Gnostic practice comes from. The "churchy stuff" we do tends to be fairly visible and close to the surface, so there's a lot of focus on those aspects. And by those aspects I mean the vestments, the liturgies, and the notion of priesthood & etc.

Most people who get beyond the initial "Hi, I'm interested in doing Gnostic stuff!" e-mail are quite surprised to find that, at least in the Thomasine Tradition, the "church-y stuff" isn't at the forefront of what we do. As I've mentioned before, the "church-y stuff" isn't exactly useless, but the other meditative practices that don't involve vestments and liturgy take up more of an Initiate's time.

Where do those practices come from? No spiritual or Wisdom tradition grows up in a vacuum. We all come from somewhere, and our practices all arise somehow. In the case of the ancient Gnostics, we know what they wrote, and thusly we have some idea about what they might have taught, but we don't know what they did.

So, we had to look elsewhere. We took the best of our experiences with other techniques, systems, and traditions, and tried to create something that would function within a Gnostic and nominally Western Christian context.

My teacher was heavily influenced by Shingon Buddhism, and the mental disciplines of Traditional Chinese Martial Arts. This is one of the reasons we use a visualization meditation, and our Leitourgia incorporates an element of the Shingon Goma ritual.

Our method is also indebted to Martinism which is where the language we use about "reintegration" came from.

I myself came from a slightly more orthodox background. I studied Hesychasm and Centering Prayer, and those were two practices I brought with me when I became a bishop in the Thomasine Church. I also find the work of Meister Eckhart extraordinarily helpful.

So there you have it.

16 May, 2012

Detachment & Pain and Suffering

"Pain is mandatory, suffering is optional." --Unknown
I have no idea where this quote originated, but I know I read it somewhere, and it's kind of apt. A while ago, a friend of mine asked me how I "did it" referring to maintaining detachment from pain and suffering.

It's a good question. It isn't that I don't experience painful events in my life, because I do. Relationships have ended, loved ones have died, jobs have been lost, and expectations went unfulfilled. These things happen to anyone, and we can hardly avoid them--even if we go around like ostriches with our heads stuck in the sand.

I cannot control all of the events that happen (or those that do not happen) in my life, but I can do something about my subjective experience of those events. I can choose to listen to the story that my mind tells me about the event or I can choose to look at where that story is coming from and what actually happened.

So, let's say I've been with someone for a while and we break up. Perhaps I experience anger. Anger toward myself and my former partner for whatever led to the dissolution of the relationship. If I pay attention to that anger and really look at where it's coming from and where it goes, perhaps I will realize that I am telling myself more than a few enormous fictions about the relationship that I had and my role in it.

Or maybe I start to experience feelings of low-self worth and loathing because I made a romantic overture and it was rebuffed. I can listen to the enormous fiction my mind is trying to get me to embrace; I'm not attractive enough or I'm just not well-off enough; or, I really needed to have a relationship with this particular person because it would fill that ever-growing void and I would really, truly be happy.

When I take a step back and look at what is really going on I find that the reality of the situation is far different from my perception of the situation; while the two may share some similarities, they are not the same.

So how do I do that? It takes practice. There is the practice of paying attention to your emotions in situations where you are not in emotional extremis (e.x. exceptionally angry or smitten with love) and there is the practice of meditation. Meditation in this case being the practice of, in some fashion, sitting silently with yourself. These are two ways to make friends with your own mind and to learn about what particularly are causes of suffering for you.

I've been doing this kind of stuff for a long while and I still occasionally experience suffering. This is why we call it practice; you've got to do it and keep doing it to get any good at it.

On Detachment 

When I talk about detachment, people assume that it must mean that I somehow suppress my emotions or that I don't have any, and that this in some way involves disconnection with other people. It isn't that.

That reminds me of Vulcans from Star Trek, and we all know Vulcans become sex-crazed maniacs once every seven years.

This practice isn't about denying your experience or trying to suppress your experience. This practice is about staying with your experience whatever that experience is.

Detachment from emotions works more like this: I experience love, anger, fear, attraction, hatred, jealousy, and all of those things. Those emotions are like waves; however, I've become adept at surfing those waves. I've spent a lot of time making a surfboard and I take good care of it. I practice surfing so that I know how to maintain balance. So, I don't fall off my surfboard into the big wave. I can experience the emotions without those emotions controlling my reaction to the events in my life.

I feel like this helps me to be more connected with myself and with others around me. Not only do I have distance from the enormous fictions my mind is telling itself about me, but I also have distance from the enormous fictions my mind is telling me about you. So instead of perhaps focusing simply on the fact that I feel pain or joy or whatever it is I am experiencing at the time, I can, at the very least, acknowledge your experience free from attachment to my own. I can listen without having to constantly attend to my own internal narrative. I find that to be a very beautiful thing.

15 May, 2012

Mailbag: More Q&A

Q: How do you get crispy chicken skin when making coq au vin?

A: Traditionally, coq au vin doesn't require crispy skin. However, crispy chicken skin is one of life's great joys. Any dish involving a couple bottles of wine is sure to be one of my favorites, although I would imagine my liver doesn't quite enjoy being marinated in wine as much as I enjoy marinating it in wine.

If you're making coq au vin in a relatively shallow dutch oven, you can make certain you use only enough braising liquid to cover all but the very top of the chicken. I find that doesn't leave enough fond on the bottom of the pan, so I tend to remove the skin after browning it in the pan and then crisp it under the broiler when I am ready to serve the dish.

Please note that I am not actually an object separate from my liver and that this is not a cooking blog & etc. Also, I may or may not be a really terribly bad guru for thoroughly enjoying wine and meat.

Q: Will you baptize my baby?

A: No. I am happy to help you create a ceremony to welcome your child into the world, but the Thomasine Church does not use a baptismal rite and does not offer any initiatory rites to children of any age. There is no sin from which your child must be liberated nor an original state of brokenness which must be healed, so I find the traditional rite of baptism somewhat flawed.

11 May, 2012

Student and Teacher

People often ask me if I am some sort of guru or "spiritual teacher." The deeper Stillness becomes the more difficult it is to do things like say "I am this" or "I am that" or "I am not this" or "I am not that." It's entirely possible to be and not be something all at once. 

The idea of the guru brings with it many of the particularly Hindu ways of relating to one's "teacher," ideas like reverence for the teacher and the necessity of having a guru as a kind of vehicle for your own Awakening. 

Within the context of a Wisdom tradition like the one I practice, those images are not particularly descriptive of how things work (they may not be for Hindu practice, either). 

It's more like the Paul Kelly song "Dumb things." I've already pawned my rings and lost my shirt. I've done all the dumb things, so why not listen to what I have to say about what it's like to undertake this practice. 

Maybe you can avoid losing your shirt and your rings. The teacher is more often like a tour guide and rarely like the stern schoolteacher. There's an encouragement not to rely overly on the tour guide, because you might miss some cool things along the way. The kind of guidance given in this context is of a very careful sort. If there's a big pothole in the road, I do want you to avoid it, if you can. I also want you to experience the journey on your own terms, so there's a need to avoid creating an expectation about what something is going to be like based on my own experience.

10 May, 2012

You're Crazy and So am I

Credit: Rosipaw@Flickr

If you're "secular and atheistic" what is the point of meditating, of questioning the workings of your own mind? If there's no soul, nothing that is permanently "you" which survives death to live again, either in an afterlife or in some kind of reincarnated existence, why do all this stuff? Isn't it a little crazy?

Here's the deal. You're crazy right now. Yes, you.You are not normal. You live in a world deeply attached to your own internal narrative of how things are and "how things should be." There's a void that demands to be filled. That void is called Desire. It fills you with cravings and it whispers to you that if you could only buy that new Mercedes SLK series, have a larger house, a better career, or a hotter partner, you will finally be happy. It never seems to get any better, no matter how much you acquire by way of wealth or status. It keeps growing, you keep thinking "If only I could accomplish this next thing then I will be happy."

You're not alone. My "mind" was not, in any way, "normal" or "healthy" before I began this practice. I was deeply attached to my subjective emotional experience, the four-thousand RPM pace of my discursive intellect, the notion of a concrete "self" which existed and whose ever-growing list of desires must be satisfied for the fleeting promise of temporary happiness.

My mind is still not healthy all of the time, but it is healthier much of the time.

One of the features of Awakening is realizing the mind is constantly telling all of us stories, and most of those stories are false, although they may contain an element of truth. The point of Gnostic practice, if I had to choose a single one, would be that the mind tells us that we can fit a square block into a round hole. We cannot, and attempting to force something to fit in that fashion is painful and destructive.

So, that's the point of all the meditation, all the enquiry, all the conversations with teachers about "what I've learnt," and all the dressing up and participating in contemplative ritual.

09 May, 2012

It's not so bad...

I've dedicated a few feet of column space to talking about why I don't really identify with "Gnosticism" as a whole. It's difficult to describe what I do in a few words, but that too is okay. Gnosis transgresses boundaries and so must the Gnostic.

Ritual vs. Meditation

Jesus said to them, "When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside... then will you enter [the Kingdom]."
--Logion 22, The Gospel of Thomas
Meditation and Ritual: This isn't the dichotomy you're looking for.

I made a post, a while ago, about some of the rituals used in the Thomasine tradition as I learnt it from my teacher. Someone asked me what the point of ritual was when meditation seemed to be where the "work" of knowing oneself was done.

I think that part of the issue here is the way we think of meditation here in the United States. If we think of meditation we think, perhaps, of the Buddhist monk sitting in Lotus with his eyes half-closed. Clearly, the monk is turning inward to do the great inner work of Liberation.

When we think of ritual as some external thing that we do which is somehow divorced from what we do in meditation. Ritual is a rote performance, like seeing a play.

Thomasine ritual is replete with meditative elements where all initiates, and not merely the priest, are invited to contemplate. Meditation is a form of ritual and ritual is a form of meditation.

08 May, 2012

Why isn't Gnosticism more popular?

This is an excellent question someone raised with me earlier this month. We were talking about the growth of various forms of contemplative/meditative "spirituality" in recent years and my interlocutor asked me why I thought Gnosticism hadn't taken off.

In part, Gnosticism isn't a well-established brand. The things one thinks of when thinking of Buddhism, for example, are fairly set. There are going to be variations based on the specific tradition, but people understand that there are things that go into the container "Buddhism" which make it different from the things going into the container "Christianity."

Gnosticism, on the other hand, can mean anything from the "Gnostic Restoration" of Jules Doniel and its attendant entanglement in 19th Century esotericism to the Apostolic Johannite Church and my own Thomasine Church.

Gnosticism suffers from an image problem: on one hand, doesn't look like it could possibly have anything relevant to say about the human condition and, on the other hand, it can look, sound, and smell far too much like traditional Christianity--so much so that it is off-putting to people who might otherwise be receptive to its message.

"Gnosticism" is relatively useless without a qualifier of some sort, and that's why I think it's not more popular. There are probably more Gnostics (e.g. someone who seeks Gnosis) out there than there are adherents of Gnosticism, but I suspect those aforementioned people may not think of themselves as Gnostics.

When I explain what I mean when I say "Thomasine Gnosticism," people tend to be receptive. If they're looking for a contemplative tradition rooted in the Gospel of Thomas that doesn't sound completely alien, they tend to hang around. If I say "Oh, I'm a Gnostic" or "I practice Gnosticism," people tend to be less receptive; it carries no particular message about the things you might do or what beliefs you might hold. Conversely, saying "I'm a Christian" without qualifiers at least says that you believ in a guy named Jesus who had 12 Apostles, who  was crucified, died, and resurrected. You may believe that last part literally or allegorically, but I think you get the idea here.

Anymore, I tend to agree with Jeremy Puma. "Gnosticism" is a dead horse or at least an empty one. Long live Gnosis.

My Gnosis (Sometimes) Looks Like This...

Seek the darkness so that there may be light.

I found this image years ago and am unsure who to credit. 

Playing with Symbols

The Holy Ghost (Wisdom) descends upon the Tau (itself a symbol of life and resurrection) which is swept up in the waves of Illumination. The three steps represent Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Nasrani Menorah/Symbol, but hopefully different enough that it won't lead to confusion.

I tend to be pretty clear that I cannot and do not represent the Malabar/Jacobite Thomasine tradition, which is a form of orthodox Christianity; but, just in case, the disclaimer is here.

04 May, 2012

Divinity Talk + Rosamonde Miller

Q: Why is it you don't frame Gnosis in the context of reunion with God or The Divine?

A:  If I had to describe my outlook I would describe myself as a Naturalistic Pantheist. That's one of the reasons I threw my hat in with the Thomasine Church; the initiate is encouraged to question the fundamental assumptions he or she makes about self and the world "outside." This includes socio-cultural and religious belief or assumptions. God and the concept of "Divinity" are assumptions. Those assumptions are not privileged above any others; they are something else to explore and illuminate.

Perhaps years ago I would have framed Gnosis in the context of Divine union, or an ecstatic experience of the Divine vis a vis Theresa of Avila or Hildegard von Bingen, but those things fell away and ceased to have meaning.

I know it may sound odd to say this, but it's really difficult to explain why things like "God" and "The Divine" are immaterial to Gnosis, because all I have is language, and Gnosis is a deep experience.

Q: Do you have any affiliation with Bishop Rosamonde Miller? What do you think  of her work?

A: I don't have any affiliation with Bishop Rosamonde. I've never met her. I did recently listen to an excerpt of an interview with her on Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio (I still haven't figured out how to actually listen to a live show).

When I listened to Bishop Rosamonde talk of her experiences I felt like she could, in some way, be talking about things that I have experienced. I very deeply appreciate her de-emphasis of hierarchy outside of ritual and her willingness to maintain a space where people can come to contemplate and explore Gnosis.

03 May, 2012

What Do Gnostics Do? Six years later...

Q: Do you regret writing your "What do Gnostics do?" post?

A: No, I don't. For one thing, the post reflects where I was on my journey at that point in time. For another thing, by asking "What do Gnostics do?" I started to think about what Gnosis was and how, or if, Gnosis could be achieved. Some people joined me in that discussion. Other people just got angry and wrote me off as an agitprop. The post on this blog was written some time after a post on a now-defunct forum called The Palm Tree Garden.

I sincerely wanted to hear, from people more steeped in the experience of Gnosis than I, what sort of things people did. Did they pray? Did they meditate? Did they practice hesychasm? Were the sacraments practiced by Gnostic churches helpful? Was using the Mass from the Knott Missal and replacing certain parts with verse and prose from the Nag Hammadi texts really the best way to have a Gnostic Eucharist? Why was Apostolic Succession important? Does Apostolic Succession really matter?

Questions tend to make people uncomfortable. Questions are a form of scrutiny, and scrutiny is uncomfortable. Asking those questions made me uncomfortable, probably just as much as they made other people uncomfortable; but, that's how I knew I was asking the right questions.

And now we have people like Jeremy Puma who are "doing Gnosis" on their own terms and questioning the assumptions made by many in the ecclesiastical Gnostic movement. I can't take credit for that, obviously, but I am glad I asked those questions and that other people took them seriously enough to think about them and to attempt to form answers to them.