Category Archives: Spirituality

Spiritual practice, meditation, witness, insight, awareness.

The Spook.

Casper

We don’t refer to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as the ‘Big Daddy, Junior, and the Spook.’

I’d like to just jot down a few notes about the aspect of the Divine which, in the Christian tradition, we call the Holy Spirit. The main things I’m interested in doing though is getting behind those particular English words and their implications.

In the Semitic languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic), the word which gets translated “Holy” is “ha-Qodesh” (or HaKodesh), which literally means “separated” or “set to one side”, but which comes to refer to those things set aside for sacred use: the Hebrew language, the ark of the covenant, the Temple. It acquires this sense of being reserved for the particular uses related to the Divine.

Spirit in English comes directly from Latin (“spiritus”) and means both a non-corporeal entity (as in “the spirit was angry and threw the medium’s crystal ball at her head”) and a certain tendency or drive (as in “the spirit of ’76” or “school spirit” or “high spirited”). Because the Holy Spirit is one of the three Persons in the Trinity, I think the name tends to inherit mostly that first meaning. Perhaps because “spiritus” is a male-gendered noun in Latin, we also take the Holy Spirit to be masculine. The aggregate is kind of like Casper, the friendly ghost. A benign, helpful ghost sent by God.

The correlate word in Greek is “pneuma” and hence “Pneuma Hagion”. Pneuma means spirit and also air – it’s the root word of “pneumatic”. It doesn’t seem to usually refer to non-corporeal entities, at least in the Greek of the early Christian Period, I think one would usually use the word “daimon” to refer to what we’d call a spirit. “Demon” in English is reserved for malign spirits, but “daimon” is a value-neutral word in Greek. “Pneuma” is grammatically neuter in Greek.

In Hebrew, the correlate is “Ruach” (hence “Ruach ha-Qodesh”, the Aramaic is very similar, “Rukha d’koodsha”) which means air, atmosphere and breath. “Ruach” is grammatically feminine. It’s not completely clear that the modern distinction we make between the metaphysical idea of our “spirit” and the physical notion of our breath was made by Middle Eastern folk in that time, they may have simply seen that breath is the animating, driving force of life.

What is almost certain is that the modern distinction between atmosphere and vacuum was not present in the thought-world of people in the first centuries of the common era. When we think of air or atmosphere, we have the dual notion of “vacuum” which co-defines the meaning. They had not concept of vacuum or of outer space, just air which stretches from the space between you and me all the way up past the celestial bodies, past the angels, to YHVH itself.

The other things to notice about “ruach” is that is invisible and only noticeable in movement. We can sense wind, voice and breath but when it doesn’t move, air doesn’t seem to be there at all. The breath is a process of inhalation and exhalation, and for the early Jewish Christians, the Holy Spirit would have been a process as well: a process which connects you and me via voice and breath, connects all of humanity to each other, to the Holy Beings and, ultimately to God. Neither wholly outside me, nor wholly inside me, but passing from the one to the other with each breath.

Ah, and female. The Holy Spirit (like the “shekinah”, the Presence of YHVH in the Temple) is a She.

This short sequence of linguistic digressions leads us from the benign Casper of Sunday School: anthropomorphic, kindly, somewhat useless, male to the more radical and immanent Ruach ha-Qodesh of antiquity: feminine, always moving, present in action, the voice and breath set aside as sacred, connecting us to the Father and to each other.

And there She is. Closer than my very breath. In She rushes, whispering encouragement, drawing my attention as She rushes out, out and up. Present in every word, the winds of change, blowing where She wills.

Easter

The other evening a fellow cleric asked me what I thought was the essence of a Gnostic reading of Easter. Leaving aside the canonical response (since one of the crucial aspects of a Gnostic theological position is the individual discernment of the person, we’re prone to asking “What do you think?”), I came up with a couple of thoughts which I thought might be useful to share.

Easter is pretty much the crux (pun intended) of the liturgical year for exoteric, orthodox Christianity. It’s the remembrance of the moment in history when a human being named Jesus (or if you want to be slightly fussy and pedantic, Yeshua) who was simultaneously also God, was betrayed by one of his followers, persecuted by his own people, executed, died and, in the quintessential miracle of the Christian Gospel, after a couple of days rose back to physical, embodied life.

As Gnostics, we tend to make non-literal readings of all scripture. These readings might be poetic or symbolic or they might be inner, esoteric or mystical readings. In any case, since the orthodox views of Easter are so very well documented, let’s take them as read and look at some other ways to understand the festival.

One way to approach the story of Easter is in the context of the cycle of the liturgical year. This is the annual cycle of festivals that make up the church calendar starting at Advent (the solemn season before Christmas), then Christmas, the new year, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and through the “ordinary” time to Advent again, peppered with Saint’s days throughout. There are many ways to understand the liturgical year, but a popular way for Gnostics to grasp it is as a symbolic analogue of the journey of the individual seeker: from puzzlement or roadlessness (aporia) to the initial flash of insight (epiphany) to the dark night of the soul to theosis.

In this mystical reading, Good Friday is the culmination of the dark night and Easter Sunday is the inbreaking of God – the beginning of theosis which culminates in the Ascension.

Another way to understand Easter that I particularly like involves dwelling on what we can learn from the Person of Christ. There’s a longer post in there on ways to understand the doctrine of the Trinity, but for the moment I want to dwell on the way I understand the Person of Christ.

Much of the controversy among different traditions in fourth century Christianity arose from arguments about the nature of Jesus Christ. Was he Divine? Was he human? Did he have a material body or was he pure spirit? Did he have two natures or one nature? Was he of one being with the Father or not?

While communities of substantial size (notably, the Arians and the Nestorians) made their own decisions on these questions, the central communities that dominated in Constantinople and Rome felt that these questions were important enough to warrant the kind of painstakingly clear, doctrinal statement found in the Creed of St Athanasius. Jesus Christ was fully human and fully Divine, of one Being with the Father.

For those of us taking a Gnostic view, this means that all human beings are of one being with the Father, though we may be lost and not realise it. By setting foot upon the Path and putting on the mind of Christ, we come to see that which has always been true. Crucially, in this view, the Person of Christ is not just manifest within, as me, it’s also manifest to me as you… and that guy over there in the annoying sports car and that lady over the back with the stupid hat and the hated person at work who took my promotion. All Divine, no separation.

That’s all fine and while radical to put into practice is not a terribly radical idea. All of us are Divine is a very popular idea these days. The Gospel takes an extra step.

In the Gospel story Jesus dies. Gives up the ghost and dies, is taken down and buried. Now here’s a trick. Fully human, fully Divine, of One Being with the Father, does that stop, do you suppose, at death? When a person ceases to be a living being and becomes matter?

I feel that the Gospel story is telling us that just as the Life of Christ indicates to us the Divine nature of humanity, the Death of Christ is telling us that even matter itself is not separate from God. This is one way to begin to grasp the sanctification of the material world, to acknowledge the radiance of the Divine in the places where it is so evident: in the sea, the sky, galaxies seen through telescopes, crystals seen through microscopes, in snowflakes, in cliffs and mountains, lakes and streams.

One way to understand Easter is in the kind of paradoxical way that Jesus loved so much in his teaching. Perhaps we look in vain for sacred places, especially holy times of the year, especially saintly people in our attempt to “find God”. Perhaps the story of Easter emphasises to us that the divine is everpresent: everywhere, eternally, in every person and that our journey of seeking is not looking endlessly for the place that God is, but acknowledging the truth the Hermetic literature speaks so elegantly: There is nothing which is not God.

How do we come to notice that truth? Perhaps that’s the challenge of Holy Week.

Happy Easter! Stay off the roads and go easy on the chocolate.

New church in Brisbane

Since I began my seminary studies, various people I’ve met in Brisbane have told me that they wish I were in Brisbane because they’d like to be part of a church like the AJC. Eventually, I met a chap called Prenna who had started to suspect his own vocation for the priesthood and I realised that these folks had what I call a “Stone Soup Problem”, so called in honour of the famous fairy tale about the soup stone.

A soup stone problem is one is which a community has everything it really needs to take an agreed action, but it needs a little injection of faith to galvanise collective action. I love soup stone problems.

I invited the people who had spoken to me to a meeting and proposed to them that they work together to form a “narthex” or lay community of the AJC. They agreed to undertake the necessary work and to support Prenna in applying to to the church lead the narthex. The AJC requires that anyone taking on a public role on behalf of the church undergo background checks as well as writing essays intended to clarify their intentions in the work they are proposing to undertake. This all took some time to manage and a certain amount of money and effort on behalf of all the people involved.

This week all this effort has borne fruit. The Apostolic Council of the church approved the group’s application and announced the formation of the Saint Teresa of Àvila Narthex, the church’s second community in Australia and tenth globally.

On Sunday, I had the enormous privilege of not only announcing that to the group in Brisbane, but also of baptising and confirming some of them and formally receiving a few more into the community of the AJC. We held a Eucharist in a park next to the Brisbane river and baptised Prenna through full immersion as people fished nearby and played soccer in the park. A very public coming-out for a new church!

It has been an enormous privilege to shepherd this community into formation and to initiate several of them into our beautiful tradition. I am deeply grateful to the people of St Teresa’s for their commitment, faith, hard work, perseverance, intelligence and love. They are a remarkable group of people and I foresee great things in their work together.

I offer my continuing blessings for their work and my ongoing practical support.

There will be photos soon I hope. I’ll post again when I’ve collected some of them. There may even be a video of the baptismal moment!

Eden for grown-ups

"Caduceus Loft" by Jim O'Connell

The third basic rule — that sex is delightful and sacred — still stands. The Song of Songs embodies it. The Song points both beyond the childish Eden of the past and beyond the sad history that followed Eden; it points to “Eden for grown-ups.” In the Song, bodies are no longer shameful, as they became after the mistake of Eden; the earth is playful, not our enemy; and women and men are equal in desire and in power. God is no longer Father/Mother as in Eden, giving orders, but — unnamed — is inherent in the very process of life, as our parents become when we are fully adult.

God’s name never appears in the Song of Songs — because the entire Song is the name of God.

Same-Sex Marriage: The Emerging Torah” By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The dancer dancing

"Omani Free Stylers" by Herbet Fernandes

Liturgy also reminds us of the powerful deeds of God in Christ. And being reminded we remember, and remembering we celebrate, and celebrating we become what we do. The dancer dancing is the dance.

Robert F. Taft, “The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West”, p.345

…something is happening here that God is doing for us

[…] liturgy, properly entered into, has nothing whatever to do with me and what I do, it’s not about worshipping God in the first place, it is about worshipping God, obviously, but not in the first place, and I think the problem that a lot of us had, certainly that I had and still do, with a lot of what passes for liturgy, is that we put ourselves first, we think that it’s about what we are doing for God and we are worshipping God. Obviously that’s something we do.

Well what I discovered in the monastery is that in the first place, what happens in liturgy if your mind and your heart, and indeed your body is open to it, is that something is happening here that God is doing for us. Not just for me, but for us. And to enter into that space is hugely transforming, that enables me to respond by worshipping God and indeed by enabling my brothers and sisters to worship God but in the first place it is what God does for us. It is as I’ve said elsewhere, sheer grace of this pure gift. Out of that flows our response.

Drasko Didzar on “The Spirit of Things”. Thanks to Sister Trish for the tip.

An observation on the life of James Michael Denton

To anyone who had an intention of helping James, he was a terribly frustrating and annoying person. So often taken up with physical or emotional distress he seemed to me completely unwilling to take almost any advice, follow any helpful suggestion or in any way perturb his normal lifestyle in the service of feeling happier or healthier.

For those of us who have made our way through life trying to fix the problems of others, this insistence he had on being so completely, imperturbably himself was extremely irritating. Normal methods of guile, bullying or cajoling had as much effect as wind on stone.

I know I am not alone in trying to help nor in my frustration nor in noticing what I was left with in the face of James’ implacability.

When you can no longer pretend that you’re fixing or helping or mending someone’s distress you’re left with all there is left to give: Love.

James in his dogged insistence on ignoring all my advice left me with only one avenue to take: to simply love him. The one thing he’d accept from anyone really, was Love; which perhaps helps explain why James was one of the most lovable people most of us have ever met.

With most people there’s a sense of bargaining around the giving and receiving of Love. James didn’t negotiate. He simply was himself and thus inspired such great love from so many people.

If there’s a lesson to take from the life of James Denton, then perhaps it’s got something to do with that.

Rest in Peace, my dear friend.