The seeds are planted

That might seem an odd title for St Stephen’s Day. My feeling of “dryness” has probably been beneficial. Of course, over the past week, it has been the run-up to Christmas (mostly the preparation of the “secular” part), and many people will still be away from home and their computers. There is still the general Angst in the world, our empathy for the victims of fanatical religious people. The most demoralising is the complete incoherence in what we read from our various news sources – people in very high and low places are lying through their teeth. The notion of the common good is gone and all that matters is money! In such a climate, why would anyone try to be a light in the darkness? Let the darkness come and let us bring everything to a close.

I have noticed that some more reflective souls than myself have just come to a stop or even announced their intentions to stop blogging. Before now, I have deleted a blog, which is something like burning a library. I vowed never to do that again. These moments of “writer’s block” are beneficial and act as a regulating mechanism, to stop us writing rubbish and polemical content for the sake of bumping up the stats.

What has really interested people who read this blog? Mostly, it has been anything that offered continuity from the defunct English Catholic, namely the fate of the Traditional Anglican Communion and Pope Benedict’s XVI’s Anglicanorum coetibus. The so-called Orthodox Blow-Out Department has been very “successful”, but is harrowing in that it shows evidence of hatred and disagreements between members of the Orthodox Churches in regard to the assimilation of western “spiritual refugees”.

My sailing articles have been well read. I last launched a boat at the beginning of October this year. I have some maintenance work and a jib to repair. The weather is incredibly mild in Europe, and once the present spate of north Atlantic gales is over, work permitting, I may have a sail on the Seine or a sheltered bit of sea away from the Atlantic swell that ventures into the English Channel (or La Manche).

I don’t seem to have anything to add on the Use of Sarum other, than just getting on with it in the general sea of indifference. I am happy to see Dr William Renwick in Canada continuing his work of editing the noted breviary in Latin and English, and the noted Missal is on its way. I admire him for the fact that he is not doing this for money, but as a service to us all. We have just to get on with it and live with it.

One blogger wrote in his post, announcing that he was stopping, mentioned that a friend had suggested that for the effort needed to research and write something of real interest, he would be better writing books. I have often thought the same thing. I have a published chapter in a serious book on liturgical studies. That brought me a free copy of the book and fascinating reading of what I did not write. Getting work published is long and tedious, and it takes someone’s sympathetic influence to get into the “closed shop” as happened to me, someone who had used my work on the Tridentine missal in passing for his doctoral thesis which earned a preface by Cardinal Ratzinger. The advantage of blogging is that it is self-publishing and does not require the expense or enormous effort of going through book publishers. It can be too easy, and we end up publishing crap. “Writer’s block” is a censoring mechanism. I am going through one of those times.

There is another way of doing a blog, limiting postings to one per week or month. A good example is The Old Anglican Churchman by Archbishop Peter Robinson. I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for this quiet way of writing and intelligent discussion of Anglican issues. I am not quite on the same wavelength or subject, but he is a good example of a thoughtful blogger.

Some days ago, I mentioned some subjects that interest me and that I would like to develop. There is Romanticism, but which branches out into poetry, literature, music and visual art. Look at a blog from someone who really knows something about these aspects – Catherine Redford’s Romanticism Blog – and you will see that I have no desire to make a fool of myself. Mrs Redford has studied Romantic literature at university and gives a whole list of blogs and sites to explore, which also point us to real books. My interest in Romanticism is as one aspect of a greater human aspiration that manifests itself as a golden thread throughout history and crossing a number of different cultures. Its name is Gnosticism and Christian Gnosticism.

The crunch is that several of the Church Fathers wrote against Gnosticism, especially Irenaeus of Lyons and the official Church stamped out this tendency in various forms. Churches have been more or less tolerant with various mitigated forms of Gnosticism like Origen, Clement of Alexandria, the Alexandrian School in general and modern figures like C.G. Jung, Nicholas Berdyaev and other Russian philosophers influenced by German Romanticism. Gnostic themes are strongly present in the thought of William Blake and most of the Romantic poets.

Gnosticism isn’t a denomination, even though some have tried to make churches out of it. It isn’t something you become, but something you are. It concerned only a few souls living among crass materialists and those who are dependent on churches and book learning. Like orthodox Christianity and Judaism, historical Gnosticism explains the origins of everything in terms of myth, allegory and metaphor. It has its own version of the Genesis of everything we know and another explanation of the mystery of evil. It is confusing to the novice but no less credible than the classical Monotheist narrative of Paradise and original sin. To add to the discovery, we have English translations of documents that go back as far or further than what was accepted for the canonical New Testament by the Church. These are the scriptures of Nag Hammadi. These texts are added to those known by Jung such as Pistis Sophia and a whole tradition of alchemy and hermeticism throughout the Renaissance period. Some of these oral ad written traditions found their way into Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism and various wealthy cults run by snake oil salesmen in glitzy “power” suits. What is this “love that dare not speak its name“? In time, I will write articles on what I read and how it relates to my own thoughts and “feelings”.

Nicholas Berdyaev already warned us about the growth of a whole industry round so-called theosophy that developed into the New Age movement in the 1960’s give or take a decade or two in different places. These currents have about as much in common with Gnosticism as shops selling bondieuseries in Lourdes with Catholicism. What interests me is something that is deeply within us, the immanent Kingdom of the Modernists, a heavenly world we remember and for which we are nostalgic in our present exile.

I discovered Berdyaev through reading a book by Soloviev when I was at university. It was about the time when I was thinking about Orthodoxy, but found that this kind of philosophy had as little to do with Orthodoxy as the music of J.S. Bach with Lutheranism. You can’t expect too much from a Church. The “interesting stuff” is found with individual persons, not with churches, governments, police forces, schools and everything else that governs the practical aspect of our life in society. Berdyaev was a Christian, not because someone sold it to him or bludgeoned him into conformity, but because he discovered Christ through his own spiritual freedom.

This is where the seeds are planted together with all the metaphorical images about which Christ is quoted in the canonical Gospels and the newly-found Nag Hammadi texts like the Gospel of St Thomas and so many others. I progressed beyond Berdyaev and waded through some of the confusing language of Jung, but perhaps I would understand him better with more knowledge of modern psychology. Fr Sergei Bulgakov was more daring than Berdyaev even as he remained a Russian Orthodox priest and seminary professor. We will find Louis Bouyer picking up many of the same themes in Gnosis, published in Paris in 1988. He also wrote Sophia ou le Monde en Dieu, Paris 1994. These two books would bring a Gnostic contribution to modern Catholic theology as Berdyaev and Bulgakov imported into Russian Orthodoxy. Another modern witness is René Guénon (1886-1951), who was quite extreme, to the point of leaving Christianity to embrace Sufism (mystical version of Islam). I find the site of Bishop Stepan Hoeller very interesting like his introductory book Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing. I later discovered Elaine Pagels, who is sometimes demonised as a “feminist”. She has written a number of extremely interesting books on the Nag Hammadi texts and historical Gnosticism.

Anti-Gnosticism as a tendency in church Christianity, both Catholic and Evangelical, is extremely revealing. A blog by this name defines its position thus:

A civilization can, indeed, advance and decline at the same time—but not forever. There is a limit toward which this ambiguous process moves; the limit is reached when an activist sect which represents the Gnostic truth organizes the civilization into an empire under its rule. Totalitarianism, defined as the existential rule of Gnostic activists, is the end form of progressive civilization. — Eric Voegelin

I see no relationship between the Gnosis I have described summarily and some idea of a totalitarian regime. It seems to be a matter more of individuals and small secret groups (secret to avoid persecution) than a conspiracy to take over the world, something attributed both to Freemasonry and Nazism as to other ideologies in the past and present. Gnosticism is often blamed for the great conspiracies of real and imaginary groups like the so-called Illuminati or American financial oligarchs. There are many myths and conspiracy theories. What interests me is a spiritual knowledge that can bring good to persons and small groups giving no more than lip service to larger human entities – far from them to want to set up a secret police, an elite army and dominate the world!

We will find the fiercest opposition to Gnosticism in Christianity: conservative Catholicism, fundamentalist Protestantism and Christians of these two categories who convert to Orthodoxy. The precise point of contention is the notion of salvation, what that means and the conditions governing it. Gnosis emancipates the person from the absolute nature of the Church, relegating the exoteric Church to something that is useful in society for those who need it most. I have always known that there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in the Bible or seminary theology! Sorry, Mr Shakespeare! The Gnostic Christ is a balanced and measured criticism of Gnosticism by an Evangelical minister, but the alternative is what you would find in his Evangelical church – which repels many. The word Gnosticism is often used to describe all the “liberal” aspects of modern Christianity opposed by conservatism, and I have noted its (improper) use by Pope Francis:

(…) a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings.

Most churches would prefer tithe-paying materialists to those who show any sign of an aspiration to independence and elevation above the hum-drum. This might seem to be a hard saying, but is it really wrong?

Using the metaphor of Alice in Wonderland, it really depends on how far you go down the rabbit hole, or how strong a red pill you take if you are a Matrix fan. Gnosticism in its less “Christian” forms has a highly complex mythological base that would indeed be dangerous in the mind of someone disposed to literalism and fundamentalism, looking for demiurges and archons under his bed. The parallels with biblical mythology are striking as are the differences. Who were Adam and Eve, names of something other than human beings? Gnostic genesis mythology seems no more far-fetched than what we hear each year at the Christmas Carol Service.

As I have already expressed, I am not interested in changing other people’s minds or converting them. My purpose will be to describe my own discoveries as I explore this subject in books and living life. Like Berdyaev, Bouyer and the Russian philosophers, I am concerned for the discovery of a way for man to find the divinity within, offer a counterweight against materialist “churchianity” and yet for the “spiritual” or the “pneumatic” to have compassion for the less talented or fortunate around him. There needs to be this balance, and this is a drama Christianity shares with Islam – the tension between the observance of laws and obedience to institutions – the purification of the world from sinners and “sub-humans” on one hand – and the flight of the spiritual life on the other.

Many people feel strangers in this world and even to a Church that seems only to be an extension of that world in its Johannine meaning. They are drawn to the way of the solitary traveller and explorer. The trappings of New Age mean no more to them than trinkets from Lourdes to a Carthusian monk. Waking to a new and inner world brings them to freedom. Such freedom is a challenge to the materialist and the psychic whose spirituality can only be framed by the material and conventional. The man of this world is severely challenged by those who take to heart the terrena despicere et amare coelestia in so many of our liturgical prayers. Berdyaev opens his book Freedom and the Spirit with a discussion on alienation and suffering and the famous quote from Léon Bloy:

Souffrir passe, avoir souffert ne passe jamais.

There is a certain basis for going on to a new and different level, with renewed strength and sincerity. Like the Romantics, we need to turn our minds from the harsh light of rationality and extroversion to the mysterious light of the moon-lit night. It is in a new frame of mind that we can safely approach the hitherto dangerous mythologies and mysteries of ancient times lodged in the depths of our own being. I think my writings will be less frequent and more sparing, because I need time for reading. I have come across the idea that we look in vain for a teacher or a master. We have ourselves to become teachers and guide others, but only so far.

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3 Responses to The seeds are planted

  1. J.D. says:

    An ambitious undertaking Father, but God willing I’ll be around to read and ponder your always fascinating and enlightening reflections. Indeed not all of us are meant to completely conform to orthodoxy as its set out exactly in mainstream church life.

    I find a tension within myself wherein I try wholeheartedly to accept the teachings of orthodox Catholicism ( I still consider myself a member of the Roman Church) and yet my heart cannot find rest with just accepting the mainstream Roman Catholic narrative pushed about in either traditionalist or average parish circles. It’s a war within me.

    I confess I feel like I’m truly on the periphery here, having no real home within the Church yet not really wanting to be seperated from her. How does a guy keep going who basically eschews tradland and the Novus Ordo,finds refuge in the Old Orthodox Prayerbook and Horologion and the Julian calendar but still loves much of the Western patrimony? I commemorate Eastern and Western saints and am a bit more open than many other Catholics….and yet eccentric and fully orthodox on most things. All this makes me a walking bundle of contradictions and guarantees I fit in nowhere.

    I imagine you feel similar at times!

    Whatever the case, may the feast of St. John find you and yours well Father Chadwick. Prayers for you to persevere and keep exploring and sharing your thoughts.

    • Thank you for this kind reflection. I think it must be very harrowing at the present time to be a layman and dependent on I don’t know what for the least sacramental life. A part of my intention in this blog was to bring some comfort to those who are utterly alone spiritually, partly because of where they live or because they don’t identify with anything that exists. We are all attached to orthodox Christianity, the notion that our world can be sanctified and elevated, but we also seek a deeper notion of our connection with the divine. Many of us will make this journey in secret lest we be mocked or marginalised as unorthodox because we find the Church a good thing but not the highest reality.

      Fortunately, we have leading lights – if we take the trouble to read them and exclaim within our own mind that we have have always felt and believed what we couldn’t imagine anyone else would express so well!

  2. Timothy Graham says:

    Fr Anthony:

    I have been feeling my way towards some kind of theology / philosophy of Christian Romanticism for some years, triggered largely by reading Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances. It is no accident that Barfield was a devotee of Steiner, and in turn of Goethe, particularly in their approach to science: they took nature seriously, not as a collection mere externalised objects but as meaningful things that disclosed themselves to those who did not try to reduce them to movement and number, but who took them as wholes – Goethe’s theory of light is perhaps the easiest way into this natural philosophy. Rudolf Steiner is interesting too, although a crackpot in some ways, who suffers from the fact that people either put him down as a complete nutter or have a “conversion” to the cult. No-one seems to stand back and see him dispassionately, and to assess how he tried to develop Goethe’s natural philosophy. Both Goethe and Steiner might be labelled as Gnostic: I think Steiner was self-consciously so, and wrote several essays about Gnosticism and the cosmic Christ.

    I have tried to see my way to connecting these thinkers and their underlying philosophy to the early (pre-Thomist) medieval thinkers, the Victorines in particular, with their Christian Neoplatonism. It is more instinct than anything else that leads me to think that there is a strong affinity here, as I haven’t worked out any grand or even tentative synthesis. But I have a feeling that one doesn’t need to abandon an incarnational and patristic Christianity when digesting what could be called more broadly Gnosticism – one could argue that St John’s Gospel is the most Gnostic as well as a very firmly incarnational NT book.

    I suppose the reason I mention Goethe, Steiner et al, is that they help to connect (1) Gnosticism (2) Romanticism and (3) a critique of modern scientific thought with a glimpse of an alternative. And all of these seemed relevant to some of the concerns of your blog, so I thought – forgive me if I sound like I am prescribing a “course”! – you might be interested, even though your above piece is more about mysticism.

    I am glad you are not packing in your blog.

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