(My office hosted a group of Tibetan monks, who made a mandala in our Fishbowl Room at the USC Office of Religious Life. I watched them create it over the course of a week, and then watched as they ritually destroyed it in an elaborate ceremony. As I watched them sweep their creation away, I wept for mother, who had died the week before. After 88 years of creating her life, it was swept away like the sand of the mandala.)
Rasping a brass stick across grooves on a narrow brass funnel full of sand,
A monk, leaning over a table, listening to a recording of deep, throaty Tibetan chants,
Deposits a few grains at a time onto an emerging symmetrical pattern,
Ordering the soul's cosmos into an intricate mandala.
Across from him, another monk in a robe of cardinal and gold
Rasps out a tiny line of a different colored sand, reflecting a pattern etched in memory.
It takes a week, or an eternity, depending on how and if one counts,
Moving from the inside out in four directions bounded by a circle.
Students arrive on their beach-bikes, lock them up outside,
And give themselves a minute to observe the monks,
But end up staying longer - half an hour? an hour? - lost in the sand,
Vibrated away from assignments, test anxieties, computer screens,
Smart-phones, schedules, and expectations.
The mandala focuses them on the universal here and the eternal now,
On a constant indefinable center surrounded by change.
Reaching the outermost circle, the monks lay down their brass funnels,
Don their golden crescent head-dresses,
Lift ornate brass horns to their lips,
Close their eyes to chant from the bottom of their voiceboxes,
And wave their whisks through the ordered sand in spirals of release:
In clear and sun-warmed air I stood on the shore and stared at crystal water rolling over a rock in the bed of the Deschutes River in central Oregon last Sunday morning. The shape of the water rushing over and around the rock was constantly changing. Imperceptibly, the constant current was changing the shape of the rock, as well. What I was watching was neither noun nor verb, adjective nor adverb. No word in English could capture it, regardless of its part of speech. The roar of the river, cascading down from the mountains to the west, drowned out my certitude and wore away my definitions.
My mother, Barbara Burklo, died the morning before. A few days ago, she talked about death in a way she'd never done before. "I am going to show you how it's done," she said to me on the phone. I asked her to say more, but she changed the subject. At the age of 88, with short-term memory loss due to Alzheimer's Disease and some other health problems, her mind-body suddenly knew that death was imminent. I did not make it from Los Angeles in time for that sacred moment. It was a blessing that my youngest sister Donna was there when her life slipped over, around, and away from her with the same grace and peace I sensed in the water passing over that rock in the river.
We four siblings, with our 18-year-old nephew, gathered in Bend, Oregon, in memory of Mom and in support of our 87-year-old Dad. He lives in the retirement center located next to the Deschutes River where they had moved a year before. Our grief brought tears, laughter, numbness, moments of silence, and many hours of physical activity as we sorted out and moved our parents' furniture and belongings. The day Mom died, she was scheduled to move into the retirement center's nursing unit after a stint in a rehab facility for physical therapy, and Dad was scheduled to move to a studio apartment in the same center.
When I got home, I realized that in my haste to go to Oregon, I'd forgotten to unplug my new toy: a rock tumbler. Over a week before, I'd loaded it with a big handful of agates, petrified wood, and obsidian "Apache tears". Our nine-year-old granddaughter, Rumi, was at the house when I remembered that I needed to empty the tumbler. "Come with me!" I said, and down to the basement we went. She was thrilled to see that the sharp, angular rocks that began the process came out smooth and slightly shiny from the gooey grey mud of the tumbling slurry, ten days later. We're both hooked on this hobby now!
My mom was a journalist, a tumbler of words who got me hooked on the craft of writing. She was also accomplished at watercolor painting. A bright and beautiful floral piece of hers graces my office wall. As we distributed her paintings among us siblings this past weekend, I chose one I've always loved, depicting the Merced River tumbling through Yosemite. Mom, you are neither noun nor verb, adjective nor adverb: I will always be at a loss for words to describe you, and what you mean to me as I let your life flow around and under and beyond me, forever.
Last week I tessered through time and space, recalling my first exposure, as a high school senior, to the progressive Christian serigraphs of Sister Corita in the 1960's. This week I tessered again, through a novel that left a deep impression on me when I was eleven or twelve years old: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (1962). More than recalling the plot, I have always remembered the feeling I had while reading it: a sense of wonder, fascination, and warmth. All that came flooding back through me as I read it for the second time a few days ago.
I pulled a yellowed paperback copy of it out of my library, because soon I will give it to our nine year old granddaughter, Rumi. At her Waldorf school, she crossed the "rainbow bridge" a few years ago, holding a rose in her hand as she went from the land of fairies and stories to the land of letters and numbers in a ceremony with her graduating kindergarten classmates. Since then, she's taken a joyful ride on her exponential learning curve into literacy. What a pleasure it's been for us to listen to her reading to us aloud, haltingly at first, and now with fluency, as if she knew how all along! She may not be ready for this book quite yet, but I figure it's good to err on the side of challenge.
In order to be able to discuss the book with her, I decided to revisit it myself. I discovered that it is a sophisticated yet simple meditation on mystical, progressive Christianity - and on religion and spirituality in general - for children. While it contains sexist language and plot lines, and contains some linguistic anachronisms, it was far ahead of its time in 1962 and remains ahead of our time in many ways, as well. How much of my perspective on Christianity can be traced back to this book, I wonder? Clearly, fifty years ago, Madeleine L'Engle's book planted seeds in my soul that are still sprouting.
In A Wrinkle in Time, an awkward tweenaged girl named Meg lives with her scientist mother, her handsome and well-adjusted younger brothers, and her awkward and brilliant five-year-old baby brother, Charles Wallace. Their father is also a scientist, but for mysterious reasons he's been absent from the home for over a year. The baby brother wanders off to a mysterious old house near their home in the country, and there encounters a strange old lady named Mrs. Whatsit. When Meg meets her, the old lady mutters something about the reality of the tesseract: the act of traveling through the fifth dimension beyond space and time. (The explanation of tessering clearly was lifted, in part, from another of my favorite books, FLATLAND - a nineteenth century novel about a world in which a three-dimensional object passes through a two-dimensional world. It's a matheomatical allegory about our human inability to conceive fully the spiritual dimension.) An athletic, gangly fourteen-year-old named Calvin appears on the scene, drawn for reasons he cannot explain to the home of Mrs. Whatsit, where they meet one of the old lady's friends, Mrs. Who, who is given to quote constantly from classical literature. Suddenly Mrs. Whatsit's third friend, Mrs. Which, appears, and in an instant, the three old ladies "tesser" with Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin to an idyllic planet called Uriel. From there they get a view of the Dark Thing in the stellar distance which shrouds the planet Camazotz, to which the kids' father had traveled by tessering as part of a top-secret scientific experiment - never to return. It becomes clear to the kids that the three old ladies are angels: protectors and guides in their quest to save their father. Mrs. Who lists the great spiritual heroes of humanity as fighters protecting Earth from the Dark Thing. She quotes to the kids a passage from the gospel of John:
"And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not." "Jesus!" Charles Wallace said. "Why of course, Jesus!" "Of course!" Mrs. Whatsit said. "Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They've been lights for us to see by." "Leonardo da Vinci?" Calvin suggested tentatively. "And Michelangelo?" "And Shakespeare," Charles Wallace called out..... "And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha...."
After a rest on Uriel, the kids are sent on their own, with blessings from the old lady angels, to tesser to Camazotz, a grim planet centered on a grim city by the same name. There everybody does everything the same way every day, at the same time. It appears to be modeled on Moscow in the Soviet era, or Berlin in the Nazi era: a state controlled by a massive entity called CENTRAL Central Intelligence. Surely L'Engle was swept up in the American reaction to communism at the time, but her characterization of Camazotz goes to the heart of the problem with totalitarianism in all its many forms: missing from Camazotz is creativity, the very thing that L'Engle used to describe the planet. And missing from Camazotz is love, which generates the creative urge. Into CENTRAL's enormous edifice the kids enter with trepidation, and make their way deep inside to confront a quivering, pulsing brain which controls the behavior of everyone on the planet except them. "IT" attacks the kids with an overwhelming temptation to give over all willpower and choice-making ability. Charles Wallace, thinking that by yielding to "IT", he can get closer to his father somehow, succumbs and becomes an automaton, telling Meg that it is good that in Camazotz, everybody is equal to everybody else. "Like and equal are two entirely different things," she thinks, fighting against the mental force of "IT". Meg and Calvin try mightily to snap Charles Wallace out of the spell, and in the process, the little boy leads them to their father, who is trapped in a force-field in the building. Meg puts on Mrs. Who's glasses, which the angel had given her, and thus is able to get into the force-field to free her dad.
The father, the daughter, and Calvin tesser to a safe planet, unable to take Charles Wallace with them. There they plot how to rescue the little boy. The three angels return to coax Meg gently into taking on the task by herself. Mrs. Who recites scripture to her: "The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called, but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty. And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are." The one force "IT" doesn't know, and can't overcome, is the power of love - even the love of the weak for the weak, Meg realizes. She tessers back to Camazotz and by intensely concentrating her love for her little brother on him, she breaks the spell. They all tesser back to earth, where the angels take their leave as the family reunites.
In 1980, Madeleine L'Engle, an active Episcopalian, published another book. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art is a profound exploration of the intersection of spirituality and creativity. I was especially impressed by her observation in the book that some of the worst art, and least inspired artists, call themselves Christian, and that some of the most profoundly religious art is made by people who are not religious. The gospel can be found in highly evocative forms in paintings and music and dance created by atheists. A Wrinkle in Time makes no pretense to be a Christian book. That's the last thing the author wanted. In her novel, L'Engle hints at her pluralistic approach to religion. For those who have eyes to see, they will discern the gospel in the story, delivered in a fresh mythical form. For those who don't, L'Engle would have been satisfied to know that the story touched their hearts, for the good, in an unseen gospel-shaped place in their souls. For her, Christianity wasn't just for Christians. And the gospel didn't have to be known as the gospel in order for it to do its mythical, depth-psychological, mystical work. L'Engle trusted children to travel freely in the fifth dimension with these insights. She even let adults in on these secrets, too, if they picked up her book to see what their kids were reading.
(I recited this on 9/3 at the Caruso Catholic Center at USC for an opening reception for a show of the art of the late Corita Kent: nun, famous artist, and art teacher at Immaculate Heart College (now high school) in Hollywood.)
Seventeen years old in 1970, Santa Cruz, California:
I received a cardboard tube in the mail from Los Angeles.
I was shopping for a college to attend
And my school counselor gave my name and address
To Immaculate Heart College.
I read the return address
On the cardboard tube
With deep bewilderment.
How could this possibly be the school for me,
Just old enough to realize my heart was not immaculate?
How could this be the right college for a young leftish wannabe political activist
Who spoke no Catholic?
I opened the tube and inside were two very cool pop-art posters
Signed in a lyrical liberated script by Corita.
They were wrapped by a quirky come-on letter
From the admissions director.
I concluded that he must have been an old beatnik
Wearing a beret, drinking an espresso, while reading Ferlinghetti.
My mind snapped to the beat of the word jazz on the big colorful posters,
Hip propaganda for peace and love
Copied from the serigraphs of Sister Corita.
So I hung them on the wall of my bedroom
And, admiring them, caught the groove from which they sprang:
A nun with an immaculate heart
Living, I presumed, in a musty monastery in Hollywood, of all places,
Had eaten a funky communion wafer
Or drunk some trippy eucharistic wine
And leapt out of her black and white habit
Into a Haight-Ashbury wonderland of day-glow color
And lightning-bolt visions of the world that could be
If we could turn the nukes into jukeboxes
And make love instead of war
And get the rich to give to the poor.
Her yellows yelled
Her reds bled
Her hues sang the blues
And howled for hope
And jumped for joy.
Her colors were drawn
From the raw roots
That sprouted Pope John’s Vatican Two;
Her images were abstracted theological derivatives
That met the world where it was
And aimed it at the places where Love wanted it to be.
She made graphic Magnificats
For the nineteen sixties;
She laid bright ink with the stone that was rolled away
Pedernal's silhouette, lifting its slightly-tilted, sheer-sided mesa skyward to the west, brooded under a dark and boiling sky as I drove up the winding road out of Abiquiu, New Mexico. It was nearly noon, earlier than usual in the day for a monsoon-season storm. As I crested the pass, a wide vista opened. To the north, sheets of dense rain moved toward walls and promontories of red and yellow stone. Lightning flashed, thunder boomed. As I made the turn up to Ghost Ranch, a huge squall obscured the high mesa above it. By the time I got to the ranch headquarters, the squall had passed over the heights to the east. I walked to the trailhead at the dry wash and headed up toward the golden precipice of Chimney Rock, hoping to get there before the next storm cell approached. To the east, flashes of light were followed by deep booms rolling and tumbling across the broken landscape.
As I approached the base of the mesa apart from which Chimney Rock stood, I heard a roaring sound. Was it wind coming down from the heights above the mesa? Yet I saw no fluttering of branches of the junipers along the trail above me. I climbed to the edge of a cliff, and I saw across a canyon the source of the noise. A rush of dark purple-brown muddy water leaped off the opposing cliff and into a chasm. Looking down, I witnessed a churning stream plowing ahead in the dry wash I had crossed earlier at the bottom. In a matter of minutes, the storm cell had dumped an enormous quantity of water on the upper mesa. It had concentrated into a bone-dry channel of stone and now emptied itself, rippling over a cliff in long sinews of mud down to the desert plain below.
The darkening above me bode ill for safe passage to Chimney Rock. The top of the mesa would have been exactly the wrong place to be in a lightning storm. So I hiked with dispatch down to the Presbyterian retreat center at Ghost Ranch. Spats of rain pocked the dust in the trail as I descended. At the bottom, I leaped across the muddy torrent.
I've been there many times over the years, for conferences, art classes, and mostly just to camp and hike. One of my favorite haunts is the Theology Room of the Ghost Ranch Library. It is in the very back of the old adobe-style stucco building with creaky wooden floors. The room has a skylight above a wooden table surrounded by shelves crammed with books about God. I was warmed at the sight of my first published book, Open Christianity, on one of the shelves, and was further warmed to find that an old friend of mine had written his name on the check-out card in the pocket in the inside of the back cover. After browsing among books representing many different religious and spiritual traditions, I eased into a stuffed chair with a view out a window of the glowing gold-and rust- colored cliffs of Kitchen Mesa.
There I sat, contemplating the nature of divinity, and the divinity of nature. I looked at the books, then I looked outside, then looked at the books again. Were they all follies, our verbal exercises in the futility of describing or explaining the Ultimate Reality of the cosmos? Or was it enough that we remind our readers to pay attention to this ineffable divinity? As I turned to gaze again at the wall of stone beyond the library, carved with sublime artistry by a hand unseen, I felt again the urge to describe the indescribable. I found myself chuckling quietly at the hopeless quest that I and my fellows in the God-talk profession have undertaken. At best, our books urge our readers to look out the window. But we look out the window and feel the urge to write more books!
Through the skylight, the diffused light of a stormy day cast a glow onto the table in the middle of the Theology Room. For a moment it seemed that the books worshipped the light, facing it like Muslims praying toward Mecca. All the words on all the pages of the books were lined up sideways, their thin sides facing the center, giving up their identities, abandoning the egos of their authors, in order to point beyond themselves to that which contained them, but which they could not contain.
(This is an excerpt from a book I'm writing this summer: MINDFUL CHRISTIANITY. The research I'm doing for this project has taken me deep into the history of Christian spirituality. The more I learn, the more I have to learn!)
Saint Paul wrote: “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) In moments of mindful attention, it is no longer my small-s self at the center of my being, but the awesome capital-S divine Self, the Ultimate Reality of the universe.
In that most mystical of the gospels, John, Jesus keeps repeating the phrase “I am”, and keeps asking the question “Who do you say that I am?” He answers his own question: “I am the door” – “I am the way” – “I am the truth” – “I am the light of the world” – “I am the life”. “Before Abraham was, I am,” he said, enraging his enemies. But what did he mean by this? The phrase “I am” refers to God’s answer to Moses from the burning bush. Moses asked whom it was he had encountered, and God’s answer was “I am that I am.”
This sounded like heresy to the religious authorities of Jesus’ day. But the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh put it beautifully: “...we must distinguish between the “I” spoken by Jesus and the “I” that people usually think of. The “I” in His statement is life itself, His life, which is the way. If you do not really look at His life, you cannot see the way. If you only satisfy yourself with praising a name, even the name of Jesus, it is not practicing the life of Jesus. We must practice living deeply, loving, and acting with charity if we wish to truly honor Jesus.” The “I am” to which he referred is the Ground of Being of the universe. It is God, who manifests within us as the loving observer in mindfulness practice. The historical personality of Jesus is a metaphorical door for us to open into this “I am” experience.
“I am a mirror to you who know me…this human passion which I am about to suffer is your own.” sang Jesus in the early Christian text, The Round Dance of the Cross. The great scholar of early Christianity, Elaine Pagels, explained that in this text, "Jesus says that he suffers in order to reveal the nature of human suffering, and to teach the paradox that the Buddha also taught: that those who become aware of their suffering simultaneously find release from it.” A similar teaching of Jesus is found in the Gospel of John:“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…” The people of Israel during their exodus suffered from snakebites, and the cure God offered was for them to gaze at a bronze serpent. The Gospel of John says that the image of Jesus on the cross mirrors our own suffering. Gazing at it is a mindfulness practice that is a homeopathic cure for the human condition.
In the early Christian Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is quoted as saying “whoever drinks from my mouth will become as I am, and I myself will become that person, and the mysteries shall be revealed to him.” Jesus’ apostle Thomas was called Didymus, or “the twin”. The canonical gospels of the New Testament do not indicate the identity of his twin. But some early Christians understood Thomas to be Jesus’ spiritual twin – a status which anyone can attain. In another early Christian text, the Book of Thomas the Contender, Jesus is quoted as saying “Since you are my twin and my true companion, examine yourself, and learn who you are… Since you will be called my (twin)… although you do not understand it yet… you will be called ‘the one who knows himself’. For whoever has not known himself knows nothing, but whoever has known himself has simultaneously come to know the depth of all things.” Through mindfulness practice, we become "twins" of Jesus.
Jesus, the mystic, was accused of blasphemy for saying that the “I am” was his true Self. And the mystics who followed Jesus often have been accused of the same thing. Meister Eckhart had the good sense to die of natural causes before he was taken to trial for heresy; the Church was building a case against him toward the end of his life. Other mystics weren’t so lucky. They were misunderstood, just as people so often missed the point of Jesus’ teaching. Christian mystics know that experiencing your true self as God is very different than expecting other people to worship you as God. “He is your being, but you are not his,” wrote the anonymous 14th century English author of the Cloud of Unknowing, one of the great classics of Christian spirituality.
Our identity with the divine is a paradox rhapsodized by St. Symeon the New Theologian, an eleventh-century Eastern Christian monk: “You have made me, a mortal by my nature, a god, god by adoption, god by Your grace, by the power of your Spirit, uniting miraculously, God that You are, the two extremes.” Bede Griffiths, a 20th century Catholic monk who lived for decades in an Indian ashram, explained it in the language of Hinduism: “Behind all knowledge is the Knower, which can never appear, never be seen, never become an object…. It is the subject, not the object, of thought, the ‘I’ that thinks, not the ‘I’ that is thought. It is the Ground of consciousness just as it is the Ground of existence… This is the experience of the Self, the Atman, beyond being in so far as being is an object of thought, beyond thought in so far as thought is a reflection, a concept of being. It is pure awareness of being, pure delight in being….”We experience God as the Ultimate Reality of our being, the true Knower of our thoughts, but this reveals to us that there is infinitely more to God than we know.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught the practice of mindfulness: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” In ancient times all the way until the Renaissance, most people, including Jesus, believed that the eye was indeed a lamp. You were able to see by casting light out of your eye and letting it interact with the light in the world around you. You know that little glimmer in your eye, which we now understand as a reflection? Virtually everyone thought it was a light from within. They believed that the source of this light was the highest celestial realm of God himself. God’s light was inside human beings, and if you lost this light you were not only blind to the world but also blind to your own mind, your own inner realm.
Jesus fanned the divine flame of light within his followers so they could see what was real, inside and out. "Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All... the kingdom is inside you, and outside you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty,” said Jesus in the early Christian text, the Gospel of Thomas. “I came to make the things below like the things above, and the things outside like those inside. I came to unite them…” said Jesus in the early Gnostic Christian text, the Gospel of Philip. Consistently in the ancient texts that describe his life and his teachings, Jesus urges his followers to watch their thoughts.
In the fourth and fifth centuries, the “hesychasts”, Christian monks who lived in caves and cells on the edges of the civilized world, developed a body of sayings and stories for guidance. These passages from the Apophthegmata Patrum, or Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, reveal a form of mindfulness practice in the context of temptation, confession, and repentance: “A brother monk asked one of the Desert Fathers, ‘What shall I do then, for I am weak and passion overcomes me?’ He said to him, ‘Watch your thoughts, and every time they begin to say something to you, do not answer them but rise and pray; kneel down, saying, "Son of God, have mercy on me.’” “An old man said, 'What condemns us is not that our thoughts enter into us but that we use them badly; indeed, through our thoughts we can be shipwrecked, and through our thoughts we can be crowned.'”
Jesus taught that your prayer, and God’s hearing of your prayer, are one and the same.“Look, the Lord is our mirror. Open your eyes and see your eyes in him,”reads Ode 13 of the Odes of Solomon, an important hymnbook used in early Christian churches. The hesychasts took seriously this admonition from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.“ (Matthew 6)
“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6)
It is important to understand early Christian cosmology in order to make sense of the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus taught it in the Sermon on the Mount. The cultural assumption in the Roman Empire in the first century was that there were seven heavens. This system, known as the Ptolemaic universe, consisted of the earth, and above it rotating crystal spheres in which the moon, sun, and planets were attached, in ascending order, up to the highest heaven, which was the realm of pure divinity and light. St. Paul used a variant of this scheme when he said he’d been lifted up to the third heaven. He was referring to the earth as the first, the crystal spheres of the visibly moving celestial bodies as the second, and the highest realm as the third. The lower heavens were in degrees of spiritual purity, with the earth the least pure. The early Christians believed that the coming of Christ marked a cataclysm in the cosmos, establishing direct rule by God of all levels of the cosmos, so that God’s will would be done on earth as it was in heaven. They believed that this process was unfolding, and would be completed during or shortly after the lives of people at the time. The early Christian text, The Prayer of the Apostle Paul, yearns for this transformation: “My redeemer, redeem me, for I am yours, one who has come forth from you. You are my mind; bring me forth. You are my treasure; open to me. You are my fulfillment; join me to you!”
Mystical Christianity is the direct experience of the divine, bypassing the ordered spheres of the heavens and hierarchical political and religious systems. It is sharing Jesus' experience, becoming his "twin" in spiritual practice. It is the direct encounter with the "I am" in the burning bush ablaze in our hearts. In a 6th-century mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, Moses is depicted as being confronted by not just one, but many burning bushes all around him. The whole world is suffused with divine light in this early Christian interpretation of the myth. It is a flame that burns on, illuminating our inner experience, without consuming us. If we lose the light, if we get sucked unconsciously into our thoughts and feelings without being able to stand back and observe them, then these thoughts will consume us until we are able to return to the point of view of the Loving Observer. Mindfulness practice warms and illuminates us while leaving us whole.
"Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All…. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty,” said Jesus in the early Gnostic Christian text, the Gospel of Thomas (V. 2, 3, Thomas Lambdin translation).
“I came to make the things below like the things above, and the things outside like those inside. I came to unite them…” said Jesus in the early Gnostic Christian text, the Gospel of Philip (translated by Wesley Isenberg).
The mystical tradition of the church includes an important branch of Christianity that was nearly cut off. Many early churches practiced different forms of what is now known as Gnosticism, which refers to gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge. The emerging Catholic Church criticized and suppressed the Gnostics and their many texts, which included the Gospels of Thomas and Philip. For a long time, most of what was known about them came from the church leaders who accused them of heresy. But in 1945, in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, an ancient library was discovered that included many fragments of Gnostic Christian literature. It was not until the 1980’s that these texts were made widely available to scholars and interested lay people.
The Gnostics generally believed that the goal of the Christian life was to enter into higher realms of obscured spiritual knowledge. For them, a literal reading of the Hebrew scriptures and Christian gospels represented a low level of gnosis. Higher knowledge was revealed in mystical, allegorical interpretation of the texts, through rituals that inducted initiates into deeper mysteries. The Catholic Church condemned this approach for being inherently divisive by suggesting that there were multiple levels of salvation. The Catholics taught that baptism put all Christians on one level, once and for all, in relationship to God.
For all the real problems with Gnostic Christianity, much that was precious was lost in its suppression. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which was probably a source text for the canonical gospels in the New Testament, Jesus is quoted as saying: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you [will] kill you." (Gospel of Thomas, 70) This reflects an insight that comes from mindfulness practice. By letting the depths of our experience come to consciousness, by facing and releasing our fear of what is inside, by letting out and letting it go, we experience psychological and spiritual wholeness. In many of its forms, Gnosticism encouraged direct mystical spiritual experience for the common believer, something that the Catholic Church reserved, practically speaking, only for priests, monks, and nuns. Perhaps it is no accident that the release of the Nag Hammadi texts was followed by a period of resurgent interest by lay Christians in mystical practices that draw them closer to direct encounter with God, including ones that incorporate mindfulness.
My friend and colleague, Bishop Rosa Miller, leads a free-spirited community that revives and redefines the Gnostic Christian tradition. There is much in this tradition for progressive Christians to emulate and employ. Of the Ecclesia Gnostica Mysteriorum based in the San Francisco Bay Area, she writes: “We recognize and acknowledge the value of these ancient mythologies. By mythology, we mean something that while not necessarily factual, is nevertheless true. They point not to one time and event in history but to the ever-recurrent realities of the soul. As we discover more about evolution and the universe, new meanings arise. The old mysteries, as they unravel, eternally disclose new ones to be unveiled. Therefore we can hold no beliefs—only hypotheses; open to be discarded or changed at all times…. The rituals that we celebrate in our Sanctuary, with their flow of poetry, music and rich metaphor often lead us beyond ordinary reality. When consciously celebrating their mystery, a paean of joy often bursts from our souls that connects us to the root and totality of our beings—as well as with that which has been, is, and is yet to come.”