Sarum’s Sea Trials

At last, my “new” 12-foot boat sailed the sea today, at the very moment when my Bishop is on the Atlantic on the Queen Mary II. I don’t know what things are like for him but there is quite a fresh south-westerly following the traditional direction of the Gulf Stream and taking heavy clouds to the British Isles. It is the season, and we can expect the cold to be coming in the next few days. That wind gave me a weather shore and some 12 knots with gusts of about 18 to 20 knots. With the wind coming from the land, there was very little swell on the sea.

Here she is, ready to go.

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I was warned that the Zef was a slow boat and would not sail upwind with anything less than the original rig. She went like a dream in the fresh breeze. The sharp bow sliced through the wavelets and the sail filled beautifully as on Sophia, my old Tabur 320 boat. Here are three photos of her sea trial.

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I found that the jib sheet cleats were a tad out of reach, and have since screwed them to each side of the thwart. I sailed about six nautical miles to the east, almost to Varengeville from Veules les Roses, and then back to the beach in time to land on sand. This is a fibreglass boat, not rotomoulded polypropelene like Sophia. Fibreglass is light and strong, but brittle and will break on impact with rocks! One has to be careful.

Stability is as people say about the Zef. It isn’t a regatta boat. She is designed for cruising and fishing, just right for me. Sarum is much faster than Sophia and sails better upwind with the Mirror rig. She was buffeted by the gusts coming from the land, and I reacted as I was taught, putting my weight on the gunwale, steering to the wind and keeping a “dynamic” mainsheet. There was always time to react before the boat would come anywhere near capsizing. The skeg helps to avoid broaching, and I’m used to compensating waves with a jerk on the rudder. My new rudder worked just fine, and the helm impeder came in useful a couple of times to sort out a line on the mast or a fouled jibsheet.

I will proceed with the blessing of Sarum and her “official” naming. I think a bottle of champagne would knock a hole in the hull, so I’ll just use holy water! I still need to sort out a few things with the trailer. New sailing days are beginning, even with the oncoming winter. In all seasons, there are days when you can take a boat out, even if you have to dress warmly. That is the advantage of trailer-sailing. You just up and go when you want (when I don’t have work to do and the weather is good).

Well, my dear Bishop, I will be thinking of you enjoying your Atlantic crossing on that great liner. I very doubt that you are in peril on the sea, but may the Angels look after you all the same…

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Benedictine and Ignatian Views of the Liturgy

I have just received some links to two interesting articles on fundamental attitudes regarding the liturgy – The Ironic Outcome of the Benedictine-Jesuit Controversy and Sacramental or devotional. . . The latter article was written by a Lutheran.

This was one aspect with which I found it extremely difficult to come to terms as a young Roman Catholic convert in 1981. How important is the liturgy? To a monastic or someone in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, as to many of us Anglican Catholics, it is the icon of Christ in which the whole Mystery of our Redemption is made truly and really present. To someone of the tradition going back to Saint Francis, Nominalism and the first strains of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, what was important was individual devotional life for which liturgy is only one of several means or “tools”.

After my arrival in France in July 1982, I began to discover the traditionalist world. Several religious communities were more or less associated with the Society of St Pius X, including the Benedictines of Le Barroux. The Society itself was strongly modelled on the Jesuit ideal, perhaps with the gentleness and broadness of spirit en moins. It was through them that I first experienced an Ignatian retreat. I later made another one with the late Father Hugh Thwaites in 1990. One is supposed to find God’s will through meditating by experiencing a “film” of Christ’s life and teaching. By following rules for the discernment of spirits, we would make what would most likely be the right decision in accordance with God’s will. I found a great amount of sympathy with that holy priest in London. The Jesuits essentially followed the Franciscan tradition of the heart as opposed to the pure intellect. St Francis was what would later be termed as a Romantic, placing the imagination and a person’s humanity before the rational and intellectual rigour. Oscar Wilde places St Francis of Assisi as a kind of Romantic before its time.

Something I found with Benedictines and Dominicans was a great clarity of thought and a Platonic philosophy of life and reality, but a shocking lack of heart. The Jansenists embodied this spirit in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in the Age of Reason. In my many reflections about Romanticism, I recognised this struggle within myself, and found myself unable to know where I was. As an Anglican, I loved the liturgy and churches, but I yearned for a human and humane Church, one that had the same generosity as Christ himself who forgave sinners and healed the sick. Succeeding and having were not among Christ’s priorities – no “prosperity gospel” for him!

The tension is between individual and corporate, to be sure, but it is far more than this.

It is no accident that Cardinal Ratzinger took the Papal name of Benedict and Cardinal Bergoglio took the name of Francis. Pope Benedict brought us images of the great and noble Benedect XIV of the eighteenth century, the vast amount of learning of that time together with cultural wealth. Pope Francis is bringing another message, when we have sifted through all the polemics about “de-ratzingerisation”. This opposition of two tides has created a great deal of confusion and distance in my mind. Both tendencies strike chords in me, and is perhaps the very distinguishing mark of Anglo-Catholicism. The Oxford Movement and Ritualism brought beauty and nobility to the lives of the poor and unfortunate. Pastoral gentleness was married to love of beauty, harmony and order.

Individualism and collectivism? These are two ideas that strike me very profoundly. I often read different views about life after death and the ways they parallel and diverge from traditional Christian teaching. Individualism (personalism too if you like – Eastern Orthodoxy makes a vital distinction between the two in the light of their Trinitarian theology) is a sign of our imperfection and alienation. Corporate man tends to miss the spiritual purpose of life in his effort to keep up with society. According to things I read, the soul falls into a “deep sleep”, goes through a tunnel towards a brilliant light or finds himself in something like the existence of an earthworm. The soul is then helped towards a level of life that corresponded with his life on earth. Then would follow several ascents, and individual personality would have decreasing importance until the soul would become a part of The One or whatever image a particular tradition uses to describe God and “everythingness”. The oriental mentality attaches much less importance to being an individual person than we westerners. Liturgy in the Benedictine perspective would reflect this surrendering of the ego to be a living component of the Church.

There is truth on both “sides”. We cling to our lives as persons at the same time as accepting our inevitable dissolution and our progressive “de-personalisation” and assimilation into the Divine. Many of us are alienated from Churches by bad experiences, or can only relate to a tiny part of institutional Christianity, as is my case. We have to live much of our spiritual life on our own in the vast spiritual desert of western Europe. I am a priest and my access to Mass is no more difficult than going to my chapel, putting on vestments and doing it. Many of my readers don’t have that “luxury”. I have often related my experience of being a working guest with the Benedictines at Triors. The smell of boot polish and unwashed sweat in the corridors made me think of the army or the sports changing rooms at school. My once weekly talks and spiritual direction with the Abbot left me with a lasting impression of the “heartlessness” of monastic life. It cannot and does not cater for individual persons, any more than the modern mechanised society of money and industry.

Perhaps we Anglicans are not always successful at living this via media between the head and the heart, but it is something I have found in our little Diocese in the Anglican Catholic Church. We are English, often of the Romantic spirit, and deeply attached to beauty, order, harmony and the worship of the Church. We have our soul as the Slavs have theirs, each culture living its own balance between what is apparently irreconcilable.

I hope these ideas will provoke discussion, even in these darkening days (in the northern hemisphere).

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Sarum Makes Progress

There’s a chance that Sarum will sail this year. I have adapted the hull fittings to the rig and have rebuilt the rudder head. I am still waiting for a couple of V jam-cleats for the tiller, for the line that holds the rudder blade down in the water and for the helm impeder.

Here she is in my back-yard “private shipyard”. By the time the varnish is dry and hard, we expect some bad weather later this week. Perhaps in early November, it might be possible to try her out on the sea.

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Sailing Analogies

I quite often look at the French traditionalist Forum Catholique which had a posting that caught my attention:

Celui qui ne tire pas les bords dans un archipel, va passer droit sur un rocher…

Quand le vent est stable, quand la mer est sans courants, quand rien ne dépasse des eaux sans vagues, pas besoin de virer de bord.

Mais ce n’est ni le cas de notre vie sur terre, ni de la vie dans l’Eglise remuée de l’intérieur !

Pas moyen d’aller droit, ni d’aboutir sans tirer des bords !

A translation into English would be “Whoever does not bring his boat about in an archipelago will go straight onto a rock. But this is not the case of our earthly life or the life of the Church stirred up from within! No way to go straight ahead or get where you’re going without tacking!

Yeah, I understand that many people use sailing analogies and know nothing about sailing. The concepts the person is trying to get over are quite surprising to a person who sails. Tacking is the way to sail a boat upwind. The no-go angle varies according to the rig of the boat, the amount of sail carried and the efficiency of the centreboard or keel. A modern yacht can go close-hauled at about 30° from the direction of the wind. Older lug or square rigs are that much less efficient, and may not be able to may way against both current and wind without an engine. Another reason to tack a boat is the same reason a driver of a car would perform an emergency stop – to avoid a rock or a collision with another boat. Another possibility is heaving-to, releasing the sails and pushing the tiller over to lee, and a small boat stops very quickly even on the same tack. I usually use this technique to avoid getting run down by a ship, and if I could see that I was too close, I would tack and enjoy a surf on the vessel’s bow waves!

When the wind is stable, when the sea has no current, when nothing protrudes from water without waves, no need to tack. It depends where you are going, even on a lake where there are no tidal currents. If you go upwind, you have to tack, whether the wind is stable or fickle as from a weather shore. Another expression often used in everyday language is “You’re sailing too close to the wind“, meaning you are running close to getting into trouble or danger. A boat that goes into the no-go angle (about 35° each side of the wind) will simply stop and be caught “in irons”. The boat is stopped and therefore has no steerage and remains hove-to. You simply take in the jib sheet to give the boat lee helm, and then you haul in your mainsheet whilst pulling the helm towards you. Sometimes, depending on the boat, you need to “pump” the mainsheet to get the boat “rebooted” and moving. Once you are moving, you have steerage and can fall off the wind to get back under way. The analogy of sailing too close to the wind is not a bad one. I do it all the time when close-hauling, but you have to feel the balance between luffing up (luffing – steering towards the wind and falling off – steering away from the wind and setting your sail accordingly) with the helm and hauling in the mainsail, and hiking out, and losing your power by being too luffed up. The more you are to luff, the more distance you travel upwind, but at the cost of power. You may have to make less progress but with more power and distance. That is the art of sailing upwind. The rules are different for reaching and running.

Running before the wind is often an image that means having things good in life. Actually, running is much less efficient than being in a full reach, having the wind in your aft quarter and feeling the power. Like sailing upwind, you have to gybe and change tack, but at a closer angle. Gybing takes more courage as the boom swings over violently and much further. The best is to sheet in, make the gybe and let the sail out in increments. You are less likely to go into a broach and capsize the boat. It is also gentler on the rigging and the sail. Look after your boat, and you boat will look after you.

Tacking in the Church? In our figurative boat, I can imagine the rocks everywhere waiting to rip our hull open and destroy our centreboard. The wind can be very unstable and fickle as with a weather shore or a lake. You have to be very quick at reacting with the helm, mainsheet, jibsheet and your position on the boat. I capsized more on lakes than on the sea as a beginner. Certainly, in the Church, we go against the grain (woodworking analogy – which way you plane a piece of wood) or against the prevailing mentality, representing the wind direction. You need to go one side or the other to make your way in the political quagmire of modern Catholicism. Interesting…

The Church is often compared with a ship, Noah’s Ark or the Barque of Peter. Mighty ships can sail big seas, but small boats can get inshore and see the details of the coast, to navigate in shallower waters than the big ship. There’s something to think about.

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Man’s Inhumanity to Man

I occasionally look at David Virtue’s site and found an article on his visit to Prague and his reflections about missionary work in eastern Europe in the Communist era and the evaporation of Christianity in our time. He also visited Auschwitz in neighbouring Poland, and his reflection was the following:

I was given a conducted tour of Auschwitz and saw man’s inhumanity to man, confirming in me, forever, the Doctrine of Original Sin and man’s total depravity. Many of my Polish friends could not finish the tour as it was too painful for them.

I have visited Oradour sur Glâne here in France, and Dachau concentration camp during a visit to Munich, east Bavaria and Austria. I have to admit I had the same reaction. Why don’t we have an earth-splitting meteorite or an Ebola pandemic? Why not an all-out nuclear war? Why don’t we all commit suicide? This is often the reflection when we are faced with pure evil and when we go to places where massive atrocities happened. The atmosphere in these places is tense and anguishing. Those of us with an ounce of empathy feel the full horror of what once happened.

At the same time, man is flawed and has always been flawed. There is still the divine image within us all, the “spark”, which must be allowed to shine through our prayer, conversion to God, virtue and good works. Man is also capable of sublimity through the divine image within us. This is something we must not forget. There are just people, as there were during World War II. There were times when German soldiers risked their lives by helping Jewish people to escape the SS, and many people earned the title of Righteous Among the Nations (חסידי אומות העולם) during those dark days, and some sacrificed their lives.

There is evil in the world, but there is also good. Many things can restore our faith in the good part of human nature, and not only when people help others in distress and danger. We also have a great capacity for solidarity and friendship. This is something I find with people who are enthusiastic about boats as I am, perhaps more than with people going to car rallies or other gatherings of common hobbies. In the Church, there are the Saints who showed the way through the Light they had within them and Christ’s Transfiguration.

Would you hurl that cold black meteorite or “death star” at earth, seeing great beauty in nature and human imagination alongside the death and ugliness. Would you nuke a whole country rather than sort the good harvest from the weeds? This is the issue I have with capital punishment in the case of a single human being, even one who has committed a heinous crime. Who is to judge that this person is beyond redemption?

The attitudes of some religious people frighten me, and further illustrate some of the matters I discussed yesterday in my article on original sin.

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Original Sin

I have just been reading this article on original sin from a “liberal” point of view. The author’s thesis is that this doctrine needs to be “reviewed, reformulated, or even discarded”. The ideas he expressed fit in entirely with my article of a few days ago on Romanticism and Modernism. The general tone seems to be that all the “old hat” isn’t “with it” and unsuitable for modern man who knows everything and has evolved to be superior to anything else. All that sounds great, except that we all have to die, as I was rudely reminded yesterday, and everything comes to nothing or there is something beyond our modern competitive and power-hungry jungle.

So, what is original sin? What scholasticism calls actual sin is usually an act of alienation from God caused by a transgression of moral laws, as defined by what is usually taught. Sin takes many forms, whether from the individual to human collectivities and structures. It is part of the study of evil. The news is full of it, from heinous crimes and murder to the police state and warfare for money.

The big problem is that if humanity was created in the image and likeness of a perfect God – therefore perfect, how did everything go wrong? The explanation would be the Devil and the fallen angels. The Devil made me do it, Your Honour… Isn’t that the oldest excuse in the book? Were not the Angels also created perfect by God? We’re back at square one. So it’s a mystery beyond human understanding. It is. All we have are a few myths from different ancient traditions to explain truths in allegorical and analogical terms. We are too used to literalism, something which takes away credibility and casts Christianity into a kind of storybook for children to be discarded by modernity and adulthood.

The doctrine of original sin is an analogy, as in the creation narrative and all the events of the Book of Genesis. Something happened in distant history, but all we read are the myths that convey it in terms we cannot understand but accept in some way. We seem to be in trouble if we deny original sin, because that was surely the whole point of Christ, the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery and Sacrifice of the New Testament. Or was it?

I’m certainly not going to take the step of denying it, because that creates more problems than it solves. The problem is more in literalism than anything else, because it places requirements on the mind to find reasons and consequences, theological constructs for which Scholasticism is famed. You then need to find out how this sin is transmitted, like a biological disease, how Baptism deals with it, the question of the Immaculate Conception and what happens to unbaptised babies who die without having ever committed a moral act of any kind.

The Roman Catholic dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption come from this particular theological formulation of original sin. The way this doctrine developed in Roman Catholicism was assumed untouched by Anglicanism, Lutheranism and all the Reformed churches, all of which followed the position of St Augustine. The current catechism defined it quite well in an attempt to recover credibility:

The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of the human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents. [n.390]

Something did happen at the beginning of our history. What is significant is that the Oriental and Byzantine Churches have not accepted Augustine’s explanation about the exact nature of this sin and how it passes from generation to generation in all human beings. The prevailing view in Orthodoxy is that humans inherit mortality which would be restored by a process of deification made possible through the redemptive work of Christ. This notion is less “legalistic” and more ontological. The “liberal” article tries to adopt a more empirical approach through psychology and anthropology, claiming that a new-born baby is morally neutral, neither holy nor evil. Such an approach will necessarily be inadequate and as literalistic as that of Christian fundamentalism, but should be taken into consideration.

It appears to me that we are all mortal and suffer from the effects of genetic degeneration. See The Degeneration of Man, The Human Race Is Dying and others – disclaimer: I do not endorse all the practical conclusions of these articles. Scientific evidence seems rather to refute the idea of evolution. The Nazis thought they could do something about it through eugenics and killing people of “inferior races”, but in reality, no human solution is possible. Each one of us must die one day after growing old, succumbing to a disease or being killed by accident or human evil. I find it believable that the human race shares the same destiny – and this was not changed (at least physically) by the event of Christ. What is more, non-human life shares the same fate of degeneration and death. The planet itself is finite and ageing.

Can we talk of original sin, rather than an original fault? An analogy in genetics is that if you make a photocopy of a photocopy of an original document or image, and continue the process for several “generations”, you will end up with a real mess. In technology, this is the difference between analogical and digital. Computers make identical copies of files that are no better or worse than the originals, but digital technology is also fraught with faults and errors – or “bugs”.

The “liberal” article attempts to “save” Christianity in spite of denying Augustine’s notion of original “sin”. Baptism would be more geared to initiation into the Christian community rather than regeneration. Is Baptism necessary for salvation? What is the Church? What happens to the “non-saved”? Is hell eternal, and if so, how can this be reconciled with a loving God? These are the question asked by all those who don’t say they don’t care, who feel concerned about the future of Christianity or another spiritual world view to replace it.

The Augustinian notion of original sin is found embarrassing by the Church authorities themselves, and Popes and bishops are in two minds. We remember how Benedict XVI “did away” with limbo as an explanation of what happens to unbaptised babies dying in infancy. The controversy continues between Universalists and those at the other extreme who believe that most of humanity is predestined to roast in eternal hell.

What do other spiritual and religious traditions convey to us? All the world religions recognise that there is something wrong and that humans commit evil. Divine light is obscured and sin alienates humans from our happiness and from God. But that is personal sin through our words, deeds and omissions. Sin is usually described in mythological terms, because they would reach a greater depth than using the analogies of law and notions of financial credit and debt. We need to examine the Eastern Orthodox view to seek balance in our understanding. The keyword is θέωσις – transliterated as theosis. It is the counterpart of the western notion of salvation – but something beginning in this life and not exclusively after our bodily death and particular judgement. Behind the words, connections can be made in our attempt to achieve some understanding. The concept of deification through grace has found its way into modern western theology, and this is something positive.

Modernists (those who believe in the linear evolution of man and that we are the nec plus ultra with our smartphones, laptops and air travel transporting Ebola all over the world) think that terms like original sin and baptismal regeneration will just drop away. Perhaps they might, and then the other skins of the onion have to be peeled away until nothing remains. Alternatively, we can try to understand them more deeply and enter into dialogue with our literalist contemporaries of “left” and “right” alike.

I will not enter the fray, since I have studied the question only generally in a context of university level dogmatic theology. There is the myth of Adam and Eve (when I say myth, it is not a “fairy story for children” but an allegorical narrative) that points to a reason behind the faults and defects that spoiled God’s creation. The Creation is also another myth. The Book of Genesis is full of them. One example I have been reading about is the Nephilim, derived from a Hebrew word meaning the giant or powerful beings that existed before the Flood. This myth stretches the imagination, and we find the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman gods, the cult of the superman, the Übermensch of Nietzsche and the parody adopted by the Nazis in their murderous plan. Mythical animals are a powerful part of our imagination – unicorns, mermaids, kraken and others from the mysterious depths of the sea, minotaurs and other creatures from Greek mythology. They are allegories of something. We are not sure what. In science, there are skeletons of dinosaurs, other extinct animals and giant humans (when the photos are not fakes). In Christian art and imagination, there are portrayals of Satan and the demons as human / animal hybrids. The question of hybrids has come up in modern science and genetic engineering.

When I was a boy of about 10, I knew that there was a kind of “safety lock”or reproductive barrier preventing different species from reproducing. However, some exceptions are possible in nature like between a horse and a donkey, producing the mule. Some basic scientific information can be found on Hybrid (biology). A vital distinction is made between breed or race and species. There are hundreds of breeds of dogs, cats, cattle and many others, caused by selective cross-breeding. Humans of different races can produce offspring, and I have seen some very beautiful people of mixed race. In this Wikipedia article, there is a short section on mythical hybrids and chimera. Can science and genetic manipulation produce offspring from, say, a bird and a frog, or a pig and a cat? Nature is tough. For example, a mule is sterile and cannot reproduce. Did creatures like griffins, centaurs, minotaurs, unicorns and mermaids ever exist, for example before the Flood? If so, were they artificially made by “Frankenstein” science?  Today’s science is not making hybrids, properly speaking, but it has been possible to graft cells from one species onto another, like the notorious image of a human ear on a mouse. Here is some more scientific information from Hybrids, Chimeras and Haldane’s Rule. Let’s not get carried away!

However, there are some who claim that some creatures other than Noah, his family and the animals he was carrying survived the flood. According to the Book of Enoch the Nephilim were wicked sons of fallen angels (? I thought angels were spiritual beings with no bodies, but the Angel Gabriel was responsible for Mary’s pregnancy with Christ) inseminated women and produced humans who presumably had genetic defects. If there was some antediluvian survival, then the cycle began over again, and this would explain man’s diminishing genetic quality and viability. Seen in this context, bodily death and extinctions are necessary. As a Christian, I cannot condone abortion or euthanasia for reasons of poor genetic quality, but there are cases where such a conservative judgement would be very difficult (eg. trisomy)… There are individual abnormalities and then there is the constant and general decrease in humanity as a whole. Eventually, we will become sterile and the species will become extinct.

There is also the mythology of Gnosticism which I find fascinating. Mythology and allegory are crucial notions, as we find in Jung’s psychology and his attempt to understand how the human mind and soul work. The Gnostic understanding of our beginning, as it has been understood from the Nag Hammadi scriptures, Pistis Sophia and other ancient sources, is quite different. The problem is not man but God. If the creator created a flawed world in his image, it would logically follow that the creator was flawed. Was the creator God or some other being?

Gnosticism saw that there was a problem in the origins, right back at the very beginning. The difference from traditional Christianity is that the flaw was not the fault of humans but of the creator. That leads to another problem. Are there two Gods, one good and the other bad (Manichaeism) or is God just as sinful as we are? If we say that, we come up against the accusation of blasphemy – attributing evil to a good God.

Greeks like Plato encouraged us to look at the good side, at the beauty and harmony of the universe. How well did they address the flaws and the alienation? The question is God himself. In the Gnostic view, God, the true and transcendent God, never created anything, but “emanated” from his own essence other beings who contained the divine spark. These beings were called Aeons. These beings would probably correspond with our Angels of the Old and New Testaments. One of those Aeons was Sophia, identified by Jung as a feminine principle, and incorporated into Christian Mariology to an extent. From Sophia emanated a flawed consciousness who would come to be called the Demiurge or “half-maker”. Again, according to Gnostic mythology, this Demiurge would have begun to claim to be the ultimate God and surround himself by so-called Archons or “rulers”. It sounds like our own myth of Satan or Lucifer and the fallen Angels. If this is so, the original fault was somewhere between Sophia and the Demiurge before any “material” was ever created.

Humans, created by the Demiurge (as the Old Testament God would seem to be in his cruelty and anger), would be composites of the original divine spark imprisoned in perishable bodies and souls. Contrary to those who know, the describing word of Gnostics (γνῶσις), most humans are ignorant of their divine spark. This ignorance is maintained by the Archons whose intention is to keep us enslaved and attached to the material world. Death releases the spark from the lowly body, but there must have been a long effort of achieving gnosis lest the soul be hurled back into the same world through something like reincarnation.

The Gnostics divided humans into three categories: spirituals, psychics and materialists. This is a particularly fascinating theme, even though it is potentially dangerous and elitist, giving the Gnostics their reputation of excluding the majority of mankind from spiritual life. All the same, it rings true when we look around us and read the news!

Much of the mythology of Gnosticism is implicit in Genesis, if you search through the layers of allegory and symbolic language. Our task is not made easy when reading translations or being unable to read Hebrew. There is a parallel between the Greek concept of θέωσις (theosis – divinisation) and γνῶσις (gnosis – spiritual knowledge). It makes a refreshing change from materialism and legalism in the concept of salvation.

Some Gnostics were Christians, and a diluted variation of Gnosticism found its way into the Alexandrian school of Origen and Clement of Alexandria. Salvific figures in their mythology include Seth (the third Son of Adam) and Jesus Christ. Thus, Gnosticism filtered its way into orthodox Christianity and human culture down the centuries. We find it in the first reactions against the Constantinian official Church, the off-flow from the Franciscan movement, the progenitors of Protestantism, Renaissance alchemists, Freemasonry, Romanticism and various influences in contemporary theology. We find it in the psychology of Jung. Some attempts have been made to establish neo-Gnostic churches, particularly in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century (cf. Theosophy) and the USA. One of the most known promoters of modern Gnosticsm is Bishop Stefan Höller, who would certainly not go down well with conservative Anglicans and Roman Catholics!

Since my student days, I have been fascinated by this influence in the more “spiritual” visions of Christianity (as opposed to materialistic, legalistic or conventional). It often appeals to the Baby Boomer generation and people who like to place spirituality over conventional religion (not necessarily by excluding the latter totally). I read a couple of works by Carl Gustav Jung, who ideas have helped me in my own self-understanding and mental balance. Jung makes for hard reading, but the labour is worth it. He was concerned with helping and healing people with emotional and personal problems to find their true selves. If you have seen people in mental hospitals, the first thing we notice is that they are prisoners of themselves. In a way, they live in the ultimate hell. Jung’s work helps to heal and cure many of those souls without debilitating drugs. Many of the ancient myths help us to identify our own inner conflicts and find peace as human persons.

I am not tempted by Gnosticism as presented by those who break entirely with conventional Christianity, but I have seen a vital distinction between the kind of stuff that can really lead us astray (when understanding things in a literal and materialistic way) and a certain influence that has been admitted and tolerated more or less in the history of the Church. It provides a leaven against the materialistic characteristics of religion that Jesus attributed to the Scribes and Pharisees of his time.

The subject of this article is original sin. With a Christian viewpoint leavened with “orthodox” Gnosticism, the notion of sin is removed from its legalistic and materialist understanding and brought to mean all the things that make us suffer: the certainty of death, sickness, human evil, catastrophes and accidents, the cruelty of the sea and the weather, so many things that challenge our Promethean ambitions. Sin and evil are evident in persons (ourselves included) and structures. The ruin of our planet and the increasing tyranny and self-interest in our politics are no worse or better than people challenging conventional marriage and sexual morality. We live in a world of beauty, nobility and greatness, ugliness, evil and tragedy. The flaw is still there.

What difference did Jesus make? This is a mystery to us. The difference is not at the material level. The death, sickness and evil remain just as before the birth of Christ. It is at a level that is becoming increasingly recognised by scientists specialising in quantum physics. There is no matter. Matter is an illusion. Everything is energy and consciousness, which can change and take different “forms”. Everything is related and nothing is separate. This concept is baffling, since matter seems so real to us, because we live in that dimension. The difference Christ and his redemptive work made through the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery are situated at another level which is both transcendent and immanent. We begin to understand in a different way and know as we had never known before. Maybe some of us can begin to transcend some of the old materialistic and legalistic categories, not to conform to some cheap modern materialism of another kind, but the reality above reality. As I was saying about Romanticism and Modernism the other day…

Perhaps, with such ideas, we will reach out towards another understanding of Christ and the sacramental Church that would draw all of us who have the slightest spiritual insight and aspiration. Just one last word. I have already approached these notions in Aristocracy of the Spirit and I share Berdyaev’s judgement on Gnosticism, “had the Gnostics won the day, Christianity would never have been victorious. It would have been turned into an aristocratic sect“. You cannot drink pure alcohol! Christianity had to appeal to souls who might have been at a “lower” level but sought to soar to the heights. Gnosticism’s greatest failure is the refusal of the possibility that the lower can be transfigured into the higher. That was the originality of Christianity.

The job is far from finished….

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In the Midst of Life…

Something quite scary happened to me this morning. I woke up at about 5am needing to go to the bathroom. About two steps from the bed, my head reeled and my legs gave way under me – I had collapsed. However, I did not lose consciousness and was aware that I had all my cognitive functions and there was no pain anywhere. After a couple of minutes sitting on the floor, I managed to complete my “business” in the bathroom, and returned to bed. I was in a sweat for quite a long time.

I have had fainting spells before in my life: standing for too long or just after a big meal in a hot and stuffy room, but nothing like this. I went to see my doctor and he checked my blood pressure – normal – and listened to my heart – perfectly regular and no anomalies. My real concern was the possibility of having had a TIA (transient ischemic attack or “mini stroke”), but I had none of the symptoms as the doctor described to me. Phew!

I need to go and have a blood test to eliminate the possibility of diabetes (which I didn’t have the last time I have a blood test a year or so ago). So, it’s off to “Dracula” again as my wife and I nickname our local medical analysis laboratory. All that being said, it was a case of hypotension, low blood pressure, because the regulating system didn’t kick in quick enough. In cases like that, you get up slowly out of bed, not forgetting to sit still for a few seconds before standing up and walking. You give your body a chance to react, especially when we start getting older.

I have always been blessed with a robust health, except (apart from the usual winter viral diseases) for small things like occasional gout attacks and psoriasis (which has behaved itself for several years, due in part to contact with seawater). I had to have a couple of operations for hernias, and that is all sorted out.  Apart from that, I thrive in cold weather and love to be out and about in the boat, walking the dogs (yes, in the plural, because we have a new Jack Russell puppy) and doing the garden. When things do happen, we can only empathise with the suffering of those whose lives are dogged with poor health, and I think particularly of my Bishop and my father.

What is the point of talking about my health? Well, when I went down this morning, I thought I was about to die. How fragile we humans are -

Man, that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.

Less than two years ago, my mother had a heart attack and died at home. My father collapsed in a shopping centre some years ago, and his life was saved by two paramedics who happened to have a defibrillator within reach. He received a pacemaker and has special medication. One moment we are here – and gone the next.

A subitanea et improvisa morte, libera nos, Domine.

As I collapsed, I turned my thoughts to God, but there was little to say. If this was to be my moment, no amount of prayers or last-minute fix-its will change anything. God is not mocked. He knows the secrets of our hearts. But, I recovered once I got back to bed. I’ll probably go and get a good siesta on finishing this posting, since I still feel quite wobbly and weak.

These are warnings to bring us to apply ourselves unto wisdom, to see what is most essential in life and what furthers our relationship of both filial respect and love with Christ. I ask you to pray for me, as I pray for all those who read this blog who suffer from poor health and pain.

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