The nameless tradition and the fragrance of violets

The tradition to which our attention is being drawn in this post appears under various names or none at all. This is the tradition associated with the names, primarily, of the Bulgarians Peter Deunov (d. 1944) and his disciple, Mikhaël Aïvanhov (d. 1986) and, secondarily, with more recent (contemporary) teachers such as Olivier Manitara (in Canada) and Zor Alef (in Bulgaria). The different teachers may have different emphases, but the tradition itself is always presented by master teachers in a coherent non-syncretistic way that is appropriate to the times and environment.

It is a welcome publishing event that Prophet for Our Times: The Life and Teachings of Peter Deunov, edited by David Lorimer, has been recently reprinted by Hay House (September 2015). This one of the best books available in English for an introduction to this remarkable spiritual teacher of the last century. Lorimer repeats a wonderful anecdote about Peter Deunov (Beinsa Duono) to the effect that the divine teaching is not preached in a propagandist manner:

“An ardent disciple came to him asking advice on how to spread the good news of love. He thought of procuring a soap box on which to preach, but Beinsa Douno said: ‘No, not like that!’ … Beinsa Duono asked him whether he had ever breathed the mountain air fragrant with violets. Yes, indeed he had. ‘Then,’ continued the Master, ‘you must have breathed this marvellous perfume without seeing the violets. You might then have discovered the little flowers which were sending you their perfume hidden under some shrub. This is how we work, like violets. Our radiant thoughts, our noble feelings, as well as our useful and unselfish actions are like the perfume of the violets. If you meet a questing soul, just say a couple of words. Light a little sacred flame and leave it. This may seem an insignificant deed, but because this soul is connected to other souls, they too will be illumined. Such is the law.”

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A Christian kabbalah of the body

The recent publication, in English, of The Body and Its Symbolism: A Kabbalistic Approach (Quest Books, 2015) by Annick de Souzenelle is a significant event. Her substantial work, until now, has not been available in English. As Tony James, one of the translators of this book, writes in the Foreword, “This book was first published in Paris in 1974. Since then it has never been out of print and continues to sell about eight thousand paperback copies every year. It has been successfully translated into other Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, and Romanian), but until now not into English.” Annick de Souzenelle is an Orthodox Christian theologian whose spiritual director was Eugraph Kovalevsky (Bishop Jean-Nectaire of Saint-Denis, the first hierarch of the Orthodox Church of France). A video of Annick de Souzenelle’s recent Temenos Academy presentation, with Tony James as translator, provides a good introduction to her text.

Who do you say that I am?

“The principle of the theandric mystery of Christ does not simply indicate the unity of the two natures, the divine and human, in the one hypostasis of Christ but rather signifies the new mode of existence, that is, the manner of Christ’s new existence, which is theandric …” –-Anthony Papantoniou

“Every human being is a micro-cosm (olam qatan), and the world as a whole is a macro-human being.” –-Rabbi Yitzhaq of Acre (14th Century Kabbalist)

“Lately, I have come to understand many of narratives in the apocalyptic and mystical texts to be ‘verbal icons,’ not simply ‘imaginative narratives’ recounting the heavenly journeys and visions of the great heroes of the tradition, but ‘verbal maps’ which functioned to actually bring the devotee into the presence of God.” –April deConick

The only way we know of the distant past is by reading the signs—and signs, as we know, are ambivalent. In the ambivalence of signs we have a compass—the eye or mirror of the heart. What do we want to see in the deep past? This determines that reality—the world we live in. The story of the Christ—the story, as one modern writer has put it, that we would most want to be true—is the great revealer of hearts. It is highly significant that Holy Scripture is sometimes referred to as the oracles of God. Oracular speech manifests in the highest degree the inherent ambivalence/ambiguity of language. It is language that sets us on a quest for the interpretation. In this respect, the future toward which we journey is not unlike the past from which we have come. These are the great determinants of who we are. Metahistory as regions of discourse—continuous with, and downstream from, theopoesis as creative process of the eternal Tao—the Great Glory (Sophia) of God. Language—not just words (phonemes)—transcending and including every binary, every duality, such as, for example, the created/uncreated. (St. Paul: “Whether in the body or out of the body I do not know.”) Christ as the Great Koan—the stone that breaks every sword.

Sophia – Spirit – Mary

Sophia-Spirit-MarySophia Compton’s latest book, Sophia-Spirit-Mary: Sergius Bulgakov and the Patristic Roots of a Feminine Spirit, is about the communication of properties among these deep realities of Christian spiritual tradition. This book is important, among other reasons, because it is focused on Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the Holy Spirit, and the Virgin Mary (Theotokos) not in isolation from each other, as if they could be considered separately, but with regard to their resonances with each other. The value of this approach is that light is shed on each of these areas of Christian tradition and theology, including Christology, in a way that is helpful for our time and into the future. There is in Christian tradition, as in other religious and spiritual traditions, a foregrounding and backgrounding of elements of the tradition that occurs over time. What we are seeing in our time is a foregrounding and coalescing of elements of the Wisdom tradition within Christianity. This is a retrieval, but it is also a manifestation of the creativity of Holy Spirit. The elements of tradition are polyvalent, which is to say they are resonant—attracting and pulling together other elements in the tradition that are in fundamental, if mysterious, ways harmonic with these. This is essentially what we see developed in this substantive new book by Madonna Sophia Compton, a scholar of Sergius Bulgakov’s work and an early participant in Sergius Bulgakov Society discussions. As such, the author is keenly attuned to resonances evoked in Bulgakov’s account of Sophia, the Wisdom (and Glory) of God, and is therefore well-positioned to discern and articulate deep resonances that Sophia has with (particular understandings of) the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit.

In the understanding of Holy Wisdom there has been a tendency, particularly in the Christian West, to refer to the Son (Christ) as the source or as the referent of all things having to do with Wisdom. In contrast to this, Sophia Compton calls attention to “Spirit Christology” as an appealing perspective. This considerably extends the range of awareness from narrowly Christ-focused attention to be able to witness, as well, the presence of Holy Wisdom, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the on-going work of the Holy Spirit in the divine economy. One of the weaknesses of the early councils is that they do not express, or even leave sufficient space to express, Spirit Christology that was so important in the very early Church. As Sophia Compton notes in regard to the Holy Spirit: “The most comprehensive modern book about the Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Church is undoubtedly Sergius Bulgakov’s The Comforter.” Compton draws on this comprehensive work on the Holy Spirit by Bulgakov in bringing together the strands of her own reflections on the Holy Spirit in relation to Sophia and the Theotokos. The author’s reflections on the Holy Spirit are organized around the highly suggestive verbal and visual images of Wind, Water, Fire, Cloud, and Bird. Continue reading

Poetic metaphysics

A Submerged RealityIn the previous post I made reference to contemporary efforts to promote Teilhard de Chardin and an understanding of evolution as a way forward for Christian reflection concerned with inter-religious relations and with the God/world relation. Beyond the concern about relating religion and modern science, there is a perceived need for a new meta-narrative to weave together the various relative truths of human experience. If evolution, as conceived in popular imagination, is materialist evolution, it is simply wrong. Teilhard’s understanding, however, is different from this in the sense of an awareness of teleology (an Omega Point) that draws all things to their end in God.

References to Teilhard in Michael Martin’s new book, The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics (Angelico, 2015), helpfully situate Teilhard’s perspective in relation to the broader sophiological tradition. (See, for example, the 2012 paper on “Parallel Visions–A consideration of the work of Pavel Florensky and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin” by Joseph H. J. Leach.) The suggestion of a “poetic metaphysics” in the sub-title of the book has significant philosophic import and relevance somewhat beyond the author’s focus in this book. It underscores all that might be said about the place and the appearing of metaphysics in the imaginal realm and about the extent to which we have (discover, or construct) the worlds in which we want to live. Scientific constructs are reflective of human intentions. Giambattista Vico (d. 1744) is an important resource on “poetic metaphysics,” “poetic logic” and such, in a context of intellectual history. Owen Barfield, in an essay on “Listening to Steiner,” wrote about a key insight of Anthroposophical thought: “In the course of that evolution matter has emerged from mind and not mind from matter.” Although we would more likely use the word “consciousness” today, this is a perennial insight beyond the visionary horizon of Teilhard but fully consonant with sophiological tradition.

The form of beauty

Christ and animalsAs Cynthia Bourgeault has commended Teilhard de Chardin as focus of shared attention over the course of this year, 2015, I have recently obtained a copy of Ilia Delio’s The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution and the Power of Love (Orbis, 2013) as offering a contemporary context and approach to Teilhard. I come to this with a degree of ambivalence, having spent time with the critique of modern science done some years ago by Philip Sherrard. One of Sherrard’s papers, in particular, critiques the project of Teilhard and the concept of evolution. At the time, I found all that persuasive. Bishop Kallistos has seen no conflict between evolution and the Orthodox Christian faith as, according to him, these are concerned with two different realms of discourse.

It seems to me that a motivation of contemporary interest in Teilhard is a desire the unify or harmonize these two realms of discourse–in other words, to harmonize, religion and modern science. In itself, this desire can be an entirely good thing, as a kind of ascesis or yoga of human consciousness. A problem, however, as I see it, has to do with a tendency to give science the final or last word and with a tendency to attempt reconciliation with a science that has not first been subjected to profound and thoroughgoing critique. Science, it seems to me, does require the critique that Sherrard cogently offers in his books, The Eclipse of Man and Nature: An enquiry into the origins and consequences of modern science (Golgonooza, 1987) and Human Image: World Image: The Death and Resurrection of Sacred Cosmology (Golgonooza, 1992; reprinted by Denise Harvey, 2004).

As the languages of science and religion derive from two different perspectives or orientations of human consciousness, a project of harmonizing these cannot recognize these as having equal authority. More promising contemporary academic work is being done by those (such as Celia Deane-Drummond) with some awareness of the modern Russian sophiological tradition associated with the names of Sergius Bulgakov, Pavel Florensky, and Vladimir Soloviev. Unless Teilhard’s “Omega Point” is proposed as a notional object for reflection along with the possibilities of the sophianic divine-humanity, it is seems somehow split off from the fullness of the tradition. The magnetic force, if you will, that draws all things to their ultimate end is (Christ as) the Form of Beauty.

The voice in the fire

It was a delightful Memphis evening, earlier this week—an occasion described as a “Sufi breath and poetry event,” at the home of Michael Graber and Julia Marshall, very gracious hosts. The evening of poetry, music and conversation was presented by Michael Graber and Mary Jane Adams, both of whom are poets/writers and creative in various media. Michael Graber is a founding partner in Southern Growth Studio and plays mandolin with the Memphis band, Bluff City Backsliders. Among her other projects, Mary Jane Adams has produced a video documentary on installation art and artists in the Memphis Crosstown Arts community. Some of their poetry was published in the anthology, Meditations on Divine Names (2012). Tibetan singing bowls and Mary Jane Adams’s collection of recorded/electronic sound clips added much to the occasion.

Poetry of the evening ranged from original poetry to Hafiz and Rumi. Mary Jane Adams’s rendition, from memory, of a William Butler Yeats poem was inspiring. Recitation from memory brings to mind the tradition of the ashokhs or bards, such as was the father of G. I. Gurdjieff. The preference for ecstatic poetry is significant and important in a number of respects. Michael Graber, who has preferred to write only ecstatic love poetry since the event of September 11, 2001, made reference to the Dalai Lama’s advice to Andrew Harvey, some years ago, to “embody the transcendent.” In the language of Beverly Lanzetta, “Those who have experienced crossing the threshold to divine nothingness return bearing a dimension of consciousness capable of holding the paradox of embodiment: divine-human, infinite-finite, one-many.” (The Other Side of Nothingness: Toward a Theology of Radical Openness, 2001, p. 4) In Love alone are held together these primordial opposites.

The work of Michael Sells is a rich resource for interspiritual reflection on the metaphysical/theological implications of ecstatic poetry. (The title of this blog entry alludes to a lecture given by Michael Sells at the New York Open Center in 2011: Moses, Ibn ‘Arabi, and the Voice in the Fire.) The term apophasis, a reference to that which cannot be named or given attributes, is central to the Christian mystical tradition from Dionysius the Areopagite and Meister Eckhart to Maggie Ross and other contemporary contemplatives.

That the pomegranates of (the Song of) Solomon should also appear in the art and landscapes of Armenian spiritual culture recalls to the imagination the height, breadth, and depth of sacred Tradition–in which we live and move and have our being. Boundary-crossing breezes and fragrances of the Divine perennially breathe life into our valued particular traditions, in much the same way that ecstatic poetry elevates our vision from smaller self to larger Self. Paradoxically enough, there is a restraint in the art (and craft) of ecstatic poetry–a restraint (skill) capable of taking us (as a drawn bow takes an arrow) to a place of great beauty–a “place” where Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are One.