Tag Archives: gnosis

Guardian Angels in the Gnostic tradition

The idea of guardian spirits or angels was fairly widely known throughout the West during the period of antiquity, though these took many different forms.

For example, the Romans worshipped spirits called the lares, who were ancestor spirits who remained to guard over a family and household.  This entailed protection from harm as well as protection of the family’s hearth and bounty.  The Romans also believed in spirits called genii (sg. genius), who were associated with a particular person, place, or concept, and charged with guarding and protecting the virtue of that which they watched over.  The office of Roman emperor had a genius, as did the entire people of the Roman Empire.

Roman subjects paid a kind of spiritual tax in the requirement to regularly offer a small sacrifice, usually a small pastry or cake, to the genii of the emperor and the Roman Empire. Jews were exempted from making this sacrifice by special treaty, but that dispensation did not apply to Christians.  Refusing to make this sacrifice was the most frequent act for which Christians were condemned during the waves of persecution that sometimes swept through the Empire.

Among the various sects of Judaism, the idea of protective spirits was adopted gradually, though naturally as angels.  Daniel, when sent to the lions’ den, was protected by an angel, though it does not read as if this was an angel permanently appointed to protect him.  In the Book of Enoch are mentioned angels sent to guard over the righteous (and, according to the Epistle of Jude, to execute the Lord’s judgment).  Also, the Book of Enoch describes several archangels whose duties include promotion of justice, especially Michael.

It is this type of guardian angel who appears in Acts 12, in which an angel freed Peter from jail.  When Peter made his way to the house of Mary the mother of John, he knocked at the gate, only to have the apostles think, since it can’t be him (he’s in prison!) maybe it’s his angel.

The Holy Spirit, as a guide and protector to the body of the church, plays a role not unlike the genius of the Empire.  This is also analogous to the Kabbalistic idea of the Keneset Yisrael, the soul of the body of Israel – a spiritual bond connecting the members of the nation together as one body.

The Gnostics also spoke about guardian angels, but their understanding was somewhat different.  An excellent essay, “Joined to an Angel,” describes the role of the guardian angel in the Valentinian scripture and its importance in the Gnostic sacraments – especially the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber, which was not a marital ceremony between man and woman, but a marriage between the aspirant and their guardian angel, spiritually analogous to the marriage of Christ and Sophia.

In the Valentinian tradition, each person has an angel who is a go-between between them and the divine presence — but the connection is even deeper than that.  The Gospel of Philip describes the union with the guardian angel by way of an analogy:

The forms of evil spirit include male ones and female ones. The males are they which unite with the souls which inhabit a female form, but the females are they which are mingled with those in a male form… And none shall be able to escape them, since they detain him if he does not receive a male power or a female power, the bridegroom and the bride. One receives them from the mirrored bridal chamber. When the wanton women see a male sitting alone, they leap down on him and play with him and defile him. So also the lecherous men, when they see a beautiful woman sitting alone, they persuade her and compel her, wishing to defile her. But if they see the man and his wife sitting beside one another, the female cannot come into the man, nor can the male come into the woman. So if the image and the angel are united with one another, neither can any venture to go into the man or the woman.

The image (eidolon) is a Gnostic term for the material body, and the implication is that the angel is almost like another half of your soul without whom you are incomplete.

This esoteric notion of the guardian angel has its roots (as do many of the Gnostic ideas) in the writings of Plato.  During the classical period, the Greek words for personal angel (daimon) and god (theou) were used somewhat interchangeably.  By the time of Plato a distinction started to appear, which was explicated in this exchange between Socrates and the priestess Diotima in the Symposium:

“What then is Love?” I asked; “Is he mortal?” “No.” “What then?” “As in the former instance, he is neither mortal nor immortal, but in a mean between the two.” “What is he, Diotima?” “He is a great spirit (daimon), and like all spirits he is intermediate between the divine and the mortal.” “And what,” I said, “is his power?” “He interprets,” she replied, “between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods; he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him all is bound together, and through him the arts of the prophet and the priest, their sacrifices and mysteries and charms, and all, prophecy and incantation, find their way.

A similar notion of the guardian angel persists to this day, which is known in modern occultism because it was developed into a system of theurgic magic by Mathers in his Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, the central goal of which is called the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel.  The aspirant, after a period of ritual purification (similar to the ascetic lifestyle advocated by many of the Gnostic sects) is said to attain mastery over many things in this world.  The magical SATOR square, employed therein, was known to ancient magic practitioners, including those of ancient Alexandria.  In many ways, we see, the Western esoteric tradition has remained largely intact over the millennia.

The Key Is The Mind

When I wrote my last post, my intention was to start a series of posts summarizing the heart of the Gnostic way of looking at the world.  The idea at the heart of Gnosticism is the idea that each of us has a bit of divinity within us.  But this idea alone took various schools in completely different directions, depending on their overall outlook.  Gnosticism defies easy description or the inclination to get to the bottom line.

Another theme common to all of the Gnostic sects focus on the importance of the mind, of thought, and of rationality.  We’ve already discussed metanoia at length – the process of raising up the mind – and many of the aions have names which are some form of the word Nous/Noia, the Greek word for ‘mind’ or ‘thought’.  In the Gnostic creation myth, the first act of the Father is to contemplate.  As described in the Secret Book of John:

His aeon is indestructible, being in a state of tranquility, at rest in silence. … (It is) the one who knows Itself alone in the light-water that surrounds It, which is the spring of living water, the light which is full of purity. In every way It perceived Its own image, seeing It in the pure light-water which surrounds It.

We might here imagine the mind of the Father, a sole Oneness in the cosmos, surrounded by reflective water in all directions, looking out in all directions and seeing only himself.  It’s a bit reminiscent of the spirit of God reflecting in the waters at the beginning of Genesis 1.

And Its thinking become a thing. She appeared. She stood in Its presence in the brilliance of the light; she is the power which is before the All. It is she who appeared, she who is the perfect Pronoia of the All, the light, the likeness of the light, the image of the Invisible, she who is the perfect power, Barbelo, the perfect aeon of the glory.

Pronoia is a Greek word meaning “first thought.”  These events are still occurring within a mind: the Father in perfect stillness and silence, contemplating his reflection in the luminescent water; the first thought being articulated and becoming distinguished from the Father’s prior state of contemplation.

The creation of Barbelo, the First Thought of the Father, parallels the creation of Sophia as depicted in Proverbs 8:21-32: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.. … I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight.”

Pronoia acts as the Father’s mouth, speaking forth words as the Father contemplates them and then passes them into her mind.  There is a hint perhaps of sexual parentage here, especially in the image of the Father’s offspring being birthed by Pronoia the Mother as she speaks his words aloud.  The Father and Pronoia exist as a syzygy, a union of two beings into one.

The word given form by being spoken is Logos, from whom, the myth tells us, the rest of the cosmos was given order and form.

In the Valentinian version of the mythos, the prime syzygy is the union of Profundity with Silence; this pair precedes Mind and Truth.  The idea is largely the same; at the root of it all, a mind at rest, in silence, engages in deep reflection.  It is no accident that this also describes the experience of one who performs silent prayer or stillness meditation.  The “little” mind (or microcosmos) of the individual aspiring to union with God is of the same essence as the “big” mind (or macrocosmos) of God, and it is this likeness that makes reunion possible.  And, the Gnostics say, it is the state of silent contemplation in which our individual minds are most like the mind of God, so this is the best state in which to discern truth.

[W]henever 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.  Matthew 6:6

In my last post, I mentioned the Valentinian view that the struggle for error vs. truth takes place primarily in the mind.  It was not their position that the mind is all there is, but merely that within is where the most profound change occurs.

A common concern expressed by those who mistrust the mysticism of “looking within” is that it is too easy to be led astray.  If in the middle of a profoundly touching mystical experience one entertains a fanciful notion, it is too easy to find oneself set on a path away from truth.  Indeed, the Gnostics themselves provide us with material enough to caution us in this regard – some of their writings are very bizarre indeed.  But the answer to this is in the notion of logic.  For example, Paul had this to say about the process:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

The word translated “spiritual” is logike, which can also mean discerning with rationality – literally with logic.  It is almost certain he meant that as a reference to Logos, the principle which brings order to the cosmos and to the mind.  “Logic” is of course a cognate of “Logos.”  The discernment which we embark upon should produce results which are rational and which ring true when we consider them in light of the world around us.  Thus we are warned against letting our mind lead us astray by grounding our insights in rationality and experience.  They should lead us into, not away from, a state of proportion and balance.

The next indication that your mind is healing in the right direction is that your actions are more consistently ethical and compassionate.  Both the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12, which I quoted above, lead directly from instructions on “logical worship” and “praying in private” to guidelines on ethical behavior.  We find this too in the Gospel of Truth:

Say then in your heart that you are this perfect day and that in you the light which does not fail dwells. Speak concerning the truth to those who seek it and of knowledge to those who, in their error, have committed sin. Make sure-footed those who stumble and stretch forth your hands to the sick. Nourish the hungry and set at ease those who are troubled. … [T]his one, because he is a righteous person, does his works among others. Do the will of the Father, then, for you are from him. For the Father is sweet and his will is good.

Rebirth in the Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas and several related works such as the Book of Thomas the Contender were the product of a community in Galilee or Syria modern scholars call “the Thomas Christians,” and we can call collectively the body of scripture they wrote “the Thomas scripture.”  They wrote the first draft of the Gospel of Thomas around the same time as Paul wrote his letters, circa 50 CE, a generation or so before the Gospel of Mark was written.

At the time of Jesus, there was a great amount of diversity of belief among the Jewish people, including about the notion of the afterlife.  The Sadducees held to a traditional Jewish view of the afterlife as described in the book of Ecclesiastes 3:19-20: that when a person dies, all of them dies.  The Pharisees added to this the idea that upon the return of the Messiah, the righteous would be resurrected from the dead.

Early Christians, like the Essenes and other apocalyptic sects, adopted the Greek idea of the afterlife.  According to this teaching, each person has an eternal soul.  When a person dies, the soul is guided by a psychopomp to the underworld, where they are judged and sent on to a final destination: a pleasant realm like Elysium for the virtuous, or a fiery realm of punishment like Tartarus for the wicked.

But these were not the only ideas about death and the eternal soul being considered and debated among people of the middle east at that time.  Most of the Gnostic communities, due to the influence of Buddhism, professed some degree of belief in rebirth.  Rebirth is not quite like the more familiar idea of reincarnation.  The idea of reincarnation is that each person has an immortal soul that remains unchanged from incarnation to incarnation.  The idea of rebirth is a bit more nebulous: that some of the energy that makes us up is eternal — the eternal breath, or holy spirit (ruach hakodesh or hagia pneuma) — but that the self, or the part of us that identifies as “I,” is not.  The “I” dies along with the body and the eternal essence is released back into the cosmos.

The Thomas Christians believed this, but they also taught that Jesus made it possible for the “I” to become immortal and persist after death.  This was a privilege granted only to the righteous.  Consider for example Saying 60 of the Gospel of Thomas (I’ve slightly interpolated from the translation here):

He saw a Samaritan carrying a lamb and going to Judea. He said to his disciples, “[Why is that man carrying a lamb?]” They said to him, “So that he may kill it and eat it.” He said to them, “He will not eat it while it is alive, but only after he has killed it and it has become a carcass.”
They said, “Otherwise he can’t do it.”
He said to them, “So also with you, seek for yourselves a place for rest, or you might become a carcass and be eaten.”

Rest, or repose, or stillness, as I noted in my commentary on the Gospel of Truth, is used as a way of depicting the process of achieving gnosis with the divine presence by way of quiet prayer and stillness meditation.

The Gospel of Thomas is very concerned with the distinction between being alive and being a corpse; it comes up so often we might consider it a major theme.  The idea is that if you die without salvation, your identity will fade and your spirit will be reabsorbed into the world, and you won’t have another shot at achieving eternal life for your selfhood until you are a human again, which may take some time.  Consider this excerpt from the Book of Thomas the Contender:

The savior replied, “Listen to what I am going to tell you and believe in the truth. That which sows and that which is sown will dissolve in the fire – within the fire and the water – and they will hide in tombs of darkness. And after a long time they shall show forth [as] fruit of the evil trees, being punished, being slain in the mouth of beasts and men at the instigation of the rains and winds and air and the light that shines above.”

This illuminates the meaning of the stranger sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, such as saying 7:

Jesus said, “Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human.”

There is something of an alchemical understanding of spirit at play here.  Spirit evolves when beings eat others or are themselves eaten.  If a ‘higher’ being eats a ‘lower’ being (with humans being seen as the pinnacle – what else would we expect a human to say?), it transforms the spirit of the eaten from a lower state to a higher state.  If a ‘lower’ being eats a ‘higher’ being, the spirit is still transformed from a lower state to a higher state, but all the sadder for the higher being!  But if spirit is buried in the earth along with a body, it has to start all over again… being absorbed by the roots of trees and showing forth as fruit.  (There must be a metaphorical level of meaning here too, or else why are the trees called evil?)

What goes into your mouth will not defile you; rather, it’s what comes out of your mouth that will defile you. (Thomas 14; also Matthew 15:11, compare Luke 6:45)

According to the Thomas Christians, the person who is able to achieve immortality in their identity will live on and has a chance to escape from the world, which was constructed as a prison for spirit.

Jesus said, “Whoever has come to know the world has discovered a carcass, and whoever has discovered a carcass, of that person the world is not worthy.” (Thomas 56)

The Gospel of Truth, conclusion: An Instrument of Metanoia

There’s a tension hidden in the metaphors and imagery used in the Gospel of Truth, and it regards the meaning of the metaphor of “error.” Throughout the text, “hylic substance” — matter, in other words — is said to be from a swirling “fog of error” which grew so thick it could take on form. Presumably the people of Valentinus’ time were unaware of how clouds of matter in space slowly condense over time into stars and planets, but the idea is similar. The obvious implication of equating matter with error is that the material universe is an illusion, which is a doctrine classically associated with Gnosticism.

But there’s another way to interpret the Gospel of Truth’s narrative about error, and I lean towards this being the “real” underlying meaning: that error taking on substance is a metaphor for the process by which concepts can get in the way of understanding our experiences, especially mystical experiences which can defy description.

The term “hypostasis” has numerous meanings, but we can use it here to refer to a process that happens within discourse over the course of decades. It starts with one writer or speaker, struggling to come up with a way to describe a particularly profound experience or realization. He or she chooses a term, knowing that it comes up a bit short, but which can be made to accommodate the thought being communicated.  The problem is that religious experience often defies easily being matched with categories or notions or concepts that were designed to describe “things” in the real world and “events” which happen to those “things.” So the community agrees by convention to use, say, the word “wisdom” (sophia) to refer to one aspect of an ineffable experience.

The next generation comes along, and see this word sophia closely associated with something that affected the authors or speakers profoundly. They don’t have the benefit of the actual shared experience which triggered the start of this discourse, a particular circumstance that has now become a part of history. Their experience is of a community that has always used the word sophia to refer to a particular part of their experience. Add to this that the next generation may even have their own, separate sets of ineffable experiences that they choose to associate with this word. But the problem is clear: religious discourse is a giant game of ‘telephone’ played over centuries.

The further in time a religious community is from the initial experience which led them to gather together the particular set of ideas they use to describe what happened to them, the more profoundly the original meaning is lost. In that absence, a new meaning starts to form around the word sophia, and a “goddess,” Sophia, is born. By this time all you have at the center of your religious community is a set of ideas — the pneuma, the spiritual breath that permeated the original experience, is absent.

At the same time, though, the solution is not to sweep away the edifice. That edifice is necessary because it does provide a vocabulary which we might then use to describe our experiences with the divine. Without the edifice it is not possible to reconstruct the steps which led to the initial experience in the first place. We need a shared or cultural atlas of the mind in order to put these experiences into perspective.

The Gnostic program, then, was not to sweep everything off the table, but to make you aware, as much as possible, that religious doctrine is a set of tools. And not just religious doctrine, but philosophy or discourse in general. The key when using it to describe ones experiences of the divine presence is to make them work for you — not to let them control your expectations or box in your mind. And of the errors one can make, where the Gnostics were concerned, one of the deepest is to believe in the literal truth of religious doctrine.

For evidence, consider in itself the reality of the Nag Hammadi library: 13 codices of mostly Gnostic writing from various schools, times, and places. There are at least a dozen different versions of the creation myth among these texts alone. These texts give different names for the aions, different names for the archons. They differ on just about every point of morality or doctrine. They are not the collective product of a community that believed deeply in the literal truth of what they had written. But these texts must have served some purpose, or they would not have been maintained.

Perhaps each text in the library was the product of a different school who believed in the literal truth of its own scripture. Maybe: but this leads to the question of who would have gathered all these various contradictory texts into volumes together?

Perhaps the collector was an opponent of heresy who had collected them in order to refute them. Maybe: but what opponent of heresy would have stolen off into the desert to hide these texts in order to protect them from discovery by the literal-minded Church who intended to destroy them? (Besides, as James Robinson pointed out in the introduction to The Nag Hammadi Library, the scribal margin notes belie the idea that they were collected by an opponent.)

The very existence of the Nag Hammadi library is astounding in this regard. But it is not just the juxtaposition of contradictory scriptures in one library that leads us to the conclusion above: it is the conduct of the Gnostics themselves in their own congregations, as reported by their opponents. Elaine Pagels cited Tertullian’s indignance at the way the Gnostics conducted their ceremonies as an example of the church’s outrage — expressing dismay that they took turns in the role of priest or bishop, while denying that the bishops appointed by the church had any special authority.

It is uncertain who is a catechumen, and who a believer: they all have access equally, they listen equally, they pray equally — even pagans, if any happen to come… They share the kiss of peace with all who come, for they do not care how differently they treat topics…. (Tertullian, quoted in The Gnostic Gospels, p. 42)

We can begin to form an idea of what wisdom was spoken among the initiates in the Valentinian gatherings. Recall in Matthew 13 that when Jesus was alone with the disciples, he gave them an explanation for the meaning of the parable of the sower along with a justification for speaking in parables in the first place: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.'”

The parables in the gospels, and even the many numerous parables in the Gospel of Truth – and there are many – are considered by the Valentinians to be “rehearsal” for the teaching that Christian doctrine itself is a parable.

We begin to understand now the role of the Gospel of Truth. Valentinus sought to develop the spiritual themes he found common to Hellenistic philosophy, Gnosticism as it existed before him, and Christianity, gathering them in a format that would be easily understandable to Christians, but also easily digestible in the light of the revelation that the entire doctrine is a parable. The experience can not be communicated directly; it has to occur as a transformation in the way you view something you have been contemplating. So the Gospel of Truth presents the Christian doctrine in familiar terms, but in a form designed to make it easier to make the leap from believing in it to understanding it as a grand metaphor. The pivot is one’s relationship with the Father.

When someone calls your name, it brings about a sudden change in your conscious state. Valentinus used this as a metaphor for the experience of metanoia:

If one has knowledge, he is from above. If he is called, he hears, he replies, and he turns toward him who called him and he ascends to him and he knows what he is called. Since he has knowledge, he does the will of him who called him. He desires to please him and he finds rest. He receives a certain name. He who thus is going to have knowledge knows whence he came and whither he is going. He knows it as a person who, having become intoxicated, has turned from his drunkenness and having come to himself, has restored what is his own.

The Gospel of Truth, 1

The Gospel of Truth was written circa 150 CE by a member of the Valentinian school of Gnostic Christianity. The author was probably Valentinus himself, though we do not have a direct attribution. Notable for its clear and beautiful prose, it was widely-read throughout the late second century CE and serves as an excellent starting point for an exploration of classical Gnostic Christianity. I will excerpt from the translation by Robert Grant, published in The Nag Hammadi Library and available to read here at the Gnostic Society Library, though I also recommend the translation by Bentley Layton available in The Gnostic Scriptures.

The gospel of truth is joy to those who have received from the Father of truth the gift of knowing him by the power of the Logos, who has come from the Pleroma and who is in the thought and the mind of the Father; he it is who is called “the Savior,” since that is the name of the work which he must do for the redemption of those who have not known the Father.

When reading a text from the Valentinian school, keep in mind that these authors were fond of looking for ways to express several ideas using the same set of words. They read and wrote scripture according to a technique we might compare to the Jewish approach of pardes – drawing from not just the most direct way of reading the text, but seeking clues that point to mystical or even esoteric ideas.

“The gospel of truth” is not the title of this text, though it is now used as that because the original manuscript did not specify a title. On the most direct level, “the gospel of truth” likely refers to the familiar doctrine of Christianity. But to those reading with a more esoteric frame of mind, this phrase referred more widely to the expression of cosmic truth in any form it may take, of which the Christian gospel was just one form.

“The gospel of truth is joy to those who have received from the Father of truth the gift of knowing him by the power of the Logos” – the most direct way to read this is as a fairly innocuous Christian statement, invoking the Father as the provider of truth by way of the Logos. But there is also an esoteric reading here. The “gift” given to us by the Logos is “knowing [the Father]” – where “knowing” means gnosis, a mystical experience of affinity or closeness with the Father.

The word Logos (from the Greek word for word) has a rich history that predates Christianity and its use here invokes that fuller meaning. It is probably familiar to most readers for its use in the Gospel of John. It was almost certainly the intention of the author of the Gospel of John to incorporate the earlier, pre-Christian meanings of the word into his message. Originally, “Logos” was a name the Stoic philosophers gave to the cosmic mind they believed was responsible for coalescing all that exists into a natural order. To the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the Stoic Logos was clearly an expression of the power by which the Lord created by speaking, as described in Genesis 1. The opening of the Gospel of John, which paralleled the creation story of Genesis 1, casts the Logos in this way: it “was with God, and was God” at the beginning.

But, for Philo, the Logos expresses another idea: a similarity of essence between the human mind and the Lord’s mind of which it is a reflection. In other words, the human mind and the divine mind are made out of the same “stuff.” This notion is key to understanding the Gnostic philosophy and worldview.

Pleroma is a Greek word which means “fullness” and in this context calls to mind the fullness of the divine presence.  For now we can think of it as the original or genuine cosmic order as conceived in the mind of God – the Platonic realm of Forms.  The concept originates in the dialogs of Plato, which were a source of inspiration for Gnostics of the classical period.  For example, in Phaedo, we find this passage, which compares the “true” heaven and earth to the one in which we live, which may contain many beauties but is still “corrupted and corroded” by comparison:

We live in a hollow of the earth and think we live on the surface, and call the air heaven, …[but] if a man could come to the top of it, and get wings and fly up, he could peep over and look, just as fishes here peep up out of the sea… [so] he could learn and know that that is the true heaven and the true light and the true earth.  For this earth and the stones and all the the places here are corrupted and corroded… so that nothing worth mention grows in the sea, and there is nothing perfect there, one might say, but caves and sand and infinite mud and slime wherever there is any earth, things worth nothing at all as compared with the beauties we have; but again those above as compared with ours would seem to be much superior.  (Phaedo, translated by W. H. D. Rouse, in Great Dialogues of Plato, p. 314)

Thus “the power of the Logos” is not merely the message and acts of Jesus Christ, but all the ways by which we come to gnosis – to a closer awareness of the divine presence. And so the esoteric meaning of this first sentence is that truth, or expression rooted in the genuine cosmic order – in the Pleroma – originates from the Father’s mind and was expressed during the act of creation by speaking words. And, since our minds are akin to the Father’s mind, we can through this affinity become attuned to the Father.

But – if our minds should be by nature ‘attuned’ to the divine wavelength, why aren’t they? I’ll explore this question more deeply in my next post.