I was feelin’ poorly yesterday. Though I managed to evade the cold that was trying to catch me, body and mind felt slow and stupid. I ended up climbing back into bed and, with eyes too tired for the computer, tried to read the vast heap o’ books that’s been building by the bedside.
Inspired by a friend, I’ve gotten into reading about Eastern Orthodox spirituality, which led in turn to Gnostic spirituality. Religion to me is as fascinating as it is opaque, as compelling as it is impossible. But I keep hoping something will eventually make sense, that an answer will turn up to some key question. That something will click.
Never mind that I was lying there trying to read The Way of a Pilgrim, excerpts from the monastic tome Philokalia and The Gospel of Thomas with a brain that could barely have handled Thomas the Tank Engine.
This kind of reading in religion is roughly equivalent, I suppose, to being a freedomista and delving into details of the Articles of Confederation and the Northwest Ordinances. Not necessarily difficult or dull. But you really have to care.
Actually, The Way of a Pilgrim (the Russian classic about the Jesus Prayer made famous to the rest of the world by J.D. Salinger in Franny and Zooey) is a lovely (and thin!) little book. And The Gospel of Thomas is cool in that it makes Jesus — Yeshua, in the translation I have — sound like a Zen master. No shepherds or magi, no hellfire threats, just sayings that appear simple on their face and go miles deep. Pleasant to read. But not “lite.”
(And yes, I’m reading four or five books at once; it’s easier to skip around when books are “heavy” and it’s not like I’m going to lose a crucial plot thread by jumping from Elaine Pagels to Fr. Thomas Keating.)
Religion remains a puzzle to me. But I’m about half thinking I could be a Gnostic. Or maybe have always been one. Their cosmology is as goofy as any other religion’s. But it’s orderly and elegant. And somehow, in its symbolic way, it explains a lot about why the world is the way it is. The definition of gnosticism is so flexible it practically folds in on itself, defying easy summation. But generally the Gnostic view of the divine and our potential relationship to it is so humane. So welcoming. And so utterly individualistic compared with “believe what we tell you OR ELSE” religion.
Besides, there’s compelling drama in how once-mainstream but suddenly “heretical” Christian texts like The Gospel of Thomas were hidden and lost. They were probably buried by monks who had treasured them for generations as authentic scripture. The newly powerful Catholic Church had begun its long campaign to silence every dissenting view. Individualistic spirituality had to be crushed. Powerful bishops ordered books destroyed. But some brave soul or souls saw to it that original Christian concepts had a chance to live. And there’s drama again in the texts’ amazing twentieth-century rediscovery and in their restoration to the world by a monopoly-busting American researcher.
What’s a freedomista not to like about free speech and thought, suppressed by Authoritah, preserved by brave and defiant monks, and re-delivered to the world centuries later thanks in large part to a respectable, but distinctly Outlawish, scholar?