In 1970 at age 21 I was lost in a cloud of despair, confusion, clinical and existential depression. Crowded by suicidal thoughts and the torment of my own mind I cried out for help. The help came in a remembrance, as the ancients of the Middle Eastern desert tradition would say, a “remembrance of God.” The experience began with a memory of being a small child, hiding in the tall grass behind my grandmother’s house (where we also lived). Seated on the ground, cross legged, with eyes closed my attention and intention were rooted in a shining Presence within, felt in the area of the anatomical heart. The Presence was alive, Life Itself, Luminous and enveloping. As was my pattern as a child, I stayed there for a while, immersed in that Presence. I thought of it as “the Friend,” and nothing unusual. In this remembrance at age 21, I remembered again the interior sanctuary of “the Friend” and went there, and the “Remembrance of God” became actualized in the present moment, and the hellish torments of the mind were lifted.
Heaven only knows why I, or any young child, “forgets” the Kingdom of God within. Yet expulsion from that interior Garden where we walk in the cool of the evening with the Beloved (Genesis) seems to be the human pattern of development. We become immersed in the world of socially constructed reality and form an egoic self to be our vehicle in this world, and we lose the memory of our Source and Origin immersed in forgetfulness until we may experience a spiritual awakening in adult life. But then, at age 21, I knew that this reawakening to the central truth of our existence was real and I could base my life on it. We “re-member” our divided life of separateness in this truth, or we lose it in the dissolution of forgetfulness.
It is good to encourage all those who nurture their longing for the “re-membering” of their Life in “the Friend.” The name often given for this interior sanctuary space of Divine Light and Presence across many traditions is the “cave of the heart.” This luminous Presence of Life itself in the ancient desert tradition of Christianity is the very Fire of the Spirit of Christ. This simple truth is the essence of the Christian mystical teaching. And our exploration of the mystical Coptic Gospel of Thomas is a focus on this simple truth, a truth too often ignored by the historical representations of Christianity that we know today as “churchianity.” In the canonical Gospel of Mathew Yeshua (Aramaic form of Jesus) says “ I have come that they might have Life, and have it fully.” (Matt. 10:10). He was referring to the transmission of his own Life and Essence as the purpose of his mission and teaching. His Life and Essence are the “Living Flame of Love” at the center of the heart or spiritual center, so poetically named by the mystic John of the Cross. And our purpose is to let our humanity be a vessel of this Light and Fire of Christ. As Abba Joseph, the ancient desert teacher and guide says, “Why not become all Fire!” (Apothegmata) This theological teaching of Theosis is the core teaching of Eastern Christianity and the summation of humanity’s life purpose. To become “Yeshua’s Fire” is our life’s purpose.
Since that day in 1970 I have grown in the “re-membering” of a divided life, and based my life’s journey in the simplicity and immediacy of the teaching of that experience. I have found support and accountability through my work with spiritual teachers, both in Zen and contemplative Christianity. In reclaiming my Christian roots I have come to understand that meaning of salvation is spiritual healing, a coming home to the Center. As the Christian mystic and teacher John Main says, “Meditation is coming home to our own center and realizing it is the gateway to the Center of all.”(The Heart of Creation )
On this path we realize that the gift and self-transmission of Yeshua is a divinized soul, and humanity, not a divinized institution. And we realize Yeshua’s truth that the real temple is the heart, and not the bricks and mortar building on the hill. It is the truth for which he was crucified by the religious and political authorities of his time. On that day in 1970 I learned that salvation is not a distant or historic event that happened in biblical times, nor at the end of time or biological life, it is a process of healing that is, and can be life-long in every moment of life through the soul’s accessibility to the Living Flame of Love within that extends outward into our humanity and all the world. I learned as Yeshua says “. On that day you will know that I am in my Father and you in me, and I in you.” (Jn. 14:20) That day can be every day, when we live out our life’s purpose.
The world was introduced to a stunning paradox in 1945 when the atomic bomb was first exploded and used as an instrument of mass death at Hiroshima, the same year The Gospel of Thomas was uncovered in a dirt bank close to limestone caves near the settlement of Nag Hamadi in Upper Egypt. In December of that year, two Egyptian brothers found several papyri in a large earthenware vessel while digging for fertilizer. The Nag Hamadi scriptures were a collection of ancient scriptures that was not included in the canon of the Bible. Archaeologists believe the scriptures were hidden by nearby monks of the monastic community of Khenoboskion, founded by St Pachomius, to keep them safe from destruction by warring religious factions. The Gospel of Thomas was one work of 53 parchments written in Sahidic Coptic, the last remaining language still close to the extinct ancient Egyptian pharaonic language. I often think Divine Providence works in its own ways and gives to the soul of humankind those needed wisdom resources when it is ready. The Spirit blows where She will.
A few years ago in a public forum I asked Marcus Borg, scholar and theologian (author of Meeting Jesus Again for the First time, The God We Never Knew, and The Heart of Christianity) the question: “Is authentic religious faith about believing the right things?” His answer was. “No, it’s about right relationship.” I have spent much of my 60 years consciously in love with the relational Living Flame of Love within that Yeshua the Christ offers us, yet chronically disappointed with those denominations and historic structures who claim to be his representative and repository of his teaching and presence on earth. The great tragedy of the Christian movement is that it has lost its way in collective “forgetfulness” investing its energies in external forms and structures, becoming yet another manifestation of those “principalities and powers” who rule this world. The radical teaching of Yeshua of the “Kingdom within” that the temple is in the deep heart, and not in bricks and mortar on the hill, has not been fully actualized in our world.
What is the nature of this “right relationship” that is the foundation of true religious faith? As Yeshua says in the canonical Gospel, “ I am the Vine, you are the branches.”(John 15:5) The ontological reality of our innate oneness with the Divine can however remain unrealized, unactualized. And that would explain the state of the human condition and its manifold brokenness. In the ancient mystic tradition of Eastern and Western Christianity, the image of God within, the Inner Light of the Divine at the center of our being, remains a hidden truth, until we actualize that Light in a growing inner communion with God and express it in our relational life with the other beings we walk with in this life. Hence our relational life with the Divine has both a vertical and a horizontal dimension of realization. The unrealized relationship with the Divine by the human soul is a study in existential failure, spiritual suffering, and even evil, when human consciousness implodes onto itself in a life of narcissistic self absorption, rather than God absorption, with all the resultant collective evils of violence, war, poverty, and exploitation.
Religious faith as relationship implies direct and conscious experience of the Divine, yet the religious denominations throughout time have emphasized the mediation of the Divine through scriptural interpretation of concepts or the institutional and priestly mediation of sacramental grace and ritual. This describes the historical struggle in Western Christianity between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, salvation alone through correct beliefs, or correct affiliation with the “divinized” institution, rather than interior union with the Divine Light within. Eastern Christianity, in contrast, has had a profound spiritual theology of transformative relationship with the Divine through unitive experience in the teaching of Theosis, or Divinization of the soul from within, but has relegated the ancient praxis of Prayer of Heart of inner communion with God to a few male monks on Mt. Athos or Mt. Sinai and beyond the reach of most ordinary humans.
The question presents itself to many sincere people of faith, why has Christianity as an historic movement failed to be a transformative agent in those historic communities who claim to be followers of Yeshua? Why the historic failures of religious wars, injustice, persecution, cruelty, and injustice? Why the negligence of the poor, complicity with colonial subjugation of entire peoples, complicity with mass exterminations of Jewish and indigenous peoples? Why has Christian faith failed to be a dynamic practice in modern secular societies? Why do so many contemporary Christians not experience an interior ongoing presence of God as a vital force in their lives? Today most Christians can tell you about their doctrinal and denominational affiliation and identity. They can tell you very little, if anything, about their daily practice of conscious interior communion with God.
In the space of my own lifetime (1948- present) humankind has embarked on a growth in technological knowledge and development at the service of military domination and commercial greed that has brought us to a point of a growing danger of extinction from a nuclear holocaust or environmental collapse of the life systems that support us. Prominent writers, philosophers, and spiritual teachers speak of a growing race between our capacity to grow in consciousness to guide the growth and use of new technologies that shape our earth and civilization, and our unconscious, destructive capacity to misuse these same creations to lead us to a path of destruction for our species and ecosystem.
The Gospel of Thomas stands in marked contrast to the Canonical Gospels. The Canonical Gospels were adopted as part of the official biblical Canon by the Council of Nicea that was called by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D., who insisted that with the merging of the Christian religion with the Roman Empire there must be codified and standardized official scriptures and doctrines (Nicene Creed). At the time of the Council of Nicea there were a number of Gospel texts in circulation throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East. From among these the Council of Nicea chose four, in addition to other books and letters to be included in the official scriptures of the nascent Roman Catholic Church. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of diverse sayings from Yeshua, the Christ. In contrast with the canonical Gospels there is no narrative. There is no beginning or end, no birth, death, or resurrection narrative. The Gospel of Thomas is above all a collection of mystical teachings. It addresses directly the question that the mystic seeks to answer, how to have conscious communion with ultimate Mystery, we call God, or whom Yeshua addressed personally as “Abba, or “papa,” and named more generally as “Allaha,” an Aramaic term as the Source of all being. The Gospel of Thomas is considered by many scholars to be an older text, and some believe it is the “Q” text, which has been a source for later texts, and possibly dates from 50 A.D. The Gospel of Thomas is organized into short sayings or “logions.” Many of these resemble the sayings of Yeshua in the canonical texts but clearly point towards a more mystical interiority.
In contrast the canonical Gospels, derived from the oral traditions of diverse Christian communities of the first century, have an emphasis on a narrative structure. Among the four books of the Gospel there are a number of mystical references, especially in the Gospel of John and the “I AM” statements made by Christ. However, the structure of each of these Gospels is a narrative encompassing the life of Christ and focusing on the three years of his active ministry. This is a critical point. A religion based on narrative is a religion based on a story. Without the mystical teaching at the core of religion, the task of the follower begins by believing the story, and culminates with an act of allegiance aligning oneself with the historic victor in the story. This is mythic religion, and it is what mostly passes for religion now and in times past. Essentially the believer makes the choice for membership on the winning team in the competition for dominance of history. The messiah or savior in this story is the one who comes solely at the end of time in a personal or collective parousia, not the one who comes each moment of life restoring the soul to oneness with the Divine in a lifetime of healing.
Now this understanding of the power of story is not surprising since the psychological school of social constructivism bases its theory on the idea that humans make meaning through story. We tell stories all the time to each other about where we come from and where we are going and what happens along the way. And we know through the psychotherapeutic school of narrative therapy that there are some stories that are liberating and some that are oppressive. Stories help with defining identity and tribal/group affiliation. A collectivized institutionalized religious story and our allegiance to it does not in itself provide us with an awakening to a unitive experience with the Divine and ongoing commitment to a transformation of the soul that is the rightful promise of the practice of authentic religious faith. Rather a rigidified and triumphalist identity is likely to lead to the pattern of colonial conquests, forced mass conversions, abuses of power, persecution of nonconformity, and religious wars that history has brought. Uniting the temporal power of the Roman Imperium, and the Catholic religious structures and ideology formalized at the Council of Nicea brought into being a social political order that would dominate the world for centuries, and an active persecution of any competing religious ideas or movements. Armed with the Augustinian ideology of original sin and salvation through the Church alone brought us a divinization of the institution in a manicheistic polarized view of human history rather than a divinization and healing of the soul from within leading to a more unified and healed world.
The Gospel of Thomas does not stand against the narrative Gospels. Rather it completes them. While the canonical Gospels present us a story rooted in time and history, the Coptic Gospel of Thomas is rooted in timelessness and the present moment. The Gospel of Thomas reveals the truth of the identity of Christ as the Living Flame of the Light and Fire of Divine Love at the center of the spirit, and reveals the mission of Christ as the One who kindles the Flame of His own essence in the soul human beings. ( “Yeshua said: I have cast fire upon the world, and now I tend it to a blaze.” Logion 10) We are invited to draw near and become ourselves this lit flame of Divine Light and Love. (“Yeshua said:Whoever is near to me is near to the Fire.” Logion 82) The Gospel of Thomas is called a gnostic text yet wrongly associated with gnostic dualistic mythology. What you see in the sayings of Yeshua in this work is the deconstruction of mythology and the invitation into living the experiential knowledge or “gnosis” or “nous”, or “da’ath” (Hebrew) of the ultimate mystery of the Living God. This is “Contemplation” defined by Gregory the Great as the unmediated knowledge of God infused by Love. Without the mystic teaching of Yeshua we are likely to have the result we have had historically, an institutional ‘churchianity” of diverse denominations rooted in historical conditions that no longer exist. A grounded mystic teaching can and will bear fruit in the development of a tradition of sustained spiritual praxis (practice) whose expressions are transmitted from teacher to student and from generation to generation, each growing from the learning of the spiritual elders of the preceding generation. It is a Fire that is kindled and tended in the Cave of the Heart.
In our world now and throughout time we have seen the results of human life without lived consecration, human life that is lived in forgetfulness and separation from the Divine Life within. The result of a life that is not holy, not consecrated, is desecration, of all that is good, holy, life-giving and healing. This has been the norm throughout time and history. We are at a juncture in history when this awakening to the immediacy and ever present Living Flame of Love within is necessary not only for our own individual salvation, but also for the preservation of the planet and for the web of life that sustains us all. The ancient mystic wisdom traditions of the world are reviving in our time, and that includes the ancient Christian wisdom tradition of Prayer of the Heart as a practice of inner communion with Christ in the sanctuary of the Heart, and with a theology of Theosis, the divinization of the soul of humankind. Christians must not only believe in the historical Jesus/Yeshua to find spiritual healing, they must come to experience the Christ, the Living Flame of Love at the Center of the Spirit. Christ Savior and Messiah of the Soul, here and now. To actualize and live this truth “Tending Yeshua’s Fire in the Cave of the Heart” must be the core, not the periphery, of Christian faith and practice.
You are the place to hide from harm
You are the light that shines in dark
You are the heart's eternal spark
You are the door that's open wide
You are the guest who waits inside
You are the stranger at the door
You are the calling of the poor
You are my Lord and with me from ill
You are the light, the truth, the way
You are my Savior this very day.