Dear Brothers and Sisters, Friends, and Fellow-Travelers,

I am writing this in response to one of Eric’s recent questions,

about some of our mythology regarding Sophia, the feminine

personification of divine wisdom (I am holding off until next time

the other question about the pairing of the aeons).

I was very struck by Eric’s way of formulating the question: “Why is

Sophia the one who got into trouble?” which puts the question very

succinctly and very powerfully I think. For the benefit of those of

you who may not be as familiar with Gnostic creation myths, let me

briefly review the story that Eric is raising. Please note that I

am essentially harmonizing and conflating several different creation

accounts from the Nag Hammadi texts, in order to produce a “typical”

version of the Gnostic creation story of course, strictly speaking

there can never be such a version, given the dynamic quality of

Gnostic myth-expression, but if you will grant me your patience, I

hope to make a few suggestions that may be helpful to you in your

own explorations of Gnostic mythology.

We pick up the story in the midst of the “pleroma” or the spiritual

realm which has been brought into existence by emanations emerging

outward (metaphorically, not spatially) from the source of spirit,

which we call God. Sophia is one of the aeons or spiritual beings

that inhabit this pleroma. For reasons that are never fully clear

in the stories, Sophia longs to produce something on her own, apart

from the rest of the pleroma, and in so doing she gives birth to a

child that is monstrously deformed in terms of its spiritual

identity “On the Origin of the World” portrays the imperfect

aspects of the child as being formed like “an abortion without any

spirit in it.” It is this child of Sophia who becomes Yaldabaoth,

the Demuirgos, the demiurge and shaper of the physical realm or

cosmos.

Yaldabaoth is above all a mixed being, a being divided against

himself, constantly torn apart by the forces that war within him, by

the contest between the parts of his identity that are the “abortion

without any spirit in it” and the parts that are in fact the

spiritual principle he has inherited from Sophia. Again, the

gradual self-realization of the demiurge is portrayed most vividly

in On the Origin of the World, where Yaldabaoth emerges up out of

the waters and darkness of chaos, looks around and sees nothing but

himself and chaos, since he is separated by a veil of darkness from

a full vision of the pleroma and proclaims himself as the only God

and ruler of the chaos. It is in this supreme act of suffering and

divided will, detached from spiritual awareness, that the physical

realm comes into existence. What was spiritual in Yaldabaoth

remains spirit trapped in the formalisms of physical space-time.

Sophia looks down into the chaos over which Yaldabaoth asserts his

reign, and out of pure compassion (like that of Christ) she

dedicates herself to the liberation of that spirit the liberation

we call gnosis.

Last night, I spent some time talking to one of our dear sisters who

has a great devotion to Sophia, but a tempestuous one and she gets

angry with her. “Why,” she asks, “would Sophia do these things that

brought about, even if indirectly, pain and sorrow?” Many people

seem to have these feelings about the mythological structure.

I say, to the contrary, these myths give us profound ways to

conceptualize Sophia and radical hope for the future of our own

individual and collective spiritual liberation. Remember, dualities

are part of the physical cosmos actually, they constitute the

cosmos. We are so enmeshed in these dualities that we want to apply

them to our myths. We want Sophia to be ashamed of her mistakes; we

find her present centrality to our liberation an intolerable pride

given the stories we tell about her. But the Thunder: Perfect Mind

gives Sophia’s voice to reply to just such sentiments: “For I am

knowledge and ignorance. / I am shame and boldness. / I am

shameless; I am ashamed.”

In other words, all this is to say that spirit purely transcends all

dualities, but to us mired as we are in a world defined by

dualities this transcendence manifests itself as something that

encompasses both sides of the dualities. So, again in the words of

the Thunder: Perfect Mind, ” I am the one who has been hated

everywhere / and who has been loved everywhere. / I am the one whom

they call Life, / and you have called Death. / I am the one whom

they call Law, / and you have called Lawlessness.”

Further, our myths about Sophia demonstrate the ultimate optimism of

Gnosticism. It is true that we are tragic optimists, and much of

what we say can be misinterpreted as pessimistic in terms of how we

view the limitations placed on spirit in the cosmos. In the long

run, however, we fall back on the understanding that what is

spiritual within us contains our true destiny. So what do the myths

of Yaldabaoth and Sophia say to us? They say we can move forward.

Before we have any experience of gnosis, we are strikingly like

Yaldabaoth; we suffer without knowing the cause of suffering, we

comfort ourselves with delusions too often, we mistake control over

others for love. But through the process of spiritual liberation,

we become like Sophia in transforming ourselves into agents of

compassion and indeed agents of the spiritual liberation of others.

Indeed in the mythic structure, there is no reason to suppose that

Yaldabaoth himself will not eventually heed the call of Sophia

fully, and emerge from the chaos into the unity of the pleroma.

Let me close by sharing one more thing from “On the Origin of the

World.” In describing the origin of Yaldabaoth’s name, the text

tells us that Sophia calls out to the demiurge, mired in chaos,

saying “Ialda Baoth which means ‘Child pass through here.'” We too

are mixed beings, we too suffer, we too find ourselves imprisoned in

the dualities that surround us and grip us in their vise. And

yet…and yet…we too hear that call, Sophia crying out to us in

her tragic compassion: “Pass through here.” As we begin to ascend,

we reach first the darkness of that veil that separates cosmos from

pleroma, and this is disorienting, frightening, like a great abyss.

But as we hold to the path, we begin to see emerging out of that

darkness the beauty of a pure existence, unlimited, undivided, no

longer separated. And that, I think, is the final message of

Sophia’s story, for she, like Christ, gives us not only the call to

take this journey, but a model for what we shall become when we

surrender ourselves to her embrace.

In Christ and Sophia,

Matthew

————————————————————————–

Dear Brothers and Sisters, Friends, and Fellow Travelers,

I am finally back home from my trip! I just wanted to let you all know that I am

back and if you have sent me emails or messages, I will get to them as soon as I

can. I am copying some text from an email I sent earlier today about Sophia, in

case some of you might find it interesting. It was in reply to a lengthy email

by a Romanian inquiring about a number of things including possible connections

between Orthodox and Gnostic theology. Love in Christ and Sophia,

First, about our geographical location — most of our members live across the

United States, although we also have members and supporters in Canada, the

Phillippines, and Italy. We have a strong emphasis on supporting the

individual’s spiritual search, especially in areas where there are few other

people pursuing the Gnostic path. We also encourage the formation of

semi-independent local groups and churches, and currently have formed or are

forming several in the United States, in Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, and Las

Vegas. We are always looking for new groups to form and hopefully will continue

to expand local communities outside North America as well. Our local groups all

have a great deal of autonomy and independence while linked together in a

democratic communion of fellowship.

I am indeed familiar with Sergei Bulgakov’s work. It may be interesting to you

that there are certain similarities that western Gnosticism shares more in

common with the Orthodox and eastern Christian churches than it does with

western Christianity. As the east and west began to diverge over the centuries,

eastern theologians and philosophers came to emphasize what we call in English

“theosis” or the transformation and transcendence of the human into the divine.

For example, Basil the Great reportedly put it by saying “the human being is an

animal that has the calling to become God.”

You can see that such an idea is similar — though not exactly the same — as

our concept of “gnosis” or the gaining of experiential knowledge of the divine

within us. For example, in the Gospel of Thomas we read Jesus saying that, “I

am the light that pervades all things. I am the totality. From me the totality

come forth, and unto me did the totality extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am

there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there” (saying 77). Yet at the

very same time, we also read Jesus say that we too can take up the same kind of

relationship to God and the “totality” or pleroma (spiritual realm): “They who

will drink from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become them, and

the things that are hidden will be revealed to them” (saying 108). In other

words, gnosis is conceived as being a radical transformation of the self by

which we become “divinized” — or more precisely, we come to see the divine that

is already in the core of our being, all around

us, “pervading all things.” This is ultimately what we mean by gnosis, which is

both this state of enlightenment and the process by which we pursue it.

This kind of thinking never became a major part of Latin Christianity, and I

think this is part of why today many Gnostics feel such a split from western

Christianity but also why so many people are becoming interested in Gnosticism.

On the other hand, it is true that some western Christians, especially mystics

and visionaries, took up the theme of Sophia and developed it into what became

known in Latin as “Sapientia” or Wisdom. Sapiential theology, which was

promoted by people like Hildegard of Bingen, revolved around focusing on the

feminine relationship of the individual to divine wisdom, the mediation of that

space between the divine and the human, so that it can be crossed, or entered.

This, however, never has really become a part of the mainstream Christianity of

the west.

Sophia is a very complex force in contemporary Gnostic belief. Sometimes we

speak of her as a being, like a character, and sometimes like an abstracted

force like Wisdom, but in essence she stands as a symbol that transcends this

kind of category and is at the same time neither one and both, as we can read in

texts like the Thunder Perfect Mind. Let me try to summarize, however, three

fundamental roles that Sophia plays to the system of Gnosticism.

Sophia functions as a representation or symbol of the forces that can propel us

along the journey of gnosis, as well as the goals for which we strive. Gnosis

— “knowledge” — is in the end seen as leading to “Wisdom,” something even more

intimate, a deep and indissoluble connection between the human person and the

spirit/God. Sophia also represents the importance of the feminine nature of

this process, emphasizing such charcteristics as silence, the “dark night of the

soul,” mystical awareness.

This helps us see a second function of Sophia. In the Gnostic system, she

serves as a sort of counterbalance to Christ. She complements Christ, and makes

Christ complete, just as he makes her complete. The Gnostic Christ is above all

both the Logos or Word and the speaker of the Logos, sending it out into the

world, as he does in the Gospel of Thomas. Sophia complements this by

representing what the Thunder Perfect Mind calls “the silence that is

incomprehensible” — the moments when words and even the Logos/Word fail us and

we are simply overwhelmed by the mystery of what we experience as we move along

life’s journey. As human beings, we face the paradox that we must speak about

the spirit in order to move toward it, but in the end we must also find that we

can never speak in a way that contains the spirit within material language.

Similarly, Christ is experienced fundamentally as Light, illuminating our

journeys, Sophia is experienced as darkness — the darkness of the

night where we abandon our pretensions and surrender to the beauty of the divine

that pervades our very beings. We could carry these ideas out in many different

examples. If Christ is a solid, like a rock, strong and ever-present, Sophia is

like liquid — always present, but in the way she flows around us gently,

passively it would even appear.

The third function of Sophia is that she is also an important figure in Gnostic

mythology. The early Gnostics told many stories about the nature of the world,

about creation, and how things came to be, and so forth. Now it is important of

course to understand that these stories are simply that — stories that we use

to symbolize and reflect on mysteries of the universe around us. Sophia as a

“character” or entity in these stories is very deeply and centrally figured.

There are various Gnostic myths, but in a common myth, we see God emanating

spirit out from God’s self, producing the “pleroma” including Christ and Sophia

(and our own spiritual natures). Sophia, however, comes to desire to produce

something on her own, apart from the rest of God, and ultimately gives birth to

a being/force that is imperfect, separated from the divine — what the myths

call the “demiurge” who in turn becomes the “creator” of the material world,

which is imperfect just as the demiurge is

imperfect, systemically. But Sophia is not a “villain” in this story — it is a

great story of redemption, because she is shown as subsequently being the force

that works to bring about our liberation from imperfections and our

reunification with the rest of the pleroma or spiritual reality. In one version

of the myth, the very production of the demiurge in a sense splits Sophia into

half, a Heavenly Sophia and an earthly one, who long for reunification. It is

the earthly Sophia, moved by her Heavenly counterpart, that comes to the human

beings in the demiurge’s “garden” in the form of a humble, simple animal — the

snake — to lead people on their first steps toward reunification. In a

symbolic sense, then, she becomes our bridge, and we become hers.

I hope this gives you some things to think about and I hope to hear from you

soon. Please accept my warmest blessings and wishes for peace for you and your

family.

Brother Matthew Ouroboros

http://www.gnostic-church.org/

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax

booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as

he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were

sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to

his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But

when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician,

but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not

sacrifice.’

Matthew 9:9-13a

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