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McColman on Holy Agnosis

This quote from Carl McColman, in a post called "Holy Agnosis", really caught my eye. I think it says something that all of us who practice experiential, mystical religions should bear in mind (though he frames it in a limited way, in terms of Christian sanctity vs. heresy):
Gnosis is holy insofar as it refers to an experiential encounter with Divine Grace; it becomes heretical when it functions as a wedge that separates the “haves” from the “have nots,” thereby creating a spiritual elite, marked by a strong dualism (rejection of the body = rejection of matter = rejection of the ‘unsaved’).

Put another way, profane gnosis deals in certainties and absolutes, while holy gnosis deals in relationship and experience.

I've seen enough Quakers who have palpably lived in the life and in the Spirit go through periods of spiritual drought--and enough charismatic and vibrant Pagan priests and priestesses whose lives are a wreckage of petty conflicts and broken promises, that I know the truth of this. Hearing the voice of a god does not make you into a spiritual "have"...and not hearing one does not make you into a spiritual "have not."

Gnosis and the direct encounter with Spirit is incredibly precious. But it's a gift, and it isn't always given as a reflection of how deserving we are. Maybe the measure is how needy we are, or how effective we will be, or some other thing I can't begin to imagine. But I know that, much as I treasure the moments I can sense a direct communion with Spirit, I don't get to claim it as a personal merit, and as soon as I do, I'm blowing it.

Listening for the voice of Spirit is one of our jobs. But it doesn't always come in bright, flashy, neon colors that the people around us, or even we ourselves, will recognize. In the area of mystical religion, a little humility goes a long way.

If you've never stopped by McColman's blog, The Website of Unknowing, I do recommend it.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for your kind words, Cat. And thanks for unpacking the "agnosis" idea in a more multi-cultural way. I think this is certainly an idea worth playing with (the way cats play with their food).


Anonymous said…
Short, sweet, and very much to the point. And one I have to keep in mind as I often think of myself as a have not. I believe that gnosis occurs by divine grace and is not something that is earned. So those moments of encounters with Spirit only make me all the more humble.
David Miley (still having troubles with the Blogger comment interface) writes:

Cat, I think you are pointing to some other things which may have been primed by the heresy quote, specifically self inflation, adoration of charlatans and spiritual despair. Let me embroider your points a bit, hopefully to support them:-)

You have self inflation dead on. I'd only add something additional about spiritual mechanics. We are infused with Spirit because of relationship with Spirit and as soon as that relationship becomes "I" instead of "we" it ceases to be a relationship. As you point out, its like turning off a switch (although there are stories involving the Gentry where the results are a lot worse and much more dramatic.) Acknowledgement, honor and respect create and maintain that relationship and becoming an "I" reverses all three.

Honor and respect for people in relationship with Spirit is appropriate. These folks are jewels within our communities who remind us what is possible and whose life work, in relationship to Spirit, provides healing and guidance. I think of Emma Restall Orr (Bobcat) immediately, surrounded by a loving community and giving back to that community by being their priestess. We probably all have our own examples. But there is also the danger of the adoration of charlatans who may have had a vision or two in the past and now expect deference and unfortuneately sometimes receive it.

The last one is hardest. You can be a Christian without the merest glimmer of Presence - belief and trust alone is sufficient for salvation. What about pagans who do not receive any sort of vision, or sound or touch or sudden deep understanding or total body happiness? Is it possible to be a pagan with only a theoretical relationship to Spirit? I think the answer is probably yes - if your heart opens up to the language and it feels like home, then, it probably is home. If tears well up when hearing the Charge of the Goddess or the Gorsedd Prayer then the heart has made its own choice and so why not follow? But is the lack of Presence a reason for spiritual despair? If you've ever experienced relationship to Spirit, it very well may be.

The pagan mystic is, perhaps, in uncharted water. I wrote this poem very early in my druid work. And, while longish and somewhat awkward, I've never been able to bring myself to revise it. It seemed a true sending at a time of exhaustion coming off a major creative period and so I cherish it still.

The Well of Fire and Water

Where has the well of fire and water gone?
Junky that I am
And hedonist to feel again
Lungs filled with fire,
Fire in water,
Water in fire.

Spent, at the end of a creative bender,
Aground again as flood recedes,
The spirits have gone to other partners
Less besotted with their afterglow.

There is a plea as old as time.
Every poet knows the ritual words,
"Come back, it is You not I,
That scribes the song I sing.
Come back, I honor the ground
You walk on, the air You breathe.
Come back, I ache to dance with You
The ancient dance
That creates new worlds."

And the ritual answer is silence.

In that silence,
I stand before a maple tree,
Large and four-branched.
Middle age has not soured her spirit.
We touch and a great peace passes,
Forehead to trunk,
While hands trace bark
Like a child's caress.

Somewhere beneath the tree,
The well of fire and water lies,
A mantic spring,
Waiting for the will
Of it's own moment.

On the ground,
Back against the tree,
I light a candle in expectation.

peace and health,


Carl, Thanks for stopping by--and for writing thoughtfully on a subject I find absorbing! A surprising number of my visitors find their way to my site via yours, so I'll be glad if a few visitors find your page through mine for a change of pace. :)

Cosette, thanks for sharing your experience. One of the things I cherish about Quaker meeting is how much more conducive to humility I find it. Often, in meeting for worship, I'll have the thought that I could sit in meeting for the rest of my life, and never again be called upon to give vocal ministry--and I can't describe the peacefulness of that thought! The Wiccan High Priestess, who is often the only conduit of vocal ministry for her community, doesn't have that good sense of being able to lean back on and trust in the community and the Spirit, and it is (I find) MUCH harder to keep my balance in that situation. Part of the reason my practice is Quaker, and not Wiccan, these days--the humility seems actually to nurture the connection with Spirit.

David, I really like the way you put it when you talk about the relationship with Spirit as just that--a relationship, and when it becomes "I" and not "we" in our minds, we've lost it.

Though I may like the poetic version of it even better. Thank you for sharing it--it really speaks to me, and is worth thinking about deeply.

Anonymous said…
Cat, thanks for the important reminder on spiritual "haves" and "have-nots." And for the link to McColman's blog. This really stood out:

"these forms of agnosticism need to be distinguished from atheism and religious dogmatism/fundamentalism, which as I have suggested before, are really each other’s shadow."

A great point I'd never considered before. Food for thought.

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