Yearning for God

A Homily for The Second Sunday in Lent

by Bishop Steven Marshall

The season of Lent bears an overall character of introspection and self-examination. When the attention of the psyche turns inward, one finds an initial sense of alienation and emptiness, a yearning for something only vaguely formulated that we intuitively know would bring true wholeness and fill the emptiness we feel. Such, for the Gnostic, is the yearning for God. It is the longing for the healing of a separation that is felt on both a personal and a collective level. The healing of this separation is symbolised in the image of the Bridal Chamber in the Valentinian writings and the union with the Light-Twin in the stories of Mani. The Gospel of Truth, the one gospel of the Nag Hammadi collection thought by scholars to be the authentic writings of Valentinus himself, describes the yearning and the healing thus:

“This is the manner of those who possess something from above of the immeasurable greatness, as they stretch out after the one alone and the perfect one, the one who is there for them. And they do not go down into Amente nor have they envy nor groaning nor death within them, but they rest in him who is at rest, not striving nor being involved in the search for the truth. But they are themselves the truth; and the Father is in them and they are in the Father, being perfect, being undivided in the truly good one, being no way deficient in anything, but they are set at rest, refreshed in the Spirit. And they will heed their root. They will be concerned with those things in which they will find their root and not suffer loss to their soul. This is the place of the blessed; this is their place.”

In the symbol system of the Gospel of Truth, Truth is described as a feminine emanation of that immeasurable greatness that contains and penetrates everything that exists. Truth is like the rim of the circle whose center is nowhere and whose circumference is everywhere as the Hermetic philosophers have described. In the Great Book of the Mandaeans that Truth is again described as that Divine Soul to which the yearning of the Gnostic heart becomes directed when it turns inward:

“From the day when I came to love the Life, from the day when my heart came to love the Truth, I no longer have trust in anything in the world. In father and mother, I have no trust in the world. In brothers and sisters I have no trust in the world. In what is made and created I have no trust in the world. After my soul alone I go searching about, which to me is worth generations and worlds. I went and found my soul – What are to me all the worlds? I went and found Truth, as she stands at the outer rim of the worlds.”

In this Mandaean hymn we find the repeated litany: “I have no trust in the world.” This phrase summarises one of the essential insights of the Gnosis. Such an insight comes with the force of a revelation, the meaning of which is that the redemption, the wholeness for which the Gnostic consciously longs for, cannot be gotten from this world-it comes from another place. All the things of the world: family, property, physical health, material wealth, and even the human relationships that we feel would bring us wholeness, fulfilment and rest turn out to be paltry substitutes, counterfeits, deceptions for this yearning for the Spirit and God. In the Biblical Gospels St John the Baptiser, the redeemer figure for the Mandaeans, shouts as a voice in the wilderness: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” In the Gnostic framework this is not a call to conversion to any particular religion, as it is popularly interpreted, but a call to preparing an interior way of entrance for the Spirit of Truth to enter the psyche.

One of the cries of the Gnostic in the world is a nostalgic sighing for something greater, often only vaguely and intuitively recognized. The Demiurge does not want us to sigh, or to long for anything outside of the worldly oriented ego and its socio-political system. The demiurge wants us to be happy and satisfied with the things of this world: the generation of family, material accumulations, mental and emotional pursuits. And after all these things are achieved we are still not relieved or free of the constant treadmill of wants, desires and anxious attachments-we are still empty, unhappy and unfulfilled.

In the Declaration of Independence the pursuit of happiness is a maxim for freedom. We cannot approach wholeness until we are free. The Buddhists describe the means for getting free as a detachment from the world, a way of getting out of the chains of our addictive attachments to the things of this world. If immersed in and identified with all of the extroverted stuff out there, whether material, mental or emotional, we are not free, and our soul suffers violation by the material powers, the archons of the world. This act of freeing oneself from the world is sometimes called fasting from the world. Now, this does not mean that we must ignore all of our responsibilities in the world, but that we can be “in the world” yet not “of the world.” Fasting from the world does not mean repression of our physical and emotional needs, for repression is not but a negative attachment to the object of one’s attachments. Fasting from the world is related to the Greek root for “ascetic.” It comes from the Greek word “askesis,” which means “skill.” So fasting from the world is the practice of a skill, learning the skill of overcoming and consciously utilising the powerful forces of desire in the psyche. Asceticism is a skill to be learned and practiced for a particular goal, not a way of life for the Gnostic. For an example, if we abstain from sex for a certain period of time, we can learn that there is more to love and our yearning for wholeness than sexual and emotional gratification. If we live a simple life of poverty for a certain period of time, then we may learn that there is more to our yearning for wholeness than the pursuit of material wants and desires. Fasting from the world is a step in a process, not a goal in itself. When we have gleaned the insights and increased consciousness that this practice of detachment can bring, then we can gain freedom and make our way to wholeness. We can find that for which we truly sigh.

The nostalgic yearning for God, the sigh of the Gnostic, is no more poignantly and timelessly expressed than in the Farewell of Galadriel from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings:

“Ah. Like gold fall the leaves in the wind, long years numberless as the wings of trees! The long years have passed like swift draughts of sweet mead in lofty halls beyond the West, beneath the blue vaults of Varda wherein the stars tremble in the song of Her voice, holy and queenly. Who now shall refill the cup for me? For now the Kindler, the Queen of the Stars, from Mount Everwhite hath uplifted her hands like clouds, and all paths are drowned deep in shadow: and out of a grey country darkness lies on the foaming waves between us, and mist covers the jewels of Calacyria forever. Now lost, lost to those of the East is Valimar! Farewell! Maybe even thou shalt find Valimar. Maybe even thou shalt find it. Farewell!”

The yearning for God, is the yearning for the Beloved, the Redeemer, the Light-Twin with whom we are united in the Bridal Chamber of the Light, and it is the longing for our true estate in the Fullness. This yearning is not only personal but also collective, like the description of St. Paul of the whole earth groaning and travailing as in the throws of childbirth for the Redeemer to come. This is the Soul of the World, the Anima Mundi who cries out from the earth for redemption. When the collective of humanity is thus redeemed, then only shall the whole earth be redeemed.

The personal coming of the Redeemer has been metaphorically described as a union with a twin spirit or Light-Twin. This unification is described most poetically in a short story contained in the Book of the Pistis Sophia:

“And Mary, the mother of Jesus according to matter, said: When Thou my Master wert a child, before the Spirit had descended upon Thee, when Thou wert in the vineyard with Joseph, the Spirit came down from the height, and came unto me in the house, like unto Thee, and I knew him not, but thought that he was Thou. And he said unto me, ‘Where is Jesus, my brother, that I may go to meet him?’ And when he had said this unto me I was in doubt, and thought it was a phantom tempting me. I seized him and bound him to the foot of the bed which was in my house, until I had gone to ?nd you in the ?eld – Thee and Joseph. It came to pass, therefore, when Thou didst hear me saying this thing unto Joseph, that Thou didst understand, and Thou wert joyful and saidest, ‘Where is he, that I may see him? Nay I am expecting him in this place.’ And it came to pass, when Joseph heard Thee say these words, that he was disturbed. We went together, we entered into the house, we found the spirit bound on the bed, and we gazed upon Thee and him, and found that Thou wert like unto him. And he that was bound to the bed was unloosed; he embraced Thee and kissed thee, and Thou didst kiss him; and ye became one and the same being.”

When the Redeemer may come for us personally cannot be determined by the concrete conceptions of the mind nor can it be predicted by external signs. The Redeemer may come in this instant for some or not at all in this lifetime. No one can say when for any particular individual redemption will come, but like the wise virgins of parable (Matthew: Ch. 25) we must keep our lamps full of oil and lit for that coming.

These wise virgins represent the faithfulness of Pistis Sophia whose name means Faithful Wisdom. In her story she languishes in the bitter chaos of material existence, yet throughout her suffering she remains faithful to the Light and cries out her repentances in the form of praises to the Light. This story contains three keys to fulfilling this yearning for God: the first is faithfulness, a trust in that light and presence which transcends this world of suffering; the second is repentance, which means to turn back, to turn back to our origin in the Light; and the third is the thankfulness expressed in praise, thankfulness for the light that we have received, no matter how small, leading us to the feeling state where we can receive yet more light. The Gnostic parable described in the Exegesis of the Soul aptly fits this story of the redemption of Sophia and our own human souls.

“Wise men of old gave the soul a feminine name. Indeed she is female in her nature as well. She even has a womb.

As long she was alone, a single one, with the Father, she was virgin and in form androgynous. But when she fell down into a body and came to this life, then she fell into the hands of many robbers. And the wanton creatures passed her from one to another and made use of her. Some made use of her by force, while others did so by seducing her with a gift. In short they defiled her and she lost her virginity.

Now it is fitting that the soul regenerate herself and become again as she formerly was. The soul then moves of her own accord. And she received the divine nature from the Father for her rejuvenation, so that she might be restored to the place where originally she had been. This is the resurrection that is from the dead. This is the ransom from captivity. This is the upward journey of ascent to heaven. This is the way of the ascent to the Father.”

In the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, Sophia planned for the coming of the Redeemer from the very beginning, when she was yet hid in God, and she embodies the Holy Spirit that would come and remain here on earth to spiritually nurture and guide her children back unto the Light. The masculine principle of redemption seems in and out from an historical perspective, but the feminine principle remains. The Holy Spirit, our celestial Mother and Consoler, yet carries us in her womb, gives us the spiritual rebirth and suckles us at her breast, until we are strong and mature enough to make the long journey-the flight of the alone to the alone, which in the Eleusinian mysteries was called the “flight into the sun.”

The phrase “the alone to the alone” reminds me that it is not just we who are incomplete and yearning for the Beloved, but that our Light-Twin and our fellow spirits long for our return as well. Though the Fullness in itself lacks nothing, those spirits that dwell in the Fullness are in some way also incomplete or “alone” without us. The Holy Spirit who “remains here on earth to guide and care for us” makes it possible for us to change the direction of our hearts and to turn back unto the Fullness. So, also, Sophia is the mother of the faithfulness that sustains our trust in the Light, so that we might remain as the wise virgins and be ready for the Bridegroom when he comes for us. In the 8th Ode to Solomon, the Holy Spirit calls to her own, “My own breasts I prepared for them that they might drink my holy milk and live by it.” She is the Sustainer who has tended and nourished the Children of the Light, the seeds of the Light sown throughout creation, since our beginning. As St. Paul exclaims, “I know that my redeemer liveth,” so might we Gnostics exclaim, when the milk of the Holy Spirit has weaned us from the food of forgetfulness. And so might we also whisper in our hearts that our Sustainer is even nearer than before. As in the Vespers of Sophia, “She is nearer to us than we are to ourselves; she is waiting at the door. Our opening and her entry are but one moment. Come, for our door is open, come!” As related in the Song of Songs, her hand trembles upon the latch of the door. This is the latch upon the door of our hearts, which unlocks the nostalgic yearning for God that we have forgotten, forgotten among all the distracting robbers of the soul in the world. So may we open that door to the true Bridegroom of our souls and not the brigands of this world, so that the Twin-Angel of the Light who is there alone for us might fulfil the timeless yearning and longing of the Gnostic for the Light of the Fullness, where we shall find our cup refilled with the sweet milk of the Holy Spirit, the Milk of the Stars, and share that cup in the spiritual wedding in which we shall no more be separated and which joining is forever and ever. Amen.

Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.

A Legacy of Liberation

A Homily for Montségur Day

by Bishop Steven Marshall

Montsegur Day reminds us of what certainly comes to us as a great tragedy in human history. On March 16 in the year 1244, beneath the imposing ediface of Montsegur, the defenders of the Cathars and approximately 200 of the remaining Cathar parfait (perfecti), marched out in file where they were rounded up on a great field, fenced around and piled high with dry tinder and branches, and there burned to their deaths—effectively blotting out the outward glory of the Cathars from that time on.

Why do we commemorate such a tragic day? What connection does our contemporary and seemingly dissimilar practice of Gnosticism have to these simple exemplars of the Gnosis? One answer to the latter question is that we might conceive of Gnosticism as an ancient, underground stream, the living waters of the Holy Spirit that comes up to the surface in response to the descent of its Messengers of Light at various times and places throughout history and under various forms and guises; yet, it is still the same stream and the same message of liberation. The Cathars are one such surfacing of the Gnosis. Although subject to some debate among scholars, the Cathars seem to be a branch of the earlier Manichaean dispensation, having inherited their traditions from the Bogomil sect of Christianity, who themselves inherited the Manichaean dispensation when it came to Bulgaria. From Bulgaria the Bogomils spread the religion of the Cathars to some parts of Italy, Northern Spain and Southern France, where they were called Cathars (Pure Ones) or the Bons Hommes (the Kind or Good People). To answer the former question we do not so much commemorate the tragedy of their passing but the legacy of the Gnosis which has passed down from them through the ages in both a hidden and a revelatory fashion.

The polemics of the Church authorities described the Cathars as both earth-hating ascetics and immoral libertines. Actually they were both ascetics and libertines but not in the way that their enemies may have thought. In typical Gnostic fashion they eschewed the dogma, rules, regulations, indulgences, and penances of the mainstream Roman Catholic Church. For them a knowledge of a higher love and a practice of human kindness was what was spiritually and effectually necessary. “A new commandment I give unto you: that you love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and that you love your neighbor as yourself.” (The Gospel according to St. John)

As ascetics they had a perception and acceptance of the world that led to a transcendence of it. Their message was somewhat Carpocration in that they preached that one can transcend or rise above the world only by experiencing it and passing through it. One cannot truly renounce the world without really experiencing, at least at an intuitive level, the horror of it. One must first know the world-experience, the suffering, the horrors, the holocausts, the world’s pain that is mixed into whatever pleasure or beauty we may find in it before one can seek to rise above it. We transcend it not through repression of our instinctual appetites or regulations set over our social behavior but by a change of perception that allows one to leave behind our addictions and attachments to the world. Then one can truly enjoy earthly life, for one is no longer enslaved by it. One is then free whether in the body or out of it. The Cathars found something that allowed them to transcend the world by not being afraid to accept the world for the flawed creation that it is. A fragment from the text entitled the Gospel of the Cathars, illustrates the Cathar attitude towards the material world and their view of liberation.

“A certain woman came to the Son of God and said that her daughter was frenzied; and the Son of God placed his hand on her daughter’s head and healed her — which healing is nothing else than this; that the soul of the daughter went out of her body and that he healed the soul. For the Son of God did not free them from bodily infirmities but only from sins which are the infirmities of the soul. And this is why the Son of God was a good healer, because he drew souls to liberation.”

Their emphasis on liberation from earthly limitations grew from their insight that only freedom from these limitations could remedy the infirmities of the soul. By their acceptance of the limitations of earthly existence, the Cathars were actually far more forgiving and understanding of the weaknesses of human nature than the forever condemning and punitive reaction of the mainstream Church. Their tolerance and relunctance to moralize human behavior actually served to create less evil in their followers and those who had contact with them.

The Cathars lived a simple life without a lot of the physical comforts enjoyed by the rich and powerful, yet they preserved an elegance in that simplicity. Hairshirts or burlap rags were not their garments. They were by no means earth-hating in our contemporary frame of reference, as they were very close to nature, indeed closer to nature than those who would call them earth-hating. Like the Manichaeans and Buddhists their attitude toward the world may be better described as that of compassion. They did not find value in accumulating hoards of wealth, yet they retained what was necessary to see after their own welfare and those of others. They were one of the first religions to organize hospice work and education among the poor. St. Francis’ emphasis on poverty and his reverence of nature in his Hymn of the Creatures, as a reminder of the Light of God behind the creation, may have been inspired by Cathar teachings.

Another misconception of scholars that serves to expand the seeming gulf between the practice of the Cathars and our contemporary practice of Gnosticism is that the Cathars were anti-ritualists and anti-hierarchical. The Cathars had bishops and deacons as did the earlier Alexandrian Gnostics and the early Christian Church as a whole. They held a distinction between the initiated Knowers (Perfecti) and the uninitiated and faithful Believers (Credenti). They celebrated a communal meal in a sacramental fashion, recited the Lord’s Prayer as a sacrament and were particularly known for their practice of the sacramental rite of the Consolamentum. The descriptions of this ritual that have recently come to light describe a highly liturgical rite with a complex series of ritual responses and genuflections culminating in the blessing of the candidate with a Bible opened to the First Chapter of the Gospel of St John.

They were anti-hierarchical primarily in the political and social sphere. They combined both nobility and peasantry and treated each other from whatever social class as brother or sister. They were not anti-ritualists; they opposed the Catholic sacraments in response to the increasing materialism of the Roman Catholic Church, its practice of unconsciously performed rituals and the equally unconscious leaders within the mainstream Church. The Roman Catholic Church of their time had begun to reduce everything to the physical exteriorized form without consciousness of the spiritual intent or purpose. A line from the Gospel according to the Cathars describes the Cathar attitude towards the officials of the Catholic Church of their time. “Pharisees, seducers, you who sit at the gates of the Kingdom; you who hold back others who would enter, yet will not go in yourselves…”

The Cathar movement was only in part a response to the increasing corruption and materialism of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet to call them proto-Calvinists, as some scholars have done, would be a blasphemy to their name and legacy, for their message exactly opposed that of the Calvinists. The Cathars judged one’s closeness to God and the Spirit by one’s spiritual stature not by one’s material status as did the later Calvinists. The Cathars arose to bring back the living waters of the Gnosis, the spiritual dimension that was being forgotten by the Christian Church of their day, and to restore the consciousness (Gnosis) of what was being done in the form of the Christian religion.

Because of their popularity, the Cathars eventually became a threat to the power and authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic churches grew more and more empty as people flocked to the spiritually living movement of the bons hommes (the good people), preaching a doctrine of simplicity and a higher love. The crusade against the Cathars, however, was primarily a political rather than a religious one. King Phillippe Auguste of France wanted the rich lands and wealth of Southern France, so he joined with the Pope (Pope Innocent III) to declare a religious crusade against them. The crusade went on for many years. In every city, hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of people were maimed, dispossessed, slaughtered by the Kings’s soldiers, or burned at the stake by the officials of the Catholic Church. The most conservative estimate is that a quarter of a million people were slain. When the King’s soldiers asked the Abbot of Citeaux how they should know the Catholics from the Cathars, the Abbot replied, “Kill them all, God will know his own.

The last Cathar stronghold was at Montsegur. The remaining Perfecti (Parfait) of the Cathar movement gathered there with their supporters. Having taken religious vows against the shedding of blood, the Perfecti were unable to defend themselves against the armies of the King, but, throughout the crusade against them, thousands of people, some not even of their faith, villagers, noblemen and their knights rose to their defense. After a ten month siege 200 Cathar Perfecti and 300 defending soldiers stood off ten thousand soldiers of the King of France, but eventually the king’s soldiers found a way through the defences of the fortress, and the defenders could protect the Cathars no longer. On March 16th of the year 1244, the remaining Cathars surrendered and filed out to their captors. They were herded onto a great pyre surrounded by fencing and soldiers, yet through the flames they exited the world and entered into that liberation beyond the limitations and cruelty of this world, where no more torment could touch them. It is said that they went without a cry, not even a whimper, but left their earthly lives singing a hymn of praise and thanksgiving to the God of Kindness and Compassion who was certainly not of the world that inflicted such cruelty upon the truly “good people” of all humanity. Such was the God to whom they prayed:

“Holy Father, Thou just God of all good souls, Thou who art never deceived, who dost never lie or doubt, grant us to know what Thou knowest, to love what Thou dost love; for we are not of this world, and this world is not of us, and we fear lest we meet death in this realm of an alien god.” (The Gospel according to the Cathars)

The hymn which they sang may have resonated with this selection from the Liberation of the Light from the writings of the Holy Prophet Mani.

“I have found the Haven—the Haven is the Commandment! I have set my foot on the Path—the Path is the Knowledge of God! Ferry me to the Sun and Moon, O Ferryboat of Light that hovers over these three realms! Disperse the dark cloud that is before my eyes, that I may be able to cross rejoicing to thine honoured dwellings. I have worked to see thy Light, so I have no concern with the Darkness—therefore let no one weep for me; see the Gates of Light have opened to me…I rejoice, I rejoice for eternity of eternities! I worship Thee, O Father of the Lights, and I bless you, O Aeons of Joy, and my brothers and sisters from whom I have been far away and have found again once more! I have become a holy Bride in the peaceful Bridechambers of the Light; I have received the gifts of victory…She knows the way, the doors fly open, the heavenly ships of salvation land her on the shore, the clouds of ignorance and doubt disperse—the Soul steps out boldly, singing, in her overwhelming ecstasy. Free, free for all eternity! Free from every hindrance to a perfect union with the beloved Spouse, long dimly visioned during faithful service of ages in the dark Abyss that now lies behind!”

As far as human history is concerned the Cathars came and went very quickly, but something mysterious and timeless remains from their brief time upon the earth. They brought a treasure, a spiritual treasure that could not die. That treasure is the message of the Messenger of Light whose dispensation and descent they describe thus:

“For the Son of God was none other than one of the heavenly spirits who knowing the dreadful sorrows and penalties which one needs suffer who should desire to come among men and uplift the human race, nevertheless told the Father that he himself desired to be his son, and to fulfill all things which were written in the Father’s book, however grievous they might be.” (The Gospel according to the Cathars)

The Savior of the Cathars was a heavenly spirit who knew the trials and suffering of incarnate existence, yet nonetheless volunteered to come down and to fulfill the promise of the Father of Light. It was necessary that he come and that the light of the hidden Gnosis might rise to meet him in their time as it is further described in their gospel:

“For all those that acknowledged the mastery of Lucifer, and fell from Paradise, and come from the seven kingdoms, they rose up on a sky of glass, and for every one that rose aloft, another fell and was lost; and for this cause God came down from heaven with the twelve apostles and took a phantom shape in Holy Mary.”

Both a dispensation from above and a response of Gnosis from below is necessary for liberation. A savior with a greater dispensation than the previous messengers was necessary, because, before that dispensation, for every soul that was liberated by its own personal struggles and efforts another would fall into darkness and be lost again. Freedom once gained could be lost again. A dispensation once given could be corrupted and rendered ineffective. Through the pure dispensation which they carried, the Cathars were given the means whereby their freedom once gained might be eternal and endless. This was the promise in the Cathar rite of the Consolamentum.

There is nothing in the mainstream Bible that gives us this story of the spiritual Liberator. How did the Cathars come by it? They received it by Gnosis. They knew something. And they knew it because it came from their own experience of their own lives as spirits in the world. Just as the Heavenly Spirit who descended as the son of God, so too have we made our promises to the Father of the light and the Mother of Compassion to do our part for the upliftment and liberation of souls, not through vain shows of evangelism or crusades involving large numbers of people, but one by one, through sharing the light we have received quietly and as directed by our intuitive spirit with those who come within our individual sphere of life.

The external movement of the Cathars died out quickly, yet the spirit survived. Something survived to continue in the spirit of the liberating work that they had begun. There is an old French legend that just before the fall of Montsegur, when the crusaders were preparing to storm the bastions if those within did not surrender, under cover of night and hidden by a cloud-like mist that moved as they moved, four Cathar Perfecti climbed down from the castle on a rope and lowered themselves down the steep side of the mountain. They carried with them a mysterious treasure. Some say the Holy Grail, others a collection of sacred texts, while others a sacramental sword in a carved wooden box. The cloud hid them as they passed into the fastness of the Pyrenees mountains to safety.

What this legend signifies is that something of the Cathars escaped destruction. Something was saved. Something was liberated from the grasp of their enemies. Yet the mysterious treasure of the Cathars is a legacy of the spirit, not a physical treasure. Part of the Gnostic experience of our contemporary practice of the Christian mysteries is an intimate insight into the inner spirit and reality of the Cathars that is in many ways different from what scholars have reported in the history books. Whether it is past life memories, or simply an archetypal and spiritual connection with those who have drunk from the same well of the living waters in the past, I cannot say. But something was transmitted, a spiritual legacy.

Their spirit has continued—through the romance and poetry of the troubadors, the traditions of chivalry and courtly love—even to this day some part of their Gnosis has survived. The timeless stream of the Gnosis of Light, Life, Liberation and Love of which the Cathars were the inheritors, guardians and transmitters has not run dry. It is not bound by the limitations of human nature or of the world, its kings, or its dictators. It exists in the eternal and yet we, when we become knowers, are heirs to it even while we exist on this temporal earth. And so we keep the memory of those who remembered the way to bright shores, for whom the Ships of Light came on a spring morning so many years ago. And so may the Light above the Aeons shine upon us and lead us into the Light of Liberation, the Light beyond shadow, and may such love shine through our hearts as did shine through the hearts of the bons hommes, the truly kind, the “good people,” that one by one we might awaken the light of liberation within the hearts of others and so manifest the spiritual legacy of the Cathars in the world anew.

Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.

The Mystery of Divine Love

A Homily for the Day of Holy Valentinus

by Bishop Steven Marshall

February 14th has been a holiday associated with love and lovers, since ancient Roman and Pre-Christian times. The Roman festival of Lupercalia, a spring festival celebrating sexual and romantic love, coincided with this date. Ancient Romans believed that the springtime mating of birds occurred on this date as well.

The naming of this holiday after a St. Valentine seems to be a case where the Catholic Church of Rome attempted to find a saint’s feast day to substitute for a popular pre-existing holiday. In fact, there were three saints who could be associated with the theme of love, all three of them named Valentine.

It is thus only fitting that we, as Gnostics, should pick our own Valentinus as the saint for whom this feast day is dedicated. In studying the Valentinian tradition of Gnosticism, particularly in that of his disciples in Ptolemaeus’ Letter to Flora and the Gospel of Philip, we find that this is more than a mere coincidence of the name, but that the Valentinian literature is filled with the imagery and metaphor of spiritual love and the Gnostic sacrament of the Bridal Chamber and marriage.

“Indeed marriage in the world is a mystery for those who have taken a wife. If there is a hidden quality to the marriage of the world, how much more is the undefiled marriage a true mystery! It is not fleshly but pure. It belongs not to desire but to will. It belongs not to the darkness or the night but to the day and the light.” (The Gospel of Philip)

The teachings of Valentinus do not advocate celibacy or sexual abstinence, but point us to something more, a mystery that is wholly other, something transcendent and hidden, something which can be missed if we do not penetrate beyond, behind, and beneath the surface of the physical, psychological and social manifestations of sexual union. In my experience, the usefulness of an extended period of sexual abstinence is that it may be the means by which some people come to the insight that beyond, behind and beneath the desire for sexual satisfaction is a love-impassioned will and longing for a spiritual wholeness that no amount of purely physical sex can fill. Once this insight is realized, sexual abstinence no longer serves any real spiritual purpose; one can see the purely physical nature of sex for what it is, and know that it is simply not what it has been cracked up to be; it is an imitation and counterfeit of the real union. After this realization, abstinence may serve egotistical, neurotic, moralistic or social purposes, but it no longer serves a spiritual purpose. One is then liberated to make the choice of settling for the lesser or seeking the greater without the attachments, suffering, resentments or disappointments that so often fill up our sexual lives.

The Valentinians did not deny the physical dimension of love in the world but sought something greater, something that could truly bring wholeness, that could fulfill the desiring of the longing heart for that which truly fills the emptiness of the soul and heals the fragmention and separation of the human condition. They symbolized this consummation of wholeness, of the union of the human and the divine, in the image of marriage and the rite of the Bridal Chamber. “Those who are separated will be united and will be filled. Every one who will enter the bridal chamber will kindle the light, for it burns just as the marriages which are observed at night. That fire burns only at night and is put out. But the mysteries of this marriage are perfected rather in the day and the light.” (The Gospel of Philip)

The hidden spiritual dimension behind the mystery of marriage has been a favorite inspiration of Christian mystics as well. Indeed, Jung quotes St. Augustine of Hippo where in one of his most mystical writings he describes the cross as a marriage-bed, and Christ as a bridegroom consummating his nuptials.

“Like a bridegroom Christ went forth from his chamber, he went out with a presage of his nuptials into the field of the world…He came to the marriage-bed of the cross, and there in mounting it, he consummated his marriage. And when he perceived the sighs of the creature, he lovingly gave himself up to the torment in place of his bride, and joined himself to the matrona forever.”

The cross is a particularly apt symbol for the divine marriage. Indeed, there are more references to the cross as a holy symbol in the Gnostic literature, a symbol of transcendence and union, than exists in the entire canon of the Bible. The horizontal bar of the cross represents the pairs of opposites in the world, the marriage in the world. The vertical bar of the cross represents the union of the below with the above, the celestial or heavenly marriage of the Gnostic bridechamber. We must perfect the vertical union, before the horizontal union can be truly realized. Through union of the above and the below, the outer and the inner, we can become united with all living souls. As expressed so beautifully in one of our occasional collects, “…until we awaken to our true estate in Thee, and living in unity and concord attain to Thy Gnosis in which there is no division or separateness, but only unity with Thee and through Thee with all other souls.” A person in certain exalted states of consciousness may report spiritual experiences shared in union others who have no knowledge or memory of sharing those experiences, yet, in these exalted states on the vertical bar of the cross, the sense of spiritual union with others on the horizontal plane of being cannot be denied.

Though the Valentinian Gnostics seem to have disappeared after the Fourth century, the spirit of transcendent love in the poetry and message of St. Valentinus has never really died. Joseph Campbell has theorized that the spiritual marriage of the Valentinians may have survived in some form in the Valentine Clubs of Southern France described by him from John Rutherford’s The Toubadours. On the 14th of February the members of the select society would process in two rows, male and female, on horseback, led by four officials representing Cupid, Mercy, Loyalty and Chastity. The procession stopped at the Hotel de Ville where Love was worshipped in a parody of the Mass. After the Mass a silver casket was brought out that contained slips of paper with the name of each of the assembled gentlemen written on them. Each Lady would pick a name and Cupid would read out the names of the couples thus chosen. Each gentlemen was to remain faithful to the lady chosen for him during the entire year, to keep her supplied with flowers, poetry, and gifts, to escort her wherever she wished to go, and to do knightly deeds in her honor. The pair were strictly forbidden to marry.

The ritual celebration of the Valentine Society describes a strictly spiritual marriage after the ideals of courtly love. This celebration of Love in a Mass and the mythological characters portrayed indicate the recognition that the true essence of romantic love is not in the traditional marriage of conventional society but in a relationship which transcends the world and enters the realm of myth, poetic imagery, and the symbolic life of the spirit. The ritual of the Valentine Societies of medieval France, as in the mysteries celebrated by the Valentinian Gnostics, and our own sacramental mysteries has as one of its fundamental purposes that of providing a symbolic enactment upon which the powerful archetypal energies of wholeness within us can be projected and brought into consciousness.

The archetype of romantic love is one of the most powerful of those energies. It unconsciously pervades our entire culture — ninety percent of our popular movies, art, music, and literature revolve around this theme; yet most are blind, like the blind-folded figure of Cupid in the Tarot card of the Lovers, to the spiritual root of this archetype and continue to confuse the mythic image of romantic love with the worldly goals of marrying and raising a family. When this archetype is not allowed expression in ritual or some other symbolic, transcendental context, then it erupts in our human relationships. We go about seeking the perfect anima or animus in the perfect woman or perfect man; we hope to find the Holy Grail in worldly relationships. St. Valentinus, like the Gnostics before him realized that the perfect marriage was not to be found in the world but in the spirit. Yet this spiritual and divine union must be found while in this embodied existence. As stated in the Gospel of Philip: “If anyone becomes a son of the bridal chamber he will receive the light. If anyone does not receive it while he is in this world, he will not receive it in the other place.”

The symbols and rituals of our Valentinian forebears provide an effective vehicle for bringing the archetype of the romantic, spiritual love of the Bridal Chamber into conscious recognition and memory. What begins as a faint wisp of nostalgic memory becomes an opening to the effulgent light that embraces and pervades the entire universe. In the Gnostic myth we have the image of the Savior as a romantic love figure with Mary Magdalen as his consort, who is described as the Virgin who yet has many husbands and the barren one who is the mother of the angels. This enigmatic description can only have meaning in a spiritual sense. When we attempt to apply it to our conventional image of human sexual relationships, our vision of it becomes like the marriages that are observed at night, we cannot see the spiritual dimension of what is being described poetically and mystically, because we cannot get through to the transcendent level in which the romance of perfect love is a reality.

The proper sphere for the archetypal energy of romantic love is in the spiritual and symbolic dimension of one’s life. When we fall in love with Love, as an eternal archetype of our spiritual wholeness, the presence of that mysterious other, the spiritual helper and true lover of our inmost being becomes realized and recognized. Unlike our experiences of secular relationships, this one never fails us. The archetype of romantic love no longer overwhelms and controls us unconsciously, we need no longer resent the spoiled ties of our secular marriages and we can approach those relationships in a more loving, caring and conscious fashion, as we no longer unconsciously expect from them the wholeness which they cannot provide.

One of the problems with traditional Roman Catholicism is the institutionalization of the spiritual marriage as a replacement for human sexual relationships. The fulfillment of the spiritual marriage does not replace the need for physical and emotional comforting from other human beings. The spiritual marriage frees us from the unconscious possession by the archetype of romantic love, so that we can approach physical relations in a more conscious fashion. We must neither confuse the longing for the perfection of romantic love with sexual desire nor attempt to quell sexual desire with the institutionalization of spiritual relationships. The spiritual marriage is something wholly other; it comes from an alternative worldview categorically different from the conventions of both society and the flesh; it transcends the world.

This transcendence of the world and the falling in love with Love is expressed nowhere more simply and beautifully than in the short prayer of St. Francis, who also in his spiritual life followed the myth of the virgin knight of the grail romances and the romantic love sung by the troubadors:

“May the power of your love, O Lord, fiery and sweet as honey, wean my heart of all that is under heaven, so that I may die for love of your love, you who were so merciful as to die for love of my love.”

We find in this prayer and in the mythic stories of romance a willingness of the lover to die for the beloved. The subtle connection between love and death runs like a thread through all of the literature of romance. In the world of suffering, the round of birth and death is fueled by physical attraction and worldly marriage; in the realm of the spiritual marriage a love transcendent to wordly things kindles a fire that never goes out. In a spiritual expression the connection between love and death becomes that of transcendence; it is translated into the sphere of poetry and the realm of the archetypal powers of eternity, beyond the wheel of death and birth. The dying for love becomes a symbol for the spiritual rebirth that transcends physical death and suffering.

One of the symbols of Valentine’s Day that has always struck me as holding some symbolic and hidden mystery is that of the heart pierced by Cupid’s arrow. It reminds me of the heart of Jesus pierced by the lance of Longinus and the heart of Mary pierced by a sword. Yet these religious images transcend history, and point to a mystery of redemption that transcends the physical death described by these images even as the arrow pierced heart signifies the piercing by Love’s shaft, instead of a physical slaying. This mystery of redemption to which St. Valentinus’ description of the Bride Chamber points us is that expressed in the Gospel of Truth:

“This is why Jesus appeared: he opened the Book of Gnosis. He was nailed to a tree, he fastened the testamentary disposition from the Father to the Cross. O such magnanimity, such that he draws himself downward to death while eternal life encloses him. Having divested himself of these perishable rags he clothed himself with the imperishability which none has the power to take from him.”

The contrasting of the perishable with the imperishable in the above quoted passage from the Gospel of Truth is essential to the Valentinian worldview and mythic context necessary for understanding the Gnostic mystery of the Bridal Chamber. The message of Valentinus in the Gospel of Philip is almost throughout a point by point contrasting of the marriage in the world with the spiritual marriage of the Bridal Chamber. In this fashion he contrasts the conventional world view with an alternative spiritual view of the world. He describes the terrestrial marriage as an imitation of the Bride Chamber of the Light. Indeed, he even describes the whole of the material universe with its seemingly endless cycles of birth and death, of decay and growth, as a mere imitation of the eternity and timelessness of the alternative spiritual vision of reality.

“When the Demiurge, the god of those who know not the true God further wanted to imitate also the boundless, eternal, infinite and timeless nature of the original eight Aeons of the fullness, but could not express their immutable eternity, being as he was a fruit of the defect, he embodied their eternity in times, epochs and great numbers of years, under the delusion that by the quantity of times he could represent their infinity. Thus truth escaped him and he followed a lie. Therefore his work shall pass away when the times are fulfilled.”

The timeless marriage is the true one, the other is an imitation, a counterfeit of the true. We can stay trapped in that imitation of love that keeps us chained to the wheel of death and birth, or we can seek the liberating vision of Gnosis that St. Valentinus expressed in his teachings and the writings of his disciples. We can know the love that transcends the death in this world and gives rebirth in the spirit. Again, the Valentinian message contained in the Gospel of Philip describes this relationship between the Resurrection (the spiritual rebirth), the Bridal Chamber, and the overcoming of death by a spiritual union.

“If the woman had not separated from the man, she would not die with the man. His separation became the beginning of death. Because of this Christ came to repair the separation which was from the beginning and again unite the two, and give life to those who died as result of the separation and unite them. But the woman is united to her husband in the bridal chamber. Indeed those who have united in the bridal chamber will no longer be separated.”

When we see through the imitation to the real, when we transcend the world to enter the eternal, instead of a wheel upon which we are chained like Ixion, we can receive another symbol, the symbol of the marriage ring whose circle is a symbol of the eternal and timeless, that signifies the love that transcends death and birth in the world, that brings us into the Bride Chamber of the Light where the two are made one and no longer will be separated, where we will no longer be separated by death or by birth in the world, where we can dwell in union and wholeness even while we dwell in the world. Such is the message of the mystery of divine love given us by the holy Saint Valentinus of Rome. As stated in the Gospel of Philip:

“He who has received that light will not be seen, nor can he be detained; and none shall be able to torment one of this kind even if he dwell in the world. And again when he goes out of the world he has already received the truth in images. The world has become the aeon. For the aeon is for him the pleroma and it is in this manner; it is revealed to him alone, not hidden in the darkness and the night but hidden in a perfect day and a holy light.”

Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.