by James Bean
Copyright September 2003
In addition to the books of the New Testament, Christians during the early years of the faith possessed and studied many other documents written by saints, apostles, and contemplatives. These scriptures served as a means of communication, articulating to readers in the ancient world the views of other spiritual communities that once existed within the Christian movement. For example, there are several books attributed to the apostle Thomas which present another very distinct version of Christianity – that of the Thomas branch of the church based in Syria. Saint Thomas is said to have founded churches in Syria and to the East, eventually traveling on a missionary journey to India. It’s interesting to note that even now, there are millions of Thomas Christians in India who preserve the belief that Thomas arrived there during the first century. Other apostles from the original inner circle of Christ are said to have also traveled, founding churches that developed their own unique traditions of faith. Most of these were eventually converted and absorbed into Orthodoxy or faded into oblivion.
The New Testament, arranged by the Orthodox during the fourth century, is dominated by the writings of the apostle Paul, who went on many missionary journeys around the Roman Empire. Almost half the words contained in the Orthodox New Testament were attributed to Paul, with little attention given to the whereabouts, activities or teaching of the other apostles and churches. So, in order to catch a glimpse of the other expressions of early Christianity (Syrian, Egyptian, Ethiopian, etc.), it’s necessary to examine the surviving scriptures that were excluded from the New Testament. Indeed, many other fascinating gospels accounts, letters, revelations, psalms and spiritual discourses have been preserved. English translations of the other books exist and can be ordered through any good bookstore.
Think of all these documents, both in the New Testament and the other apocryphal scriptures, as being like pieces of a puzzle. If we combine all these pieces together, a larger, more complete picture starts to become visible. For me, by exploring all of these writings, a much more colorful, diverse, amazing, and spiritually satisfying Christianity can be rediscovered. Rather than being ignored, the rich spirituality and history of Christianity in Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Persia, and India should be celebrated, as should the wisdom of the early Hebrew Christians, Gnostics and Valentinians.
The primary reason why I’ve become a collector of apocryphal books is that I find a vast amount of spiritual wisdom there – evidence of an ancient Christianity-with-spirituality. The teachings to be found in the Gnostic Gospels for instance, are very Eastern, and might be of great interest to anyone exploring spirituality, mysticism, Christian Science, A Course In Miracles, Unity or other New Thought teachings.
Looking for Heaven in All the Wrong Places – A Divine Realm Not Linked to Future Prophecies, Not Linked to the Past, and Definitely Not Political
His disciples asked him, “When will the resurrection of the dead take place, and when will the New World come?” He said to them, “What you are looking forward to has come, but you do not recognize it.” (Jesus in the Gosepl of Thomas, Saying 51)
His disciples said to him, “Twenty-four prophets have spoken in Israel, and they all spoke of you.” He said to them, “You have disregarded the Living One who is in your presence, and have spoken of the dead.” (Gospel of Thomas, 52)
His disciples said to him, “When will the Kingdom of the Father arrive?” He said, “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth and people don’t see it.” (Gospel of Thomas, 113)
The Mindfulness Saying in the Gospel of Thomas
You examine the face of heaven and earth, but you have not come to know the One who is in your presence, and you do not know how to examine this present moment.(Gospel of Thomas, Saying 91)
A saying of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Thomas describes a spiritually blind and intoxicated humanity. “I took my stand in the midst of the world, and in flesh I appeared to them. I found them all drunk, and I did not find any of them thirsty. My soul ached for the children of humanity, because they are blind in their hearts and do not see, for they came into the world empty, and they also seek to depart from the world empty. But meanwhile they are drunk. When they shake off their wine, they will change their ways.” In many apocryphal scriptures humanity is described as being caught up in unconscious states of “numbness,” “sleep,” intoxication,” or “forgetfulness.” In a world of spiritual slumber, it’s perfectly natural for Gnostic gospels like these to be buried and forgotten!
No Spaceship Hidden Behind the Tale of the Comet Either
Another saying from Thomas defines the difference between religious theory and mystical experience. Note how often the word “YOU” is used here: “If those who teach you say to you, ‘See, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will arrive there before you do. If they say to you, “It’s under the sea,’ then the fish will get there first. Rather, the Kingdom is inside you and it is outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will discover this, and you will realize that you are the children of the Living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty, and you are poverty.” The focus here is not about big events happening in the sky, but what’s happening with ‘you’ and me right now. This saying seems to be poking fun at religious traditions that spout theories about stuff happening in the sky, or “pie in the sky in the bye and bye,” diverting people’s attention away from spiritual reality in the here-and-now to that of imaginary kingdoms that arrive at the “end of the world” (sci-fi in the sky). The Jesus of Thomas saw apocalyptic religion as being part of the problem, promulgating in the world a religious drunkenness which is just as harmful and numbing as any other form of addiction. In this saying, being unaware of one’s true identity is described as living in spiritual poverty. The impoverished soul, unable to perceive anything else, believes that spiritual poverty is the norm, that its current state of being is the only option available till some far-distant prophecy gets fulfilled at the end of time.
Often Indian spiritual teachers describe souls who reach a breakthrough in consciousness. After the soul reaches a point in it’s mystic travels where it becomes free of all it’s coverings of mind and matter, it reaches the realization of it’s true nature as spirit and exclaims, “I am that! I am that! I am that! I am that!” The medieval mystic Kabir once said, “The Light of one soul is equal to that of sixteen suns!!!” But to sleeping humanity this reality remains completely hidden from view. We are gods clothed in rags.
Occasionally you hear in the news a story about an eccentric millionaire who so fears using up all his money that he lives an impoverished life of squalor. The Gospel of Thomas is saying that on a spiritual level we’re like that millionaire. We have access to a vast Kingdom of wealth but alas, we’ve forgotten it or have come to believe in strange ideas that serve to further alienate us from who we really are. Prophecy-abuse is a classic example of this: the obsession that some religious cults have about “the end of the world.” For them the spiritual realm (Kingdom of God) remains something available only in “the future.” Spiritual awareness of a present-tense Kingdom of God right now isn’t even seen as important or necessary. There’s a wonderful saying of Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous Buddhist teacher, about this “Kingdom in the sky.” He says, “The place to touch the Kingdom of God is within us. We do not have to die to arrive at heaven’s gate. In fact, we have to be truly alive. If we touch life deeply enough, the Kingdom of God will become a reality here and now.” (Be Still And Know, Riverhead Books)
In the Gospel of Mary there’s a similar saying to the one in Thomas warning people about being mislead. “Peace be to you. Receive my peace to yourselves. Beware that no one lead you astray, saying, ‘Look here!’ or ‘Look there!’ For the Son of Man is within you.” (The Nag Hammadi Library in English, Harper Collins)
The Mystics Have Already Found the New World, The Golden Age In the Present Moment
The Y2K prophecies of the great Nostradamus, like countless others before him, were proven to be quite wrong. One the other hand, for thousands of years now, the mystics, including gnostics and other contemplatives have been successfully finding an actual Kingdom of God within themselves. While some dreamed their dreams in the sky and others made a fast buck selling their predictions, mystic souls have discovered that they are, even now, citizens of the heavens, and have directly experienced those heavens for themselves viatheir own spiritual practice (meditation).
My friend, the Sufi is the child of the present moment:
to say “tomorrow” is not our way.
Some persons, relying on the promise of “tomorrow,”
have wandered for years around that door,
but “tomorrow” never comes.
Choose the love of that Living One
who is everlasting, who offers you
the wine that increases life. (Rumi)
In this life the concept of salvation all
To meet the Lord by dying while living,
They all speak of the goal of salvation after
How to attain it while living, no one says.
Were they to reveal the Method of attaining
release while living,
Then alone would Tulsi be convinced of
Those who speak, after seeing with their own eyes,
And teach the Method of salvation during
Are of the stage and stature of Saints,
For they reveal the quintessence of the soul. (Sant Tulsi Sahib)
Know Thyself As Soul
The Greek axiom “know thyself” is often echoed in the writings of early Christianity. In the Book of Thomas the Contender Jesus says, “It is not fitting that you be ignorant of yourself …. For he who has not known himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself has at the same time already achieved knowledge about the depth of the All.” These Nag Hammadi gospels of Egyptian and Syrian Gnosis present a very clear view that our true identity is spirit or soul. Coming to know our true identity as spirit makes it possible to reconnect with God again and the Kingdom of God, the divine realm that our soul is part of. The soul doesn’t have to “go” anywhere in a physical sense – it’s already there, but needs to become aware of itself again. This is what Gnosis is all about.
The Gospel of Truth, authored by the Master Valentinus during the second century, has been described by the scholar Bently Layton as “the earliest surviving sermon of Christian mysticism.” (The Gnostic Scriptures, Doubleday) A copy of this document was found at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt back in the 1940s. The Gospel of Truth is one of the great scriptures of Valentinian Gnostic Christianity, an enlightened spiritual movement that flourished for several centuries.
Saint Valentinus described the abuse and violence of human history as nightmares – the bad dreams of souls who have lost their real identity. This is from a section of his gospel on “The Nightmare State and Awakening.” “Thus they (humanity) were unacquainted with the Father, since it was he whom they did not see. Inasmuch as he was the object of fear and disturbance and instability and indecisiveness and division there was much futility at work among them, and much empty ignorance – as when one falls sound asleep and finds oneself in the midst of nightmares: running toward somewhere, powerless to get away while being pursued, in hand-to-hand combat, being beaten, falling from a height, being blown upward by the air, but without any wings. Sometimes too, it seems that one is being murdered, though nobody is giving chase, or killing one’s neighbors until, having gone through all these dreams, one awakens… Such are those who have cast off lack of acquaintance from themselves like sleep, considering it to be nothing … They put them away like a dream in the night, and deem acquaintance [Gnosis] with the Father to be the Light of Dawn. Joy to the one who has rediscovered himself and awakened.” (The Gnostic Scriptures)
According to Valentinus, this spiritual awakening of the soul to God and the higher dimensions of Life is pure joy. “This gospel of truthis joy for those who have received from the Father of Truth the grace of knowing Him.” The Supreme Being is described as gentle and compassionate. “For the Father is gentle and in His will there are good things…the children of the Father are His fragrance, for they are from the grace of His countenance.” (translation in Love Does Not Condemn, Kenneth Wapnick, Foundation For A Course In Miracles) The self-realized soul, through Gnosis (spiritual perception), is released from its former prison – the imaginary outer world of intoxication, sleep and nightmares. “He who has knowledge in this manner knows where he comes from and where he is going. He knows as one who, having become drunk, has turned away from his drunkenness, and having returned to himself, stands in rest [reaches real being and heavenly tranquility].”
The Process of Awakening
Valentinus in the Gospel of Truth (one of the books found near Nag Hammadi, Egypt) teaches that souls are brought to spiritual awakening through a Power which comes from beyond this world. He describes the heavenly Father calling out to all souls in creation. As souls hear their name being called, they respond to the divine Voice, experience mystic rebirth or transformation, and begin to follow the Sound of this Voice back Home again. In the Hymn of the Pearl (a Gnostic parable found in the Acts of Thomas in India) a cosmic letter was sent to a forgetful soul slumbering is a distant land. Upon reading this letter from Home, the soul remembered who he was again and the purpose for which he had been sent to this world. The Odes of Solomon describes Christ as a heavenly Messenger standing on a lofty summit and uttering his Voice from one end of the to the other, rousing souls from unconsciousness. Gnostic scriptures record that many Masters, Prophets and Apostles have incarnated in this world for the purpose of verbally delivering the message of awakening to humanity. Valentinus advised his disciples (students, initiates) to serve humanity, contributing to the evolutionary process of awakening by being instruments or channels in the world. “Happy is the one who has opened the eyes of the blind. Speak the truth with those who search for it. Make firm the foot of those who have stumbled and stretch out your hands to those who are ill. Feed the hungry, give repose to those who are weary, raise up those who wish to rise, and awaken those who sleep.” (Master Valentinus, the Gospel of Truth)
As long as we sleep the sleep of oblivion, we will not be likely to hear when we are called. Awake, we may hear ourselves called to attention by the soft-spoken Voice of the Spirit. In order to hear this inner Voice and gain spiritual perception, masters and mystics instruct us to, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46: 10)
When our noisy ego-thoughts come to an end, then, in the silence of meditation we hear the Voice of God speaking in our souls. Some type of contemplative spiritual practice (meditation, listening) is absolutely essential if one is to experience awakening and awareness of the spiritual world. The Apostle Peter said to his disciples in the Acts of Peter, “Give ear; withdraw your souls from all that appears but is not truly real; close these eyes if yours, close your ears, withdraw from actions that are outwardly seen; and you shall know the reality of Christ and the whole secret of your salvation.” (The Other Bible, Willis Barnstone, Harper Collins) When the soul awakens, it’s eyes and ears begin to open; it starts to perceive spiritually; it becomes a Gnostic – one who knows the reality of God, the heavenly realms, and it’s own true identity as a child of the living Father. It has progressed from Faith to Knowledge.
Meditation is a kind of temporary “death” to the outer world of the five senses as well as outer images and thoughts. When one fasts from the world and enters into this kind of sabbath-rest, it becomes possible for the soul to begin to perceive something of the Other World that it inhabits. The soul’s spiritual senses begin to perceive in the heavenly realms. One becomes progressively more and more receptive to the heavenly Sound and Light with the eyes and ears of the soul.
Never Give Up
Saying Two of the Gospel of Thomas describes the steps and stages of the spiritual journey: “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. After he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, will rule over all things, and he will enter into Rest.” We seek and continue seeking out the truth; the Gnostic never gives up this quest. Upon finding the path, we put it into practice; we live our truth. This may be troubling at first. The caterpillar becomes the butterfly – the death of the old, the beginning of the new. But night gives way to dawn….and ASTONISHMENT! Prayer turns into astonishment and wonder at the appearance of the Light of the Godhead, for all the chambers of the heart are filled with Light. The soul discovers that it is a Light inhabiting a Kingdom of Light. Valentinus: “When the Father,who alone is good, visits the heart, he makes it holy and fills it with Light. And so a person who has such a heart is called ‘blessed,’ for that person will see God.”
For countless ages, souls have described their experience of God’s Light. I’ll conclude by sharing a quote from the medieval German mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg on the wonders of contemplation and spiritual perception:
A Light of utmost splendor glows on the eyes of my soul.
Therein have I seen the inexpressible ordering of all things,
and recognized God’s unspeakable glory – that incomprehensible
wonder – the tender caress between God and the soul…
the unmingled joy of union, the living love of eternity
as it now is and evermore shall be. (Flowing Light of the Godhead)