Monday, May 7, 2012

‘Gnosis from an old memory, literally’

A group photo of Brother Masons found its way to my Facebook wall. A posed shot obviously following a joyous and joyful church service.

It provokes mixed feelings. Of course on the one hand it’s great to see a bunch of friends enjoying what makes them happy and lively, and in second place is the lonely feeling that comes from being reminded of some Masonic orders’ artificial membership restrictions based on religious tests. Thirdly, I am simply kind of befuddled and indifferent. And so I want to concentrate and reconcile the competing sentiments so that understanding prevails. That ain’t gonna happen in the half hour I’ll devote to this blog post, because for as long as I’ve had ideas on the matter, I have viewed the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as a bridge that ought to unite Jews and Christians to a degree, instead of separating them irreconcilably. Jesus was Jewish. The New Testament is, arguably, and except several texts, a Jewish document. This is what enabled me physically, mentally, spiritually, and ethically to work my way East in the local Chapter of Rose Croix years ago. So I am stymied on those occasions when I consider these Christian-only fraternities within Freemasonry. They convene, sometimes in church, and close the doors, and what do they do – assuming they’re not just dinner clubs for the VIPs? They delve into Jewish mysticism, pretending it’s not proprietary to Judaism because all religions supposedly have some identical mystic path. I guess all religions speak Hebrew as well.

Magpie edit: Muskrat, stop bugging me about this.

Anyway, the photo jogged my memory sufficiently to send me directly to this one specific issue of Bro. Jay Kinney’s long missed Gnosis magazine. For anyone or anything to focus my mind so keenly as to allow me to step adroitly into my library (the floor is covered with piles of books needing to be filed away) and nimbly locate this one particular magazine is something quite powerful indeed. (By contrast, after thirteen years of carrying a cell phone every day, I still am capable of forgetting it somewhere.) But there it is: Issue No. 30 from the winter of 1994. Its theme is Sufism, Islam’s mystical branch, itself divided into numerous schools. Hardly my field of expertise, and yet I’m not utterly lost thanks to one of my favorite courses in my university days.

“…know that Sufis prefer the knowledge that comes by inspiration, to the exclusion of that acquired by study,” writes F.E. Peters, a professor of mine many years ago. “Again, they desire neither to study such learning nor to learn anything of what authors have written on the subject; to inspect neither their teachings nor their arguments. They maintain on the contrary that the ‘way’ consists in preferring spiritual combat, in getting rid of one’s faults, in breaking one’s ties and approaching God Most High through a single-minded spiritual effort. And every time those conditions are fulfilled, God for His part turns toward the heart of His servant and guarantees him an illumination by the lights of understanding.”

The Sufism issue of Gnosis delivers diverse articles on Sufi traditions, including that which popped into my head by way of that photo on Facebook. Written by Ya’quh ibn Yusuf, then a doctoral candidate studying Jewish mysticism at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, it includes a few paragraphs that can rattle some people. Like me.

I’d love to provide you the entire article. I want to hand you the magazine. You should have your lodge purchase the entire collection of back issues. I’ll share only that which I remembered, boldfacing the specifics. Do not be distracted by the mentions of Sufism. Or perhaps you should, mentally replacing the word Sufi with the word Masonry.

“…most of us in the West are already Christians or Jews. And while I believe it may be a mistake to narrowly identify with the religion of one’s ancestors, there is also a price to be paid for ignoring one’s own ancestral heritage. Our religious background is very much a kind of ‘local material’ out of which we are constructed. If we seek to follow Sufi teachings and develop our connection with God by digging deeply within ourselves, our own religion provides us with tools and a place in which to do some digging.
“Let me offer some examples of how I have seen these issues working themselves out among friends of mine. In Israel most Jews generally identify themselves as either ‘religious’ or ‘secular.’ It takes some courage and initiative to venture beyond these identifications and pursue one’s own spiritual search. I have observed that as they rise to the kind of challenge that Sufi teaching represents, secular seekers typically need to heal their rejection of Jewish tradition, while religious seekers need to overcome a general reflex of defending Jewish tradition as well as their specific allergy to Jesus… [This is] a matter of opening blocked channels to elements of religion which, it turns out, have a life within as well as outside the individual…
“All religions can be viewed not as ends in themselves, but as outer forms of belief and behavior that exist to facilitate inner work. The problem is that each religion also exists as a corporate entity that seeks to promote its own working set of tools and beliefs, and, like religions and sects, every spiritual group has a kind of collective ego that is fed by new adherents. All this should come as no surprise. What I believe we should bear in mind, however, is that too much of a focus on the particular form we are employing – whatever form that might be – serves to keep us stuck on the surface of appearances and prevents the work from moving more deeply within. This is why, as I understand it, Sufi teaching emphasizes ‘completion, not conversion.’
“Thus I have met observant Jews who have a personal relationship with Jesus, but choose not to convert to Christianity, and Christians who admit that their primary relationship is with God the Father. Certainly I know many Sufis who share the essential perspectives of the Prophet Muhammad but choose not to embrace Islam. In each of these cases there is an understandable reluctance to let an institutional mentality appropriate what properly belongs to the greater glory of God…
“Our task, as I understand it, is not to get rid of form on the social and religious levels any more than on the physical level. It is to appreciate the reflections of divinity to be found within form, to make of the forms in which we are involved a vehicle for the Divine. However we may choose to affiliate ourselves, whatever working basis we may choose to embrace, we do well to remember that the work of transformation does not depend on our concepts and categories, but on our actual cooperation with the grace of God.

Rarely am I at a loss for words when writing – fact is, I feel like I’m cheating here – but the above explains my thinking so well that I do not mind relying on it. In the “Great Work,” to borrow a phrase, there is room for Masons of most faith traditions to labor side by side if they want to. I do avoid saying “all” traditions, because somewhere there must be something that cannot fit, and because “all” connotes an absolutism that I sensed from that Facebook photo in the first place.

I am happy for my friends in the photograph. Almost all are smiling, their countenances revealing the satisfaction bubbling from within.

Having read a little about Freemasonry over the years, to me it seems the history of Freemasonry essentially is the story of Masons segregating themselves from other Masons. Try it for yourself: Start with Saint John Baptist Day 1717 when four lodges did you know what, and look at every group that either arose or splintered from another, each claiming to offer the whole Truth and nothing but. In the Christian-only fraternities within Freemasonry, I believe we see not only the promise of a sectarian truth – the “concepts and categories” mentioned by our magazine writer – but also the rejection of Enlightenment thinking (e.g. Anderson’s Constitutions’ Charge Concerning God and Religion) which is the guiding philosophy that enabled Freemasonry to spread throughout the world and endure the centuries so strongly... that it has been able to come into the lives of the very men in the photo.

That’s all I got. I desire neither to change nor intrude into what is, and I hope never to discuss this on The Magpie again. No calls please.

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