Tuesday, September 10, 2013

“Joined at the Heart”: Robert Thompson on Christianity and Sufism

One of my favorite books on spirituality is Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee’s Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism (The Golden Sufi Center, 2012). In commenting on this book, Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr notes that, “As we recover more and more of the ancient contemplative traditions, we are finding immense similarities in goal, practice, and effects. At a mystical level, we are seemingly talking about the same experience, despite our different vocabularies and styles.”

Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism contains a foreword written by Cynthia Bourgeault (author of another favorite book of mine, The Wisdom Jesus). Bourgeault echoes Rohr’s observation when she writes that Vaughan-Lee’s book offers a “profound contribution” to what he understands as the “collective evolution of our hearts.” It's an evolution that’s bringing us all closer together, not further apart.

I mention all of this as it recently came to my attention (thanks to my friend Brian) that a key part of Bourgeault’s foreword to Vaughan-Lee’s book is quoted in “Joined at the Heart: Imagining Christianity and Sufism,” a fascinating article by Robert Thompson. At one point Thompson takes Bourgeault’s wise observation regarding Christianity and Sufism and fleshes it out within the context of his own article. Given my deep interest in and journey on the mystical path that is shared by both Christianity and Sufism, I happily share the following excerpt from Thompson’s scholarly piece.

[To say that] “Christianity began as a form of what later is called Sufism,” is [to] suggest that “Christianity” (in its reality as opposed to its name) did not originate in the first century of the Common Era and that “Sufism” (in its reality as opposed to its name) did not originate within Islam. They are both much older and we don’t want to be misled by names. The terms themselves – “Christianity” and “Sufism” – are deserving of attention as to what we may be intending in using these terms, particularly in reference to their earliest recognizable manifestations in historical time. There is that celebrated saying from Augustine: “The very thing which is now called the Christian religion existed among the ancients also, nor was it wanting, from the inception of the human race until the coming of Christ in the flesh, at which point the true religion, which was already in existence, began to be called Christian.” The Caucasus and Egypt are variously offered as remote sources for the “nameless way” of the friends of Divine Wisdom, later to be called Sufism and other names. (See also Toshihiko Izutzu’s Sufism and Taoism: A Comparative Study of Key Philosophical Concepts.)

It is somewhat of an epistemologically “fallen state” to require contrasts in order to understand something. We could say that early Christianity was something like a Judaic mystery religion but then we would have to put into question what we think we know about “the mysteries.” We have been educated to regard the “mystery religions” as being about knowledge – a kind of knowledge received by seeing. The reality, however, is that in the time of the pre-Socratics, there was not the distinction to be made between “religion” and “philosophy” – they were of a whole tissue. The Mysteries were also designed as part of a process intended to be transformative. Early Christianity – as well as what was later referred to as Sufism – also had this character. (See Robin Amis’s A Different Christianity and Jacob Needleman’s Lost Christianity.)

Recall that in Eastern Christianity, particularly, it is sometimes remembered and understood that the goal of Christian formation is “theosis.” The transformative content of Sufism is particularly highlighted in this definition offered by Murat Yagan: Sufism is “the process of awakening and developing latent human powers under divine grace and guidance.” The emphasis in this are the words “under divine grace and guidance.” To further emphasize the transformative character of the Christian and/or Sufi “Work” consider the mission of G. I. Gurdjieff in the modern world where the essence of his teaching is variously understood, depending on the context, as “Christian” and as “Sufi.” This particular emphasis in Sufism is sometimes especially associated with Sufism in its “Northern” manifestations sometimes having some traditional connection with Yusuf Hamdani (d. 1140). (See John G. Bennett’s The Masters of Wisdom.) For Christian expressions of the Gurdjieff Work, I commend especially Maurice Nicoll’s The Mark and The New Man.

Margaret Barker, who gave the 2012 Alexander Schmemann Lecture at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, is an excellent resource for the continuities with First Temple Judaism. What we find there is that early Christianity has its place within what is called Enochic tradition of (visionary, merkaba) Judaism that was quite separate from the official Second Temple priesthood and theology. Gabriele Boccaccini also offers a glimpse into this tradition in his Beyond the Essene Hypothesis and other works. Also, in early Christianity, as we know, there was a parting of the ways between Judaic and Gentile (Pauline) Christianity. Scholars such as Samuel Zinner have thought that if there is a desire to look for possible historical continuities between early Christianity and what later began to be called Sufism, then the focus might be on the Ebionites which grew out of that Judaic Christianity that supposedly “disappeared.” Keith Akers has a good book on that as well.

. . . [T]here is an ethos of early Christianity that is congruent with what is called Sufism. In the foreword to Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee’s recent Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism, Cynthia Bourgeault writes: “Sufism and Christian are joined at the heart; of that there can be little doubt. I have come to that conclusion in my own right, in the course of my own twenty-year quest to recover Christianity’s authentic Wisdom tradition. . . . I often imagine a kind of hand-off, which may be both historically and politically incorrect but continues to ring with inner truth: that as institutional Christianity became increasingly dogmatic and propositional in its formulations in those centuries following its elevation to the official religion of the Roman Empire, Sufism arose in the cradle of Islam to receive and nurture those teachings on the heart that had first been planted in those near-eastern lands directly from the living heart of Jesus.”

An excellent resource to see the threads of the connections that Bourgeault refers to (when she writes “I often imagine a kind of hand-off”) is Margaret Smith’s The Way of the Mystics: The Early Christian Mystics and the Rise of the Sufis (Oxford, 1978). Margaret Smith was a student of Louis Massignon.

The challenge for those who want to see connections between Christianity and Sufism is not simply to look deeply into (historical) time but to envision the connections for ourselves and for those we love – which may entail an openness to re-discovering neglected riches within Christianity and to discovering for ourselves the significance of Sufism beyond Islamicate contexts. As Sergius Bulgakov wrote in 1895 about that revelatory day in the Caucasus: “The first day of creation shone before my eyes. Everything was clear, everything was at peace and full of ringing joy.” Thomas Merton also had his revelatory (le pointe vierge) moment in Louisville at the corner of Walnut and 4th Street. When there is full awareness (and remembering Canon Allchin), this is what participation in God looks like! In these moments – and in the remembrance of these moments – the question does not distress us.

To read Robert Thompson's article "Joined at the Heart: Imagining Christianity and Sufism" in its entirety, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Sufi Way
Sufism: A Call to Awaken
In the Garden of Spirituality – Doris Lessing
Quote of the Day – February 6, 2013
In the Garden of Spirituality – Hazrat Inayat Khan
In the Garden of Spirituality – Kabir Helminski
Quote of the Day – November 16, 2011
The Winged Heart
Threshold Musings
The Onward Call
Keeping the Spark Alive: Conversing with “Modern Mystic” Chuck Lofy
As the Last Walls Dissolve . . . Everything is Possible

Recommended Off-site Links:
Sharing the Sufis of Syria – Emily O’Dell (Huffington Post, September 5, 2013).
Everyday MysticismSpirituality and Practice.

Opening Image: Ala Ebtekar. Danny Olda writes:

The art of Ala Ebtekar is as simple as it is effective. Ebtekar was born in the United States and raised in California but retained a strong connection to the land of his heritage, Iran. You can nearly see in Ebtekar’s work a gazing at home from far away, a sort of portal. Ebtekar is definitely referencing the cosmic with this work. He says of the Sufi influence behind his work, “Sufis believe that existence is of two natures – both earthly and divine – and it’s that transition between these two states that’s represented by an arch. The arch could be in architecture, but it could also be a beloved’s eyebrow, and how that’s an entrance to that other space.” Ebtekar also subtly uses Western imagery in addressing this “other space” – you’ll notice some of these pieces printed on the back of science fiction movie posters.

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