On Being Outside All the Boxes

Having been working (for a long time) on a novel about the same alternative universe as in my Goddess Murder, I have been looking for books on Mary Magdalene, the Gnostics, and suchlike. Recently I found Secrets of Mary Magdalene. Don’t be put off by the title. It is a well-balanced anthology of interviews with and essays by the leading scholars, largely women, of Gnosticism, early Christianity, and related fields, and by women novelists, not the hack writers whose forgettable novels clutter library shelves, but ones who, like myself, regard the novel as simulation modeling of possible realities. The essay by one of the latter, Ki Longfellow—whose novel, The Secret Magdalene, I must find—awakened me to an equation that I feel rather dense not to have arrived at it before, but, as often, perhaps there is a reason why I was not supposed to have known it yet.

In an early blog on this channel entitled “The End of My Catholic Boyhood,” I described the experience at age 14 that freed me from having to believe in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and set me on a path, which I am still on, of investigating all matters religious for myself. The catalyst for the experience was reading an official nihil obstat; imprimatur pamphlet which said that Catholics do not believe in the church’s doctrines by blind faith; instead, all those teachings are proved to them (a primary goal of Thomas Aquinas). But since I had mastered geometry, the quintessential system of logic, I knew nothing had been proved to me—but before I could consciously deduce the logical conclusion, my consciousness went KA-WHOOM!!!

I described details of that experience in that earlier blog; I plan to expand on all that later. Here I am thinking about why it happened and what it meant. Why it happened? Because I am a clinically depressive sort. That evening I was deep in a trough of my cyclic depressions,  probably far closer to being suicidal than I was aware of. (Parents, watch your teenagers carefully. Suicide is the leading cause of death for them.) The experience happened in order to save my life. We are given such an experience only because we need it, never because we merely want it. A corollary is the fact that one can work magic or use psychic talents “only in need, never for show.” Gerald Gardner knew what he was talking about when he wrote that.

Now, what it meant. I recognized from Ki’s description of her own experience that it was the same sort as mine—but she called it gnosis and said it was the key experience of the Gnostics, that what they knew was the transformation of that experience. “Of course!” I thought. “Why didn’t I ever see that before?” My issue at 14 was that, since nothing had been proved, I actually knew nothing—but in that moment I was given more than proof. I was given direct experience of what I knew was a compassionate divinity (or, more precisely, as I have since figured out, an interface that an infinite divinity must use in order to communicate with a finite being, although in that moment I also knew that I was simultaneously part of and separate from that divinity). Afterward, belief was unnecessary; I knew and know what I felt, which was nothing at all like what I might have expected from my catechism classes.

William James established in The Varieties of Religious Experience that such experiences are not actually rare, although they can vary greatly in their intensity, details, and effects on people’s future behavior. I don’t know what percentage of the population may have had such an experience. Those who have had them generally don’t know what to make of them and certainly do not talk about them except with the very few people who are closest to them. Chances are that every day you encounter such a person and never know it. That is the point of the beautiful Jewish tradition of the Lamed-vov Tzaddikim, of the thirty-six [thank you, Deborah] righteous persons for whose sake God refrains from destroying all creation and who never know that’s who they are. It has also been said that true saints never think they are saints.

However, please believe that the Divine will never destroy any life unnecessarily, let alone the universe. Such a concept of a rageaholic uncompassionate tyrant, of Blake’s old Nobodaddy, is merely a bad dream, or a tale told to small children to keep them safe until they are old enough to understand the adult version of their family’s faith. As Jewish tradition also says, to take a human life is to destroy the entire universe. Evil consists entirely of a human willingness to harm any living being unnecessarily. An even greater illness or insanity is to enjoy inflicting such harm. No true divinity is capable of being evil, nor is any person who has been Awakened by the experience I have been talking about.

I try to avoid using the word “God,” because most people cannot help assuming that word always means the childish concept of a God who punishes sins. For that matter, I need a shorter name for “the sort of experience I have been talking about.” Calling it “mystic” or “enlightenment” or “conversion” or several other possibilities is inadequate, but really, no term can be adequate; whatever term is used, a person who has not had such an experience cannot know what the term is referring to. So I’ll use the term “Awakening,” the term used in the “Gnostic” writings, because it is neutral and allows some useful metaphors, analogies, and parts of speech, such as “an Awakened person.”

The key fact in my life is that I was simply handed salvation, free, gratis, no strings attached, because it cannot be earned or deserved; it is always a gift. After the experience, I knew I was safe and always will be. Others have other definitions, but I see salvation as consisting entirely in the realization that there is nothing one needs to be saved from. As Paul, my first really good AA sponsor, said to me, “The only thing wrong with you is that when you were very young, you bought into the idea that there was something wrong with you. Once you get over that, you’ll be fine.”

Knowing I am safe does not, however, protect me from the consequences of my own folly or the vicissitudes of life. I have survived many difficulties, illnesses, and mistakes. The existence of the Awakened state is maddening to the unawakened. One sees that clearly in the writings of the great heresiologists, who managed to preserve much important information about the “heretics” they were denouncing. These days, the once-born psychologists try to argue that Awakening must be a symptom of mental illness. No, it is not. Rather, it is the onset of true mental health. I have been suicidally depressed many times; that is a physical illness; my Awakening continues to prevent me from believing such thoughts. I have had many manic episodes, to the point that I felt as if I were possessed by an evil spirit. I have also aspected half a dozen different deities in circle; I know the difference. I tried lots of different psychedelics back in the 1960s. The idea that LSD produces a genuine Awakening is ludicrous. I know that Awakening is not like any of these.

There is much more I will be discussing in coming days, about the Awakenings of Rabbi Yeshua ha-Notsri, of Joseph Smith, Jr., and of others as I come to them. I will explain what I can deduce about their teachings and those of other Awakened people. But for now I will, finally, explain about those boxes.

If I remember to pay attention, I become aware of the presence of the Divine at any time, in any place. I have felt that presence in a Catholic mass, in a Wiccan circle, in a synagogue, in a Mormon Sacrament meeting, at an AA meeting, in a Hindu temple (I haven’t been in a mosque yet). I am in those places not as a visitor, but as a participant, a member. I can also feel the Divine on a city street or out in the wilderness—but it’s easier in places consecrated by human devotion. Less comfortably, I can also feel evil, as in the entire state of Nevada, or outside the flophouse that was down the street from our last apartment in New Orleans.

Of course, I am told all the time, “You can’t believe in all of those at the same time! You can’t belong to them all! You have to choose just one!”  Such a choice must be made by the unawakened, I guess, and I feel sorry for anyone who labors under such a limitation. But I can do all that, because I am a Gnostic. I do not need to believe; I know, and every religion, every possible religion, is merely a special case of what I know. My life has been driven by the need to explore and explain and manifest the implications of my Awakening.

You cannot enclose the Divine in a box. You cannot force the Divine to obey your rules. That’s one point made by the parable of the Prodigal Son, a point the established churches always manage to ignore. And you cannot enclose me in a box. What’s more, you have an absolute right not to be enclosed in a box either—and that is the most important statement in this essay.

More will be revealed.

  • Deborah Bender

    Just a detail. Lamed Vov is 36, not 55. Apparently no more than thirty-six secret saints are required to stay the Creator’s hand.

  • Deborah Bender

    Another detail. You’ve conflated two authors of novels about the Magdalene. Kathleen MGowan wrote The Expected One. Ki Longfellow wrote The Secret Magdalene.

    Not trying to show off; I had to look these writers up. Just trying to be helpful to people interested in the books.

  • http://www.facebook.com/merritodd.webster Merri-Todd Webster

    Two authors on St. M.M. that I recommend: Cynthia Bourgeault’s The Meaning of Mary Magdalene and the Magdalene novels by Elizabeth Cunningham, in which Mary Magdalene is actually Maeve, one-time druidess-in-training, daughter of nine Celtic warrior witches on a mystic island, and the biggest smartmouth in history. Oh, and Yeshua’s wife. *g*

  • Dave Burwasser

    My KA-WHOOM in 1987 marked the onset of my Paganism. I was 45 rather than 14 but, like you, I had it when I needed it. I was leading a joyless existence as a Humanist, and found myself shatteringly embraced by the Goddess in one moment in Golden Gate Park. (Does this stuff cluster on the Left Coast?)
    When I tell people about it the responses range from envy through disapproval to an effort to change the subject. And that’s under the umbrella of Unitarian Universalism!

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    I have nothing to say except Yes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/KateGladstone Kate Gladstone

    Re “an infinite divinity” … Has it even ever been proven that anything whatsoever *can* be infinite?

    • Dave Burwasser

      According to General Relativity, the ratio between time locally measured and time as experienced at a distance (ie, in the galaxy overall) goes infinite at the surface of a black hole. So time “stands still” there as it passes elsewhere. Of course this has never been directly measured — gravity as we experience it arises from this ratio, and would shred any instrument and any experimenter who accompanied it — but non-optical astronomy has turned up distant objects that seem to behave the way a black hole is expected to.

      • http://www.facebook.com/KateGladstone Kate Gladstone

        That’s a ratio: a relation between things, not itself a “thing.” Thanks, anyway …

        • Dave Burwasser

          Any measurement is of a ratio. My height is in ratio to a foot ruler (or meter stick), my blood pressure is in ratio to one inch of mercury in a glass tube, etc. The original question loses meaning if “mere” ratio is excluded.
          Of course the world is more than our measurements of it, but that’s another ball of wax.

  • MeganIsHere

    If Awakening is a gift, is it also one bestowed with spiritual work? Does it ever come through focused study and commitment? Or does it blossom almost at random? Obviously these questions betray my non-spiritual, former-atheist mindset; I think it’s worthwhile to experience cosmic awe and to study it, but as for feeling it, I don’t think I have. I’m just trying my best to be the best person I can be.

    • Deborah Bender

      I have never had a mystical experience of the intensity that Aidan describes, but I have had several milder, less encompassing ones. None of them was the product of focused mental effort. Only one came out of the blue; it was one of the subtler ones and I was prepped to recognize it by previous experiences. The others occurred after I had done something that shifted my conscious mind off the rails it normally runs on.

      There are a bunch of different ways I have stumbled on which have helped me to experience the universe differently. None of them are novel; none are surefire, but they up the chances for a person for whom the doors of perception do not open wide without a good shove. Physical exhaustion, a long and strenuous backpacking trip in beautiful wilderness, sitting quietly with my feet in a creek on a warm day, philosophical discussion while under the influence of marijuana, staring at the stars on a dark night, arriving at a visually amazing power spot while fasting, dancing in a cast ritual circle. Other people have had mystical experiences as a result of being scared for their lives, or after long and steady practice of meditation, or from a runner’s high, or physical pain, or good sex, or a creative project that occupies all their attention and talents. Human beings are disposed toward experiences of loss of ego boundaries under the right circumstances, but the daily conditions of life in industrialized society do not provide those circumstances very often.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rita.rippetoe.1 Rita Rippetoe

    For a touching and funny take on Jesus and Magdalene (and their best friend Biff) read Lamb by Christopher Moore.


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