Tuesday, June 2, 2015

"BreakingThrough" the Clutter: Meister Eckhart, Boehme, & Christian Mysticism

"BreakingThrough" the Clutter: Meister Eckhart, Boehme, & Christian Mysticism 

“The light shone in the darkness. He came to his own, and all who received him became sons of God by reason of power; power was given to them to become Sons of God.”     Jn. 1:5, 11, 12

Recently, I watched an excellent video on YouTube presented by the Ritman University in Amsterdam about the life and works of Jacob Boehme. The speaker, Dr. Wouter J. Hanegraaf spoke at length about Boehme’s work and provided a keen understanding of the 17th century mystic. However, when he spoke of perhaps the most important concept in Boehme’s repertoire,Ungrunde, he moved past it without barely a remark on what it is or what it entails. But what is it? What is this strange German word? I researched the term and discovered that Ungrunde is translated as “groundless”. It is the dark emptiness before creation. Andrew Weeks describes it as the “uncertainty which precedes the divine Will’s arousing itself to self-awareness (though in the deity this “happens” in eternity.”[1] Ungrunde is an aspect of Via Negativa or darker paths of experiencing divinity. It may be compared to the Kabbalistic Ein Sof, the “infinite” in which all union and wholeness are secreted in the secrecy that cannot be grasped and cannot be known…the only one that knows, yet without knowing, is the highest desire, concealed of all concealed, nothingness.[2] Ungrunde is a terrifying thing. It is a void. True and utter nothingness. A place the mind really doesn’t want to familiarize itself with. But why did Professor Hanegraaf  refrain from discussing the nuances of Ungrunde? I believe it is due to the stigma attached to dark or negative theology. Many are wary to speak of things like left-hand magick, dark aspects of the godhead, or the Other. They prefer to stay in the light. And this is understandable certainly in light of the fact that the same legitimacy afforded to traditional avenues of experiencing God must be afforded dark theology if any concept of the reality of belief is to be accepted.

Via Negativa has a variety of currents that describe its processes and method yet many are largely shunned even by practitioners of the esoteric arts. The concept is made up of cautionary tales, legends of broken minds, and even death. I call it the conspiracy of Harpocrates due to the lack of discussion on the subject. But perhaps it’s time to shed a dimming light on Via Negativa in order to better understand occult interactions that many deem horrifying. Why? Because the avenues of Via Negativa inhabit the undiscovered content of the Other. It is truly a landscape of mystery and uncharted oceans. There are some that have claimed to have explored these areas. They return with descriptions of opaqueness, scarecrows, unnamed entities, demons, emptiness, and terror. Via Negativa is without any coherent system at all. It is chaos and the only way out is to be lostand manage to find a way back. In addition, describing Via Negativa is no easy task. Because of the limitations of language, discerning the idea becomes an exercise in naming. But naming ‘what it is’ doesn’t provide insights into the concept because by its very nature, Via Negativa is a journey from what the mind can grasp into something that is hidden and silent. It is sometimes thought of as the pathless path of contemplating God.

Judaic mystics call it ‘Ayin’ or nothingness. David G. Abraham ha-lavan in masoret ha-berit  (end of 13th century) defined the Ayin as having more being than any other  being in the world, but since it is simple and all other simple things are complex when compared with its simplicity, so in comparison it is called nothing. [3] Daniel Matt also elucidates the concept when he states that “Ayin is a window on the oneness that undermines the manifest appearance of the world. The ten thousand things are not as independent or fragmented as they seem. There is an invisible matrix, a swirl that generates and recycles being. The ego cannot abide Ayin, you cannot wallow in nothingness. In Ayin, for an eternal moment, boundaries disappear.[4] The dissolution of boundaries is really an ontological emptying of divinity. During an event of this kind, either by ritual or self-activation, the boundaries of our and God’s understanding of the self are dissolved.
Jewish mystics also contemplate Via Negativa in the notion of the Abyss of Abada. On the Tree of Life there exists what is known as the Supernal Triad. The triad is made up of the first three emanations on the Tree, namely Keter, Binah and Chokhmah, Each emanation is a part of God’s and our own consciousness. The Tree then is a glyph for all of creation. But the Supernal Triad cannot be grasped due to the absence of duality amongst the three Sephiroth. Separation from the Godhead or ‘duality’ doesn’t occur until the emanation known as Chesed. Furthermore, the Supernal Triad is separated from the rest of the Tree by a double-row of veiled curtains called the Paroket. The abyss is a liminal space between these veils. And the abyss is also the unitary experience of being one with the Godhead. It’s clear why so many religious and occult ceremonies use the ‘veils’ in both method and symbology. The veils are a way of keeping hidden and secret that which is beyond explanation.

There is also danger in slipping the veil. This is why there is a stopping-point or limit that initiates must adhere to. The stop point is the bifurcation of knowledge and understanding. Those that study Via Negativa are encouraged to grasp conceptually how the abyss unfolds but to stop before an experiential discerning of its nature. In many descriptions, the abyss is called Daath or ‘false Godhead’. A hidden Sephiroth, it is knowledge without understanding. To occultist Kenneth Grant, Daath is the “outer gateway” to the Mauve Zone. It is a kind of anti-Sephiroth.[5] It is also a trap. Daath is everywhere and is the abyss. Some claim that it is infinities within infinities within infinities and so on forever.

Insanity or worse can be the end result of traversing the abyss and there are abundant tales of fragmented minds in both religious history and folklore. The legend of Rabbi Akiva is testament to this. While he was able to cross over into the abyss and reintegrate unscathed, he had colleagues that died, went insane, or became dangerously heretical due to the process. This is because one cannot bring psychological baggage into at-one-ment with God. There can be no ego and this is what the lower emanations on the Tree are designed to prepare us for. Only pure divine love can be brought past the veils.

With the caveat of danger now discussed, there are also aspects of Via Negativa that are luminous in their darkness. Boehme’s Ungrunde encourages an exploration of dark theology as a means to experience sublimity. He states that “the truth seeking believer stands closer to the divine indefiniteness of the Ungrunde than to the false personal God who is thought to have predestined chosen individuals for grace.”[6]  Similar to Gnostic thought, those that seek Ungrunde i.e. the Abyss have the same potential for unitary consciousness as anybody in the Bible.

The ontological emptying of divinity that begins with duality also has peculiar effects on the Godhead itself. As Boehme asserted, “the conjunction of Will and Desire severs itself into two properties, viz. into joy and sorrow, light and darkness; for it makes two worlds- a dark fire-world and a light fire-world…in the shining of the fire in the original the deity in understood, and in the dark fire the original of nature is understood.[7] A separation of wills into negative and affirmative wills is also a separation of wrathfulness and goodness. Wrath is of the self, goodness the unity of God. The separations though are reflections of one another. There is a mirroring that reconciles the original separation. Boehme remarks that “although what grows out of the dark ground is not causally determined by the darkness, the light-world is a positive mirror image, a sublimation, of the forces operating in darkness.”[8]

Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart also practiced a form of Via Negativa in his idea of Durchbrach or ‘Breakthrough’. When we break on through, our soul penetrates beyond the trinity into divine wilderness. Another liminal status, this is the Godhead beyond God. No uniting, no identity. A naked God. For Eckhart, Via Positiva (creation) plus Via Negativa (letting go) results in Via Creativa. When we let go of fear and death we are free to be re-conceived into another consciousness. Let’s think on this. What does it mean to be conceived? We clearly get ideas of birth and conception and creation of even distillation and extraction. The awakening of birth then is the ‘breakthrough’ of his theology. Eckhart exclaimed,

“Oh, Lord, where is the silence and where is the place where this Word was spoken? We say, as I have already said, that it is the purest place that the soul has to offer- in its most notable place, in the soul’s foundation; yes, in the soul’s being, that is, in its most hidden part. There the “means” is silent, for neither a creature nor an image can enter there. The soul knows in that place neither action nor knowledge. It is not aware in that place of any kind of image, either from itself or from any other creature.”[9]  

Eckhart shows the inadequacy of trying to describe with language the ‘Breakthrough’ of being birthed into another consciousness. The passage also has some of the most important key words to describing Via Negativa. In words like ‘silent’ and ‘hidden’ and in Eckhart’s distressing plea to God, we are shown the status-less condition of somebody ‘betwixt and between’. Eckhart goes on to say “Now note here, finally, the value and fruit of this secret Word and of this darkness. Not only is the Son of the heavenly father born in this darkness, but you also are born there as a child of the same Heavenly Father and no other; and he also gives that power to you.[10] Breakthrough is penetrating the door’s that oppose God’s entry. And because God is “already there”, the breakthrough is one of consciousness.

The reflection or mirroring that leads to re-conception manifests most importantly in the idea of love-play. As any occultist will attest, the study of the bride-groom or sacred marriage is an essential aspect of the initiatory structure. Sometimes we forget that falling in love and renewingthat love with talk and play is the closest thing to divinity. For God, this love-play comes in Sophia. As Boehme remarked, “As the mirror she generateth [sic]  nothing and is the Chaste Virgin. [11]Did you catch that? Sophia generates nothingness. She is the abyss the darkness and also a part of God. It’s in the “delight” of this image that the spirit of God plays with itself for this is now God’s companion to the Honor and Joy of God.[12]

I know it seems counterintuitive and a horrid blasphemy to equate nothingness of the abyss with Sophia but this is Christian mysticism. And indeed it gets even weirder. Because Sophia is a dark mirror of God. An examination of Grunewalds’s altarpiece (1515) shows some powerful imagery in this regard. In the second level of the piece, an alchemical elixir is being blessed by the ecstatic Virgin with a crown of flames. Purportedly, this liquid has curative powers and is also the source of Gnosis. In this apotheosis, “Mary has become identified with Sophia, the personification of knowledge. We can now understand her bizarre and somewhat demonic union with Satan in the enigmatic scene in heaven. Sophia and Satan were interpreted as the two S’s, the two contrary serpents, male and female, entwined on the caduceus staff of Hermes, the Greek God, who with his Latin name Mercurius presides over the silvery poisonous metal, the hydagyros, quicksilver or “silver-water.”[13] With clear alchemic connotations, it’s fascinating to follow this trajectory. If Sophia is equated with Mary and is a mirror reflection of God, then not only is the Christ story a hell of a lot more interesting but so is God’s relationship with Saturnian influence.

It’s become apparent that Via Negativa is much more than its common misconceptions. The act of naming the methodology is grossly inadequate and ultimately refutes the idea that epistemology can grant us access to its secrets. Knowledge and knowing just isn’t the key. The final act is experiential. A true experience of Godhead requires God himself to acquire experience. It is a translation. Through a process of making two differing things equivalent, God as an entity can colonize the undiscovered continent of the Other.[14] This continent takes form through ontological negation of divinity itself. By dissolving Being with Un-being, knowing with un-unknowing, light with darkness, we can annihilate traditional theistic metaphysics and open new doors of consciousness. And although these experiences are displayed in the alien darkness of true vacuum, they are rich in liminal impulses and contain profound exchanges with what I can only describe as Another.   

[1] Boehme. Andrew Weeks. State University of New York Press. 1991. Albany. pp. 148.
[2] Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment. Trans. By Daniel Chanan Matt Ramsay. Paulist Press. 1983. New Jersey. pp. 147.
[3] Kabbalah. Gershom Scholem.
[4] “Ayin: The Concept of Nothingness in Jewish Mysticism” Daniel Matt. In Problem of Pure Consciousness. Ed. Robert K. C. Forman. Oxford University Press. 1990. New York.
[5] The Dark Lord. Peter Levanda. Ibis Press. 2013. Lakeworth, Florida.  pp. 265.
[6] Weeks. Ibid. pp. 149.
[7] Signature Of All Things. Jacob Boehme. 2.17
[8] Weeks. Ibid. pp. 182.
[9] Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart’s Creation Spirituality In New Translation. Intro. And Commentaries by Matthew Fox. Doubleday & Co. 1980. Garden City, NY. pp. 294
[10] Ibid. pp. 301.
[11] Jacob Boehme (TLM 5.41) and (TP 14.85).
[12] The Three Principles of Divine Essence. Trans. John Sparrow. 1948. London. pp. 14.86.
[13] The Hidden World: Survival of Pagan Shamanic Themes In European Fairy Tales. Carl AP. Ruck, Blaise Daniel Staples, Jose Alfredo Gonzalez Celdran, Mark Alwin Hoffman. Carolina Academic Press. 2007. Durham. pp. 39
[14] See Nick Lee and Steve Brown. Otherness and the Actor-Network: The Undiscovered Continent. 1994. American Behavioral Scientist. 36: 772-790. 

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