Eternal Birth


Man is an “intermediate being”, said Plato, “between the mortal and the immortal”i. This obscure expression can be understood in several senses.

Man is constantly on the move. He goes up and down. He ascends towards ideas he doesn’t quite understand, and he descends towards the matter he has forgotten and which reminds him of her. Systole and diastole of the soul. Breathing of the body, inhalation, exhalation of the spirit.

The ancients had formed words that can help to understand these opposite movements. The Greek word ἒκστασις (extasis), means « coming out of oneself ». In « ecstasy », the spirit « comes out » of the body, it is caught in a movement that carries it away. Ecstasy has nothing to do with what is called « contemplation », which is immobile, stable, and which Aristotle called θεωρία (theoria).

The meaning of the word θεωρία as « contemplation, consideration » is rather late, since it only appears with Plato and Aristotle. Later, in Hellenistic Greek, the word took on the meaning of « theory, speculation », as opposed to « practice ».

But originally, θεωρία meant « sending delegates to a religious festival, religious embassy, being a theorist ». The « theorist » was the person going on a trip to consult the oracle, or to attend a religious ceremony. A « theory » was a religious delegation going to a holy place.

Ecstasy is an exit from the body. The theoria is a journey out of the homeland, to visit the oracle of Delphi. These words therefore have one thing in common, that of a certain movement towards the divine.

They are images of the possible movement of the soul, vertically or horizontally, as ascent or approach. Unlike the theoria, which denotes a journey of the body in the literal sense, ecstasy takes the form of a thought in movement outside the body, traversed by lightning and dazzle, always aware of its weakness, its powerlessness, in an experience which is beyond it, and which it knows it has little chance of really grasping, little means of fixing it in order to share it on its return.

The word ecstasy is the minimal trace of a kind of experience that is difficult to understand for those who have not lived it. It is not simply a matter of « ascending » to higher or even divine realities. When the soul moves into these generally inaccessible regions, she encounters phenomena that are absolutely dissimilar to anything she has ever observed on earth, in her usual life. She runs an infinitely fast race, in pursuit of something that is always ahead of her, and which draws her further and further away, into an ever-changing elsewhere, and which projects her to an infinite distance of what she has ever experienced.

Human life cannot know the end of this incredible race. The soul, which is given the experience of ecstasy, understands by experience the possibility of such a search. She will always remain marked by her ‘election’, by the gift given to her of a striking flight towards a reality that is forever elusive.

It is interesting to question the texts that report ecstasies that have had the effect of changing the course of history, and to analyze their differences.

In his comments on the experience of ecstasyii, Philo considers that Moses, despite the fame and the power of his visioniii, did not have access to the full understanding of the divine powers.

Philo then sought in the vision of Jeremiah, with more success, the traces of a greater penetration of these powers.

Moving forward in these fields is a random and delicate undertaking. The texts are difficult, they resist interpretation.

“This is how the word of God was addressed to Jeremiah”iv.

This is a restrained way of giving an account of what was, one might think, originally an ecstasy. Reading these lines, one can guess at its hold.

“Dominated by your power, I lived in isolation.”v

Other prophets expressed the marks of their ecstasy in other metaphors. Ezekiel says that « the hand of God came »vi upon him, or that the spirit « prevailed ».vii

When ecstasy is at its height, the hand of God weighs more than usual:

“And the spirit lifted me up and carried me away, and I went away sorrowful in the exaltation of my spirit, and the hand of the Lord weighed heavily on me.”viii

The definition of ‘ecstasy’ according to the National Center for Textual and Lexical Resource (CNRTL) is as follows:

“A particular state in which a person, as if transported out of himself, is removed from the modalities of the sensible world by discovering through a kind of illumination certain revelations of the intelligible world, or by participating in the experience of an identification, of a union with a transcendent, essential reality.”

This definition speaks of enlightenment, identification or union with transcendental realities. But what do these words really cover?

According to other testimonies, ecstasy, of mystical essence, seems infinitely more dynamic, more transforming. It draws its principle and its energy from the intuition of the divine infinite and from participation in its movement.

Ecstasy is more a race than a stasis, more a dazzle than an illumination.

Bergson, the philosopher of movement, paradoxically gives a rather static, ‘arrested’ image of ecstasy: “The soul ceases to turn on herself (…). She stops, as if she were listening to a voice calling out to her. (…) Then comes an immensity of joy, an ecstasy in which she is absorbed or a rapture which she undergoes: God is there, and it is in her. No more mystery. Problems fade away, obscurities dissipate; it is an illumination.”ix

It is not known whether Bergson knows from real personal experience what he is talking about.

One only has to pay attention to the testimonies of Blaise Pascal or S. John of the Cross, to guess that ecstasy cannot be so luminously static. Taken to such an elevation, ecstasy has a fiery power that carries away all certainty, all security, and even all illumination.

Ecstasy dazzles like a primal dive into the center of Light. And the worlds, all the worlds, are then only like tiny quantum hairs emanating from a divine Black Hole.

It is difficult to explain in audible words, in palpable images, the infinite rapture of the soul, when she is given to see her own, eternal, birth.

iPlato. Symposium.

iiPhilo. De Monarch. I, 5-7

iiiEx 33, 18-23

ivJer. 14,1

vJer. 15,17

viEz. 1,3

viiEz. 3,12

viiiEz. 3,14

ix H. Bergson, Deux sources, 1932, p. 243.

Knowing Women


Adam « knew » Eve, and she conceived Cain, then Abel and Seth. But the Bible never says that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Moses « knew » their wives, notes Philo of Alexandria. Why not? Was it out of prudishness?

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses were wise men. But, according to Philo, the « woman » can be understood as an image that represents the senses, the sensations. For a wise man, « knowing the woman » may be interpreted, counter-intuitively, as the capacity to put sensations at a distance. Lovers of wisdom and those who seek true knowledge must “repudiate” their senses, not to succumb to their seductions. To truly « know », one must « know » the senses, not to be satisfied with them, but to question them, to put them at a distance.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses have their « virtues » for « wife ». Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is « princess and guide », Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, embodies « perseverance », according to Philo. Jacob’s wife, Leah, represents « the virtue of endurance » and Sipporah, Moses’ wife, is the image of « the virtue that ascends from earth to heaven ».

Let’s take the reasoning a little further. Can we then say that these wise men « knew » their « virtue »?

Can the metaphor of intimate, conjugal union be spun in this context? Philo considers this point and warns that he can only address himself to true initiates on this subject, because the mysteries in question are the « most sacred ».i

The union of a man and a woman obeys the laws of nature, and tends to the generation of children. But it is not in accordance with the order of things that the “virtue”, which can give rise to so many perfections, can be united to a human husband, a mere mortal. Then who can unite with Virtue, in order to impregnate her? – Only the Father of the universe, the uncreated God, says Philo, can give her His seed. Only God conceives and begets with Virtue. Virtue receives the divine seed of the Cause of all things, and begets a child that she presents to the one of her lovers who deserves it most.

Another analogy can be used, says Philo. Thus the most wise Isaac addressed his prayers to God, and Rebekah, who is « perseverance », was made pregnant by the one who received this prayer. On the other hand, Moses who had received Sipporah, « winged and sublime virtue », found that she had conceived from no mortal, without the need of any prior prayer.

Here we reach difficult terrain. These « mysteries », Philo insists again, can only be received by purified, initiated souls. They cannot be shared with the uninitiated. Philo himself was initiated into these higher mysteries by the teachings of Moses and Jeremiah, he reveals.

Philo quotes a verse from Jeremiah, to whom God spoke in these terms: « Did you not call me ‘father’ and ‘husband of your virginity’? ». In fact, nowhere in Jeremiah is this expression found literally. But in Jeremiah 3:4 there is something similar, though much less direct and much less metaphorical: « You cry out to me, ‘O my father, you are the guide of my youth’. « 

Philo seems to have transformed the original expression of Jeremiah (« the guide of my youth ») into a more elevated formula (« the husband of my virginity »). For Philo, Jeremiah thus shows that « God is the incorporeal abode of Ideas, the Father of all things, inasmuch as He created them, and the Bridegroom of Wisdom, inseminating the seed of happiness in good and virgin land for the benefit of the human race ».ii

God can converse only with a good and virgin nature. Hence this reversal: « Men, with the intention of procreating, make a virgin a woman. But God, when He associates with a soul, because she was a woman, He makes her a virgin again. »iii

iCherubim, 42

iiIbid.

iiiIbid.

The Elsewhere God


 

There are some things it is better to keep quiet about. Whatever we may say, we risk approximation, error, provocation, offense, – or even, more bitingly, the silent smile of the wise men, if there are any.

The psalmist says, addressing Elohim:

לְךָ דֻמִיָּה תְהִלָּה lekha doumiâ tehilâ. » For you, silence is praise »i.

In order to think, it is better to remain silent: « Think in your heart, on your bed make silence.»ii

Silence must be kept, but one can still write. About the highest mysteries, writing is in the same time compass and bearing, mast and mainsail. A wind of inspiration will then come, maybe.

Maimonides himself did not hesitate to face, in writing, the ocean of mysteries. In writing, he even tried to define the essence of true wisdom, and thus that of God.

« The word ‘Hokhma in the Hebrew language has four meanings »iii, he wrote. ‘Hokhma refers to the understanding of philosophical truths that have as their goal the perception of God. It can also be said of the possession of any art or industry. It applies to the acquisition of moral virtues. Finally, it is applied in the sense of finesse and cunning.

Vast spectrum of possible meanings, then. Or structural ambiguity?

« It may be that the word ‘Hokhma in the Hebrew language has (originally) the meaning of ‘finesse’ and ‘application of thought’, so that this finesse or sagacity will have as its object sometimes the acquisition of intellectual qualities, sometimes that of moral qualities, sometimes that of a practical art, sometimes malice and wickedness.”iv

Who can be said to be « wise » then?

« He who is instructed in the whole Law, and who knows its true meaning, is called ‘hakham in two respects, because it embraces both intellectual and moral qualities.”

Maimonides then quotes on Aristotlev and the ancient philosophers to define « four species of perfections ».

The first kind of ‘perfection’ is particularly prized by most men but is really of little value. It is material possession. Mountains of gold and silver are to be possessed, they offer only a passing enjoyment, and at the bottom of the imagination.

The second is the perfection of the body, the physical constitution, beauty, health. This is certainly not nothing, but has little impact on the health of the soul itself.

The third kind of perfection consists in moral qualities. This is a definite advantage from the point of view of the essence of the soul. But moral qualities are not an end in themselves. They serve only as a preparation for some other, higher purpose.

The fourth sort of perfection is true human perfection. It consists in being able to conceive ideas about the great metaphysical questions. This is the true end of man. « It is through it that he obtains immortality, »vi Maimonides said.

Jeremiah had also expressed himself on this subject, in his own style: « Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, nor the strong man glory in his strength, nor the rich man glory in his riches; but whoever wishes to glory, let him find glory in this: to have understanding and to know me, for I am YHVH.”vii

Wisdom is knowledge, – the knowledge of the Lord.

But how to get to know that specific knowledge?

Jeremiah has an answer:

« I am YHVH, who exercises goodness, justice and righteousness in the earth. Yes, this is what I delight in, says YHVH!” viii 

This means that the essence of God is known by His actions, which should be taken as a model. There are three fundamental ones: חֶסֶד , hesed (goodness), מִשְׁפָּט , michpat (law), and ָּצְדָקָה , tsedaka (justice).

Maimonides comments: « He [Jeremiah] then adds another essential idea, saying – ‘on earth’ –, and this idea is the pillar of religion”ix.

Since this idea comes at the very end of the Guide for the Perplexed, it can probably be thought to be its final conclusion.

That simple, conclusive, remark leaves open an immense field of new research. What would be the essence of God, not just on earth, but elsewhere?

And would the answer to that question, if we knew it, be possibly the pillar of another kind of religion?

i Ps. 65,2

ii Ps. 4,5

iiiMaïmonides. Guide of the Perplexed. III. §54, pp.629. Ed. Verdier. 1979.

ivIbid. p.630

vL’Éthique à Nicomaque. 1,8 et sq.

viMaïmonides. Guide of the Perplexed. III. §54, pp.633. Ed. Verdier. 1979.

vii Jer. 9, 22-23

viiiJér. 9,23

ixMaïmonide.Le Guide des égarés. 3ème partie. §54, pp.635. Ed. Verdier. 1979

« You, Israel, are joyful, but my servants are grieving. »


Everything contributes to deceive, delude, mislead, the seeker who ventures into the slippery terrain of mystery, – without guidance, compass or bearings. The shoehorns are multiplying underfoot, in words. There are a thousand opportunities to get lost. The material is too rich, too vast, too flexible, too subtle. It is covered with too many veils, protected by thick walls, buried in the depths of forgotten cenotaphs, vanished into a clear azure, lost in the inaudible murmur of the zephyr.

You need a singularly piercing eye, a fine ear, a gentle touch, to only feel the fleeting shadow of a clue.

The mystery seeker reminds us of this character from Ṛg Veda: « Sullen, without knowledge, I question with my mind what are the hidden traces of the gods. »i

The seeker contemplates with his thoughts Isaiah’s seraphim, with their three pairs of wings, two of which are to cover their face and feet, and the third to fly, and he cannot be satisfied with what he sees, since they hide from him what he cannot see.

He tries to understand the meaning of Greek words that are only outer envelopes, without content: mystery (μυστήριον), symbol (σύμϐολον), enigma (αἲνιγμα), sign (σημεῖον), shadow (σκία), shape (τύπος) or similarity (εἰκών).

Origen has shown as clearly as possible, without being discouraged, how the mystery is constantly being hidden, and how, without interruption, it is being overlooked. He stated with a sense of evidence: « We feel that everything is full of mysteries”ii and also: « Everything that happens, happens in mysteries.»iii

In terms of mysteries, a higher irony haunts some Kabbalah texts, such as this one: « You, Israel, are joyful, but my servants are grieving. For it is a mystery from the mysteries that leaves my treasure. All your schools prosper like fattened calves (Jeremiah 46:21), not by sorrow, not by labor, but by the name of this seal and by the mention of the terrifying crown. »iv

How would one interpret that sentence, nowadays?

Without waiting too long for an answer that will not easily be spit out, the researcher picks up other grains of knowledge that were collected thousands of years ago: « What is manifested and secret, what moves here in the secret heart of our being is the powerful foundation in which is established all that moves and breathes and sees. »v

He meditated on the details of Ezekiel’s experience, wondering about the differences between brightness, fire, and amber: « And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.» vi

The researcher measures the inanity of his efforts, the derisory nature of his strengths. He is aware that the idea of mystery could be nothing more than an illusion, a chimera, a pretext to collect in sheer waste scattered symbols, a propensity to tear diaphanous veils, to plunge into a verbal abyss, to overestimate the signs, to desire to see, instead of live.

Origen had warned: true knowledge is love. Plunged in sweet madness, the seeker seeks love in the true mystery.

iŖg Veda I,164,1

iiOrigen, Lev. Hom. 3,8

iiiOrigen, Gen. Hom. 9,1

iv Cf. Section Sar Ha-Torah (« Prince of Torah ») from Hekhalot Rabbati (« Great Palaces »)

vMundaka 2,2,1

viEz 1, 4