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.

A Very Long Journey


A Jewish historian, Artapanus, living in Alexandria under the Ptolemy, more than 2300 years ago, affirmed that Moses and Hermes Trismegistus were one and the same person. This provocative thesis is obviously controversial. But from the point of view of cultures quietly assuming their « symbiosis » (such as the one prevailing in the vibrant Alexandria of this time), this idea has the merit of being a pungent symptom.

Whether or not he was in fact Moses, the man named Hermes Trismegistus was a remarkable character. Almost two thousand years before Blaise Pascal, Hermes struck a famous formula, quoted in the Asclepius: « God, – a spiritual circle whose center is everywhere, and the circumference nowhere. »

His Poimandrès is also moving by his scope of vision, and the prophetic power of his intuitions. Here are the first lines.

« I was thinking about beings one day; my thoughts hovered in the heights, and all my body sensations were numb as in the heavy sleep that follows satiety, excess or fatigue. It seemed to me that an immense being, without defined limits, called me by name and said to me: What do you want to hear and see, what do you want to learn and know?

– Who are you, I answered?

– I am, he said, Poimandrès, the sovereign intelligence. I know what you want, and everywhere I am with you.

– I want, I replied, to be educated about beings, to understand their nature and to know God.

– Receive in your mind everything you want to know, » he said to me, « I will instruct you.

At these words, he changed his appearance, and immediately everything was discovered to me in a moment, and I saw an indefinable spectacle. »

There is something divine in Hermes, just like in Moses. Why hide it? Today, there are few men of this calibre. Does this make the world more difficult to live in? Less open to wisdom? This can be believed if we stick to Plato’s description of the philosopher.

« This is why the philosopher’s thought is the only winged one; for those higher realities to which he is constantly applied by memory to the extent of his forces, it is to these very realities that God owes his divinity. However, it is by straightforwardly using such means of remembrance that a man who is always perfectly initiated to perfect initiations, becomes, alone, really perfect. But as he departs from what is the object of human concern and applies to what is divine, the crowd shows him that he is disturbed in spirit; but he is possessed of a God, and the crowd does not suspect it! »i

Today, as in the past, the opinion of the crowd often prevails over that of the wise man. But the latter does not care. He is « possessed ».

There is nothing better, in order to understand an era, than to look at the forms of “possession”, of « disturbance », the ways of « delirium », which it condemns or recognizes.

In Poimandrès Hermes gives crucial indications in this regard on the concerns of his time. He describes his own transport in an immortal body, and the ecstasy of his soul.

In the Symposium, Plato recounts the dive of purified souls into the ocean of divine beauty. In the Epinomis, he explains how the soul can be united with God, then living through Him, rather than by herself.

It is difficult not to be struck by the incredible distance between the experience of these ancient thinkers and that of most intellectuals and other publicists at the beginning of the 21st century.

Few, it seems, can still get the faintest idea of what the experience of ecstasy was really like for Moses, for Hermes, or for Socrates.

« Modern thinkers » have almost completely severed the links with these multi-millennial experiments. We see in the media professionals of the sacredness, spokesmen for faith X, religion Y or spirituality Z, parading on stages, pulpits, platforms, or screens, proclaiming themselves guardians of divine laws, imposing sermons and homilies, launching anathema or fatwas.

The modern domain of the « sacred » forms a noisy, blurred, confused scene.This confusion hides a more substantial opacity. The untouched, unsuspected mystery still lies in the depths, much deeper than the spiritual night that surrounds us on all sides. Marsilio Ficino, one of the Renaissance thinkers who best resisted modern desiccation, then in genesis, described an interesting phenomenon, the path of the mind captured by the object of his research:

« By ardently loving this light, even if it is obscurely perceived, these intelligences are completely engulfed in its heat, and once they are engulfed, which is the hallmark of love, they are transformed into light. Strengthened by this light, they very easily become by love the very light they previously tried to follow with their eyes.»ii

Ficino, who seems to have experienced the thing for himself, believes that there are nine possible degrees of contemplation of God. Three are related to his goodness, three are related to his wisdom, and three are related to his power. But these approaches are not equivalent.

“We fear the power of God, we seek his wisdom, we love his goodness. Only the love of his goodness transforms the soul into God.”iii

Why all these ways, then, if there is only one effective? The symbolism of the number 9 is to be taken into account. Virgil used it, too. « The Styx, interposing itself nine times, locks them in. »iv

Ficino quotes Hesiod, Virgil, Ovid, Hermes Trismegistus, Plato. In the middle of the Renaissance, he dreams of the golden age, during which the mysteries had been contemplated.

The intelligence of men is bound and weak. To dream today of a new golden age is to believe once again in a possible leap, a huge leap, from this weakness, towards the vision of the high mysteries, or even their understanding.

The testimony of the great elders on this subject is invaluable. They say the leap is possible. They suggest that this experience is always open to anyone who undertakes this journey with determination. We must rely on the general strengths of universal symbiosis to help us through the difficult stages that await the Argonauts of life. Orpheus warns: « It is impossible to force the gates of the kingdom of Pluto; inside lives the people of dreams.»v

But these doors can be opened, as if by magic. How? Orpheus entrusts his method: « Daughters of Mnemosyne and Jupiter, O famous and illustrious Muses, goddesses who will generate all the arts, nourish the spirit, inspire right thoughts, wisely rule the souls of men and have taught them divine sacrifices; Clio, Euterpe, Thalie, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Erato, Polymnia, Urania and Calliope, come with your august mother; come to us and be favourable to us, bring us the Almighty Glory and Wisdom.»vi

For those who would have a sensitivity to immanence, Orpheus proposes to invoke the « universal substance »:

« I invoke Pan, the universal substance of the world, of the sky, of the deep sea, of the earth of various forms and of the imperishable flame. These are just scattered members of Pan. Pan at the feet of goats, wandering god, master of storms, who drives the stars and whose voice represents the eternal concerts of the world, god loved by herdsmen and pastors who love the clear fountains, fast god who inhabits the hills, friend of sound, dear god of nymphs, god who generates all things, procreative power of the universe.»vii

For those who prefer to put themselves under the shadow of the Law, Orpheus also has a sign:

« I invoke the divine Law, the genius of men and immortals; the heavenly goddess, governing the stars, the common sign of all things, the foundation of nature, the sea and the earth. A constant Goddess, keeping the eternal laws of heaven and faithfully carrying out her immense revolutions; you who grant mortals the benefits of a prudent life and govern all that breathes; you whose wise counsel directs all things according to equity, goddess always favourable to the just, but overwhelming the wicked with severe punishments, sweet goddess who distributes goods with delicious largess, remember us and speak our name with friendship.»viii

The journey has only just begun. It has no end. Any vessel will do, to the one who knows the bearings, even fuzzily. Only imagination and hope are likely to be in short supply. And courage.

i Phaedrus, 249, c-d

iiMarsilio Ficino, Th. Plat. 18,8

iiiIbid.

iv Georg. IV, 480

v Argonaut., 1142

vi Argonaut., 1142

vii Orpheus, Hymns, X

viii Hymns, LXI