Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

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Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

By G.R.S. Mead

From The Acts of John

IN a recent volume of that most valuable series Texts and Studies (Apocrypha Anecdota II., by M. R. James, 1897), there is a long fragment of The Acts of John, much of which has never been previously published. It has been rescued from a fourteenth century MS. preserved in Vienna. The original of these Acts is early, belonging as they do to the Leucian collection. Seeing that Clement of Alexandria quotes from them, we must assign the third quarter of the second century to them as the terminus ad quem. We have therefore before us an early document, our interest in which is further increased by the fact of its distinctly Gnostic nature.

The Rationale of Docetism.Nearly the whole of the fragment consists of a monologue put into the mouth of John, in which is preserved for us a most remarkable tradition of the occult life of Jesus. The whole setting of the christology is docetic and the fragment is thus a most valuable addition to our knowledge on this interesting point of Gnostic tradition. Docetism was the rank growth of the legends of certain occult powers ascribed to the "perfect man," which were woven into the many christological and soteriological theories of the Gnostic philosophers; and also, as I believe, of a veritable historical fact, which has been obscured out of all recognition by the many historicizing narrations of the origins. After His death the Christ did return and teach His followers among the inner communities, and this was the part origin of the protean Gnostic tradition of an inner instruction. He returned in the only way He could return, namely, in a "psychic" or "spiritual" body; this body could be made visible at will, could even be made sensible to touch, but was, compared to the ordinary physical body, an "illusory" body--hence the term "docetic."

But just as the external tradition of the "Poor Men" was gradually transmuted, and finally exalted Jesus The Evolution of Tradition.from the position of a prophet into the full power and glory of the Godhead itself, so the internal tradition extended the original docetic notion to every department of the huge soteriological structure raised by Gnostic genius. The Acts of John pertain to the latter cycle of tendencies, and "John" is the personification of one of the lines of tradition of the protean docetism, which had its origin in an occult fact, and of those marvellous teachings of initiation which became subsequently historicized, and which John sums up in the words: "I held firmly this one thing in myself, that the Lord contrived all things symbolically and by a dispensation toward men, for their conversion and salvation."

That the Christ was possessed of spiritual powers of a very high order is easy of belief to any student of occult nature. That he could appear to others in a mayavi-rupa, as it is called in India, and change its appearance at will, is quite possible of credit. But that the tradition of these and other such happenings should have been handed down without exaggeration and fantastic embellishment, would be entirely contrary to human experience in such matters.

Mystic Stories of Jesus.Thus, then, we are told that at the calling of James and John, first of all James saw Jesus as a child, while John saw Him first as a man "fair and comely and of a cheerful countenance"; afterwards he saw Him as one "having a head rather bald, but a thick and flowing beard," while James asserted that He appeared "as a youth whose beard wag newly come."

Moreover, another peculiarity which John remarked, was that His eyes never closed. Strangely enough, this is one of the signs of a "god" given in the Hindu scriptures. Many changes of appearance did John remark, sometimes as of "a man small and uncomely, and then again as one reaching to heaven"--a fact quite credible when related of a pupil in sympathetic contact with the powerful "presence" or "glory" of a Master. But stranger still, when John lay upon his breast, "sometimes it was felt of me to be smooth and tender, and sometimes hard, like stones." Moreover, when Jesus was in prayer and contemplation, there was seen in Him "such a light as it is not possible for a man that useth corruptible speech to tell what it was like."

The following naïve story will at the end bring a smile to the face of the reader, but at the same time it will give the student of hidden nature proof that the legend is not based entirely on the imagination, but pertains to the domain of occult fact, if at any rate the many similar legends, current in India, concerning the touch of yogins when in certain states of ecstasy are at all to be credited. (The quotations are for the most part from Dr. James’ translation).

"Again in like manner he leadeth us three up into the mountain, saying 'Come ye to Me.' And we again went: and we beheld Him at a distance praying. Now therefore I, because He loved me, drew nigh unto Him softly as though He should not see, and stood looking at His back. And I beheld Him that He was not in any wise clad with garments, but was seen of us naked thereof, and not in any wise as a man; and His feet whiter than any snow, so that the ground there was lighted up by His feet; and His head reaching unto heaven, so that I was afraid and cried out; and He turned and appeared as a man of small stature, and took hold of my beard and pulled it and said unto me, 'John, be not unbelieving, and not a busybody.' And I said unto Him, 'But what have I done, Lord V And I tell you, brethren, I suffered great pain in that place where he took hold upon my beard for thirty days.

"But Peter and James were wroth because I spake with the Lord, and beckoned unto me that The Christ speaks with Jesus.I should come unto them, and leave the Lord alone. And I went, and they both said unto me, 'He that was speaking with the Lord when he was upon the top of the mount, who was He? for we heard both of them speaking.' And I, when I considered His great grace and His unity which hath many faces, and His wisdom which without ceasing looked upon us, said, 'That shall ye learn if ye inquire of Him.'

"Again, once when all of us His disciples were sleeping in one house at Gennesaret, I alone, having wrapped myself up, watched from under my garment what He did; and first I heard Him say, 'John, go thou to sleep,' and thereupon I feigned to be asleep; and I saw another like unto Him come down, whom also I heard saying unto my Lord, 'Jesus, do they whom thou hast chosen still not believe in thee?' And my Lord said unto Him, 'Thou sayest well, for they are men.'"

Here, in my opinion, is the direct tradition of an inner fact which led to the subsequent great doctrinal distinction between Jesus and the Christ in Gnostic Christianity. The Christ was the Great Master; Jesus was the man through whom He taught during the time of the ministry.

An Early Form of one of the Great Miracles.Interesting again is the simple story that when Jesus and His disciples were each given a loaf by some well-to-do householder, Jesus would bless the loaf and divide it among them, and each was well satisfied with his portion, and thus "our loaves were saved whole"--an incident credible enough to any student of occultism, and supplying a basis on which the gorgeous oriental imagination could easily in time construct the legend of the feeding of the five thousand. Such incidents were all that the writer deemed advisable to tell to the uninitiated; there were many more of a nature too sacred or too far from credibility to be revealed to the outer circles.

"Now these things, brethren, I speak unto you for the encouragement of your faith toward Him; for we must at present keep silence concerning His mighty and wonderful works, inasmuch as they are mysteries and peradventure cannot at all be either uttered or heard."

Next follows the "Hymn" which was sung before He was taken by "the lawless Jews." The A Ritual from the Mysteries.disciples are described as holding one another's hands so as to make a ring round Jesus, who stands in the midst, and to each line He sings, they intone in chorus the sacred word "Amen." It is evidently some echo of the Mysteries, and the ceremony is that of a sacred dance of initiation. The Hymn stands at present in a very confused and mutilated form, and the rubrics have almost entirely disappeared. I have therefore permitted myself a few conjectures; in some passages, however, the confusion is so great. that it is impossible to venture on a suggestion. In the following C. stands for the candidate, I. for the initiator (the Christ), and A. for the assistants.

C. "I would be saved."

I. "And I would save."

A. "Amen."

C. "I would be loosed."

I. "And I would loose."

A. "Amen."

C. "I would be pierced."

I. "And I would pierce."

A. "Amen."

C. "I would be born."

I. "And I would bring to birth."

A. "Amen."

C. "I would eat."

I. "And I would be eaten."

A. "Amen."

C. "I would hear."

I. "And I would be heard."

A. "Amen."

"I would be understood, being all understanding (mind)."

A. "Amen."

C. "I would be washed."

I. "And I would wash."

A. "Amen."

"(Grace [i.e., the Sophia] dances.)"

"I would pipe; dance all of you."

A. "Amen."

"The Ogdoad plays to our dancing. Amen."

"The Dodecad danceth above [us]. Amen."

[The reading of this line is hopeless.]

"He who danceth not, knoweth not what is being done."

C. "I would flee."

I. "I would [have thee] stay."

A. "Amen."

C. "I would be robed [in fit garments]."

I. "And I would robe [thee]."

A. "Amen."

C. "I would be at-oned."

I. "And I would at-one."

A. "Amen."

"I have no house, and I have houses. Amen."

"I have no place, and I have places. Amen."

"I have no temple, and I have temples. Amen."

I. "I am a lamp to thee who beholdest Me."

A. "Amen."

I. "I am a mirror to thee who perceivest Me."

A. "Amen."

I. "I am a door to thee who knockest at Me."

A. "Amen."

I. "I am a way to thee, a wayfarer."

A. "Amen."

I. "Now respond thou to my dancing."

"See thyself in Me who speak; and when thou hast seen what I do, keep silence on My mysteries."

"(Dancing.) Observe what I do, for thine is this passion (suffering) of the Man which I am to suffer (perform)."

[Here probably followed a mystery-drama of the crucifixion and piercing.]

"Thou couldst never [alone] have understood what I suffer. I am thy Word (Logos--Highest Self). I was sent by the Father."

"When thou didst look on My passion, thou didst see Me as suffering; thou stood’st not firm, but wast shaken completely. . ."

"Thou hast Me for a couch, rest thou upon Me."

"Who am I? That shalt thou know when I depart."

"What I am now seen to be, that I am not; but what I am thou shalt see when thou comest."

"If thou hadst known how to suffer, thou wouldst have had the power not to suffer."

"Know then suffering and thou shalt have the power not to suffer."

"That which thou knowest not, I myself will teach thee."

"I am thy God, not that of thy betrayer."

C. "I would be brought into harmony with holy souls."

I. "In Me know thou the Word of wisdom."

The Doxology.So run the mutilated fragments of this most interesting relic of inner Gnostic ritual; in the version of The Acts of John from which we are quoting, this so-called Hymn begins and ends with the following doxology, to each line of which the disciples, "going round in a ring," are said to answer back "Amen."

"Glory to Thee, Father. Amen!

"Glory to Thee, Word; glory to Thee, Grace. Amen!

"Glory to Thee, Spirit; glory to Thee, Holy One; glory to Thy glory. Amen!

"We praise Thee, O Father; we give thanks to Thee, O Light, wherein dwelleth no darkness. Amen!"

If we had only a description of the "drama," the "things done," as well as of the "things said," at this most instructive ceremony, much light might be thrown on the meaning of the "passion" of the Christ as it was originally understood. When, moreover, we reflect that most precious fragments of this hidden part of earliest Christendom are being discovered almost yearly, it is not too wild a hope that some tattered leaf may give us further light. That, however, the "mystery of the cross," the mystic crucifixion, was understood by the Gnostics in a fashion far different from the literal historic narrative, is abundantly proved by these same Johannine Acts.

When the Lord was hung upon the "bush of the cross," He appeared unto John, who had fled unto the "Mount of Olives."

"Our Lord stood in the midst of the cave and filled it with light and said, 'To the multitude The Mystery of the Cross.below, in Jerusalem [? the Jerusalem Below--the physical world], I am being crucified, and pierced with lances and reeds, and gall and vinegar is given Me to drink; to thee now I speak, and hearken to My words. ’Twas I who put it in thy heart to ascend this mount, that thou mightest hear what disciple must learn from Master, and man from God.'

"And having thus spoken, He showed me a cross of light set up, and about the cross a great multitude, and therein one form and one likeness; and on the cross another multitude, not having one form, and I saw the Lord Himself above the cross, not having any shape, but only a voice; and a voice not such as was familiar to us, but a sweet and kind voice and one truly of God, saying unto me: 'John, it is needful that one should hear these things from Me; for I have need of one who will hear. This cross of light is sometimes called the Word by Me for your sakes, sometimes Mind, sometimes Jesus, sometimes Christ, sometimes Door, sometimes Way, sometimes Bread, sometimes Seed, sometimes Resurrection, sometimes Son, sometimes Father, sometimes Spirit, sometimes Life, sometimes Truth, sometimes Faith, sometimes Grace.

"'Now these things it is called as toward men; but as to what it is in truth, as conceived of in itself and as spoken of to thee--it is the marking off (delimitation) of all things, the firm necessity of those things that are fixed and were unsettled, the harmony of Wisdom. And whereas it is Wisdom in harmony (or fitly ordered), there are on the Right and Left Powers, Principalities, Sources, and Dæmons, Energies, Threats, Wrath, Accusers, Satan, and [Below] the Lower Root from which hath proceeded the nature of the things in genesis.

"'This, then, is the cross which fixed all things apart by Reason, and marked off the things that come from genesis, the things below it, and then compacted all into one whole.

"'This is not the cross of wood which thou wilt see when thou hast descended; nor am I He that is upon the cross, whom now thou seest not but only hearest a voice.

"'By the others, the many, I have been thought to be what I am not, though I am not what I was. And they will [still] say of Me what is base and not worthy of Me.

"'As, therefore, the Place of Rest is neither seen nor spoken of, much more shall I, the Lord of that Place, be neither seen nor spoken of.

"'Now the multitude of one aspect that is about the cross is the lower nature, and those whom thou seest on the cross, if they have not one The Interpretation thereof.form, it is because not yet hath every Limb of Him who came down been gathered together. But when the upper nature shall be taken up, and the race which is repairing to Me, in obedience to My voice; then that which [as yet] hears Me not, shall become as thou art, and shall no longer be what it now is, but above them [of the world], even as I am now. For so long as thou callest not thyself Mine, I am not what I am. But if hearing thou hearkenest unto Me, then shalt thou be as I am, and I shall be what I was, when I have thee as I am with Myself. For from this thou art. Pay no attention, then, to the many, and them outside the mystery think little of; for know that I am wholly with the Father and the Father with Me.

"'Nothing therefore of the things which they will say of Me have I suffered; nay, that suffering also which I showed unto thee and unto the rest in the dance, I will that it be called a mystery. For what thou seest that did I show thee; but what I am that I alone know, and none else. Suffer me then to keep that which is Mine own, and that which is thine behold thou through Me, and behold Me in truth that I am, not what I said, but what thou art able to know, for thou art kin to Me.

"'Thou hearest that I suffered, yet I suffered not; that I suffered not, yet did I suffer; that I was pierced, yet was I not smitten; that I was hanged, yet was I not hanged; that blood flowed from Me, yet it flowed not. In a word those things that they say of Me, I had not, and the things that they say not, those I suffered. Now what they are I will shadow forth (riddle) for thee, for I know that thou wilt understand.

"'See thou therefore in Me the slaying of a Word (Logos), the piercing of a Word, the blood of a Word, the wounding of a Word, the hanging of a Word, the passion of a Word, the nailing [? fixing or joining] of a Word, the death of a Word. And by a Word I mean. Man. First, then, understand the Word, then shalt thou understand the Lord, and thirdly the Man, and what is His passion."'

The Initiation of the Cross.It is evident that we have here the tradition of the inner schools as to the great mystery of initiation called the Cross. The Cross is apparently three limbed, having a right, a left, and a lower arm, like the Egyptian tau. On it the body of the candidate presumably was bound, and in trance his soul ascended the mountain of initiation, the "height" within. Here he meets the Master, but only hears His voice; not yet can he see Him as He is, for all his limbs are not yet gathered together, the perfect Osiris is not formed in him, but will be at a higher stage, when he is at-oned with the Christ.

How beautiful are these echoes from the old teaching, and what light they throw on things otherwise entirely incomprehensible! It was these inner experiences of the soul which were the life and strength of the Gnosis, experiences in which the complex systems that "the tongue of flesh" endeavoured to enunciate with such labour, received illumination and light--"sweet, joyous light," as the Shepherd of Hermes the Thrice-greatest has it. Well now can we imagine the significance of the greeting among such scholars of the hidden way as: "The mystery of that which hangs ’twixt heaven and earth be with you."

Of the idea of the Little and Great Man, the lower and higher selves, in such circles of initiation we hear Higher Lower Selves.and elsewhere from The Gospel of Eve (Epiph., xxvi. 3), describing one of these visions on the Mount.

"I stood on a lofty mountain and saw a mighty Man, and another, a dwarf, and heard as it were a voice of thunder, and drew nigh for to hear; and it spake unto me and said: 'I am thou and thou art I; and wheresoever thou art I am there, and I am sown (or scattered) in all; from whencesoever thou wiliest thou gatherest Me, and gathering Me thou gatherest Thyself."

The "dwarf" presumably corresponds to the "man of the size of a thumb in the æther of the heart" of the Upanishads; as yet he is smaller than the small, but as the spiritual nature develops he will become greater than the great, and grow into the stature of the Heavenly Man--the Supreme Self.

As to the scattering and collecting of the Limbs, there is a passage cited by Epiphanius (ibid., 13) from The Gospel of Philip, which throws some further light on the subject. It is an apology or defence to be used by the soul in its ascent to the Heaven-world, as it passes through the middle spaces, and runs as follows:

"I have recognised myself and gathered myself together from all sides. I have sown no children to the Ruler [the lord of this world], but have torn up his roots; I have gathered together my limbs that were scattered abroad, and I know thee who thou art."

A Prayer of Praise to Christ.So much for what we can glean from the text of the latest published fragment of these most instructive Acts; from the already known texts there are several other fragments of interest. The following is a prayer of praise put into the mouth of John at the sacred feast prior to his departure from life. It is addressed to the Christ.

"What praise, what offering, what thanksgiving, shall we, in breaking bread, speak of but Thee alone? We glorify Thy Name [i.e., Power] which hath been spoken by the Father; we glorify Thy Name which hath been spoken through the Son; we glorify the Resurrection shown unto us through Thee; we glorify Thy Seed, Word, Grace, Faith, Salt, True Pearl ineffable, Treasure, Plough, Greatness, Net, and Diadem, Him who hath been called for our sakes the Son of Man, Truth, Rest, and Gnosis, Power, Statute, Frankness, Hope, Love, Freedom, and Going-for-refuge to Thee. For Thou alone art the one Lord, the Root of Deathlessness, and Source of Incorruptibility, Seat of the Æons. All these hast Thou been called for us, that we invoking Thee by them, may know that as 'Te are we never can embrace Thy Greatness, greatness that can alone be contemplated by the Pure, for it is imaged in Thy man alone."

The same phrase, "Thy man," is found in the beautiful treatise of Hermes Trismegistus known as The Secret Sermon on the Mountain; "Thou art the God; Thy man thus cries to Thee through fire, air, earth; through water, spirit, through these Thy creatures." But indeed the whole of the so-called Poimandres collection of the Trismegistic literature comes from the same source as the Gnosis.

The high ideal of the Gnostic life, and the lofty level to which these strivers after the sinless state aspired, are amply shown in the farewell address to his disciples, put in the mouth of John by the Gnostic composer or compiler of the Acts.

"Brothers and fellow-servants, co-heirs and co-partners in the kingdom of the Lord, ye know how John's Farewell Address to his Community.many powers the Lord hath granted you through me--how many wonders, healings how many, how many signs, what gifts [of the Spirit], teachings, guidings, reliefs, services, glories, graces, gifts, bestowings of faith, communions--how many ye see with your own eyes given unto you, how many that neither these eyes of yours can see, nor these ears hear! Stand ye, therefore, fast in Him, in every deed remembering Him, knowing wherefore the mystery of the dispensation towards men is being worked out.

"The Lord Himself exhorteth you through me: 'Brethren, I would be free from grief [on your behalf], from violence, plottings, punishments.'

"For He knoweth the violence that comes from you, He knoweth the dishonour, He knoweth the plotting, He knoweth the punishment that comes through them who obey not His commandments.

"Let not then our Good God be grieved, Him the compassionate, merciful and holy, the pure and spotless one, the one and only one, unchangeable, of speckless purity, who knows not guile or wrath, higher and loftier than any attribute that we can name or think, Jesus our God.

"May He be glad of us as citizens of a well-ruled state; may He rejoice at our living in purity; may He have rest by our reverent behaviour; may He be free from care by our continence; may He be delighted by our dwelling in brotherhood; may He laugh with joy at our prudence; may He rejoice at our love for Him.

"These things do I say unto you, hastening to the end of my appointed task, which has been brought to an end for me by the Lord. For what else can I say to you? Ye have the pledges of our God; ye have the sureties of His goodness; ye have His presence which can never leave you. If then ye sin no more, He doth forgive you all that ye have done in ignorance; but if, having once known Him and having received of His mercy, ye turn back into such paths then shall your former sins be put to your charge, and ye shall have neither portion nor mercy before Him."

Immediately on this there follows the last prayer of John to the Christ on behalf of his brethren.

John's Last Prayer."Thou who hast woven this wreath by Thy weaving, Jesus, Thou who hast united these many blossoms into that sweet flower of Thine whose scent can never fade, Thou who hast sown these Words, protector of Thine own, healer who heal’st for naught, Thou only one who ever doest good, stranger to arrogance, Thou only merciful, the friend of man, Thou only saviour, righteous one, who ever seest all things and art in all and always ever-present, God, Jesus, Christos, Lord, who with Thy gifts and Thy compassion dost screen [all] them who hope on Thee, Thou who dost right well know all those that do us wrong and who blaspheme Thy holy Name, Thou only Lord, watch o’er Thy servants and protect them; yea, Lord, do this!"

The rest of the prayer has also a strong Gnostic colouring, but sufficient has already been quoted to give the reader some idea of the lofty thoughts which animated such communities of the early days.

But before leaving The Acts of John we cannot refrain from presenting the reader with the best known story that has crept into their compilation. It is strange that, where there is so much beauty, this particular story should have been singled out for most frequent quotation, and that many theological students know nothing else of the contents of these instructive documents but "The Story of John and the Bugs." But so it is, and we give it as a specimen of the many legends that were current among the people, and also because it is not deficient in humour, an uncommon commodity in the circles of the pious. We take the account from Salmon's summary. (Op. supra cit., p. 350).

Once on a time John and his companions were a-journeying for apostolic purposes. "On their journey The Story of John and the Bugs.the party stopped at an uninhabited caravanserai. They found there but one bare couch, and having laid clothes on it they made the Apostle lie on it, while the rest of the party laid themselves down to sleep on the floor. But John was troubled by a great multitude of bugs; until after having tossed sleepless for half the night, he said to them in the hearing of all: 'I say unto you, O ye bugs, be ye kindly considerate; leave your home for this night, and go to rest in a place which is far from the servant of God.' At this the disciples laughed, while the Apostle turned to sleep, and they conversed gently, so as not to disturb him. In the morning, the first to awake went to the door, and they saw a great multitude of bugs standing. The rest collected to view, and at last St. John awoke and saw likewise. Then (mindful rather of his grateful obligation to the bugs than of the comfort of the next succeeding traveller) he said: 'O ye bugs, since ye have been kind and have observed my charge, return to your place.' No sooner had he said this, and risen from the couch, than the bugs all in a run rushed from the door to the couch, climbed up the legs, and disappeared into the joinings. And John said: 'See how these creatures, having heard the voice of a man, have obeyed; but we, hearing the voice of God, neglect and disobey; and how long?'"



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