Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

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Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

By G.R.S. Mead

From The Acts of Thomas

WE have already given the reader the most important fragment preserved in the Acts of Thomas, or Judas A Hymn to Wisdom.Thomas; it is the beautiful Hymn of the Soul, composed in every likelihood by Bardesanes. If the Acts of Thomas had given us nothing else than this grand Gnostic Hymn of the Robe of Glory, their life would not have been preserved in vain. Fortunately, however, there is more to be gleaned from them. The following is a translation of the beautiful Ode to Sophia, as it is called.

"The Maiden is Light's daughter; in her the King's radiance is treasured. Majestic her look, and delightsome; in radiant beauty she shineth.

"Like to spring flowers are her garments; from them streameth scent of sweet odours. Throned o’er her head the King sitteth, with food free from death feeding them at His table.

"Truth crowneth her head; Joy sports at her feet. She openeth her mouth as becomes her; all songs of praise she lets stream forth.

"Two and thirty are they who sing praises; . . . Her tongue is like the entrance veil, moved by them who enter in only.

"Her neck towereth step-like; the first world-builder did build it. Her hands suggest the band of blessed Æons, proclaiming them (?); her fingers point toward the City's Gates.

"Her bridal chamber (παστ?ς) doth stream with light, and pour forth scent of balsam and sweet herbs, delicious scents of myrrh and savoury plants; with myrtle wreaths and masses of sweet flowers ’tis strewn within. Her bridal couch is decked with reeds (?).

"Her bridesmen are grouped round her; seven are they in number; she hath picked them herself. Seven, too, are her bridesmaids dancing before her.

"Twelve are they who serve and attend her; their eyes ever look for the Bridegroom, that He may fill them with light.

"For ever with Him will they be in joy everlasting; and will take their seats at that feast where the Great Ones assemble, and remain at that banquet of which the Eternal (α??νιοι) alone are deemed worthy.

"In kingly dress shall they be clad, and put on robes of light, and both shall joy in bliss and exultation, singing praise to the Father.

"For of His glorious radiance they've received; and at the sight of Him, their Lord, they have been filled with light. They have received from Him immortal food that knows no waste.

"They've drunk of wine that makes men thirst no more, nor suffer fleshly lust. So with the Living Spirit they glorify Truth's Father, and sing their praise to Wisdom's Mother."

Would that we had the original of this beautiful hymn, for even the faulty and distorted version that remains is beautiful. Can it be that we have here another of the Hymns of Bardaisan? In any case the hymn looks back to the sacred marriage of the Sophia with her Bridegroom the Christ, to which reference has already been made in our sketch of the Basilidian Gnosis.

In this marriage the cosmic Sophia was received back into the Light-world, and united with her Its meaning.heavenly spouse. This was to take place at the Great Consummation; but, mystically, it was ever taking place for those who united themselves with their Higher Selves.

As in the consummation of the universe the World-soul was reunited with the World-mind, so in the perfectioning of the individual the soul was made one with the Self within.

The Maiden is the daughter of the Pleroma of Light; she reflects the splendour of the Kings, the Lords of the Light-realm. Above her in the Light-realm sits throned the King of Glory, the Christos, who giveth the food of deathlessness to the Spiritual Souls (Pneumatics) who are worthy to be bidden to the Feast.

At this high initiation the whole Pleroma (the two and thirty Æons) sing songs of rejoicing that the victory is won. ’Tis only such perfected souls who can move Wisdom's tongue in praise to God; they alone can make the subtle substance of such lofty heights vibrate in songs of praise.

The following verse is difficult to understand, and doubtless does not preserve the original. The "City" is the Pleroma; the bride-chamber is the Pastos, the shrine, the holy place, where the initiation is given--the Jerusalem Above, identical perhaps with the City of which we read in the superior MS. of the Codex Brucianus.

Thither the purified soul is conducted by seven pairs or syzygies of powers. Rising aloft she takes with her the twelve, her servants, no longer her rulers as in the lower world, where she has so long been chained in the bonds of desire. The twelve are now her own purified powers, whereby the Light of the Christos is reflected. In the phrase, "both shall joy in bliss and exultation," of the third verse from the end, "both" refers to the reunited soul with its "Angel"--those Angels who always behold the Face of the Father.

This and much else does the hymn reveal to those who love the Gnosis, for many pages would not exhaust its full meaning.

The Sacramental Invocations.But we must hasten on to the remaining fragments in the Acts of Thomas, and so present our readers with a translation of two interesting sacramental prayers or invocations in hymn-form. The first runs as follows:

"Come Thou Holy Name of Christ, Name above all names; come Power from above; come Perfect Mercy; come highest gift!

"Thou Mother of compassion, come; come Spouse of Him, the Man; come Thou Revealer of the mysteries concealed; Thou Mother of the seven mansions come, who in the eighth hath found Thy rest!

"Come Thou who art more ancient far than the five holy Limbs--Mind, Thought, Reflection, Thinking, Reasoning; commune with those of later birth!

"Come Holy Spirit, purge Thou their reins and heart!"

The second runs thus:

"Come highest Gift; Thou Perfect Mercy, come; Thou knower of the Chosen's mysteries, descend; Thou who dost share in all the noble striver's struggles, come!

"Come Silence, Thou Revealer of the mighty things of all the Greatness; come Thou who dost make manifest the hidden, and make the secret plain!

"Come Holy Dove, mother of two young twins; come Hidden Mother, revealed in deeds alone!

"Come Thou who givest joy to all who are at one with Thee; come and commune with us in this thanksgiving (eucharist) which we are making in Thy name, in this love-feast (agape) to which we have assembled at Thy call!"

These sacramental invocations are to be referred to the same circle of ideas as the formula of the A Note thereon.Marcosian Gnosis which we have already given.

The Name is not the name "Christos," but the Name or Power of the Christ, His shakti (to use a term of Indian theosophy) or syzygy.

The "one more ancient than the five limbs," is the Man, the spouse of the Sophia or Holy Spirit, the Christos. The five limbs are presumably the Pentad of the æons referred to in the new-found Gnostic Gospel of Mary, and the names of them are very similar to those mentioned in the "Simonian" system. They are one of the highest orderings of the limbs, or members, of the Heavenly Man, of which we read so much in the Bruce and Askew Codices.

"Those of later birth" are the neophytes awaiting the initiation of the "seal of perfection." The "mighty things of the whole Greatness" are the mysteries of the Pleroma.

The Holy Dove is again the Sophia or World-soul; according to the Gnosis of Bardaisan, she had two daughters. Ephraim, the bitter opponent of the Bardesanists, says that they were called Shame of the Dry and Image of the Water; whether these were really their names or not, they were presumably the productive World-earth and procreative World-water, the builders of the material world; in other words, the sublunary and terrestrial regions.

Before leaving the Acts of Thomas it may be interesting to give the reader a specimen of the stories with which such religious romances were filled. The Apostle Judas Thomas, or the Twin of Jesus, is fabled to have received India by lot for his apostolic sphere of work. Thomas at first does not wish to go, but is sold by Jesus, his master, to a trader from the East as a slave "skilled in carpentry." We take the following summary of the story from Salmon's Introduction to the New Testament (8th ed., 1897, pp. 337, 338).

The Palace that Thomas Built."When Thomas arrives in India, he is brought before the King, and being questioned as to his knowledge of masons’ or carpenters’ work professes great skill in either department. The King asks him if he can build him a palace. He replies that he can, and makes a plan which is approved of. He is then commissioned to build the palace, and is supplied abundantly with money for the work, which, however, he says he cannot begin till the winter months. The King thinks this strange, but being convinced of his skill acquiesces. But when the King goes away, Thomas, instead of building, employs himself in preaching the Gospel, and spends all the money on the poor. After a time the King sends to know how the work is going on. Thomas sends back, word that the palace is finished all but the roof, for which he must have more money; and this is supplied accordingly, and is spent by Thomas on the widows and orphans as before. At length the King returns to the city, and when he makes inquiry about the palace, he learns that Thomas has never done anything but go about preaching, giving alms to the poor, and healing diseases. He seemed to be a magician, yet he never took money for his cures; lived on bread and water, with salt, and had but one garment. The King, in great anger, sent for Thomas. 'Have you built me a palace?' 'Yes.' 'Let me see it.' 'Oh, you can't see it now, but you will see it when you go out of this world.' Enraged at being thus mocked, the King committed Thomas to prison, until he could devise some terrible form of death for him. But that same night the King's brother died, and his soul was taken up by the angels to see all the heavenly habitations. They asked him in which he would like to dwell. But when he saw the palace which Thomas had built, he desired to dwell in none but that. When he learned that it belonged to his brother, he begged and obtained that he might return to life in order that he might buy it from him. So as they were putting grave-clothes on the body, it returned to life. He sent for the King, whose love for him he knew, and implored him to sell him the palace. But when the King learned the truth about it, he refused to sell the mansion he hoped to inhabit himself, but consoled his brother with the promise that Thomas, who was still alive, should build him a better one, The two brothers then received instruction and were baptized."



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