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Column Beurskens: Gnosis

To believe or to know. Through the ages this has been an enormous dilemma. And a firm opposition as well. Man looks for proof in faith. Always it has been that way and certainly also in our time. We read about nearly-dead-experiences. Some even use a handsome abbreviation for it. Another meets an angel. Krishnamurti got his fame because of what he knew about God. Science teaches us to first see, then to believe. When somebody has been almost dead on the operating-table and when he can tell afterwards, that he saw a pair of shoes on the roof of the hospital on returning -and the shoes are there- then this feat goes for a contribution to the knowledge of the transcendent. You see, it exists.

In the history of the Church efforts to know God could count on a continuous condemnation, beginning with the Egyptian gnosis, the Manichaeans, and in the Middle Ages the most notorious example, the Kathars. They were one of the poverty-movements. That of saint Francis of Assisi was another. The starting-point was the same: back to the poverty and the purity of the beginning. Saint Francis got his movement to flourish until it spanned the globe being vital up until our time. The Kathars, those who are pure, underwent a terrible fate and they were all but decimated. When one reads their texts, one realizes where the difference lay. Finally the Kathars were convinced that they knew something about God and Saint Francis of Assisi believed in Him. On the side, certainly nothing what is said here is meant to be any justification for the treatment of the Kathars by the Catholic world and Catholic church. Indeed, that’s beside the point here.
Gnosis has been such a constant pattern, that scriptures which have disappeared or have been hidden outright, forbidden by the Church, almost always have something to do with knowledge of God. People usually think, that the Church hides those scriptures, because there actually exists knowledge of God, while in fact it is the other way around: there is no knowledge of God and that’s why those scriptures disappeared. So people think, that tradition allows something to slide into oblivion, because it has something to do with knowledge of God. And that’s the way it is, because knowledge of God doesn’t exist. The Nag-Hammadi library, the Corpus Hermeticum, the Dead Sea scrolls: there is not much of any religious interest in them. The only special thing is -and that is really wonderful-, that the old Biblical texts have been transmitted to the letter, as is evident from the Dead Sea scrolls, among which was found an almost complete Jesaja-roll which can be laid exactly alongside handwritings, which are almost a thousand years younger.

Already in paradise striving for knowledge seems to have been absolutely forbidden. Adam and Eve are not allowed to eat of the tree of good and evil. Good and evil seem to have to remain a mystery. Many modern sects tell their members how thing are put to together. They provide their adherents with absolute knowledge. In this way one can discern all through human history the pattern of man, who gives way to the temptation to want to know about God, so as not to have to believe. And the accusation of Fyodor Dostoevski to the Russian-Orthodox state-church through the words of the Grand-Inquisitor is therefore the accusation of gnosis and that is the worst thing there is … because we are the only ones who know that there is nothing true in it all. We give them a carefree songs on their lips. We give them a higher power to kneel down before.

The rationalism of the Enlightenment is the gnostic current, which influences our times most of all. Weird enough it often starts with something really magnificent: liberté, égalité, fraternité, but it ends with satanic masses in the Notre-Dame, with Robespierre and with the absurd campaign of 500.000 French soldiers to Moscow. It starts with elevating thoughts of a German scholar at the idyllic shores of the Rhine and it ends up with Stalin. It looks as if ideals, which are raised to the level of absolute knowledge or an absolute reality, revert to the opposite.

The philosopher who saw this danger best was Søren Kierkegaard. He battles against the idealism of Hegel and he himself became the Prophet of absolute faith. Belief was for him jumping into the absolute dark, which cannot be mitigated by anything and especially not by knowledge. Knowledge spoils everything. Somebody who believes because he encountered an angel is still in religious infancy. Somebody who believes because he succeeded in making contact with the world of the spirits, might be occupying himself with something which has a basis in reality, but it most certainly hasn’t got anything to do with God. Somebody who relives earlier lives, has to do with something which really exists for the people of the East, but it hasn’t got anything to do neither with God, nor with Nirvana.
All of it is being complicated when we see, that in enlightened and holy people things happen, which seem to be supernatural. They do miracles. They heal people. Saint Francis tamed the wolf of Gubbio. Padre Pio had bilocation. He is being seen on more than one spot at a time, while at the time he never left the hamlet of San Giovanni Rotondo, where he spent most of his life. A short time ago I saw the documents of the beatification process of Mutter Maria Josepha Stenmanns, who probably will be beatified next year in Tegelen. A young man in the south of Brasil has been cured of a ruptured intestine without surgery. What to say about those things?

Maybe we can ask the saints themselves. They usually were greatly perturbed, if they noticed this kind of gifts in themselves. They had enormous difficulties with what they could do. Those people were terribly afraid, that they would get the name to know something. That they would be the source of anything, which would mitigate the imperative of faith. The loathing of such a development in themselves is called Christian humility. Saint Teresa of Avila was greatly ashamed of it and encouraged her fellow human being never to trust an apparition. And when she herself was overcome by a levitation she got struck by a such a panic, that she implored her fellow-sisters to keep her to the ground by force, which was not a small matter since she was fairly obese.

Blaise Pascal also had experiences of God. It began with polemics against his contemporary Descartes, the founder of mathematics and modern science. Write against those who probe scie¬n¬¬ce too deeply. Descar¬tes. And by science he didn’t mean the instrument that enables us to make creation more beautiful, but the science which pretends to know about absolute reality, the science which tries to put an end to mystery. However, when Pascal himself got an experience of God, his eloquence was over and falteringly he could only stammer a few words … God of Abraham, God of Israel … The little piece of paper on which he wrote them were found after death sown into the seem of his coat. Those are experiences which transform a human being for good, which save him for good, but which also amaze him for good, as the old Scottish song goes …

Amazing grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
>tWas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved
The hour I first believed

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come,
‘Tis grace that brought me save thus far
And grace will lead me home
When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun;
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than we first begun.

So there really exist experiences of God, experiences which come after and follow faith, which have to do with believe and see and not with first see and then believe. According to Dag Hammarskjöld the terms are faith and the humility of faith. This is also the condition which can save the human being in poverty of our times. Beforehand it can look like a bitter medicine, but it is the only one that helps. Søren Kierkegaard said of himself … that his life had been a ‘great and to others incomprehensible suffering’, which looked like ‘pride and vanity’ but ‘wasn’t’.
But at this point miracles do exist, with the words of Dag Hammarskjöld …

For one who believes
The first miracle
will be greater than the last.

And Søren Kierkegaard could have them put on his grave after a life of the most horrendous psychological turbulences -and those are real experiences of God- …

In yet a little while
I shall have won;
Then the whole fight
Will at once be done.
Then I may rest
In bowers of roses
And perpetually
Speak with my Jesus.

And with the words of Jesus himself to Thomas … blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believed.