A Homily for the Day of All Souls
by Bishop Steven Marshall
All Souls’ Day is traditionally a time to remember the blessed dead. In Latin cultures they call it the Day of the Dead. They decorate the graves of the dead and remember the relatives and loved ones that have passed beyond those graves. They recall a spiritual connection with some spiritual and immortal part of those deceased whom they have loved or admired while in earthly life.
As we remember those loved ones and revered ones who have passed on, we must remember our own eventual death and contemplate why the dead are called “blessed.” Why is an intimate understanding of death so important to the Gnostic paradigm? One that comes readily to mind is that those who have died have passed over into another realm of consciousness, another world, another reality. Connection with such an alternative reality is very much a part of the Gnostic journey to wholeness. Through connection with an alternative reality we might achieve consciousness of the original Light from which we come and to which, with divine aid, we have the potential to eventually return.
As we remember those who have passed over before us, we can begin to understand some of the cryptic sayings of the early Gnostics concerning death and gain insight into our own end. In The Gospel of Thomas the disciples ask Jesus, “Tell us how our end will be.” He answers with a question. “Have you then discovered the beginning that you inquire about the end? For where the beginning is, there shall be the end. Blessed is he that shall stand at the beginning, and he shall know the end and he shall not taste death.”
This logion is not the first place in the Gospel of Thomas where the phrase “shall not taste death” occurs, as it comes at the very beginning in the first logion where Jesus’ first utterance is, “Whoever finds the understanding of these words shall not taste death.” So from the very beginning the gospel the Savior points us to the mystery of death, of the birth which is a spiritual death, and the spiritual rebirth which transcends death. Dr. Jung in his commentaries on the Tibetan Book of the Dead describes this mystery in more contemporary terms:
“The supreme vision comes not at the end of the Bardo, but right at the beginning, at the moment of death; what happens afterward is an ever-deepening descent into illusion and obscuration, down to the ultimate degradation of new physical birth. The spiritual climax is reached at the moment when life ends.”
This logion from the Gospel of Thomas also suggests that our origin and our end are the same, but that we must first stand at the beginning before this is true. We must know our beginning in the Light before we leave this flesh if we are to enter the light beyond shadow after death. This also intimates that the immortality of the soul, so that we “shall not taste death,” also depends on this same salvific Gnosis of our origin in the Light. This is an act of remembering in truth, not an intellectualized affirmation, a stated belief, or an imagined reality. The injunction, “Memento morte,” remember death, might lead us to this same necessity of remembering the truth of our origin and recognizing the unfortunate condition into which we have been cast. This remembering might bring us sorrow in the recognition of the wretched condition into which we have been thrown, as the Mandaeans express it, “cast into a stump,” yet also the certainty and hope for transcending it. The logion quoted above also intimates that we have the potential to pass over and at least catch a tiny glimpse of that light while still in the flesh. Just one real taste is all it takes. Then you know, with a certainty beyond all doubt, that we have come from the Light, and to that place of repose we shall return when we lay aside the flesh. One of the few statements revealed about the Eleusinian mysteries is that they gave to the initiate a certainty regarding the immortality of one’s soul after death and a liberation from the fear of death throughout the remainder of one’s life. The aim of the Gnostic mysteries is very much the same.
The Repose mentioned in the Gnostic writings relates closely to this original end, and also to the peace which comes to the Gnostic through this experience. The initials on many tombstones, R.I.P., stand for “Rest in Peace.” The early Gnostics often referred to the repose of the Blessed Dead as the Rest as well. One of the major obstacles to serenity and peace in our lives that we all come in with is fear, the fear of death, the fear of how our end will be. This fear is the root of all other fears and anxieties in our lives, it is hardwired into our bodies. It inspires the first question asked of Jesus in this logion from the Gospel of Thomas. “Tell us how our end will be.”
One of the psychological complexes that blocks us from transcending and finding release from our fear of death is guilt. This is why so much of the sacred mysteries depend upon a granting of absolution and an inner purification to receive the Gnosis of the Light. In the Book of the Pistis Sophia it is written:
“Every man who is to receive the mysteries, if they knew the time wherein they would leave the body, they would be mindful and commit no acts of darkness, so that they might ever inherit the Kingdom of the Light.”
There is not a saint who lived who did not commit some act of darkness sometime during earthly life. The mere fact of incarnation puts us into a condition of alienation, forgetfulness and ignorance against which we must ever struggle. We come into this world and find only spiritual emptiness in ourselves, because we are blind in our heart, as related in the Gospel of Thomas. Some harm we do merely to guard our life and property in this world, other acts of darkness we commit, if not with the evil intents of our wounded egos, then through the mere clumsiness of the flesh or sheer stupidity or ignorance of the consequences of our actions. These we must accept as the ever present weaknesses and limitations of earthly existence. Yet there is an admixture of darkness within us that comes from the archons, such evil inclinations as vacillation, deceit, lust, pride, anger, greed and envy. All of these have fear as their foundation, for, in the great Gnostic myth, it was the fear of the first Archon, the Demiurge, that generated them. Of those acts which stem from the limitations of earthly existence we must be absolved and forgiven; of those latter evils which the archons have wound about us as veil upon veil of fog and obscuration and night we must be purified. According to the Book of the Pistis Sophia we are purified of these by receiving the mysteries and going to the Light. We are purified by consciousness; we are purified when we stand at the beginning by the fiery spirit which we become through our own consciousness of our origin in the Light.
“Now then, let him who shall do what is worthy of the mysteries receive the mysteries and go to the Light. He who is to receive the mysteries becomes a great fire, very mighty and wise, and it burns up evils, and the flames secretly enter the soul and consume all the veils which the spirit of imitation has fastened on it, and the soul surrenders their destiny, saying to the rulers of destiny: ‘Take to yourselves your destiny; henceforth I come no more to your region; I have forever become alien to you, being about to go to the region of my inheritance.’ Thus the knower, the receiver of the mysteries is free in his body and out of it, whether born on earth or reborn in heaven.”
This saying from the Pistis Sophia describes the Gnostic Renunciation. This is in many ways an inner prelude to the Gnostic sacrament of Redemption. To accomplish this renunciation we must have those experiences of the Light that allow us to consciously affirm our essential alienness to the veils that the archons have wound about us and give them back to them, to let the mighty fire of our spirit enter the soul and burn away these veils. We achieve this by recognition of our origin in the Light, the region of our inheritance. The Apocalypse of Paul describes the confrontation and passage of these seven archons. His conversation with the last and seventh archon, the Chief Archon, exemplifies the essential nature and goal of the Renunciation:
“Then we went up to the seventh heaven and I saw an old man surrounded by a cloud of light and whose garment was white. His throne, which is in the seventh heaven, was brighter than the sun by seven times. The old man spoke, saying to me, ‘ where are you going Paul, O blessed one and the one who was set apart from his mother’s womb?’ But I looked at the spirit (that accompanied me), and he was nodding his head, saying to me, ‘Speak with him!’ And I replied, saying to the old man, ‘I am going to the place from which I came.’”
It is possible and, indeed, required of us as Gnostics to pass over these veils and experience the place of light from we came while still in the flesh. We know then that we have come from that place of Light and to it we shall return when we cast aside this flesh. “Shall not taste death” does not mean that we will not lay down this flesh when it is time to depart this world, but that our consciousness will not taste death; our consciousness of who we truly are beneath all the obfuscations with which the veils of the archons have surrounded us will not die. We are assured of the continuity of our consciousness because we have gained conscious recollection of our existence before this life, even before any lives in this world. With this we cast off our fear of death and all other fears which stem from it from which those veils of darkness were generated. We may not have the experience of fully crossing over to the place of Light and bringing the memory back to bodily consciousness, but we need only remember a small taste, the tiniest whiff of the divine fragrance of that experience to remember the authenticity of that Light when we come to it again. Most of us have at some time had experiences of feeling just a little closer to a place of love and light and the company of spirits from which we have come. These insights and experiences of Gnosis do not happen upon command or worldly desire. Through diligent struggle and a sincere heart-felt longing we gradually, veil by veil, come closer to these realities. One insight, one experience builds upon another but only if we remember and make spiritual use of the experiences with which we have been graced.
If we do this, if we truly take on the “noble striver’s struggles” to achieve this greater consciousness, then we will find that we are no longer empty in this world, that we have a great treasure within us, a treasure that has been with us from the beginning, but that we were too blind to see. That which we took for treasure in this world becomes empty and we see the poverty of worldly existence. “But I marvel at how this great wealth has made its home in this poverty.” (Gospel of Thomas) Again we come to that Gnostic conundrum that we must find this spiritual treasure within us before we can relinquish the imitations that we take for wealth, yet these very imitations are what obscure that inward treasure and blind us to it. This is why we cannot accomplish this by individual struggle alone. Divine aid has been dispensed to us; mysteries have been left for us as “an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” These mysteries can remind us of that treasure if we let them. In material form though they be, they can remind us of that spiritual treasure that cannot be taken away, that cannot be tarnished, that cannot rot, that moths cannot devour, nor worms destroy. Always the Gnostic task is to remember; as in the words of the Savior, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” In remembering the Blessed Dead, let us also remember the one who was sent for our deliverance and liberation, to awaken us from our forgetfulness and to remind us of our origin beyond this world. To remember death is to remember the beginning. On All Souls’ Day we are reminded of that beginning. We are reminded of our essential task of renouncing the world, of transcending death and of the communion with our fellow spirits. Let us remember. Let us stand at the beginning whereby we shall know the end and “shall not taste death.”
Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.