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Dr Joanna Kujawa, Spiritual Detective :).
The Truth is Within: The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas Up Close and Personal
The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas has been chasing me for the last few days and I have no choice but to write a blog about it. This is going to be a very personal blog that will largely omit what scholars think about the Gospel and focus, instead, on my personal understanding of the writing. My goal here is to check if there is something spiritually ‘useful’ for me there without getting into any sort of religion. Basically, Can a sincere spiritual seeker learn something from that Gnostic and rejected document without falling into any sort of religiosity? And this comes from someone who cringes at any of the traditional depictions of and associations with ‘Jesus’ .
Just to be clear, I am going to read and share my reading of the Gospel of Thomas from the perspective of a spiritual seeker rather than a scholar. For this reason, I am using the translation by Marvin Meyer rather than the one by Jean-Yves Leloup, whom I completely adore, so as to avoid any bias and dive into the text as I am: naked and without any scholarly ambitions or presumptions. Also, for the sake of transparency and so we all know what we are getting into, I am using this opportunity to check whether there is deep spiritual guidance within the writing, away from any intellectualisations.
Despite the fact that I was brought up in a pious Catholic family, early in my life I crashed against the impenetrable dogma of Christian teachings that made no sense to me, apart from the cute stories about a donkey in Bethlehem and a gruesome crucifixion in Jerusalem – which, by the way, made even less sense to me. All of this is described in detail in my book Jerusalem Diary: Searching for the Tomb and House of Jesus.
As I have progressed on my spiritual journey, I have also reached the liberating conclusion that I do not believe in any form of a Saviour. We are here to ‘save’ (I prefer the word ‘liberate’) ourselves through spiritual guidance and spiritual practice. Yes, there is help. Yes, there is Grace, that Divine Energy that guides us (usually perceived as the Divine Feminine, e.g either Sophia/Holy Spirit or Shakti) if we allow It.
But … waiting to be saved, from the perspective of a spiritual practice, is a form of infantile laziness. Both the Gnostics and the great Yogis of the Hindu traditions agree that liberation from ignorance (a mental limitation we allow to enslave us) is the way to enlightenment.
Before we get into the ecstasy of the teachings, I’ll share with you a few words about the history of the Gospel of Thomas.
The Gospel, one of the most discussed Gnostic Gospels, was discovered in Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 when a bunch of Egyptian fellahin, or farmers, found a jar full of early Christian teachings as they digging for fertiliser. Nag Hammadi is located near the ruins of the ancient monastery of St Pachomius (one of the earliest Christian monasteries) and it is easy to imagine a few monks hiding the teachings so that they would be found again when the time was ripe.
The monks hid the writings because roughly between the second and fourth centuries the process of the dogmatisation and control of Jesus’ teachings had begun – and along with this came the institutionalisation of what later became Christianity. Some of the writings were deemed heretical and were forbidden – the Gospel of Thomas is one of them.
From the perspective of conducting a spiritual practice, this Gnostic Gospel is perhaps the most valuable of them all because it offers what no other Gospels do: Jesus’ words and nothing more. And I treat Him here simply as one of many spiritual teachers. As Marvin Meyer says in his introduction, the Gospel of Thomas does not say anything about Jesus’ life but rather it contains Jesus’ teachings in their raw state – e.g. without any interpretation or dogma. Some of the teachings have also been included in the canonical Gospels of the Bible, although usually in a more fanciful form.
The beauty of the Gospel of Thomas is that it contains, I believe, the most authentic version of what the Teacher said. The difficulty with the Gospel lies in understanding His words without a context. In traditional readings of the scriptures of all traditions, the context is the wise teacher who can explain the teachings – and well. We do not have this luxury, so I will just share here what I love and what puzzles me about the Gospel of Thomas – both the good and the seriously weird.
First of all, I believe that the Gospel of Thomas asks us to look within, rather than focus on external worship. In Verse 3 the Teacher says that the way to ‘salvation’ or liberation is by knowing ourselves and this is the correct way to becoming ‘children of the living father’. If we do not know ourselves, liberation from the mental loop or limitations of our lives is not possible. A spiritual effort is required to see through the deception of the world as it is presented to us. But even more so, even greater effort and insight is required to break free from this deception.
It is one thing to see that things are not right in the world and whinge about them, but it is a completely different thing to work on ourselves to change the status quo. Seeing and whinging is not enough; work on yourselves and a new vision will be open to you, Jesus says throughout the Gospel of Thomas. If we do just this, ‘nothing will be hidden’ and ‘all will be revealed’ to us.
Interestingly, in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus distances himself from the stories of his lineage, from the traditional worship practices, and from social structures, including the clergy. The clergy, especially, are accused not only of not knowing the way to liberation but also of preventing others from entering the path of liberation. For example, in Verse 102, Jesus says, ‘Shame on the Pharisees (clergy/establishment), for they are like a dog sleeping in the cattle manger, for neither does it eat nor does it let the cattle eat.’ Or, even better, in verse 39, ‘The Pharisees and scholars have taken the keys of knowledge and have hidden them. They have not entered, nor they have allowed those who want to enter to do so.’
So if we are not to listen to the clergy, what are we to do? some may ask. To this, the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas says, ‘Bring forth what is within you; what you have within will save you.’ Furthermore, the Teacher also says that if we do not bring that which is within us it ‘will kill’ us.
We can see why Carl Jung loved the Gnostic teachings. Every sincere spiritual seeker knows that spiritual practice is hard work. That it requires looking into dark places (Jungian ‘shadow’) within ourselves and healing these.
Not because they are ‘bad’ per se but because without healing them we cannot evolve, we are perpetually trapped on the same level of reality. This is akin to a mad, repetitious habit of seeing and experiencing the world in an ultimately unsatisfying and terribly frustrating way – let’s admit it!
However, it is not the world that is unsatisfying, the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas assures us, it is our view of the world. So we need to reach to the Light which is within us and which is our true origin (Verse 50) in order to see the world on a different level of reality. The Gospel of Thomas also stresses the need to become ‘whole’ (verse 61) so we can heal the wounded consciousness within ourselves before undertaking any other tasks.
That is, if we ‘purify’ our vision (this has nothing to do with moral purity but rather a spiritual clarity of purpose), the way we experience the world will shift and what we will see will be vastly more beautiful. Thus, the more we evolve spiritually, the more the reality we experience will evolve with us.
The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas is a passionate call for us to wake up. Not to wake up and complain but to wake up and transform ourselves – because once we transform ourselves we transform the world.
And here, perhaps, is where the most radical message of the Gospel of Thomas comes: we won’t transform the world through some form of external activism (this will ‘harm your soul’) but by transforming ourselves.
This message is, again, completely consistent with the teachings of Hindu Vedanta and even of Socrates; that is, to ‘know Thyself’. For Goodness sake, Know Thyself. Stop running after stuff (in Verse 63 a rich man is busy accumulating to secure his future but dies the very same night knowing nothing of the world and the Light that is our destiny).
In many places in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus/Yeshua cries out in despair, with the most touching being in Verse 28: ‘I took my place in the midst of the world and I appeared to them in the flesh but I found all of them drunk and I found none of them thirsty. My soul aches for the children of humanity because they are blind in their hearts and they do not see.’
This, my dear friends, breaks my heart and is the most compassionate spiritual teaching I have ever come across. And my favourite part is, ‘Lift up the stone and you will find me there.’ (Verse 77.)
This knowledge is available for us everywhere, says Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas but, just as is explained in Hindu Vedanta, we choose not to have time for this, we are busy running after nothingness. In a parable in the Gospel of Thomas through verses 65 to 70, Jesus explains how a ‘master’ invites his friends for a beautiful feast but nobody comes because each of them is busy, caught up in mundane pursuits.
So, my friends, I love the Gospel of Thomas because it leaves us with the great responsibility of changing how we perceive the world by looking deeply into ourselves and healing ourselves and the world along with us. The rest could just as well be a game of being caught in the loop of our conditioned thinking and actions.
As always, I love to connect with you via comments
Dr Joanna Kujawa
Spiritual Blog©Joanna Kujawa