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You’re Already Dead

25 Apr

At Smiles Entertainment Center in Milford, Connecticut (now closed), there once stood a Japanese arcade game called Fighting Mania: Fist of the North Star. Players donned faux boxing gloves and hit small, sturdy bags that’d light up in front of a screen, battling ever-stronger enemies in some silly, forgettable storyline.

Every dumb detail presented an excuse to hit things really fast, really hard. I had some fun with it. But whenever I lost the game, as I inevitably did, I heard some puzzling words. While I fumbled for more quarters, the narrator always exclaimed:

“You’re already dead!”

Poor translations aside, there’s a poignancy in this uncommon assembly of words. The intonation didn’t suggest disappointment in my skills (i.e., “I can’t believe you’re already dead; you suck at this game.”). Rather, it was more matter of fact (i.e., “You are dead. Yes, you actually are.”). The “already” indicated I was mistaken in my assumptions: I thought I’d die in the future, but here it is, right now, surprise! I’m dead already.

There’s a potency to this idea, not merely of the immanence of our death, which appears in so many kinds of thoughtful reflections, religious and secular alike, but of the present state of our death. It plays a critical role in the Nag Hammadi text, The Treatise on the Resurrection, in which the narrator writes to his pupil, Rheginos, in order to calm his concerns about life after death. Turning the worry about death’s inevitability inside-out, the unnamed author writes:

For if he who will die knows about himself that he will die – even if he spends many years in this life, he is brought to this – why not consider yourself as risen and (already) brought to this?

What would it mean to live as if one were dead already? Is this a useful technique to quell anxiety, honest in its attitude about the impermanence inherent in all life? Or is it grotesque, denying the very freedom that death demarcates but never dominates? Is it liberating or limiting? Or both?

I’m a fan of the idea myself. There’s a usefulness in sitting with this strange paradox that pushes against our understanding of ourselves: how can I be dead, too? I’m alive. What can it mean to be both?

Knowledge as Déjà Vu

5 Apr

Apart from the self-castration stuff, Sextus, an unidentified Hellenistic Pythagorean philosopher, promoted a few compelling ideas. The Sentences of Sextus was widespread among early Christian communities. Some of these wise, dusty words are surprising, and feel fresher than, say, the much younger Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. For example, Sextus writes:

You cannot receive understanding unless you know first that you possess it. In everything there is again this sentence. (333)

The first part, sure, we’ve all seen this before through so many after-school specials and mythic Wizard-of-Oz journeys. We’re all already endowed with everything we seek: we just need to realize it! It’s the second sentence that’s intriguing. Not only do we need to realize that we already know in order to know, but that everything contains that knowledge. It’s like every surface is reflective, or everything, from objects to concepts, has the sweet same substance inside it.

What a strange epistemology! Not only do we already possess understanding, but that everything serves as a reminder of this. It’s knowledge as a kind of double  déjà vu. When we learn something new, we’re really realizing what we already know; when we understand anything, we’re faced with the reminder that it’s like everything else we’ve ever understood.

The only thing to understand through things–the only thing to know at all, really–is that we already understand. Is this a unified and interpenetrating universe?  Or does this feel flat, even claustrophobic?

Silent Hymns and the Absent Heaven

21 Mar

Continuing with the conversation in The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, the initiate persists in his quest to reach the eighth and ninth heavenly spheres. He tells his spiritual father (and, simultaneously, the thrice great God), “Trismegistus, let not my soul be deprived of the great divine vision.”

Still psychically floating in the eighth heavenly sphere, the father replies, “Return to praising, my son, and sing while you are silent. Ask what you want in silence.”

The initiate praises in silence; he asks for the vision in silence. (What else could he do?) And, after praising, perhaps even by praising, he obtains it at last: “We have received this light. And I myself see this same vision in you. And I see the eighth, and the souls that are in it, and the angels singing a hymn to the ninth and its powers.” His instructor quickly tells him not to speak any further about the vision (“It is advantageous from now on that we keep silent”).

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A Vicarious Mystic

15 Mar

“My father, yesterday you promised me that you would bring my mind into the eighth and afterwards you would bring me into the ninth. You said that this is the order of the tradition.” – Initiate, The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth

For having such a dull title, The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth might be one of the most exciting texts in the Nag Hammadi Library; it offers an intimate glimpse into third-century mystical practice. The only version of its kind, it describes a conversation between a mystagogue (instructor of transcendental teachings and excursions–think Jedi Master) and an initiate (eager young Padawan). The mystagogue guides the initiate into an experience of eighth and ninth heavenly spheres by experiencing them first himself, and then describing to his pupil what he sees. (They’ve already taken the trip to “the seventh sphere” together, apparently, “since [they] are pious and walk in [God’s] law.”) The mystagogue tells his spiritual “son,” “Your part, then, is to understand; my own is to be able to deliver the discourse from the fountain that flows to me.”

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Support for Skeptics in an Ancient Christian Text? Hell Yes!

7 Mar

According to tradition, all of Jesus’ apostles gather together one last time to be with the virgin Mary before her death. But, since they’re scattered to preach around the world, how do they all reach her in time? They’re caught up in clouds and carried to Mary’s doorstep, of course: “All the disciples […] arrived on clouds and greeted her.” (Magical clouds sound like a lazy deus ex machina, although I guess that’s actually an appropriate plot device for these deus-infused tales.)

In one version of the apostles’ sudden cloud travel (from the Narrative by Joseph of Arimathaea), every apostle is present to pray with Mary at the end of her life, and bury her body as well, except Thomas. Thomas isn’t completely absent from the narrative, however. After the other apostles bury Mary’s girted, sweet smelling (!) corpse in a sepulchre, a bright light surrounds the tomb and brings them all to ground “covering their faces.” Then Thomas makes his appearance: one moment he’s in India saying Mass, and the next, he’s “suddenly brought to the Mount of Olives [watching] the holy body being taken up.” He then cries out to Mary, “‘Make your servant glad by your mercy, for now you go to heaven.'” After this intercessory prayer request, Mary tosses her girdle to him like the rock star she is: “And the girdle with which the apostles had girt the body was thrown down to him.”

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Jesus and The Giving Tree

4 Mar

In the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, after the infant Jesus tames a few dragons and befriends a pride of lions–you know, developmentally appropriate activities for his age bracket–Mary, Joseph, and Jesus encounter a palm tree in the desert. New-mother Mary wants to “rest a little in the shade” after three days of travel in the heat. Eager to ease her fatigue, baby Jesus commands their arboreal companion: “‘O tree, bend your branches and refresh my mother with your fruit.'” The tree bows to obey, and “they gathered from it fruit with which they all refreshed themselves.” The palm even stays bowed down until, at Jesus’ request for water, it rises up “immediately, and at its root there began to gush out a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling.” There’s a palpable The Giving Tree ambiguity here, somewhere between “how sweet and generous” and “this tree’s being abused!”

Unlike the boy in Silverstein’s book, however, Jesus doesn’t simply abandon his devoted tree once it’s offered up everything it’s got. Just when the family’s ready to move on the next day, Jesus addresses the generous-but-still-thriving tree: “‘This privilege I give you, O palm-tree, that one of your branches be carried away by my angels, and planted in the paradise of my Father.” After an angel flies up “to heaven with the branch in his hand,” we don’t hear of this tree again…

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More Merciful Than God

15 Feb

Before Dante’s Inferno (why don’t we care about the Paradiso, anyway? Heavens never seduce as well as hells), there was the Apocalypse of Paul. If you want Saw-series torture porn, Paul’s angel-guided tour has it all: men and women hung by their eyebrows, pierced in the gut by iron rods, knee-deep in fiery rivers, eaten by worms, barefoot in ice with their hands cut off, buried in stinky pits, and having worms wriggle out of their mouths and noses. Lots of pits, lots of worms, and lots of fire and ice.

But before we make our descent, a political strategy to preserve God’s blameless image unfolds. The stars, the sun, the ocean, and the earth repeatedly ask God to bring his judgment upon us mortals for the usual crimes, “the impieties and fornications and homicides.” They’re even willing to take retribution into their own hands, or waves, as the sea offers to “arise and cover every wood and orchard and the whole world, until [it] blot[s] out all the sons of men.” God repeatedly answers each larger-than-life figure with his “patience” for repentance: “my patience bears with them until they be converted and repent.”  Such repeated pleas for judgment by these cosmic witnesses, preceding the punishment of souls, frames God in the text as more patient than celestial and earthly bodies. The stars want you to burn for your crimes, but God is patient, my dears, God is patient.

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