gnosis and the narrow gate
The sayings of Jesus that we hear in the gospel today[i] are so oddly sewn together! I suppose the Sermon on the Mount, from which we are still hearing, is one of those places in the gospels where the evangelist has recorded separate sayings of Jesus and lumped them all together that weren’t necessarily said at the same time. In this particular pericope we’re even skipping a whole section (vss. 7-11) that deal with prayer. It’s hard to figure out what was in the mind of the compiler of the lectionary, let alone the final redactor of the Gospel of Matthew. Be that as it may… Let’s say there’s a bit of a chiasm presented in this pericope today. On the one end––Do not give what is holy to dogs, do not throw your pearls before swine. On the other end––Enter through the narrow gate. And in the middle lies the real point, the real pearl of Wisdom: the Golden Rule––‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’
It all seemed to tie into something else that has come up for me recently, the meaning of real “gnosis” (as opposed to the much-maligned Gnosticism, so popular in our day and age). There is a legitimate gnosis that we are longing for. The word gnosis seems to come to the Greek from the Sanskrit jnana, meaning wisdom or understanding. (There is indeed according to Yoga the jnana marga or path of wisdom.) Jnana/gnosis becomes our word “knowledge,” but it stands for something more than just mere factoids and data.
There is some knowledge, there are some things, that some people simply can’t hear, simply can’t take in, like the seed that falls on rocky soil, or pearls before swine. There is a kind of morality, for example, such as the kind that Jesus is espousing, that is beyond morality as it has been known and as it is usually known, but not everyone has the ears to hear it! Our human system of justice, our way of being in the world, for example, is based on equity, on restitution and on punishment: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, you have heard it said… We are trained to grab power, to look out for Number One, and we feel totally justified, even just, in doing so. That’s the “wide gate,” that Jesus speaks of.
And then there is the “narrow gate,” the Way of Life, the Truth, this new attitude that Jesus is proposing: ‘The greatest is the one who serves’; ‘Love your enemy’; ‘It is love that I desire not sacrifice’; ‘Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful’; ‘Who is my neighbor?’ and ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ And it’s just this simple: not everybody can hear these things. And they walk away just as disappointed as when Jesus delivered the Bread of Life discourse in the Gospel of John: ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’[ii] This isn’t expedient, and it’s sort of counter-intuitive, and simply not practical! This kind of wisdom, this kind of teaching can be like like pearls before swine, like giving holy things for dogs to play with.
“But you (Jesus says to his disciples and says to us): this isn’t too much for you. This is the narrow gate, the one that it takes some effort to squeeze through, but this is the one that leads to life, and there are few who find it––but you can do it!” This is the real gnosis, not a secret knowledge and makes us better than anyone (otherwise folks like Judas and Peter wouldn’t have committed such heinous acts of betrayal as they did). These are things that have been hidden from the wise and learned, and been revealed to the merest children.[iii] This isn’t knowledge that puffs us up. It just sets the bar a little higher, and ‘From the one to whom much has been given, much will be expected.’
The reason this idea of gnosis came up is because I ran into it twice in one day (yesterday), first of all in an article about Evagrius. The author says that Evagrius’ advice to the monk “is somewhere between that of a military commander and a psychologist”: one needs to study the enemy––the demons––to defeat him. But real insight, Evagrius says, “comes from what Christ himself tells the monk. Christ provides the gnosis, the knowledge.”[iv]
And that coincided with what I was reading about the teaching of Saint Cyril of Alexandria, whose feast we celebrate today. Cyril refers to Christ both as a Paedagogos and Didascalos––a Tutor and a Master, and only knowledge of this person, only knowledge of this paedagogos and didascalos who himself is the Truth (because he is the Word made flesh) is real gnosis. Not knowing about him, mind you, but knowing him. Having what our more evangelical brothers and sisters might call a “personal relationship” with this Tutor and Master leads to true gnosis, true knowledge, true understanding. The relationship with Christ provides the gnosis, the knowledge. That’s when this knowledge becomes a living reality in the soul, not just a theory, but a life force, because it is a transforming union of love. Knowledge of Christ, knowledge of God, knowledge of the Word, spiritual knowledge isn’t only thought; it has got to be love, the love that opens our eyes, transforms us and creates communion with the Word who is the Truth and the Life, and also creates communion among ourselves, too––Do to others as you would have them do to you. It’s in this communion of perfect knowledge and love that we might be able to attain contemplation, as well as real union with God and with each other.[v]
Just as justice without mercy is no longer justice, so wisdom without love is not real wisdom, real gnosis. The only real wisdom comes from loving union, a love that transforms us and perfects us. In the same way, Evagrius taught that theology in the strictest sense isn’t what we study: it’s the encounter of the praying mind with God: “If you are a theologian, you pray truly; if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” This isn’t expedient, and it’s sort of counter-intuitive, and it’s not something everybody can accept, but this is the narrow gate that leads to life, and life to the full.
[i] Mt 7:6, 12-14.
[ii] Jn 6:60.
[iii] Lk 10:21.
[iv] “The Sapphire Light of the Mind: The Skemmata of Evagrius Pontus,” William Harmless, S.J. and Raymond R. Fitzgerald, S.J. Theological Studies 62 (2001), 512.
[v] Pope Benedict XVI, Great Christian Thinkers, 16-17.